Sunday, 10 March 2013

How the faces of London's West End shopping districts have changed over time

Although you can go shopping in a variety of places in Europe and the UK, the most famous UK shopping destination is Oxford Street in the West End of London, which is supposedly the longest shopping street in Europe, as the street stretches to an impressive mile and a half long.

Woman with bags
Free image: freedigitalphotos.net
Before Oxford Street became the street we know today, it was called Tyburn Road because of the river Tyburn which could be found running underneath the Road. It became popular as a thoroughfare when it started to be used as a road to move prisoners between Newgate Prison and Tyburn Tree so that the prisoners could be hanged there. Tyburn Tree is now known as the Marble Arch.

It was the Earl of Oxford who changed the street's name in the eighteenth century, and it was also the Earl who changed the street into an area for shopping. Oxford Street was bombed during the Second World War, but this didn't impede the Street's recovery for too long. Now, you can see Christmas lights on the streets every year, and congestion at Oxford Circus has been eased due to a redesign of the pedestrian crossings in 2009.

In the eighteenth century, there was also a lively market at Covent Garden's famous Piazza. The design of the Piazza was altered in the nineteenth century by Charles Fowler so that it became a Market Building. The change meant that the Piazza lost its open plan layout, and instead became home to a complex of buildings.

In the nineteenth century you could find a series of residential arcades by Inigo Jones, although none now survive. Henry Clutton did try to recreate them when he designed buildings for the ninth Duke of Bedford in the 1870s, but to no avail. The Piazza underwent many rebuilds and redesigns over the years, and the main focal point of the site is now the Market Building, where you can find an array of shops and restaurants.

GLC architects designed the Market Building, and oddly enough they found that they had to excavate the building's southern hall to comply with fire safety regulations. This means that you can find shops on the basement floor of the building. They also added lanterns with pineapples on top of them as a way of recognising the building's previous history.

Another top shopping area in the West End is the Seven Dials, which consists of seven streets. Initially they were called Little and Great Earl Street, Little and Great White Lyon Street, Queen Street, and Little and Great St. Andrew's Street, but over the years their names have changed to Earlham Street, Mercer Street, Shorts Gardens, and Monmouth Street.

The centrepiece of the Seven Dials was made by stonemason Edward Pierce at the end of the seventeenth century and is entitled the Sundial Pillar. Pierce crafted six sundials that sit atop the piece, with the ornament's column representing the seventh 'Dial' of the area. It was received warmly by the public and was much loved.