Bounded to the north by Piccadilly, to the west by Green Park, to the south by The Mall and St. James’s Park and to the east by Haymarket, St James’s is one of the most extraordinary London quarters. Full of insider secrets, from the private gardens in the centre of St James’s Square, that are unlocked for public use each day, to the discreet luxury hotels that are hidden down side-streets, there is history everywhere, from the beautiful church of St James Piccadilly (below), designed by Sir Christopher Wren, hit by high explosive and incendiary bombs during the first phase of the London Blitz, at 7.54pm 14 October 1940, and restored after the war, to the statue on Jermyn Street of Beau Brummell, Regency arbiter of taste (and frequent character in the novels of Georgette Heyer.)
Take tiny Pickering Place (which will be familiar to readers of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy) , the smallest square in Britain which was home to the Texan Republic’s embassy (until it joined the United States in 1845) and is also the last place in London where a duel was fought.
I have always loved to wander around the narrow streets that make up the quarter, looking for the blue plaques that mark the former homes of the great and the good. They include Lady Nancy Astor and Ada Lovelace in St James’s Square, Frederic Chopin on St James’s Place, Sir Isaac Newton on Jermyn Street and Emperor Napoleon III on King Street.
So of course I am thrilled to have been asked by St James’s to choose six of my favourite places in the quarter to write about here on LLG, and goodness it was hard to narrow down my list. There is such a wonderful mixture of storied retailers and newer labels, from Turnbull & Asser (currently celebrating 130 years in St James’s) to Tiger of Sweden, as well as countless restaurants, a few excellent hotels, some very stylish bars, England’s smartest grocery hall (Fortnum & Mason) and the home of the most delicious cheese purveyor in the world (Paxton & Whitfield).
In the end I chose six places in St James’s to which I have a personal connection, which speak to passions in my life and, most of all, excel at what they do. They are The Stafford Hotel, Christys’ Hats,N.Peal, Fortnum & Mason, OSPREY LONDON, and Orvis.
I’ve stayed in many hotels in London, but The Stafford has secured a special place in my heart. Back in the spring of 2011, I stayed there whilst I was covering London Fashion Week. I knew little about the hotel, tucked away down an easy to miss St James’s side street, bar that it was reputed to be astonishingly discreet (and therefore popular with diplomats & A-listers) and exceptionally comfortable.
The Stafford’s Main House is an elegant Victorian building, the former London residence of Lord and Lady Lyttelton, but there are two other parts to the hotel, the contemporary Suites, and the chic countryside interiors of The Carriage House, both set around the tranquil cobbled courtyard behind the Main House, which has a discreet private car entrance from the street outside. (When I stayed in one of the Suites my Fashion Week driver was able to drive right up to the door of the entrance hall of the suite.) Opposite the Suites is The Carriage House, once a royal mews and stables for the nobility in the 18th century, which still have their original split stable doors and wooden beams, and which now houses rooms, suites and The Guv’nor’s Suite.
But it isn’t just the hotel’s tranquil atmosphere and exemplary service that draws one in: there is quite a lot more to this lovely place. In the basement are the hotel’s 380 year old wine cellars, (containing some 8000 bottles of extraordinary wine), housed in a space which was originally built in the 12th Century by Lord Francis Godolphin, and beyond are the vaulted chambers which were used as impregnable bomb shelters during the air raids of the Second World War. (The Stafford was used as a billet for Allied officers.)
The hotel has kept the personal effects, fire fighting equipment & photos that were left down there, and it remains as the hotel’s memorial. (If you ask nicely when you are staying there the hotel will show you around.)
And that’s not the only part of the Second World War that the hotel honours. The extraordinary Resistance heroine Nancy Wake of the SEO, known as The White Mouse, lived at The Stafford for two years of her retirement, and her seat at the American Bar, where she drank six gin and tonics each day, is marked with a brass plaque.
Ah yes, the American Bar. It’s an institution in its own right where every available wall and surface is crammed with an intriguing collection of artefacts, knick-knacks and signed celebrity photographs donated by patrons and guests over the years. They also serve an excellent cocktail.
I inherited the Christy & Co fedora worn by my grandfather and, although it is a bit battered after some fifty years of wear, it’s still an excellent piece of headgear. Because I love this hat so much I had to include Christys’ in this story.
Situated in a tiny pocket handkerchief of a shop in Princes Arcade, which runs between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street, it is immediately obvious that this shop sells hats, hats and only hats. And, whilst the arcade itself was opened in 1933, Christy & Co Ltd has been manufacturing fine hats in England since 1773 through eight generations of the Christy family and across nine reigns of British royals starting with King George III. Christys’ is the only company in the world still making high quality top hats and bowlers in the traditional way, using hatting skills established over 200 years ago and keeping a valuable British industry very much alive.
They sell not just fedoras, but traditional bowler hats, trilbies, deerstalkers, flat caps, and top hats. The ‘Godfather’ Hat, worn by the lead character Don Corleone in the Godfather films is in fact the ‘Homburg Hat’ made by Christys’ Hats. The style became popular in 1899 when it was worn by Edward VII Prince of Wales, while in 1930-50 it was famously preferred by Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Sir Winston Churchill was also known for enjoying a Christys’ Homburg hat. (Christys’ also supplies bespoke ranges for the military and for police forces.)
And, whilst you might expect a piece of English history to cost you dearly, a Christy’s hat won’t cost you much more than £100. Which I think is a good price to pay for nearly 250 years of history and expertise. And what a wonderful Christmas present for both men and women.
