How the Strand could be grand

One of London's great thoroughfares has hit hard times since its Victorian heyday. But are things looking up? Andrew John Davies takes a saunter
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I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty,

And saunter along like a toff.

I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand,

And I walk down again with them off.

Today, Bertie might have perished of carbon monoxide poisoning, with or without his gloves on. A saunter along the three-quarter-mile Strand is, at the very least, a dispiriting affair. And the Strand Magazine, which Bertie would doubtlessly have perused, with its cover pictures of a snowbound street filled with classy toffs, hansom cabs and glowing gaslights, is long dead and gone. Shut in 1950.

But - blink and you'd miss it - the Strand is being given an overdue facelift. In February, Westminster City Council launched a pounds 3.9m refurbishment for the once elegant London thoroughfare - aimed at restoring it as part of the grand processional route between St Paul's and Westminster Abbey. However, with a quarter of the budget to be raised from local businesses, and little work under way, the project seems, at the moment, to consist of nothing more than a few workmen laying paving stones - although more changes are in the pipeline.

Few feel any nostalgia or affection for London's High Street, which caught the imaginations of Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Disraeli ("perhaps the finest street in Europe") and TE Lawrence (on his return from Arabia in 1921 he declared that he "would happily have eaten the very pavement of the Strand"). Yet the Savoy Hotel, Simpson's, Somerset House, the Law Courts and several elegant theatres still add lustre to the Strand. So why has it fallen from grace?

Above the roaring traffic it is difficult to hear what anyone is saying. "This is a pretty quiet day," remarks the man from the Asian discount shop. You what? "Sometimes it's so bad, I can't even make out what customers are asking for."

Fred the taxi driver reckons most people he picks up in the Strand use sign language: "And you try doing Piccadilly Circus with your hands." The Big Issue seller is spot-on: "I've got only one comment. Close the Strand to traffic." Many tourists like the area, however, particularly the theatres. "After New York and Paris," says one couple from Boston, "this traffic isn't really so bad."

Homeless people, whose huddled bodies cling like shadows in Strand doorways at night, have been a focus for irritation. "Not such a good thing," says Stanley Grossman of the Strand Men's Shop. But the general mood is relaxed. One businessman shrugs "If they're sleeping in my doorway, at least they aren't pissing in it."

Lack of decent shops does, by contrast, hit a raw nerve. "If tourists ask for a shopping centre I send them to Oxford Street," says newspaper seller Graham Clifford. "No Marks, no Littlewoods. Doesn't cater for a lot does it?" Office workers Megan Rice and Shirley Paice are equally damning: "We wouldn't dream of having a drink or meal here after work. Who needs another McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

So what of Westminster's proposed changes? Some side roads will be closed, and there will be more pelican crossings, bus lanes and bus stops along with tree planting, repaving and gentle widening of pavements. The Civic Trust, in partnership with the council, will negotiate with business to restore historic frontages and crackdown on unsightly neon. Yet few locals I speak to are either aware of the plans or had noticed any difference. Graham Clifford was blunt: "I can't see that putting down fancy paving stones is going to make much difference."

For centuries the Strand was the main link between the cities of London and Westminster. Unless wealthy enough to be rowed down the Thames, anyone who travelled between the two had to come along the Strand. The prosperous built mansions south of the Strand leading down to the river. Long gone, the only survivor is the 17th-century watergate at the bottom of Buckingham Street.

To the north of the Strand was old "Convent Garden", once farmed by the monks of Westminster Abbey. They buried their dead there and discovered that fruit and veg grew very nicely on top of corpses. By the time the place passed into private hands, the "n" had been dropped but Covent Garden market was still a place to get radishes.

Charles II paraded along the Strand during the Restoration as the water conduits flowed with free wine, while the alleys proved ideal trysts for men about town. Samuel Pepys once lingered here with his special friend Mrs Knipp. As for James Boswell in November 1762, "I picked up a girl in the Strand; went into a court with intention to enjoy her in armour [contraception]. But she had none. I toyed with her. She wondered at my size, and said if I ever took a girl's maidenhead, I would make her squeak." Sadly, we don't know if Boswell was just boasting.

The Strand's heyday came in Victorian and Edwardian times when it was the centre of London's entertainment and pleasure circuits. Apart from theatres such as the Gaiety with its famous "Girls", there was Romano's restaurant, the Savoy Hotel, the massive 800-room Cecil Hotel, Simpson's- in-the-Strand and any number of oyster rooms and gin palaces.

It was the 20th century which brought a loss of nerve and self-confidence. The Gaiety was demolished in favour of the English Electrical Company. The Cecil Hotel gave way to Shell Mex and Romano's closed in 1948. But perhaps the most symbolic loss related to the old British Medical Association (now Zimbabwe House). It was opened in 1907 to cries of outrage because of the naked figures adorning the exterior, sculpted by the young Jacob Epstein. Twenty years later the Puritans had their revenge. The figures were systematically mutilated by the BMA - but instead of lopping off the offending genitalia they removed the heads instead. They stand there today, headless but otherwise in good shape.

How well Westminster's plans turn out remains to be seen. But two earlier improvements show what can be done with verve and imagination. The West Strand complex, by the architect John Nash, has given a distinctive style to the Charing Cross end since the 1830s. To the east there is the Aldwych, where in the 1900s many slums and notorious back streets were cleared away (including the so-called French Letter Row which James Boswell, for one, should have visited).

What grand gesture would transform today's Strand? Ban the motor car and dramatically upgrade public transport? Malcolm Haxby, the council's assistant corporate director (policy), says: "This is not an option that has been considered."

Anyway, shutting the Strand to traffic would hit some of the delightful neighbouring streets hard. Maiden Lane, Buckingham Street, Carting Lane, Adam Street would suffer as traffic sought alternative routes.

These alleys and back passages evoke the original spirit of the Strand in the Nineties. If wannabe toffs like Burlington Bertie want to saunter today, this is where they should go.