Following our recent article on John Nash (see the earlier post here), we’re taking a look at one of his projects as part of our series on London’s oldest. Built between 1816-18, the Royal Opera Arcade – which features a series of shops running down the side of a covered central hall – is not only the oldest existing shopping arcade of its type in London but apparently in the world.
The 12 foot wide covered arcade was built on the west side of what was previously the Royal, King’s or Haymarket Opera House – Nash and George Repton completed the exterior of the property originally built by Sir John Vanbrugh at the same time the arcade was built – but is now the site of Her Majesty’s Theatre (the former theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1867).
It extends between Pall Mall and Charles II Street in the West End, running parallel with Haymarket. Burlington Arcade, frequently cited as the city’s oldest, was in fact completed a year later.
The arcade originally had 19 shops – each with a cellar and mezzanine level – running down its west side. It now features shops which sell everything from fine wines and art to books and sandwiches.
For more on the Royal Opera Arcade, see www.royaloperaarcade.com.
Still the address to have in London, the origins of the name Mayfair are just as they appear – this area to the west of the City was named for the annual May Fair which was held at what is now the trendy (and picturesque) cafe precinct of Shepherd Market during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The two week long annual fair was established by King James II as a cattle market on what was then known as Brookfield Market in the 1680s. Attracting other pleasure-related activities, it soon became known for its licentiousness and, having survived Queen Anne’s attempts to have it banned, was eventually stopped in the mid-1700s. Edward Shepherd, who today gives his name to the area on which Brookfield Market once stood, was an architect and developer who subsequently redeveloped the site.
These days Mayfair is generally taken to encompass an area bordered by Hyde Park to the west, Oxford Street to the north, Piccadilly to the south and Regent Street to the east. The area’s development really took off in the century following the mid 1600s (landowners included the Grosvenor family – whose name is reflected in landmarks like London’s third largest square Grosvenor Square and Grosvenor Chapel (pictured) – as well as the Berkeleys and Burlingtons) and it became a favored residential location among the wealthy – indeed, it was this very gentrification which indirectly put an end to the fair.
Today, as well as being known for high end residential real estate, it’s one of London’s most expensive shopping precincts. Landmark buildings in the area today include the hulking bulk of the US Embassy at the western end of Grosvenor Square, the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, the Handel House Museum (located in what was the home of composer George Frideric Handel), shopping arcades such as the Burlington and Royal Arcades, and various luxury hotels like Claridge’s and The Dorchester in Park Lane.