THE STRAND AND COVENT GARDEN

When asked why he chose to live in London 's West End, Oscar Wilde declared "a gentleman never goes east of Temple Bar." Consequently all of our walks take place in the West End of London.

Oscar Wilde came to live in London in 1879. Income from his inherited property in Ireland helped to support quarters off the Strand at 13 Salisbury Street , which he shared with the artist Frank Miles, whom he had known at Oxford. That house, "untidy and romantic" according to Lillie Langtry, was characterised by serpentine hallways, shadowy corners and awkwardly shaped rooms. Wilde aptly named it Thames House, since it provided a glimpse of the river. The house no longer stands, but it played an important role in Oscar Wilde's London debut, so it is worth a description.

There were three floors. Miles's studio occupied the top floor, Wilde had the floor below, and the ground floor was let to a student. Wilde's quarters consisted of a long, narrow, paneled sitting room painted entirely white. Blue china vases filled with fresh lilies graced every flat surface, and an easel holding Edward Poynter's portrait of Lillie Langtry dominated the room.

Tall, blond and handsome Frank Miles on the top floor restricted his work to drawing rather than painting, having once confessed to Lillie Langtry that he was colour-blind. Possibly his affliction had sharpened his sense of contrast. Adept at rendering his subjects more handsome than they actually were, he was in great demand as a society artist and had been instrumental in initiating the mid-Victorian phenomena of P.B.s (Professional Beauties).

Never before nor since has there been a rage like the P.B.s, as they were called. No ordinary mortals posing for a fee, these ladies! No, these Professional Beauties were drawn from London 's top social strata, the aristocracy. The modern context of the word "professional" is misleading. To have been paid would have been vulgar. Only the artists, like Miles, profited. Recognition for having been selected as a P.B. was reward in itself. Reproductions of the beauties appeared in every store window and hung in every middle-class dwelling. The originals graced the mansions of wealthy patrons of the arts. Queen Victoria 's youngest son, Prince Leopold, became so enamoured of a pen-and-ink sketch of Lillie Langtry he had seen while visiting Miles's studio that he acquired it to hang in his bedchamber - until his mother snatched it down.

The Wilde and Miles domicile on Salisbury Street soon provided a nucleus for a salon. Wilde's wit attracted intellectuals; Miles's talent attracted Professional Beauties. And where came the beauties, the Prince of Wales followed. Thames House habitués included artists like Jimmy Whistler and Edward Burne-Jones, royalty like Princess Louise and Prince Leopold, aristocracy like Lady Lonsdale, and visiting celebrities like Sarah Bernhardt, who autographed one of the white panels of Wilde's wall and in a playful mood made a mark to prove how high she could kick.

London 's stage legends Dame Ellen Terry and her leading man, Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted, were frequent callers. After witnessing one of their performances at the Lyceum, Wilde dedicated a sonnet to Ellen, in part:

In the lone tent, waiting for victory,                       
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,    
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain;

Ellen wrote later in her life: "The most remarkable men I have ever known were Whistler and Oscar Wilde. This does not imply that I like them better or admired them more than others, but there was something about both of them more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe."

Other Wilde associates who gave this late-Victorian era so much flavour we shall meet later, as we explore Oscar Wilde's London. The most prized and frequent guest of Thames House, however, was Wilde's newly adopted idol, Lillie Langtry, in whose honour he initiated his illustrious lily trademark. (After he became famous, Wilde denied that he had actually made a practice of strolling along Piccadilly carrying a lily, but said that the fact people believed he had - and it was the kind of thing that he alone would have done - was a satisfying achievement because it had established a reputation based on fantasy.)

The Strand

The Strand, after Oscar Wilde's time. Salisbury Street, where Wilde lived with Frank Miles just off the Strand, is now gone.

Charing Cross Station

On this walk we shall stroll through districts known as the Strand and Covent Garden, beginning at the ornate, monumental Charing Cross Station, opened in 1887. Here, amid a yeasty mixture of hotels and restaurants, lies the heart of London 's performing-arts world, where Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Gilbert and Sullivan made their marks in the late 1800s. Great theatre has been a London tradition since Shakespeare, and for real quality, it is still unsurpassed, as are the design and magnificence of London 's nineteenth-century theatres.

Extending from the east side of the station is Villiers Street, which leads to the Victoria Embankment and the district known as the Adelphi, which runs alongside the River Thames.

