Welcome to Around Town Online, part of British Heritage’s move to bring you some exciting extras beyond the realms of the print magazine.
Don’t worry–I’ll still be writing Around Town in the physical publication, but here I can talk about different, more timely things I think you might enjoy but would be long-gone if I put them into the magazine.
I’ll be telling you about interesting events, customs, shops, shows and up-to-the-minute travel tips, and we’ll be looking to make this section work for you, so if you have any ideas about what would make Around Town more useful for your visit, let us know!
A few months ago, I wrote about London Historians. The club is a must to join if you’re a serious London nut, but if you’re just looking to spend a jolly evening with a few like-minded people on a visit to the capital, they hold pub-meets on the first Wednesday of the month. Just send Mike Paterson an email, you’ll find his contact details on their website. I know they’ll give you a warm welcome.
A lot of members are also tour guides and from time to time I get invited to stress-test a new walk someone’s devised. Basically I join them, asking as many awkward questions as I can dream up so they can see how long a tour might take and what kind of queries might arise.
Royal parks, quiet alleyways and pistols at dawn
Sandy Rhodes from Hobnob Tours usually guides around Hampton Court (highly recommended, I took a turn round the palace with her last month) but yesterday she asked me to help her with a new walk she’s creating through St James.
It’s glorious weather over here just now, after a less-than sparkling winter. Just right for walking through St James’ Park, discovering the joys of gentlemen’s clubs, royalty and some of the capital’s oldest, poshest stores, all of which seem to have started as street stalls.
Sandy knows her stuff and even my deliberately cussed questions were fielded with charm. It’s going to be a great walk, with a little bit of everything, including cheese tasting, perfume sniffing and even a peer into one of London’s most exclusive (and oldest) hat shops.
I learned a lot as Sandy led me down side streets and quiet alleyways to see where kings played, gentry were weighed and a few duels fought by daring young blades.
The word ‘Pall Mall’ comes from the old game of ‘palle-malle’, a kind of early croquet played in the 16th and 17th centuries, the words originally coming from the Italian for ‘balloon’ and ‘mallet’. Charles II built a palle-malle alley as part of St James’s Park. Samuel Pepys was impressed; he reckoned it was almost half a mile long. The Mall, which runs parallel to Pall Mall along to Buckingham Palace, is merely an abbreviation, but the word has now come to mean any shaded walkway.
Sneak-peeks at dawn
Henry VIII’s gatehouse to St James’ Palace is still as grand as it ever was, and still used for its intended purpose–a home to Royalty. The palace isn’t open to the public but you can get in to part of it if you’re prepared to get up early.
The Chapel Royal holds services on Sundays, except August and September, at 8.30am and 11.15am. The later one is most popular, for obvious reasons, but if you can make the early one, I’m told it’s more atmospheric.
A good place to watch the Changing of the Guard
Sandy and I slipped down Marlborough Road at the side of the palace, where a small crowd had gathered to watch the troops parading for the Changing of the Guard. It was a crowd, yes, but only a small one in comparison to the giant mob waiting at Buckingham Palace. You get to see lots of parading, hear some music and then follow the bandsmen down to Buck House.
Built on the site of a leper hospital, St James’ Park was commandeered by Henry VIII as a hunting park, making it the oldest of the eight Royal Parks. Its marshland was drained by James I but Charles II really stamped his mark, landscaping making the area into a pleasure ground. He liked to feed the ducks.
This time of year, it’s full of delicate blossom, spring flowers, palace-views, fountains and, er, pelicans, which have been hopping around Duck Island since 1664 when the Russian Ambassador, who must have heard Charles II liked ducks, brought some over as a gift. They are fed fresh fish between 2.30pm and 3.00pm each day.
Crusty old gents, champagne cocktails and a wager won
From pelicans to penguin suits. Sandy and I wandered up Carlton Steps towards the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall. They’re the stuff of legend: The Carlton, White’s, Boodles, the Atheneum. The Reform Club, where fictitious Phineas Fogg accepted a wager he could not travel around the world in 80 days. Bucks, where Bucks Fizz was invented. The Travellers Club, where you once had to have traveled at least 500 miles out of the British Isles in a straight line to qualify for membership, plus, of course, the usual proposal-and-seconding rigmarole. Oh, and you couldn’t be a woman. Many clubs still don’t accept female members, though some grudgingly allow girls into certain areas, appropriately chaperoned.
Stores of style, distinction—and discretion
The gentlemen who frequented these exclusive establishments had money and influence, and they wanted the best. An industry of services and shops grew around St James to cater for their every whim.
From waistcoat-manufacturers to cheesemongers, barbers to hat makers, wine merchants to shirt-tailors, chocolatiers to shoemakers, the wares, services and food in and around St James remain of the finest quality. Shoe lasts, shirt patterns and hat-molds are quietly kept for distinguished clientele.
Hat shops such as the splendid Lock & Co., which still creates all its millinery on site, including trimmings. Perfumeries, like the richly-fragranced Floris in Jermyn Street and cheesemongers such as Paxton and Whitfield, almost next door and carrying delightful aromas of their own.
Candles, Scotch Eggs and Heinz Baked Beans
Wax candles around St James might have been second-hand but they were, naturally, royal cast-offs. One Mr. Fortnum, a footman in Queen Anne’s court, saved half-used candles from the palace and, together with his business partner, Mr. Mason, sold them on a street stall. I understand business wasn’t bad...
Of course Fortnum & Mason is now an institution; ancient, elegant and sophisticated. Always looking to find the next big thing, Fortnum’s ‘scotched egg’ was the first ‘fast food' for travellers. The shop was the first British purchaser of Heinz Baked Beans and won a medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851 for its innovative imports.
Chimes of the Times
I confess I assumed everything about F&M was really old so I was surprised to find the fabulous clock outside only dates back to 1965. Still, it’s worth looking up on the hour to watch Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason appear then bow to each other as the bells chime.
Wooden Spoons at Dawn
Just before Easter I visited the Gallery restaurant on Fortnum’s ground floor, to taste the winning preserves from the annual Marmalade Awards. I was so excited by the idea I’m determined to enter the competition myself this year and I’m hoping some of you will join me.
The ‘Marmalade Breakfast’ sees a bagpipe player ceremonially piping-in the winning preserves, and from there on it gets more marmalade-y with every course. Marmalade with hot cross buns, marmalade with breakfast meats, marmalade with madeleines…you name it. Somehow it reflects the spirit of the competition.
Sponsored by Fortnum’s (among others, including Paddington Bear) the ‘home-made’ category received 2,600 entries last year from all over the world, from Taiwan to Alaska.
Spare a thought for the two doughty Women’s Institute ladies who test every single jar. The standard is frighteningly high but the winner’s recipe is sold in Fortnum and Mason for a year with the proceeds going to hospice charities.
If, like me, you’re a preserving fan and fancy having a go, why not download an entry form. If you choose, you can donate your entry fee to your local hospice instead.
Good luck; may the best preserver win.