Monday, September 30, 2013

Day 13 - Charing Cross and Seven Dials

Charing Cross Road is a mecca for book lovers.  One of our favorite book stores in London is Foyles (113–119 Charing Cross Road).  Every time I visit I end up buying something, and this trip was no exception.  Foyles, which opened in their current location back in 1906, was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest bookshop in terms of shelf area (30 miles/50 kilometres) and number of titles on display. In the past, it was famed for its anachronistic, eccentric and sometimes infuriating business practices; so much so that it was a tourist attraction.

Under Christina Foyle (daughter of founder, William) the store operated a payment system that required customers to queue three times: to collect an invoice for a book, to pay the invoice, then to collect the book, simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author. A quote of this period is: "Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade." In the 1980s, rival bookshop, Dillons, placed an advertisement saying "Foyled again? Try Dillons" in a bus shelter opposite Foyles. (BTW, Dillons closed in 1999).

Foyles has since modernized, opened new branches and established an on-line store.  In 2013, it was awarded National Bookseller of the Year.  Currently it has over 100,000 eBooks available for sale on-line.

Foyles Bookstore
After we did our shopping, we walked over to Seven Dials, a small but well-known road junction in the West End of London in Covent Garden where seven streets converge. At the centre of the roughly-circular space is a pillar bearing six (not seven) sundials, a result of the pillar being commissioned before a late stage alteration of the plans from an original six roads.  Despite the foot traffic, cabs and trucks still manage to drive through this busy intersection.

Seven Dials
The original layout of the Seven Dials area was designed by Thomas Neale in the early 1690s. The original plan had six roads converging, although this was later increased to seven. The sundial pillar was built with only six faces, with the dial itself acting as the seventh. This number of roads was chosen in order to maximise the number of houses that could be built on the site.

Following the successful development of the fashionable Covent Garden Piazza area nearby, Neale aimed for the Seven Dials site to be popular with well-off residents. Unfortunately, his plan didn't succeed and the area gradually deteriorated. At one stage, each of the seven apexes facing the column housed a pub. By the nineteenth century, Seven Dials had become one of the most notorious slums in London, being part of the rookery of St Giles.  The area was described by Charles Dickens in his collection Sketches by Boz, which includes the sketch I've included below.

Monmouth Street around 1836: illustration by George Cruikshank
Today, Seven Dials is a prosperous, largely commercial, neighbourhood, between the West End theatre district of Shaftesbury Avenue and the fashion-focused shopping district in and around nearby Neal's Yard. Inevitably, the junction of seven roads means the space is dominated by traffic, generally slow-moving in these narrow streets, usually crowded with people.  On one of the seven apexes of the junction is a pub, The Crown; on another apex is Cambridge Theatre (Matilda, the musical is currently playing there), and on a third the Mercer Street Hotel (formerly the Radisson Edwardian Mountbatten Hotel). Despite some redevelopment, many of the original buildings remain.

The replacement sundial column was constructed in 1988/89, to the original design. It was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, during her visit to commemorate the tercentenary of the reign of William and Mary, during which the area was originally developed.When in Seven Dials, we usually visit a small theatre bookshop, Dress Circle, situated on Monmouth Road right off the dial, so we headed there, but it was gone.  There's a dress shop in its place now.

London's Former Dress Circle Show Biz Shop
Another casualty of the online revolution.  It does have an online shop (, but the brick and mortar store had a lot of theatre memorabilia that is lost in online shopping, unfortunately.

A statement on Dress Circle's website reads:  "Over the past months we have tried in vain to negotiate with our landlord to move our shop into smaller and more cost effective premises. The cost of keeping Dress Circle open in the current location is too high, and it has become apparent that we will not be able to dispose of our current lease. The downturn in the economy has also taken its toll on us, as well as the ever changing way that people are buying music. With CDs becoming relics and downloads being more popular, Dress Circle, the shop, has struggled to keep up for a long time and we have reached the point that we are no longer able to continue."

They closed their doors on August 15, 2012.

Disappointed, we walked around and found a shortcut back to our flat.  London is full of small alleyways open only to pedestrians that can take you easily from one section to the other if you know where to look.  It is also very easy to get lost.

After we returned, hubby went on to Tesco to do some last minute shopping.  We had dinner, watched The Dresden Files and are about to settle down to start the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo.  Until tomorrow.

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