1.           Residence of Rudyard Kipling
    43 Villiers Street

Upon arriving in London from India in 1889 with fewer pounds in his pocket than he later cared to remember, Rudyard Kipling took three rooms on the second floor of this building. In his autobiography, Something of Myself, he called the street "primitive and passionate in its habits and population. My rooms were small, not over-clean or well-kept, but from my desk I could look out of my window through the fan-lights of Gatti's Music-Hall entrance, across the street, and almost onto its stage. The Charing Cross trains rumbled through my dreams on one side, the boom of the Strand on the other, while, before my windows, Father Thames under the Shot Tower walked up and down with his traffic."

Kipling wrote his Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses, and his novel The Light That Failed here. He found the English climate difficult after having lived in India and left in 1891 for warmer climes, returning to London in 1896 with an American wife.

Wilde's only recorded comment about Kipling was made in reference to his Captains Courageous, which relates a lad's adventures among the cod-fishermen off  Newfoundland. "I really don't know why an author should write a book about cod-fishing ... but perhaps," Wilde added ruminatively, "it is because I never eat cod." On another occasion he may have been referring to Kipling's writing style when he commented, "It is better to take pleasure in a rose than to put its root under a microscope."

Kipling's obituary when he died in 1936 read: "His coffin was borne by the Prime Minister, the Admiral of the Fleet, one field marshal, one classical scholar, the editor of the Morning Post and, of course, his agent, A.P. Watt, probably the saddest of them all."

2.           The  Victoria Embankment

As you wander around the corner from Kipling's address into the gardens of the Victoria Embankment, you will be treading a path walked by many great artists of the past. G.B. Shaw, James Barrie and John Galsworthy are among those who mused beside the reflection pond of the picturesque seventeenth-century York Water Gate, later incorporated into the Embankment gardens. This pride of the Victorians, completed in 1870, stands today as one of the most durable improvements ever made to London. The Embankment's bold engineering and ornate cast-iron street lamps were the talk of the day. The principal point of interest today is Cleopatra's Needle, a granite obelisk carved about 1450 B.C. in Egypt. It was presented to Britain in 1878 by Mohammed Ali, the viceroy of Egypt. Eager that their own civilisation should prove as enduring, the Victorians buried a number of contemporary articles and memento's under the Needle before it was erected, among them a photograph of Oscar's dear friend, the celebrated beauty Lillie Langtry.

The Adelphi

Between the Strand and the river, just beyond Charing Cross Station, is an area called the Adelphi, built in the late eighteenth century by the Scottish "Brothers Adam," who created some of the finest architecture in London. This ambitious design involved streets, houses and terraces supported by an embankment of arches and subterranean vaults. Unfortunately the project resulted in the kind of financial fiasco suffered by some of our modern developments. A lottery was authorised by Parliament in 1773 to rescue the enterprise from disaster. Nevertheless the planned residential area attracted the elite of the day. Most of the elegant brick houses, embellished with exquisitely ornamented ceilings and matching patterned floors, and classical plaques, pilasters, arches and niches, have been demolished, but enough remain to give a taste of the time. A fine reconstruction of Brothers Adam architecture and décor from the Adelphi may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

3.       Residence of Sir James Barrie and John Galsworthy
   3 Robert Street

Following his divorce, Sir James Barrie moved from 100 Bayswater Road to a flat here on the third floor, with leaded casements looking south over the Embankment gardens. Barrie, who came to London from Scotland in 1885, made his name with A Window in Thrums and The Little Minister. He wrote two unsuccessful plays before he conquered the stage with Quality Street. Later, in 1904, his play Peter Pan was produced and has become a children's favourite to this day. His idea of fun was turning anything he saw or heard into an article worthy of publication. He claimed that he once paused by a bookstall and scanned a treatise on bridge building, then wrote "How I Built My Bridge over the Ganges " and got it published.

Of Barrie, Lady Nancy Astor once observed: "He got spoiled and lost all his homely Scottish ways after being taken up by the nobs. His cottage charm went and he became ridiculous." Other contemporaries said that he never recovered from the desolation caused by his wife leaving him for someone else.

Barrie's good friend, the novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, lived in the same building until he moved further out of London to Kensington. Galsworthy chiefly remembered his little Adelphi flat for its closeness to Barrie and their dinners at Romero's. Galsworthy established his reputation with The Man of Property, the first novel of his The Forsyte Saga, published in 1906. His portrait of late-Victorian and Edwardian upper-class commercial society has never been surpassed. According to a modern reviewer, "Galsworthy began as a critic of the upper-middle classes. He endures as their chronicler."

