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Her royal fryness: Queen Mum’s fave chippy

On this week’s virtual ramble, Diary visits the former home of the man who built Centre Point, joins Edgware Road’s high-rollers at the casino tables, and tries a pickled egg at The Sea Shell

17 April, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

The Queen Mother was a regular customer at The Sea Shell of Lisson Grove

DIARY left you last week outside the Guild for Transcultural Studies – a squat that ran for 20 years in Avenue Road in the abandoned Cambodian Embassy. When the staff moved out after the Khmer Rouge coup in 1975, an assorted bunch of arty types moved in.

Regular readers will recall we paused there as we took a wander through the empty streets of St John’s Wood on our virtual tour of the capital. Let us resume our meandering route, this time heading back south along the stretch.

We’ll head past the home of boxer Anthony Joshua, and stop by another notable landmark – the former home of property developer Harry Hyams.

Hyams was the man who built Centre Point – and despite the 1960s skyscraper’s teething problems, Harry obviously liked it enough to employ the same bloke, Richard Seifert, to build him a London residence.

Hyams hated the limelight and did all he could to avoid publicity. He held his firm’s AGM when few would show up – 4.15pm on New Year’s Eve.

He once appeared wearing a Mickey Mouse mask to avoid the scrutiny of photographers outside. He loved spending his fortune on art, which he would then loan anonymously to galleries: Turner’s Bridgewater Sea Piece has been on display at the National Gallery for more than 30 years in this way.

St John’s Wood Church

But such a collection attracted unwanted attention, too – Hyams became the victim of what coppers believe is the biggest domestic burglary ever recorded in Britain: a booty of art and antiques valued at £80m, only half of which was recovered.

Right, off we go, this time to the bottom of Avenue Road, and right along Prince Albert Road. At its western end you can find St John’s Wood Church – a beautiful building constructed in 1814 by Thomas Hardwick.

It has been the venue for some illustrious weddings and funerals: your correspondent remembers attending a service for poet and author Ursula Vaughan Williams – widow of composer Ralph – in 2007 for our sister paper, the Camden New Journal.

Happier moments the pews have witnessed include the 1953 wedding of Peggy Cripps – daughter of politician Sir Stafford – and the Ghanian lawyer and campaigner Joe Appiah.

Appiah, whose family were members of the Ashanti aristocracy, was heavily involved in the liberation of his home country. He was mates with Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah before politics drove a wedge between them. Nkrumah was his first choice to be his best man (he lived nearby in Tufnell Park). But Nkrumah couldn’t make it – so Communist and African revolutionary George Padmore stepped in to hand the ring over and make the speech.

Harry Hyams’ Centre Point

All this walking is making one peckish – so let’s head south-west to Lisson Grove and buy lunch from the Queen Mum’s favourite chippy, The Sea Shell of Lisson Grove. It opened at the end of the First World War and is still going strong. She was such a regular that when her driver pulled up outside, owner John Faulkner knew what to get ready – crispy battered cod, chips with plenty of vinegar, and sides of mushy peas, pickled eggs and a wally.

Now on to Edgware Road – the home to some of London’s best Middle Eastern restaurants.

It also has its fair share of casinos, and Diary will stop outside The Grosvenor to regale you with a story.

Such gambling palaces like to keep the high rollers at the table for as long as possible, so they offer free sandwiches and drinks.

This piece of common knowledge prompted a rather nice scam, established by a group of older ladies who lived in the area.

Winston Churchill. Photo: Victoria and Albert Museum

This 10-strong group signed up for free membership and then would meet three times a week for lunch at one of the casinos. They’d exchange £25 for poker chips and then sit at various tables as if they were going to have a flutter. Along would come waiters and they’d politely request a platter to keep them nourished as the cards were turned over and the roulette tables spun.

Once the fare was devoured, they would pick up their £25 worth of tokens, swap them back, bellies full and purses untouched. It was an unofficial pensioners’ lunch club that ran for years.

Leaving the rattle of chips behind us, we’re stretching our legs south for a decent chip-burning stroll until we reach Green Park, and here we shall share our favourite Winston Churchill anecdote.

During his second stint as PM from 1951, he was woken one Sunday morning by his aide carrying the papers: the aide’s ashen face instantly put Winnie ill at ease.

“What is it?,” hurrumphed the PM. “Is it war with Russia?”

“No”, replied the aide, and proceeded to explain that one of the tabloids had wind of a backbencher easing their stresses and strains with a Grenadier Guardsman in a Green Park bush the night before.

Churchill paused and said to his aide: “It was rather cold last night, wasn’t it?,” to which the aide replied: “Yes sir, only 23 degrees, very chilly indeed.”

Another brief silence, before Churchill said: “Makes you proud to be British.”

See you all next week.

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