Nightingales & ghosts: Berkeley Square

Nightingales & ghosts: Berkeley Square

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That certain night

The night we met

There was magic abroad in the air

There were angels dining at the Ritz

And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square…

As sung by Vera Lynn, 1940

This lozenge shaped London Square quartered into four lawns and surrounded by plane trees the size of sequoias is more than just a romantic or restful haven in the heart of Mayfair. It would have been a very different square back in the 1800’s bustling with squawking hawkers parading their wares and braying aristocrats spilling from dinners and balls into the horse drawn carriages.

Berkeley Square has always been filled with the phantoms of past residents, family members, friends and lovers kept alive by the many brass plaques on memorial benches lining the paths. The engraved words offering solace and comfort for the living, private sentiments aired in a public place. Somewhat eerily, it continues to have a thrilling reputation for ghosts; no 50 is reputed to be the most haunted house in London housing a locked up lunatic screeching into the night and a jilted lover wandering around by flickering candlelight. No 44, now the Clermont Club is said to be home to a bewigged apparition resplendent in a green uniform seen flitting up and down the stairs.

Famous for being the most desirable residential area in London in the 18th century, merchants were quick to serve the wealthy. Berkeley Square usefully housed a coffee shop, apothecary and tailor as well as a carpenter, draper and candlestick maker. The Pot and Pineapple was one establishment set up by an Italian pastry cook but later became the famous Gunter’s dishing up delicacies for the ladies. The square’s origins were humble, a couple of carpenters entered into an agreement with John Berkeley (1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton) in 1675 to transfer farmland and further develop his estate. The first houses completed in 1738 on the east side were built with bricks made from clay dug up on the spot and were called Berkeley Row, the west side followed a few years later and most of those original houses remain today. A few link-extinguishers can still be seen flanking doorways reminding us of the times when coaches and sedan chairs prevailed. Naturally rats infested the square but so too did robbers and footpads – highwaymen operating on foot. It could be a perilous business alighting from one’s carriage to attend a ball only to be confronted by a masked man pointing a pistol.

Berkeley Square Balls have famously filled the square with hue and cry but so has The Berkeley Hunt, the oldest pack in the country with the Master and huntsmen sporting the distinct yellow livery coats of the Berkeley family.

Many political bigwigs were neighbours to the fashionable including Horace Walpole at no 11, Winston Churchill lived at no 48 as a child and Robert Clive of India bought no 45, later committing suicide in 1761 following a depressive episode. Ironically, Benares, the much praised Michelin star Indian Restaurant is located exactly opposite Clive’s old house.

No nightingales were spotted the last time I was in the square, too chilly for them yet snowdrops and crocuses peeped out into the sunshine and the same mighty trees looked down with wise beneficence. During my meander around, I was attracted to a tarnished bench plaque sitting on the south side near the marble statue, it read, ‘In loving memory of William Gilbert, a gentle man and a scholar who never tired of London’. A moving tribute to a square and a city.

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