4.      Residence of Richard D'Oyly Carte
  4 Adelphi Terrace

At this address lived the great entrepreneur Richard D'Oyly Carte, the producer of Gilbert's and Sullivan's comic operas at the neighbouring Savoy Theatre. Before moving in, he engaged Jimmy Whistler to oversee the interior design. In typical Whistler fashion the library walls were tinted primrose yellow to appear warm with sunshine even on London's foggy days, a scheme Wilde copied later when he moved into his own house in Chelsea.

D'Oyly Carte began his career as a lecturer and theatrical agent. In 1875 he produced his first successful operetta, Trial by jury, with lyrics by W.S. Gilbert and music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. This launched a partnership which prospered for some twenty years, even though Gilbert and Sullivan eventually only communicated with each other through their attorneys.

Richard D'Oyly Carte

Richard D'Oyly Carte, who promoted Gilbert and Sullivan in England and the U.S., (courtesy of the Savoy Hotel).

5.       Residence of David Garrick
   6 Adelphi Terrace

The great actor and theatre manager David Garrick, whose stage presence was still an influence a generation after his death, was among the earliest occupants of the Brothers Adam's Adelphi complex, living at this address on the Terrace.

6.      Residence of Thomas Hardy
   8 Adelphi Terrace

Thomas Hardy, poet and novelist, came to London in 1862 to study architecture. He both worked and lived in Sir Arthur Bloomfield's office at 8 Adelphi Terrace while learning the architect's vocabulary, which he used with great effect in The Laodicean. in thinking back about his Adelphi days, he said, "I sat there drawing inside the easternmost window of the front room on the first floor, occasionally varying the experience by idling on the balcony .... the rooms contained fine Adam mantelpieces in white marble on which we used to sketch caricatures in pencil." After publishing Under the Greenwood Tree, he married and moved further out of the city. He was not comfortable in London, a city which he described as "a monster whose body had four million heads and eight million eyes." In 1881 he returned to his native Dorset, where he produced his masterpiece, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

7.      Residence of George Bernard Shaw
  10 Adelphi Terrace

George Bernard Shaw moved to this fashionable address after marrying Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an heiress to whom the house was leased. Both over forty when wed, they settled down to a long, contented, businesslike, and unconsummated (according to Shaw) marriage in Charlotte's delightful rooms overlooking the river.

When Shaw became involved with the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation, Charlotte helped the cause by sharing her house with the London School of Economics and Political Science, founded by Shaw's friends, the Webbs. The society's ideas on social engineering and political strategy eventually became the foundation of the British Labour party. Shaw's written propaganda greatly influenced the popularisation of the socialist movement.

8.      The Savoy Theatre
   The
Strand

(The Savoy Theatre was ravaged by fire in 1990, and is expected to reopen in 1992.)

This modish theatre on the Strand was built in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. It was the first public building in London to be lighted by electricity. The opening production was Patience, the opera which satirised Oscar Wilde's dandyism with the familiar lines:

Though the philistines may jostle, you will rank as an  
apostle in the high aesthetic band,                          
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your
medieval band.

For his libretto for Patience, the opera that brought fame to the Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, Gilbert found inspiration in the sequence of George Du Maurier caricatures of Wilde in Punch. Although other aesthetes - Whistler, Rossetti, Swinburne, and Ruskin - were equally involved in the movement, it was Wilde's exaggerations that prompted Gilbert to refer to him specifically in his parody. And, according to Max Beerbohm, it was that individualised portrait in Patience that prolonged the aesthetic movement and introduced it to America.

Gilbert astutely guessed that Wilde would appreciate the innocent fun of the parody and was rewarded with Wilde's hearty laughter. (The only thing worse in the world than being talked about, Wilde often claimed, was not being talked about.)

Among the good stories told about Gilbert is one that occurred during a rehearsal, when the brusque Gilbert, anxious to speak to a particular actress, asked a stagehand where she might be found.

"She's round behind," the stagehand replied.      
"Yes, I know that," growled Gilbert, "but where is she?"

