A lot of people visiting London love to go shopping but stick to the “name” chain stores and fashion boutiques around Oxford Street.
But there are some shops that are icons of a particular time and style and here I want to share with you some lesser-known gems on the London shopping scene.
I’m talking here about shops that are redolent of a particular past – the gentlemen’s clubs of Regency London, the Pooteresque world of the City in the late nineteenth century, the Arts & Crafts world of William Morris or the Bloomsbury of Virginia Woolf. You can do your shopping wherever you like in London, but these shops are places you must not miss.
Some of London’s greatest shops have gone. Though not a smoker, I used to love looking at the window of Smith & Sons (Charing Cross Road), full of cigars, meerschaum pipes, and gold-painted tins of tobacco; the frontage, with its golden block lettering on blue, painted on glass, is sheer Victoriana – offset by the slightly seedy feeling of the bright yellow sign advertising the walk-in humidor. But on a recent visit I saw the windows empty and a sad ‘to let’ sign displayed.
Fortunately smokers can still visit JJ Fox in St James’s Street – not just a fine cigar shop, it also has a free cigar and smoking museum containing Winston Churchill’s favourite smoking chair.
What could be more typically British than complaining about the weather? It may not be surprising then that London has a fascinating umbrella shop, James Smith & Sons, established 1830 (as it proudly claims on the frontage) and still in its Victorian premises on New Oxford Street, to which it moved in 1857. The signage is magnificent – gothic lettering marching the width of the façade – and if you want an umbrella with a difference, this is a wonderful place to buy one. I still regret a fine leather-handled purple brolly I bought there once and managed to lose somewhere between the City and the Savoy.
Liberty could have become just any old department store of its era, like the Army & Navy or Dickins & Jones. Instead, it’s kept true to its Arts & Crafts roots by featuring modern art and design. The half-timbered fake Tudor exterior is a loving creation of a medieval style past; I’m always thrilled to put my hands on the solid wooden banister of the stairs and think just how long it has been there and how many hands have rested there before mine. And of course you can buy fabrics and shawls in the famed Liberty print, which takes Indian inspired Paisley designs and makes them over into something quintessentially English and indeed rather Home Counties.
Head to Floris in Jermyn Street for a scent of the past – it was founded in 1730; the store is still full of mahogany shelves and counters and the hushed reverence of the past. Floris’ perfumes are something quite different from your usual department store scent counter favourites – I can always find something I like, with resinous or citrusy freshness, while friends of mine prefer the more floral scents. And if you’re heading to Jermyn Street, you should also stop off at the venerable Paxton & Whitfield cheese shop, and look in the window of Taylor of Old Bond Street, where badger hair shaving brushes and fine soaps are displayed.
For the true gentleman, a visit to his club needs to be prepared by a trip to one of the fine shops on St James’s Street – wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, which opened at no 3 in 1698 and is still there. Gents may also like Lobb’s bootmakers, or Lock & Co hatters where you can get a trilby, fedora, pork pie, or a real Panama; or a tweed cap for your rainy country weekend to go with your umbrella for the London weather.
All these businesses are preserved very much as they might have been years ago. But appearances can be deceptive. Despite its antique veneer (the paintwork on the façade seems never to have been stripped, just painted over again and again), Berry Bros is a very up-to-date business – it was the first wine merchant to go online and even runs BX, an online trading platform.
When I make a shopping trip to London, I like to stay within easy reach of the above shops while also being right opposite the tranquility of Kensington Gardens by taking one of the London luxury suites at The Baglioni.
This post was written by Andrea Kirkby.