IT’S the colourful London base that was the thinking place for the creators of Monty Python.
It’s a stone’s throw away from the opulence of the Royal Opera House and the lively market place where entertainers perform to crowds of tourists and shoppers.
Yet the Seven Dials district is known as the ‘hidden village’ of Covent Garden. It is the home of cobbled streets and independent shops, restaurants and boutiques in seven streets around a monument of sundials.
The district is found between the West End and the fashion-focused shopping district in and around nearby Neal’s Yard.
Fans of Monty Python may have heard of Neal’s Yard – it’s the location of the Monty Python production offices.
Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin bought a building as an editing suite for the Python films. Although they sold the building in 1987, a blue plaque saying ‘Monty Python lived here’ marks the spot.
Today it is a bright and colourful hub of cafes, shops and salons.
British shopping districts are often accused of being replicas of each other – but not here.
Of course there are those who do stand out from the crowd – Huddersfield has its fair share of local retailers with a firm standing in the town – but they are increasingly surrounded by chains.
Yet a London shopping trip and pre-Christmas break away to get presents for all the family avoiding usual High Street brands is possible.
I took the 9.15am train from Huddersfield and, via a quick stop at Manchester Piccadilly (it was quicker than via Wakefield Westgate), I had navigated my way round the ever-efficient and enviable London Underground and arrived at my destination before midday.
Covent Garden is easily found on the Northern line. Hop off at Leicester Square and you can be in the heart of Seven Dials in a few minutes.
After a lunch at the trendy Pix tapas eaterie I was ready for a day’s shopping.
Some of the traders have their roots firmly in Britain while others have come from Europe. So where’s best to get unique Christmas presents?
For beauty products go to Neal’s Yard Remedies. Not only will you fall in love with the smell of the shop, you might even get to try some their latest offerings. The day I went they had beetroot juice to sample. The herbalist explained the health benefits as I tried not to screw my face up at drinking an ingredient I’d last had with mum’s meat and potato pie more than a decade ago. I’m making it sound worse than it is. Neal’s Yard Remedies has every organic ingredient you can possibly imagine and staff knowledgeable to know what to do with it. Thankfully, you’re not expected to make up the creams yourself – you can buy the organic skin care pre-made.
For the men Seven Dials is the home of Baracuta where super-stylish Steve McQueen got his look. For the women, try Orion. A few Topshops have them as a concession, but a unique dress will set you back as little as £50. I treated myself to three dresses and will be amazed if I ever see someone else wearing my dress. They’re fashionable yet tens of thousands have not been churned out.
For one-off jewellery pieces go to Tatty Devine. Cheryl Cole has been spotted wearing a piece from the collection and they’ve made it in Vogue without ever appearing too high-end. It’s also one of those places staff clearly love to work and they can make customised affordable jewellery pieces too.
Perhaps my favourite shop was the book seller Magma. There’s two bases in Seven Dials – one filled floor to ceiling with all genre of books, the other a place of perfect yet eclectic gifts from tea cups to bicycle journals and book ends to quirky stationary. It’s the sort of place you can lose yourself browsing around in.
After a day’s shopping our group headed out to dinner and we called at the Covent Garden Hotel which is so much more than a hotel. A two course dinner was followed by a private cinema screening – and were even able to pick our own film. It was a luxurious yet entirely affordable experience.
My home for the night was the Mercer Street Hotel, a Radisson hotel which has just been renovated and every room given a stylish makeover.
I almost didn’t want to disrupt the artily-decorated bed to jump into at the end of the night, but after a few Bellinis it was calling me.
After a good night’s sleep I was ready to hit the shops again and buy some Christmas presents. Last year people didn’t even get cards off me. A busy few weeks leading up to Christmas meant I only hit the shops on Christmas Eve.
This year my family and friends can be certain of one thing. Not only will they get a present, it won’t be duplicate or hastily bought ‘three for two’ specials.
l Joanne stayed overnight at the Mercer Street Hotel 020 7836 4300/www.radissonedwardian.com
l Current train deals include Leeds to London from £11.50 (www.trainline.com) or £29.50 from Huddersfield.
LOOK OUT FOR–
l The Blue Plaques – two blue heritage plaques mark the location where Beatles manager Brian Epstein had his office on Monmouth Street and the birthplace of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in Neal’s Yard.
l Food – Neal’s Yard Dairies. This shop stocks more than 50 types of cheeses from Britain and beyond so ask for a sample too.
EVENTS COMING UP
l Theatre – opposite the Mercer Street Hotel is the Cambridge Theatre, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new musical Matilda.
l Shopping – Seven Dials are offering 20% off Christmas shopping on Thursday, December 1, from 5-9pm with discounts at over 120 stores and venues.