“Knightsbridge. That means Harrods, right?”
Well, yes it does, and that’s an interesting sight in itself. But there’s a lot more to Knightsbridge than Harrods. There’s even a lot more to Harrods than most people ever see – go round the corner into Hans Road, and you can see the side entrance, completely different in style from the rest of the store (Harrods also has three wells hidden in the basement, which apparently provide the water for the store…but I don’t think you can see those!).
Hans Road and Hans Place – named after Sir Hans Sloane, who also gave his name to Sloane Square in Chelsea (and indirectly to the ‘Sloane Ranger’) – are full of tall red brick houses and mansion blocks in what’s been called the ‘Pont Street Dutch’ style, heavily ornate, with little turrets and bay windows, curvy gables and profuse terracotta decoration. And by the way: what has singer Lily Allen got in common with Prince Charles? Answer: they both went to Hill House School, here in Hans Place.
The whole of this area is red brick – glaring, vivid, almost lurid red brick if you see it in early morning sunshine or with a flaming sunset reflected on it. But in Pont Street, St Columba’s Church of Scotland provides a single point of contrast, a vertical slash of pure white. Its strange helmeted tower and the massive arch of its façade create a little drama that’s appropriate, perhaps, for a 1950s church which replaced the original, destroyed in the Blitz.
The back streets of Knightsbridge hide a few surprises. The old mews cottages around here used to be stables, and then (after the arrival of internal combustion) garages, for the large houses; now, they’re much sought after, highly expensive houses. A detour around Pont Street Mews shows a more intimate and, I think, prettier side of Knightsbridge than the big apartment blocks.
Motcomb Street hides the remains of a store that was as famous in its time as Harrods is now, the great Pantechnicon. Set up in 1830 as an exhibition space and salesroom, and later a furniture store, it went up in flames in 1873; only the façade is left.
In Kinnerton Street, the Nags Head pub has an old penny slot machine like “What the Butler Saw”, and a cranky old-style landlord, as well as Adnams ales. Warning: mobile phones are very strictly forbidden. Another back-streets pub, the Grenadier in Old Barrack Yard, has its own sentry box, and a ghost too, that of a soldier who was beaten to death when he was caught cheating at cards. The pub’s name has changed over the years; originally, it was known as the Duke of Wellington’s Officers Mess, then The Guardsman, and now The Grenadier – the military connection reflecting the fact that the guards barracks was nearby.
At the end of Knightsbridge, the Duke of Wellington connection continues with the Wellington Arch on the traffic island at Hyde Park Corner, and the Duke’s London home, Apsley House. There are wonderful views from the balcony of the arch, which houses a small museum, and in the evening the wrought iron gates are dramatically lit. The arch used to have a massive mounted figure of the Duke of Wellington on top – but in 1912 this was replaced by the chariot that’s there today. (The Duke is now at Aldershot.)
Apsley House is officially 149 Piccadilly, but is popularly known as ‘Number 1, London’. It’s remarkable for having kept much of its original style and décor, including the massive Canova nude of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker; Napoleon had rejected it, and after the emperor’s defeat, the restored king Louis XVIII of France gave it to the British government, which promptly passed it on to Napoleon’s arch-rival and conqueror, Wellington.
And here, Knightsbridge ends; and you have to choose whether to head on up Piccadilly to the Royal Academy, Fortnums, and the fine Wren church of St James, or left into Hyde Park for a little stroll. Or retire to The Beaufort for afternoon cream tea!
This is a guest post by Andrea Kirkby.