Sir Arthur Sullivan, the music maker of the team, had an ear so sensitive that it saved him one night when, returning to his home after a convivial party, he couldn't identify his own terrace house among the row of identical dwellings. He walked along the row kicking the metal shoe scrapers that stood beside the front doors. One rang a familiar note. Sullivan kicked it again. "That's it, E-flat," he muttered, and staggered confidently into his house.

9.      The Savoy Hotel
   The
Strand

The Savoy, still an elegant and classy hotel, adjoins the theatre on the Strand. Built by D'Oyly Carte in 1889 - the first London hotel to have numerous bathrooms, electric elevators and lights - it maintains a historic reputation for fine food. When it opened, D'Oyly Carte brought Ritz from Monte Carlo to take charge, and Ritz imported Escoffier to make history in the kitchen. Then followed as mâitre d' the celebrated Joseph, he of the luminous eyes, bushy brows, tiny moustache and long curly hair falling from a bald pate, whose recognition was almost as essential to one's social standing as that of the Prince of Wales.

One of the incidents contributing to the Oscar Wilde/Lord Alfred Douglas scandal that ruined Wilde's career occurred in the Savoy Hotel. While he had rooms there for convenience during rehearsals prior to the opening of one of his plays, his wife Constance arrived unexpectedly to bring mail and found him ensconced with his lover Douglas. When she besought Wilde to come home, he pretended he had been away so long he had forgotten the number of his house. Constance smiled through her tears.

Savoy Hotel

An advertisement depicting the Savoy Hotel in 1889, shortly before it opened, (courtesy of the Savoy Hotel).

10.    Simpsons in the Strand
   The
Strand

Almost adjacent to the Savoy Hotel is Simpsons in the Strand, a London institution with the aura of a gentleman's club that opened in 1904. Reservations for dining may be made in the dignified entrance foyer graced with nineteenth-century portraits. In its various dining rooms, tables are covered with snowy white damask, and special waiters wheel silver-lidded carts to your table to serve joints of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and strong horseradish sauce. Décor is quietly elegant eighteenth century, with panelled and painted woodwork in Wedgwood pinks and grays behind a row of paintings hung high under a plastered Adam ceiling. The fare is expensive.

11.    The Adelphi Theatre
   The
Strand

Across the Strand from the Savoy is the old Adelphi Theatre, which Wilde booked in 1881 to produce his first play, Vera, in which the plot depended on Russian nihilism. He then proceeded to betray his apolitical innocence by carefully explaining, "Modern nihilistic Russia, with all the terror of its tyranny and the marvel of its martyrdom's, is merely the fiery and fervent background in front of which the persons of my dream live and love." With the play in rehearsal, the sister of the Prince of Wales's wife, who was married to Russian Tsar Alexander II, suddenly became a widow when the tsar was assassinated. Interest in nihilism soared. An opening date was set, but then something happened. The play never opened. A most likely explanation is that Wilde withdrew it in consideration for the feelings of the Prince and Princess of Wales, as Wilde was far too canny at that stage of his career to risk distressing one so important to his social aspirations.

Continue east along the Strand to Wellington Street and turn left.

The Adelphi Theatre

The Adelphi Theatre, where Wilde's first play closed before it opened.

12.      The Lyceum Theatre
   Wellington Street

Closed now, with inane graffiti scribbled over its stately pillars, the once-fashionable Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street was synonymous with the brilliant actors Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Terry from 1874 to 1901. Ellen Terry, Irving's leading lady both on stage and privately, was often praised by Wilde, but it was G.B. Shaw who fell in love with her. "Ellen Terry is the most beautiful name in the world; it rings like a chime through the last quarter of the nineteenth century," Shaw wrote.

Although he attended her performances and they carried on a passionate correspondence, in typical Shavian style they never physically consummated their relationship. The "literate" romance went on for years before Shaw would even allow a meeting. In a letter to her, he explained his behaviour thus: "Oscar Wilde said of me, 'An excellent man; he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him."' He apparently felt more secure from a distance, although later he may have regretted this decision. In 1900 he wrote, "Still I have to dream of my Ellen and never touch her." They did finally meet when she performed in one of his plays. By then he was safely married.

Turn left off Wellington at Tavistock Street and proceed west into Maiden Lane.

