Simon Calder: Can't remember the Sixties? You can still go there

One virtue of the 1960s: the dreadful term "staycation" was a good four decades from being coined. At the time, mind, the majority of Brits had no option but to holiday at home. Even though the package-holiday industry was expanding rapidly, the government did its utmost to keep us at home with a limit on overseas spending of just £50. So the best way to travel vicariously was to visit exotic locations in Britain that distilled the essence of Abroad and served it up to the passer-by.

The greatest concentration of such establishments was in Soho in central London, which also happened to be the hub of cultural revolution that swept upon Britain. That passionate era is celebrated at the National Portrait Gallery in an exhibition that opens on Wednesday: "Beatles to Bowie: the 60s exposed". It will no doubt attract many curious tourists from around the UK.

Some will be keen to tap into the energy that transported their parents – and Britain – from post-war gloom to post-modern enlightenment. Older visitors may hope that monochrome images of moody pop stars will revive memories of that decade – though, as they say about the Woodstock Festival, if you can remember it you weren't there. But if you can't remember Sixties London, don't fret: it's still there. In the course of half-a-mile along Brewer Street and its continuation, Old Compton Street, you can set the controls for the Sixties, and roll back the years to the time of rock.

Walking east along Brewer Street, you sense the human geography has barely changed in 40 years: the sex industry is barely concealed, drug culture is celebrated at Hemp Trading (number 17), and rock'n'roll journals predicting the imminent arrival of Elvis on British shores are on sale at the Vintage Magazine Co (number 39). There are more practical enterprises, such Romanys Ironmonger's (number 51) that, from the look of its windows, still charges in shillings and pence; and the Brewer Street car park, a shrine to motoring built on such a modest scale that you sense nothing bigger than a Mini would squeeze in.

To find yourself instantly translated to Italy, cross Berwick Street (nodding northwards to that absurd 1960s techno-monument, the BT Tower) and follow your nose into Lina Stores, a delicatessen that has long provided a seductive alternative to la dolce vita, a compendium of colour and scent that takes you straight to the land of plenty of olives (see pages 10-11) useful in the days when you couldn't get to Italy for the price of a decent salami.

Today Old Compton Street is, if I may, a good place for a gaycation. But there are still survivors from the days before homosexuality was invented. Gerry's Wines and Spirits (number 74) looks as though it should have a fine selection of British Sherries and Continental Lagers. Nudge a couple of doors north along Frith Street: Bar Italia is pure 1960s, save for plasma TVs showing Sky News. Focus instead on the faded Formica tops and black-and-white photos. And breathe... the aroma of the Near East at the Algerian Coffee Stores at 52 Old Compton Street, a useful proxy for a country still on the Foreign Office danger list.

At the east end of Old Compton Street, traverse Charing Cross Road to Macari's music store. There, in the window, in all their transistorised glory, is an array of Stylophones. Think of it as a primitive iPhone: you couldn't make calls, send emails or work out which way is north. But thanks to a metal stylus connected by a flimsy wire to a keyboard, you could tap out a tune on what was proclaimed as "the original pocket electronic organ". Time to travel back to the 21st century.

Travel's best years? A Sixties timeline

The 1960s comprised a decade of rapid changes in travel. In the first year alone, the first successful hi-jack of a US domestic flight to Havana took place, and the last steam trains ran on the London Underground. And besides that:

1960: O'Hare Field opened as in Chicago's main airport, and immediately became the busiest in the world – taking the title from Midway airport, in the same city.

1962: the first passenger hovercraft service began between the Wirral and Rhyl in North Wales.

1963: Dr Richard Beeching recommended closing 5,000 miles of railways in Britain, and one in three stations.

1965: a ferry first crossed to the Isle of Skye on a Sunday.

1968: the first Channel crossing by a car-carrying hovercraft.

1969: the Boeing 747 flew for the first time on 9 February, beating Concorde by three weeks. The Jumbo carried passengers from the following year; the supersonic jet entered service in 1976.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
John Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil