Back in December 2013, David wrote…
184 years ago. Coronation year for William IV.
The rosy dawn of the Victorian era is nearly a decade in the future. Dickens is a teenager barely out of school. Napoleon isn’t long dead. Scotland Yard – the London police force – is a new born infant. As is Belgium. Old Hickory – Andrew Jackson – is in the Whitehouse. Texas is Mexican. No one has ever heard an American sing “America. My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (that’s a year away). Edgar Allen Poe is failing as a plebe at West Point. The Duke of Wellington is Prime Minister (to the victors the spoils). It’s Year Zero for The Railway Age.
James Smith opens an umbrella shop in London.
An umbrella shop that’s still with us.
Let’s see indeed. Well, you can see a chimney sweep’s broom.
(Personal frisson here. I wrote this on December 20, 111 years to the day after the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge applied my all-time favourite chimney sweep brush stroke to one of his canvases. This London observation (it’s an entry in his Notebook for December 20, 1802.)
“Two laughing chimney-sweeps on a white horse – spur, rod, sneezing fine brown soot.”
You can see signs like this one.
And this one.
You can see merchandise – much of it hand made – that’s really beautiful. And really useful.
My (David’s) walking stick, for example. To save you the trouble of asking – the urge to do so will be overpowering – it’s ash and honeysuckle. (It, the honeysuckle, is responsible for the winding, climbing grooves and ridges that lead right up to the most extraordinary handle in London.)
Or Fiona’s umbrella. (The Fiona in our office, she who fields so many of your phone calls and answers your emails.)
Or riding crops. Or swagger sticks. Or sling seats.
You can see James Smith & Sons staff. Young and old but young or old all Dickensian. Staff that really know their onions. Staff who are simultaneously passionate and thrillingly intelligent about the things of beauty and utility that they sell. The character of different woods. The varnishes. The correct length of a walking stick. The varieties of secret compartments. The “signatures” of the different craftsmen and carvers.
Let’s see the shop’s history.
James Smith & Sons sold umbrellas to Gladstone, Bonar Law and Lord Curzon.
James Smith & Sons made ceremonial umbrellas and maces for African tribal chiefs.
James Smith & Sons were calmly equal to the request of an American collector who wanted a walking stick composed of every type of English wood. There were more than 70 types of wood in that one walking stick.
It’s certainly the oldest umbrella shop in Europe. Don’t know if it’s still the biggest. Do know it’s the bestest!
Know further that its premises – a perfect example of Victorian shop front design – are a much loved central London landmark.
James Smith & Sons is just along from Centrepoint. I expect James Smith & Sons will be be around when Centrepoint is long gone.
Yes, a London Walks point.
James Smith & Sons is on New Oxford Street. Just east of Oxford Street. For all practical purposes the beginning of Oxford Street.
Oxford Street was once – well, “once” it was a Roman Via – but no, not talking that incarnation. Talking the last thousand years one: Oxford Street was once Oxford Road. Because it wasn’t in town, it wasn’t a street. It was the road to Oxford. So, Oxford Road – because it had left town and was merrily making its way through the countryside to Oxford.
Being well and truly across some London history is like a top flight professional photographer knowing how to light a scene to bring up its richness, its depth, its plenitude – its full dynamic range. Switch on this LED and that Alien Bees B1600 Strobe and suddenly there’s visual drama and character that weren’t “in the picture” before.
Oxford Road – countryside. Suddenly it’s just so right that a shop right in the centre that sells items as country as beautiful old fashioned walking sticks is right in the centre of London selling beautiful old fashioned country walking sticks.
In London Walks time in James Smith & Son you’re in the centre of London but you’re also in the countryside. In walking stick territory.
So, yes, James Smith & Sons is my (David’s) favourite shop in London.
Or is it?
Cross my heart and hope to die, Hornets – on my and Adam’s Kensington Walk – is my favourite. By a photo-finish.
So, Ladies & Gentlemen, I give you my runner-up, my photo-finish runner-up: James Smith & Sons!
A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.