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@.

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Article by Tom Bolton | 31 Articles | View Profile

  • 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.

    • Tom Bolton

      A sort of present from TfL

  • Guirilandia

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

    • MattFromLondonist

      I’m actually a fan of M&Ms world. Not for what they sell, or do, or what they stand for…but just the fact that such a place can exist and thrive. It’s remarkable. A wonder of the age.

      • Guirilandia

        That place’s success it’s definitely a phenomenon to study, but it makes me lose faith in human race.

      • London Historians

        Matt! I guess a bit like the dog walking on its hind legs “not that it is done well, but that it is done at all” (Dr Johnson)

        • Robbie

          It’s absolutely fucking terrible, come on. I remember the first time my mum ever showed me the bird that appeared from the little clock thing they used to have as a kid, and it completely blew my mind. So, so, so sad to see it go.

          • London Historians

            Please don’t misconstrue, I hate it too.

        • Ben

          Great quote, but he first said it in reference to women preachers, somewhat sadly.

          • London Historians

            It is, so best not to waste it. A shame about the context, sure, but let’s cut the guy a bit of slack, it being about 250 years ago.

    • Anna

      I couldn’t agree more. I scoff every time I have to walk past that foul smelling monstrosity. It’s disgusting to watch people go in there and pay money for crap they don’t need (priced at £££ above its value just because of the stupid brand).

    • Andrea Vail

      Nothing says ‘I’m not from around here’ like one of those yellow M&M’s World bags ;D

      • Pinkstarbuck

        Those bloody bags fall apart as soon as a bit of rain touches them. I used to take great amusement in watching tourists lose their precious chocolate because of it :p

    • Gemma

      I’m sure that abomination of a shop isn’t even profitable – just look at the huge space they occupy, think of the rent that must cost… Even if gullible tourists buy a few hundred grams of overpriced M&Ms or merchandise each, that’s not gonna do it.
      What it really is? A massive in-your-face marketing tool for the brand. I don’t think it has to be thriving.

    • sarah

      its a great attraction that makes money

      • george

        everything you put there makes money, so there’s no reason to build such a horrible building

    • http://www.oldworldcreative.com/ Evan

      Leicester Square is a disgrace full stop.

    • Kay

      I agree fully, the W hotel on top of it is also a disgrace. How ugly they’ve turned the once incredible art deco hub of London.

      Unfortunately though, such eye thorns do have an audience amongst the millions of tourists flocking to the city every year, which is a shame.

      What is more outstanding is that such garbage can easily get planning permission and go ahead, yet some other remarkable plans in London and Westminster where flat out rejected for what can only be described as futile reasoning.

  • ianveganoption
  • 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.

    • Tom Bolton

      It had a basement restaurant? Why was I not told?

      • kylet

        Brilliant restaurant it was too.

    • Marina Organ

      Vyner Street is still full of galleries.

  • 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.

    • Tom Bolton

      Brilliant, thanks. I was hoping this piece would find me a new Soho Italian.

  • 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!

    • Tom Bolton

      Flyover comments not really tongue in cheek. Architecturally I do think it’s very under-rated. However, I’m not volunteering to live under it.

      • London Historians

        Ah, forgive me. I suppose one takes utilitarian things for granted architecturally. Probably overshadowed by nearby church and the London Ark (which a lot of people dislike: not me).

  • 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.

    • Martin S

      But the Astoria, LA2 etc only existed *because* of Crossrail; British Rail had the site down for demolition from the first attempt at Crossrail in the 1970s, which left the building unmodernised and available at cheap rent to be the downmarket venue it was – I spent my twenties Friday and Saturday nights at G-A-Y in the Astoria; I miss the venue enormously, but by its nture its days were always numbered.

    • LH

      Agreed. Such a shame that some over priced rubbish removed one of the best venues in London. Astoria was just the perfect size (not too big nor too small) and with a great sound system and great location.

      • Rich

        Astoria had *the worst* sound system in London, at least until the moved the mixing desk upstairs when it vastly improved. It was legendary because it was the first stop for all great bands from over the other side of the pond, but I saw a fair few sets ruined there, not least Megadeth which was the single worst sound I’ve ever heard at a gig, with classic songs genuinely unrecognisable until the chorus! Still legendary for bands you got to see there before they were huge and for relatively intimate gigs for huge bands (I saw Rage Against the Machine and Black Sabbath there!!!), and the hellish experience of 2,000 sweaty people squeezing single file out of one staircase as 500 people queued for the cloackroom! LA2 on the other hand made a monstrous noise!

  • 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….

    • Tom Bolton

      Or an entirely deserted, semi-derelict South Bank.

    • London Historians

      Haven’t been for a while, but I suspect WC is probably still nearly empty. Must get over there soon to check.

  • Martin Davies

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

    • Tom Bolton

      You’re quite right about that – apologies.

      • Marina Organ

        And it’s still got galleries in it. Not for much longer if this myth keeps being spread around.

  • 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!

    • BJD

      Currently being restored and update to house The Design Museum for 2014!

  • 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.

    • BJD

      If meeting more mature friends we still refer to it as Peter Robinson’s, otherwise always met outside Shelly’s.
      Both totally impractical places to meet!

  • 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…

    • Richard

      Check out http://www.saveoursubways.org
      We have handkerchiefs at the ready if it all goes horribly wrong and space (all be it badly signposted and poorly cleaned) is taken away from pedestrians and we’re forced to wait to cross 5 lanes of traffic.

  • 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!

    • Ben

      From the article: “Vyner Street still has galleries, but it is no longer London’s one-stop art shop.”

      Do some reading!

  • https://twitter.com/cheapflightstri cheap flights Trip

    great article. London is very expensive city.

  • Carolyn Malsher

    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

    • MattFromLondonist

      That one can still be sort-of done at Kew station.

  • 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/Carillon

  • John

    If you live in Westminster CC, the Abbey is free:
    https://citysave.westminster.gov.uk/culture-and-entertainment/?id=73

  • 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.

    • Tom Bolton

      The whole bus stop queuing issue has always puzzled me. How did
      queues ever work at bus stops, such as the ones near me in Streatham, where 8 different routes stop and everyone wants a different bus? I think a queue only makes sense at the simplest stops.

      Chestnuts – I did see roast chestnuts last winter, but I can’t quite remember where it was. Near County Hall possibly?

  • funkg

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