Walking in Noho

Mid-autumn walks around Noho (and Fitzrovia)

Can you believe some people refer to the area just north of Oxford Street in London as Noho? It works on one level – it literally is (‘no’-rth) of a street beginning with the letter, ‘O’. But the New York-parallel still feels a bit pretentious nevertheless.

For all the achingly hip cafes, and the barber shops that daren’t call themselves a barber shop, but proudly run a ‘grooming salon’ instead, it is still a fascinating area, rich with history. It is highly walkable too.

Marylebone near Regents Park
Just close to the Outer Circle

And this past few weeks’ I have had the pleasure of walking mostly everywhere, as I am taking a course on Margaret Street, just off Market Place. This used to host the old Oxford Market, I believe, from the first part of the eighteenth century. Oxford Street used to literally be the road that in Roman times led to the city of Oxford. But it was once known as the road that led to Tyburn – close to today’s Marble Arch – a place of infamy, where people came to be hanged. On their way from Holborn (the real city), they would be surrounded by crowds – eggs would be thrown. Mary le Bone, a village out of the city to the north, has just about kept some of its village-feel, even today.

I do appreciate the time and space walking affords me, and the convenience too, but I recognise it’s not always an option. Not for everyone. It allows me to look up, to recognise things in my home city I don’t always recognise. Or if I am in a rush, things that I don’t always stop to appreciate.

The streets I have been walking down – New Cavendish Street, Welbeck Street, Wimple Street – all have a character of their own. There are the English heritage blue plaques dedicated to the great and the good who once lived, or died here. One of my favourites is of a man who is simply described, ‘Man of Science’.

There is the lovely old synagogue on Hallam Street. The classic BBC building, Broadcasting House, is at Portland Place, where the other week humanists encouraged me to sign a petition to broaden the output on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (I agreed with them). Across the way, you can find the haunted Langham Hotel; the BBC’s wartime staff used to report from the roof, US wartime correspondent Edward Murrow, among them.

I have found a lovely Italian deli and cafe which serves a Friday-Lunchtime lasagne. It is old-school and seems family run, Frank’s Coffee House on Great Litchfield Street. I salivated over the dozens of packets of Galletti, Tarrallucci, Abbracci, Batticuouri and other gems ending in a vowel. The smell of the Parmesan hits you and there are hunks of meat, stretching out across the counter, ready to be toasted in Focaccia, or panini.

Another surprise, though, moved and saddened me. By chance, I found a dozen rough sleepers catching up on vital sleep and seeking refuge and warmth in All Souls church, a stunning parish church on Margaret Street. The priest quietly went about his daily rituals as they snored and stretched out on rows of seats neatly lined at the back of the church. Only yards away, the shopping retail brands, All Saints and Reiss were advertising 50 per cent off mid-season sales. “So that will be a fancy, frilly shirt for eighty pounds, then”.

All Souls
All Souls church where unfortunately I found rough sleepers

And coffees sell for around three to four pounds in some places local to here. I have to admit: I did indulge in a Nutella muffin one morning. But when a woman scoffed at the prices at Frank’s, not without justification, one of the guys working there scoffed at her reaction. Again, probably not without justification. How else can he cover his overheads, and Westminster council’s business rates?

Walking around – you notice more. Not all of it quite so obvious from a bus, let alone a car. Not all of it good, either.





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