Thursday 26 January 2012

My Holborn

I had lived in London for many years before I discovered the many delights of Holborn. It always seemed a bit of an indefinite place to me, stretching from Chancery Lane up to Bloomsbury, but without a real centre and pretty much dead at weekends. That may have been true once, but Holborn is now a rising star, having reinvented itself as "Midtown" and I have recently discovered some hidden treasures in this corner of London.

The area has a long association with London's Italian community and this is referenced in the aptly named "Sicilian Avenue" a short pedestrian thoroughfare running between Southampton Way and Bloomsbury Way. The avenue was designed by architect R. J. Worley and was completed in 1910. It is entered at either end through an arch emblazoned with the legend "Sicilian Avenue" and has a run of shops and cafes at ground floor level with accommodation above.

The avenue is a little faded these days with a several vacant units, but there are still a number of eateries, ranging from the popular Spaghetti House that arrived in 1955, to the more recent, but retro styled branch of Patisserie Valerie and a couple of London "caff" style places too. Al fresco eating and drinking is available in the summer. The empty units are a shame - let's hope that they are taken soon and hopefully by some quality independent businesses. A nice niche book shop would be good! A number of chains are just around the corner on the main road...

Holborn is well known for its many squares and small parks. Red Lion Square is one of the most interesting of these squares and lies between Theobalds Road and High Holborn - or through a narrow lane leading from Red Lion Street.

The park at the centre of the square features a statue of Fenner Brockway and a bust of philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brockway was an early member of the Fabian Society and of the Independent Labour Party - forerunner of the current Labour party. He was twice elected to Parliament - in 1929 and again in 1950. A conscientious objector, he served two months in Pentonville Prison in 1916, as well as one night in the Tower of London(!). His views didn't prevent him from recruiting for the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War - although he didn't go himself.

The Square has a number of historical and political links. There has long been a belief that Oliver Cromwell was buried in the square after being disinterred and dragged through the streets following the restoration of the monarchy, although there appears to be no proof of this. If he is there, it is believed he is not alone and that John Bradshaw, judge and Henry Ireton, juror at the trial of Charles 1st are also there having been "posthumously executed" along with Cromwell.

There are two architecturally significant buildings in the square. Summit House is a caramel coloured art deco/ modernist building, dating from 1925 when it opened as the headquarters of the Austin Reed clothing company. The architects were Joseph Emberton (also responsible for the former Simpson's Department Store on Piccadilly - now Waterstones) and Percy James Westwood. High profile legal firm Mishcon de Reya acquired the building in 2002.

On the other side of the square tucked away in the corner is a beautiful arts and crafts building - the Conway Hall. The Hall which dates from 1929 and was designed by Frederick Mandsford hosts excellent classical music concerts and is owned by the South Place Ethical Society whose aims are "the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism and free thought

As well as the main hall, there is a library of humanist books and information on the upper floor of the building and a number of small meeting rooms. I was able to wander in recently and take photographs freely despite a notice saying that "unauthorised" people should not come in! A couple of years ago, the Hall displayed a notice in one of its windows looking onto Theobalds Road that offered "de-baptism" as a service!

My Saturday morning routine involves a visit to the gym on Lambs Conduit Street around the corner from Red Lion Square. As well as the gym and a brutalist piece of architecture - the police station, this street has some good shops including Folk(men and women), Persephone Books, cafes, bars and a small but good design and home style store - Darkroom. Darkroom sells soft furnishings as well as trendy magazines, hand bound stationary and a range of objects for the home. I bought a "De Stijl" styled notebook!

After the gym, it's Ted's Cutting Room, an authentic Turkish barbers owned by fashion icon Ted Baker. For just twenty quid, I have a close crop, head massage, hot towel, threading (ouch) and a cup of Turkish coffee replete with lokum (Turkish delight). I then head back to Sicilian Avenue...well, there's a branch of Patisserie Valerie...


  1. Oh, to read this and be instantly brought back to that weekend in 1989 when I, a petrified 24 year old, was sat in the Conway Hall together with other would-be lawyers, hopeful that the supplementary two-day course we were attending would give us the confidence to pass the infamous professional exams we were soon to be sitting. Sadly, Frederick Mandsford’s work was utterly lost on me as I searched in vain for that confidence and contemplated alternative careers for myself. Matthew Greenberg

  2. Hope it all turned out for the best...thanks for the comment!