Vignettes of old Marylebone No 13: How Green Was My Valley

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Supermarkets rarely have much  romance about them these days; now, 50 years ago, when I was taken shopping at the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ in Hamilton, Bermuda it was another matter. I’d never seen such a store at home and the ‘P.W.’ was not only embowered in mauve bougainvillia but sold unheard-of exotica like deep fried battered jumbo prawns, maple syrup and Hershey bars. 

Nowadays you have to look to the Arabic and Asian cultures to bring a little fantasy and imagination into the aisles. Both touch the everyday with  magic. There’s a glorious establishment in Leicester which is best seen at night when it’s lit up like an Edwardian toy theatre in scarlet, coral, turquoise and pink lights. These shops have wonderful names too: the Ishtar, the Baalbec and the fabulous Astarte Mart. In Tunis I have the happiest memories of the Jasmine Superstores. The Jasmine was tiny with a staff of one, but was packed with Jaffa cakes, cheap cigarettes, tangerines, perfume oils, painted pots & candles all spilling over onto the pavement in a madman’s paradise of abundance.

Now we at Les Senteurs love our local Lebanese GREEN VALLEY store at 36-37 Upper Berkley Street W1. First of all it is irresistible because it shares its name with a lost Creed floral fragrance. Here I will advise that lovers of the discontinued Green Valley Millesime may care to smell Atelier Cologne’s Trefle Pur when passing No 2 Seymour Place. This sweet pure clover fragrance has something of the same meadow-sweet mood: come by and try. 

You’ll love the smell of the Green Valley store, too: a delicate aromatic temptation of mouth-wateringly fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables that look as though just culled from the gardens of the world. Then there are tiers of potted, pickled and preserved eggplant, chillis, peppers, mushrooms and every sort of cucumber you can think of. There’s sour cherry jam, hibiscus tea, myriad coffee blends and a dozen varieties of honey. You’ll be tempted by apricot nougat done up in frills of pink lace, baklava, pistachios and turkish delight all set out on great brass and silver chargers. And what makes all this bounty irresistible is the warmth and cheer of the lovely staff, all smiles and kindness. I guess that’s another reason why the Les Senteurs personnel like the Green Valley so well: it’s home from home!

For me, the finishing charming touch is that when you come to the check-out there’s not the usual racks of horrible plastic sweets but strings of worry beads, umbrellas & sunshades, tiny packets of dried pink rosebuds. The Green Valley lifts the heart: it’s only 2 minutes’ walk from Les Senteurs so do make us both part of your essential Marylebone lifestyle routine!

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 11 – The Ballad of John and Yoko

thetimesdotcodotukjohnandyokoDuring the Tube strike I rediscovered the short cut from Camden Town to Marble Arch via Regents Park. I remembered Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid Wilson taking this route to visit her parents on her day off. Door to door ( I live near the site of the Crippens’ house in Upper Holloway) it took me just 60 minutes to Les Senteurs, stepping out briskly. Not bad. The rain held off and I saw some interesting addresses.

For instance, just north of Marble Arch (and with a wonderful enfilade view of that landmark via Cumberland Place) I happened upon Montague Square. Here at No 34 (Flat One) John Lennon and Yoko Ono resided briefly in 1968: apparently they were not fastidious housekeepers. At that time I developed a sort of joint crush on the pair and longed for their Wedding Album LP with all its enclosed paraphernalia which included, I think, a photo of the bridal cake. A grubby hoard of reviews torn from Melody Maker and NME was the nearest I got to it: the album seemed unimaginably expensive. (This was before the luxury picture book Four Fabulous Faces was published. A book which cost £20? The nation’s eyes were on stalks).

I was dotty about the Lennons’ all-white wardrobe, Yoko’s nutty hair and picture hats, her wailing rendition of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s only looking for a hand in the snow)” on the B side of the Ballad of John and Yoko. And then those Bed-Ins and Bagism (sic). Do you remember? With Liz Taylor and Mrs Onassis Mr + Mrs Lennon dominated the “Mail” and “Express” – one’s preferred schooldays reading.

