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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Christmas at Liberty's


Liberty of London, British shops, Regent Street, West End, London

Don’t think I haven’t noticed that people are talking about Christmas.  They try to keep it quiet, but I’m not daft.  In our local, The Olde Ruptured Duck, decorations started to appear weeks ago.  I’ve seen things on TV, y’know: shops and what-not, each flogging their own version of seasonal perfection – a sofa that is guaranteed to arrive before the Big Day, cute little fairies that add sparkle to – well, almost anything, I should imagine – a mate for lovelorn Monty the Penguin, the cheapest way to total oblivion – and so on.

Liberty of London, Xmas shop, Christmas decoration

I love Christmas, I really do.  And, like any other stereotypical male, I am absolutely thrilled by the prospect of Christmas shopping.  Of course, simultaneously sharing that sublime retail experience with thousands of other people, each and every one of them full of peace and goodwill to all, transports me to unimaginable heights of ecstasy... So we went to Liberty’s of London.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, visit Britain

Liberty’s of London is one of those iconic British shops, like Harrods, John Lewis and Grace Bros.  It is renowned for its fabrics and floral prints, but also enjoys a reputation for the slightly exotic and individual – as its website says, “where rich heritage combines with the cutting edge and avant garde.”  Rather beguilingly, it goes on to purr, “We welcome you into our eccentric, indulgent and utterly charming world and invite you to get truly lost in Liberty.”  Just in case you don’t get the point, it quotes Oscar Wilde claiming that, “Liberty is the chosen resort of the artistic shopper.”

Liberty's of London, Great Marlborough Street

Liberty’s founder, Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) was the son of a draper who found himself working for Farmer & Rogers’ Great Shawl & Cloak Emporium in London’s Regent Street.  He was put in charge of their oriental business and decided to break out on his own.  Borrowing £2,000 from his future father-in-law and with a staff of 3, in 1875 he leased half a shop at 218a Regent Street, calling it the ‘East India House’.  Within 18 months, Liberty had repaid the loan and leased the other half of the shop.  He was an instinctive niche retailer, growth was rapid and Liberty’s business became associated with the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements.  Unfortunately, he did not live to see his fabulous new premises open on Great Marlborough Street, at the junction with Regent Street, where it remains today.

Liberty's of London's Christmas shop

Built in mock-Tudor style, Liberty’s sticks out from the surrounding buildings like a morning suit at a football match.  The timbers used in its construction came from two Royal Navy ships, HMS Impregnable, launched as HMS Howe in 1860 and the Navy’s last wooden-wall ship, and HMS Hindustan, a battleship dating back to 1841.  Apparently, Liberty’s shop front along Great Marlborough Street is the same length as HMS Hindustan was – 185’.  Don’t ask me why.

Liberty's of London, iconic London shop

Inside, Liberty is as unlike every other shop in London as it is on the outside.  It seems mean-spirited to call it an up-market department store, though that’s sort of what it is, offering homeware, clothing, accessories, beauty products and, of course, haberdashery and fabrics.  It’s all on 5 floors, which sometimes creak alarmingly underfoot and, at the best of times, it seems to me like a cross between formal shop and bazaar, contained within an intimate wooden labyrinth.  As soon as we’d made our way in for the Christmas visit, I realised that the sanctity of personal space was at risk because the place was heaving.  Liberty’s fragrant staff floated across the floors, smiling encouragingly, but otherwise it looked about as serene as tank full of piranhas at snack time.  English Home County blended with virtually any overseas accent you care to think of, and most of the owners could have auditioned for the First XV.  Head Office and others of the gentler sex seemed to be perfectly at ease with it all, picking up things and fingering them before moving on in a kind of tackle-proof trance; but, being only 6 foot tall and around 14 stone in weight, I was slightly terrified and just a little confused.  What I really needed was the Kevlar invisibility cloak - and a ball of string so that I could find my way back.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, HM the Queen

Upstairs in the Christmas shop, there seemed to be an unofficial one-way system in operation.  To attempt a U-turn was hazardous – so if you missed something, you really needed to go round again.  It must be enormous fun, putting together a Christmas shop – and I think most stores make a pretty good fist of it, to be fair.  Liberty’s certainly do – the place glitters.  I gather from reading some background to the Channel 4 documentary series, ‘Liberty of London’ - which, inexplicably, I kept missing (I think it clashed with ‘Bleak House’ in Cantonese) – that planning for it starts in January and they receive more than a ¼ million visitors from all over the world.  Apparently, they stock 100,000 baubles, 3,000 fairies and 1,000 novelty dogs.  Eat your heart out, Asda.

Liberty's of London, polar bear, Christmas shop

Resisting the urge to buy a gold-framed portrait of Her Majesty the Queen to hang on the Christmas tree at £15.95, or a very useful almost man-sized stuffed toy polar bear for £995, we settled for a bauble that reminded me of a FabergĂ© egg.  On the way down, we had to inspect the world-famous fabrics.  I spotted a dress mannequin covered with a bright, floral, design; the price-tag was £1,300 – I suppose one can’t just drag a peasant in from the estate anymore, and hang things on them all day.

Liberty's of London, Christmas shop, bauble

For much, much, more information, visit Liberty of London via their website – and don’t forget to tell them you believe in Santa Claus.  By the way, does anyone remember Farmer & Rogers?

29 comments:

  1. Well, besides your fascinating description of Libertys, you've captured my feelings about the 'spirit' of Christmas (and that of most men I suspect), perfectly!

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  2. I'm loving the series about Liberty's and this is a great post. I must admit though crowds just don't do it for me so I'd have been reversing out as soon as I saw the hoards with purses!

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  3. I'm glad you survived that shopping trip! haha...and your ornament is lovely!
    I have to say that I do love that huge polar bear! I want him in my home with a big wreath about his neck!

    Haberdashery....we don't have that word here in the states...I think I'll start using it!

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  4. You have missed a treat not watching the Liberty documentary, but I am sure you can catch up with it on 4OD.
    The Liberty shop is my favourite store, but for me I go straight up to the top floor to see the Arts and Crafts furniture, silver and pots that are for sale.

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  5. If my wife visited this store I'd never see her again. What did you say the address was?

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  6. Well, as you know, Mike, we're ALL about liberty on these shores. So I'm sure we'd enjoy shopping here. :-)

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  7. I loved visiting the store but everything was so very pricey - but beautiful of course!

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  8. Sounds like a wonderful store but I'd probably be just 'looking' due to the prices. I always enjoy your wit and dry humour in your posts. Have a super week!

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  9. Mike, I'm sure glad you were "armed" with your camera! If I can avoid it, I won't be shopping in a large department store anytime soon - unless it is through your photos.

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  10. Quite an impressive place, Mike. I'm thinking though that Christmas shopping tends to get a wee bit Dawn Of The Dead at times, particularly in the last half hour to closing.

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  11. I confess that I am not much on shopping anymore, but I would browse around here for just a bit. Out of curiosity mostly! Lovely ornament!

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  12. Much more entertaining than my recent traipse through the grocery store ;O)

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  13. Wonderful description of Liberty's. Thanx. Sadly, not many such stores exist these days. Like Jenner's in Edinburgh.

    God bless.

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  14. I'm absolutely terrified of Department stores and never go in on without a 'helper' - I become totally disorientated and panic that I'll never find my way out! Love the bauble and I would have been tempted by the portrait of HRH too ...

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  15. Your posts often succeed in adding to my extensive "places to visit" list. Today was not one of those days! I often reflect upon the absurd prices people are willing to pay for unnecessary items, but that's only in Sainsbury's. Liberty takes things to a whole new level.

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  16. We'll, if it's good enough for Oscar Wilde . . . . How I have missed this shop on all my visits to London, I do not know! I am glad you seem to have escaped unscathed and properly appreciative of the experience.

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  17. Liberty looks like a great place to browse and I enjoyed learning about its connection to those old navy ships. Great photos! Love the Faberge egg ornament.

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  18. Liberty sis one if my all time favourite shops. Not that I usually but anything there but for the sheer sense if a different time and world. Christmas is always far too busy there but other times if the year you have more personal space. Time to soak up the atmosphere. I agree with a previous comment that the art and crafts floor is special.

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  19. You managed to make me smile with shopping, that's quite a first!

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  20. It isn't just men, I hate venturing anywhere near the shops at Christmas time. I had the pleasure of venturing into Birmingham yesterday.

    You captured some great photos of Libertys :-)

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  21. Love your tongue in cheek humour. It does look a great store but just for looking.

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  22. Daft people always insist that they're not. It's part of their charm.

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  23. Have you been watching the tv series about Liberty? It is fascinating. I love this shop, I think that it is my favourite in fact. Although all I have ever bought there are some Christmas decorations - much cheaper ones than your examples may I add!!!!! I hope that you felt incredibly Christmassy after your visit.

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  24. Well, well well. You're finally acknowledging Christmastime. Believe me, we have our own local school of piranhas. This is why we have this lovely little invention called Amazon.com. If I had nothing to buy, I could enjoy walking through a place like Liberty once the crowd starts to thin. Otherwise, I'll take your word for what it is and what it looks like. I am not a shopper. I like breathing fresh air.

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  25. Oh this look´s really nice, Christmas at lovely Liberty´s! I would love to be there...
    Thank´s for your kind comment on my blog!
    Have a nice week,
    Titti

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  26. Haha! You are so funny Mike :) I would love to wander around Liberty's.. can you believe I just finished watching this weeks episode about an hour ago and then clicked here.. coincident or what :) So many interesting characters in Liberty's, I hope that wasn't you wearing heels and a frock Mike.. only kidding :)

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  27. Oh goodness gracious, I've been hearing that exact same thing all the way over here! Much of it even before our Thanksgiving Day Holiday that is always on the last Thursday of November. Gosh some folks even began decorating around our Halloween celebration as well, that is always on October 31st! Thank you for sharing such an exciting and glamorous shopping adventure right here from my own computer! Quite lovely, and I didn't spend any money! Win! Win!

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  28. Never been there though I think my wife would like to visit sometime

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  29. Liberty's at sale time used to be my favourite haunt as a teenager - and you didn't need much Liberty print fabric to make a mini-dress in those days, so it was an inexpensive treat.
    I hope your partner appreciates what a saint you are for entering such a store at this time of year!

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.