London's Italian Street: Sicilian Avenue

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 78 months ago

Last Updated 11 January 2018

London's Italian Street: Sicilian Avenue

'Sicilian Avenue' proclaim the gold-embossed arches bookmarking each end of this Grade II listed pedestrian cut-through. If you've ever noticed them, chances are it was from the top of a double-decker bus crawling past on Southampton Row or Bloomsbury Way, the two main roads this diagonal street connects. You'd barely notice the signs from the ground.

The name Sicilian Avenue evokes images of lemon trees and al fresco dining, sunshine and a slower pace of life, but you'll find none of those here. Actually, that's a lie — life slows right down here. At 11am on a Wednesday, life's so slow it's almost non-existent.

Less Sicily, more Pompeii

Of the 12 shop premises on the street, only one is open — the florist, Stems of Holborn, whose dahlias and roses throw much needed colour out onto those grey modern paving slabs. On our second wander through, we notice a sandwich shop is open too — oh, and the opticians, and the hairdressers, and a men's clothing shop. None of them exactly scream 'welcome', the lights dim, a grill across the door of one, no boards or signs outside. We suspect the rules around these parts don't allow for such frivolities — the pavement outside the Holborn end of the street is awash with sandwich boards advertising the business within. On the Avenue itself, nothing.

Same old signs

Uniformity is big around here — all the hanging shop signs are identical, no space for individual logos, colours or fonts. Each shop window is a standard square bay window. Only three have any form of window display. This misfired attempt at class and sophistication results in characterlessness, a situation not helped by the lack of people around. We spot one woman entering the hairdressers, a couple of businessmen using it as a cut-through, and a young cyclist showing flagrant disregard for the 'No Cycling' signs at each end.

Three of the Avenue's shops are completely empty: Patisserie Valerie upped and left just a couple of weeks before our visit; office design workshop Labs is coming soon (a sign we're in 21st century Holborn); the third empty shop seems to be long-term vacant, with no indication of what it once was or what it might become. That doesn't mean it escapes the uniformity rule though:

Gold lettering and bistro-style wooden stalls in corner craft pub the Holborn Whippet add an air of faded grandeur, but that's the only whiff of character we can squeeze out.

Six industrial umbrellas line the centre of the thoroughfare, soldiers standing to attention, waiting to be put at ease. The wind whistling through here suggests they'll have a long wait yet. Three curvaceous black metal lampposts do their best to evoke a sense of glamour, but their surroundings just won't play along.

Where did it come from?

And yet... someone's put a lot of effort into designing this street. Those signs at the end are just a hint at the glamour inside. It's lined with ornate stone pillars — 10 on the short side of the street, 15 on the longer side. Turrets and bay windows are prevalent, both at street level and above, where you'll find the sort of offices that call themselves 'chambers', and flats that call themselves 'mansions'. Oh yes, we're definitely in Bloomsbury.

That someone who designed it was architect R J Worley, with Sicilian Avenue built between 1906-1910. The name reflects the architectural style he used, a tenuous link to the eponymous Italian island. Rumour has it that it was the first purpose-built pedestrianised street in London. Very little is known about Robert Worley, or his fellow architect and brother Charles Worley, but their names hardly scream 'Italian'. Perhaps they never saw Sicily, let alone hailed from it. Perhaps London's 'Italian street' is a big lie.

So is anything actually Italian here?

The most Italian offering in the vicinity is a branch of Spaghetti House, and while some may laugh at the description of this tourist-friendly mini-chain as Italian, it does at least have its roots in Italy, even if its Nutella pizza isn't exactly how the Italians do it.

There's no doubt that Sicilian Avenue was once a grand affair — and of a summer evening, with alfresco dining and drinking to bring it alive, it still is. But beyond that, the street seems almost ashamed to exist, aware that it bears a name whose boots it'll never fill, so it shirks round the back streets of Bloomsbury, trying not to draw attention to itself. In many ways, it's reminiscent of the Royal Exchange, the upmarket shopping centre in the City which has been rendered soulless, despite its 350 year history.

We'll have to come again in the summer.

Sicilian Avenue, Holborn, WC1A 2QH