The jet lag pendulum swung the other way my second night in England — I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning on my super comfortable mattress, and finally slipped out of bed at 6:15. Denied my chance to take a long walk the previous morning, I knew I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity as watery daylight peeked through the curtains I deliberately left part open. I was walking the streets ten minutes later, watching London wake up on a bleary Saturday morning. “The English don’t do mornings,” one of our later drivers cheerily remarked.
I decided to make my two destinations the (fictional) address of Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker Street, followed by Trafalgar Square, and check out some more locations associated with the Beatles along the way. A round trip of about five miles. I strolled up Tottenham Court Road, evidently the site of some revelry last night as I stepped over many broken bottles and slicks of what was most likely urine decorating the building corners. Chain stores that are part of the fabric of the lives of every Briton seemed exotic to me — a Boots pharmacy, a Barclays bank, a Mr. Toppers haircuts, a Sainsbury’s supermarket, an Odeon cinema — and were interspersed with shuttered nightclubs and dormant pubs as I headed north to Euston Road. After not seeing a soul on Tottenham Court Road, traffic rumbled along the very busy Euston Road, proving that some people in London were indeed awake. Turning west on Euston, and passing the gaudy tourist trap known as Madame Tussaud’s (the original “wax museum”), it wasn’t long before I arrived at Baker Street.
The legendary address of 221B Baker Street was entirely a figment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination. The actual Baker Street of the late 1800s ran only from Portman Square to Dorset Street, a distance of just over 500 yards, and the addresses on its high-end residential terrace houses ran from #1 to #85. A very short “Upper Baker Street,” with a separate set of addresses existed a little ways to the north. When the two streets were merged into one in the early 20th century, the 200s came into existence. The spot where 221 would be is occupied by a multi-story office block, Abbey House. Originally home to the Abbey National Building Society (who once employed someone full-time just to answer Holmes-related mail), it has been recently redeveloped into luxury flats.
The building that now has official claim to the “221B” address according to the London Post Office is a little further up the block, at what would ordinarily be about 239 Baker Street. It is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and is housed in an 1815 townhouse whose exterior had the good fortune to actually look quite a bit like the residence described in the Holmes stories. The Sherlock Holmes Society of England got hold of it, meticulously recreated the interior as Doyle imagined it, stuffed it full of artifacts and memorabilia, and opened it to the public in 1990. It was still closed at seven on a Saturday morning, of course, so I walked on.
I doubled back south down Baker Street. I walked by what used to be, from late 1967 to summer 1968, the Beatles’ Apple Boutique retail store (i.e., tax shelter). Noted for its massive psychedelic mural that outraged their more conservative neighbors, the Boutique hemorrhaged money and was one the Fab Four’s few major missteps. The original building was torn down in 1974, and replaced with one that was quite similar (with the addition of a few windows.)
A block or so to the east was 20 Manchester Square, site of EMI House, business headquarters for the Beatles’ record label, and the building where the group peered over the edge of the interior balcony and down the stairwell for the cover of their first album in 1963. Theatrical photographer Angus McBean shot the picture, laying on his back on the lobby floor, sometime in February of ‘63.
Sadly, it was not worth even a short detour on my walk, because EMI House was torn down in 1999. Before its destruction, the balcony was reverently removed and installed in a place of honor at EMI’s sleek new headquarters several miles away in Hammersmith.
I turned east on London’s big shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. The city was finally coming to life as 7:30 approached. Construction crews got to work, and delivery trucks started unloading. Joggers, weekend workers, and early shoppers began moving up the streets and clustering around the bus stops. I noticed it was all young people. As they bustled to and fro, they vaped and chatted into cell phones (“mobiles,” as they call them over here, and every other word out of their mouths was “brilliant,” the most overused adjective among young Londoners, said reflexively, like a Californian uses “cool.”) Some of the more colorful denizens of London’s streets were having loud, animated conversations with no one. The sun peeked occasinally through the overcast, and the heat wave would continue.
I next headed south along Regent Street. Unlike the mainstream chain-store shopping along Oxford Street, the shops of Regent Street offered more upscale fare. The elegant buildings date from the 1890s to the 1920s. The street was originally completed in 1825, but none of the original structures remain.
Just off Regent Street is Savile Row, the London garment district, home to some of the world’s best tailors, and former home of the Beatles self-owned management/production company, Apple Corps. 3 Savile Row is mostly known for its rooftop, which was the site of the final Beatles live performance on January 30, 1969, staged for cameras shooting what would eventually become the Let It Be documentary released in mid-1970.
Following Regent Street around its gentle eastward curve into Piccadilly Circus, a massive traffic roundabout in the heart of London’s West End, I continued south. At 12 Regent Street there is a big office block known as Rex House. In the basement of Rex House, there was once a 400-seat movie theater called Paris Cinema, which opened in 1939. After WWII, it was bought by the British Broadcasting Corporation, who renamed it the BBC Paris Studios and converted it into a venue for recording radio broadcasts, mostly comedy shows in front of a live audience. In the 1960s, the space was also used to record special sessions by various pop groups exclusively for the BBC, including several recordings by the Beatles between November 1962 and July 1964.
A Dezo Hoffman photo of the Beatles entering the BBC Paris Studios on April 4, 1963 was used for the cover of the double-compilation album The Beatles Live at the BBC, which came out in 1995, the same year the BBC shut down the Paris Studio location in favor of more technically-advanced facilities elsewhere.
I was almost to Trafalgar Square, and my heart sank a little as I approached it from Pall Mall. There were two giant stages erected at either end of the square. Along the sides ran tall bleachers. A large line of mostly teenage girls and their mothers were already queuing for what the banners announced breathlessly as West End Live!, an open air revue featuring popular selections from recent stage musicals. “One weekend only!”
To my horror, the giant lions guarding Nelson’s Column were totally hemmed in by tents and porta-potties. As I lined up to snap my somewhat deflating pic, I realized I was also right in front of the equestrian statue of the ill-fated Charles I. On the spot where the statue now stands was once an “Eleanor cross,” one of a group of twelve memorial crosses erected at intervals from London to Lincoln (in the far north of England) by Edward I in tribute to his late wife, Eleanor of Castile. One of these elaborate marble crosses would have been right in front of me had I stood there any time between 1294 and 1647, when the Puritan-controlled Parliament pulled it down during the English Civil War — the conflict that cost Charles I his head. A few years after the dust had settled and Charles II was firmly on the throne, he stuck a statue of his dad there as a well-deserved “fuck you” to the grim Puritans who had clamped down on everyone’s good time during their brief grip on London’s political reins. Continue reading