The Strand – or correctly just Strand – is one of the most famous streets in London, referred to as such as long ago as 1185. The origin of the name is from the Old English for ‘shore’. Centuries ago this thoroughfare was literally riverside, before geographical changes and the building of the Embankment nudged it slightly inshore where Strand Palace now enjoys a prominent position.
So much of London’s history happened along this route, from its early years as a settlement, the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, followed by royal residences. Perhaps the most famous is Somerset House, the mansion built by the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour, in 1547. After his execution at the Tower of London, it became Crown Property and the residence of Princess Elizabeth before she was crowned Queen in 1558.
It was rebuilt in the 1770’s, eventually became the office for births, marriages and deaths, and after many twists and turns, a contemporary cultural hub. The Courtauld Gallery makes it a destination for art lovers, while the literati flock there for readings and lectures hosted by The Royal Society of Literature, based within the ancient walls, full of treasures including Byron’s own quill pen.
The road itself runs for almost a mile from Trafalgar Square to Fleet Street, linking two of London’s landmarks. In the time of Henry VIII it was a highway notorious for levity and noise. Today the noise is a buzz but the levity remains. The Strand is littered with theatres, as it has been for decades and a destination for everyone wanting to sample some glittering nightlife. It’s a tradition that goes back to the turn of the 20th century – at that time the street had more theatres than any other part of town and many music halls.
Today the Savoy, Adelphi and Vaudeville theatres still draw crowds along the Strand, the Novello on Aldwych and the Lyceum on Wellington street are just off the main drag; and all host some of the biggest productions in London.
It’s not all revelry – given the streets royal past, the Strand is also home to some august institutions, not least Coutts bank, which existed before the Bank of England. No surprise given that everyone that was everyone since Tudor times lived around the corner or down the road. Intrinsically tied into the trading history of the Thames, Twinings opened a tea-shop on the Strand over 300 years ago, and it still carries out the tradition of bringing exotic leaves to London. In a similar exchange across the oceans, Stanley Gibbons continues to deal in stamps from every corner of every continent, as it has since 1856.
This myriad mix of entertainment, establishment and eccentricity has always characterised the Strand – the contemporary centre it is now is simply a continuation of the historic hub it was then.
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