Where is it?
Pall Mall in Westminster, stretches in a south westerly direction from Trafalgar Square for about 600 metres to St James’s Palace. The West End (theatre land) and Piccadilly Circus are off to the north east, Mayfair is above and Green Park to the left with St James’s Park directly below. You’re more likely to encounter tourists wandering along the adjacent ‘The Mall, at the end of which is Buckingham Palace, but don’t worry, Pall Mall and its surrounding streets have much to offer.
What’s the story?
The first major event that changed what was largely marsh land in to a Royal hotspot was when King Henry VIII knocked down a leper hospital (called St James) to build a palace of the same name, finished in 1536. The unusual name of the street ‘Pall Mall’, which leads from it, derives from the Italian game of ‘Pallo a Maglio’ (ball to mallet) which seems to have been a cross between croquet and golf, popular amongst the Monarchs and aristocracy in the 17th century.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, many wealthy families decanted to the area and the nearby St James’s Square became the place to live. As such, many of the shops close by were set up to service the Royals and aristocrats.
In 1807 Pall Mall became the first street in London to have gas lighting, and like much of Westminster still has a large number of gas lamps, many of which date back to the 1820s.
How do I get there?
Green Park, Piccadilly and Charing Cross Underground stations are all just a five-minute walk from Pall Mall.
What’s it like now?
Pall Mall still exudes a high level of grandeur, largely emanating from the large number of *gentlemen’s clubs that I will undoubtedly never set foot in, and more than likely, neither will you. There'll also be nothing to tell you they even exist. Quite a number of the shops that were founded in the 17th and 18th centuries are still knocking around too.
I learned a lot about London and its history through curiosity rather than academic study, and as such spent a great deal of time wandering in to buildings and offices and talking to the people that work there. The imposing Athenaeum club founded in 1824 on the corner of Pall Mall and Waterloo Place was one such establishment, and I recall being rather curtly escorted out. However, do have a look at the wonderful street antiques directly outside; horse blocks requested by the Duke of Wellington himself in 1830 to aid with the getting on and off his horse when visiting the club.
*A ‘gentlemen’s club’ in this instance refers to a private member’s (still often male dominated) club that doesn't so much involve naked women lap dancing, but wealthy old men sitting around in leather arm chairs smoking cigars.
Where should I stay?
As you can probably imagine, any hotels in this area aren’t going to be for the budget traveller, but I have been a few times to the Hotel Sofitel London St James to pick people up for private tours, and also the Cavendish Hotel, which is just the other side of St James’s Square on the corner of Jermyn Street and Duke Street St James.
Even if you can’t afford to stay at the The Stafford Hotel just off St James’s Street, you should (especially if you’re American) pop in for a cocktail at their American Bar, which is decked with American football helmets, baseball caps, military regalia and other US based paraphernalia left by guests, including a letter from Ronald Reagan.
What’s of interest?
Presiding over the opposite end of The Mall from Admiralty Arch is the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace which will undoubtedly be on the must see list for any first time visitors to London. Since 1993 parts of Buckingham Palace including the State Rooms and garden, have been open to the public for a couple of months each summer whilst the Queen is at her Balmoral Estate in Scotland. You can check dates and availability on the Buckingham Palace website to see if opening times coincide with your visit.
A lot of first timers like to catch a glimpse of the ‘Changing the Guard’ ceremony which takes place in and around Buckingham Palace each day in the summer and every other day during the winter months. Although I understand the attraction for visitors I personally don’t think it’s a great spectator friendly spectacle, so if you want to make sure you get the best vantage points and understand what on earth is actually going on, then Fun London Tours offer regular ‘Changing The Guard’ tours.
Green Park and St James’s Park
When Buckingham Palace was originally built as Buckingham House back in the early 18th century it was effectively a country retreat surrounded by park land, now reduced to Green Park and St James’s Park. Of the two, I think St James’s Park is the more pleasant. As the name Green Park suggests, there’s not much going on in the way of flowers. St James’s Park not only has an abundance of flora, but offers great views from the blue bridge crossing the lake. The park frames Buckingham Palace in one direction and the almost fairy tale castle-esque rooftops of Whitehall in the other. You’ll also notice a lot of birds which have been a feature since the the 17th century when the park housed a large aviary. The road which runs along the park’s south side is still called Birdcage Walk. Keep an eye out for the Pelicans which have been resident in the park since 1664. Not the same ones obviously.
