Searching for St Giles
Of all the old central London localities, St Giles has been squeezed into almost nothing. St Giles High Street - it still exists, indeed there's a solitary 'Borough of Holborn' street sign - is so anonymous, you need to have done the knowledge to know where it is. But St Giles is worth the search.
Within the shadow of Centrepoint, St Giles in the Fields is one of the most marvellous of London's old parish churches. Built in 1734, with a fine, and well maintained, Palladian interior.
Head out of the gates towards the northern end of Shaftesbury Avenue, and you find two of the city most atmospheric retailers. I am not sure who shops there, but I am so glad that someone is sustaining these venerable institutions.
James Smith and Sons ('established 1830'), umbrella makers and sellers, has about the best traditional shop front in London. A hundred yards away, Arthur Beale ('established four centuries'), yacht chandlers, claims even more ancient antecedents.
Head the other way, and you are on Denmark Street - the original Tin Pan Alley, and still a slightly disreputable mix of music shops, instrument repairers, and seedy-looking clubs. I sometimes stroll along Denmark Place, alongside the entrance to the '12 bar club'. This was where London's OBrienities - followers of the Chartist and socialist Bronterre O'Brien - met in the 1870s and 80s.
St Giles was a stronghold of artisan radicalism. And there's a vestige of that in the church - an LCC blue plaque for George Odger, a working man radical. A sign below explains: 'The George Odger plaque, formerly on 18 St Giles High Street, was placed here in 1874'. The novelist Henry James stumbled across his funeral procession, and wrote kindly of it.
If you stroll along the side of the church, you come across central London's most hidden oasis. Flitcroft Street takes you past the renovated Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, along a passage, and to Phoenix Gardens. This is simply the best designed small garden in London. It's looked after, well looked after, by a local private charity. The photo gives a sense of the place - and this is just three minutes from Oxford Street.
Phoenix Gardens boasts that it has the only frogs in the West End. Well, perhaps. It is sadly about the last of the communatarian ventures started in Covent Garden and Seven Dials a generation ago. Perhaps the last vestige of the old St Giles radicalism. But it's still there!
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