Sophie Campbell, a travel writer and Blue Badge tour guide in the London area, answers a few questions about St James’s.
Firstly, what to you makes St James's a one of a kind area in London?
For a start, it’s a planned area of London, a grid, which is always unusual, so it has a real feeling of intimacy about it. The area was founded by permission of King Charles II on St James’s Fields. It dates back to 1661, so the buildings have a real charm to them and many contemporary shops occupy fascinating sites. It’s always had style.
What examples of places, people, or moments do you think represent this area for its contemporary edge?
What’s fun about St James’s at the moment is that, around every corner is a surprise. That’s well illustrated at the moment by the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in the Safe Deposit, perhaps better known as The Pavilion in the new St James’s Market area, which has loads of compartments containing famous products from the area. You have top quality products, made using the incredible traditions of manufacturing and design, but you also have contemporary products; hats, shoes, shaving gear - they’ve got the old and the new. Sunspel, for example, virtually invented the boxer short and is here in situ. Fortnum and Mason invented the Scotch egg but will just as happily sell you quinoa. In the Royal Arcade, you can do painting lessons in a wine bar, what a genius idea.
What examples of places, people, or moments do you think represent St James's for its historic relevance?
Firstly St James's Palace. It is important to realise that St James’s Palace is still the ‘senior’ royal palace, older and in many ways more important than Buckingham Palace. Its history is simply incredible. St James’s is also where Queen Elizabeth I heard about the Armada, where King Charles I walked to his death on Whitehall, where the ‘Warming Pan Baby’ - later the 'Old Pretender' - was born. As time went on, St James’s attracted aristocrats who hung out at Almack’s assembly rooms and the gentlemen’s clubs. This is also where the art world was based. Thomas Gainsborough lived here and John Julius Angerstein’s legendary collection of paintings on Pall Mall would later form the kernel of the National Gallery’s collection.
Lastly, what examples of places, people, or moments do you think represent this area for its Hidden Gems?
Tucked away in Mason’s Yard is White Cube, the contemporary art gallery, with its subterranean white space, and the display window of the London Library. Then of course there’s the London Library. A subscription library that’s not far off 200 years old, but is always adding to its extraordinary collection of books. There are reliefs left over from the much-loved St James’s Theatre, which Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh failed to save. There’s an indebted Duke of York on a 124-ft column. At Orvis, you can learn to fly fish without water. St James's is also home to the gallery owned by Philip Mould - star of BBC1’s Fake or Fortune. Lastly, it's also home to the Royal Society, arguably the oldest scientific institution in the world.
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