EPHEMERA: Hidden History: From the doorstep of the Leonard Hotel

This was a piece of copywriting written for the Leonard Hotel in London, which six months later appears to have gone unused, and as I rather enjoyed the research process, I’d rather it was shared here than languished on my hard drive.


History From Our Doorstep

The city of London is steeped in history: wherever you walk in the city, your feet will be crossing above the buried remains of centuries. If you are visiting London you may well be seeking out some of the grand landmarks of English history. Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Westminster, the Tower of London—there’s more than enough to keep you stamping around the capital for weeks.

The Leonard Hotel is in the very heart of historical London. There are volumes of history to be found in the tangle of streets just a few steps from our door.

Stand on our front step. Elegant lamp-posts stand on either side of you, iron railings in front. Above you, the balconies of the upper windows look out from the face of a hotel that, over a century ago, was once four Georgian houses. To the south-west, Marble Arch stands on the corner of Hyde Park, proudly marking the end of Park Lane. To the east you’ll reach the grand doors of Selfridges, and a little further on, the elaborate facades of Regent Street. Centuries of history can be seen from the very doorstep of the Leonard Hotel, and it’s only a short trip back to it.

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The 1940s

War has come to the country and the capital. England’s war with Germany—the second war to end all wars—rages on. At night, German planes blast across the night skies, their bombs seeking out any light not distinguished. The children are on trains, out to the farm and villages in the country for safekeeping. Rationing has taken hold. On the radio, Vera Lynn sings about the white cliffs of Dover.

The Park Lane area emerged from the Blitz almost completely unscathed; the damage never reached the doors of The Leonard Hotel. Others were not so lucky. A few streets away, Selfridges’ roof terrace was destroyed in an air raid. It had been the decadent home of a dancefloor, a golf course and an all-female gun club, but after the war it was never to be rebuilt.

For all the danger of the Blitz, hotels were known as the place of safety: five star refuges from the bombs. Their wartime guests included refugee European royalty, deposed monarchs such as King Peter of Yugoslavia and King Zog of the Albanians, government ministers fleeing Nazi rule, arms-dealers, con-artists, British cabinet ministers, and spies. A woman by the name of Stella Lonsdale was hosted in the Waldorf by MI5, on suspicion of being a double agent. When interrogated, she confounded her captors by, essentially, talking dirty to them. In his report, her interrogator said it ‘could not be submitted owing to its indescribably filthy nature.’

Many hotels, built of strong concrete with solid foundations and underground facilities, became safe havens in the Blitz. The Savoy painted its windows dark blue to avoid allowing out telltale light. Their underground dance hall housed wealthy upperclassmen and women in the raids, their mattresess outfitted with matching linen and pillowcases, and patrolled by a ‘snore monitor’ who ensured their sleep was not disturbed. The Dorchester was considered so safe that one man fought for a place inside by bribing a receptionist with a pair of nylon stockings. The Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane had such thick walls that the all clear could not be heard. To alert its guests, the band would sing the words ‘All clear! All clear!’ into whatever tune they were playing.

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The 1840s

The end of the Georgian era and the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. The city is clouded in smog and smoke. Buckingham Palace is being completed to honour the crowning of Victoria. In an age of propriety and church, the bare leg of a table is considered too suggestive of a woman’s, and must be covered with paper.

Although the Leonard Hotel is now only a street away from the world-famous Marble Arch, in the 1840s there was no such thing. The hotel was still a line of four grand Georgian houses and the pieces of Marble Arch were lying piece-meal in a corner of Hyde Park. Buckingham Palace was being extended and the Arch was disassembled from its original place at the entrance to the palace, and would be eight years before it was rebuilt at the head of Park Lane. Shortly after, Hyde Park was also the site of the Crystal Palace—only to be dismantled a few months later and moved.

Hyde Park itself was known as ‘the lungs of London’. It was possible to advertise a home near the site of the Leonard Hotel as ‘the most recherché in London, enjoying the varied scenery of the Park, the distant hills of Surry and the salubrious Air therefrom.’ Standing on our front-step, it’s quite likely you could have breathed in a lungful of the cleanest, coolest air in London.

