James Leavey's Corner
The Big Smoke

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland


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James Leavey

London is Europe's largest city, with over seven million inhabitants. Long known as the Big Smoke, it attracts 28 million tourists every year, at least a quarter of whom are devoted to nicotine.

Despite growing opposition by the anti-smoking lobby to what they claim is a filthy, unhealthy, anti-social habit, and the British government's absurdly high tax on tobacco, about 25 per cent of London's adult population continues to smoke. To do so, we've had to learn to live under a low tar cloud, buy pirated tobacco from asylum seeking refugees in Holloway Road and car boot sales, and be prepared to withstand scornful stares and comments - often from total strangers.

The trouble is London's smokers are treated as second-class citizens, or mobile pollution zones. We're banished from all buses and all parts of the London Underground, National Express coaches, many taxis, most trains, all cinema and theatre auditoriums, museums, art galleries and most other tourist attractions, shops, and a growing number of hotels and restaurants.

But all is not lost. London, renowned as the coolest city in the world, is also home to rock stars like Noel Gallagher, Mick Jagger and Bill Wyman, restaurateurs like Sir Terence Conran, and artists like Damien Hirst - all of them smokers.

There are still many places where you can enjoy an undisturbed puff in public, as you will see from the following smoker's tour of central London, during which you can smoke yourself into a nicotine-patch frenzy (and probably an iron lung in one of the capital's chest hospitals) around the clock.

6.10am Grab a spare chair at Costa Coffee in Waterloo Station for an excellent espresso and fresh almond croissant. The average stay is six minutes, time enough to scan your copy of Classic Travel, eat, drink and start the day right with your first cigarette.

6.16am Leisurely stroll along the Thames Embankment, exhaling billowing clouds of fragrant smoke from a Petit Punch while observing London's frustrated (our transport systems are notoriously shambolic) commuters in wake-up mode.

6.50am Light up in the Royal National Theatre doorway and regret that you are no longer able to buy Olivier cigarettes, named after Britain's greatest 20th century actor, the late Lord Laurence Olivier. Fortunately, you can still light up in his memory in most of London's theatre (and cinema) bars, at least for now.

7am Set off over Waterloo Bridge and stop halfway across to test the strength of your lighter (the Blazer Torch Light - £34.95 - is guaranteed 100 per cent windproof - if it doesn't work, take it back). 

7.10am The Great British Breakfast at Simpson's-in-the-Strand (100 Strand, WC2. Tel: 020 7836 9112), i.e. a full-cooked breakfast plus coffee, orange juice, toast and pastries, cereal, and the newspaper of your choice. This is one of the few restaurants in London where you can smoke at any place or time. Simpson's opened in 1828 as the 'Home of Chess' and became known as the 'Great Cigar Divan', with chess players, including Charles Dickens, seated, puffing away, on divans or sofas.

8.20am Slow saunter down the Strand. Smokers have been strolling along this famous street, just over three quarters of a mile long, for hundreds of years. Note that the nocturnal homeless inhabitants of London's office doorways have now been replaced by hardened smokers, banished from their workplace.

8.40am Slip down Whitehall and light up in front of Sir Walter Raleigh's statue, before the present Mayor of London decides to fulfill one of his pledges - i.e. to swap it for something 'more in keeping with 21st century London' - and less politically incorrect.

8.50am Cross Trafalgar Square, knocking the pigeons spluttering out of the sky with vapors from a Gauloise coffin-nail, en route to the area around St James's - the world's Mecca for the gentleman (and woman) cigar aficionado.

9.15am Spoiled for choice, start off with Alfred Dunhill's (30 Duke Street, SW1. Tel: 020 7499 9566) 1st floor cigar lounge and basement museum - which features the longest lighter in the world. Then round the corner to James J Fox & Robert Lewis (19 St James's Street, SW1. Tel: 020 7930 3787) tobacco emporium (Britain's oldest, it was founded in 1787) to check up on what Winston Churchill smoked and what Oscar Wilde owed, in the Fox Tobacco Museum. Churchill was one of the most famous and dedicated smokers in history, and favoured big cigars, which he would usually only smoke halfway through. Some say that Churchill smoked more than 200,000 cigars during his long life. Park yourself on Winnie's favourite chair and fire up one of his favourite stogies - a Romeo Y Julieta Churchill, 7 inches x 47 ring gauge. If any intolerant anti-smokers make the mistake of wandering in to disturb this oasis of tobacco, give them the Churchill V-sign.

10.20am Back up the road, past Che's fine cigar bar and smoker-friendly restaurant (23 St James's Street, SW1. Tel: 020 7747 9380) to Davidoff of London (35 St James's Street. Tel: 020 7930 3079), to savour their fine own brand cigars.

10.45am Check out Christie's (8 King Street, SW1. Tel: 020 7582 7611), one of London's leading auctioneers, and ask them when the next cigar auction is taking place.

11.45am Cross Haymarket and Leicester Square to G Smith & Sons (74 Charing Cross Road, WC2. Tel: 020 7836 7422) to buy some of their celebrated snuff, and a snuff hankie to blow it into.