Where does one even start with Fortnum & Mason, or Fortnums as we all call it? As a little girl I came here for ice creams in the Fountain, longed for my own hamper of Christmas goodies and scampered up and down the beautiful wooden staircase. Now as an adult I come here for facials in the beauty rooms, cake and afternoon tea with my mother,to try on hats in the millinery department, choose a new scent in the exquisite perfumery, and shop for English groceries in the food hall.
Fortnum’s cookbook by Tom Parker Bowles has just launched – it would make a lovely Christmas present.
And, happily, whilst the Fountain Restaurant is no more, the huge renovation in 2007 resulted in the most gorgeous new ice cream Parlour. Sweet-loving children (and grown-ups) will be in seventh heaven.
ahhhh N. Peal. This store always makes me think of my ineffably chic mama. She has long been an N. Peal aficionado, swathed in acres of the softest Scottish cashmere, and now that there is an N. Peal right on the corner of Piccadilly and Regent Street St James, it’s very easy to pop in for my fix. Like my beloved Christys’ it’s another beautiful tiny shop whose size belies its extraordinary contents.
N.Peal cashmere, like so many of the retailers in St James’s, has a fantastic backstory: Nat Peal was a man who knew an opportunity when he saw one. In 1936, a shop lay vacant in London’s famous Burlington Arcade, he moved in and the cashmere brand N.Peal was born. Three years later, when war broke out Peal, quite fortuitously, found himself stationed on the Shetland Isles. From here, he could supply his new store with beautiful, high quality sweaters, woven directly from the wool of Scotland’s famous sheep. Being able to supply the London market with products of this quality and craftsmanship, during ration time, meant the N.Peal name became a name in demand.
Their cashmere really does speak for itself: N. Peal can trace it right back to the individual herders who tend their goats on the vast steppes of Mongolia, and they understand the regional variation in quality, setting strict quality standards for the colour, fineness and length of the fibre they collect. They pride themselves on knowing every process of production from sorting to scouring, de-hairing, dyeing, spinning, twisting, knitting, linking and finishing. The final product is some of the best cashmere you can buy.
Another fashion house which takes me straight back to my childhood in the 80s in the best possible way is OSPREY LONDON.
Founded in 1980 by the then 25-year-old Graeme Ellisdon with just £500 of his own money, OSPREY LONDON had a huge immediate success with both rock and real royalty snapping up his beautiful handmade leather belts. (I remember very clearly Diana, Princess of Wales wearing OSPREY LONDON, and my mama carrying his bags) – because Ellisdon moved quickly to create gorgeous, vintage-inspired bags and accessories for women and men, earning OSPREY LONDON a well-deserved reputation for luxury leather with a modern and quintessentially English twist.
They now have the most extraordinary flagship store in a landmark building on Regent Street St James, just south of Piccadilly at the junction of Jermyn Street. The best way I can think of to describe it is as a treasure trove of loveliness. Those who remember the legendary General Trading Company will see its natural inheritor in this glorious two storey shop, filled not just with Osprey’s really beautiful (and cleverly priced – around the £2/300 mark) leather handbags, but all sorts of ephemera, china, and decorative pieces, from globes to lamps, tree baubles to bookends.
There’s also a lovely secret cafe in the basement which serves delicious cake and great coffee; it’s hard to believe that such an oasis of tranquility is literally steps from the craziness of Piccadilly Circus.
I first discovered Orvis when I was living in New Jersey back in 2009 and the darling Basset Hounds, Max and Finchley, who were also in residence, took their rest upon huge Orvis dog beds, embroidered with their names.
Orvis is an American store, but one which shares many traditional English values, rooted in the love and respect for the countryside. Really, it couldn’t be situated in a more suitable part of London.
Founded by Charles F. Orvis in Manchester, Vermont, in 1856, Orvis is America’s oldest mail-order outfitter and longest continually operating fly-fishing business. They stock a glorious assortment of things including men’s and women’s sportswear, gifts and home furnishings, luggage and travel accessories, dog beds and other pet items, as well as fine shotguns, gear, and technical apparel for wing shooting and sporting clays.
I’m afraid my single-track mind primarily loves this store because it is such a dog accoutrement specialist and they don’t bat an eyelid when Lettice crosses the threshold. But I also love that when you wander in looking for a new dog lead, one of their spectacularly comfy dog beds, or a piece of horn to act as a dog chew, the next thing you know you’re stroking a beautiful leather crossbody bag, or considering a delicious cable knit sweater.
It’s a treasury of wonderful things for an outdoor-focused life and, if you are struggling for a present for a friend who lives – or wishes they lives – in the country, then I guarantee that you will find them something lovely for Christmas within its four walls. (And do check out their incredible selection of fishing flies, some of which look like they’d be at home on a Christmas tree.)
It’s also worth noting that Orvis donates 5% of pre-tax profits every year to protecting nature, supporting communities, and advancing canine health and well-being. With a unique matching grant program, Orvis and its customers have raised and donated more than $14 million to protecting nature over the past 25 years.
We made quite the entrance when Lettice decided that the plush toys by the front door were a Category A threat and needed to be neutralised STAT. There was *quite* a lot of barking.
We also made a short film about shopping in St James, which you can watch here: www.stjameslondon.co.uk/correspondent/a-very-blogger-christmas
This post was written in association with St James’s.
The full directory of St James’s shops, hotels and restaurants can be found here