This is a small courtyard leading off from busy Piccadilly, but one with an exceptional building at the end.
As you walk through the entry passage into the courtyard, you’ll start to suspect that it’s pretty upmarket, with dark brick classically Georgian buildings to either side of a grand mansion in front.
If arriving in the evening, do pay attention to the old style gas lanterns on either side of the entrance, and also do expect someone in fine livery to come out of the grand mansion and maybe try to shoo you away. That behavior is because of what’s in, or more correctly, behind the mansion house facade. And it’s quite remarkable.
But to go back a bit.
There were already two homes on Piccadilly main road, when the 1st Viscount Melbourne bought the site and commissioned Sir William Chambers to design him a city mansion, and to be set back from the busy Piccadilly within a courtyard. The mansion was built between 1771–1776.
So far so normal. But it also had a very long back garden that ran all the way to Vigo Street at the back. What was to later happen to that garden is what makes the building special.
In 1791 Lord Melbourne, who by then had built up considerable debts, downsized by swapping his Melbourne House for Dover House in Whitehall, which was owned by Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.
Renamed York House, for obvious reasons, the Duke put it up for sale in 1802 to help pay down his gambling debts. The new owner was the building contractor, Alexander Copland, and after a couple of failed attempts, was able to do something most unusual with the building.
He turned to the long back garden, and on either side built a row of 4-storey high buildings, plus a basement. Running down the middle of the garden in the space left between the rows of houses is a long covered walkway, known as the ropewalk, which links each of the houses with the main mansion house at the front.
In effect, the grand mansion house is now just a frontage for the much larger row of houses hidden behind it. The mansion house is still substantial, with 15 of the flats in the upper floors, but it’s basically, a front door to the 69 apartments behind.
If you walk into the courtyard and the door is open and no one is in the way, you can get a glimpse of the ropewalk behind the main house.
The entire block, having been completed in 1804 is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited building of its type in the world.
All sorts have lived here, from Lord Byron, Edward de Bono, Norman Foster, Ted Heath, Aldous Huxley, Bill Nighy, Jacon Rees-Mogg to Alan Clark.
In his 1848 novel The Bachelor of the Albany, Marmion Wilard describes life in the sought-after setting as ‘the haunt of bachelors, or of married men who try to lead bachelors’ lives – the dread of suspicious wives, the retreat of superannuated fops, the hospital for incurable oddities, a cluster of solitudes for social hermits, the home of homeless gentlemen… the place for the fashionable thrifty, the luxurious lonely, and the modish morose, the votaries of melancholy, and lovers of mutton-chops’.
Once a rather affordable estate home to artists and upper class bohemian types, these days it’s more bankers and the monied classes thanks to fairly eye watering rents that can be charged to live here. A 2 bed flat in there was recently sold for £ 7 million.
It fell out of favor in the late 19th-century though, as bachelor pads tended to be less useful to the growing middle-classes, and was nearly sold several times at the turn of the 20th-century. However, it regained its popularity in post-war years, offering that rarest of things, a row of quiet well mannered housing in central London.
Country Life magazine once described it as “London’s most exclusive address”, and it’s easy to see why.
Each of the residents has a vote on the management of the building, and if a new owner buys into the estate, they have to be vetted by a committee to check that they are suitable. During WW2, William Stone was able to buy quite a few of the apartments, and he left them to Peterhouse College in Cambridge, which rents them out. All tenants also need to be vetted by the committee.
There’s a waiting list of about 15 years to move in.
Originally only male bachelors were allowed to live there, but they now permit women to live there, but no children under the age of 14. No pets either. Also, residents are not supposed to talk to each other if passing in the central corridor, which being British is probably not a problem anyway.