It is a cold wet late afternoon in January 1972 and you’re legging it down Regent Street as fast as your platform shoes will allow, your wet flares (possibly even Loon pants) flapping around your ankles and your cheesecloth shirt is clinging to you.
In an attempt to shelter from the precipitation you duck into the archway that stands at the end of Heddon Street, a dingy, ill lit, U shaped alley that is home to many “Rag Trade” outlets. You shelter amidst a pile of discarded, soggy cardboard boxes and general detritus from the days garment production, awaiting the end of the downpour, when……….
Heddon street was an alley that joined what was formerly known as Leicester Street, built around 1668 to traverse west to east across Little Swallow Street (now under Regent Street) and connect with Warwick Street on the far side of Swallow Street.
It has always been an unassuming thoroughfare. I could find no history of murder or intrigue, only the apprehension of a Robert Collingham a jewel thief who was cornered by police and bystanders after a bag snatch. Charles Booth’s 1886 poverty map lists the occupants of the street and alley as, Middle Class – Well to do, but by the time you’re wet through and shivering enough to make your gold medallion rattle the area has fallen from its heights to an almost forgotten backwater of workshops and warehouses.
When……a door opens further down an alley and through the descending dusk you see a figure emerge in an iridescent green boiler suit which stands out like a shining emerald in the deepening dusk. The man is closely followed by another, sporting several cameras and they head off into the confines of the gloomy alley.
What you have just witnessed is none other than David Bowie emerging with photographer Brian Ward to shoot the cover of the soon to be released, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album. (The boiler suit was indeed emerald green, but the cover photos were hand tinted by Terry Pastor giving it a blue hue)
Bowie had been upstairs at number 23 Heddon Street in a makeshift photo studio with the rest of the band for Ward to take group shots. When he suggested that the band go outside, the majority declined due to the inclement conditions, but Bowie decided to brave them, and the rest, as they say is history.
Fast forward to 2021 and the boxes and detritus have gone, but sadly so has Bowie and Ward. Heddon Street is now a vibrant and clean thoroughfare packed with restaurants and bistros and retains no traces of its former function in the clothes trade. There is a plaque outside number 23, but the iconic K. West sign and lamp have also long gone. However the red phone box is still there, tucked away in a corner.
I run a tour at A London Miscellany Tours called London Calling which a music based tour. The phone box and the entrance to number 23 is one of the places that we visit, and those in the know normally gravitate towards the phone box for a photo.
It always amuses me to take a look at the faces of those dining al fresco who have no idea about the areas musical history, “for what reason are all these people striking a pose next to that door and all trying to crowd into the phone box? “