Fancy a Christmas shopping spree in London, but put off by thoughts of the Oxford Street crush? Relax, says Sarah Freeman, and make a beeline for Seven Dials.
I once went Christmas shopping on Oxford Street. I was living in Northampton at the time, a town whose shopping offer was still stuck in the 1980s, and I thought the hour-long train journey would deliver me to present heaven. Instead I ended up in a tinsel Armageddon.
I’m pretty sure that year I shed a tear in the homeware department of John Lewis and have subconsciously avoided London between November and February ever since. But Seven Dials they said was different and a weekend there would be a chance to put some old demons to rest. It is and I did.
The area, which gets it name from the seven streets which come off the central mini roundabout, is a curious oasis of calm given it is sandwiched between the street performers of Covent Garden and the mayhem of Soho.
The first sign that things were going to be different came when we got out of the cab, which was driven, much to my mum’s intrigue, by a teetotal Catholic. The Christmas lights switch-on was due to happen just a few hours later and the place was awash with techie-looking types and workmen stringing the last of the decorations.
Stress levels were clearly high, but they smiled. Big smiles. I know. In London. The friendliness continued inside the reception of the Radisson Blu Edwardian hotel, so much so I began to wonder whether we had stepped into some weird parallel universe. We hadn’t, it turns out this is just how they roll in this part of the capital.
It doesn’t take long to discover why. While a few big high street names have found a home in Seven Dials – Urban Outfitters is there, as is Superdry – so far it has managed to remain a hub for independent shops, which offer something a little different from the norm.
At Rococo Chocolates (rococo chocolates.com) there are the usual handmade truffles, but there are also Roald Dahl-inspired bars, flavoured with things like banana and smoked tea. Ask nicely, and they will let you try before you buy.
Around the corner, Tatty Devine specialises in acrylic jewellery. And no, it won’t break the bank. While some of the limited-edition pieces go for around £150, earrings start at just £15.
Here every store has a story. Take beauty brand Fresh (fresh.com) which began life in 1991 when Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg created a small set of soaps that they hand-wrapped. Now the range has been extended to face masks and hair care, but the original ethos remains the same and the store is centred on a kind of replica of the kitchen table where the first products were made.
Just opposite is the couture fragrance company Miller Harris (millerharris.com) founded by Lyn Harris, where you can buy off-the-shelf scents starting at £75 (50ml) or go bespoke. If you do the latter you are in safe hands – Harris is the only classically trained female nose in the UK and counts Michelle Obama among her high-profile fans.
Seven Dials’ independent shopping spirit is mirrored in the food offering. Neal’s Yard, home to the eponymous beauty brand, has also emerged as a bit of a foodie Mecca and if you can, try to grab the chef’s table at Native (eatnative.co.uk). It is the brainchild of Imogen Davis and Ivan Tisdall-Downes, who worked their way through street food markets and pop-up restaurants before finding a permanent home. The menu changes daily and according to the chefs, Tisdall-Downes is a bit of a mad visionary. However, combining ingredients like foraged chickweed and reindeer moss with Swaledale pig’s cheek and Dorset hake, he has hit upon a winning formula. It’s fine dining, but without any of the pretension.
If you are staying for longer check out Chick ’n’ Sours, a kind of posh version of KFC; Pride Kitchen which does a great line in lunchtime salads; and the curious, but delicious Peruvian and Italian small plates at Monmouth Street Kitchen.
For years I imagined that if I won the Lottery I would buy a place in Hampstead next door to Michael Palin. Now I’m not so sure. I have a feeling that Seven Dials might not just be for Christmas.
Radisson Blu Edwardian (020 7836 4300, radissonblu-edwardian.com) on Mercer Street has 137 rooms with the seventh and top floor home to eight individually designed suits.
Seven Dials’ interconnecting streets are home to more than 96 fashion, beauty and lifestyle stores and over 90 independent bars, cafes and restaurants. To explore what’s on offer visit sevendials.co.uk
Virgin Trains East Coast (virgintrainseastcoast.com) operates regular services between Yorkshire and London.