Mayfair has knocked Knightsbridge off the top spot as London’s Most Expensive Area, and with an established arts scene, world-class restaurants and exclusive nightclubs, it’s easy to see why
Lead image © Hayes Davidson
After a decade’s rivalry, Mayfair has finally usurped Knightsbridge for the title of ‘London’s most expensive area’. Consequently, it’s easy to think of London’s most exclusive and, now, expensive area as being simply the playground of the vastly wealthy.
From trust-fund billionaires to oil-rich oligarchs, the cliché is of a world in which Bentleys purr the streets and those who can afford it dine on an endless smorgasbord of caviar and champagne.
There’s probably some truth in the matter – property prices in W1 show no signs of falling, and there are more than a few expensive restaurants and hotels offering the plutocracy eye-watering bills.
Yet Mayfair is a more complex and varied part of town than this would suggest. Featuring some of the city’s best restaurants, at a range of budgets, and some wonderful shops, it’s also got a rich and storied history that encompasses a range of all life, from rich to poor.
The area as we know Mayfair today was named after the May Fair, an event that took place from the 17th to 18th centuries. Despite its bucolic name, it soon became associated with a rough and unruly kind of person, and so, in 1764, it was discontinued.
Mayfair was named after the May Fair, but it soon became associated with a rough and unruly kind of person
However, the Shepherd Market area in which it was held continued to have a louche reputation until late in the 20th century – even until today, if you’ll believe some of the seen-it-all types who still throng the bars and street cafes.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, grand squares and boulevards replaced the scrubby and rough streets; such addresses as Hanover Square, Grosvenor Square and Park Lane became synonymous with style and fashion, and remain so today.
There have long been aristocratic and moneyed connections in Mayfair – it was home to the Rothschilds for centuries and the Duke of Westminster has long had his base here.
It has always been something of a key destination for Americans, given that, until its recent relocation to Nine Elms, their embassy was located here, on Grosvenor Square.
More romantically, the Native American heroine Pocahontas was said to have visited the area in the early 17th century: long before it was synonymous with more moneyed and salubrious visitors and residents.
Yet it has not always been simply a playground for the rich. The arts have always had a strong foothold in Mayfair, and Handel famously lived on 25 Brook Street between 1723 and 1759, composing such works as the Messiah and Arrival of the Queen of Sheba there.
It has not always been simply a playground for the rich. The arts have always had a strong foothold in Mayfair
It was next door, two centuries later, that Jimi Hendrix would live from 1968-1969, before his untimely death in 1970 at the age of 27.
This contrast between the old and new has always been at the heart of Mayfair, both architecturally and culturally, and can be seen most clearly in the Royal Academy.
It was founded in 1768 by George III, with the artist Joshua Reynolds as its President, with the avowed intention of raising the reputation of artists and of exhibiting the best and most innovative contemporary artwork.
This mission statement has lasted for the past 250 years, and only this year a huge redevelopment of the Burlington Gardens site, which has created a vast amount of extra exhibition space, has meant that once again Mayfair and the RA are at the forefront of London’s ever-evolving cultural scene.
In terms of people to know around Mayfair today, one of the key figures remains Robin Birley, founder and owner of the area’s legendary 5 Hertford Street members’ club.
His policy of ‘more women, no bores, no One Direction’ has proved popular with its discerning clientele, said to include everyone from royalty to supermodels.
Although Birley, who famously dislikes giving interviews, would never be so gauche as to say so, he has created a 21st century equivalent of the great salons of his ancestors and forerunners, a place where conversation and intrigue go hand-in-hand, and where the vast majority of the public will never set foot.
His rival Richard Caring has also relaunched Annabel’s, the legendary Berkeley Square nightclub, with a similarly glitzy clientele; although Birley insisted in a rare recent interview that ‘we’re perfectly friendly… let bygones be bygones’, one can only imagine that the old traditions of Mayfair, where disagreements were settled in Green Park at dawn with pistol or rapier, still exist in their own, albeit less dramatic, way.
And what of the future of W1? The restaurants remain world-class – Kitty Fisher’s in Shepherd’s Market has attracted a hip and young clientele
And what of the future of W1? The restaurants and places to go remain world-class, and the splendid Kitty Fisher’s in Shepherd’s Market – named after a famous courtesan who used to frequent the area – has attracted a hip and young clientele who may well not otherwise have chosen to visit this particular enclave.
Although big business has never colonised Mayfair the way that it has the City, with Cadbury’s head office leaving Berkeley Square a decade ago (for Uxbridge, of all places), the steady hum of money and high-end investment has continued to bring a stream of ambitious and eager types to the area, whether to work within its offices, eat and drink in its places of entertainment or – if things go well – end up living in one of its grand houses, which still remain among the most desirable in London.
Although, given its recent accolade, things will have to have gone very well indeed.