Oxford Street revisited

Overloaded with chain stores, booby-trapped with charity muggers and heaving with human cattle – for Londoners, surely Oxford Street is hell on earth? Think again. Time Out makes a sales pitch for one of the capital‘s most vibrant and fascinating thoroughfares

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    John Lewis uses muted tiles

    The Oxford Street top ten: from oysters at Selfridges to free gigs at Virgin, ten great things to do on London's most famous thoroughfare

    About half way down the eastern end of Oxford Street, at number 213, above a tiny outlet of Zara, a trio of pretty reliefs commemorate the Festival of Britain of 1951. In the next block down is the imposing black marble art deco Pantheon building, currently housing a medium-sized Marks & Spencer; almost opposite is an ornate Queen Anne-style building, better known as an H&M.

    If you can see past the crowds, the tourist tack, the endlessly repeating chain stores and the wall of red busses, London’s most-derided street actually has a lot going for it. Moan if you like (you won’t be alone), but then try to imagine London without it.

    Cutting right across the heart of the city, Oxford Street runs for two miles, and houses more than 300 shops, many of which are international flagship stores. It is one of London’s top tourist attractions, though half of the West End’s 200 million annual visitors are actually Londoners, and with Bond Street and Regent Street takes more than £4.7 billion in a year. It’s the world’s fourth most expensive piece of real estate (behind the Avenue Champs Elysées, Fifth Avenue and Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay).

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    Marble Arch Marks & Spencer

    Shops like Marks & Spencer, New Look and Primark may have hundreds of branches elsewhere, but only in the Oxford Street flagships can you get their extended ranges; others such as NikeTown, Selfridges, Topshop and Virgin Megastore, pride themselves on making shopping here an event offering in-store exhibitions, gigs, bars, restaurants, manicures and blow-dries, and a weekly running club.

    Above the street-level clutter, it’s also a remarkably attractive street, the run of grand department store blocks of different eras at the western end of the street testament to its longevity as a major retail force. The most celebrated is Selfridges with its fluted Ionic columns and the blue inlay of the winged figure of Queen of Time shining in the sun. Primark’s new flagship at 499, (previously Alders), boasts a formal symmetrical façade styled by Edwin Lutyens.

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    The subtle concrete folds of Debenhams

    The 1930s Thistle Hotel on Bryanston Street (designed by Francis Lorne) is regarded as an exemplar of streamlined Dutch styling (note the ocean liner touches round the upper floors). The vertical fins of the vaguely art deco House of Fraser (318) and the more subtle concrete folds of Debenhams (334-348) though not in the best condition are still a pleasing discovery, both echoing the grander columns of Selfridges (400). John Lewis’s (278-306) muted green and yellow tiles and striking Barbara Hepworth sculpture reflect its spirit of quality and egalitarianism. The 1960s London College of Fashion at 20 John Princes Street (designed by London County Council architects) near Oxford Circus adds cool with sunny concrete terraces and Mondrian-style windows.

    As with most parts of our metropolis, it is incredible to think that less than 300 years ago this riotous place was all fields. The Tyburn Road as was, once part of a Roman highway linking the City to Oxford, essentially marked the northern edge of Regency London. Most famously used as the processional route to the Tyburn gallows (now Marble Arch), it was a less than salubrious location, revived only by the closing of the execution site in the 1750s.

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    London College of Fashion

    But by 1790 it was buzzing. Development of the Grosvenor Estate to the south and the Portman Estate to the north brought grand houses, shrewd traders, and international visitors. Coachmakers and leather workers proliferated, but there were also butchers, cheesemongers, and haberdashers. The decadent Pantheon (then a grand palace modelled on Istanbul’s Santa Sophia, burnt down in 1792) staged elaborate exhibitions, operas and entertainments. In 1786, German traveller Sophie von la Roche wrote: ‘Just imagine, a street taking half an hour to cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps, in the middle of which stands an equally long row of splendidly lit shopfronts in comfort. Up to 11 o’clock at night there are as many people along this street as at Frankfurt during the fair, not to mention the eternal stream of coaches.’

    And so it has continued. The opening of the Central London railway in 1900 brought four tube stations and suburban shoppers; the opening of Selfridges in 1909 triggered an influx of department stores and showmanship. HMV (opened at 363 in 1921 by Sir Edward Elgar and where the Beatles cut their first demo disc) and the 100 Club (established at 100 in 1942) brought rock ’n’ roll, jazz and punk.

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    Honeycomb facades above 354-358

    Today Oxford Street still teems with life, not all of it desirable. Around 172,000 people are estimated to pass through Oxford Circus station every day, London’s second busiest after Victoria, and 220 buses an hour travel in each direction along the street’s busiest section. Unsurprisingly the most common gripe against the street is overcrowding: on the pavements, on the road, in the shops, and on the underground.

    ‘Destination not thoroughfare” is our motto,’ says Jace Tyrell, head of marketing at the New West End Company (NWEC), a self-funded organisation uniting and representing landlords and tenants of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street. ‘It’s about not letting transport dominate. We are a world city. We compete with Paris and New York. We need to market and have events and attractions.’

