Travel Wishlist - Burlington Arcade, London
Emma Newlands takes a look at a high-end retail sanctuary in the heart of London.
It is located in the heart of London on Piccadilly, in an area that certainly holds its own in terms of luxury offerings.
There is well-to-do department store Fortnum & Mason nearby, for example, and the high-end refinery of Old and New Bond Streets, which are lined with designer shops complete with dazzling, attention-grabbing window displays.
But Burlington Arcade – nearly 200 yards of 46 impeccable boutiques including shoe brand Manolo Blahnik and a coterie of retailers with Scottish connections – offers not only a haven of relative tranquility, but also feels like a portal to an era that focused on quality and service rather than mass production and generic high streets.
“When you walk through the arcade, you can actually feel the energy coming out of the shops,” says head “Beadle” Mark Lord. “The building does have its own sort of spirit, its own sort of feel to it.”
The arcade opened in 1819 “for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand, for the gratification of the public”. Lord George Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, had commissioned the site as a safe place for his wife and peers to shop.
The Beadles were originally hired as guards by Lord Cavendish’s regiment, the 10th Hussars, and today they monitor the arcade, in their distinctive Regency-inspired uniforms, as the oldest and smallest police force in Britain.
The “face” of the retail destination, their duties include enforcing rules such as no cycling, singing or whistling in the arcade, with Sir Paul McCartney one of just a few people with permission to do the latter.
But Lord explains that their duties are evolving into a kind of concierge service, helping shoppers enjoy their visit with, say, arcade tours - themed around, say, James Bond (who gets his shoes, cashmere and luggage from the arcade) or Royal Warrant holders - and dipping into the venue’s history, which is as dazzling as its window displays.
This includes actor Sir Laurence Olivier sending Marilyn Monroe to the arcade to shop with his manservant, and Fred Astaire dancing there. Lord also tells me that there are several ghosts that hang around in the arcade - “they’ve been mischievous but they've never been naughty”.
The Beadles have even helped set up proposals, while one man comes every year in the hope of meeting Sir Rod Stewart, who was spotted at the arcade years back buying waistcoats for his wedding to Penny Lancaster. “Their paths have never crossed - and I’m praying that I’m there on the day that they do,” says Lord.
He adds: “The arcade isn't just a building. People will come and talk to us about their personal memory of the arcade. And they will explain the reason why they felt that they wanted to come and talk to us - it could be something as simple as they were brought there as a child. “There are little personal connections that people have, and that's what really makes it a little bit different from other shopping experiences.”
He also says Burlington serves as a connection point between Mayfair, St James’s and Piccadilly, and allows for a more personal shopping experience. “The fact that the units are quite small, they are quite intimate, it just makes it feel a little bit more special… We have so many people in the different units that are very, very passionate about what they sell.”
Lord says many visitors are interested in Hancocks, which is entrusted with producing the Victoria Cross. The firm, which dates back to 1849, also sells an array of jewellery (a £30k pink sapphire ring on its website has caught my eye) as does fellow Burlington retailer Richard Ogden, with Scottish jewellery a key focus.
Ogden has one of the best collections of antique Scottish jewellery anywhere outside of Scotland, says Lord, with the jeweller saying such products have a “simple elegance that appeals to contemporary taste,” stemming from its ancient Celtic symbolism and bright, natural colours.
Another tenant with Scottish connections is Lalique, which is famous for its glassware. The luxury French brand is fostering the Auld Alliance, having been present in Scotland for more than 50 years and taking much inspiration from our native wildlife. Additionally, since 2005, it has collaborated with Scotch brand Macallan to produce prestigious crystal decanters, while current Lalique owner Silvio Denz owns the Glenturret distillery.
Offering an equally eye-catching window display is “proudly Scottish” brand Strathberry, which is Edinburgh-based, having started out in a townhouse in the city, and famous for its handbags in a range of eye-catching hues. They have been sported by everyone from Lady Gaga to Katie Holmes and Meghan Markle, with the latter sending the brand’s profile skyrocketing when she was seen with one of its Midi Tote Tri-Colour bags on her first royal engagement with Prince Harry.
The family firm’s products are designed in Scotland, and handcrafted in Spain, taking a minimum of 20 hours to make. “Everything is thought through, everything is very considered,” says brand director Sarah Bedingfield, who says its offering feels right at home in the arcade, given the latter’s longstanding reputation for championing high-end craftsmanship. “Burlington has always been a not only beautiful, but a historic destination for that kind of product.”
It’s “somewhere that we're very proud to be, and it's an environment that works very well for Strathberry,” she adds, noting that it spans two floors, giving space for people to have personalised shopping experiences in store, or virtually by, say, video call.
But while the arcade offers ample opportunity to spend, you don’t need to stretch the purse strings to do so. My purchases there have extended only to a macaron or two and a coffee at French patisserie paradise Ladurée, watching the world go by.
Lord also says he knows of at least half a dozen people who - understandably - alter their route to and from work just to walk through the arcade. “In my 18 years [working here], I'm still amazed on a regular basis by the impact the arcade has on people.”
And as the festive season approaches, it becomes even more dazzling than usual.
As Lord states, nowadays you can shop anywhere, and buy almost anything online. “What we try to do in the arcade is we really try to make it an experience for people, so that it's something that sticks in their memory.
“And it's something that they go away and they talk about to other people. That's what we really get a lot of satisfaction over. That personal interaction with the visitors is something they can't put in your wage packet.”
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