Oxford Street once boasted London’s best shops, but many would agree that it lost its way long ago. While it isn’t today struggling to pull in the crowds, the outlets on offer are far from imaginative – chain stores you could find anywhere, fast food joints and stalls selling tacky souvenirs. You can’t move on the pavement, while traveling by bus isn’t any more speedy given that so many services pass along this stretch.
What a surprise it is then if you slip down one of the narrow passageways or streets north of Bond Street Tube station. Yes, you encounter other people, however the pace of life here seems much slower. And while the likes of Pret and Starbucks have muscled their way in, there are far more independent shops and restaurants in this area, Marylebone, than on Oxford Street.
One of the closest pleasant spots to the ghastly shopping mecca is St Christopher’s Place. Here you find attractive pavement cafes and nice places to go for a coffee. It’s become increasingly popular since the 1970s, replacing what in the 19th century were slums (where the social reformer Octavia Hill began her work).
Somehow Marylebone has passed me by during my six years of living in London. But given the write-up that Lucy Inglis describes in her book, Georgian London, it is a place that should certainly be explored:
“Marylebone was more bohemian and creative than Mayfair. It was also diverse, housing painters, builders, musicians and aristocrats, as well as London’s largest black population. In this area of London, the core collections of the the British Library and Kew Gardens were formed. Here, Handel listened to bad renditions of his own music. Gentlemanly pursuits were a theme in Marylebone, and the area played host to hundreds, if not thousands of the better kind of prostitute, who ‘lived decently and without being disturbed. They are mistresses in their own house, and if any of the magistrates should think of troubling them, they might show him the door.”
Marylebone is known to have existed as a settlement since the 12th century, having grown up on the banks of the River Tyburn. That waterway is now largely lost under roads and buildings as it weaves its way from Hampstead to Westminster, however one part of it is still very visible: it flows through the ponds in Regent’s Park. In certain spots in the West End you can also hear the river underground if you put your ear next to drain hole covers.
But Tyburn was more than just the name of a river, it was also where from the 12th to 18th century public hangings were held in village close to present-day Marble Arch. The executions, which took place on eight public holidays each year, attracted considerable crowds (stands were even erected for spectators who were happy to pay two shillings to sit on ‘Tyburn Pews’). The condemned were taken from Newgate Prison in the City along what is now Oxford Street, stopping for alcoholic refreshment along the way, to the gallows (the so-called ‘Tyburn Tree’, also known as the ‘Triple Tree’ given that it had three beams and eight offenders could be hung from it at once, was erected in 1571).
The name Marylebone actually comes from the church of St Mary-by-the-Tyburn, which was also known as St Mary-le-Bourne and has existed in number of different locations. By around 1400 it had been built by what is now the northern end of Marylebone High Street, where there is today a small public garden. Francis Bacon was married in this church in 1606 and the interior was later depicted by William Hogarth in the marriage scene from his series of paintings called ‘A Rake’s Progress’.
In 1740 the old church was demolished as it had fallen into a state of decay and a new one re-built in the same spot. It was in this building that Lord Byron was baptised, while Charles Wesley was buried in the churchyard. But as more people moved to live in the area, it soon became too small for the congregation and the present church was built to the designs of Thomas Hardwick between 1813 and 1817 facing Regent’s Park on the New Road, now Marylebone Road (the previous church was finally demolished in 1949 and as mentioned above is today a small park, which has been dedicated as a garden of rest). It is an inviting building with eight columns on the front, resembling the Pantheon in Rome, and an attractive steeple on the roof.
Initially the area Marylebone area was very rural, which benefitted one enterprise in particular – Marylebone Pleasure Gardens. When people in London think of pleasure gardens from times gone by, it is normally Vauxhall that springs to mind, however the one which was on the east side of Marylebone High Street, behind the Rose of Normandy Tavern, also deserves to be remembered. Samuel Pepys recorded in 1668 that he went “to Marrowbone, and there walked in the garden, the first time I ever was there, and a pretty place it is”.
The facilities grew over time from merely a bowling green and a gaming house to a place offering more varied entertainment consisting of fireworks and music, which attracted some of the best artists and technicians of their day. However, once Marylebone became more built up the rural qualities that gave the pleasure gardens part of their appeal were lost. And when in 1777 The Public Advertiser carried the advertisement for the sale of the gardens and assets, it was clear that the end for them was near. It finally closed not long after.
Given that much of Marylebone seems like it has been built to a rigid grid-like formation, walking along Marylebone Lane could be considered slightly confusing. While neighbouring streets are straight, this stretch curves its way northwards. What were the planners of modern Marylebone thinking?
