Today’s guest post is brought to you by Vanessa Musson, the charmingly eccentric author of Bonkers about Perfume. Vanessa is a freelance market researcher, specialising in industrial products. She was struck down by “sudden onset perfume mania” relatively late in life, while googling a couple of scents worn by her friend. As she puts it, “then before you could say ‘Michael Edwards Fragrance Wheel’ my inner researcher was totally hooked, and what began as an intellectual pastime quickly exploded into full-blown ‘fumehedonism’. Eighteen months later I started my blog, Bonkers about Perfume. Blending trivia-filled travelogues with a sideways look at the world of fragrance, it subjects everything in its path – from behemoths to Britney – to the same bonkers spin.” Vanessa is taking us on a tour of London’s perfumeries in her guest contribution to Bois de Jasmin.
This long weekend marks The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee: London is bedecked with bunting and a packed programme of events is in full swing, including exhibitions, processions, a grand flotilla on the Thames and countless street parties. I was down in London two weeks ago as the preparations were underway, and as my friend Alberto Umbridge and I wandered around the city and admired the exuberant decorations, we decided that it might be fun to cycle between some of my favourite London perfumeries using the free bicycle hire scheme championed by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. It turned out to be a great day full of adventures and discoveries, and I would love to share my route with you. I will also include Tube station information for anyone who would prefer a more sedate method of getting around, together with some suggestions of good places to stop along the way for a drink or a bite to eat.
By getting around on a bike rather than taking the Underground you are definitely saving on fares, as well as getting to see some of the quirkier sights of the city just off the beaten track. I got through four bikes in all, though much of the core area in this part of Central London is walkable. The “Boris bikes”, as they are jocularly known, are located at docking stations all over the city; for a deposit of just £1 (or $1.50) you can hire as many as you like in the course of 24 hours, as long as you return each bike to any of the several hundred stations within half an hour.
Beyond the initial free 30 minute period, the charge for the next hour is a modest £1, before the costs rise sharply to an eye-watering £50 for 24 hours. Another potential downside is that the traffic can be daunting, and it is hard to navigate and ride at the same time, especially if you are doing so alone. Moreover, as the main focus of our bike tour was to research the route, it ended up being a little like the perfumery-visiting equivalent of a supermarket trolley dash! So a visitor would be better off planning for longer pauses between hire periods to allow for leisurely browsing in each store.
Starting point: Euston station
Euston – Endersleigh Square – Gordon Place – Bedford Square – Bailey Street – Percy St – Rathbone Place – Tottenham Court Road – Soho Square
Change bikes at Soho Square. We carried straight on, but the gardens are a pleasant spot to sit and let the world go by.
Soho Square – Old Compton St – Berwick Street – Broadwick Street – Carnaby Street – Great Marlborough Street
Change bikes in Great Marlborough Street. Having dropped off the bike, you could double back on foot to Carnaby Street for a spot of people-watching and a pitstop in Kingly Court, a quiet courtyard with shops and cafés, tucked away behind the main retail arteries of Regent Street and Oxford Street.
Great Marlborough Street – Maddox Street – New Bond Street – Bruton Street
Miller Harris (21 Bruton Street, London W1J 6QD. Tube: Green Park)
We dropped Bike No 3 off at the docking station on Bruton Street, diagonally opposite Miller Harris’s Mayfair store, and continued on foot.
Why visit: A wide range of perfumes, fragranced body care products, candles and scented teas. The in-store tea room is a cross between a top of the range womb and an oasis straight out of The Arabian Nights.
What I did: I scored a sample of the latest release, Le Pamplemousse! (I know I don’t like grapefruit, but still). Chatted briefly to the friendly sales assistants who had read my blog. Cast a longing look at the canisters of tea and ran off.
Bruton Street – Berkeley Square – Hay Hill – Dover Street* – Stafford Street – Old Bond Street
*Optional stop at one of the many snack bars and restaurants in this district, or at the Comme des Garçons store in Dover Street Market. The bouncer wouldn’t let me take photographs inside, so I didn’t feel inclined to linger.