13.    Rules
  35 Maiden Lane

Halfway up Maiden Lane on the north side stands a creamy yellow building with a red awning and a large brass shield on a column by the double front door. This is Rules, the famed theatrical restaurant. Its polished brass plate still proclaims that it serves luncheons, dinners and late suppers, and that it features the choicest vintage wines, liquors, spirits and cigars of the finest quality. With its comfortable Victorian furnishings and excellent English food, it was a favourite eating spot of the Prince of Wales, who had a private alcove in which to dine. Through the years, after Lillie Langtry had achieved fame as an actress, she frequently dined here with the prince when she returned from her American tours. By then they had become friends rather than lovers. Their signed portraits hang here yet.

Rules is still popular with royalty and VIPs, mostly English, who act as if it is their private club. It is doubtful that house specialities have changed since Dickens used to dine here in the 1860s, but the venison, oysters, game birds and fish from the cold North Sea are far more pricey today. Rules has a cover charge, does not accept credit cards and is closed in August.

Retrace your steps as far as Southampton Street and turn left.

14.    Covent Garden

Covent Garden was the first planned urban development in London. It was here, in its former flower market, that Wilde shopped daily for the flashy lapel flowers that became his trademark. Here, also, the artist John Millais sent a servant to buy a Jersey lily for Lillie Langtry to hold while he painted her famous portrait named The Jersey Lily, which was exhibited in the Royal Academy show of 1878.

Until traffic congestion prompted its move to another location in 1974, the old central produce market was excitingly alive in the wee hours when everyone else was asleep. Today, under a glass roof that resembles a gigantic quonset hut, speciality food and craft stalls, trendy shops, and street entertainers have replaced lorries laden with fruit and flowers, and porters noisily unloading stout sacks, crates and barrels filled with the colours and scents of the old marketplace. Still Covent Garden is lively and fun, and a glimpse of the past may be experienced at the London Transport Museum on the south-eastern corner of the square, with its extensive collection of carriages, real stagecoaches, buses and trains, or in the Theatre Museum next door, with its memorabilia from stars and playwrights from the gas lit past.

The charming maze of streets and tiny half streets surrounding Covent Garden comes as a delight to those seeking photogenic atmosphere. It is quite impossible to chart a turn-left, turn-right course among them. The district is relatively small, so the best way to enjoy it is simply to weave back and forth in the general area designated on your map. You are bound to hit the most significant landmarks. Among them are:

15.    St. Paul's Church
 
Covent Garden

Behind Covent Garden's old market building stands St. Paul's Church (not to be confused with St. Paul's Cathedral), called the "actor's church" because so many famous stage celebrities have been put to rest here. When the Duke of Bedford, heir to the land, commissioned architect Inigo Jones in 1630 to lay out a square with a church at one end, he asked for an inexpensive building. Inigo Jones complied by designing what he called the "handsomest barn in Europe." St. Paul's still has its original eastern portico with the Tuscan arches. The church entrance is on the far side, at Inigo Place, which runs into Bedford Street. The churchyard between King Street and Henrietta Street is still lit by gaslights decorated with a ducal coronet in honour of the dukes of Bedford. Inside the church (closed on Sundays) are many memorials to actors, among which are the ashes of Oscar Wilde's loyal friend Ellen Terry, who died in 1928. During his trial and period of disgrace, she was one of the few who stood by him and aided him financially.

An amusing incident occurred during Ellen Terry's funeral. Leading the long parade of mourners in the procession to the church were Ellen's son Teddy and her daughter Ely, who had been bitterly estranged for years, not only from each other but from other relatives as well. Now, however, as all the enemies walked together arm in arm, Teddy excitedly erupted in a voice heard by all, "We must have more occasions like this!" Hilda Barnes, the devoted nurse who had cared for Ellen in her last years, restrained chuckles all through the funeral ceremony, thinking how Ellen Terry would have laughed at that line.

16.    The Royal Opera House
   Bow Street

On the north-east corner of Covent Garden stands the Royal Opera House with its gigantic columns and classical pediments. Inside, gilded tier upon tier of rococo boxes and galleries radiate from either side of the royal box, towering into an upper darkness. At the turn of the century, gala nights at the opera were organised by Lady de Grey. Men wore uniforms or court dress adorned with ribbons and medals, while the women preened in jewel-studded tiaras. Lady Londonderry, scanning the auditorium through lorgnettes, received her friends in one box. Lady Charles Beresford, whom they called the "Painted Lady" because of the array of coloured chiffon scarves and beads draped around her neck, received in another.