    NWEC’s 80-page Action Plan, out for public consultation until May 27, advocates a £40m makeover of the West End. This includes better signage, maps, broader pavements, decluttering the street furniture by having a common family of styles, and more regulation of freesheet distributors and ‘charity muggers’. A ‘halo’ of light over Oxford Circus will act as a beacon for the area, complemented by light masts along south side of the street, architectural lighting to accentuate landmarks, and better Christmas lights. The entrances to New Bond Street, Dean Street and Hanway Street have been designated ‘oases’, paved areas and pedestrianised side streets which can offer alfresco dining, public art, sheltered seating and public toilets. A marketplace would be created on Great Titchfield Street and a performance space between John Lewis and House of Fraser.

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    The plaque on the original HMV store (now Foot Locker)

    While Oxford Street pits itself against the Champs Elysées, the Paris street has the distinction of running from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomf, on a direct axis with the Louvre; Oxford Street, less spectacularly, has Centre Point, Marble Arch and some tourist shops. Attention will therefore be paid to the gateways to the street with Hyde Park made more accessible with surface-level crossings replacing subways, possibly by early next year.

    Transport for London has pledged to replace buses with a tram running the length of the street by 2013 and the Department of Transport is committed to a Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road (on the site of the Astoria) by 2015. London Assembly Liberal Democrats have called for the street to be pedestrianised from Audley Street to Tottenham Court Road (considered impractical by NWEC, though there have been experiments with closing the road to traffic on Saturdays).

    To make the street less intimidating, NWEC has already introduced a team of Red Caps, uniformed ‘meeters and greeters’ on patrol to help lost tourists and answer questions. It also supplements Westminster Council’s street cleaners with its own ‘clean team’ removing gum and picking up litter. So, should the clean-up stretch to some of the street’s characters such as the blind violinist, disabled tin whistle player, language students forced to leaflet, and fervent religious groups out to convert?

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    The vaguely art deco House of Fraser boasts vertical fins

    Sally Humphreys, NWEC’s Head of Operations, is keen to keep at least some of the street’s character: ‘Are we going to get unpleasant with these people or accept that they are part of the fabric of Oxford Street and have been for some time? We have a right to free speech. They aren’t causing any harm – apart from the fact that they can’t play. We miss the chap who had the sandwich board [Stanley Green who died in 1993] about sin and protein.

    ‘True, we did take out an ASBO against the megaphone man [Time Out stalwart Phil Howard] but that was because he was not only amplified but he was being abusive to customers.’ The ‘Golf Sale’ board guys, however, are already starting to disappear and, from September, will be refused licences. ‘They are just more visual clutter; we don’t think they add anything to the ambience of the West End.’

    The worst problems lie toward the east. ‘The east side of Oxford Street is absolutely diabolical,’ says Tyrell. ‘It’s not acceptable for an international shopping street. There are lots of tatty shops. Quite frankly they’ve got to go.’

    The Action Plan earmarks several sites here for development, primarily numbers 149-213 (including the Pantheon and the nice reliefs) and the NWEC hopes to be able to dish out compulsory purchase orders on the absentee landlords who dominate this stretch. ‘There needs to be Crest of London [a souvenir shop] and the lower-price ranges like Primark. We d don’t want it to be full of places like Asprey; that wouldn’t be right,’ says Tyrell. ‘It’s about getting the right mix. There’s an opportunity for more independent retailers like in Soho. Something a bit edgier.’

    To reinforce its status as a desirable destination and a focal point for London life, the street is also hosting more events. City Showcase (4-8 June, www.cityshowcase.co.uk) will put on gigs and fashion shows across the West End. Selfridges is hosting a programme of Surrealism-themed events (until June 24) and, before Christmas, Banksy took over the old Clarks shoe shop with Santa’s Ghetto. Last December, shoppers were entertained by bands, acrobats, and ballons. A bigger event is planned for this December.

    Humphreys has worked on the street for more than 20 years, previously as head of the Oxford Street Association. ‘About ten years ago, there were about 30 empty units; now there are at least ten retailers going after every vacancy. If you have a big store in the UK, you have to have a flagship somewhere in the West End. But the biggest change is how retailers have invested in their stores. Selfridges was like Grace Brothers when I first started here.’

    What is so special about the street that it has kept her here so long? ‘It’s the sort of place where there’s always something happening. It’s always exciting; it’s never going to be totally sanitised. It’s quirky and eccentric. It’s just got this huge character that will never be suppressed. Over the years it’s been up and down, but at the moment it’s very much on an up.’

    The Draft Oxford, Bond and Regent Street Action Plan is open to public consultation until May 27. Information from www.westminster.gov.uk/orb . Plans are also on display at 10 Heddon St, May 12-13, and John Lewis, Oxford St, May 24. ‘Shop’, an exhibition at New London Architecture looking at the future of retail in London opens May 3-June 23. See Around Town. A series of associated breakfast talks kicks off with NWEC chief executive Gary Reeves on May 9.

