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Piccadilly Circus was built in 1819 when John Nash mapped out the curving line of Regent Street. Regent Street was intended as a impressive thoroughfare between St. James’s Palace and Regent’s Park, and the circus linked it with Piccadilly and Leicester Square.
Its circular nature was lost when work began on Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1880s.
The bright advertising lights that dominate the square today were added in the early 20th-century, and have become one of the favourite photo-stops for tourists.
Ask any Londoner, and they’ll happily tell you that the Eros statue at the centre of Piccadilly Circus represents the Greek god of Love – but they’re wrong! It actually represents the Angel of Christian Charity.
It was erected in 1892 to commemorate Anthony Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, whose tireless work on behalf of the poor and mentally ill led to calls for a permanent memorial.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
Piccadilly Circus was probably the first part of London that I got to know well as a kid because they had a big Tower Records on the corner (gone now), and a HMV in the Trocadero Centre (now turned into Ripley’s Believe It Or Not); and when you’re 16 years-old that is where you do your weekly shop. Forget food and groceries – who needs food? It was all CDs and DVDs (videos in my day).
Burger King has disappeared too – it’s Barclays Bank now. The only things that have remained the same are the neon lights, the fountain and the crowds. And me. I’m still here.
I know this sounds a bit daft, but there are no benches at Piccadilly Circus – not a single one. It’s full of traffic lights and litter and pigeons and tourists. Personally I would get rid of all the tourists and put a few benches in. And I would shoot the pigeons. But the litter can stay.
Whenever I come here during the day it’s always heaving with traffic and tourists, and when I come here at night it’s exactly the same thing, because they all flock here to see the neon lights and Eros. The lights are the biggest attraction – if you come to London and don’t snap a photo of them then no one will believe you came. They are right up there alongside Big Ben and Tower Bridge as one of the must-see sights in London.
They just advertise all the usual kind of cr*p like mobile phones and clothes shops. Coca Cola has constantly hogged the biggest spot ever since I can remember. I wonder how many bottles of Coke that sign sells? If I advertised my guidebook up there how many do you think I would sell? I would probably quadruple my sales figures overnight. I’d be selling… what… four copies? or maybe even five copies a week – I’d be rich!
And as for the Eros fountain… well… that has been the source of many, many arguments, and I am in the mood for a right old ding-dong so let’s have an argument right now – come on, between you and me. Let’s have it out! (This may end up in a fist fight.) I will begin: He’s not Eros.
I don’t care what you think you know, or what anybody has told you, or how many guidebooks you’ve read saying that he is, because I am telling you right now that he’s not Eros. Just because he’s stark naked and holding a bow and arrow does not make him bloody Eros. Robin Hood carried a bow and arrow and no one thought that he was Eros, did they?
So who is he then? Well the correct answer is the Angel of Christian Charity (whoever that is). But if you try and enlighten the tourists they won’t believe you – they don’t want to. They bring their wives and girlfriends along to hold hands and have a kiss and a cuddle under the fountain, thinking that the Greek God of Love will shower them with a lifetime of wedded bliss. But he won’t. Because it’s not him. It’s the Angel of Charity, so the most the you get with charity is maybe five years of happiness followed by fifty years of misery. After which she’ll probably die of dementia and you’ll succumb to heart complications in an old peoples’ home. But if you try telling that to the tourists they won’t listen; they just burst into tears. (I’m thinking about giving up writing and becoming a tour guide.)
Sometimes I wonder what Eros would look like if we built him today. He wouldn’t have a bow and arrow, would he? – because we don’t use those any more. He’d probably have a machine gun. I’ve never understood what’s so romantic about Eros anyway. If I was in love with someone the last thing I’d want is some chubby little kid coming along firing arrows at her. If I wanted to fire arrows at her then I’d do it myself – I don’t need a 5-year-old hitman in nappies (because that’s basically what he is).
The other argument that everyone has is whether his bow is pointing down Shaftesbury Avenue. There is an urban myth that Eros (although it’s not Eros – but I’m not getting into that again) is “burying his shaft” up Shaftesbury Avenue. We’ve got Stephen Fry to thank for this silly story because he gave it as one of his answers on QI. But I am telling you right now that he’s not. It’s actually pointing in the complete opposite direction towards the southern half of Regent Street – the part that leads down towards the Duke of York’s Column. And I should know, because I am standing underneath it as I’m writing this! So if anybody tries to tell you something different then just tell them they’re talking nonsense.
Have you ever been to a forest at night and heard the bats cheeping in the trees? Well Piccadilly Circus is a bit like that, only the buildings are the trees, and the car horns are the bats. Honest to god there is a horn blasting every ten seconds in this place – it is one of the busiest junctions in London. All the main roads come and bundle up into a knot – you’ve got Leicester Square to the east, Trafalgar Square down Haymarket, the West End up Shaftesbury Avenue, and the grand facades of Regent Street curving off to the north. And then there’s Piccadilly of course, with the Royal Academy and Ritz Hotel disappearing into the west.
> Read Craig’s latest review of Piccadilly Circus “When I used to fly home from faraway places I’d jump on the tube from Heathrow airport and spill out here in the middle of the night. You come up the station stairs staring at the neon lights, everyone’s milling around the West End after the pubs have shut, after their show has ended, it’s freezing cold all of a sudden after sitting on that tube train for fifty minutes, and you’ve got all the bright lights and double decker buses with their icy white exhausts tearing round the fountain. People are sitting on the steps and taking it all in – that’s their entire night out… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! “This is a tourist trap. Don’t get trapped. End of review. It exists for one purpose only: to suck the money out of your wallet. Your kids will see it, want to go, want to visit, yeah yeah yeah, take us mum! take us dad! They’ll badger you until you relent… and two hours later they’ll come out sighing ‘that was rubbish’ and you’ll be ninety quid worse off and still have half a day of sightseeing ahead of you. And I’m not exaggerating about that price, either – if you buy your tickets on the door then you’ll be going home broke. The idea behind Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is quite appealing: it’s a museum of weird and wonderful objects from all around the world… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of the West End “The West End roughly encompasses the area around Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden. A lot of the best theatres can be found down Shaftesbury Avenue, Haymarket and the Strand. This is where you’ll get a proper taste of London – bright lights and terrible traffic. Lots of life, lots of strife. Lots of noise, and six inches of pavement per person. Shaftesbury Avenue is absolutely heaving with people tonight. You get carried along in the throng, like a fallen leaf in the sea, because there’s nowhere else to go. It’s very easy to lose your rag in a crowd like this. People clip your ankles and cut you up… continued.”
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Piccadilly Circus is in the heart of London’s West End, and it’s a ggreat place to start your night. Pick a place to eat from our list of restaurants near Piccadilly Circus, and a place to drink from our Piccadilly Circus pubs. After that maybe you could go and see a theatre show? You can search for theatre shows this month, theatre shows next month and shows in May.
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