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The lost Moorish palace of showbiz and sin: The story of Leicester Square’s Alhambra

The history of the West End theatre and music hall, which stood on the current site of the Odeon Luxe cinema.

The Alhambra in Leicester Square in 1879
(Engraving from The Illustrated London News, 1874)

Situated in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square is known for its cinemas, casinos, chain pubs/restaurants and cheesy nightclubs. As a lifelong Londoner, I’ve always gone out of my way to avoid it if I’m honest. However, I can appreciate it’s a destination for film fans, thanks to the premieres and awards ceremonies which take place there. Of course, it wasn’t always cinemas which drew people to Leicester Square, as the area has long been a destination for Londoners and tourists seeking nocturnal entertainment. One of the lost Victorian venues which lured in the crowds was the Alhambra, previously on the site of the current Odeon Luxe cinema.

Leicester Square was established in the 17th century, taking its name from Leicester House, the grand home built by politician Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595–1677). It was largely residential in the early centuries, but started to evolve into a hub for tourism and entertainment by the 19th century. Before the Alhambra was built at 24-27 Leicester Square, it was occupied by four houses, dating back to the 1670s. These buildings were homes to Lords, Ladies, Barons and Earls over the years, although No.27 was converted into a bagnio (bath house) in the 1720s.

In Victorian London, Leicester Square boasted a host of attractions to amaze and entertain. Among the delights on offer were Wyld’s Great Globe, the Savile House museum, and the Empire Theatre of Varieties (the predecessor to the Empire cinema). The first Alhambra was first built in 1854 as an attraction named the Royal Panopticon of Science Arts. Designed by Thomas Hayter Lewis (1818-1898), it opened in March 1854 and hosted art exhibitions and scientific demonstrations (see a 1854 sketch of the interior). The façade was a bold Moorish style, feature two minaret-esque towers and a dome. Although initially a hit with a reported 1,000 visitors daily, it soon fell out of favour and prompted the owners to sell up for just £9,000 in 1857. The new proprietor, E.T. Smith was an experienced theatre owner and envisioned the building as an entertainment venue. He had a circus ring constructed in time for its re-opening as the Alhambra Circus in April 1858. Smith managed to secure a license for music and dance performances later that year and went on to host ballet and variety shows. After a few years, he sold the building to William Wilde Jnr, who used it for music hall and circus productions. The famous French acrobat Charles Blondin (1824-1897) performed in front of the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) at the Alhambra soon after his successful Niagara Falls tightrope. In May 1861, the venue hosted another legendary French acrobat, Jules Léotard (1838-1870), who wowed with his flying trapeze act over the heads of the audience below. As he proved a huge draw, Léotard was paid £180 a week – an impressive salary at the time. Read the rest of this entry

Scenes in the Square: Meet icons of cinema on Leicester Square’s art trail

Country lanes, princes, gold and Chinatown | The story behind No.9 Wardour Street

Have you spotted the old lettering reading ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ on this Georgian terrace?

Wardour St © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

No.9 Wardour Street was built in the 1720s and is now a Grade-II listed building

Without a doubt, Wardour Street is one of the busiest roads in the West End. Stretching the length of Soho and bordered by Chinatown, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, it means the street attracts a lot of traffic – both vehicle and pedestrian. Most Londoners and tourists will have passed down Wardour Street at some point in their commute to work, sightsee or socialise. However, with the road so busy, how often do you have time to stop and look up at the buildings around you?

Wardour Street is home to a wide range of architecture from the 1700s to present day – such as the W Hotel. The road itself has been named various things over the centuries and has been visible on maps since the Elizabethan times. In the late 16th century, it was named Colmanhedge Lane, which was then a popular route across the fields of the Burton Saint Lazar lands. The lane linked the Charing Cross area to the main road we now know as Oxford Street, which was simply described as ‘the Way from Vxbridge to London’. Old maps of what is now known as Soho shows the lane follows the current Wardour Street nearly exactly, including the slight bends at Old Compton Street and Brewer Street.

