One of London's charms, both for Londoners and visitors to the capital, is the many squares and open spaces accessible to the public. A garden square is the perfect place for a picnic in summer, kicking up leaves in the autumn, or building a snowman in winter. Beyond the grassy patches of Russell Square and crowds of Trafalgar Square, London is home to over 600 'squares', varying drastically in size.
The square to win the title of the smallest in the city is not one known to the majority of Londoners, or on many tourist agendas. In fact, there's barely room for a selfie stick in this tiny courtyard, Pickering Place, officially the smallest public open space in London.
Just off St. James's Street, Pickering Place, known as Pickering Court until 1812, is probably the least open of all London's open spaces — in fact it is quite tricky to find. Access is via a narrow oak-panelled tunnel next to a wine merchants called Berry Brothers & Rudd, reputedly the oldest wine merchants in London. Berry Brothers was established in 1698 as a grocers, then a coffee supplier, and finally a wine and spirit shop, by Widow Bourne, whose son-in-law James Pickering built the courtyard.
Pickering Place is one of the few places in London still lit by gas — today a total of 1500 gas-powered lights are left in the city, maintained by a team. With its mood lighting and secretive location, it's no surprise that the courtyard was notorious for gambling dens and illegal activity in the 1700s.
This tiny square also has links across the pond. From 1842-1845, when Texas was a republic, its legation (the office of a diplomatic representative, smaller than an embassy) was in Pickering Place, a far cry from the giant flags and grandeur of the embassies in Belgravia. But this was perhaps an obvious place for officialdom; even back then, the area around St. James and Mayfair was one for the upper classes, with hundreds of fine-dining establishments and members' clubs. Novelist Graham Greene lived in a flat in Pickering Place, with rooms overlooking the courtyard, where "only the very rich penetrate to eat and wine in Carolinian isolation".
Pickering Place is supposedly the site of the last public duel in London, but the truth of this legend is somewhat debated, not least because the huge sundial in the middle of the courtyard may have proved somewhat tricky to negotiate whilst trying not to get impaled.
If a visit to this tiny courtyard is on your list, go when its dark to experience the gaslights and atmosphere, and pop into the wine merchants next door for a tipple - accompanying swords not welcome.