At first glance, Albemarle Street is just another Mayfair backroad: handsome, empty, intimidating, uniform. But this deserted Georgian boulevard is full of exciting secrets. Let me share some of them with you.
Thousands of people walk past Albemarle Street each day while trekking down Piccadilly, or on their way to Old Bond Street, without giving the wide boulevard a second look..
But this is one of my favourite streets to stroll down. Hardly anyone walks down here, even on busy shopping days, so you have time and space to admire the Georgian buildings, with their Palladian-style windows and milk-white facades decorated with cornicing as immaculate as the icing work on an aristocrat’s wedding cake.
It’s also always so silent. The only sound is the odd taxi burping along the road, and then the clumsy fading of the engine as it careers down another street.
Start at number 50, on the left-hand side if you’re coming off from Piccadilly. This is John Murray Publishers, set in an impeccable building – all porticos and pilasters – dating back to 1719; you won’t find even a speck of dust on the mauve railings either. But there’s a sinister side to number 50; John Murray was the publisher of Lord Byron, and it was in this very building that Mr Murray burned Byron’s salacious two-volumed autobiography after the scandal-ridden literary genius died. The fire grate where one of the most controversial episodes in literary history took place still exists in the main room, which is lined with books and paintings of the Murray family. The firm’s previous authors have also included Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Darwin. The publishing house isn’t technically open to the public, but they do sometimes let visitors have a nose around; ring in advance.
Albemarle Street is crammed with little-known art galleries. One of my favourites is the Gallery of African Art at number 45, which exhibits works by emerging talents from the continent. Watch out for the politically-charged pieces, as this seems to be a trend with a lot of younger visual artists from Africa – which, in my opinion makes it that more interesting. It’s here that I discovered the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor for example, one of Africa’s most exciting new creative innovators; his pieces inspired by wall art and community shrines, explore the tensions between traditional African spiritualism and Western ideas.
Look up at the building spanning numbers 45-46 and you’ll notice it’s a contrastingly modern building, with great glass windows jutting out. It was designed by Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger. He actually inspired the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger, after author Ian Fleming bumped into his cousin Ursula Goldfinger on a golf course and proceeded to have a lengthy discussion about the up-and-coming designer of buildings.
Tornabuoni at number 46 is worth a look for its impressive collection of post-war Italian art. The John Martin Gallery at number 38 has some fantastic 20th-century Irish and British art too. Keep a lookout for spooky, tenebrous countryside paintings by the non-conformist Somerset-born folk-tradition artist John Caple that’ll make you shudder with delight.
Gymkhana, one of the best Indian restaurants in London is at number 42. This Raj era-inspired eatery is well-known for its game – think tandoori guinea fowl and sofiyan roe deer chop. A lot of people don’t realise it’s just as handy as a venue for a cocktail and a snack. My default choice is always the Rangpur ‘75 with Tanqueray gin, mango and cumin puree. The bar snacks – venison naan and South Indian fried chicken wings – are also quirky and well executed.
Walk over the road and you’ll find the Royal Arcade, a small sheltered passageway with some small, high-end, often family-run shops. There’s a Charbonnel and Walker chocolatiers, but I prefer peering through the window of Simon Griffin’s antique shop, which is crammed by all manner of polished silverware, from miniature matching hare figurines for the mantelpiece to candlesticks and antique cutlery.
Walk back on yourself and keep heading up Albemarle Street until you reach the Royal Institution of Great Britain at number 21, which is dedicated to scientific research, and hosts the Faraday Museum. Amongst the exhibits is the first electrical transformer to the miner’s lamp invented by Humphry Davy, which has ultimately saved tens of thousands of lives, and a mysterious tube that helped scientists understand why the sky is blue.
They do some fascinating lectures here, and even have a monthly book club that focuses on works of fiction with a science theme!
A nice bit of trivia is that Albemarle Street was the first one-way street in London. This was implemented after Humphry Davy drew large crowds to the Royal Institution giving a series of lectures here after invented the miner’s lamp; the sell-out events caused massive traffic jams as the audience members would all turn up at the same time with their horse-drawn carriages.
The Royal Institution has a cafe, or you can head across the road to Brown’s Hotel for a coffee. It is the oldest hotel in London, opened in 1837, and still popular with some of Britain’s leading scientists, owing to its position opposite the Royal Institution; I once saw the physicist Brian Cox enjoying a meal with friends at the next table, while I was dining at its HIX restaurant.