Remember that bit in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" where Lucy finds herself entering an old coat-cupboard and emerging into a totally different world? A perfect place (bar the psychotic winter-worshipping witch, of course) where all is beautiful and magic happens? Well, here in London there is a similar wardrobe to explore, where one can access a forgotten world of Victorian shopping, simply by stepping through a set of black shiny gates. No fauns or talking beavers, but monogrammed vanity cases made from real crocodile skin, and silver-backed hairbrushes.
Step into the Burlington Arcade and you are Lucy visiting Narnia for the first time. Entering Britain's oldest shopping arcade takes you back to a time when you needed to be wearing a bonnet to peruse the bow-fronted windows full of soft leather gloves. Smart men in green livery and top-hats stand guard either end of the arcade, ensuring no one disturbs the peace of this hallowed ground.
Open for business since 1819, many of the shops are home to some of the oldest retailers (with ancient Dickensian names, like Pickett and Bentley & Skinner) in the country, purveying items the majority of us have little need for, or the finances to afford; cowslip yellow cashmere twinsets, antique silver salt sellars in the shape of foxes, a hundred types of hand-picked tea. Behind carved wooden windows the wares of perfumer Penhaligon's, patissiere Ladurée, and clockmakers Lapport are displayed proudly in massed ranks on tiny velvet shelves and podiums. From time to time the outsides of the windows are dressed too - tiny silver butterflies recently appeared fluttering around Penhaligon's bottles to tie in with a new scent.
The long stone floor is kept pristine (apart from its current festive carpet), unlike the dark, chewing gum decorated pavement outside. Light streams down onto the shops, with their perfectly polished windows, from the high glass roof. The Burlington Arcade echoes a bygone, Primark-free shopping experience, where the goods are created with care and finished with expense. No fighting with fellow Brits, or even tourists, over the last size 12 black cotton-mix cardigan here. Shopping returns to being a pleasurable experience, with attentive sales staff, goods one really yearns for, rather than needs, and an environment which makes the activity an enjoyable past-time (as practised by the bonnet-trim-buying Bennett girls in Jane Austen) rather than a chore.
Such an icon of British style, or what remains of it, is the Burlington Arcade, that this summer it was transformed into a film set for Woody Allen's latest movie. His secretively titled WASP (Woody Allen Summer Project) '09 was kept so quiet only a small board at either end of the arcade announced "Filming in Progress". Hence, one morning, walking through the arcade on my way to work I found myself in the middle of it, wondering why there were people with sound booms and cameras everywhere. It was only when I saw a small, distinctive man in a somewhat grubby-looking fishing hat that I realised what was going on and quite what I was wandering through (ok, so I'm not at my sharpest first thing in the morning).
Yet in the Burlington Arcade the glamour of movie-making was assimilated so smoothly into the glamour of the environment itself that no one really batted an eyelid. For nearly 200 years the arcade has stood for style and taste (and beautiful fripperies) and in these times of fast food and cheap electronics somehow it resolutely remains. Here's to the next few hundred years!