MAYFAIR: The village idyl in Central London nestled between Oxford Street, Park Lane, Piccadilly and Regent Street, Mayfair is exceptional in that it still maintains the charm of a traditional English village in the heart of London.

Mayfair has long been the figurative and oft times literal home of eccentrics and authors, including Nancy Mitford, Oscar Wilde, Handel and Royals including our current monarch Queen Elizabeth II who was born on Bruton St and toddled about the area before moving with her father to the nearby Buckingham Palace.

My flat is on the fourth floor of one of the pink terrace houses built in the mid-1800‘s on Mount St. It is up four flights of stairs, Grade II interior, no lifts here. It is not a climb for the faint of heart, but my drawing room overlooks Mount Street gardens and the decorated Gothic beauty of the Jesuit church of the Immaculate Conception. As an author and Catholic mother who has brought up her three children here, I would liken Mayfair to the English Village Idyl now almost impossible to find away from the pages of Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead.
Non-Mayfair residents view the area through the distorted prism of sensational media headlines such as Charles Saatchi appearing to throttle Nigella Lawson outside Scotts Restaurant or Prince Harry and other celebrities falling bleary-eyed out of the areas many clubs and restaurants.
The media portrays Mayfair as an area that exists solely as a playground and shopping mecca for the rich and ghastly. Indeed my own dear little Mount Street was recently referred to as “Oligarch Alley” in The Sunday Times. And while I have noticed many visiting Russians do enjoy a tipple at my local The Audley on the corner of Mount St and South Audley, Mayfair is like the Sphinx; people come from around the world to visit but for the residents within the buildings surrounding and above the shops and bars and clubs of Mayfair, our lives remain unchanged.
Mount Street Mayfair Dandizette on Horse
Just like in any village, locals gossip at the local Post Office – though in Mayfair talk at the Grosvenor St P.O. tends to centre around planning proposals and moaning about our parking bays being squatted by chauffeur driven Rolls Royces’ and Bentleys’. However we still get our share of lost cats and upturned rubbish bins.
Notwithstanding the area’s associations with glamour and discreet luxury, it is an especially liveable area for authors. Mayfair is after all the historic home of authors and artists as attested by the Dover Street Arts Club. Founded in 1863 as The Authors Club by Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens as a meeting place for men and women involved in the arts it continues to flourish as a meeting place for authors and artists and dandies.
I cannot drive but as everything one needs in life is a short walk away. I can go months without taking any form of transport. I often wish I could drop a bucket down from the front window as they do in Naples for shop keepers to send up a loaf of bread or a bottle of champagne to save me the bother of walking downstairs. When my daughter was a teenager and her friends were visiting from boarding school we would dangle small pieces of Battenburg cake on a thread in the hope of luring the sweet up sweet old ladies up for a nice pot of tea and a chat. Though heaven knows the stairs would have defeated them.
The life of an inky scribe is largely spent writing either in bed or at a desk but the bon homie of fellow writers and artists is always nearby in the areas cafes, bars and private members clubs which despite media impressions do not exist inside a bubble for the privileged classes but in a densely populated residential area. Our flat looks out over Mount Street gardens and as an author working from home I often go down with my tea (pot, cup and saucer) to sit on one of the benches dedicated to past local residents and mull over the mornings work in gardens. When I die I shall bequeath a bench to other local authors seeking a leafy respite from the words swimming across their pages. In times of writers block I light a candle in the Church of The Immaculate Conception – it was after all the church in which Evelyn Waugh and Siegfried Sassoon were received into Catholicism. If ever there was a writer’s church, surely this is it.
Of an evening I might enjoy a quiet gin and tonic with girlfriends at my local pub on Mount St, The Audley It is a classic English pub where in terms of decor time has stood beautifully still. The original wood panelled walls ornate ceilings and original crystal chandeliers speak to the spirit of Mayfair, which has managed to eschew the fashion fads of the 70‘s and 80‘s that saw so many British pubs ripped apart.
