Londonist's Back Passage

By M@ Last edited 173 months ago
Londonist's Back Passage

46. Royal Opera Arcade

Where? West of Haymarket, up the backside of the Phantom of the Opera, the Arcade links Charles II Street to Pall Mall.

What? As Westfield Shopping Centre prepares to open in Shepherd's Bush, it's worth looking back to where it all started. Royal Opera Arcade was Britain's first covered shopping centre, completed in 1818. The chief architect was John Nash, who also found time to give us Regent Street, Regent Park, Marble Arch and Trafalgar Square. The arcade originally abutted the King's Theatre, also by Nash and co-worker George Repton. The theatre suffered severe damage during a fire in 1867 (see pic), but the arcade emerged mostly unscathed. A second narrow escape came in 1940 when a German bomb all but flattened the adjacent Carlton Hotel (where Ho Chi Minh had once cheffed, and now the site of the towering New Zealand House).

A row of 18 bays in simple Doric style forms the western side of the arcade. Several of these contain boutique shops and galleries, including the Stephen Wiltshire Gallery. Wiltshire is an autistic savant and can accurately draw whole cityscapes from memory. He found widespread fame in the 1980s, thanks to a BBC documentary celebrating his talents. Examples of his work, many depicting London, can be purchased from the gallery. For something completely different, head a few doors down to the shop that sells naught but kiwi merchandise, a side effect of the arcade's proximity to New Zealand House.

Why use? Any route that bypasses the tourist-choked Haymarket and Regent Street has to be worth knowing about. Royal Opera Arcade enjoys an almost surreal silence given its location, which partly explains why several of the shops stand empty.

Last Updated 30 September 2008