Carnaby Street is still one of London’s most popular districts, with a rich history which places it firmly at the heart of some of the major events in the city’s past. However, this hasn’t stopped Carnaby Street from evolving with the times, and today it remains as vibrant and action-packed as ever – and well worth a visit.
In this blog, we’ll take a quick look at a few key facts about the area…
Carnaby Street has a grizzly early past
In contrast to some of the lighter times in its history, Carnaby Street’s origins are downright macabre. The area which surrounds Carnaby Street was once used as a massive burial ground for those who suffered during the Great Plague during the 17th century. Plague was once rife in London, and Carnaby Street was also the site where small-scale hospitals were built to treat victims of the disease.
The street later became residential
Following these grim early origins, the street later became a residential spot where some very lavish houses sprang up. This new wave only took hold after the Great Fire of London (1666) swept through the previous structures.
The earliest house to be built on this site was Karnaby House, which subsequently gave its name to the area after construction was completed in 1683. You can still see some of the original buildings on your visit while staying at luxury hotels in London.
An early shopping hub
In addition to supporting local housing, Carnaby Street soon became a centre of trade and shopping, too – though this took a few more centuries! The first boutique to be opened in this district was called ‘His Clothes’, which was founded in 1958. The store was the brainchild of John Stephen, who came to be known as the ‘King of Carnaby Street’ for his contributions to the area. If you look closely, you’ll find a plaque places at No.1 Carnaby Street in honour of his achievements.
Carnaby Street has its own musical
In what may remain a first, Carnaby Street has a musical of its own, simply titled ‘Carnaby Street The Musical’. The story focuses on a band attempting to make it big in London, and makes the most of the district’s significantly fashionable, hip reputation during the 1960s. Characters are even named after key songs of the era, such as ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Jude’.
It featured in the Simpsons
Carnaby Street has managed to find its way into a number of different films and TV shows, but one of the most unexpected is sure to be The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart and Lisa are seen wearing Mod styles and walking around the street.
An unusual shop opening
In 1966, a store named Lady Jane boutique decided to use a rather unusual publicity stunt to garner attention. The stunt involved encouraging live models to dress and undress in the shop window. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this stunt caused quite a stir, and the owner was fined for the traffic obstruction caused by the crowd of men who had gathered to watch.
A foodie destination
Carnaby Street may be synonymous with shopping (particularly fashion), but a lesser known yet no less impressive part of this area is the many opportunities to try some great new food! There are plentiful restaurants and cafes in this district, with dishes from all over the world and lots of novelty spaces too which help add some colourful flair to Carnaby Street.
In addition, look out for some of the regular food and drink festivals which take place here during your stay at a nearby Marble Arch hotel.
Famed song lyrics
British band The Kinks mention Carnaby Street in their song Dedicated Follower of Fashion, helping to solidify the status of this area with the Swinging Sixties which were the bands heyday.
Tom Jones’ curious publicity stunt
No stranger to publicity stunts, Carnaby Street has seen lots of unusual activity since its development. One of the most peculiar is surely the time when Tom Jones walked down the street with a cheetah on a lead and a Bond Girl beside him, all in an effort to publicise ‘Tom Cat’, a new store opening nearby.
It isn’t just 60s culture which helped to form Carnaby Street into its modern incarnation. In the 19th century, the area was already becoming increasingly popular with bohemian figures in London, who found something appealing about this developing district.
The Capital of Cool
By the 1960s, Carnaby Street was being dubbed the city’s ‘Capital of Cool’, and became widely associated with youth culture. This was represented by the stores which could be found there at the time – mostly focusing on pioneering mod and youth fashions, many of which were also made locally.
This reputation for cool never really went away, and during the 70s and 80s, Carnaby Street continued to be regarded as an incredibly hip place to shop and be seen. It transitioned from hippie and mod fashions to represent the emerging punk scene.
While we can’t recommend you’ll find many stores where you can emulate punk fashions today, you can complete your exploration of the district by enjoying a more sedate tradition of afternoon tea in London.
The Beatles famed performance
Beatles fans regularly make pilgrimages to one particular area nearby, 3 Saville Row. It was here that the band once performed their history-making rooftop performance. While not on Carnaby Street itself, it’s only about five minutes away. You might not be able to book the Beatles, but you can also later scope out meeting venues in London at your nearby hotel.
Hidden shopping hotspots
When you visit, be sure to head down some of Carnaby Street’s side streets. Here you’ll find hidden treasures which often elude visitors who aren’t so eagle-eyed, but are popular with treasure-seeking locals.