By Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
November 10, 2011
(CNN) –Hidden near Oxford Circus – the center of London’s bustling shopping district – stands a building which resembles a relic from England’s Elizabethan past.
Four million people walk through the wooden archways of Liberty each year into a wonderland of treats and treasures.
Its black and white exterior is characteristically British – a style favoured by the Tudors.
And yet, the building isn’t Tudor at all. In fact, it’s less than one hundred years old.
For those willing to take a closer look, history reveals a secret with a surprising twist: Liberty’s famous façade was rigged from the wreckage of two wooden warships – HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan.
Both were battleships built for Britain’s prestigious Royal Navy.
"Britain lived and died by its Navy and its Navy's performance,” said Andrew Baines, historian and Curator of HMS Victory in Portsmouth, on the south coast of England.
“So even though these were old ships that had been broken apart, they would still have a certain amount of kudos to them and their use in Liberty would have carried some of that kudos through," he said.
The size and scale of HMS Hindustan, a sailing ship, is in fact reflected in the whole front façade of Liberty.
"Hindustan is ordered in 1819 but work only starts 10 years later on frames that had been brought from the Far East – teak frames. It takes them until 1841 to build her,” Baines told CNN.
The other ship, HMS Impregnable, was a rare three-deck ship. Ordered in 1854 as HMS Howe and later renamed, she represented the ultimate development of the wooden battleship.
“She is viewed as being a very impressive ship,” Baines said. “She is the largest wooden-hulled ship ever employed by the Royal Navy.”
Both ships had the best quality timber and after a period of service as training ships, they were sent on a course bound for the dockyard, where they were broken up and sold in 1921.
Meanwhile, in the heart of London’s shopping district, Liberty’s flagship store on Regent Street was looking to expand.
Almost four decades after it first opened, Arthur Liberty, the founder, wanted to create a larger store that still maintained an intimate feel. Using the timbers from HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan, he turned to the Tudor age for inspiration.
“It’s importing a bit of heritage isn’t it?” John Graves, Curator of ship history at the National Maritime Museum said.
“I think to the well-trained eye, it’s easy to tell once you’re inside Liberty and you are admiring the staircases and so on. You can see the minor imperfections in the wood that they have been recycled from old warships,” he told CNN.
Other little clues allude to Liberty’s nautical history – a wooden carving of sailing ships above a doorway, a stained-glass ship hidden in the corner of a window, blue and white tiles depicting the Navy’s finest.
Anna Buruma, Liberty’s company archivist said, “Liberty is rather special. It has always been a very quirky shop and it suits this building.”
Sadly, Arthur Liberty never lived to see the completion of the magnificent building that still bears his name.
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