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Leicester Square is the first place most tourists go to when they arrive in London and it’s usually the first place they get tired of. As the almost literal centre of London (the actual centre, where all distances are measured from, is the statue of Charles I, the king who lost his head, by Charing Cross Station) it’s hard to avoid, but Londoners tend to hurry through looking a bit sheepish.
Historical influences on Leicester Square
This isn’t a new thing. Leicester Square has long had a bad reputation. The writer Harold P. Clunn notes in his book, The Face of London, that the square in Victorian times was full of “pots, kettles, old clothes, cast-off shoes, dead cats and dogs.” Worse was to come during World War Two, when Admiral Sir Edward Evans wrote: “Leicester Square at night is the resort of the worst type of women and girls consorting with men of the British and American forces, with the latter predominating. At night the square, with its garden, is apparently given over to the most vicious debauchery.”
But when the bombs are falling you might as well enjoy yourself. Over on Leicester Place one of those bombs fell on the church Notre Dame de France which had been serving French Catholics since 1868. After the war it was rebuilt in an amazing light-filled modernist style with works by contemporary artists including striking murals of the crucifixion by Jean Cocteau.
The circular building that houses Notre Dame de France was originally a Panorama, a kind of theatre. Wherever you go there are reminders that Leicester Square has long been the heart of London’s entertainment district: from the statues of William Shakespear and Charlie Chaplin to the ticket booths and gaudy picture palaces.
One of the most interesting cinemas is the Prince Charles just behind the square. Here they show a mixture of new movies, arthouse films and old classics. Particularly popular are themed nights where the audience dresses up for films such as Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, where you might be lucky enough to see dozens of bearded Australians in drag.
Taste the hidden pleasures
There’s more Australian action underground at the Cork & Bottle wine bar just at the entrance to the square. Sandwiched between a takeaway and a sex shop, this wine bar was one of the first places to introduce Australian wine to London back in the 1970s. It’s still going strong; try their famous cheese and ham pie with a good bottle of shiraz.
Talking of food, don’t dismiss Chinatown as a tourist trap like so many Londoners do. Try Imperial China for authentic Dim Sum or Hung’s on Wardour Street for budget-busting noodles, pork and roast duck.
After the bustle of Chinatown, it’s time for a change of pace. Opposite Leicester Square Underground Station is Cecil Court, a pedestrian-only street lined with shops selling rare first editions, antiquarian maps and collectables of every kind. Graham Greene wrote “thank God Cecil Court remains Cecil Court”. And to this day it remains a haven of peace right in the centre of London.