Thursday, 12 January 2012

Heavenly homewares at Heal's

There are some defining moments in life when the crashing realisation that you are growing up finally strikes.  One such moment struck me on New Year's Day, as I stood in front of a large grey sofa in a furniture shop and watched as the Accidental Ex-Boyfriend calculated sale discounts. Every other New Year's Day before 2012 I have typically spent in a hungover haze, prostrate on a sofa, eating crisps and watching trashy films.  And now here I was, upright, relatively hangover-free and shopping for sofas in the post-Christmas sale. Whatsmore I was shopping in Heal's. Yup, I was a grown up.

The flagship Heal's store stands on Tottenham Court Road, a street best known for shops selling every sort of electronic good from sound systems to PCs. Yet at the opposite end of the road to all these purveyors of technology stands a majestic early twentieth century edifice, proudly bearing the name of Heal & Son Ltd.
Established back in 1810 by John Harris Heal, this fine department store contains all you would ever need for furnishing a home, providing that you've got plenty of cash with which to do it.  Heal's is synonymous with well-designed, and correspondingly expensive, homewares.  It is the civilised furniture-shopping antithesis of Ikea.  Shopping in Heal's is a very calm, peaceful affair; although the Tottenham Court Road store does have a peculiar fondness for piping Take That's Greatest Hits through its audio system, which jars oddly with finely designed Scandinavian dining tables.  The store is sensibly designed so that it never descends into the maelstrom-like scrums of many similar shops.  There are wide aisles throughout, and plenty of comfy sofas at handy intervals in case it all becomes too much and you need a sit down.
Heals stretches across three wide floors filled with expensive and covetable gifts, lampshades, linens, kitchenwares, armchairs and dining tables, bed linen, even four-poster beds.  Impeccably designed yet classically simple furniture invites you to take it home, where it promises to transform your own scruffy living room into a chic yet inviting haven.  Couples mull over new kitchen surfaces while their children flop over a nearby sample sofa, poking at their bleeping, hand-held computer games; totally relaxed and entirely oblivious to the bank-breaking commerce happening all around them.

On a sweeping spiral staircase at the back of the shop, all activities are watched by the Heal's Cat. Bought in 1925 by Sir Ambrose Heal, the bronze head of this fine feline has been rubbed smooth by generations of shoppers unable to resist a quick stroke on their way past this beautiful creature.
Tucked away on the first floor is even a cafe run by Peyton & Byrne, the high-end bakery chain, supplying much-needed sugar and caffeine to weary (and broke!) customers.  Safely ensconced within you could easily forget that you were inside a large department store, full of other people; you would certainly never guess that you were mere feet from the noisy, rushing Tottenham Court Road.  I still mourn the short-lived proper restaurant, of which I was very fond, that the current cafe, full of cup-cakes and pastries replaced.  It served excellent food albeit woefully slowly.     

Alas slow service is something of a theme at Heal's.  Harking back to its ancient roots today's company seems to prefer slightly more, er, traditional methods of retailing.  Enquire about purchasing anything much larger than a bowl or a candle and there is an extensive interview process which begins.  You answer a series of questions and sign and read rather a lot of forms.  Actual forms.  Paper forms.  Which then are whisked away from you - after you have kept a triplicate carbon copy (oh, it's so delightfully retro!) - and placed in large lever-arch files behind the sales desks.  Paper in a shop?! It's practically unheard of in these days where the chip-and-pin is king.

And God forbid you ever try and return anything to Heal's.  I mean, why would you when everything is so divine and perfect? But supposing you do you should allow a good half an hour to effect the transaction.  And I am not even exaggerating, but speaking from painful, scarring experience.  In retrospect I should have just kept the surprisingly ugly bowl I attempted to return to the kitchen department; for the sake of five pounds, the thirty minutes of agony and address-writing, and searching for the only person in the shop 'who knew how the till worked to do a refund' were not worth it.  But a wander round Heal's feels somehow good for the soul.  There are so many lovely things to see in such a glorious space.  Maybe it's more pleasing as a sort of gallery of delights rather than a shop; look, touch if you must, but don't buy...unless you have plenty of patience.


  1. Sounds like a shopping experience at most of the high street shops

  2. Very true, Mo. Although far less painful than any of the big chains on Oxford Street!


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