Want to buy a fountain pen? Of course you could try the internet – but there’s no substitute for actually getting your hands on a pen, and seeing how it lays down the ink. And fortunately, London has some pretty good shops which can let you do exactly that.
You could try the department stores. Fortnum and Mason, though it’s best known for its food hall, has a quiet but spacious stationery department – all carpeted hush and wooden display cases. It carries a good cross-section of different styles of pen; the Faber Castell pens have a somewhat modernist German feel, with lots of luxury woods like cocobolo, pernambuco, and ebony, and gleaming silver caps; Yard-o-Led make rather Victorian pens in silver; and Conway Stewart, very classical pens with a surprisingly rich range of colours.
There are also lovely leather bound notebooks, and a selection of charming stationery and desk accessories.
Not far away in Burlington Arcade is Penfriend, a tiny shop hardly much bigger than a ticket kiosk but absolutely stuffed with both vintage and modern pens. If you want to see such classic collectors’ pens as the Waterman 92V or Conway Stewart Floral, this is the place to come; the vintage pens are in lovely condition, shining as if they’ve never been out of the box, though the prices are high, to match. Modern pens include the Japanese Sailor and German Pelikan brands; if you haven’t tried a Sailor Cross Emperor nib, you haven’t lived – far from the scratchiness of the fountain pens I was made to use at school, this floats across the paper without even seeming to touch it, laying down a thick, liquid, swimming line of ink.
Pen repairs and specialised nib work are available, too, if you have an heirloom pen that won’t write.
If you want to try your luck at finding vintage fountain pens ‘in the wild’, of course, Portobello Market is the place to go. Start early on a Saturday if you want to find any bargains. There are specialist pen stands in the Red Teapot antiques market (easily recognisable by the huge red teapot sign hanging in front) and in the Admiral Vernon. The latter is run by Henry Simpole, who not only knows everything there is to know about pen collecting, but also makes gorgeous sterling silver overlay pens, where the underlying material of the pen peeps through an artfully pierced silver coat.
Harrods (handily just round the corner from our boutique hotel), of course, has a superb pen department, only they call it the Writing Room. Naturally, it has a Mont Blanc boutique – the iconic MB 149 with its shiny black torpedo shape and white snowflake on the cap is a standard investment banker’s “I’ve arrived” pen, though I wonder how many City gents can actually use a fountain pen these days. But while Mont Blanc’s limited editions, encrusted with jewels or in the case of one pen turned out of pure malachite, run at several thousand pounds each, they’re just not enough for serious bling-lovers. Enter Jack Row, an English jeweller whose highly unusual pens take ideas from Islamic architecture and Victorian engineering; his Architect white gold pen with inset diamonds costs £27,500. Or you might see a selection of Japanese maki-e pens – painstakingly built up with many layers of lacquer, and hand-painted with traditional designs.
But if like me you can’t afford more than a bottle of ink and some fancy notepaper from Harrods, head for Selfridges instead. The pen department is huge, with a vast assortment of brands – perhaps the largest in London – and whether you want to spend £15 or so on a bright yellow Lamy Safari, or several hundred pounds on a Waterman Edson or Carene, the friendly and knowledgeable staff will help. One gentleman found me a special ‘stub’ nib for a Waterman Carene, for italic handwriting, and swapped it into the pen I’d chosen – a great service when you consider that many pen shops nowadays only offer medium nibs. Besides, there’s a great selection of notebooks, leather pen cases, and other accessories, such as
Or of course you could drop in to WH Smith or Rymans, and get yourself one of the cheap Parkers in a plastic bubble. You might save a bit of money – but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun!
At The Beaufort we have an Advance Purchase Rate offer which offers 10% off the best available rate for bookings made at least 14 days in advance. Those pennies saved will certainly be useful for investing in your next fountain pen!