After seemingly having to spend an age trying to remove a virus from CabbieBlog’s website, today it is the turn of focussing on a virus of a different and more deadly nature which once stalked London’s streets.
Walk down the west side of Lower Regent Street and turn right into Jermyn Street. In about 180 yards turn left into Duke of York Street, you will find Appletree Yard on the left.
TODAY WE might approach Appletree Yard with a degree of wary reservation, but until the late 17th century it would have been a gracious honour to be invited to stroll around these grounds.
The story of St James’s began in the 11th century, or as John Stow preferred to put it ‘before the time of any man’s memory’.
It all started with a lonely hospital lying in the fields west of Edward I memorial to his deceased queen (Charing Cross). These were the times when the risk of becoming a victim of leprosy put hysterical fear into the minds of every man and woman. So contagious was the disease that the only effective guard against infection was to keep those stricken with the illness locked up as far away from civilisation as possible.
The hospital of St James in the Fields was ideal, and in the 12th century it was transformed into a place for the confinement of ‘fourteen sisters, maidens, that were leprous, living chastely and honestly in divine service’.
In 1530, when Henry VIII was on the lookout for a base from which he could hunt in the western reaches, he seized on the idea of converting the hospital. All fourteen of the maidens were moved to another location and granted a life-long pension as Henry proceeded to demolish the buildings. Here he built himself a ‘goodly manor’ surrounded by parkland and all enclosed within a ‘wall of brick’.
The great expense to which Henry extended may have seemed at the time an unnecessary extravagance, for he only used the lodging very occasionally. Successive monarchs disregarded the manor until Mary I took a liking to the place, making it her private residence, and there she died in 1558.
During the reign of Charles II, Christopher Wren was commissioned to carry out extensive alterations which included the building of a chapel and state apartments overlooking the grounds. From that time the manor, as it was still known, was in regular use. James, Duke of York, took up residence prior to being crowned James II and when the Palace of Whitehall was destroyed by fire in 1698 William and Mary made it their principal home. It was then designated as the official residence of the British Monarch and named St James’s Palace.
However, to return to Appletree Yard, although we have not really strayed from it. As already stated, Henry surrounded his new house with luscious greenery, the envy of all who set eyes upon it. He also laid out flower gardens, vegetable plots and, to the north, orchards of many trees. In these grounds strolled the generations of kings and queens, entertaining their guests, drinking, eating, and getting extremely merry.
Around the site of this Yard, the gardeners pruned and tended the trees that bore the apples that filled the fruit bowls of the royal houses. They continued to yield fruit until the end of the 17th century when most of this area was taken over for development and Appletree Yard was built.
Samuel Pepys noted in his diary for 1688 that he did ‘steal some apples off the trees’ in the King’s garden. Some of the trees were allowed to remain during building and were still bearing fruit when the properties were first occupied. At the time of street naming, the preference for the Yard was obvious.
Lying in the shadow of St James’s church, Piccadilly – well, it would be if the office of William Hill were not shielding the view – Appletree Yard bears none of the cheerful pleasantries suggested in its name.
Rough Tarmac has replaced the green grass and where windfall apples were once abundantly strewn, cars are now parked. Wheeler’s of St James’s restaurant occupies a corner spot, offering an enticing menu of all sorts of seafood dishes . . . but woe to him who dares to call for apple pie and cream . . . ‘It’s off’.
Much of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.