This is an alley that’s owned by The Queen and comes with its own unique London Underground tube roundel.
The land that the alley passes through and all the buildings around it are owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, which manages the estates of the Duke of Lancaster, who happens to be The Queen. Although the current monarch is, in case you hadn’t noticed it yet, a female, in reference to this title, she is a Duke, not a Dutchess.
It is customary at formal dinners in the historic county boundaries of Lancashire and in Lancastrian regiments of the armed forces for the Loyal Toast to be announced as “The Queen, Duke of Lancaster.” Unlike the Crown Estate, which is owned by The Crown as the head of government, the Duchy of Lancaster belongs personally to the monarch, not the government.
If you go far enough back in time though, the land to the south of Strand, where this alley passes through would have marked the foreshore of the River Thames, which was much wider in Anglo-Saxon times. It was slowly built upon, and the most notable site sits to the east of the alley, where the Palace of Savoy sat. Built in 1246 by the Earl of Leicester, it was badly damaged in riots in 1381 and demolished by King Henry VIII to make space for a hospital.
The alley can trace its origins all the way back to at least the 1680s, when it shows up as a gap between Worcester House on the west and The Savoy on the east. By the time the area was redeveloped into a cluster of smaller houses and buildings, the alley had become known as Fountain Court, after a pub that sat on the corner.
In 1864, a fire burned everything except the stone walls and the Savoy Chapel, and the land sat empty until it was bought in 1880 by the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, to build the Savoy Theatre specifically for the production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, of which he was the producer.
The alley had been given its current name of Savoy Buildings by now, with Terry’s Theatre, which opened in 1887 occupying the rebuilt area to the east and the Savoy Hotel and theatre on the west, which opened a couple of years later.
It’s a curious twist of fate that the Savoy Theatre came first and the hotel simply a way of attracting visitors to the theatre, whereas today the hotel is famous and few people realise there’s a theatre next to it.
The entrance to the alley looks like it sits within the boundary of the Savoy Hotel estate, but in fact, it’s on the edge with Simpsons taking most of the site, and the hotel wraps around the back of the building. The hotel’s rich external decoration is known as Eclectic Renaissance, and dates from a refacing that took place in 1910, but it does beautifully frame the alleyway entrance.
To the eastern side of the alley is Norman House, designed by Trehearne & Norman in 1923 to replace the Terry’s Theatre (which by then was a cinema), with Woolworths on the ground floor and offices above. Today it’s still offices with shops on the ground floor.
Back to the alley, and its richly tiled decorative frontage, plaques on either side tell of the history of the Fountain Tavern and its famous patrons, and peer within you can see a remarkably utilitarian space sloping down towards the river.
The alley is lined in many places with glazed tiles, the classic Edwardian technique for brightening dark alleys, and a couple of now blocked off shop windows.
In recent years, the building on the eastern side has been redeveloped internally, and the alley walls rebuilt to house modern air conditioning units. Rows of air conditioning units blast out hot air from the Savoy Hotel on the other side, giving the alley an audio landscape of standing between competing aircraft engines.
Further down the complex of buildings that have been added over the years to expand the Savoy Hotel becomes more obvious, with a low height overbridge plunging the alley into darkness. And down at the far end, a set of steps down to the road are nicely finished off with tiles and stone corners.
But there’s something else down here to look out for, and that’s a unique tube roundel.
The alley happens to include the hotel’s staff entrance, and anyone who has ever been inside a large old building will know it can be a bit of a maze in the back-of-house facilities.
That can make it tricky to navigate the building, especially for temporary staff supporting large events, so to help them, a few years ago, the Savoy Hotel’s Talent and Culture department took the tube map for inspiration and ran coloured lines through the corridors to make it easier for people to find where different departments are.
And to finish it off, what better than a Savoy tube roundel by the staff entrance to make that easier to find as well?
And doubtless, it’ll now be a tourist attraction in its own right, for you tube nerds.