James Innes-Smith

The sad decline of Piccadilly Circus

The landmark has become a parable of modern Britain

  • From Spectator Life
Piccadilly Circus in 1964 (Getty)

It’s always sad to see a beloved landmark lose its identity – but when the landmark in question is one of the most recognisable places on earth, it’s doubly troubling. In recent years, Piccadilly Circus, once described as ‘the hub of the world’, has descended into a shamefully hollowed out sideshow. Stately Edwardian buildings, once home to department stores, elegant restaurants and upmarket entertainment venues, lie empty or have been colonised by dubious landlords and cancerous ‘candy stores’.

All of life seemed to congregate here – it really did feel like the epicentre of the world

The West End has always been London’s beating heart but these days the old ticker is in need of a defibrillator. Piccadilly Circus in particular is a grim reminder of what happens when neglect takes hold of an area. And if it can happen in the middle of the world’s capital, imagine how much worse it must be for provincial city centres where even some high street jack boots now fear to tread. Not to over-romanticise what is essentially a busy traffic island, there was always a dizzying sense of excitement as you rounded the corner from Piccadilly into the buzz of the Circus itself – and I don’t just mean the buzz of a million incandescent light bulbs beaming out from one of the world’s largest advertising hoardings.

All of life seemed to congregate here – it really did feel like the epicentre of the world. As well as the usual tourists you’d find smartly dressed theatregoers, scruffy hawkers, tipsy Soho dandies and shop workers wiling away their lunch break on the steps of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain better known as Eros. And while it’s true that this unconventional corner of the city always had its seamy side, even that felt like a vital, organic part of the whole rather than the result of questionable council decisions as seems to be the case today.

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