Spring London Walks #2, part 2: Kensington – Mayfair

The Glory of the Empire, part 2

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Mayfair-10 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.

Mayfair-10b 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.

Mayfair-11 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.

Mayfair-11b 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.

Mayfair-12 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.
Mayfair-136. 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.”
Mayfair-147. 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.

Mayfair-158. 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.
Mayfair-169. 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.

Mayfair-17

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.

Spring London Walks #2, part 1: Battersea – Chelsea

The Glory of the Empire, part 1

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Mayfair-1 1. This will be a long one, so start early by making your way through Battersea Park towards the Peace Pagoda.

Developed and maintained by a single Buddhist monk, Gyoro Nagase, who still lives nearby and beats the prayer drum daily, the pagoda overlooks Thames like a meditating guardian.

Mayfair-2 2. Return to the main road and enter the Albert Bridge – the infamous “Trembling Lady”, upon which the marching soldiers must break step in order not to destroy it with vibrations. Pause to take in the sight of Thames, with the ridiculously iconic Battersea Power Station on one side, and the leafy avenues of Chelsea on the other. Chelsea is where we’re going – and beyond.

Mayfair-3Chelsea is a name that evokes nouveau riche tattiness these days, but for millions of gardening enthusiasts it’s been synonymous with the Chelsea Flower Show – a hundred years old exhibition of gardens and flowers on the grounds of Royal Chelsea Hospital. The hospital grounds sprawl on your right hand side just off the bridge. Once a year these get covered with pavillions and tents hosting the show, otherwise they are a great expanse of meadow and trees for use of the Chelsea Pensioners – retired war veterans living in the Hospital.

Mayfair-43. Not much further along the embankment there is another botanical curiosity: Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden. Famous for specimens such as world’s northernmost grapefruit or Britain’s largest olive tree, this place is also known for growing the seeds of cotton plant sent to the colony of Georgia – thus being responsible for the growth American South’s cotton industry and everything that followed.

Mayfair-54. Turn right twice, and head back towards the Chelsea Hospital. Along the way you will pass a building of exceptional ugliness, with a couple old guns in front of it: the National Army Museum. If you like war museums, you could do worse than one dedicated to one of the world’s largest and oldest armed forces, involved in pretty much all major wars in recent history. Note, however, that this is not the Imperial War Museum, which is south of the river. Confusing, I know.

Mayfair-65. Circumnavigate the gardens of Burtons Court – also part of the Chelsea Hospital grounds – and you will reach a lovely tree-lined avenue: the Royal Avenue, devised by William III as a link from the Hospital to Kensington Palace (not quite finished, as you can tell from looking at the map).

Mayfair-6bJames Bond “lived” at Royal Avenue, although as he was not often at home the address is not as well known as, say, 221B Baker Street.

Upon reaching King’s Road take a look at the McDonald’s on the corner. It’s not often that a local McD’s is an interesting landmark, but this one is: as it’s set in the building of the Chelsea Drugstore, London’s first “US-style” drugstore, which oddly enough had become a part of the Swinging Sixties culture. Rolling Stones sang about it, and Stanley Kubrick filmed Clockwork Orange beside it.

Mayfair-76. Follow the narrow Tryon Street until it joins Sloane Avenue. The buildings along this thoroughfare grow enormous, by London’s standards: immense towering condominiums forming a valley of red and white brick.

Mayfair-8

At the farther end of the avenue stands an imposing edifice decorated with mosaics of motorists, stained glass and art nouveau stone ornaments: the Bibendum Building, once Michelin’s headquarters and showroom, now a posh restaurant and oyster bar, designed by Sir Terence Conran.

 

Mayfair-97. Follow the Pelham Street until you reach the place where the Underground emerges onto the surface. Turn right here, along the Thurloe Square Garden, then left. You will reach the Exhibition Road.

Until recently, there was very little of interest here. The Exhibition Road is the street running towards and along London’s Museum District. But a short time ago a decision was made to experiment on it: mix the car traffic with pedestrian traffic on equal footing, without pavements or street signs. The result is stunning, especially in good weather: a strip of Mediterranean in the middle of London. Good, inexpensive restaurants and cafes line the street, with big windows facing the passing crowds. I found it one of the best places in the city to do people watching.

Snapseed_1We’ll make a brief stop here, for some sherry and olives at Fernandez & Wells – or whatever else tickles your fancy – before continuing on to Kensington and Mayfair.

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