The suffix ~wych, (or ~wick, or ~wich) is common in London place names and denotes a marketplace; Chiswick was where you’d go to buy cheese and Gatwick specialised in goat meat, but Aldwych is the grandfather of them all. Literally ‘old marketplace’, this one-way street stands approximately at the centre of Saxon Lundenwic, which flourished from the 5th century onwards
After the Romans left in 407, the old city walls were crumbling and, rather than seek to repair them, the Saxon settlers decided to build a new capital to the West. It was known as Ludenwich and soon became the most important settlement in the south. It may surprise readers to discover quite how small Ludenwich was, compared to the city sprawling in every direction as we recognise it today. The Thames marked the southern boundary of Lundenwic and it stretched north only as far as where Holborn tube station is today. To the east it ended at the River Fleet (approximately Fleet Street) and it curved southwestwards around the river, only as far as the modern Admiralty Arch. At its peak in the 8th Century, the population of Lundenwich was less than 10,000.
Aldwych was only ever the name of a district, not a particular road, and many small passages converged on open spaces. One notable area was Ficket’s Croft which was somewhere in the region of the LSE buildings and its adjunct Tweezer’s Alley. In 1235, a blacksmith called Walter Le Bruin was granted this land by King Henry III for the purpose of training the steeds of the Knights Templar. Since this was a mutually-reciprocal arrangement, the King did not want to charge rent, but was legally obliged to do so. It was decided that Le Bruin would pay six horseshoes and 61 nails (ten for each shoe plus one spare) for the privilege. This was known as a “quitrent” and it was to be collected annually in perpetuity by an official known as the King’s Remembrancer. In a curiously British quirk which is brilliant and bonkers in equal measure, this rite still happens every year. (Even though Le Bruin is long dead, the Knights Templar were disbanded in 1312, and nobody knows exactly where Ficket’s Croft was.)
The Ceremony of Quitrents is the second-oldest legal ceremony in England (after the Coronation) and it takes place in the nearby Royal Courts of Justice in late October; a few tickets are made available to members of the public. Herein a representative of the City of London duly offers the Queen’s Remembrancer six giant horseshoes along with the nails. The official (currently Barbara Fontaine) counts them, says “Good number” and the ceremony is complete. This set of shoes and nails is then loaned back to the city, so they can be used again the following year. The same six horseshoes have been going back and forth now for 656 years.
Although the name ‘Aldwych’ is very, very old, the street itself only dates back to 1905 when it was built (along with Kingsway) to provide a smart streetscape instead of the previous higgledy maze of courts and alleys.
By this time London was, of course, much larger and the population had reached 6,226,494 (today it is more like 8.8million). Clearly a new and efficient roadway was needed, especially given the exciting recent introduction of affordable motor vehicles. The engineer behind this project was Laurence Gomme who envisaged a grand thoroughfare with aspirational commerce in keeping with the zeitgeist. But then the War came.
Nowhere in Central London escaped the enemy onslaught of WWI, and Aldwych was mercilessly targeted by zeppelin raids, with six direct hits causing death and destruction to the new development. It wouldn’t be until 1935 that the street as we see today was finished. However, bleakly, the 1940s brought yet more misery and much of the street was again destroyed by aerial bombardment.
Happier times for Aldwych came in 1949 when the first London production of Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ opened here, with the Oscar-winner Vivien Leigh in the starring role as Blanche DuBois. So heralded was the performance of Lady Olivier that it was made into a film for which she received her second Academy award for Best Actress, thus surpassing her husband’s single acting Oscar. Vivien Leigh had a fondness for Covent Garden as a whole, and especially Aldwych. Her epitaph in St Paul’s Church on the Piazza features these lines from Anthony and Cleopatra: “Now boast thee death, in thy possession lies a lass unparallel’d”.
Another aspect of Aldwych is the disused tube station which was formerly called Strand Station and which has been vacant since the last service left on 30 September 1994. The station is still kept in good order with a working train on the tracks, it has also had a number of interesting guises. Aldwych tube was used during wartime to keep treasures from the British Museum safe, it has also been used as a filming location for dozens of TV and film adaptations including Superman IV, The Krays, V for Vendetta and Sherlock. The platform is said to be haunted by the tortured soul of a Victorian actress; she has been seen by line managers working late at night as she glides down at track level. Nobody knows exactly why she chose such an empty place to haunt, perhaps she is waiting for the ghost train.
Last but not least, the Waldorf Hilton is an iconic landmark on the street. Built with a steel girder structure it was erected in just 18 months and opened in 1908 with a glittering Champagne reception. The hotel followed the American tradition of offering more than just a room but also a place to drop in for dinner, afternoon tea or a drink. Shockingly the first of many tangos was performed in the Palm Court which scandalised Edwardian society. Its range of innovative features, that we take for granted today, included electric bedside lights, three elevators, central heating and a telephone in every room.
Above the Aldwych, Radio; the Rooftop Bar at the ME London hotel, enjoys an impressive view over London’s skyline from its position high above the street. It is a popular spot all year round for delicious cocktails, great music and impressive views. And this winter Radio has introduced an exciting new Alpine experience to their rooftop bar. Welcome to Après with a View.
Make sure you pick up your ski pass before heading up to Radio for this fun and unique seasonal experience. The cabanas have been reworked to look like cable cars with tables, candles and faux fur throws, replicating the feeling of being on the slopes at exclusive venues such as La Foile Douce in Val d’Isere. It really is London’s ultimate winter destination and a unique way to enjoy one of the very best views in London. With Valentine’s Day in mind just think what an amazing venue this could be for a romantic date.
Each cable car can seat up to ten guests for winter cocktails and seasonal food. Launched in December Après with a View will be available into the Spring.
The cost to hire the chalet is £650 plus 12.5% service for a maximum of ten guests, and includes a Magnum of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, a 70cl bottle of Grey Goose with mixers and large sharing platters of seasonal dishes from the new menu. Maximum dwell time is three hours.