Costly coffee, Handel, and Hendrix in London’s Mayfair

THERE ARE TWO entrances to Lancashire Court from Mayfair’s Brook Street. One of them, the closest to New Bond Street, is a cobbled lane leading down to a courtyard occupied by the back entrance of the Victoria’s Secret store and the outdoor tables of a restaurant called Hush Mayfair. The tables under delightfully decorated canopies looked enticing, and as we felt the need for some coffee, we sat down to enjoy small macchiatos (maybe more correctly, ‘macchiati’). The coffees were enjoyable but not exceptional. However, the bill that arrived after we had drunk our tiny coffees was far from unexceptional. We were charged just under £13 (US $17.46, INR 1300, or EUROS 15.25) for our two hot drinks. Just in case you are not familiar with the London café scene, today, November 2021, two macchiatos usually cost between £4 and £6.

Lancashire Court is a network of lanes and courtyards located behind the buildings on the southwest corner of the intersection of New Bond Street and Brook Street. It was once a part of London, the Conduit Mead Estate (www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2021/07/05/londons-alleys-lancashire-court-w1/, an informative web page), that followed the course of an old water conduit that ran through the area in a north/south direction (for a map of the district, see: www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/t/largeimage88092.html). From the 1730s until the 1970s, the buildings in Lancashire Court included many workshops, warehouses, and builder’s yards. In 1987, there was a plan to demolish the network of alleys and replace it with a new shopping complex, but this never materialised. Now, the old businesses have been replaced by ‘chic’ establishments including the place where we enjoyed our exorbitantly priced coffees.

Returning to Brook Street, the short section lying between the two entrances to Lancashire Court has two neighbouring houses, numbers 23 and 25, which have importance in the history of music in London. The composer of well-known works such as “The Messiah” and “The Water Music”, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), moved into what is now number 23 in the summer of 1723, and lived there until his death (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/handel-house/). In Handel’s time, Brook Street was known as ‘Lower Brook Street’. Handel’s home included a Music Room in which as many as 40 people would be accommodated to perform and listen to Handel’s latest creations.

In 1968, 209 years after Handel died, another musician moved into number 25, the house next door to number 23 Brook Street. Like Handel, the occupant of number 25 was a musical innovator. His name was Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). According to a useful website (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/hendrix-flat/):

“The flat on the upper floors of 23 Brook Street was found by Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham from an advert in one of the London evening newspapers in June 1968 while he was in New York. He moved in briefly in July before returning to the United States for an extensive tour. He spent some time decorating the flat to his own taste, including purchasing curtains and cushions from the nearby John Lewis department store, as well as ornaments and knickknacks from Portobello Road market and elsewhere. He told Kathy that this was ‘my first real home of my own’.

He returned to Brook Street in January 1969 and almost immediately launched into an exhaustive series of press and media interviews and photo shoots in the flat. On 4 January he made his infamous appearance on the BBC Happening for Lulu TV show, and gave his two Royal Albert Hall concerts in February. In March he was back in New York again and although Kathy remained at Brook Street for a while longer Jimi did not live there again.”

After Hendrix’s girlfriend left the flat, it was used as office space. In 2000, it was taken over by the Handel House Trust. By 2016, both Handel’s House and Hendrix’s flat became open to the public as a museum, which I have yet to visit. Sadly, since the onset of the covid19, the museum, now known as ‘Handel and Hendrix in London’ is only open occasionally and will open fully in March 2023.

The westernmost of the two Brook Street entrances to Lancashire Court is lined with an attractive mural made from ceramic tiles. Created in 2001 by Michael Czerwiǹski (with Ray Howell), it celebrates Handel’s residence in Brook Street. Amongst the many works he composed whilst living there, here is a very small selection of them: the opera “Rodelinda”; “The Messiah” and “Semele”; and “Music for the Royal Fireworks”.

Each of the two musicians of Brook Street did much to change the course of musical history. I wonder what each would have thought of the other, and which of them has the most listeners today. Whatever the answers, their names will live on in people’s minds far longer than that of both the place where we had costly coffee and the currently trendy Victoria Secret high-end but low-cut lingerie store.