Sometimes I am reminded why, for all its noise, stress and crush of anonymous humanity, I still, after 35 years, love living in London. When it is accompanied by a memorable fabric shopping experience, I am in a state of bliss. Such an occasion occurred last week when I set out anew on my quest to find the crock of gold. Or at least a metre of it.
That adventure led me to a quiet street in the heart of Westminster that transported me to a different world.
Being neither a visitor nor a politician, the area around the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are not my usual stamping ground (although I once went on a guided tour of Parliament to gawp at the Pugin wallpaper, which sort of ticked both boxes). Walking as quickly as I could to convey that London Is My City and I Am On Important Business, I strode past the queues of tourists and into the Dean's Yard behind the cathedral, where boys from the Choir School played football on the green, ancient stone buildings cast long shadows, the beer was warm and for all I know an old maid was at that very moment bicycling to holy communion.
Out under the archway in the farthest corner and there it was: in a narrow street devoid of traffic, a bay-fronted shop that didn't look like a shop except in the Old Curiosity sense of the word, with a painted, gilded sign declaring itself to be the delightfully named Faith House, home of the equally historic Watts & Co.
My previous hunts for gold fabric had ultimately failed, the only serious contender proving to be impossible to pin or stitch without leaving a mark and, being rather plasticy, probably liable to perish too. (Is this why real gold is so precious, no cheap substitutes coming anywhere near?) Then a friend suggested that I try an ecclesiastical textiles retailer. A quick check online (let's not get too carried away by nostalgia - I couldn't contemplate life without Google) showed this to be the solution, and so off I went.
I cannot overstate the thrill of entering a shop and saying "May I see your cloth of gold please?". The phrase is so redolent of history that even Wikipedia's dry description of it as "a fabric woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft" cannot strip it of its magic. More evocatively, the entry also refers to the Book of Psalms, the Golden Fleece, the Byzantine Empire, Roman funerals, royalty and nobility, medieval Venetian weavers and, of course, Henry VIII's Field of the Cloth of Gold.
I'm not sure that my one-metre length wrapped in a plastic carrier bag, carried back on the Tube and now hung up in my house where it gloriously glows with the reflected light not of Renaissance candles or flickering firelight but a 100w bulb and an Asda lampshade can live up to such a weight of history. And then there is the question of whether I will ever find the courage to cut into it. I hope that my finished wall hanging - for a care home run by Benedictine nuns - will in some way match the solemnity of Watts & Co's history and purpose. In the meantime I will look at the fabric, and stroke it, and enjoy it. And avoid opening my credit card statement.