01 September 2015 | 14 °C

15 October 2013 | Best Of London | By: Tom Bolton

Ten Vanished, And Vanishing London Experiences

Ten Vanished, And Vanishing London Experiences

London is in constant flux. We all know that disconcerting experience of discovering that entire blocks have been demolished, apparently without warning, or finding that a favourite café has vanished, as though it never existed. Here are a few London experiences that vanished while we were all looking the other way:

1. Riding the Circle Line

The Circle Line was once a golden ring encircling central London, but in 2009 the ring was broken and it became a noose. All trains now terminate either at Edgware Road or Hammersmith. Londoners can no longer sit on a Circle Line train for as long as they like, going round and round, getting off only when, for example, they have finished their book. London’s equilibrium has changed for ever, and the Tube is a slightly less special place because of it.

2. Meeting outside Swan & Edgar/Tower Records/Virgin Megastore

Generations of Londoners and visitors would hang around awkwardly on Piccadilly Circus ,on the corner of Regent Street and Piccadilly, engaged in the uncertain business of meeting friends. Without being told, somehow everyone knew where to meet: outside a shop that 50-somethings knew as Swan & Edgar, 40-somethings as Tower Records, and 30-somethings as Virgin or even, fleetingly, Zavvi. To anyone younger, the concept of the ‘meeting place’ is a weird 20th century relic. You just phone each other.

3. Visiting the Planetarium

planetarium

Baker Street is famous for you-know-who and for Madame Tussaud’s waxworks, but the lost jewel in its crown is the Planetarium. Once home to the most comfortable seats in London, it closed in 2006 reopening as a mocking echo of its former self — the Star Dome… featuring celebrities, instead of cosmic bodies at the far reaches of human comprehension. The Planetarium was the highlight of a child’s day out in London and nothing will ever be as exciting, or as well-cushioned, again. The Royal Observatory Greenwich now has the capital's only proper Planetarium.

4. The Swiss Centre experience

swiss

The Swiss Centre was a little chunk of Switzerland, mysteriously located in Leicester Square. Its glass and steel modernist tower was demolished in 2008, taking with it not only London’s highest cinema, but more generally the enjoyment of walking past everyday wondering what exactly it was for. Westminster Council thought the building failed to make a positive contribution to Leicester Square: they replaced it with M&M World. The Swiss Centre glockenspiel survives, even more confusing than it was before.

5. Watching Concorde cross the west London sky

West London, late 20th century, and even aircraft noise could be glamorous. The elegant, crane-like, dip-nosed silhouette of Concorde roared over W postcodes several times a day on transatlantic trips. It seemed to blur the boundary between living entity and machine, far more mysterious than lesser, subsonic aircraft. From 1976 Concorde was the pay-off for living in flight path hell, making it almost worthwhile. A lot of people probably left town after its retirement flypast in 2003.

6. Old school Soho Italian

Late 20th century Soho was synonymous with cheap, no frills Italian food served by cafés in the spirit of hip 1950s Italian Soho. Several remained untouched until the 2000s – notably Centrale (demolished for a shop that then remained empty for years), Lorelei (with its outside toilet), Pollo (the king) and Presto (Derek Jarman’s favourite), all within a block of Old Compton Street. Lorelei’s closure earlier this year signalled the end of the carbonara era.

7. The Vyner Street gallery parade

Suddenly, in the mid-2000s, everything exciting about new London art was conveniently located on a single road… and it was not Cork Street. As the economy boomed a new gallery scene grew up on a short, scruffy street in Hackney, full of unwanted factory and warehouse space. It was colonised by galleries such as Fred, Kate MacGarry, Nettie Horn, IBID Projects, One in the Other, Vilma Gold, and many more. Then came the crash followed by property price madness, and just as suddenly they were gone. Vyner Street still has galleries, but it is no longer London’s one-stop art shop.

8. Popping into Westminster Abbey

abbey

Westminster Abbey, understandably, charges for entry — £18, in fact. However, until the late 1990s the west end of the nave was free, ideal for the thousands who passed the Abbey every day, hungry for a lunch hour Gothic fix. Apparently tour operators started to take advantage by parking their groups inside, and the Abbey ended free access. The Abbey is still London’s church, but not as many Londoners get to see inside it any more.

And here are two London experiences on their very last legs:

9. Going to the Dogs

While it is still just about possible to have a night out at a London dog track, the curtains seem to coming down on what was once London’s favourite entertainment. The decline from crowds of 100,000 plus at White City in the 1930s has been long and drawn-out, but until the 2000s London still had four popular tracks. Catford closed in 2003 and Walthamstow in 2008. AFC Wimbledon plans a new ground in place of the Plough Lane dog stadium. Time for a visit to Romford for a last taste of London’s dog scene.

10. Riding the Hammersmith Flyover

Since the concrete flyover carrying the A4 over Hammersmith experienced poorly-timed structural issues in the run-up to the Olympics, people have been queuing up to do it down. The favoured option is to replace it with a tunnel, but how much fun would that be to drive through? The Hammersmith Flyover is a neglected brutalist masterpiece which, like the Westway, sends cars soaring over London. Architectural critic Ian Nairn compared it to Charles Holden’s Underground stations. The listing campaign starts here.

Nominate your own vanished/vanishing London experiences in the comments below.

Images by M@.

martin

the Circle Line hasn't gone entirely - when there's engineering work on the western spiral arm, it's been known to go properly circular again.

Guirilandia

M&Ms World is a disgrace for London. Whoever had the idea of bringing that eyesore to Leicester Square should be beheaded...