A little over a decade earlier, the high walls of the park had been demolished and replaced with iron railings: for the first time, the public of London could see freely into the Park. In 1835, the last recorded duel in the city’s history occurred. The publisher of Fraser’s Magazine, based on the nearby Regent Street, was challenged by a disgruntled writer unhappy with the magazine’s review of his book. The men duelled with pistols and failed utterly to hit each other. The ridiculous show of smoke and bluster was a nail in the coffin of the fashion for duelling.

Two decades later, an occasion of more pride and ceremony, feet from the Leonard Hotel, Queen Victoria presided over the presentation of the first Victoria Crosses for bravery, decorating 62 men.

Hyde Park Corner circa 1790 by British School 18th century 1700-1799

The 1740s

The capital city has become a place of culture, art and learning, an ever-expanding city that homes the latest in science, industry and philosophy. It’s the age of the ‘dandies’: hair in ringlets known as ‘love-locks’ and ties with ribbons, rattling spurs on their boots despite not owning horses, and plasters hearts and diamonds stuck to their faces.

Now, the Leonard Hotel is in the heart of a bustling city, but stood on our doorstep in the 1700s you would have seen quite a different picture. The houses that would become the hotel were yet to be built and Park Lane, now a busy, metropolitan street, was a quiet, pastoral lane. It was one of the main roads into London, and as such it was seen fit that a small part of it—the northern part, near the site of the Leonard—should be paved. Further down, it became hazardous mud.

Hyde Park was a hotbed of activity. It was mostly a wilderness used for hunting, but an inner circle was tamed and gardened, known as the Ring, at the centre of which was ‘the Mince Pie House’ which sold, aside from the obvious, pigeon pie, ale and the best cheesecake in London. The Ring was a popular place for upper-class mingling. In his diary, Samuel Pepys was shocked to see women there who were dressed in men’s doublets and coats—most irregular. The Ring was known as a place to seek out and initiate romantic engagements; the famous Duchess of Cleveland passed a man known as Mr Wycherley in her carriage, leaning out of the window to shout ‘sir, you’re a rascal and a villain!’ Mr Wycherley took this to suggest he had a hope of courting her, arriving at her doorstep the next day. They were life-long companions.

From our spot a few streets away, this would have been invisible. The Park was hidden by eight-foot high walls, although this grand height did not stop a Mr Hyde vaulting the walls on his horse in 1792. He carried it out on a gamble and, presumably, won.

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The 1640s

Hyde Park is no longer a public park: instead, it is a walled-in private royal hunting ground. The city of London was a filthy, rotten collection of wooden buildings and muddy streets. Trying times were coming: the plague, and the great fire, and the slow rebuilding of the city.

Standing on the future site of the Leonard Hotel, the sight that would have greeted you in the 1600s would have been drastically more grim. In the spot where Marble Arch now stands was the infamous Tyburn Gallows. The largest gallows in London, it was shaped like a triangle and could be used to execute up to twenty-six people at once. It was frequently the last stand of political speakers, and convicts were permitted to make a final speech to the crowds about their views and beliefs. This tradition is the origin of “free speech” in England, and centuries later, the corner of Hyde Park is known as ‘speaker’s corner’.

The Tyburn Gallows has a grisly but star-studded history. In 1661, after the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dug up and posthumously hung. Five years later, the great fire of London swept across the city, originating from a bakery in Pudding Lane. It destroyed countless buildings, and ended many lives, but it did serve to end the plague. A few weeks later, Tyburn saw the hanging of a man who had admitted to starting the fire. It’s only years later that we know the man had nothing to do with it.

Roll the years back a little faster from the gruesome sight of the Gallows, and the city no longer stretches this far. In the eleventh century, London is just a small collection of towns by the river. Buried deep beneath the streets of Park Lane and Seymour Street will be the remains of England as it is now: a beautiful, green countryside, divided between three competing land owners, called Neyte, Eabury and Hyde. Park Lane is nothing more than just that: a beaten track leading towards the distant city of London.

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