Fitzrovia in London is like a bad-boy movie star, impossibly good looking and utterly charming with a roguish streak that only adds to its appeal. Nearby West End may be better known but this area of London bordered by Tottenham Court Road, Great Portland Street, Euston Road and Oxford Street is a must visit. In less than two hours it’s possible to follow in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell and still have time for a pint at the Fitzroy Tavern, the pub which gave the area its name. Fitzrovia’s compact size and colourful history make it ideal to explore on foot. It seems like every step on my Fitzrovia London walking tour comes with a fascinating story about the colourful characters which made the area what it is today.
Fitzrovia was once famous – and still is – for being the hub of London’s creative and intellectual worlds, a meeting place for the writers, artists and poets who have embraced the bohemian nature of this area since the early 20th century. The Langham London provides guests with an MP3 player loaded with a complimentary self-guided walking tour of Fitzrovia. My tour starts outside The Langham. Oscar Wilde was dining at this hotel when an American publisher commissioned him to write one of his most famous stories, ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’. Wilde was one of a group of sociable, hard drinking artists who went on to form the Fitzroy Street Group, a lively gang who spent each afternoon doing a pub crawl of the many local taverns.
Directly across the road from the hotel is the famous art-deco BBC building where George Orwell used to work. Around the corner in Mortimer Street is the first pub on the tour. The George was a popular drinking spot for Dylan Thomas and most of the orchestra from ‘The Proms’. Long suffering conductor Henry Wood called it ‘The Gluepot’ because he couldn’t get his players out of it. These days it is rumoured that Danii Minogue and her friends enjoy dropping in for a pint.
We pass the hospital where junior pop royalty is born – all the Spice Girls gave birth at The Portland Hospital – and keep walking until we reach another tavern, the Marquis of Granby which is quickly followed by the Newman Arms, one of George Orwell’s favourite pubs. For the first 100 years the Newman Arms only had a beer license and Orwell, being a beer aficionado, greatly approved of the pub’s lack of other drinks. He showed his admiration by basing scenes from his famous novel ‘1984’ here. The upstairs pie room at this tavern is a Fitzrovia favourite, serving everything from suet specialties to steak and kidney, and is a popular choice for lunch.
Nearby is the King & Queen pub where Bob Dylan often played and The Duke of York which was most likely named after Prince Frederick, Duke of York whose unfortunate lack of combat experience as a field commander made him the subject of the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’. It’s not long before the tour reaches the British Museum which holds over twelve million items but exploring its vast collection is an adventure for another day. I walk past some famous restaurants including Bertorelli’s Italian Restaurant which featured in the movie ‘Sliding Doors’ and the elegant Elena’s L’Etoile which opened in 1904, before walking into one of the finest Georgian squares in London.
Fitzroy Square was built by a couple of well-known English architects who were akin to modern day property developers, but their speculative venture was thwarted by the Napoleonic Wars and it took over 30 years for construction to be completed. The square looks very much as it did in the 1800s except for the bright red geraniums cascading out of the window boxes outside the houses and small blue plaques detailing who once lived at each address.
One of the prettiest is number 29 which was home to playwright George Bernard Shaw before he got married. Virginia Woolf moved into the fine Georgian house not long after he left. In the centre of the square is a private central garden filled with towering plane trees which were planted in Victorian times to combat pollution. The garden has been maintained by a committee of local residents since it was built in the early 19th century and can be visited for a few months each year when the locked gates are opened to the public.
The tour winds back down Charlotte Street to the famous Fitzroy Tavern which was built in 1883 and originally opened as a coffee house. It was converted to a pub called ‘The Hundred Marks’ a few years later to cater to the large local population of German immigrants. After the first World War, when all things German became unpopular, the name was changed to the Fitzroy Tavern. It’s a classic London pub which has a real sense of history, particularly in the Writers and Artists Bar downstairs. Photographs of famous faces enjoying a drink in the cosy confines of the bar line the walls beside my seat. I buy a pint and raise my glass to George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and the rest of the bohemians who helped to make Fitzrovia such a fascinating place to visit.
Disclaimer: The writer was a guest of the Langham London.