St. James's is London's urbane heart Elegance: Luxury, stylishness and historical ambience are at home in the West End.

June 02, 1996|By Babs Suzanne Harrison | Babs Suzanne Harrison,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

London boasts 67 square miles of parks, 50 miles of shops, 227 street markets, five symphony orchestras, 108 theaters, 5,500 pubs and 5,000 restaurants.

You, on the other hand, have one weekend.

American novelist Henry James said London had an "inconceivable immensity," and it still overwhelms the casual visitor almost 100 years later.

How do you cut a city of 7 million down to size? Think neighborhoods, many of which are small cities unto themselves.

For the repeat visitor who has seen the major sites, St. James's, in the heart of the West End, provides an elegant microcosm of London's best shops, art galleries, restaurants, royal parks and theaters, all within walking distance.

The urban center of London, St. James's has been the most elegant and fashionable area of London since Henry VIII built St. James's Palace in the 1530s.

In the 18th century, it was London's most exclusive area, home not only to the monarchy but also the wealthy aristocracy. Quality retailers opened shops in the area,and men gathered in gentlemen's clubs.

Today, the ambience remains much the same.

In 1664, Henry Jermyn, Earl of Albans, leased 45 acres of Pall Mall field from the Crown and built St. James's Square and the surrounding streets, one of which became Jermyn Street.

The center of urban England, this tiny street is lined with exquisite stores. Impeccably dressed businessmen often stop to window-shop, and who can blame their lusting after sterling-silver collar stays, velvet house shoes and enameled cuff links?

There are several shirtmakers; the hatmaker Bates tempts with antelope fedoras, safari Panamas and tweed caps; and George F. Trumper is a formal barbershop stocked with colognes and beautiful shaving accessories.

J. Floris is a veritable garden of perfumes and soaps. Czech & Speake boasts fragrances derived from recipes discovered in the British Library. Trevor Philip specializes in antique treasures. Paxton & Whitfield has been selling Stilton and other fine cheeses since 1797. And Wiltons, renowned since 1742 for oysters, fish and game, is still serving the British upper crust.

Discreet luxury

Also on Jermyn is a small luxury hotel simply called 22 Jermyn Street. Because it is so unlike a hotel, guests feel truly at home in the 13 elegantly but comfortably furnished suites or five studios with monogrammed linen, fresh flowers and contemporary granite bathrooms. While small, 22 is equipped to handle big business with in-room fax, two-line phones, a CD-ROM reference library and access to the Internet.

The absence of public rooms and restaurant is hardly missed. Twenty-four-hour room service is available. And unobtrusive staff members bring ice and fresh-fruit garnishes, along with the evening paper, around 6 p.m. -- just when you're reaching into the well-stocked mini-bar to mix a drink.

One block down from 22, Duke of York Street and King Street are filled with art galleries. Christie's auction house is here as well.

Just behind lies St. James's Square, laid out in the 1670s, with many of the surrounding houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Walk down Pall Mall, still home to private gentlemen's clubs, toward St. James's Palace, now home to Crown servants and lesser royals, though still the official court of St. James's.

St. James's Street, leading from the north gatehouse, has another clutch of British shops, including Lobb the shoemaker and Hugh Johnson, whose shop sells drinking accessories.

Turn right onto Piccadilly, the main artery of the West End. From here you can venture on to the designer boutiques on Bond Street, or tour the Royal Academy of Arts, open daily.

Founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1768, it presents major international art exhibitions. The annual Summer Exhibition displays art for sale by both established and unknown artists.

Cross over to Fortnum and Mason, a retailer from the 17th century, in time for tea overlooking the yummy food halls.

Come evening, the West End is where the action is. Take in a pretheater dinner at Quaglino's (16 Bury St.). Created by Sir Terence Conran, it's an exciting restaurant. Eighty theaters in the area offer plenty of diversion.

Sunday and the park

England is a country of traditions, and to miss them is to miss what England is all about. And Sunday tradition calls for a grand lunch followed by a walk through the park.

The Berkeley does a perfect Sunday lunch, beginning with Bloody Marys in the salon. "Le Voiture," the shining silver cart bearing the prize of pink roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, is served in the formal dining room.

After you've dabbed your mouth with linen napkins the size of towels, the dessert trolley appears laden with sweets.

Then it's on to St. James's Park to feed the ducks (22 will supply guests with bread crumbs), admire the flower beds and listen to the military band. Adjacent Green Park offers shady lanes for strolling.

A rare treat is a tour of Spencer House, overlooking Green Park. Built in 1766 by the first Earl of Spencer, ancestor of Princess Diana, it has been restored by the Rothschild family. It's the best surviving example of a great London mansion of 18th-century aristocracy.

Two floors of ornately decorated rooms provide a window onto 18th-century life in St. James's.

"Lord Spencer never intended Spencer House to be an understatement. Why lavish all your inheritance on it if it's not noticed?" my guide says.

You won't get to all of London in one weekend, but St. James's will show you what the great city is all about.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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