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Travel & Holiday

London puts on the Fitz

History buffs and trendy types are slowly warming up to the little-known Fitzrovia
The Straits Times - May 15, 2012
By: Tan Shzr Ee
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London puts on the Fitz The Pollock\'s Toy Museum has almost every toy from all over the world. -- PHOTOS: EXEMPLAR, HEAVENLY

Somewhere in the heart of central London lies a village within a city defying easy categorisation.

Designers, artists and trendy media types rub shoulders with students on a budget who pillage hall breakfasts for lunch via sandwich bags. A secret vegetarian restaurant in a Taiwanese Buddhist temple housed in a Victorian church-like building does not quite fight for the same clientele as high-end Japanese diner Roka two minutes' walk away.

Film director Guy Ritchie is revamping two houses for a home on a fine Georgian square, while hospital staff go about their everyday business next door, knowing that home is a five-minute walk away in subsidised council housing.

Welcome to Fitzrovia, an otherwise historic district whose name has come into being only about 60 years ago. Nestling in a patch north of the famous Oxford Street thoroughfare and south of the regenerating Euston precinct, Fitzrovia is said to be bookended in the west by the stately townhouses of Baker Street and in the east by literary Bloomsbury.

But where Fitzrovia begins and ends still remains in dispute today, even as major property developers and investors such as Exemplar and Aviva are busy pounding foundations of luxury apartments in the heart of the district, next to rows of Georgian and Victorian buildings that still house age-old pubs and traditional English trades.

'It's a village with a very mixed demographic,' says local historian Ken Titmuss, who gives regular walking tours of the area.

'That's what is so attractive about the area. There are so many different communities of workers, students, tourists. What's really interesting is that many people still do live here and make it their home.'

Fitzrovia has a history that incorporates the poor and rich, the distinguished and plebeian. The name itself comes from one 18th-century nobleman Charles Fitzroy, who had rented out small tracts of land in the area to farmers, and gave his name to a conglomerate of distinguished Georgian houses surrounding a private park now called Fitzroy Square.

In the 1940s, poet Dylan Thomas is said to have coined the term Fitzrovia. Drinking in the Fitzroy Tavern pub on Charlotte Street, he had allegedly proclaimed to his writer friends who meet regularly there: 'We are in the Fitzroy Tavern, we are now Fitzrovians.'

Although not as well known as Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia has its fair share of literary, academic and artistic connections. Charles Dickens, John Constable, George Bernard Shaw, Karl Marx, Arthur Rimbaud and Virginia Woolf each had lived and worked in the area at various points of their lives.

On the same square where Ritchie has set up home, the English author Ian McEwan also has a residence. In fact, his award-winning novel, Saturday, is set in the exact location.

Today, Fitzrovia's intellectual connections continue in the form of an evolving demographic of students who sit out their tertiary education in university halls of the area appended to institutions such as University College London (UCL), the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In 1996, two undergraduates in UCL's Ramsay Hall (Maple Street) decided to take a historic break from their Greek, Latin and astronomy studies to jam on guitars in a tiny hostel room. The result was an artistic collaboration better known to the world today as the iconic Britpop act, Coldplay.

But Fitzrovia has other, older claims to musical fame. On Charlotte Street, a 1970s building masks the site of the old Scala Theatre which, before it burnt down in 1969, played host to The Beatles in their first film, A Hard Day's Night.

At the faux-gothic pub The King And Queen on Foley Street, a once unknown Bob Dylan sang his earliest songs to privileged audiences at a 1962 folk club meeting. On Margaret Street, a speakeasy venue once hosted the likes of The Who, Elvis Costello and Jimi Hendrix at the cusp of their careers.

'There are many strong musical connections in the area,' Mr Titmuss explains. 'Many important musicians of today began their careers here.'

Today, music, alcohol and conversation continue to live on in pop-up clubs and gigs serving every niche.

A Nordic bar is tucked away in an eerie cobbled street (Newman Passage), students continue to present the next big thing post-Coldplay in the underground bars of Great Titchfield Street and London's Okinawan diaspora strum their lutes after Saturday rehearsals in homey Japanese restaurants dotting the area (Wells Street, Goodge Street).

The multicultural aspect of Fitzrovia is not only a function of London's larger cosmopolitan development as an international city, but also related to the fact that historically, the area has not been owned by a single landlord.

Rather, it has been carved up slowly by different social classes: first by the gentry, then by farmers, followed by tradesmen, poorhouses, office workers, students, graffiti artist Bansky and, more recently, a trendy set of designers, architects, fashion industry pundits and media companies.