St James’s Palace
If you walk down the Mall from Buckingham Palace, the whole area to your left is dominated by the precinct of St James’s Palace. You’ll pass Lancaster House, then arrive at a gate through which you will undoubtedly spot a couple of guards and a large white, early 19th century building. This is Clarence House, currently home of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
One of the oldest surviving parts of St James’s Palace, on Pall Mall behind Clarence House, is the original gate house, dating back to 1536. A dead giveaway that it’s an old building are the ‘loopholes’ through which arrows could be fired to protect the entrance. You’ll be amazed that you can get so close to the official residence of the Royal Family, yet you probably won’t see another tourist there.
Clustered around the bottom end of St James’s Street where it meets Pall Mall are some of my favourite shops in London which you should definitely pop in if you have time. They all have Royal Warrants which means they currently sell a product or service to either the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh or Prince Charles and in most cases have serviced Monarchs for centuries.
Berry Bros & Rudd
The Queen’s wine shop, Berry Bros & Rudd began selling coffee in 1698 and although they’ve been a wine shop for most of the three hundred odd years they've been in business, their sign outside still shows a coffee grinder. They’ve held a Royal Warrant since the reign of George III and amazingly, beneath the street, boast some two and a half miles of wine cellar.
Lock & Co
The oldest hat shop in the world and inventors of the ‘bowler’ hat, have been making and selling hats since 1676. They have provided hats for the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Duke of Wellington and Horatio Nelson and once received a postcard simply addressed to ‘the best hat shop in London’. If you want to discover some of their other famous customers, check out the signed, miniature head templates they have framed on the wall.
A couple of doors up from Lock & Co is John Lobb, a boot maker who having been in business for just over 150 years is the new kid on the block. If you go inside, you can watch the craftsmen and women at work and see their array of wooden lasts including Queen Victoria’s.
Truefitt & Hill
Truefitt and Hill is a barbershop that has been providing gentlemen with the finest grooming products and services since 1805, and as such, makes them the oldest barbershop in the world.
Crown Passage is a tiny alleyway running from Pall Mall, parallel to St James’s Street and I only mention it, firstly because it wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter film, but secondly, if you’re peckish there’s a good amount of sandwich shops. In fact, almost all the local eateries are on this one narrow passage. There’s also the Red Lion pub and for a more comprehensive food selection go to Davy’s Wine bar at the opposite end, a cavernous basement area hidden away down a staircase. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be the only tourists in there.
St James’s Square
A nice spot to sit and have a picnic in the summer (along with hundreds of office workers) is St James’s Square. Finished in 1677, the square, as was the custom, was a private garden for the wealthy residents surrounding it. The private houses are now businesses, but Nancy Astor was living at No.4 when she became the first female politician in 1919 and Norfolk House was the HQ of Anglo / American intelligence during WWII and was where Eisenhower directed the Allied Expeditionary Forces for the D-Day landings in 1944.
At the bottom of the Mall, next to Admiralty Arch and housed in a white colonnaded building is the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), which was originally founded in 1946 as an institute to champion all contemporary arts and has regular exhibitions, talks, films, theatre and performance.
Within spitting distance of Pall Mall are a number of other Monopoly square properties that I shall be visiting in future posts, including Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Piccadilly and Leicester Square.
If you wander around London and in particular Mayfair, St James's Street and Piccadilly (or indeed many other parts of the UK), you might notice a particular shop displaying a small, or occasionally large coat of arms with a bit of blurb saying 'By Appointment to Her Majesty The Queen'. It basically means that they supply goods or services to the Royal Family. This one belongs to H. R Higgins, specialist supplier of fine coffee and tea.
It's not just The Queen though, it could be for HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, or HRH The Prince of Wales ... AKA 'The Big Three'.
About 800 individuals or companies hold prestigious Royal Warrants and it could be an individual practicing traditional crafts or a massive computer company. Either way, it is supposed to signify a mark of quality and they can apply for Royal Warrant status after they've been supplying any one of 'The Big Three' with whatever it is they supply, for five years. However, if you're a fan of 'After Eight' mints (like me), or Jacob's Cream Crackers (can't say I'm a massive fan), then you might have noticed that the Royal Warrant has been subtly omitted from their product packaging in recent years. It seems that some companies just aren't feeling the prestige as much as they once did.
That aside, you can pretty much guarantee that many of the companies and shops that are proud owners of a Royal Warrants have been around for donkeys and in some cases continued to serve the Royal Family for centuries. H. R Higgins (above) on that note are pretty new to the game, only receiving there's in 1979 I think.
