Travel: The Streets That Made The Century14: PARK LANE, LONDON

THAT MAYFAIR and Park Lane are well known points in the geography of London has more to do with 20th-century make-believe than with any historical event. Once little more than wealthy residential areas, they have survived, in real life as in Monopoly, as a metaphor for luxury.

Mayfair is not a street at all, but a district of elegant Georgian houses and three famous squares - Grosvenor, Berkeley and Hanover; it covers an area from Park Lane to Regent Street, and from Oxford Street to Piccadilly. Once the site of an annual cattle fair, held in May, it turned into a food market during the 18th century, and a network of residential streets grew up around the market, known as Shepherd Market (after the architect who developed it). The wider neighbourhood was grander, with accommodation for the wealthier people working in the city.

Park Lane forms the boundary between Mayfair and Hyde Park, the vast open space that has become the back garden of many flat-dwelling Londoners. In Saxon times it belonged to a great manor; in the 16th century, Henry VIII enclosed it and filled it with deer. Now, in the 20th century, it is not so much a lane as a dangerously busy dual carriageway.

At the northern end of Park Lane is Nash's Marble Arch; souvenir stands here cater to the queues of visitors waiting for the open-topped tourist buses. There have always been crowds at this end of Park Lane. Before the arch was moved here from its intended location at the entrance to Buckingham Palace, this was the site of a gallows. People once gathered to enjoy the spectacle in the same way that they gather now to enjoy goings- on at Speakers' Corner.

Pass Cumberland Gate, and it is easier to see why Park Lane was once the smartest address in London. There are elegant cream houses, some tall and thin, others with bow fronts and elaborate balconies. Few of them are now private homes; some have been turned into apartments, and one is an Arab bank.

Local shops can be a useful indicator of the character of a neighbourhood, and the interests of its residents. Throughout Mayfair there are designer boutiques, and there is no shortage of auction rooms and galleries. The newsagent on Park Lane has more publications in Arabic than English; the local car showrooms are Mercedes Benz and Porsche.

The oddest shop is the one displaying in its window a French dictionary and a can of Holsten Pils. On closer examination, these are safes, displayed alongside surveillance gadgets of various kinds. All more suitable for James Bond than the average London citizen, but presumably in an area like this, there are plenty of customers.

Most of us will have to stick to Monopoly if we want to buy property here. The windows of local estate agents reveal that a family house costs well over a million pounds.

Cathy Packe