    The Oxford Street top ten

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    In-store events at Selfridges

    1 Oysters and champagne at Selfridges

    There aren’t many good places to eat on Oxford Street, but Selfridges has 13. You could splash out on oysters and champagne at the Oyster Bar in the Food Court, nip to The Gallery on the 2nd floor for a salad or grab a gelati from the street vendor by the door.Selfridges, 400 Oxford St, W1A (08708 377 377/www.selfridges.com). Bond St tube. Open Mon-Wed 10am-8pm, Thur 10am-9pm, Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 9.30am-8pm, Sun 11.30am-6pm.

    2 Club nights at Metro

    After 11pm, this dank subterranean den plays host to a number of reliably no-frills alternative club nights. Choose from Tuesday nights’ metal-orientated Beautiful People to Friday’s long-running anthem-heavy indie disco Bedrock. On Wednesdays it’s the more up-to-date I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (which promises at least ten Arctic Monkeys tracks a night). Metro, 19-23 Oxford St, W1D (www.blowupmetro.com) Tottenham Court Rd tube. Tickets from Stargreen (020 7734 8932/www.stargreen.com).

    3 A blow-dry at Topshop

    This sartorial Mecca offers more than just a fashion fix. At Hersheson’s Blow Dry Bar you can pick a glamourous style from a choice of seven on their hair menu, each taking less than half an hour and for just £19. To complete the effect, grab yourself a quick manicure at the Nails Inc concession, from £15.Topshop, 216 Oxford St, W1D (020 7636 7700 /www.topshop.co.uk) Oxford Circus tube. Open Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Sat 9-8.30pm, Sun 11.30am-6pm.

    4 Stella McCartney at Adidas

    The sleek decor and toned staff here are enough to inspire (or possibly shame) anyone into a new fitness regime. Get ready for Wimbledon with a ’50s-inspired tennis dress from the Stella McCartney range , £95. Adidas, 415-418 Oxford St, W1C (020 7493 1886/www.adidas.com) Bond St tube. Open Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-7pm, Thur 10am-8pm, Sun 12noon-6pm.

    5 WC1 Powder Room

    Whether you want to get ready for a bignight out, freshen up before an important meeting or just get some respite from the crowds, this luxurious, multi-million-pound ladies’ convenience is a handy pit-stop. For £5 you can have a wash, use the impeccably clean toilet facilities, soft white towels and hand creams.WC1, 439-441 Oxford St, WC1 (www.wc1.co.uk) Bond St tube. Open Mon-Sat 8am-9pm, Sun 12noon-6pm. £1 for toilets and powder room, £5 with mini-makeover or hand masssages.

    6 Free gigs at Virgin and HMV

    Virgin has regular appearances from your favourite bands, comedians and movie stars. Previous visitors have included Lily Allen, Razorlight and comic geniuses Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (from ‘The Mighty Boosh’). Not to be outdone, HMV’s flagship store has boasted gigs lately by The View, The Enemy and Lostprophets.HMV, 300 Oxford St, W1C (0845 602 7802/www.hmv.co.uk) Bond St tube. Open Mon-Sat 9am-8.30pm, Sun 12noon-6pm.
    Virgin Megastore, 14-16 Oxford St, W1D (020 7631 1234/www.virginmegastores.co.uk) Tottenham Court Rd tube. Open Mon-Sat 9am-10pm, Sun 12noon-6pm.

    7 Borders’ in-store café

    Literary types and skint students all make use of this second-floor café which permits you to borrow books or magazines from anywhere in the store and browse them at your leisure. Definitely one of the best deals on Oxford Street. Borders, 203-207 Oxford St, W1D (020 7292 1600/www.bordersstores.com) Oxford Circus tube. Open Mon-Sat 8am-11pm, Sun 12noon-6pm.

    8 Cheap basics at Uniqlo

    Head to this Japanese store for cheap basics that won’t fall apart after one wash. If you hurry, you might find the winter cashmere collections still on sale with V-necked jumpers reduced to about £40. Uniqlo, Plaza Shopping Centre, 188 Oxford St, W1N (020 7734 5369/ www.uniqlo.com) Tottenham Court Rd tube. Open Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm, Sun 12 noon-6pm.

    9 Primark

    The new kid on the Oxford Street block is this 70,000 square-foot behemoth of a flagship store which sells the ranges not always found in the other branches, such as homewares and ceramics. Steer well clear during lunchtimes and school holidays. Primark, 499-517 Oxford St, W1K (020 7495 0420/www.primark.co.uk) Marble Arch tube. Open Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Sat 9am-8pm, Sun 12noon-6pm.

    10 Groovy gear at Mash

    Ageing ravers might remember Mash from the late ’80s and early ’90s when DJs such as Bryan G would play in-store sets. The scene died away but Mash kept a following from fans of other genres such as hip hop and drum ’n’ bass. Staffed by some of the coolest sales assistants in London , with a banging soundtrack and sale-rail selling clothes you’d actually want to wear, it has a cult following.Mash, 73 Oxford St, W1D (020 7434 9609) Tottenham Court Rd tube. Open Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat 10am-7pm, Thur 10am-8pm, Sun 11am-6pm.

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