Military history, retail, etymologies and more: Flanerie above the Bakerloo Line

After being inspired by the concept of the wandering existentialist flâneur, I decided to take a historical walking tour above and around a part of the route of the Bakerloo line. The walk took me from Charing Cross station via Pall Mall, most of Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, a little bit of Carnaby Street and finally finishing at Oxford Circus station. When viewed from a map, it does look like a fairly short route, but when one wanders around the area and puts the route into historical context, the distance feels huge. Although the average flâneur was a Parisian and utilized way too much philosophical jargon, I myself believed it was possible to use similar qualities and apply them to the exploration of early-modern and modern London by describing my feelings and experiences in relation to the city’s history, as well as mentioning interesting facts. Many features which I encountered on my route were related in many ways to the romantic era of the early 19th century, also the time when the early stages of flânerie emerged, notably from the works of Charles Baudelaire (Tester, 1994, Introduction, pp. 1-21).

bakerloo-line

Emerging from the dusty Charing Cross underground station, a combination of sunlight and the chilly November breeze struck me, and before I knew it, Nelson’s Column was towering above me. As I began wondering about Trafalgar Square, I began noticing more a more militaristic theme about the area. Aside from the obvious fact that it was named in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory and death at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, there were multiple memorials and statues all dedicated to military figures from the 19th and early-20th centuries. The openness vast space and the impression I got from this was that Trafalgar Square was more than just a symbol of London, but its design and architecture reflected the true strength and might of the British Empire during its heyday. Even Adolf Hitler was so fond of it that during the cancelled Operation Sea Lion he had planned to take the monument and place it in Berlin, had he succeeded.

Going west into Cockspur Street, I noticed several features connected with Canada, most notably Canada House. Built from 1823 to 1829 and designed by the British Museum’s architect Robert Smirke, the Greek revival building originally housed the prestigious Union Club until being purchased by the Canadian government in 1923 for $1 million. The country’s High Commission settled here due to another building that I came across, with the words “Canadian Pacific” clearly showing. The aptly-named Canadian Pacific Building housed the UK offices of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. and was built to help promote Canadian businesses and drive emigration from the over-populated U. K. to Canada during the early 20th-century. I even noticed the former Canadian National Railway Company Building with the coat-of-arms of Canada’s provinces and territories.

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Canada House, eh?

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Rather than walking along Haymarket, I took a brief detour off the Bakerloo Line route and onto Pall Mall, where the architecture changed from grey and Edwardian tower blocks to two cream-coloured Regency-era structures, now housing the Institute of Directors and the private Athenaeum Club. Standing in that open space with an outstanding view of St James Park in the sunlight, which gave me a sense of fascination. Pall Mall is one of London’s oldest streets, with roots dating back from Saxon times, but these two particular buildings mark the beginning of modern Regent Street. Completed in 1825, Regent Street (and subsequently Regent’s Park) were named after then-Prince Regent George IV and designed by John Nash. It’s main purpose was to provide high-quality retail to rival that of Bond Street – something which carries on to this day.

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However, I noticed another memorial for a 19th-century war – the Crimean War. It contained statues of two famous figures who served in the war, Florence Nightingale and Sidney Herbert. Unveiled in 1861, one aspect I found remarkable was how sharp the bayonets of the three statute soldiers were, almost as if they were real! It was yet another imperial display of power.

Heading north along Regent Street, I came to another of London’s most recognizable landmarks – Piccadilly Circus, which meant that I was finally back on the Bakerloo Line trail. One aspect that interested me was the area’s rather unusual name. As it turns out, the land that the Piccadilly road now occupies was bought by a man named Robert Baker(loo!) in around 1611-1612, who built a manor named “Pikadilly Hall” since Baker had amassed a fortune selling piccadills, the fashionable collar of the Tudor-Stuart period. Its layout is relatively the same as Nash’s plan, most notably the curve on the Quadrant, which gives the name “circus.” Nash had originally wanted Regent Street to be like a straight-lined French boulevard (which would’ve been perfect for flânerie), but due to problems with land ownership, he had to avoid St. James’ Square to the south, and thus the Quadrant was constructed and caused displacement of Swallow Street’s working-class population. (Beaumont, 2015, ch. 11, ‘Crowded Streets, Empty Streets’, p.326)

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Piccadilly Circus in 1837

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Continuing along the Quadrant, although the Regency-era structures are long-demolished, the architecture of the current buildings heavily reflect the Neo-classical influence of their predecessors.

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Swallow Street, with St. James’ Church in the background
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Vigo Street – named after the Anglo-Dutch victory over Franco-Spanish forces at the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay, now in modern-day Spain.

As I walked amidst the hordes of shoppers trying to get their early Christmas shopping done, boredom struck me, mainly because shopping for fancy items isn’t my forte. I began feeling Wordsworth’s frustration with capitalist London  (Beaumont, 2015, p.326) In order to retreat from the snobbishness, I took a detour into Tenison Court and briefly found myself in the Soho district. I must say, it was huge relief to retreat from militant consumerism and find some historic buildings.

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Tudor revival architecture in Kingly Street, Soho

As I made my way north to Great Marlborough Street and back onto Regent Street, I finally found Oxford Circus Station. What can be concluded from this experience? London has, and still does, emit a whole range of emotions from people who observe the city. The awe of Trafalgar Square commemorates more than one conflict and disdain for Regent Street contains a hidden working-class past dating before its construction. London truly is a flâneur’s city.

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Bibliography:

Keith Tester, ed., The Flaneur (London: Routledge,1994), introduction, pp. 1-21

Matthew Beaumont, Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London (London: Verso, 2015), ch. 11, ‘Crowded Streets, Empty Streets’, pp. 323-346

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