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.
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Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.