After the opera, guests as well as performers might proceed to Lady de Grey's mansion, Combe Court, where Caruso would sing until dawn. Wilde greeted a new arrival at one of Lady de Grey's receptions with the exclamation, "Oh, I'm so glad you've come. There are a hundred things I want not to say to you!"

17.    Bow Street Police Court
          Bow Street

Across the street from the Opera House is the famed Bow Street Police Court, with its iron railing along the sidewalk. The first court opened here in 1740. In 1748 the famous playwright and novelist Henry Fielding and his half-blind brother Sir John became the presiding magistrates. It was a later playwright, Oscar Wilde, however, whose incarceration here without bail, following his arrest in Belgravia in 1893, marked the end for England's most illustrious nineteenth-century creative genius.

"With what a crash this fell!" Wilde wrote from his cell to friends Ada Levenson and Robert Sherard, comparing his plight to the situation in the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. Immediately following his arrest, Wilde's name was removed from the billboards at the two theatres where An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were playing. In America actress Rose Coghlan, who was about to take Wilde's play A Woman of No Importance on the road, cancelled it. Few friends stood by, even in France where licentiousness was less severely condemned.

There, Colette's husband, the columnist "Willy," was highly amused by England's embarrassment. He registered his disapproval in L'Echo de Paris, pretending that homosexuality was only an English vice. At the same time, however, French journalist Henry Bauer defended Wilde, claiming that Wilde's heteroclite tastes were no one's affair. "Wilde has done no harm," he wrote. "Young Douglas was old enough to go out without his governess, and without his father's permission."

And indeed he was. Wilde had been introduced to the startlingly beautiful, twenty-one-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, a recent dropout from his third year at Wilde's own alma mater, Magdalen College, when the aspiring young poet had come to London. His was an era of youth revolting against the trivial morality of the dying nineteenth century. Wilde, who as a student had vowed himself "to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world," was being rediscovered at Oxford. Thus it was no wonder Douglas found the more mature Wilde as fascinating as Dorian had found Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. And Wilde, equally attracted by titles and beauty, found his cup running over as the incandescent Lord Douglas followed their introduction with a flood of letters and poems. The tumultuous passion that possessed them is inexplicable to heterosexuals, but through all the runes of anger, deceit and separation, it never seemed to leave them free.

Walk south on Bow Street and turn left on Russell. Continue down Russell Street into Drury Lane.

18.    The Theatre Royal
          Drury Lane

The handsome theatre you see today opened in 1812 and, although the fourth one to be built on this site, it is still the oldest playhouse in London. When the previous theatre was demolished by fire in 1809, its owner, the playwright Richard Sheridan (best known for his classic comedy, The School for Scandal) remarked while watching from a nearby tavern, "Leave me, leave me; 'tis a great pity if a man cannot take a glass of wine by his own fireside."

It is not surprising that Drury Lane's oversized stage has been the choice for the great modern musicals like My Fair Lady and Miss Saigon, considering that in the 1880s Carmen was produced on it with real bulls, and even earlier the stage was filled with live horses for a scene in Henry V. It is an elegant theatre in the best London tradition. If you attend a play, go early to admire the royal boxes before the lights dim.

Return to Bow Street. Turn left onto Floral Street, which runs alongside the stage door of the Opera House.

19.    The Nags Head
          Floral Street

If you are ready for a pub lunch, the Nags Head is conveniently located in the middle of Covent Garden. Its sign, featuring the head of a circus horse, has been hanging here since 1827. The décor is Victorian, with the old bar, Lincrusta ceiling and heavy moldings still intact. Usually the public room is crowded, but lunch is served upstairs, as is an early dinner for theatregoers.

Continue down Floral Street to Garrick Street.

20.    The Garrick Club
        
15 Garrick Street

Where Floral dead-ends at Garrick Street, named for the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick who died in 1779, you will see an impressive, but unmarked, old gray stone building with ironwork trim on the south side of the street. This is the Garrick Club, as exclusive and popular with today's celebrities as it was in the 1800s, when it was organised for members involved in the theatre. Inside are a notable collection of theatrical paintings and a long table at which diners sit informally.

The Garrick Club was especially favoured by Sir William Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Soon after the death of Sullivan, Gilbert chanced upon a woman attending a club function who obviously had not kept abreast of the news. Seeking a gambit to open a conversation with the famed lyricist, she asked him what his collaborator, the maestro, was doing.

