Come out of Tottenham Court Road station today and you’ll find a very different vista to the strange mix of knock-off luggage shops, internet cafés and bureaux de change that lined Charing Cross Road 15 years ago. The area immediately to the east of the station, St. Giles, was until relatively recently one of the centres of London’s murky, creative underworld.
What began as a leper colony had, as the 18th century rolled around, turned into one of the country’s worst slums, the Rookery. Here, sewers flowed openly through the streets into people’s houses, rubbish piled up on every corner and disease and dolor were rife among the overcrowded masses.
By the time the Second World War ended, the area had cleaned up its act (sort of), becoming the centre of England’s music industry. You couldn’t move on Denmark Street in the 1960s without bumping into a wide-eyed songwriter with a propensity for underage girls, and as such the area became very, very hip.
But any cool was washed away in the 2000s by the greenlighting of both Crossrail and Central St. Giles, the primary-coloured colossus designed by Renzo ‘Player’ Piano and the now-headquarters of the primary-coloured colossus Google. Despite this, St. Giles High Street, and all its strange hairdressers, Korean restaurants, and LGBTQ+ cafés, clung on. And then came Outernet.
The jewel in the crown of Consolidated Developments, Laurence Kirschel’s property company, Outernet is the new £1 billion entertainment district in the heart of St. Giles. It comprises two live music venues, a series of bars, restaurants and pop-ups, a hotel, Chateau Denmark, and the customary New London ‘immersive media space’. Kirschel has long had his fingers in the sticky central London pie, having been a former business partner of Paul Raymond, the one-time King of Soho.
But Outernet, and the complete recalibration of nightlife in the capital’s core, has been Kirschel’s white whale for some time, since he began buying up property in the area in the 1990s with a view to its creation. Does Outernet spell the end of carefree carousing in central? Is this the future of going out-out in London? Safe, curated nightlife for safe, curated lifestyles: Instagrammable, expensive and almost certainly ending at 2am. I knew a trip there would tell me something about boozing in the heart of the capital and so, just like in Barking, Parliament and Purfleet, I gathered a small crack team of The Fence’s shadiest sots and set out about on a journey to the outer reaches of pisstaking and sobriety.
We met on a Friday at the top of Tottenham Court Road’s escalators, in front of Outernet’s public-facing pièce de résistance: the Now Building. As meeting points go, it’s hard to miss: four storeys high and with a façade, a black-and-gold version of that boring modern vernacular, this Kaaba of consumerism features about a bazillion LED screens, all connected, brightly lit and pumping out a steady stream of impressive visuals. It’s gigantic, it’s gaudy, it’s Nusr-Et meets Barking Riverside meets Times Square.
The screens were showing The Spaces Inbetween, an ‘interactive body movement artwork’ from immersive studio Pixel Network and the artist Rupert Newman, which consists of teenage stoner visuals that move about the panels in front of you based upon your own movements. The screens also, however, show adverts. Or rather, ‘multi-sensory experiences that evolve the nature of experiential advertising’, as Outernet’s website wordily puts it.
Indeed, although there are regular, free art shows, it seems the bulk of what the screens will be spewing out is paid-for advertising on a mammoth scale, blasted into the poor retinas of anyone in the immediate vicinity like Piccadilly Circus geared up on 2C-B. For now, though, we were being treated to a series of moving abstract shapes, which were undeniably quite cool. But you can’t escape the sense that it’s all very transient and intangible. It’s art designed to be consumed only fleetingly: by commuters coming out of the station, by tourists waiting for Dirty Dancing at the Dominion, by pissed-up punters passing through to a Simmons Bar.
Like much of central’s cultural output, it’s frothy and designed to be shared on social media. It is, however, at least for now, showing new digital artists rather than shamelessly reimagining the classics (hello, immersive van Gogh exhibition!), so it’s not all bad stuck culture. Nevertheless, fearing the murmurations of digital cones fluttering across The Spaces’ 360° screens might trigger some dormant predisposition to seizures, and conscious we needed a few pints to smooth our brains, we headed across Charing Cross Road to the first of the two pubs in Outernet’s immediate sphere: The Royal George.
