No, I don’t own Mount Street, despite the name. The Duke of Westminster does, as part of his 100 acres in Mayfair; the street gets its name from Oliver’s Mount, an earthwork in London’s 1640s Civil War defences.
But how I wish I did own it. Built in 1880–97 as a shopping street, with residential property above the shops, Mount Street is one of those places that feels dignified and restrained until you look closely and see a frothing, carefree combination of styles — ‘Franco-Flemish-Renaissance’, Pevsner calls it — all in playful pink terracotta, set off with yellow and red brick. There are a few mock-medieval oriel windows and Pont Street Dutch gables thrown in, too; and, at the Hyde Park end of the street is the residence of the Brazilian ambassador, a thwacking great French Baroque number.
It’s like a superchic billionaire’s village — which is pretty much what it is. This little corner of London has its own Catholic church (Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, with a high altar by Pugin) and Anglican church, the Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street (1731, with a neat, spare Doric portico and colonial spire).
The village has a pretty knockout inn, too, the newly refurbished Connaught — one of the few Mount Street buildings not owned by the Grosvenors, who’ve held on to the place pretty much intact ever since canny Sir Thomas Grosvenor made the match of the millennium in 1677 and married Mary Davies, heiress to 100 acres of farmland north of Piccadilly.
Five years ago, Mount Street was all antiques, rugs and fine art. The footfall wasn’t great — so the Grosvenor estate gave it a superlux makeover, and now a year’s road works have left it shiny and new, with York stone and granite sets.
A pretty full deck of superlux names have taken over the leases, too: Christian Louboutin (with his name in big vaudeville circus lights in the window, like Liza Minnelli has just rolled up in town), Carolina Herrera and Balenciaga. Also there are some niche numbers — not so well-known but toppest of top-end, like Gripoix, Coco Chanel’s jeweller.
Just as when there’s a hole in the top of the milk bottle on your doorstep and the blue tits mysteriously find out about it, so it is with the new Mount Street. Fashionistas, and those hyper-trendy Japanese harajuku girls, in Prince of Wales check jackets twinned with mini-Ugg boots, have sniffed their way to the two Marc Jacobs shops, their windows jam-packed with those squashy handbags with the hefty gold-link chains. The Big Hair Billionaire Brigade have caught on, too, helped by easy parking for chauffeurs — who come and pick up the bags after the BHBB have finished all those arduous fittings.
The BHBB don’t have to walk far: Balenciaga is yards from Christian Louboutin, which saves on all that red shoe leather. If the strain of massed shopping bags on finger joints begins to tell, Scott’s and George (members only) are there to feed and water you.
You can get an upmarket sandwich on Mount Street, too — at Richard Caring’s Mount Street Deli. They also do cheaper takeaway versions of the greatest hits of Caring’s other restaurants: the Le Caprice fishcake, J. Sheekey’s fish pie or the Ivy’s shepherd’s pie.
How many other shopping streets have not one, but two, gunmakers (Purdey’s and William and Son)? William and Son will sell you a side-by-side, self-opening, double trigger, sidelock ejector gun, with standard scroll engraving, for £42,500. A top-of-the-range rifle goes for £95,000.
In these straitened times, all this big spender stuff may leave you a little queasy. But no one’s forcing you to buy anything — I didn’t. Instead, treat a walk down Mount Street as a passeggiata through a weirdly empty part of London, given its beauty and history. In 1884, you’d have found 30-year-old Oscar Wilde living at number 9 Mount Street with his new wife. A few doors down, at number 6, John Ruskin was a neighbour. Their chats at the newsagent must have been worth eavesdropping on.
Mount Street today might not be so highbrow, but it still provides healthy rewards for sociologists keen on watching the rich at play.
We’re at an intriguing moment in the history of how the super-rich dress and decorate. There are still some old rich shops on Mount Street. Kenneth Neame provides antiques straight out of Uncle Monty’s drawing room in Withnail and I: Japanese lacquered screens, lavish ormolu clocks and plates in Greek vase-style, decorated with the labours of Heracles. The appropriately named art dealers Rich offer Canalettoesque Venetian views, ‘Caesar in the Senate’-style oil paintings and 19th-century desert scenes. Now that Hosni Mubarak will be spending more time in his London bolthole, these big canvases would fill his vast walls nicely.
The young rich, though, are dressing much more like poor teenagers. Along with his evening shoes, Christian Louboutin offers hi-top Converse-style basketball shoes — with those familiar red soles. Lanvin has a window display with three grungy mannikins wearing lurid yellow, red and purple Afro wigs. Expensive grunge has a fringe benefit — it takes the edge of that intimidating feel you used to get on going into hushed shops for the mega-rich, which used to be filled with muted colours and semi-mute shop assistants.
Even if you can’t afford to cross the threshold round here, it’s rewarding rubbernecking territory.
The streets aren’t quite paved with gold, but the path leading to Farm Street church is at least lined with olive trees and has glinting lights set in a swirling serpentine pattern. The estate agent’s window next door is offering a Mount Street townhouse for £34 million.
The super-rich are still pretty super-rich. They know not to put all their Fabergé eggs in one basket. When the financial crisis hit, there was money left over in the Post Office account; and quite a few even made more out of the crisis.
As one veteran banker recently said, with a thin smile that gleamed like a hatchet, ‘There’s money in debt.’