Ormonde Jayne (12 The Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1S 4SL. Tube: Green Park)
Why visit: The Mayfair store we visited is located in the architecturally interesting Royal Arcade. Ormonde Jayne boasts a small, but well-edited range of perfumes, which I have likened to the fragrance equivalent of a capsule wardrobe. Like Miller Harris, the line includes fragranced bath oils and candles. Free chocolates are a very real possibility.
What I did: I glimpsed Linda Pilkington coming out of the arcade, but wasn’t quick enough off the mark to approach her. The sales assistant assured me she would be back shortly, but I explained about my humorously tight schedule and said I would call back another time.
Old Bond Street – New Bond Street – Brook Street
We carried on up Bond Street, one of the most exclusive shopping districts in London, lined with the boutiques of luxury goods brands such as Chanel and Cartier, Chopard and Chaumet, to name just four beginning with “C”!
Penhaligon’s (20A Brook St, London W1K 5DE. Tube: Green Park)
Why visit: Penhaligon’s is a quintessentially traditional British perfume house with a modern twist. Gets the award for the best show of bunting, but my indoor shot was a tad blurry so you will have to take my word for it.
What I did: I ran in, told the charming duo of SAs how much I loved Juniper Sling, and ran out again.
Optional stop at the Jo Malone store opposite, in a building which has the incongruous added curiosity of being the former home of Jimi Hendrix, which in turn is bang next door to the former home of Handel, though I don’t suppose they’d have been in residence at the same time.
Brook Street – South Molton Street – Oxford Street – St Christopher’s Place
Crossing London’s busy (but mostly tourist tat-touting) Oxford Street, we slipped into the relative calm of St Christopher’s Place, another good area for cafés and restaurants. Popular with office workers and shoppers alike, it affords tantalising glimpses of the retail heaven that is Selfridge’s (see footnote).
St Christopher’s Place – Marylebone Lane – George Street – Marylebone High Street – Devonshire Street
In the quiet back streets of Marylebone we passed a distinctly eclectic mix of shops: Alberto drew my attention to one in Marylebone Lane that only sold buttons, one selling ribbons and trimmings, and another selling nothing but condiments. This had a small café attached, but sadly no tables free. So we grabbed a bite at one of the many snack bars in Marylebone High Street, before picking up a final bike for me in George Streetand heading up to Le Labo, our last stop.
Le Labo (28A Devonshire Street, London W1G 6PS. Tube: Baker Street)
Why visit: With its gleaming metal fixtures and clinically minimalist packaging, Le Labo’s Devonshire Street store is the height of apothecary cool. Unlike the other perfumeries featured, Le Labo is anything but typically British, however the London City Exclusive, Poivre 23, is uniquely available in the capital.
What I did: I scored a sample of Poivre 23! Le Labo samples are noted for being rare as hen’s teeth, and this is a career first! The obliging staff also let me take photos of the sleekly stylish interior, and then it was time to head back to our starting point of Euston, where I caught my train home.
Devonshire St – Great Portland St – Clipstone Street – Marple Street – Tottenham Court Road – Euston Road – Euston Station
So there you have it: four high end perfumeries in half a day, costing just £1 and the knee equivalent of elbow grease. A big thank you is due to Alberto, my tirelessly patient escort, who helped adjust my bikes, stopped when I wobbled or fell behind – or off! – and waited for me as I scurried around taking pictures. And still managed to take some photos of his own. I had a blast and would recommend “getting on your bike” to perfume lovers everywhere.
Note: There are three other stores with fine selections of niche scents which could readily be slotted into this itinerary, two of which we passed close to on our route:
Liberty (Great Marlborough Street, London W1B 5AH. Tube :Oxford Circus)
Selfridge’s (400 Oxford Street, London W1U 1AB. Tube: Bond Street)
Les Senteurs (2 Seymour Place, London W1H 7NA. Tube: Marble Arch)
Photography by Vanessa Musson and by Alberto Umbridge, all rights reserved.