"He's doing nothing," was Gilbert's answer.         
"But surely he is composing?" persisted the questioner. 
"On the contrary, madam," Gilbert snapped. "He is decomposing."

Another prominent member was William Makepeace Thackeray, the novelist best known for Vanity Fair. This gentleman once blackballed for membership someone named Hill, a self-made man with a strong cockney accent. "I blackballed him because he is a liar," Thackeray explained. He calls himself 'ill' when he isn't."

Where Garrick Street runs into St. Martin's Lane, turn right and follow St. Martin's Lane north to West Street, which leads into Cambridge Circus.

21.    The Palace Theatre
       
  
Cambridge Circus

The baroque terra-cotta façade and gilt-and-marble interior of the Palace Theatre, built in 1888, has been restored to its former grandeur by its new owner, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber of modern musical Me Phantom of the Opera) fame. Webber intends to turn the theatre into a "palace of music" with lunchtime performances.

In an earlier day Sarah Bernhardt, after reading Wilde's Salomé, determined to open the play in London, so she booked the Palace Theatre. After seeing her onstage for the first time, Wilde had rewritten the play in French as a vehicle for her. He was full of ideas. "I should like everyone on the stage to be in yellow," he said. Someone mentioned a violet sky. "A violet sky ... yes ... certainly a violet sky ... and then in place of an orchestra, braziers of perfume. Think!" he dreamed aloud, "the scented clouds rising and partly veiling the stage from time to time ... a new perfume for each emotion."

Sarah, meanwhile, had her own ideas. The play had been in rehearsal for three weeks when, in June 1892, the Lord Chamberlain refused a license on the ground that the play introduced biblical characters in violation of some ancient law. Highly indignant with the censor and furious with Wilde for not having applied for the license earlier, Bernhardt was fuming in her dressing room. "Do you mind if I smoke, madam?" asked the repentant Wilde. "I don't care if you burn," snapped Sarah.

Sarah never played Salomé in London.

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, who never played Salomé in London.

22.    The London Hippodrome
       
   Charing Cross Road

Now turn back from Cambridge Circus onto Charing Cross Road and follow it south to my favourite London passageway, Cecil Court. En route you will pass the old London Hippodrome, an incredible Victorian gingerbread affair crowned with a knight mounted on a horse. It opened in 1900 with an aquatic show fed by a stream that ran under the theatre. Cast in this first production, Giddy Ostend, was an unknown comedian with a tiny part. His name was Charles Chaplin.

The stream was still lending glamour to dramatic stage sets as late as 1926, when vaudeville was popular. Apparently the stream eventually dried up, since today the building houses a disco and an underground station.

23.    Cecil Court

Continue along Charing Cross Road to Cecil Court, a tiny, crowded "walk street" which runs from the east side of Charing Cross Road through to St. Martin's Lane. If printed memorabilia of the past holds any fascination for you, the tiny shops, featuring old books, prints, maps and documents, crowded along both sides of this passageway, represent a treasure trove. After musing through Cecil Court, exit onto St. Martin's Lane and turn right.

24.   The Coliseum Theatre
      
  
St. Martin's Lane

The theatre lies on the east side of the street among a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings which are still intact. Built in 1902 to rival the Drury Lane, its early playbills featured Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt at various times. Sarah Bernhardt particularly made a lasting impression when a friend, watching her do makeup for Cleopatra, was intrigued to see her painting the palms of her hands a terra-cotta red. "No one in the audience will possibly see that," commented Bernhardt's friend. "Maybe not," replied the actress, "but if I catch sight of my hands, then they will be the hands of Cleopatra." 

25.    The Salisbury
       
   90
St. Martin's Lane

On the west side of St. Martin's Lane is another of our favourite pubs, The Salisbury, popular with actors performing in nearby theatres. Established in 1892, it was built on the site of Lord Salisbury's land and first was called Salisbury Stores. Its hand-carved mahogany, Lincrusta ceiling and old lamps were restored in 1962. Gold velvet settees fit cosily into alcoves, and it is a pleasant place to relax with a drink after perusing Cecil Court around the corner.

The Strand-Covent Garden walk ends where St. Martin's Lane exits into Trafalgar Square, a spot dominated by the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, which overlook the dramatic fountains and Landseer lions surrounding the column that supports the heroic Admiral Nelson.

Transportation by bus from here is convenient to most parts of inner London.

Map

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