In fact I rarely have to leave my own street. If its a month beginning with an R, what better place to scoff oysters than Scotts who have been serving up oysters to locals since the sixties. I have seen Scotts Oyster Bar through many incarnations. When I was a teenager the IRA fired gun shots through the windows from a stolen Cortina. Two unarmed police gave chase in a black cab. It was literally one of those “follow that Cortina” moments. The diners and staff inside were quite unharmed and continued to quaff their oysters with classic Mayfair sang-froid. The truth was they had experienced far worse a few weeks before in Nov 1975 when the IRA threw bombs the window killing one and injuring fifteen others and had taken the precaution of erecting a wire will on the windows.
My great friend the debonair Brian Clivaz took over Scotts in 2003 and nurtured it into a magnet for local bohemians and eccentric aristocrats. It has changed hands again, but it will always be the quintessential local fish and chip shop of Mayfair. After leaving Scotts, Brian Clivaz moved on to resurrect the Palladian splendour of the Dover St Arts Club. It is now flourishing once again, a thriving reminder that Mayfair has and always will be the natural home of authors and artists.
Mayfair is also the centre of Roman Catholicism in London. Drawn by the area’s tolerance, Mount Street itself is dominated by The Jesuit Church of The Immaculate Conception. Often referred to as Farm Street Church, though it actually faces onto the Mount Street Gardens, a sweet little village green with plenty of bench seats dedicated by brass plaques to past lovers of this sun trap overlooked by our village school.
The extreme prejudice against Roman Catholics in England, combined with the mysticism and tolerance of its liturgy, made the religion particularly alluring to other’s cast out from mainstream society: eccentrics from Oscar Wilde to Sassoon. When the Jesuits were eventually permitted to to return to Britain and own property, it was natural they would make a bee line for Mayfair, setting up home in Farm Street and building The Church Of The Immaculate Conception in 1849. Decorated in high Gothic style it is a miniature reproduction of the Cathedral of Beauvais in France. The stunning high altar was designed by Pugin. From the moment it opened its doors Farm St Church was like a flame to the eccentric moths of London’s Bohemian society.
Mentioned regularly in Brideshead Revisited and other books and films, Farm Street has hosted many society Roman Catholic hatches matches and dispatches (baptisms, weddings and funerals) since it opened its doors in 1849. It is a frequent sight on Saturday’s to see wedding and baptism guests traipsing across the road in morning dress for a reception across at The Connaught or nearby Claridges.
Oscar Wilde, Siegried Sassoon and Evelyn Waugh all received instruction at Farm Street before their conversion. It is also home to London’s Gay Lesbian and Transgender Catholics who attend the 11 am Sung Latin Mass service.
As a Catholic mother of three it was easy to get my family to the sung latin mass at 11am as it is quite literally across the road from our flat. Afterwards we could go for a Sunday Lunch at The Audley.
Mount St Gardens is also where our the Residents Society of Mayfair & St James’s hosts our annual Summer Garden Party. I personally vie for running the tombola store. In 2011 we celebrated 375 years of since the first May Fair.
Mayfair was named after an annual fortnight long fair held during May though unfortunately the oldest cottage which stood on Stanhope Row dated back to 1618 was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940. Realistically though, Mayfair only became the place it remains today during Regency times. During this period, Mayfair was at the very epicentre of England society. The residences of Berkeley Square and Grosvenor Square hosting the most fashionable parties. Hence the cutting remark of Cawthorne—
“Alas! no dinners did he eat
In Berkeley Square or Grosvenor Street.”
Today residents are drawn here from across the world and yet it remains quaintly and quintessentially English, one of the last bastions of the England that was for the most part swept away by the second world war. It has been the birth place of many notable personages including our our Queen Elizabeth II who was born at 2.40am on 21 April 1926 at 17 Bruton Street in Mayfair. Elizabeth and her sister Margaret, toddled about the area as children. Blue plaques adorn all the streets of Mayfair proclaiming the areas famous residents from Handle to Hendrix. I still await my plaque on Mount Street. I hope it will read “Clementyne O’Connell author and hen lover lived here.”
Visit the wonderful Mayfair Library for information on a Mayfair treasure.