Midday Sneezing loudly, nip into the Sherlock Holmes Pub (10 Northumberland Avenue, WC2. Tel: 020 7930 2644), where the fictional detective's sitting room at 221B Baker Street is lovingly reconstructed on the first floor. It includes his favourite Meerschaum pipe, and tobacco stuffed inside a Persian slipper on the mantelpiece. Enjoy a pipeful of your favourite shag with a pint of beer. Thank your lucky stars that every pub (and most of the cafes) in London is still smoker-friendly. 

12.45pm Pop into the Davenport Magic Shop (Charing Cross Underground Concourse. Tel: 020 7836 0408) for a packet of vanishing cigarettes, and fags that won't light - perfect souvenirs for anti-smoking tourists.

1.15pm Black cab (check first if it allows smoking, otherwise wait or walk) to Boisedale's excellent Scottish restaurant (15 Ecclestone Street, SW1. Tel: 020 7730 6922). Choose a fine Havana stogie from the best selection you will find in any London restaurant to complete a pleasant lunch in the whiskies and cigars back bar, while being indifferently served by Guy, the grumpy, French, smoker-friendly barman.

2.30pm Slightly squiffy from the drink and queasy from all those cigars, taking a very long stroll to walk it all off past Buckingham Palace - where the annual Royal Garden Parties are still smoker-friendly - but do use the ashtrays. 

3pm Load up your humidor from Harrods' award-winning cigar room (Knightsbridge, SW7. Tel: 0207 730 1234). Then take a non-smoking red bus to Piccadilly, where the fumes from the traffic will make anything exhaled from your mouth seem minor by comparison. Stop and light up at the statues of Roosevelt and Churchill - the latter wielding a cigar - both sharing a bench in Old Bond Street. This is London's only public statue featuring someone enjoying a smoke.

3pm Wander into Desmond Sautter Ltd (106 Mount Street, W1. 020 7499 4866), who specialize in virtually unobtainable vintage Havana cigars (pre-Castro, 1958). Churchill lived above this shop, from 1900 to 1905.

3.25pm Smoke-free Tube (the average time between stations is two minutes, so you can always get off and run up to the street for a smoke, if you're desperate) to Chancery Lane tube and pop into Shervingtons (337 High Holborn, WC1. Tel: 020 7405 2929) for some fine Dominican, Cuban and Nicaraguan stogies - which you can light from their permanent gas jet flame, mounted on their counter. This shop was established in 1864 and services lawyers from the Old Bailey.

4pm Tube to Moorgate station and pay a visit to Walter Thurgood (161-162 Salisbury House, London Wall, EC2. Tel: 020 7628 5437), one of the City's oldest established (1890) specialist tobacconists. Some non-smoking American stockbrokers have been known to buy a box of Havanas here (although smoking is now banned from all City boardrooms) to celebrate an addition to the family. 

4.15pm Walk past the Bank of England and the Tower of London (smoke in the doorways only) to Tobacco Dock, on which a large warehouse (1811-1814) was built beside London Docks to store tobacco up to the 1860s. Note the no-smoking signs.

5.30pm Enjoy a pint and a cigarette in The George Inn (77 Borough High Street, SE1. Tel: 020 7407 2056), which dates from the 17th century and is the sole remaining traditional galleried inn left in London.

6.30pm Start queuing for a football match in one of London's stadiums - which are still smoker-friendly, as are some of the players.

8.30pm Smoker-friendly black cab to Wiz (123a Clarendon Road, W11. Tel: 020 7229 1500), Antony Worrall Thompson's 'light up anywhere' restaurant in Notting Hill.

10.30pm Decide on one of London's 21 casinos, where you can be assured of a free Havana, if you can convince them you're a high roller.

11.30pm Smoker-friendly black cab (or bus, if you've lost most of your money) to Ronnie Scott's (47 Frith Street, W1. Tel: 020 7438 0747) world famous jazz club where you can hardly see the musicians through the haze of exhaled tobacco smoke. You can always tell when the jazz musicians have finished their final set - they take the cigarettes and matches with them, instead of leaving them behind - for an encore. 

1am Walk through Soho in search of a heterosexual dance club (Old Compton Street is the main artery of London's gay scene, so this may be difficult). Fortunately, virtually every night club and music venue (except for classical) in London is smoker-friendly, straight or gay.

2.30am Gerrard Street, home to London's Chinese community. It's full of oriental restaurants, in which almost every table has an ashtray, and stays open very late.

3.45am Emergency stop at the nearest 24-hours garage for a packet of your favourite cigarettes and a box of matches.

4am Smoker-friendly black taxi to London Heathrow, or buy a box of 25 Montecristo No.2s and borrow a scooter (which might work out cheaper).

6am Light up in one of the airport's designated smoking areas - and make the most of it before you catch that non-smoking early morning flight back home. 

PS: As for today's (Thursday 26 July 2001) first meeting by the Greater London Authority, looking at whether smoking should be banned in London, like California, or not, I very much doubt that it will happen. It may put more pressure on extending smoking bans in bars and restaurants - but I can't see my fellow smoker-friendly London-based journalists putting up with that. So for a while, at least, London is likely to remain a haven for smokers. Long may it continue.


Copyright James Leavey, 2001. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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