From Gin Lane to gin & tonic: Jonathan Glancey sees elegance return to the once notorious Seven Dials in Covent Garden

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The Independent Online
JOHN EVELYN rushed to see it. Seven Dials was the smartest new development in London, a network of lanes lined with handsome houses and shops near Covent Garden market. It was planned by Sir Thomas Neale MP 'in the French patterne' and fanned out from a new Portland stone monument (recreated in 1989, but boarded up to prevent vandalism) topped with sundials.

Evelyn made his visit in 1694. Within decades, Seven Dials had become a haunt of cut-purses and cut-throats, a warren of stews and courts immortalised in Hogarth's Gin Lane, The Industrious and Idle Apprentice and A Harlot's Progress. Gentlefolk were advised to avoid this gin-sodden and vice-ridden labyrinth or else to go armed. Slum clearance began in the 1840s and by 1880 most of Sir Thomas Neale's Seven Dials had vanished. Sturdy commercial warehouses modelled on those shaping the London docklands replaced discreet 17th-century houses.

Today, one of those warehouses - itself threatened with destruction under plans for the redevelopment of Covent Garden in the Seventies - has become 'Thomas Neal's' (sic). It is perhaps the first shopping mall with any pretence to real character since this soulless idea arrived from America.

At Seven Dials the gin comes served with slimline tonic, ice and a slice of lemon rather than in lethal penny shots. Imbibers are encouraged to exercise their credit cards in boutiques rather than to fall senseless into the gutter. And the pig-tailed cut- throats of the 1790s have been superseded, 200 years on, by a parade of slicked and groomed pony-tails dangling decorously from the young men who work and shop in the new-look Seven Dials.

Just before 10 o'clock on the morning that Thomas Neal's opens, a young man in a big white shirt and a lovingly oiled pony-tail adjusts the Thirties-style lamps flanking the dramatic gated entrance to this new shopping mall, while groomed and blazered attendants wheel out potted bay trees and adjust their ties. Inside, Martin Robinson and Richard Griffiths arrange teddy bears made from moss and fashionable flowers in Robinson's shop. Steven Lunn fondles and otherwise checks the seductive piles of antique lace in his shop; a number of designery-looking people drop in to take flash-photographs of the mall with discreet electronic cameras.

Professional interest in this overtly high-quality retail development is high. 'I'm just curious,' says one camera-clicking and nameless potential shopholder. 'It looks great, but I can't work out if this is the right time to invest back in luxury goods in such a self-consciously designed atmosphere. I'm not sure if this isn't the Eighties all over again.'

Thomas Neal's wants to be very Nineties. It does not even want to be described as a mall, but as an arcade in the tradition of those elegant covered alleys that run either side of Piccadilly, through the heart of Leeds and Paris and Milan. Thomas Neal's, however, is about more than just shopping. Although it cossets 29 shops, it also includes three restaurants (none yet open), 15 flats (13 of them sold) and offices.

The confidence of the developers - Kleinwort Benson Property Fund/ Langbourn Property Investment Services - is based on the imaginative design and solid workmanship of Thomas Neal's and on the fact that fashion retailers (Emporio Armani, Nick Coleman and John Richmond's Destroy shop) have moved into Neal Street flanking the new Earlham Street arcade. Muji, the 'no brand name' Japanese store selling everything from plain cardboard boxes to simple white shirts - has been trading profitably nearby throughout the summer.

This month sees five fashion shops opening inside the glazed atrium of Thomas Neal's. There is the Russian Gallery selling artworks and antiques flowing out of cash- poor Russia. An Italian deli follows, perhaps hard on the well-shod heels of Carluccio's, a beautifully packaged shop where society foodies stock up on essential truffle oils.

A lot of money and energy has been poured into Thomas Neal's; the developers have decided to go for quality in an uncertain market. In fact it is now almost axiomatic among central London retailers that quality - cheap or expensive - is the way through the recession. Shoppers on a budget want to feel they are getting real value for the money they have managed to keep in autumn 1992. People may not be able to move home, but they can - and will - indulge in a set of antique linen sheets and pillow cases, fresh, hand-made pasta and smart casual clothes - so the theory goes.

Apart from quality, the other retail buzzword is 'authenticity'. This comes in two forms: one is the packaged version to be found at Thomas Neal's, where sturdy buildings and traditional materials create a feeling of permanence; the other is your genuine authenticity, to be found at the other end of Earlham Street.

Here there are no self-conscious improvements, just an old London street making ends meet as best as it can. What this low-rent end of Earlham Street (and please let it stay low-rent) has in plenty is that elusive 'authenticity' that Thomas Neal's is trying so hard to repeat.

This is, more or less, Seven Dials as it was in the 1880s when the last villains were being driven out by slum clearance. Here is F W Collins, the red-fronted hardware shop that will still sell you a single tin-tack. Old Fred Collins (his son Fred took over recently) held on to his freehold even when offered prodigious sums of money by developers five years ago. Old Fred used to offer regulars a glass of whisky (bottle and glasses kept under the counter) and talked about the shop, Covent Garden, the world and everything if you had the time. Young Fred says, 'We're not about to move. The rest of Covent Garden can change all it wants to, but F W Collins will soldier on; I bet we'll still be here when all the new stuff closes down again.'

A few doors along, past old market stalls selling seafood, fruit, veg and second-hand books, is 'R Portwine, family butcher', a remarkable survival, all sawdust, striped aprons and unfashionable cuts of meat. 'No, we're not going to disappear,' says the butcher at his block. 'This is still - just - a local community and there's no need for us to change.' For all its artful ironwork, its solid timber shop fronts, its insets of brass and bronze, Thomas Neal's can never hope to recapture this quality of experience. What it can do, however, is to lift Covent Garden away from being just another example of transient Eighties retailing.

(Photograph omitted)

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