Following the Restoration in 1660, the land at the southern end of Wardour Street was leased by Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1699) to Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (1605-1684). By 1676, her son King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the freehold of the three and half acre plot to the Earl, who swiftly disposed of the land to builders, who erected buildings by 1681-2. On a 1682 map, what we now know as Wardour Street were actually three different roads – So Ho in the north, Whitcomb Street in the middle and the abbreviated Hedge Lane had remained for the southern end. However, within three years, the portion of the road between Coventry Street and Brewer Street was renamed again as Princes Street after Prince Rupert (1619-1682), while the upper part near Oxford Street was renamed Wardour Street after the landowner at the time Sir Edward Wardour (d.1694). It was during the 17th century that Soho was really transformed from fields into a residential and business district. By 1687, the properties on Princes St were owned by Sir Anthony Deane, who sold them to Richard Bourne. By the 1720s and 1730s, many of the buildings on Princes Street were of poor quality and were torn down and rebuilt by Bourne’s family.

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Celebrate the Year Of The Sheep as Chinatown London marks Chinese New Year

China Town London

A sea of red and yellow: The streets of Chinatown will play host to the Year Of The Sheep celebrations
© Chinatown London

This Thursday (19 February) sees the arrival of the Chinese New Year Of The Sheep. With London having long had a large Chinese population, it’s no surprise to see the city will be hosting the biggest celebrations of the New Year in Europe. On Sunday, the action will spill beyond the borders of Chinatown into Trafalgar Square with fun and festivities to mark the advent of the new year. The Sheep (goat or ram) is known for being gentle and calm, with people being born in the animal’s years being tender, polite, shy, filial, clever, indecisive and kind-hearted.

© Chinatown London

Trafalgar Square will play host to performances from Chinese artists
© Chinatown London

For early risers, the New Year’s Parade will begin in Trafalgar Square at 10am, going through the West End before ending in Chinatown. Meanwhile, back in Trafalgar Square, a street party kicks off at noon, featuring performances from Chinese acrobatics, traditional dancers and the iconic lion dance, which will weave through the streets wishing restaurant owners good luck for the coming year. Mr Wei Ding, who performed the culture evening show for world leaders at the APEC Summit last November, is producing a variety show ‘Cultures of China, Festival of Spring’. While Trafalgar will be playing host to large-scale performances, there will also be a second stage on Shaftesbury Avenue for local acts and upcoming talent. including martial arts groups, Canto pop and K-pop. The celebrations will be hosted by British Chinese actress Jing Lusi (Holby City) and Amy Herzog’s award-winning play 4000 Miles.

And of course, no Chinese New Year celebrations would be complete without the country’s famous cuisines being represented. Over 80 restaurants in Chinatown will be offering a range of cuisines from traditional Hong Kong street food to modern Chinese fusion from Shanghai and Beijing. Among the venues taking part include the Golden Phoenix and Opium Cocktail And Dim Sum Parlour on Gerrard Street. Many eateries will be setting up craft stalls and food stands outside so you can eat on the move or take home a piece of Chinese arts and crafts.

Chinese New Year Highlights to look out for:

10am: Parade begins at Trafalgar Square, ending on Shaftesbury Avenue

12-1pm: Dragon and Lion Dance performance at the Trafalgar Square Stage

1.30pm: Cultures of China – Festival of Spring performance on Trafalgar Square Stage

3.30pm: Red Poppy Ladies Percussion Group performance on Trafalgar Square Stage

5-6pm: Finale on Trafalgar Square Stage

  • Chinese New Year celebrations will take part on Sunday 22 February 2015 from 10am to 6pm. Free. Nearest stations: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Charing Cross. For more information, visit the Chinatown London website.

For a guide to what else is on in London this month, click here.