JohnnyFox

9/10. Ignorant of Vyner Street. Used to love the basement restaurant in the Swiss Centre and my old-skool Italian was the Trota Blu which had a Boris-pouting live trout in its tank that must have been older than the restaurant itself.

Lila

Trattoria Da Aldo on 51 Greek Street is pretty much what you describe at n.6. There's always some old Italian guys from an old era eating and drinking at the back too.

London Historians

Excellent, most of those, plus 5 upgraded: actually flying our beloved Concorde (preen). I didn't know the planetarium had been trashed. Realise that Hamm flyover is tongue in cheek, but not far away is the Hogarth roundabout flyover, a rickety one-lane one-way structure which for the full enjoyment should be done at speed. Try it!

ktg72

I spent my teenage years (early 2000s) going to gigs at the Astoria and Astoria2/Mean Fiddler followed by a refreshing/dirty dip in the Centre Point fountains. All unceremoniously cleared away for Crossrail.

David Long

In the 1980s, on weekdays, I used to enjoy going into an empty Sir John Soane Museum and a nearly empty Wallace Collection....

Martin Davies

Am I pedantic enough to point out Vyner St is in Tower Hamlets, not Hackney? Yes, it turns out I am.

Jacqueline Hamilton

The Swiss Centre used to be the ONLY place to get white or plain chocolate giant toblerones.

BionicDread

I'm a Circle Line driver. We used to do 3 rounders without leaving the cab (old timers remember 4). People forget how unreliable it was as with no terminus we couldn't make up lost time. Now we get a quick turnaround at Edgware Road and Hammersmith which breaks it up and allows drivers to go to the toilet and get a drink but I do strangely miss the old Circles.

dansumption

There's not one time when I walk through Leicester Square that I don't miss the Swiss Centre. It was an amazing sight, fondues in the basement restaurant were something to be experienced, and for a time it was the only place in Britain where you could buy Bergkäse.

Mary Ites

The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. My kids used to love visiting it when they were little. Was shocked to find it isn't there anymore!

Robbie

Also, come on. The Hammersmith Flyover is a thing of absolute brilliance - driving over that is a marvel of London.

kylet

I'm 30 & it will always be Tower Records to me, managed to get many a hard-to-find album there. Never any progress, is there?

Mark Walley

I know it's the other end of Regent's Street, but now every meets outside Nike Town right? If you arrange to meet at Oxford Circus, we all know you mean in the foyer of Nike Town.

george

although later than expected, Elephant and Castle underpasses are due to be closed in the near future. probably not many people will cry for it...

Marina Organ

Hey, Vyner Street is still full of galleries! Over a thousand people were down there for last month's First Thursday openings. Off the top of my head: Hada Contemporary, Wilkinson, Lime Wharf, Cultivate, Wayward... do some research!

cheap flights Trip

great article. London is very expensive city.

Carolyn

Dionysus chippie / kebab place on Tottenham Court Road. Spent way too much of my student grant there as an undergraduate. And by admitting to having had a grant everyone will now know how old I am!

Huw Thomas

Crayford Dogs are still going strong as well (Zone 6 is still London).

Paul Allen

Having a pint in a Tube Station such as Moriarty's on Baker Street or the one at Gloucester Road

Ian S. Bolton

In Chelsea the El BlasonSpanish restaurant (the one featured in the film 'Blowup' from 1966) closed down in recent years. Although the restaurant replacing it -The Five Fields - is excellent, the experience of sitting where David Hemmings and Peter Bowles once did has been lost forever.

Jim

#4 is a carillon, not a glockenspiel. Just saying... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C...

John

If you live in Westminster CC, the Abbey is free:
https://citysave.westminster.g...

andypandy

" Londoners can no longer sit on a Circle Line train for as long as they
like, going round and round, getting off only when, for example, they
have finished their book. London’s equilibrium has changed for ever, and
the Tube is a slightly less special place because of it." WTFFF??? are you being serious??? why would you want to spend your spare time on a stinky train anyways??? this is borderline ridiculous.

Pinkstarbuck

I'm surprised the Trocadero isn't on this list. When I was a kid in the 90s, it was a place of wonder. Nickelodeon had its TV studio there and I was always insanely jealous whenever I saw somebody I knew pressed up against the studio window behind the presenters, grinning like an idiot. Sega world was there too, and later Alien Wars...it was the place to go in the summer. Fast forward 20 years and I started working in the HMV at the foot of Troc'. We may not have been as glamorous as the bigger London stores but we had a good footfall of customers still, although sadly the rent on the building killed us off in March when HMV went into administration. You could argue the Troc' died when they closed Sega World, or even when they killed off the Namco arcade. But for me, it died the second we found out we were on the "hundred HMVs to close" list. Now The old store is a horrid tourist trap, selling overpriced souvenirs that everybody else in the area is selling. Also? The T shirt run on the right side of the wall used to be our gents staff toilets, which would back up and flood every summer. Just so you know... :p

Bryan J. Maloney

M&M World? It MUST mean something different than what it would mean over here, so I looked it up.

Dear United Kingdom:

I am so very sorry.

Jonathan Wadman

A bit late to the party with these suggestions, but anyway: (1) queuing at bus stops and (2) roast chestnut vendors.

funkg

westminster abbey is still free if you attend one of the worships

westlake72

I have already started a campaing to save Hammersmith Flyover. Please join!
https://www.facebook.com/pages...

Kevin Drew

Aged 9 or 10 my mate and would buy a Red Rover and travel all over London, unaccompanied, The War Museum, The Zoo.....but best all, from Enfield Wash all the way to Heathrow....to watch the planes take off from the roof, round trip took all day! (1963)