The earliest record of a Royal Charter dates back to 1155 and was granted by Henry II to the Weavers' Company. Also, perusing lists of Royal Tradesmen over the years, shines an intriguing light on how things have changed. Henry VIII for instance employed a guy called Thomas Hewytt to 'Serve the court with Swanes and Cranes', whilst Charles II, in 1684 couldn't possibly survive without his Sword Cutter, Operator for the Teeth and very importantly, his Goffe-Club Maker. The whole operation was formalised by Queen Victoria in 1840 and Royal Warrants are now granted and overseen by what is now called the Royal Warrant Holders Association. Here are some of my favourite holders of Royal Warrants (in no particular order):
Lock & Co - Hatters
Lock & Co have been making hats since 1676, which makes them the oldest hat shop in the world. They have provided hats for Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Lord Nelson. In fact, you can see drawings they still have inside the shop of Nelson's hat measurements. They also are responsible for bringing about the once ubiquitous 'bowler hat' although, they'd call it the Coke (I might tell you why another time). To give you an idea of the kudos they have in the world of hat making, they once received a postcard from overseas, addressed simply to 'the best hatters in the world, London.' Enough said.
Berry Bros & Rudd - Wine & Spirit Merchants
Although they sell alcohol, confusingly, Berry Bros & Rudd have a picture of a coffee grinder on the sign outside their 315 year old shop. The reason being that when they started off at the end of the 17th century, they sold coffee to the reasonably newish coffee houses that had been popping up. They have some huge coffee scales, and the likes of Lord Byron and William Pitt have sat on them to be weighed. They still have all the leather bound volumes of various people's weights inside the rickety shop and until recently boasted the largest wine cellars in London; a whopping 8,000 square feet over two floors. They began their Royal connection back during the reign of King George III.
Floris - Perfumers
I really like Floris on Jermyn Street. I very much doubt that when people meet me, they think, 'this guy likes to buy luxury fragrances' but I've always found the staff in Floris to be incredibly friendly and helpful, despite my obvious lack of interest in smelly water. Founded in 1730 by Juan Famenias Floris, as a perfumers, comb maker and purveyor of shaving products, they received their first Royal Warrant from George IV in 1820 as his Smooth Pointed Comb Maker. Aside from an amazing array of fragrances, they have a tiny little pseudo museum in the back room, which among other things includes a letter from Florence Nightingale to Mr Floris thanking him for his 'beautiful sweet-smelling nosegays'.
Paxton & Whitfield - Cheesemonger
Despite the name, which could almost be bywords for 'quality' and 'cheese', the seed of the business was actually sown by a bloke called Stephen Cullum who had a cheese stall in Aldwych Market back in 1742. His son Sam, moved the business to west London where many of his wealthy customers were based and took on two new partners, Henry Paxton and Charles Whitfield who somehow in 1797 managed to join their two names to become what is still today Paxton & Whitfield. They received their first Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1850 and have had mixed blessings over the years, as the popularity of cheese has waxed and waned, not mention rationing in the 1940's when they were forced to become a regular grocery shop. I'm very pleased to say they seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, with shops also in Stratford Upon Avon, Bath and the Cotswolds.
Hatchards - Booksellers
Hatchards, started by John Hatchard in 1797 has the distinction of being London's oldest bookshop. Based on Piccadilly, just next to Fortnum and Mason and opposite the Royal Academy of Arts, it's famous for the myriad of authors and politicians that have done book signings there and is crammed with books over five floors. They also hold Royal Warrants for all of 'The Big Three' and if you're a bit worried that Waterstones just a hop and a skip down the road might be stealing their business, then in fact, Waterstones bought Hatchards, but kept the much older and more prestigious name. It does mean though that if someone buys you Waterstones vouchers, you can use them in Hatchards too. Bonus.
And last but not least ...
John Anderson Hire Ltd - Portable Toilet Hire
Pretty much every Sunday I visit Columbia Road Flower Market on my east end walk. Every Sunday, there is a guy asleep in a land rover, behind which he has towed (for the use of visitors to the market) a portable toilet. Emblazoned on the doors of his vehicle is the Royal Warrant (which you can see above). Every time I use the toilet, which I do every Sunday, the emptying of my bladder feels that little bit more special, knowing that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II might have used the very same one ... albeit probably not the gents. So thank you very much John Anderson Hire Ltd for the wonderful service.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.