Now I read that Yoko – suddenly and unbelievably 81 – spars with Andy Murray’s mum on Twitter. “Time! And Time hath brought me hither.” I have no idea what perfume she wears but I always associate her with gardenias – pale, interesting, intense, complex; apparently frail but essentially powerful and intense. Do you catch my drift? Come by Les Senteurs and have a smell…

Image: thetimes.co.uk

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 10 – Marble Arch

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As children in the faraway Midlands we sang a nonsense song about the Marble Arch into which you could slot the name of any celebrity of your choice:

“Around the Marble Arch
X used to march
He tumbled into a box of eggs
All the yellow ran up his legs..”

So when I finally got to touch the beautiful if slightly foxed chunks of white Italian marble I still saw all those spattered yolks in my mind’s eye. It’s a funny old thing and tunnelled with little rooms, apparently. Marooned in the middle of the traffic since Park Lane was widened over half a century ago the Arch is now scratched by graffittists and, as the London papers keep pointing out, is on occasion used as a loo.

Even before it became a traffic island Marble Arch was a displaced wanderer. It started life in 1827 as the gateway to Buckingham Palace but was brought up in sections to Marylebone when the Palace was enlarged, to be rebuilt as the ceremonial entrance to the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in the summer of 1851. The bronze statue of George IV – that heavily-perfumed consumer of cherry brandy, opium and pork pies – originally designed to ride atop the Arch now prances in Trafalgar Square.

May 1st 1851 was the Marble Arch’s finest hour: Queen Victoria in pink satin and lace swept through in her carriage to open the Crystal Palace ( erected near to where the Albert Memorial now stands ). The great glass conservatory was filled with birds, living cedars, vast organs and choirs whose voices could scarcely be heard for the sheer size and scale of it all. Prince Albert, whose brainchild the exhibition was, stood resplendent in scarlet gazing at the tribute of the Empire; a mysterious Mandarin in blue silk and peacock feathers who was later said to be someone’s cook made the ritual kow tow.

And perfume was present. Fragrance was featured. Our Grossmith friends won medals. Eugene Rimmel’s huge baroque fountain of living scents was one of the star attractions during the six month run of the show. Perfume has always drawn the crowds: renew your own acquaintance Les Senteurs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Vignettes of Old Marylebone: No. 8 – River of No Return.

Fleet River, London, England

The spell of running water exercises a peculiar fascination on the mind only equalled by that of perfume. The idea of subterranean lakes and streams only compounds the magic and conjures up the exotic fantasies of Gaston Leroux, H. Rider Haggard and Coleridge. Think of the souls of the dead being ferried across the Styx upon payment of an obol; the barque of the extinguished sun sailing through the night. Or, more merrily, drifting in mad King Ludwig’s cockleshell though gaslit pink and blue opaline crystal caverns “measureless to man” and as magical as Selfridge’s Lower Sales Floors or the shelves at Les Senteurs. Who would think that at least one of London 13’s lost and buried – but still rushing – rivers flows below the bustling busy streets of Portman Village?

No wonder London is so humid in summer; it is built over endless marshes. Westminster Abbey once stood on an island; the Thames has lost at least half its width since the Roman city was sacked by Boudicca’s hordes. The City was divided by the Fleet River rushing down from Farringdon until less than 300 years ago – that’s just three long lifetimes. The Tyburn was once better known as the name of a tributary of the Thames than as a synonym for the grim gallows at Marble Arch.

Once green and glorious and gushing down from Hampstead, the Tyburn was one of the bountiful sources of safe drinking water that made early London such a prime spot for settlement. But as the city enlarged and corrupted, the Tyburn like its sister rivers became stinking sewers of offal, by and by built over: sinking out of sight, smell and common knowledge. Londoners quenched their thirst with beer and spent their short lives half drunk in consequence. However, down there the rivers still flow, occasionally heard gurgling or glimpsed contained in drains in underground stations. The Tyburn pours down beneath Regents Park, Marylebone Lane, through Mayfair, Green Park and under Buckingham Palace and the Abbey to the Embankment at Whitehall. Wonderful to think of! Seymour Place now exotic with rare perfumes drifting through the door of Les Senteurs must once have stood in water meadows fragrant with wild flowers. The scent is only a spray away.

Image: The Fleet River under London from undercity.org