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W Rock Tea at W Hotel: Take a magical mystery (taste) tour with the coolest afternoon tea in town

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Three tiers of deliciousness washed down with a pot of Rosy Lee: W Rock Tea at the W Hotel

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Contemporary setting

When it comes to Afternoon Tea in London, there is a huge choice of venues and budgets to suit everyone. However, as much as I love Afternoon Tea, there are many that just blend into each other. While I do adore treating myself to high tea, I do tend to save it for special occasions, such as birthdays. So when organising a Mother’s Day treat this year, my sister and I hunted around for an ‘alternative’ tea and it didn’t take long before the W Rock Tea at the W Hotel came up.

The W Hotel London is a recent-ish addition to the popular, upmarket hotels in the capital. The London branch opened in 2011 and quickly became a destination for visitors to the capital who want to be in the centre of the action and to party. Situated on the site of the former Swiss Centre, the W stands on the Chinatown end of Wardour Street, where Leicester Square links to Piccadilly Circus. Outside the hotel it is pretty chaotic, a mix of tourists and Londoners battling to get to their destination. However, once you step inside the W and take a lift up to the reception, it is calm and relaxed.

Upon arrival, we were shown to our table in the W Lounge – comfortable sofas with low tables and windows overlooking bustling Wardour Street and the stunning rooftop architecture of Georgian buildings across the road. The Lounge is set back from the busier bar area and gangway between the lifts and the former by a row of shelves featuring contemporary, ornamental plates, which provided an eye-catching backdrop. With so much light and modern fixtures, the W Lounge really sets itself apart from other Afternoon Tea venues, which would usually be more traditional in nature.

As the W is a rock ‘n’ roll venue (it often plays hosts to after-parties during premieres, fashion week, etc) at its Wyld Bar, and is on the doorstep of Soho, the hotel’s afternoon tea has been strongly influenced by its setting. With music a big part of Soho’s history, the tea has been named the W Rock Tea, with the various bites named after legendary rock classics. After ordering our choice of tea, our individual pots soon arrived along with the three-tiered stand made of vinyl records – no chintz or granny’s china here! Despite the urge to immediately sample the sweets, we started with the savoury sandwiches – aka ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ (Pink Floyd) – which consisted of smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill; cucumber and Greek yoghurt, egg mayonnaise and watercress; and roast chicken and lemon butter. The bread was a mix of brown and white so something to please everyone and no crusts (this made my inner child very happy!). The sandwiches were tasty, but light – meaning there was plenty of room for the sugar-filled delights which were coming next.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

Rock ‘n’ roll: London’s Burning chocolate pudding (left) and Sticky Fingers meringue

The one staple of all good afternoon teas is, of course, the scones – aka ‘Rule Britannia’. They were fresh and a substantial size, tasting divine with clotted cream and jam. With the traditional parts of the tea finished, we then started on the top two tiers of the stand. Accompanying the tea and stand were the shot glasses of ‘London’s Burning’ (The Clash) – a light and fluffy chocolate pudding with hazelnut crunch, which was definitely one of my favourite features of the Rock Tea. Other highlights included ‘Sticky Fingers’ (Rolling Stones) – vanilla meringue ‘with attitude’, which had carefully been created in the shape of the Stones’ iconic mouth and tongue. My Mum is a huge Stones fan so she was particularly chuffed with that. I also loved the ‘Cherry Bomb’ (The Runaways) – chocolate, mascarpone and cherry which was delicious and creamy. Other items on the tier included ‘Sweet Emotion’ chocolate and passion fruit, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ rose financier and rose petal jam; and ‘Purple Haze’ Victoria Sponge and psychedelic marzipan, all different flavours in perfect sizes so you could sample each one.

Overall, the Rock Tea rocked! The service was friendly and attentive and all the food was delicious. The setting was comfortable and fun. I was definitely feeling pretty full afterwards so a walk through Soho was a good post-pig out remedy! For those looking for an afternoon tea with something a bit different, I would highly recommend the W Rock Tea.

