For such a grand thoroughfare, Burlington Arcade cuts a surprisingly understated dash. Sitting quietly off the storied sweep of Piccadilly, the south entrance of the gallery is set back, easy to miss and marked only by a restrained mid-blue flag — today flying gently against a fresh spring sky.
But it pays to look left as you jostle along with blinkered commuters and head-bowed businessmen. For, although others walk by, the unobtrusive entrance is well worth your time. And, fresh out of Green Park station, I have today come to Mayfair for a trip down the historic arcade — to learn what secrets lie behind its 43 dark wooden storefronts and under its white arched roof.
“For the sale of jewellery, and fancy articles of fashionable demand…”
Standing at the south entrance of Burlington Arcade, it stretches out into the distance like an exercise in perspective drawing. And, 180 metres in the distances, a glimmer of Bond Street will draw you inside. Indeed, even after my first few steps down the gallery, macaron specialist Ladurée and French designer Vilebrequin have already tempted me in equal measure with sweet scents and swim shorts.
But this was the initial aim of the arcade; to act ‘for the sale of jewellery, and fancy articles of fashionable demand’. And this year, the capital’s most iconic shopping destination will have been actively trading for 200 years. That means that two centuries of memorable moments for designers, retailers and customers will be marked with immersive installations, gift wrapping, personalisation, bespoke services and other experiences — to heighten your already heady whirl down the gallery.
And what a gallery it is. As one of the first ever shopping arcades, Burlington was opened in 1819 after George Cavendish, the 1st Earl of Burlington, became exasperated at the number of oyster shells being thrown over the garden wall of his adjoining Burlington House. The sensible, albeit not frugal move, was to build a covered arcade to put distance between his property and the litter louts.
The arcade was also said to have been built to allow Cavendish’s wife to shop safely — away from the busy, dirty and crime-riddled open streets of the capital. Walking down the quiet gallery, it’s easy to see why it felt so safe.
But, while there were 72 small shops then, that number has almost halved today. The property has also been acquired and swapped hands several times in recent years and seen a number of renovations. Most notably, the floor upon which I’m walking has been reimagined into a contemporary geometric design — one that busies itself into a patterned frenzy as you near the Chanel store at the gallery’s mid-point.
"This year, the capital’s most iconic shopping destination will have been trading for 200 years..."
And, over the years, the finest and most favoured brands have taken up residence under the arcade’s white arches, with many Royal Warrant holders also making their homes within these walls. Currently, you’ll pass two at the mid-point; Penhaligon’s and Hancocks. The former, a British perfume house, holds two long standing warrants to The Prince of Wales and The Duke of Edinburgh.
The latter, a retail jeweller, is the sole manufacturers of the Victoria Cross — a military award crafted from the metal of a bronze cannon captured from the Russians during the war. The whole arcade stands as both testament and tribute to the quality of British manufacturing, and the unrivalled range of shops sells everything from home-grown antiques and accessories, to fragrances and footwear.
Crockett & Jones walk the gallery, along with fellow shoemakers Church’s. The scents of Atkinson’s and True Grace drift through the arcade. And Mulberry and N.Peal outfit the customers of the capital from their stores in the storied shopping destination.
“No singing, humming, hurrying, or behaving boisterously"
But Burlington Arcade can be credited with more than just overhauling London’s commerce scene. Peering into the windows of shops from Bell & Ross to the Vintage Rolex store, a group of striking dressed officials closely watch me watching the watches.
These are The Beadles. Bedecked in gold-braided top hats and gold-buttoned frock coats — supplied by Savile Row tailor Henry Poole — these guards of the arcade are the world’s first official police force. Originally, they were members of Cavendish’s former regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, and were were employed to stop shoppers if they began humming, hurrying, riding bicycles or ‘behaving boisterously’ in the arcade.
Out of the gates
With Bond Street looming large, and escaping the beady eyes of The Beadles, I pass by boutiques including Michael Rose to Manolo Blahnik to reach the black-gold columns of the Burlington Arcade gates. Over the centuries, there have been many threats to the gallery — including fires in 1836 and 1871, looting in 1936 and bombing raids of World War II. But the gates, beautiful in their own right, were installed after a robbery in 1964.
Six masked men commandeered a Jaguar Mark X, barrelled it down the centre of the arcade — scattering pedestrians in their path — and smashed and stole over £35,000 worth of jewellery from the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Association shop.
Today, such a dramatic story seems worlds away from the serene, spectacular atmosphere of London’s most iconic shopping parade. But, passing through the grand gates and turning back to take a long look down the arcade, we should be glad that they were installed — for surely this is a destination worth protecting.
Want more London shopping destinations worth a visit? A. Lange & Söhne have jut opened their new boutique…