Whatever the season and however often I go to London, I always seem to end up in the same part – that stretch between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus. It’s a habit I’ve had for at least 15 years. Sometimes I feel bad about neglecting other interesting sights and areas but then again, you have so many wonderful places there. There’s the park itself with a few brave daffodils at this time of year standing proud and further on, the trees in blossom along many of the winding paths. The beautiful Burlington Arcade where you can admire the pink pyramids of Ladurée macarons and agonish over which mouth-watering flavours to choose. And when you’ve finally made your selection, there is Frédéric Malle to spritz or repurchase new and old favourites like Portrait of a Lady or Chanel to discover more of Les Exclusifs perfumes. Or if you’re broke, it’s a chance to just savour some old world elegance.
As usual, I headed for the Royal Academy, sipping coffee and enjoying a huge slice of moelleux au chocolat, bought across the street from Paul’s bakery, in its magnificent courtyard underneath the watchful gaze of Sir Joshua Reynolds. On the hottest day of the year, it suddenly felt like summer with everyone in T-shirts, soaking up the sun. Inside, they had rolled out the red carpet in honour of the Russian Revolution exhibition. Room after room was filled with monumental, extraordinarily beautiful and amazing displays, finishing with the room of memory which featured just a few of the people arrested or shot in the age of terror. Looking at their faces, some famous, others just ordinary citizens, I thought of all the lives destroyed, talents lost and broken dreams. People no different from us today.
After seeing so much and fighting through the crowds in the gallery, I headed to the sanctuary of Fortnum and Mason across the street. Gigantic displays of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, stacks of teas from all over the world, silver and glass teapots are just a few things that transfix you when you walk in. That and the beautiful staircase leading to the wine section downstairs. I was content that day to order a pot of Afternoon Blend and watch the world go by in the tearoom.
But what is tea without books? Just a couple of shops down, you enter the world of Hatchard’s, my favourite bookshop ever. Holly Golightly famously had Tiffany’s but this is my ultimate place for “the mean reds”. It’s a sanctuary where nothing bad can happen to you and as an anxiety sufferer, the ultimate refuge. I took my time choosing, lingering by a whole section devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, another to Churchill. On the first floor, I curled up on a comfortable green sofa with a pile of books before deciding upon Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Put Out More Flags’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Deep Water’ by Patricia Highsmith and ‘The Goodbye Look’ by Ross Macdonald. At the till downstairs, a man with many Fortnum’s bags was trying to order an obscure novel from the American assistant while alongside, another customer with a suitcase was enquiring about a rare children’s book. “Take him up to the second floor”, his colleague insisted. “One person waiting isn’t a queue”, before asking if I agreed with his definition. Who was I to argue?
But even in a favourite area, there are new things to tempt you away. My friend Jan had told me about Maison Bertaux, an old French patisserie in Soho. I had passed close by this place many times before but had no idea of its existence until he told me about the amazing croissants and old-fashioned atmosphere. On my last morning, a cool, grey day, we were there for breakfast first thing, seated at one of the corner tables with its blue checked cloths. The pastries and coffee were the best I’ve ever had in London but hunger and the dark interior that early meant I didn’t manage to take decent photos. I can’t wait to return there next time to sample some of the wonderful cakes, getting off just a few stops earlier than usual on the Piccadilly Line, even if it means going to Hatchard’s a little later.
Bloomsbury in bloom by our hotel
Sir John Betjeman, poet and saviour of St. Pancras.
Just time for a glass of champagne at the long bar before boarding the train.