Hattie Lloyd 29/08/23
Itinerary Location: St James’s & Mayfair | Duration: 6 Hours
Centred around Pall Mall, a street basically built for giant games of croquet in the 1630s, St. James’s used to be the London pied-à-terre for the landed gentry and later became known as ‘Clubland’ after the dozens of Old Boys’ clubs lining its streets.
So you’d be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t have a lot to offer anyone who isn’t a 17th century aristocrat.
As it happens, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s very possible to explore the gems of the neighbourhood (which include perfectly normal, modern things like bookshops and pelicans) and dip your toe into the high life with oysters and martinis if you fancy it, without having to spend like the wayward son of a Regency-era duke. St James’s, after all, was also the stomping ground of the flaneur, someone who spent the day just strolling around and people-watching.
Your day of moderate flamboyance begins at Piccadilly Circus (after all, what’s more aristocratic than taking the Bakerloo line?). Above ground, head up Piccadilly, past St James’s Church (where Bridgerton itself was filmed) and dip into:
Housed in a former bank (that looks ridiculously palatial but is only a century old), Maison Assouline is the ultimate coffee table bookshop. Travel, art, fashion and more are all covered in the weighty tomes laid out on its tables, shelves and scattered Persian rugs. Taking one home with you would require both physically and metaphorically deep pockets, so satisfy yourself with a browse, possibly grabbing a coffee from the bookshop’s wood-panelled Swan Bar before heading to your next stop.
Head back past the church and duck right down the alleyway to find yourself on Jermyn Street – if you’ve got time for a detour, pop into Paxton & Whitfield, one of the oldest cheesemongers in England, and Floris, the country’s oldest perfumers who have been making royally-approved scents here for almost three centuries.
Walk down Duke of York’s street, cross the leafy garden square, and take a right down Pall Mall (where you’ll clock some of those grandiose club buildings). At the end you’ll come to St. James’s Palace, built for Henry VIIIth and now the residence of Princess Anne and the royal stamp collection.
Continue down Marlborough Road and you’ll reach St. James’s Park, one of eight royal parks in London. Keep going in a straight line, and you’ll reach the Blue Bridge – a picturesque spot where you can take in views of Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Big Ben, and, if it’s the right time of year, some beautiful autumn colours. Following the lake round, you’ll come to Duck Island Cottage, where, between 2.30 and 3.30pm every day, the park’s resident pelicans are fed their lunch.
Retrace your steps back up to Piccadilly to reach the Royal Academy. Originally a 17th century mansion, this grandiose building has been the home of scientists, artists and astronomers since the 1760s. Now, it’s one of the most impressive art galleries in London, staging big-ticket shows displaying the works of artists from Francis Bacon to Kyōsai. If your interest isn’t piqued by the temporary exhibitions, there’s also a free collection on display, showcasing a rotating selection of treasures from the RA’s archives. Currently you’ll be greeted by Sir Thomas Lawrence’s stark naked portrait of Satan summoning demons from the fiery pits of hell, and a nice landscape by Constable.
Heading out the back of the RA, you’ll walk past London’s oldest tailor, Ede & Ravenscroft, and Savile Row – created by the 18th century painter and heiress Dorothy Savile, who insisted her gentlemen friends be impeccably dressed. It wasn’t her only foray into city planning, though – she also built the nearby Burlington Arcade because her house guests would always turn up with shoes stinking of oysters, having had to walk over the discarded shells outside the oyster bar nearby. So it seems only proper to honour her memory with a trip to –
Rejoin Regent Street briefly before ducking down Swallow Street and slipping into Bentley’s (you’ll recognise it by the giant neon sign of an oyster wearing a bow tie). This seafood staple has been going strong for over a century, and its current caretaker is the affable Richard Corrigan (Daffodil Mulligan, Dickie’s Bar, etc.). Grab a stool up at the marble counter and watch the crisp-aproned magicians behind the bar shuck a couple of oysters for you on the spot – they serve over 1000 of them every day. It might also strike you that a pint of Guinness might be a good idea at this point, and they’ll happily provide on that front too.
Time to pay your respects to another stalwart: turn right to rejoin Piccadilly, and continue right until you meet St. James’s Street. Tucked away here you’ll find St. James’s Place, and tucked away there you’ll find Dukes Hotel.
A true London legend, canonised in Ian Fleming’s books as the inspiration for Bond’s martinis, ‘shaken not stirred’. The Dukes bar has perfected the recipe: give a nod to one of the jacketed barkeeps and they’ll wheel the martini trolley over to your table before constructing the Platonic ideal of the drink right before your eyes, poured to the very top with impossible precision. The drinks here are so potent that there’s a limit of two per person – just as well, as any more and it’s going to become very difficult to lift that glass without spilling it all over yourself.
At this point, it will become increasingly urgent for you to get some carbs in your system. Hotfoot it along Piccadilly to your last stop for the evening:
Richoux was open for over a century before it was shuttered by the pandemic. Now it’s been revived by chefs Jamie Butler & Lewis Spencer who – no exaggeration – have worked at some of the most critically acclaimed restaurants in the world. But weirdly, despite the worrying combination of superstar chefs + extremely fancy neighbourhood, Richoux remains (by St James’s standards at least) pretty affordable. Their speciality, steak frites, comes in at under £23 and there’s plenty of salads and fish dishes besides (although veggies might want to make a beeline for old favourite The Wolseley instead). Make sure you order one of their signature cruffins to go before you leave.
Post-martini morning you will be glad you did.
➊ Maison Assouline | 196A Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9EY
➋ St James’s Park | London, SW1H 9AP
➌ The Royal Academy | Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
➍ Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill | 11-15 Swallow St, London W1B 4DG
➎ Dukes Bar | 35 St James’s Place, St. James’s, London SW1A 1NY
➏ Richoux | 172 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9EJ
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Starts at Piccadilly Circus tube, St James's,
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