Think you have to be a millionaire to shop here? Think again. Everyone can find their own slice of luxury in this wonderful part of London
Regency style icon Beau Brummell memorably observed that, “To be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.” This certainly summarises the understated luxury I saw in St James's, one of London’s smartest and least touristy areas.
Situated south of Piccadilly, the hub of London’s West End, St James's is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon walking down beautiful streets, visiting art galleries and sampling the delights of the gorgeous shops. You may be surprised to discover that such luxury can be sampled on a budget – though of course the sky’s the limit if you are lucky enough to have the funds.
One thing you cannot get cheaply is accommodation - I stayed at the Crescent Hotel B&B in nearby Bloomsbury. An excellent choice for budget travellers, a single room with en-suite shower costs £56 per night (£5 cheaper if you don't mind sharing a shower with two other rooms). My room was simple and cosy, and I found the staff to be friendly and efficient. The full English breakfast kept me going for hours, and there were several other choices including porridge.
Landmarks of St James's and Piccadilly in London
St James’s Palace on Pall Mall, with its dramatic Tudor gatehouse, is one of London’s major landmarks. Built on the site of a leper hospital in 1532 by Henry VIII, it became the official royal residence of Charles II in 1698. Nearby St James’s Park was also initiated by Henry who bought an area of marshland, draining it in order to create more hunting grounds for himself.
The Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD; 020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk) was founded by George III in 1768. Its beautiful building, Burlington House, is a landmark in itself, and it is lovely to sit by the fountain on a sunny day and watch the world go by. The Sackler Wing houses Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Taddei Tondo (The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John). Sotheby’s on Bond Street is another iconic destination.
For more contemporary art visit Jay Jopling’s White Cube (25-26 Mason’s Yard, London SW1Y 6BU; 020 7930 5373; www.whitecube.com) just off Duke Street. One of the most influential galleries of recent years, it has exhibited work by many top artists, including Sam Taylor-Wood, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst.
Shopping in St James's
No-one can think of St James's without thinking of Fortnum and Mason (181 Piccadilly, London, W1A 1ER; 020 7734 8040; www.fortnumandmason.com). This legendary store was set up in 1707 by Hugh Mason and William Fortnum. The entrepreneurial William, a footman to the Royal Family, started the business by selling on unused candle wax – it seems the household insisted on fresh candles each evening. Today all kinds of luxury products can be purchased in this beautiful space which combines heritage and modernity. I found the confectionary section particularly distracting.
Duke Street is home to some wonderful galleries and bookshops. Particularly intriguing is Peter Finer Antique Arms and Armaments (38-39 Duke Street, London SW1Y 6DF; 020 7839 5666; www.peterfiner.com), which has wonderful swords and suits of armour. Cork Street also has many galleries.
Jermyn Street dates back to 1664. It started out specialising in fine clothing for gentleman, particularly bespoke shirts. Fittingly, there is a bronze statue of Brummel for passers by to admire. It is now possible to buy a wide variety of luxury goods, including cigars, womens clothing and specialist food, particularly cheese at Paxton and Whitfield (93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE; 020 7930 0259; www.paxtonandwhitfield.co.uk), which opened in 1797.
Do remember to take a look around the arcades. Burlington and Piccadilly are full of delightful jewellery, clothing and antique shops. The red-carpeted Burlington Arcade is patrolled by beadles, who ensure that a suitable atmosphere of refinement is kept at all times. Running is inappropriate, and the only person allowed to whistle there is Sir Paul McCartney. It seems the beadle in question got quite a shock when he tapped the famous Beatle on the shoulder a few years ago.
Things to do around St James's for free:
- Visit St James's Square. One of London’s earliest squares, this was laid out in the 1670s. Admire the beautiful Georgian and Neo-Georgian houses and look out for the blue plaques which give details of famous residents – Lady Astor, Britain’s first female MP lived at number 4. Relax in the beautiful gardens and admire the statue of William III.
- Go window shopping. The streets are full of beautiful shops.
- Enjoy an hour long tour of the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Things to do for under £10:
- Buy some Ladurée macaroons (71-72 Burlington Arcade, London W1; 020 7491 9155; www.laduree.fr). They really do melt in the mouth.
- A beautifully packaged tin of Smoky Earl Grey tea from Fortnum and Mason costs £7.75
Things to do for under £25:
- Visit an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and treat yourself to something from the gift shop. There is always something interesting to see – currently The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters (£12 adults, £8 concessions).
- Go to the The Parlour at Fortnum and Mason for an ice-cream sundae (£8 - £15 plus service) or Viennese cakes and strudels (£5 - £7). Tea is served in a wonderfully ornate silver pot (£5.50) or, for the ultimately luxury, try F&M’s famous hot chocolate (£7).
Thing to do for under £50:
- Buy an exquisite Lulu Guinness purse from Fortnum and Mason.
- Rediscover a favourite novel at Bill Amberg leather goods (14 Burlington Arcade, London, W1; 020 7499 0962; www.billamberg.com). He has produced some beautiful calves’ leather bound Penguin modern classics (£30), including Oscar WIlde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Indeed, the famous jewellery shop can be found in nearby Old Bond Street.
Things to do for up to £100:
- For the ultimate in understated elegance, pop into Sermoneta Gloves (51 Burlington Arcade, London W1; 020 7491 9009; www.sermonetagloves.com) for some Italian leather gloves lined with silk or fine cashmere.
- Buy a niche scent from Fortnum and Mason Perfumery. Caron’s Fountain Perfumes, with the giant Baccarat Louis XV style urns, are sensational.