What a delight to join an “in-person” Somerville London Group event – a guided walk through the fabulous district of Mayfair in the entertaining company of our guide, Marilyn Collis. Fifteen resilient souls joined Marilyn and were rewarded with beautiful early evening sunshine and mild temperatures, a two hour stroll and refreshing drinks at the pub to finish!
We started at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly and paused to enjoy the 6 o’clock chimes from Fortnum & Mason’s amusing clock – the figures of Messrs Fortnum & Mason appear every hour beside the clock, bearing candelabras in tribute to their brilliant early business idea of recycling Queen Anne’s candles. We moved quietly through the Burlington Arcade to avoid being arrested by the beadles – any group of Somerville alumnae is generally chatty, so this was quite an effort – and admired the smart shops, and jewellers, including the makers of Victoria Cross medals.
This area of London is well populated with Royal Warrants – the badge awarded for excellent standards and service – evidencing the density of wealthy and aristocratic residents in the area from its beginnings in the 17th century up to today. Loyal friends of Charles II were rewarded with tracts of land after the Restoration – which started to develop into fashionable Mayfair after the Great Fire of 1666 prompted moves westwards and aristocratic families built amazing homes such as Burlington House.
The neighbourhood is now particularly well endowed with public art including “Horse & Rider” by Elisabeth Frink, the renowned “Allies” sculpture of Roosevelt and Churchill, a fascinating water installation outside The Connaught Hotel, and, for the month of September, a sensational display of tropical foliage and birds outside Annabel’s nightclub in Berkeley Square. Many art galleries and enticing shop window displays make it particularly eye-catching to explore.
As we marvelled at the stunning architecture, (“Look UP!” said Marilyn on several occasions) we could see how this area of London was thoughtfully designed and planned along wide, straight streets, green squares with mature London Plane trees, elegant townhouses and sumptuous hotels. Our route took us through Burlington Arcade, along Albemarle Street, across Bond Street, The Royal Arcade, down Hay Hill, across Berkeley Square and up to Mount Street Gardens, an oasis in the middle of the bustle. We enjoyed many delightful stories, including how Rudyard Kipling completed The Jungle Book at Brown’s, Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call across the Atlantic, and the invention of the first one-way street to handle the carriages and crowds attending Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
The streets are bristling with blue plaques that provide a fascinating insight to many distinguished figures – Beau Brummell, Anthony Eden, W.Somerset Maugham, Caroline Norton, and so many more. After admiring the bookshop where Nancy Mitford worked, and the Church where 700 sheltered during the Blitz, we adjourned to Shepherd Market for drinks at Ye Grapes public house, est 1882.
This was a really entertaining and enjoyable way to re-acquaint ourselves with central London and all her glories after the prolonged isolation of the pandemic. Thank you to everyone who ventured out, and to Marilyn for her expert and erudite guidance.