Major media and design groups such as TimeOut, Dennis, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, Make Architects, Arup and Saatchi & Saatchi have set up offices in the area.

Restaurateurs and property developers have also been quick to jump in on its expanding potential, targeting not only a tourist market but also a changing demographic of local residents.

Mr Gavin Sung, a director at global estate agent Savills, which is launching high-end residential complex Fitzroy Place around the world this month, says the latest residents of Fitzrovia might well be Chinese and South-east Asian investors taking advantage of profitable exchange rates and the village- within-a-city's central location to snap up second homes for their children.

'The attraction of Fitzrovia is that it's in the middle of everything - the universities, businesses, shopping, museums. But it's also a place where people can and do live.'

Indeed, the area's already diverse mix of longer-term residents has been campaigning for the retention of unique features of the buildings, even as they have also welcomed new faces and economic injections into their neighbourhood.

In 1970, local residents successfully campaigned for more housing in the area to prevent the dilution of community spaces amid the encroaching of offices and businesses.

Today, tough zoning and conservation laws keep alive the unique profile of Fitzrovia as a living, eating, working, studying and partying hub.

Graphic designer Harriet Miller, who has lived and worked in the area for more than six years, puts it this way: 'We're right in the middle of central London here and it's full of noise, colour and traffic. I have access to everything I want.

'But you have alleyways and underground cafes and all these cute little stores, it's like a pocket of secret space hidden in plain sight.'

WHAT TO SEE

The ugly BT Tower on Howland Street is actually worth a visit, if only because it was the symbol of central post-war London for the longest time, on account of its then skyscraping height of 177m.

It is officially not in use now, but came to life last year on the eve of Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton, when a message from its famous blinking tower cheekily proclaimed on behalf of BT: 'Go on, Will, give her a ring.'

If tracking down literary and historic sites is your thing, Fitzrovia is chock-a- block with plaques and stories commemorating glamorous ex-residents. Look out for these on Cleveland Street, Foley Street, Charlotte Street and others.

Keep your eyes peeled for a rat looking up at the famous words: 'If graffiti changed anything, it would be illegal' on a nondescript wall on Clipstone Street.

Yes, Banksy has struck Fitzrovia and its enterprising residents have glass- plated his mark here, just in case fellow artists decide to add their stamp alongside it.

WHAT TO EAT

High-end: Fancy-schmancy raw fish in a nouveau Japanese setting is served in the swanky and crowded Roka at 37 Charlotte Street (tel: +020-7580-6464, www.rokarestaurant.com)

Exquisite northern Spanish fare presented in the embrace of gorgeous blue-and-white porcelain tiles in underground dens can be found at Navarro's at 67 Charlotte Street (tel: +020-7637- 7713, www.navarros-tapas-london. co.uk).

If you want British fare, check out the new Riding House Cafe at 43 Great Titchfield Street (tel: +020-7927-0840, www.ridinghousecafe.co.uk ) with its fresh cuts of beef, fish and poultry.

Mid-range: They are almost seedy- looking but pull their punches, Japanese- style, if the constant throng of Fitzrovia's authentic salary men outside their doors are proof of anything.

Check out Yoisho Izakaya at 33 Goodge Street (tel: +020-7323-0477) and bar-grill Soho Japan at 52 Wells Street (tel: +020-7323-4661, www.sohojapan. co.uk ).

If you want British food, there is always fish and chips at The Chippy at 38 Poland Street (tel: +020-7434-1933) and Gigs at 12 Tottenham Street (tel: +020-7636-1424).

Cheap: Students will know this one - freshly baked and huge pizzas for £3.50 (S$7) at Italian Coffee Company at 46 Goodge Street (tel: +020-7580-9688, icco.co.uk).

WHERE TO STAY

Feeling flush? Then the first ports of call should be the Charlotte Street Hotel (15-17 Charlotte Street, tel: +020- 7806-2000, www.firmdale.com/london/ charlotte-street-hotel) and Sandersons (50 Berners Street, tel:+020-7300- 1400, www.sandersonlondon.com ), where you can do celebrity-spotting while munching on your breakfast eggs made to order.

Otherwise, there are three-star outlets, budget guesthouses and hostels at Hallam Street (No. 12, tel: +020-7580- 1166, www.hallamhotel.com ) and Bolsover Street (YHA at 104-108, tel:+087-0770-6144; or Nos. 20-28 Grange Fitzrovia, tel: +020-7636-5085, www.grangehotels.com/hotels-london/grange-fitzrovia-hotel/location.aspx).

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