Decorated with hearts and lights there are no better places to shop for perfume than The Burlington Arcade – its history and old-school charm make it beloved with Mayfair’s well-heeled locals, eccentric dowagers, Middle Eastern ex-pats and tourists alike. Formerly only famous for its jewellery shops and tailors, it’s recently become London's go-to olfactory sweet spot, with more and more luxury perfumeries moving in with each year. Among them is perfume maverick Frederic Malle, who commissions some of the world's finest noses to concoct some seriously memorable scents (with few creative or budgetary restrictions). While Penhaligon’s are a heritage London brand whose apothecary-style bottles are filled with equally offbeat and dazzling fragrances. Atkinson's are another classic perfumery who have recently undergone a revival, whose dapper scents used to be popular with 18th Century man-about-town Beau Brummel. And for no-holds-barred glamour, it has to be Roja Parfums, whose diamante-topped bottles are just as dazzling as their contents.
But the real draw is the world’s smallest and oldest police force: The Beadles of Burlington Arcade. Sadly Mark the head beadle wasn't around for our chat but his colleague John kindly stepped in to give a brief overview.
“The arcade was built in 1819, by Lord Cavendish for his wife – who wanted a shopping area as at the time there was no police force so if you think of Dickens’s era and all the pick-pocketing that went on, that’s how it was at the time. For her and her friends to shop, she wanted an arcade that had some of protection. Lord Cavendish would employ people from his regiment after they had retired to come and look after the arcade – that’s us, the beadles.
“Lady Cavendish originally used the arcade for herself and her friends, and then more people came along. And obviously we could pick and choose who could come in at the time. It’s been opened ever since - the only time it closed was during WWII when part of it got destroyed. We would have our own rules, regulations and laws to keep people safe as they shopped.
“One of the rules is no whistling, basically at the time you had a lot of pick-pockets they’d use it as code. That’s why we had to stop it. There are a few exceptions – Paul McCartney. One of our beadles apprehended him and asked if he could stop – until Paul turned around and the guy realised who he was. He then said, “I’ll allow you to whistle, and that’s it!” Later on a child from East London was given the same privilege a few years ago. We do get a few people teasing us about it, but generally we don’t have any trouble. Others ‘laws’ include no running, or umbrellas. It’s all common sense pretty much. It’s a relatively narrow walkway, so with umbrellas being up, people get hit in the eye which I’ve seen a couple of times. From one end of the arcade to the other, there’s a gradient of about 10ft – there used to be steps, but the ladies apparently found them too tiring, so now it’s a slope!
“The original shops were jewellers and tailors – there was a time when ladies of the night would rent the rooms upstairs. They never got caught as cash was never exchanged – the gentleman would buy a gift, give it to the lady who would take it back and get a refund (the shop would take a cut, obviously).”
The beadles' uniform is very distinct and quite theatrical – in the form of top hats and capes, which probably hasn’t changed since the very beginning. As one can imagine, it goes down well with tourists. As a full-time beadle, John has found fame himself!
“I was in a Middle Eastern magazine, it was to do with oil rigs and pipes… And a veteran actress flirted with me once, she was impressed after I told her I was a fan of her TV show!
“Originally you didn’t carry packages or baggage along the arcade (it was seen as unsightly), but there’s a tunnel that runs underneath the arcade which delivery boys and girls would use to take stock to the shops underneath. It was all about appearances, it was unsightly at the time to be carrying your shopping. As a woman you couldn’t walk along here on your own, you had to walk with a relative.
“In terms of perfumeries, Penhaligon’s was the first one to arrive, then Frederic Malle moved in, and then Chanel etc. We just seemed to suddenly grow with perfume shops. The competition is there but noone’s really losing out as all of them have their own unique appeal.
"There are still a few relics from back in the day. A lot of stuff got destroyed in a flood, but I found a portrait of Lord Cavendish a few years ago downstairs, which has been here for 60 or 70 years. The tunnels in the basement are still there – although not accessible to the public. Waifs and strays in Victorian London used to sleep there in the winter."
As well as daily swarms of tourists, the arcade has no shortage of colourful regulars to make the beadles’ jobs more interesting.
“A Middle Eastern princess comes here regularly for coffee who sits outside Ladurée – really nice lady, she’s so kind to everyone, she invites families to sit down and buys them macarons. Another gentleman who lives locally walks through here to get his suits fitted in Savile Row, he always says hello to us.”
And despite the cheery atmosphere, the arcade has seen its fair share of drama over the years.
“There was a jewellery heist in the 60s. “There were no gates at the time, the thieves drove a Jaguar through the arcade, smashed the car into the window and made off with thousands of pounds worth of jewellery. They were never caught."
Whether you're a history buff, fragrance fan or just fancy having a photo with a beadle (or taking tea with a princess) anyone London-based or bound should pay this place a visit.
The Burlington Arcade can be found at 51 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 0QJ (nearest tubes are Green Park and Piccadilly Circus). burlingtonarcade.com