Let’s face it, I am no stranger to being face down in the gutter in the Charing Cross Road. After all, there are enough pubs within one small block to give me cause to pause: Coach and Horses; The Cambridge; The Montagu Pyke; The Spice of Life; the late lamented Molly Moggs. But, on this rare occasion, my insalubrious position, with my face firmly planted on terra firma, is not the result of alcohol, but of curiosity. I am searching for a mysterious underground street.
Little Compton Street no longer appears on any maps of London, although it is a clear and apparent thoroughfare on maps from the Victorian period, linking Old and New Compton Streets. At the time, the area was one of the most notorious slums in London. And that perhaps explains why it was ear-marked for demolition, when the modern-day Charing Cross Road was created in 1887. In the blink of an eye, Little Compton Street was banished into history. Except for one tantalising glimpse, which still remains.
In the middle of Charing Cross Road, close to Cambridge Circus, is a small, unprepossessing traffic island. It has two graffiti and sticker-covered bollards at either end of it, and an institutionally-imposing metal grid covering the remainder of its expanse. Traffic passes it in both directions; big, red buses; speeding motorbikes. It is a genuinely Ballardian concrete island: unloved; unnoticed; unattractive. Except that it hides a secret. A cosmic wormhole into a different place and time.
I’m down on my hands and knees now, the subject of puzzled tourist’s photos––again!––looking through the prison-like bars into a subterranean realm beyond. It is like a glimpse into Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. A writhing of black wiring looks like the serpent pit of an Ophidiophobiac’s worst nightmare. There are old, dead leaves, and unimportant scraps of London-life debris but, there, upon the old bricks of a cellar wall, two old-fashioned street signs. Both conveying the same message. Little Compton Street.
It is both exciting and mundane at the same time. Exciting because I am happy to believe that I am a privileged time-traveller, a solitary explorer, witness to an unvisited corner of London long since vanished; mundane because I know that a swathe of social historians have been here before me, and the reality of my subterranean spy-hole is that it is simply an old utility tunnel that used to run below Little Compton Street, and the signs were placed there for the benefit of bygone workmen engaged on maintenance repairs underground so that they would know which streets lay above them.
Nevertheless, the next time I find myself in The Montague Pyke, I will take a moment to raise a glass to the memory of Little Compton Street.
© Beery Sue
Beery Sue takes a stagger above Little Compton Street.