  • W Rock Tea is available in the W Lounge between 1pm and 4.45pm daily and costs £25 per person. W Hotel, 10 Wardour Street, W1D 6QF. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square. For booking, tel: 0207 758 1060 or email or visit the W Hotel London website.
© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The big W: The W Hotel stands on Wardour Street

For the history of what stood on the site of the W Hotel before it was built, read Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square: The last survivor of the Swiss Centre.

For more of Metro Girl’s restaurant reviews, click here.

Bar & Lounge - W London Leicester Square Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square | The last survivor of the Swiss Centre

Have you spotted the Swiss clock in Leicester Square?

Swiss glockenspiel Leicester Square © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The Swiss Glockenspiel now stands alone, a few feet from its former home

© Tim@SW2008 on Flickr

The Swiss Centre in 1988
© Tim@SW2008 on Flickr

Anyone who grew up in London in the ’80s and ’90s would have been probably been excited by the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square. Situated on the outside of the Swiss Centre, the clock used to play music, ring bells and feature moving figures dressed in Swiss costumes. I used to love standing and looking up at the glockenspiel in action as a young child. When the Swiss Centre was demolished in 2008 to make way for the W London hotel and M&M’s World, I was sad to see the glockenspiel go.

The Swiss Centre, a piece of Modernist architecture designed to showcase Swiss culture and encourage tourism, was built just west of Leicester Square in the Sixties. Opened in 1968, it consisted of a two-storey podium against a backdrop of a 14-storey tower block. The podium included a totem pole featuring Swiss motifs and adverts. On the Leicester Square facing side of the podium featured a Carillon – a musical instrument made of 27 bells set alongside 11 moving Swiss figures (carved by Fritz Fuchs in 1968). In 1984, the glockenspiel was added as a gift of friendship from Switzerland and Liechtenstein, making the Swiss Centre a popular stop for tourists and Londoners passing between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. On the hour, the clock would chime, the bells would ring and the figures would move around the curved wall.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The Swiss figures move around to the music on the hour

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2014

The Swiss Centre may be gone, but the Swiss association lives on with the Confederation’s 26 state flags

However, the Swiss Centre never lived up to its expectations. The complex included the Swiss Tourist Board and other Swiss companies, including banks and restaurants. As time went on, non-Swiss businesses came and went, including nightclubs, tacky tourist shops and an art house cinema. In 2002, Westminster City Council concluded the Swiss Centre was failing as a building. It didn’t complement its neighbouring buildings and its Swiss theme in such a touristy part of the West End was confusing to many. In 2006, the council agreed to its demolition and by 2008, it was headed for history with the W London hotel built on the site. While there weren’t likely to be many sad about the removal of the Swiss Centre, plenty were lamenting the absence of the Glockenspiel. While the building is now a distant memory, its name lives on in Swiss Court – the name of the pedestrianised path leading from Leicester Square to Wardour Street.

In November 2011, the Swiss Glockenspiel was returned to Swiss Court, just metres from its original location. Derby clockmakers Smith of Derby worked with Swiss artists to redesign and restore the musical clock. Now a free-standing version, the 10 metre high Glockenspiel was officially inaugurated at a Swiss-themed ceremony. The clock is now wireless and controlled from Derby, while the Glockenspiel now plays new music written by London’s Royal Academy of Music and the University for Music and Art in Berne. A couple of metres away, stands a flag pole featuring the Confederation’s 26 state flags, which also used to stand on the Swiss Centre.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

Ring those bells! The Glockenspiel features 27 bells

– Check out this YouTube video of the Glockenspiel on the Swiss Centre, filmed by David Gachechiladze shortly before demolition in 2007.

  • The Swiss Glockenspiel stands on Swiss Court, Soho, W1D. Nearest stations: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.

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photo credit: Tim@SW2008 via photopin cc

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