2012 has seen London welcome The Shard; a new station at Blackfriars; a new playground, complete with helter-skelter; a new way to cross the river; a new theatre; and a new bus. Lest we forget London’s unique position as a city of contrasts, we’re hitting back at all this modernity with a reminder about some of the “oldies but goodies” in our fair city…
1. London’s Oldest Surviving Cinema – Electric, 1910
The Electric Cinema in Notting Hill first opened in February 1910; the first film shown was Henry VIII starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The Electric has remained open ever since, apart from a period during the 80s and 90s when the then unpopular Portobello Road venue closed and fell into disrepair. In 2001, the Grade II* listed cinema was redeveloped, (to the tune of £2m), and what was something of a dive now offers lovely wide leather seats and optional footstools, a restaurant, bar, and an upstairs private members club. Happily, the listed classical proscenium arch remains.
2. London’s Oldest Surviving Underground Station – Baker Street, 1863
Baker Street Station was opened by (what was then called) the Metropolitan Railway on 10 January 1863. If you want to stand on the oldest surviving section, they’re the platforms served by the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. The most elderly part of the Underground network still in use is the Central line between Leyton and Loughton, as this was open as a railway seven years before the Underground.
3. London’s Oldest Surviving Hotel – Brown’s, 1837
Long before Anna and Bates’ romance played out in Downton Abbey, the former valet and maid to Lord and Lady Byron, James and Sarah Brown, got hitched and set up a hotel in London’s Mayfair in 1837. The Ford family took over in 1859 adding London’s first public dining room, and buying the next-door St George’s Hotel in 1889, combining the two hotels. Notable guests at Brown’s include Churchill, Roosevelt, Kipling (who finished The Jungle Book there), Agatha Christie (who based the 1965 thriller At Bertram’s Hotel on Brown’s) and Alexander Graham Bell who demonstrated his new invention, the telephone, from the hotel in 1876. The phone remains as a feature of interest in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms.
4. London’s Oldest Surviving Theatre – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1812
There’s been a theatre on the site of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane since 1663. The theatre where you can see Richard Blackwood and co in Shrek today is the fourth incarnation of the Theatre Royal, which opened in 1812. Designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt, the theatre seated about 3,000 people back then and the first performance was a production of Hamlet. It’s a beautiful space: one of only three Grade I listed theatres in London.
5. London’s Oldest Surviving Shop – Hatchards, 1797
Hatchards isn’t just the oldest bookshop in London – it’s the oldest in the whole of the UK. Founded by John Hatchard in 1797 on Piccadilly, the company still trades from the gorgeous five-floor emporium today. Look out for the portrait of Mr H on the stairs. Despite its oldy-worldy appearance, Hatchards is actually owned by Waterstones; still, it remains a far nicer book-shopping experience than being recommended something totally unsuitable by Amazon based on a book you once bought as a a present for Father’s Day. (Londonist Pub Crawls excluded.)
6. London’s Oldest Surviving Restaurant – Rules, 1789
Rules restaurant on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden shouts its aged status from its very awnings. Opened by Thomas Rule in 1789 as an oyster bar (eating out in “restaurants” wasn’t to catch on for another few years), today’s restaurant has a Georgian feel, and serves traditional British Cuisine. Try to book for game season; Rules specialises in game, and even has its own estate in the High Pennines. Celeb fans of the eatery included Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin; the institution is name-checked in novels by Graham Greene, Dick Francis and Evelyn Waugh.
7. London’s Oldest Surviving Department Store – Fortnum & Mason, 1707
William Fortnum and Hugh Mason founded their grocery store in 1707. You can see four-foot models of the pair totter from their hideyholes and bow to each other as the huge clock, built in their honour in the 60s, chimes the hour. The pair moved their shop to its current location in 1756. When William Fortnum’s grandson became a servant of Queen Charlotte in the 1760s, the Royal affiliation, still strong to this day, was begun. The store saw rapid growth in the Victorian era, and has held numerous Royal Warrants since the mid 1800s. As well as supplying British Officers with “tuck” during the Napolenic and Crimean Wars, Fortnums’ other claims to fame include inventing the Scotch Egg, and spotting the brilliance of a Mr HJ Heinz’s new product in 1886: tinned baked beans.
8. London’s Oldest Surviving Botanic Garden – Chelsea Physic Garden, 1673
Tucked away behind heat-trapping brick walls on the Embankment, the Chelsea Physic Garden has been teaching the world about edible, useful, medicinal and historical plants since 1673. Inside you can see the oldest rock garden in England (built using stones from the Tower of London and rocks made of Icelandic lava); the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain; and the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree.
9. London’s Oldest Surviving Outdoor Statue – Sekhmet, Sotheby’s, 1320 BC
Next time you trip down New Bond Street, look up when you reach the legendary auctioneers Sotheby’s at number 34. Embedded above the entrance is the oldest outdoor statue in London, an ancient Egyptian black basalt effigy of Sekhmet, the lion goddess. It’s thought that the carving dates from 1320 BC, making it even older than Cleopatra’s Needle. In a brilliant tale of “finders keepers”, Sekhmet has been Sotheby’s muse since the 1880s when it was sold at auction for the princely sum of £40, but was never collected by the buyer. It’s been in the front entrance of the Bond Street business since 1917.
10. London’s Oldest Thing – Gibeon Meteorite, 4.5 billion years old
Described as “the oldest thing you’ll ever touch” the Gibeon Meteorite holds the crown as London’s oldest object at 4 billion years. Gibeon is the name given to chunks of meteorite that fell to earth in prehistoric times, landing in Namibia; it’s named after the nearest town, Gibeon. Back in 1836, Captain J E Alexander collected samples of the meteorite from near the Great Fish River and sent them to London. Then John Herschel analyzed them and confirmed the material was extraterrestrial. Gibeon meteorites are composed of iron, nickel and small amounts of cobalt and classified as a fine octahedrite iron meteorite. This one belongs to the Natural History Museum, but is currently on display in the Royal Observatory Greenwich.