So I took my niece to Hamleys recently. Hamleys in Regent Street is the world’s largest toy store. It is a beautiful and historic building, established as a toy store by William Hamley in 1881. It was bombed five times during the second world war. It brings in up to five million people a year, and is a major tourist attraction. My thanks to the good people at Wikipedia for that short introduction.
However, when you are stood with a 5-year old girl in the build-a-bear section, and she is crying, and several other children are crying, and those children that aren’t crying are screaming things like ‘I HATE THIS BEAR’, having just been bought a multi-coloured monstrosity for about £50, Hamleys starts to lose its traditional appeal. I don’t want to be one of those people who obsesses with the sweeping idea that ‘things used to be better’, because, in many ways, things used to be worse. Smallpox, for example. However, in terms of toys, I can’t help but rejoice at the idea of quiet, polite children (perhaps quiet as a result of corporal punishment but never mind) delicately examining old-fashioned wooden toys in independent toy shops, as opposed to kids off-their-faces on coca cola charging around throwing slime at eachother, or asking their parents to buy them something that smells horrible (I’ve observed a growing trend amongst young boys to love anything that stinks. Deeply concerning for parents I’m sure. See magazines like Toxic).
Anyway, what I then managed to find was the most perfect antidote to this unpleasant experience. As I ventured through the indoor market in Covent Garden, I found Pollock’s Toy Shop.
It feels part-museum, part-shop, with a stunning collection of old-fashioned toys – particularly wooden toys – puppets, and toy theatres. In truth it attracts as many adults as it does children, with its inevitable nostalgic appeal. As well as crochet dolls and puppets that can be bought for a few pounds, it features antique pieces, like the 19th Century German wooden toy-theatre that costs £1500. I don’t know much about that sort of thing, but the intricacy is mesmerising, and well worth seeing. It also sells wonderful and tasteful children’s books, including a few original copies of classics such as Robinson Crusoe.
The fact that it feels slightly like a museum is not surprising; Pollock’s also runs a museum in Fitzrovia, where many historic and valuable toys originally bought from the shops founder Benjamin Pollock are displayed, along with toys from all over the world. This is as authentic a traditional toy shop as you’re likely to find in Central London, given that it still trades in many of the same products that it did in the 19th Century when Pollock first started selling toy-theatres.
Was, therefore, my niece bored by all the ‘old stuff’? Could she not escape this humble shop quickly enough, to get to her beloved Nintendo DS in order to care for a virtual cat? On the contrary, Poppy was in awe, as were all of the children. They respected the quietness of the shop, and peered gaspingly into the tiny but fully-functioning worlds created in the doll’s houses. They marvelled at the wooden puppets and theatres.
At Pollock’s you will almost certainly not fulfil the requirements of a child’s birthday or Christmas wish-list. None of these toys are on those terrifying adverts that peak around 4pm and plant their irritating tunes into children’s heads with such ease. This is an altogether different experience, and one not to be missed. And who knows, your children might even like it too.
Pollock’s Toy Store, 44 The Market, Covent Garden, WC2E 8RF
A visit to Pollock’s Toy Store in Covent Garden is included in Insider London’s Quirky Tour