There lies a relatively simple answer. The first wave of planned development in the area was carried out in the 18th century, yet Marylebone Lane stems from an earlier period and was left undisturbed. It was curved because it followed the edge of the river Tyburn, which interestingly was the demarcation between two different estates which continue to control the development of the area today.
On the western side of Marylebone Lane (and consequently the river) is the 110-acre Portman Estate, so named after Sir William Portman, Lord Chief Justice to Henry VIII, who acquired the freehold to the land in 1554. It largely remained farmland until the 1750s when William Baker began building here by leasing land so he could lay out Orchard and Portman streets. The New Road, running from Paddington to Islington, was built in 1756 in an attempt to divert traffic from Oxford Street and set the northern limit of the original development.
Construction on the Portman Estate boomed after the end of the Seven Years War’ in 1763, with Portman Square and Manchester Square being built in 1760s and the 1770s respectively. These developments attracted the prosperous middle, as well upper, classes who wanted to be close to the centre of London, but also mews for servants and tradesmen (if you want to see a good example of the latter look for Manchester Mews, where what would have once been stables with accommodation above are now fashionable homes in their own right).
“Portman Square now building between Portman Chapel and Marylebone will be much larger than Grosvenor Square; and that handsome walks, planted with Elm trees, will be made to it, with a grand reservoir, in the middle,” declared The Public Advertiser during the construction.
Building work on the north side did not start until 1773 when two well-to-do ladies – the Countess of Home, born Elizabeth Gibbons, and Elizabeth Montagu – competed with each other to see who could establish the grander home. The former, who had earned considerable wealth through being married to a Jamaican planter, eventually had Robert Adam design her property and no expense was spared in the building.
Meanwhile, at Montagu House on the other side of the square, Mrs Montagu – “Queen of the Blue Stockings” – held a housewarming breakfast for 700 guests followed by annual parties for London chimney sweeps and regular literary salons, where promoting abolition was one of the key talking points of the day. Samuel Johnson, one of her friends, said: “She diffuses more knowledge than any woman I know, or indeed, almost any man.”
Slightly later came Manchester Square, which was dominated by Manchester House (later re-named Hereford House in 1797 when it was bought by the 2nd Marquess of Hertford). Today the building is better known for the wonderful paintings, porcelain, gold boxes and furniture, from the 15th to 19th centuries forming the Wallace Collection. This was established in 1897 from the private collection of the 4th Marquess left to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace. It was the latter’s widow who gave the collection to the nation and it was put on permanent view in 1900. The gallery contains important works from well-known artists such as Rembrandt and Hals (‘The Laughing Cavalier’).
With the Portman Estate still taking in a relatively large area, encompassing neighbourhoods such as Edgware Road and Baker Street, it is diverse in both in the make-up of the buildings and the people that live there. Some 50% of it is Grade II listed thanks to its wonderful Georgian town houses and redbrick blocks of flats. The latter typically remain directly controlled and are rented out on a short-term basis. And the estate also boasts 130 retail units in its portfolio.
On the eastern side of the hidden river lies the 92-acre Howard de Walden Estate. Until 1879 when it changed ownership, it was named the Portland Estate and had been Crown land until the southern part of the Manor of Tyburn was sold by James I in 1611. Development really commenced with the formation of a 1719 plan which created Cavendish Square as the focal point, with surrounding streets built in a grid pattern.
The collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720 slowed development, but soon it recommenced with new streets built to the north, including Portland Place, which John Nash called “the finest street in London” and incorporated it into his plans for Regent’s Park to the north. Harley Street and Wimpole Street also soon took shape and from the 19th century onwards became known as a centre for medicine. Today, the estate is home to more hospitals and medical centres than any other estate in London, with the historic buildings boasting the very latest in medical equipment.
Marylebone High Street stands in complete contrast to Oxford Street further south in that it boasts a thriving collection of independent shops. While there are some chain outlets, what you will mostly find here stores that are a little bit different. Everything from delicatessens and upmarket boutiques to coffee shops and traders of a wide variety of gifts. It is here you find what I think is probably London’s best bookstore, Daunts Books, with a wide section of travel books set out country-by-country in elegant Edwardian oak galleries.
That Marylebone High Street looks so different to other, identikit high streets in the country is largely down to the vision of the which owns most of the freeholds on the stretch. Just a couple of decades ago it was looking in a bit of a sorry state with around a third of shops either vacant or temporally occupied. The estate therefore set out to deliberately attract smaller retailers which had distinctive offerings. And visiting today you can see that it has seen succeeded, putting it in a far different class to Oxford Street.
Categories: Changing London