May 27, 2021
It was surprising how disappointed I was to read that the historical Arthur Beale nautical store in London England was shutting down. Our fearless correspondent Katherine Stone sent me a link to London’s Daily Mail announcing that Covid had forced the closing of this revered institution, which had survived five hundred years of perils but couldn’t absorb this one.
I had visited the shop on a visit to London. It is located in the centre of the theatrical district rather than by the shore but that may be because it also supplied mountain climbers and theatrical riggers with rope and shackles.
My Crossing the Line story in March 2014 became a bit of personal nostalgia – I had truly enjoyed my visit.
Canadian Yachting, March 2014 – Crossing the Line
West end performance
Should you be in the UK, you’ll quickly see that these days London’s centre is bustling beyond belief. In particular, the West End district is packed with shoppers, entertainment industry hipsters and especially with theatre patrons hustling to the 40 historic Victorian and modern venues in Theatreland that defines the area. Drury Lane, Charing Cross and Leicester Square are legendary theatre streets that rival Broadway and exceed it by adding dozens of packed pubs.
Storied Shaftesbury Ave is home to many theatres including the Apollo where the part of the 150-year-old plaster ceiling made headlines when it fell onto the patrons below just before Christmas. My destination around the same time was, thankfully, not the Apollo but just along the road to Arthur Beale, at 194 Shaftesbury Avenue up toward Covent Garden, a marine store that has been located there for well over 100 years.
If you normally shop in a gleaming chandler with rows of sparkling lifejackets, rows of paints and shelving loaded with deck footwear, be prepared for a very different experience on several fronts. For one, Arthur Beale is nowhere near a boat unless you count the Royal Barge. Perhaps more dramatically, apart from a few flags and a brass foghorn, there is virtually nothing on display. It’s rather like Old Dempster’s corner store where everything was in jars. Beale’s is still like that – whatever they stock is in a drawer somewhere, although their strength is in rigging and splicing. Right in the heart of the world’s busiest city!
To my tourist instincts, this was a Ye Olde dream come true but I had to wonder how the store continues to exist. It turns out that it happily does, although it has successfully avoided most aspects of modernity including having no web site and no advertising. Apparently it serves downtown Londoners who pop in after work to pick up boating oddments and have their rigging done. It also does a strong business with the nearby theatrical stagers looking for hardware to fly banners and Peter Pans.
When I stopped in one of the two shop employees, Steve was working on a thick hemp line splice for a climbing facility using the thimble and fid with agility I would have bet was confined to illustrations in dusty tales from the sea.
I had headed to the shop in the first place based on tourist tips. Arthur Beale gets fairly good coverage in the “unusual places to visit” section of London travel books, but virtually none in the boating press. It’s a secret spot, I guess.
To be completely candid, compared to our more 21st century stores like Genco or The Binnacle it’s kind of underwhelming and probably not really that useful unless you need a cotton British ensign or a very large ship’s bell. There’s a second story, where I half expected to see a hopefully charming array of charming Scottish sailing parts, but no. There were a few books and a shelf of odd parts, but that was it.
Nonetheless, I recommend a visit for anyone headed to wonderful London. Perhaps rent a plumed hat when you drop by in order to connect with days gone by. Arthur Beale is a throwback and looks every bit the part. If you’re looking for a bosun’s pipe or a British naval flag, it’s just the ticket. If you are a boater who delights in things nautical who just happens to be kicking around London, as I was, it makes a great place to visit.
All Photos by John Morris