Report from U.K.: London’s neighborhoods

Skyline of London

Skyline of London

By Robert Israel

Londoners are jittery. There is a heightened police presence on the streets. In many of the neighborhoods, police walk two abreast. British troops sport automatic weapons and bulletproof vests near the Houses of Parliament. Packages and backpacks are spot-checked at the tube station entrances. Shopping plazas like the Brunswick, between Kings Cross and Russell Square, employ their own security forces. Strangers are eyed warily, not once, but repeatedly. Security cameras are everywhere, snapping away.

Londoners are in high spirits. You can’t look nonchalant. You can’t fake an air of insouciance. Life is good. So, in spite of constant threats of violent disruption from known and unknown sources, Londoners are very cool characters indeed.

Take a walk through the park at Russell Square. On a recent warm afternoon, men and women were sunning themselves at lunchtime, and, just beyond, jets of water spurted skyward from a fountain. The wee tots from the neighborhood frolicked in their nappies, giggling and splashing, while the adults looked on, grinning.

Could it be because the pubs open early? Could it be the smoke that keeps drifting past – is it just tobacco, or something else entirely? A law enforced last year requires smokers to take their tobacco (and other substances) outside. Pub owners have provided makeshift shelves around their windows, just wide enough to rest pint glasses on. So those who drink and smoke at the same time take to the sidewalks in droves. By two o’clock in the afternoon at one pub in Bloomsbury, there were 40 or so men and women outside, oblivious to workaday world just beyond them. The scene repeats itself throughout the city. Near St. Paul’s Cathedral businessmen and women were out in droves puffing and drinking in the bright sunlight. And the big clock hadn’t yet struck 11 bells.

In London, the pound is up, the dollar is down (American tourists are welcomed, please be spending cash, thank you very much), the pungent smoke is billowing past, and the beer is flowing.

As tempting as it was to winnow away my time in London alongside these imbibers, I set myself forth instead on a mission to learn as much as I could about London’s neighborhoods as a way of getting to know the city better. But there are too many of them, and each has its own unique charm. I was limited to nine days and eight nights: two days and two nights in four different neighborhoods. So I chose neighborhoods, served by public transportation, each with access to museums, bookstores, theatres, and shopping. I also wanted to stay in hotels that reflected the character of the neighorhoods, hotels with charm/atmosphere, hotels with their own histories.

Bloomsbury

I began my vacation in Bloomsbury, staying at Montague on the Gardens (+44 02079587731), located directly next to Russell Square park and literally across the street from the British Museum. The hotel is a bastion of comfort and solitude, with a friendly and solicitous staff and newly refurbished rooms that nonetheless pay homage to the architecture of the 19th century: dark mahogany interiors, wainscoting, low ceilings, thick draperies, and rambling inter-connecting corridors. Being literally across the street from the British Museum (the entrance is actually around the corner on Great Russell Street) makes this a very desirable location.

Bloomsbury has four bookstores with walking distance of the Montague (three used bookshops and a gay/lesbian bookstore — “Gay is the Word” — on Marchmont Street). The University of London is nearby. The Brunswick shopping plaza, mentioned earlier, has all the fast food, Starbucks and tschotske shops one could want. There is a gym nearby (Fitness First) that welcomes visitors with a day rate, below street level, so there is no light and the air gets stuffy. No matter: the equipment works just fine, so you can stay toned for those long ambles down streets where writers like Charles Dickens (there is a museum in his name I did not visit) and Arthur Conan Doyle once lived.

Covent Garden

The main thoroughfares in London can be noisy, disorienting. Every kind of vehicle converges and careens down skinny lanes. The only way to cope is to retreat to the quiet streets before heading out into the fray again.

A twenty minute walk down from Russell Square down a main road toward Central London is Covent Garden, literally the heart of the theatre district and adjacent to more shopping than anyone can imagine or need. Shops upon shops unfold on twisty inter-connecting streets and lanes that lead to Leiscester Square and to even more theatres. Covent Garden has an amusing marketplace where street performers and jugglers ply their trades, but it is designed strictly for the tourists and their kids. I did discover a bookstore where they read Tarot cards and special order magic books, a rare find in an area where the flash overpowers substance.

Even though it is located on a main street, the Waldorf Hilton (44 02078367244) is an oasis of calm. Newly renovated, no street noises permeate the thick windows or walls, and each suite is cozy, modern, with a color scheme that subdues the weary traveler. It also features a swimming pool and gym in the basement.

Laden down with purchases I made during that afternoon, I made it back to the Waldorf worn out, just in time for tea. The staff could not have been more accommodating. I changed into my swimsuit and headed for the basement pool. The walls surrounding the pool glow with muted, pastel lights. Soon bustle of the busy streets faded from memory.

Kensington

The Kensington neighborhood is twenty minutes away from the hustle of Covenant Garden, but it seems to be a world away when you alight from the number 11 bus after passing the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abby and the shabby faded splendor of Victoria Station.

I checked into a delightful hotel, the Draycott (U.S. toll free 1-800-747-4942), situated on a quiet garden square with a quiet park at the rear. The hotel’s tearoom hugs the park, and guests can take their beverages and sit underneath leafy trees and flowering scrubs, surrounded by brick townhouses and quietude. The rooms in the hotel each have their own names, not numbers, and are spacious, well-appointed with antiques, heated towel racks and other amenities.

It was only a ten-minute walk to the Natural History Museum, Science museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, and close to shopping at Harrods. I chose to visit the V and A, newly renovated and embracing the old and new eras with an ebullient spirit not found at many major museums anywhere. One could view antiquities from ancient Rome and Greece and then go into a wonderful exhibit on Lee Miller’s photography or Surrealist art. The gift shop has been newly refurbished and is anything but fusty. In fact, it may be one of the hippest museum shops in all of London.

Mayfair

The last leg of my trip was spent in Mayfair. I checked into Brown’s Hotel (44 020 74936020) on Albemarle Street, right off Piccadilly. I had everything I might want in this neighborhood: theatre, bookstores, fancy food emporiums (Fordum and Masons), shopping (Bond Street is a two minute walk away), art galleries, the sprawling acreage of Green Park, two Underground stations to choose from (Green Park and Piccadilly), and in my room, all the quiet comforts of home.

I went to tea the afternoon I arrived and was served tasty cucumber sandwiches, like those Oscar Wilde described in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Champagne was served in tall, never-emptying flutes (why drink tea sparkling wine is on the menu?) And I got to stay in a hotel where Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt once stayed (all at different times, naturally). What’s not to enjoy?

Nearby, I visited the Royal Academy of Art and Waterstones bookshop, which has a sixth floor cafe with a view of Westminster Abby. At night I wandered down to Piccadilly and saw a rousing production of “Grease,” with a cast that camped and vamped it up with great hilarity. But after awhile it was too much like Times Square, and I made it back to quiet Albemarle Street. The concierge recommended a small restaurant nearby, where I was served a scrumptious meal. All in all, a splendid day.

In London you can go from a wild excitement to total calm within a two-block walk. And if you choose the right places to stay, you can experience calm amidst the chaos. At Brown’s Hotel I let the hot water fill the bath and poured aromatherapy oils into the water. Afterwards, I wrapped myself in a terrycloth robe and sipped some cognac, savoring the richness of my contrasting experiences in London.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this report appeared in Edge magazine, (Boston).

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