The Glory of the Empire, part 2
(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)
1. We continue down the Exhibition Road, the canyon set between the massive edifices of Science, Natural History and V&A museums. This is Victorian London at its most grandiose and glorious; the road was built in 1851 for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Bits and pieces left over the exhibition were enough to make a foundation for the grand museums.
2. Past the Science Museum and before the Imperial College is a small crossroad. To the West runs the tree-lined avenue of Imperial College Road. To the East, the line of the late Victorian and Edwardian grand houses breaks, opening into several rows of picturesque little homes: the Princes Gate Mews. The village-like facades, a stark contrast to the majesty of the surroundings, hide some of the most expensive and luxurious flats in the area.
3. Turn left right behind the Imperial College, into the shadows of the Albert Hall Mansions towards the easily recognizable rotunda of the Royal Albert Hall. Built originally as one of two parts of Prince Albert’s Memorial, the other part is the decorative chapel-like monument across the A315, raised magnificently in the gothic revival style by Sir George Gilbert “Gothic Revival” Scott.
4. We have now entered the Hyde Park, the largest of central London’s green spaces. You can cross it any way you like – as long as you head towards its eastern gates. If you pass the Serpentine along the southern bank, you will walk past the Princess Diana’s Memorial Fountain, which has to be one of my favourite monuments in London: a never-ending looped river in which you’re allowed to waddle to your heart’s content. It’s always full of playing kids (and adults), which is always the best way to commemorate somebody.
5. Leave Hyde Park by the eastern gate and cross Park Lane (via subway) towards the Hilton hotel. You have now entered Mayfair: the largest concentration of luxury hotels, shops and restaurant in London, with some of the highest rents in the world.
It doesn’t look like much at first. Behind the Park Lane hotel facades and luxury car showrooms is a labyrinth of dark and narrow aisles and mews. This part of London has not changed much over the centuries since the last of the May Fairs which gave it its name – and is all the more charming for it.
6. A few twists and turns later, we come to the Shepherd Market (not to be confused with Shepherds Bush Market, a completely different place). To me this is the highlight of the walk; the place looks like an old village square, with pubs and restaurants on every corner and rows of handicraft and jewellery stores. Despite the affluence of local inhabitants, it retains the atmosphere typical of old London, a mixture of luxury and seediness. Here is the place for the rich and famous to perform their ‘antics’: this is where Keith Moon died and Jeffrey Archer had his illicit fun. The wikipedia entry for Shepherd Market claims “the area is home to an excellent selection of prostitutes.”
7. Under the arch next to Ye Grapes enter the Curzon Street and follow its arc deeper into Mayfair. At this point you may start counting Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked casually on the pavement. Cross the tree-lined, cozy Landsdowne Row and up the Hay Hill, towards Bond Street, where you can play a game of name-that-logo, if you’re good with the luxury jewellers and clothiers.
8. We’re heading towards Piccadilly Street now. You can take the Bond Street all the way down, but it’s probably more interesting to turn left into Burlington Gardens, and then right into Burlington Arcade – one of the first covered shopping arcades in the world, and still one of the best.
Let me just say here, I love these old-fashioned pedestrian arcades, and I think there’s not quite enough of those in the world. The Japanese tend to cover entire swathes of their high streets with arches of glass, and I believe it’s the right thing to do, especially in a rainy climate like ours (and theirs). A covered arcade makes for the best shopping experience – the perfect combination of a high street and shopping mall.
9. Turn left on the Piccadilly Street – and head towards the Piccadilly Circus, another of those London landmarks everyone knows about. Follow the southern side (far side from the Burlington Arcade) to pass the legendary Fortnum & Mason department store and Christopher Wren’s subdued red-brick St James’s church.
10. We could end the journey on Piccadilly Circus, whence you can take a number of transport options to wherever you want to go next, but I want to direct your attention to one more building just before the famous intersection. It may not look like much at first, but the Waterstone’s flagship bookstore at 200 Piccadilly is one of the finest examples of Bauhaus-inspired architecture in London. Now, I’m a fan of everything Bauhaus, so I love the fact that this building stands smack bang in the middle of the busiest street of the city. It started life as Simpsons department store; there are still original fittings, windows, staircase and lifts preserved, designed by Laszlo Nagy and Joseph Emberton, and it makes for quite a wonderful shopping experience.
Simpsons of Piccadilly has one more claim to fame: it was the place where Jeremy Lloyd worked as junior assistant, before embarking on the career of sitcom writer. Thus, Simpsons became a direct inspiration for the Grace Brothers in the long running “Are You Being Served?” series.