The Royal George first opened all the way back in 1731, although the current two-storey office-like building sprung up in the 1970s. After a long period as a rock and metal bar, it reopened as a quirky, gay-adjacent pub. Quite literally: it’s the nearest boozer to G-A-Y Late, one of the last great late nights out you can have in the centre of the city. With cheap drinks and trashy music until 4am every day, it’s a relic of another time when Soho was a less hostile one to party in – a time of Cheapskates, The End and Madame Jojo’s.
The George, though, is more Hollyoaks student union than Studio 54: the place has that inimitable faint whiff of burger, bleach and stale ale. The seats are slightly too high and uncomfortable, and the music is just a little bit too loud and disagreeable. On the other hand, these sorts of places do serve a purpose, and that’s as a vessel in which to get drunk as quickly and cheaply as possible before heading out elsewhere. So we did, imbibing a few pints of premium continental lager while reminiscing about nights out gone by at the Crossrail casualties: the Astoria, the Intrepid Fox, the Metro. Could Outernet be the solution to Soho’s lost nightlife?
To find out, we pushed on to The Angel, the other nearby pub. Once again, we crossed the granite grey semi-public plaza of the Now Building, but this time we diverted ourselves down a little alley, where we encountered a gaggle of zoomers queuing by the second Outernet live venue, The Lower Third. They were being watched over by a number of security staff, which is unsurprisingly a big feature of Outernet. Much like a high-end gallery, in every shadowy corner there lurks guards or cameras. It’s a space for everybody, but only as long as you’re the right sort of person. Still, the queuing kids didn’t seem to mind all that much as they were let down into the basement.
That music seems to be such a key focus of the complex is undoubtedly A Good Thing, given the area’s rich history. The Lower Third acts as a traditional venue – The Shacklewell in a suit – showcasing the best in up-and-coming acts in what was once the 12 Bar Club. The listings for Here, the 2,000-capacity main venue of the complex, are a bit more of a mixed bag. You’ve got a selection of midnight-ending club nights, a Eurovision warm-up show and, bafflingly, Enter Shikari playing three times in three separate months.
Outernet is going to be competing with two better-established venues of a similar size further north, the Kentish Town Forum and Koko, for the pick of the big acts, so the patchy programming seen so far could be a problem further down the line. We exited the complex onto the bottom end of Denmark Street, the façade of which has pleasingly been preserved, and noted that the night was unnaturally quiet here for a Friday. We walked east, the distant roar of Soho sea now just St. Giles spume as we approached The Angel.
The Angel is a lovely pub. All Sam Smith’s London pubs are, really, despite the draconian no-swearing rule and the off-brand beer that’s not even that much cheaper than other places nowadays. But they do feel like proper establishments. You can sense the history in each partitioned, mahogany-panelled room, in each mildewed, pissy basement bog. The Angel is one of the better ones, all carpet, fireplace and dartboard, and so we were pleased to get in, plonk ourselves in a booth and toss down some expensive Taddys. But it was here, as my pickled companions nattered frivolously away, when I wistfully realised that this was it for Outernet boozing.
An Abba tribute act was scheduled to play at Here that night but it had been cancelled at the last minute. It cost £16.83, exactly, to get into The Lower Third, but there was only an hour of that left and judging by the ages of the crew we saw earlier, we’d be the oldest ones there by some margin. There are still a number of Use Class E units to be opened on the site, but nothing that indicates anything beyond the usual faddy restaurants and, possibly, the odd cocktail bar. So that just leaves The George and The Angel, plus the tourist traps of The Flying Horse on Oxford Street and the All Bar One on New Oxford Street. Our night had reached its logical end, but I still didn’t really know much more about what Outernet meant. Maybe that was the point.
We ended up going back to a north London flat to drink brandy until the early hours. I woke up late the next day, groggy and nauseous, and thought again about my Outernet experience. The whole thing felt too slick, too corporate – too observed – to ever be the kind of place that fosters any real forward-thinking creativity. But it’s not trying to, not really. It’s immersive advert-art, it’s clubs that close at 2am, it’s pop-up dining experiences – it’s just like everywhere else.