Explore London’s quirky shops, obscure museums, odd corners
‘Quiddity’ is that ineffable quality of what-ness you’ll still find in London’s unique shops, pubs and house museums — but maybe no more in Manhattan.
The New York Times
“You know, guv, that really gets on my goat,” Billy Allardyce said from the front of the taxi, his voice a warble of Abbey Road reverb.
We were barreling toward Portobello Road in a winter downpour, headed for an arcade I’d been tipped about by a friend, antiquarian Alexander di Carcaci. Allardyce was griping about change.
The peculiarities and quirks of his 1960s childhood, he said, had given way to the blight of center city sameness.
“When I was a boy you could still see all them little shops, streets of specialty shops,” Allardyce told me. Back then, Columbia Market — today a place of open-air flower stalls and hipster brunch spots — was where East End families shopped for pet guinea pigs.
“Kittens, dogs, snakes, rabbits,” Allardyce said. “They even had goats.”
The image delights me — a goat cropping grass in central London. It summons up both England’s agrarian soul and a capital in which little-known spaces, odd corners and crooked byways have always had their place. It speaks to me of quiddity, that ineffable quality of what-ness. People have it — places, too. Manhattan certainly used to, although I’m not convinced of that anymore.
This is partly why I had booked a recent trip to London, because while the goats might be gone, the quiddity remains. It is woven into the city’s texture, in its arcades, its shoulder-wide alleys, odd terraces, house museums and specialty shops — secreted between and beside and atop and sometimes even within the big marquee attractions, hidden right there in plain sight.
Bumble upon wonders
Wandering around London lately — alone or in the company of friends — I have bumbled upon wonders like the Dennis Severs’ House Museum, 18 Folgate St., a fanatically detailed “re-creation” by an expatriated American of the house of a family of Huguenot silk weavers as it might have evolved over centuries. A place of guttering candles, of objects in mad profusion, of pomanders and “drying” laundry hung from rafters, the place could easily lapse into twee were it not for the force of Severs’ artistic vision, which leaves a visitor feeling as if a door had opened into some mad aesthete’s sensorium.
Exploring one afternoon, I discovered the York water gate, a Baroque stone pile attributed to Inigo Jones, and a centuries-old pub that retains its anachronistic charm despite being on every list of tourist attractions. I visited a hushed room in the British Museum where Chinese ceramics amassed by a wealthy collector over a lifetime confirm that England is indeed Europe’s attic.
Serenely displayed in Room 95 at the museum are some 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David, a 20th-century businessman who amassed the ceramics with a cultivated eye and singular determination. Established in 1952 at the University of London, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art was until 2007 kept in a Georgian house on Gordon Square; it then moved on long-term loan to the British Museum, where it was reorganized and displayed in considerable splendor with a grant from a Hong Kong businessman.
More and more it seems my ambition as a traveler is to discover quiet and untrammeled places, anything to get away from the relentless thumb-tappers and the Acoustiguide herd.
A startling structure
I found such a place again when I headed to Holland Park and the Leighton House Museum, a startlingly radical house built by a leading light of Victorian painting. When Sir Frederic Leighton constructed his opulent house in the 1860s (with an important later extension), the view from his dining room window was of farmland, a piggery and parkland stretching away to the north. A colony of prosperous artists grew up around it — the Studio Houses of the Holland Park Circle. Many remain in what is now an expensive residential area, Leighton House standing among them as an unlikely relic of a period and style that somehow survived the vagaries of fashion.
A visitor coming off the street and through a drab reception area (formerly the breakfast room) into Leighton House is plunged into an Orientalist delirium: Satsuma vases, scholar’s rocks, a stuffed peacock perched on a railing, and the Arab Hall itself, a chamber whose blue tile panels, marble columns, gilded friezes and domed skylight were brought together, it would seem, to stun the viewer into aesthetic submission, a Victorian version of shock and awe.
Whenever in town, I head by habit to the famous G. Heywood Hill Ltd. bookstore on Curzon Street, at least in part for the pleasure of conjuring up an image of Nancy Mitford during the wartime years when she worked there as a clerk. On my trip last October, though, a pal urged me to visit John Sandoe (Books) Ltd., in Chelsea, a suggestion that eventually cost me plenty in overweight luggage fees.
When John Sandoe founded the shop in 1957, the premises housed a poodle-grooming parlor, a junk shop and a secretarial agency. Sandoe ran the store until his retirement in 1989, when the employees bought it from him, continuing to run it along the same unorthodox business principles. This is to say that crammed into three stories of the 18th-century structure at John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. are books stacked on tables, on the floor, on the risers of the corkscrew stairway and shelved in places two or more deep. There are 24,320 volumes, 22,790 of them single copies, at last count, said Dan Fenton, one of three current owners of the store.
“We leave things on shelves much longer than accountants at chain stores would have you do it, regardless of whether they are going to sell in two years,” Fenton remarked, pushing aside books to make room for a pile I was busy creating.
A tidy house in Chelsea
As 19th-century literary celebrities, Thomas Carlyle, the philosopher, biographer, satirist and coiner of deathless neologisms (sincerity, manhunt, self-help and giggly are his) and his wife, Jane, courted fame and fled from it to their tidy house in Chelsea. On Cheyne Row is the snug four-story dwelling where Carlyle wrote many of his masterworks and behind which lies a modest garden patch. There stands the family’s earth closet and there Carlyle buried his wife’s dog, Nero, tragically done in by a butcher’s cart.
It was pouring again on the weekday morning of my visit, and again I had a historic property to myself. Now owned by the National Trust, Carlyles House is, like other such properties, occupied by a caretaker couple whose presence imparts life to what might otherwise feel like a fusty reliquary. The wife tends the garden. The husband makes placards with quotations from Carlyle, a writer Matthew Arnold described as “part man of genius, part fanatic and part tomfool,” scattering them around on the furniture.
My favorite bit of Carlyle wisdom on display derived from a letter written to an aspiring novelist: “A good book should have the water carefully roasted out of it,” Carlyle advised Elizabeth Gaskell.
It seemed somehow fitting on that cold, drizzly day to continue in a time-stopped vein, so I taxied across town to Fleet Street and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a venerable pub whose warren of small rooms has attracted as patrons everyone from Samuel Johnson to Mark Twain. Presumably they were drawn there by an atmosphere that surely felt Ye Olde even when the pub was Ye Newe, and by the obvious truth that a steak-and-kidney pie, a pint of Samuel Smith and an hour beside a fire works better than anything to ward off London’s chill and gloom.
To be clear about this, I am no history re-enactor. I savor a hot new restaurant as well as the next guy and on that particular trip scored a coveted reservation at the Delaunay, a place that the publisher-philanthropist Lady Elena Foster recently pronounced as the obvious successor to the more famous Wolseley — although that is no stretch considering both were created by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, the wizards of neo-retro restaurants.
Over plates of oysters, schnitzel, roast potatoes and plentiful white Burgundy, a friend and I spent an entirely pleasurable evening at the Delaunay, after which we set off on foot along The Strand.
Five minutes into our walk, we were accosted by a merry group of students, well lubricated and arrayed in costume. Although I vaguely recall someone mentioning a fancy-dress party, and possibly even university admissions, I never quite got to the bottom of why, in the middle of winter, this group of women and men were attired in Halloween finery. Well, what matter? I put it down to London quiddity.