This last London Walks tour was a bit of an impulse outing on a Bank Holiday Monday – a solo mission by me (Carlytwin). I met my exuberant guide amidst the bustle of Piccadilly Circus, but quickly slipped into a quiet and completely unexpected world of pretty backstreets and amazing boutiques – a real village feeling indeed.
With stories ranging from the stylist aristocrats whose shopping habits shaped the area, to Prince Harry’s favourite nightclub, this was very much the environment of the social well-to-do, and it was fascinating to take a peek into Piccadilly’s glamorous heart. We wandered along beautiful historic shopping arcades packed with extravagant treats, and heard about luxurious gentlemen’s clubs – not of the seedy Stringfellows variety, but ornately-decorated buildings on Pall Mall, like the Athenaeum which is adorned with a replica of the Parthenon frieze.
Another highlight was going inside St James’ church – London’s only Wren church outside the City – which won my heart for its generous open door policy for the homeless, who are allowed to sleep on some of its pews, and which boasts an astonishingly ornate altarpiece carved by a contemporary of Wren, Grinling Gibbons. Festoons of amazingly lifelike fruit, flowers, and seashells drape around the altar – but when you look closer you see that they are all carved in intricate detail from limewood. Gorgeous.
This walk was a much more sensory experience than the others we have tried so far; while there was plenty to delight our eyes and ears, we were also invited to sample delicious tastes and smells. One stop along the way was Floris, a perfumier favoured by the Queen, which also produces ‘Floris 89’, the aftershave preferred by James Bond in Ian Fleming’s novels.
Behind its sweetly old-fashioned shop front we moved through wooden cases of beautifully cut glass bottles, to the rear of the shop where we were allowed a whiff of the fabled #89. It’s certainly a masculine scent, quite woody and spicy, and some of the people in our group were quite taken with it. ‘This is what you would smell if you woke up with James Bond,’ one woman on the tour sighed wistfully.
Our other treat came at another shop with royal associations: Charbonnel et Walker, one of Britain’s first and finest chocolatiers, founded under the influence of Edward VII and patronised by the Queen (apparently her favourites are violet creams). Here we waited outside in giddy anticipation (I of course conducted myself with great dignity, not at all pressing my face against the window while drooling over a display of sea salt and caramel truffles) while the guide went inside to ask if we could try a chocolate – and returned in triumph with a tray of swoonsome rose creams. These were crisp chocolate shells, each topped with a caramelised rose petal and filled with a sugar paste with a gentle floral flavour. I could have eaten the whole tray!
There was one final surprise to come: just after visiting the Royal Academy courtyard (a favourite haunt of mine, having done some of my work as a researcher in the Society of Antiquaries library) we paused on the pavement opposite Fortnum and Masons (elegant foodshop with a fascinating history, being the first grocer in London to sell a – then very exotic! – tin of baked beans), by chance just as the clock struck the hour.
As we watched, two little figures emerged from beside the clock, moved around, turned, and vanished once more. I must have walked past Fortnum and Masons 500 times and never seen that before! It just goes to show that however well you know a city, there’s always more to learn.