An urban view — 01 November 2011

You are sitting in your deckchair enjoying the sun when from next door a ball is kicked into your garden. Annoying? Just think of what it must have been like for George Augustus Henry Cavendish, 1st Earl of Burlington – Lord George Cavendish to his friends – to have oyster shells (the takeaway food of the day) landing on his head, along with apple cores, empty bottles and occasionally dead cats, thrown over his garden wall from the adjacent alleyway.

The garden wall was the western boundary of his palatial London home which for modesty’s sake was only called Burlington House, which now is the home of the Royal Academy.

After much thought on how to resolve the detritus conundrum he came upon the brilliant idea to turn this alley into a shopping mall, making it one of the world’s earliest. Completed in 1819 these tiny shops remained virtually unchanged until an upper story was added in 1906 creating a series of rooms which prompted one wag to remark “they were let to the better sort of courtesan” These ladies would use these small rooms as their places of work and when they saw guards coming they’d whistle to warn their pickpocket friends down below of the imminent danger. This has led to the beadles (the private police of the arcade) imposing the no whistling rule which remains to this day, sometimes with embarrassing consequences.

In the early 1980s a beadle warned a whistler asking him to refrain, the offender turned round to reveal Paul McCartney who was giving an impromptu performance from his repertoire. To cover the beadle’s embarrassment McCartney was given whistling exemption for life. He now admits to doing his Christmas shopping each year and while in the arcade gives a furtive little whistle.

Only one other alteration has been done to this Regency masterpiece, the beautiful triple-arch entrance was destroyed in 1931 for no discernable reason, but much of its Grade II-listed interior remains as a day it was first built by Lord Burlington nearly 200 years ago.

Until now, for the new owners having spent £104 million on the purchase intend to carry out a £2.5 million makeover, including a new floor and lighting and incorporating art installations by Angel of the North creator Antony Gormley.

Existing shop tenants fear that the refurbishment will destroy the character and quaintness of the arcade by enlarging the units to accommodate such downmarket brands as handbag maker Lulu Guinness and cobbler Jimmy Choo.

What next? Soon the beadles will drop their ban on running and carrying an open umbrella and perish the thought – allow the builders laying the new flooring to whistle – which in all probably their song of choice will be Yesterday . . all my troubles were so far away.

Picture of Burlington Arcade’s triple arch by permission of ashrare.

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