Actually, he was a bit of all three.
In 1976, Nick was looking for somewhere cheap to live in central London and was nosing around the run-down parts of Soho and Covent Garden. What he found was a rat-infested yard surrounded by derelict warehouses, which wasn’t even listed in the London A to Z, whose only human occupants were the tramps who used it as a lavatory.
Neal’s Yard had once been storage for the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, which had moved out to Vauxhall two years before. Now, like the market itself, it lay empty and forgotten and, to Nick’s eyes, was just what he was looking for. Amazingly, number 2 Neal’s Yard was for sale for £7,000 – a steal, even by 70’s standards.
As well as living there, Nick wanted to use the building to start a business: the Whole Food Warehouse, where people could buy fairly priced, simply packaged whole foods sold by friendly people who treated their customers well. Unsurprisingly, the venture was a success and led Nick to start a succession of other retail businesses in and around the Yard – a dairy, bakery, coffee house, apothecary and salad bar, amongst others.
Throughout the process, however, Nick – an engineer at heart and by education – was always looking at ways to renovate using recycled materials and innovative methods while always wanting the people he worked with to gain satisfaction from their labours, as well as fair compensation.
Today, thanks to Nick’s pioneering work, Neal’s Yard is a pretty, leafy oasis of calm in the bustle of Theatre Land, where people can enjoy a variety of healthy food from the cafés there, as well as cheeses from the Neal’s Yard Dairy and cosmetics and skincare products from Neal’s Yard Remedies.
Nicholas Saunders died suddenly in 1998, but his widow Anya still lives in the apartment he designed and built-in number 14-15, which he acquired in the late eighties. An amazing and generously proportioned duplex above the Remedies shop, it boasts a proper roof garden with mature trees, a real lawn, a greenhouse and one of the best views in London – not only of the Yard itself but also across the rooftops of the West End.
Now, Anya hankers to move a little further out of central London, so the building – the last freehold in Neal’s Yard in private hands – is for sale, but the revolution that Nick started continues, and whoever buys it will be part of its continuing story.