Ian Gillis shows how to fill two days in a tiny corner of London just off the beaten track
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” So said Samuel Johnson in 1777 when London, although rapidly expanding in size and population as the heart of the fledgling British Empire, was still no bigger than one of the typical suburban satellite towns that today surround the capital, pretending not to exist purely to absorb the populace overflow that began in earnest during the 60’s and 70’s.
Were Samuel alive today, I’m sure he’d say (probably via Twitter) “When a man is tired of London, he can safely claim to have seen 1% of it in a day.” With so much to offer visitors with all manner of tastes and interests, London is a round-the-clock tapestry, rich in visual and cultural simulation. Yet 80% of visitors never stray further afield than the so-called five-mile circle.
With the theatre and eatery rich area of Covent Garden/Leicester Square at it’s centre, the five-mile circle has at it’s East/West extremes Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace, with world-famous tourist landmarks such as The Tower, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye to sample in between. Many visitors barely rely on anything other than the Circle Line tube service to get around as just about every other station offers another world famous landmark upon disembarkation. However, those heading West on the Circle Line, the last station before an abrupt right-turn northwards, Victoria, would more than likely be heading for the northern gateways of Paddington and Kings Cross. Gloucester Road, a gateway to a whole different part of London every bit as stimulating as the widely recognised characteristic attractions to the east.
A short walk through a connected tunnel brings you to the doorstep of the Natural History and Science Museums, perfect bookends of history and future, nature and science. Often overlooked in the shadow of the larger museums is the Victoria and Albert, nonetheless still the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, with over 4.5 million artefacts on display.
All three museums are free to enter, though some specialised attractions and events occasionally demand a small charge. The Natural History Museum alone could keep you busy for an entire day and even then you’d be lucky to take in all that it offers. Very few visitors to London, would, understandably wish to spend their entire visit on one attraction. This part of London demands your undivided attention over at least a couple of days, so where to stay?
The Crowne Plaza
The area has a rich and varied selection of hotels to choose from, suitable for all budgets. Just a one-minute walk from Gloucester Road tube station is a four-star Crowne Plaza London-Kensington, nestled amongst the Georgian townhouses synonymous with this part of London.
Upon arrival the boutique style lobby instantly projects an elegant atmosphere replete with marble floors, zinc countertops and mood lighting. Check-in is conducted professionally and courteously with a quick overview of the hotels facilities and an all-important introduction to the concierge, steeped in details of discovery beyond the hotel doors. I stayed in one of the split level suites offering a downstairs living area with sofas, a desk and flat-screen TV, equally perfect for hosting business meetings or a small family. The bedroom upstairs was accessible by a stained wood spiral staircase offering a large and comfortable king size bed, another flat-screen TV with premium channels and pay-per-view, high-speed internet access, mini-bar, coffee/tea maker, and a private bathroom.
There are plenty of amenities for guests to enjoy directly on site. For delicious cuisine, hungry patrons can delight in breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the hotel’s chic Umami Restaurant, an Oriental eatery offering a comprehensive selection of dishes influenced from Thailand in the evening, and a traditional breakfast buffet serving a full English hot counter and typical continental fare. Those wishing to unwind with a drink can find refuge at The Bar, offering a wide range of signature cocktails. For those wishing to dine in the comfort and privacy of their guestroom or suite, a convenient room service is available 24-hours a day.
In addition, a beautifully landscaped, one-acre garden with a large patio area offers the ideal place to unwind while the state-of-the-art fitness centre, with a soothing sauna, keeps health-conscious guests occupied. Groups are well catered for with group check-in as standard and breakfast provided in a private area, especially useful if dining at the same time in order to adhere to a tight itinerary. Special rates and offers are available to group tour operators; rates vary depending on the season and length of stay. Coach drivers are offered free accommodation subject to availability and size of the group. The hotel can be found on Cromwell Road and conveniently, the coach drop-off point serving all hotels in the area is located directly outside the hotel entrance.
Royal Albert Hall
A trip to this part of London would not be complete without visiting the Royal Albert Hall, one of London’s most recognisable art and culture venues. Since it’s opening in 1871 the list of famous performers, sportspeople and world figures who have appeared there is unrivalled; from hosting the first UK performances by the likes of Wagner, Elgar and Verdi in the 19th Century to more contemporary modern day artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Noel Gallagher and Suede. Although best known for being the predominant host of the annual eight-week classical music series The Proms (more commonly known as the BBC Proms) since 1941, the diverse list of events that take place annually also include circuses, operas, film premieres and even sumo wrestling.
This iconic venue is open to the public during the day, through guided tours of the building, live music in Verdi, the Hall’s new Italian Kitchen, and free exhibitions. The Elgar Room, a state-of-the art small-scale performance space which opened in 2009, hosts classical recitals, comedy, cabaret, jazz nights, family shows and more. Such variety creates an event experience like no other. The vast choice of restaurant and bars on offer ensures arriving early for a show no longer requires standing around for hours with a warm over-priced beer in a plastic cup. Concert- goers can choose to dine in any number of restaurants offering a wide choice of cuisine, or explore the interior perimeter corridors on every floor offering breath-taking views of the main auditorium.
Since 2000, the Royal Albert Hall has played host to an annual series of gigs and events on behalf of the Teenage Cancer Trust, raising awareness of the venue to a younger generation. The day of my visit was to witness the triumphant return of Suede who closed the 2014 series with a celebration of the 20th anniversary of their iconic album Dog Man Star. Recognising the kudos of playing such a revered venue, the band augmented their usual five-piece line up with an 11-piece string and horn section adding gravity and near- divinity to the performance perfectly in keeping with the Hall’s decorated history. Singer Brett Anderson even alluded to the Hall’s rich diversity and heritage, with a heartfelt dedication of the albums closing track Still Life, to his late father, remembering the frequent childhood visits to witness many classical music performances.
Albert Memorial & Hyde Park
Step outside the north façade of the Royal Albert Hall and right in front of you is one of London’s most ornate monuments, the Albert Memorial located in Kensington Gardens. Public tours take place on the first Sunday of the month from March to December 2014, starting at 1400 and 1500hrs. The guided tour costs £7 (£6 for concessions and English Heritage members) with booking required fro groups. There is no need to book unless you are a group.
Beyond Kensington Gardens is Hyde Park, covering 350 acres and home to a number of famous landmarks including the Serpentine Lake, Speakers’ Corner and the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain. The park also offers various recreational activities, including open water swimming, boating, cycling, tennis and horse riding. Unlike many other areas of London, Hyde Park offers concessions for coach tour operators, including the issuing of drive-through permits and a newly renovated coach parking facility, located on The Horse Ride alongside The Mall, enabling single-decked coaches to park in nearby St James’s Park.
For me personally, the perfect end to a visit to this part of London is a spot by the Serpentine Lake at dusk. As the sun sets in the unobstructed West offering a palette of brilliant oranges and purples on a good day, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re in central London as the bucolic bliss washes over you. Whether you’re looking for culture, history, science or pure relaxation, this corner of London offers it all.