John Lobb is holding Frank Sinatra’s foot — sort of. His hands are cradling a wooden cast that was made in the exact dimensions of Sinatra’s foot and he is explaining the craft and art of shoemaking as he gives my brother and me a tour of London’s oldest and most famous shoe store.
In the cabinet where he keeps Sinatra’s foot cast are other famous feet — Sir Laurence Olivier, Jackie Onassis Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis and Beniamino Gigli to name a few. In sharp contrast to modern factory-made shoes, Lobb’s shoes are all handmade and unique to their owner, just as they have been since the founding of the store by Lobb’s great grandfather in 1849. Whoever said, “They don’t make ’em like they used to” hasn’t been to London lately.
Since Victorian times, the area surrounding St. James Palace has been a mecca for noble and fashionable English males. Even today, the neighbourhood is likely the world’s best shopping district for men, filled with unique coffee houses, traditional shaving and barber shops, cheese and wine distributors, and elegant clothing and sporting goods outfitters. Father’s Day shopping in this part of London is paradise — if you can afford it. A pair of Lobb’s custom-made shoes will set you back about £2,500 ($4,500).
But even if you can’t afford a pair of Lobb’s custom-made shoes right now, wandering around this part of London is an experience not to be missed. Our tour of the area began because I wanted to buy my son a special necktie as a gift. It was suggested that the tailor shops along Jermyn Street would be the best spot in London to search for unusual ties, so we hopped on the tube and headed to the Westminster area of Central London.
We hadn’t been in the area long, before we became distracted. As we walked past the Paxton & Whitfield cheese shop, my brother Justin casually commented that we had just passed Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite cheese store and the official cheesemonger of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. After a comment like that, I had to pop in to see what made this cheese shop so special.
Once inside, the store manager gave us a tour of the shop showing us all the wonderful cheeses and told us some of the history behind the store. Paxton & Whitfield can trace its beginnings back to 1742 and a cheese stall in Aldwych market. By 1850, the company’s reputation had grown to such an extent that they had the honour of being appointed cheesemonger to HM Queen Victoria. It was the first of many Royal Warrants they have held. Over the years, they have also been the favourite cheese shop for many famous people, including Sir Winston Churchill, who is purported to have said that “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield.”
On the inside of the store, you can see a copy of the official Royal Warrants of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. The Royal Warrant of Appointment dates back to the advent of the monarchy. The king and his court had first call on the services of the best in the land. In return, a Royal Tradesman received trading benefits and recognition. By the 15th century, Royal Tradesmen were officially appointed in writing by means of a Royal Warrant, a practice that continues to this day. Shops that have a Royal Warrant often display the coat of arms of the Queen above their doors.
After departing the cheese shop, we go across the street to Geo. F. Trumper Barbers and Perfumers. Trumpers’ is one of the longest established barbers in London, operating since 1875. Inside the store, they sell a variety of men’s grooming products and in the barber shop they offer old-fashioned open razor shaves and a unique shaving school that teaches men the ancient art of open razor shaving.
Among their famous pupils is Johnny Depp, who, in preparation for his role in Sweeney Todd, came to Trumper’s to learn how to wield an open razor.
Our next stop was Burlington Arcade. Opened in 1819, this architectural masterpiece remains the longest covered shopping street in England — a precursor to other city arcades and to the modern shopping mall. As in days of old, the arcade is filled with a huge variety of the finest goods on offer in London — all protected by the smallest police force in the world, a group of liveried guards known as Beadles. In the 1800s, one of the Beadles’ chief responsibilities was to keep unaccompanied women from entering the arcade. With all the wealthy men in the area of St. James, prostitution became a problem and since a respectable woman never shopped alone, the Beadles controlled the situation by escorting unaccompanied women off the premises. Today, the Beadles enforce rules that prohibit running (a gentleman never runs), singing, humming, playing an instrument, or carrying an unfurled umbrella and ignores anachronistic regulations such as excluding unaccompanied women from the arcade.
From the arcade, we turned eastward and made a stop at London’s oldest department store. Founded in 1770 by one of George III’s footmen, Fortnum & Mason was once described by Sydney Smith as “the place where the gourmets of England would make their last stand” against revolution. If you bring a sample of your water into the store, they will painstakingly match it to one of their famous varieties of tea. If you want to enjoy afternoon tea at the restaurant, you must book weeks in advance. At Fortnum & Mason, we enjoyed a slightly expensive, but very delicious chocolate éclair, that is said to be the finest in the city.
From here we decided to visit a few more shops with Royal Warrants posted above their doors and stopped by Lobb’s Shoe Store and Lock & Company Hatters. Lobb’s shoe store was absolutely fascinating and Lock & Company, the official hatter of Her Majesty the Queen, gave us a tour of the store and showed us how they make hats to the exact dimensions of a person’s head. They let it slip that we just missed bumping into Pierce Brosnan at Lock & Co.
After a stop at William Evans, London’s only remaining independently-owned gunmaker and the official gunmaker of the Prince of Wales, we made our final stop of the day at Berry Brothers and Rudd wine and spirit merchants. Berry Brothers carries a wide selection of wines and spirits — some in very affordable price ranges. What makes this store fascinating is its history. The store has been operating from 3 St. James St. since 1698. In the mid-1700s, it operated as a coffee wholesaler — supplying coffee to fashionable coffee houses and offering a weighing service to English nobility. Since people did not have bathroom scales, they would pop over and weigh themselves on the large coffee scales at 3 St. James St. You can still see the scales and the results of the weighings recorded in the old alphabetized books kept beside it. The weights of many aristocrats are recorded in the book including the president of France, Aga Khan, and Lord Byron, who was 159½ pounds in 1824 “with boots,” and 179½ pounds in 1846 “without boots.”
We stepped outside the back door of Berry Brothers & Rudd and entered the quiet intimacy of Pickering Place Courtyard. The courtyard is famous as the tiniest 18th-century square in London, the site of the legation of the Republic of Texas, and the place where the last duel in London is said to have taken place.
As we made our way back to the London Underground to catch the tube back to our accommodation, I realized that I had gone looking for a tie and had found London’s aristocratic past. The sights, smells and even the feel of these shops have an indefinable elegance that will leave you pondering on three centuries of London gentility.
What about the tie? I was able to find a really nice one on sale for only £10 (about $18) at one of the menswear shops along Jermyn Street.
If you go:
• A walk near the area of St. James Palace is free of charge as is window shopping in the area. Although many of the stores are very high end, you can find items that are affordable if you are on a budget. Other interesting stops include Floris, a perfumery with two centuries of history, Christie’s Auction House and the Church of St. James.
• There are several carriers offering direct flights from Calgary to London. Flights with Air Canada or Air Transat start at about $1,100 per person including taxes during the peak summer months. You can enjoy substantial savings and smaller crowds if you are able to travel in the fall.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.