Friday, 27 May 2011

Putting the glamour back into travelling by train: the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel

Over the past few months, as I have trudged off to work in the British Library, I have curiously peered at the huge hoardings outside St Pancras International station.  For the last couple of years, vast panels have been proclaiming that something was "Opening soon".  Fluorescent yellow-jacketed builders have lined the pavements, and diggers have been grumbling around moving earth behind metal barriers for months.  The old St Pancras railway hotel loomed above it all, waiting for its make-over to be complete, and for its rebirth as the new St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.  Finally, earlier this May, and after a month or so of unheralded operation, the formal opening of the St Pancras Hotel took place.  And, hearing tales of cracking cocktails and impressive interiors, I could not wait to go and explore it for myself.

If you're not staying there, choosing to spend time in a hotel can be an odd thing to do, however the St Pancras Hotel boasts a couple of restaurants (one is a Marcus Wareing effort) and a bar which are open to non-residents, so one doesn't need one's pajamas and a toothbrush to justify a visit.  And the staff at the hotel seem equally delighted to welcome one-off diners and drinkers as they are those in search of a bed for the night.  Their uniforms all appear to be inspired by railwaymen of yore, like someone had raided Bernard Cribbins' wardrobe from The Railway Children. They wore mostly dark blue, with purple and grey tinges, and small metal name badges, which reminded me vaguely of steam engine nameplates. Many of them seemed to be French (maybe they commute into work on the Eurostar?) and all were charm and efficiency itself.

The lofty, gothic architecture reminds me oddly of my old school; great tall walls and pillars in red and cream stone, candy-striped in places, with scalloped windows and glass-panelled doors.  (Yes, I went to school at Hogwarts.)  But despite the vast proportions the space feels stylishly comfortable rather than cavernous.  Aiming for the Booking Hall Bar, an Accidental drinking companion and I were informed that the bar itself was currently full and that we could have a drink on the terrace (i.e. right on the St Pancras platforms) or in the hotel's lobby.  We returned to the lobby, and settled ourselves onto a long, comfy leather banquette, from where we could watch the coming and going of the staff and guests, numerous items of luggage, and the ballgown-clad attendees of some corporate event happening behind a large frosted glass wall, from whence issued occasional rounds of muffled clapping.
The cocktail menu at the Booking Hall has been dreamt up by Nick Strangeway, whose alcohol mixing skills for Hix have garnered him much acclaim. And delightfully balanced and sophisticated they are too, served in beautiful etched glassware which must force serious care to be taken by the washers-up in the kitchen. (I wouldn't want to be the waiter who drops a trayful of those!)  After one excellent cocktail apiece the Accidental companion and I managed to break our way back into the bar itself, and were seated at a dark wood table, so low that both of us struggled to engineer our knees beneath it.  The menu in the bar is unashamedly and stolidly English. From Melton Mowbray pork pies to the beer-battered "fish 'n' chips" (yes, the unfortunately do describe it thus), the culinary message is "Wherever you've come from, you're in London now."  We both dined on excellent rib-eye steak and possibly the best triple-cooked chips I have ever had.
After merely sampling food and drink in one bar, I cannot vouch for the accomodation, although I read one review in which a guest had been somewhat surprised to be awoken at 7am by a platform announcement. (The closest I got was the corridor towards the rooms, which are lined with slightly lugubrious recreated portraits of the hotel's original staff.  Think scary-looking kitchenmaids clutching doomed chickens.)

For years, after totally adoring the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York, I have felt that London's terminals needed to up their game, and make themselves more of a venue for all Londoners, for those travelling out of the city and for those who are not.  Finally, the St Pancras Hotel may be bringing some of the glamour and comfort back into travelling by train.  Or at least into a few post-work drinks in one of the city's finest old buildings.

Booking Office Bar and Restaurant (St Pancras Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 21 May 2011

An Accidental triumph

What a victory!  After my plea issued last month you lovely readers have voted aplenty and I am thrilled to say that I won the April 2011 Dorset Cereals Little Blog Award.  Thank you all for voting and for sticking with me as I ramble my way through life here in London.  Every comment and follow is much appreciated.
Here's hoping it will be my first award of, if not many, another odd one or two!  If I knew who all you kind voters were I would thank you all personally, and share out the vast amount of cereal the award has brought me, but such is the anonymity of the blogosphere that I cannot.  So thank you all, you know who you are!  Now I'm off to eat my body-weight in muesli...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Come fly with me

One of the joys of living in a vast city is that, should you tire of it, its infrastructure presents you with numerous options for escaping and visiting other interesting places.  These days, your average world-class city is possessed of a handful of train stations, usually at least one capable of zipping you away to another country, and an airport or two.  London is well served by both, from the vast terminals of Heathrow International Airport, to the UK's busiest interchange train station at Clapham Junction.  We have the Eurostar train which can whisk Londoners to continental Europe in mere hours.  The ability to hop on a train and get off in another country is a glamorous luxury for a city-dweller, and the recently re-invented "St Pancras" station fully deserves its appended "International" label.  Unfortunately the average train trip in the UK is fraught with hideousness, as I have bemoaned before.  Even plane travel, for all the glamour presented by jet-setting celebrities can be pretty grim.  By the end of a recent 6 and a half hour flight, during which two children screamed continuously from Accra to Brussels, I was ready to commit murder.

But for me the true delight of travel begins before boarding.  I just love airports.  Although apparently I am alone in this.  My Accidental travel companion on my recent trip to Ghana declared he hated airports, before adding "Doesn't everyone?".  Why then do people not love them as much as I do?  The buzz of an airport is incredibly exciting.  Once one has ditched one's unwieldy suitcase or backpack at check-in, you can skip merrily through the tax-free shops (bargains galore! Or not...).  You can grab a coffee or something stronger, or eat an entire three course meal.  Although I do admit that the champagne and oyster bars across Heathrow's terminals are an incongruous catering choice.  In the middle of the terminal concourse men and women with designer hand-luggage slurp down bivalves and Bollinger as, by the feet of their high stools, small children whine and parents lose boarding passes and their tempers.  Best of all, at airports, you can people-watch endlessly.  People coming and going, families reuniting and tearing themselves painfully apart. 
I have long wondered why I am so obsessed with airports, and it was only whilst sitting in Heathrow's Terminal 1 overlooking a dawn-lit runway that I finally realised where I had developed this odd passion.
For many years while I was young the Accidental parents would drag me and my brother up to the West of Scotland for our summer holidays. There we would spend two soggy weeks on grey beaches dodging jellyfish and midges. We would drive there and back in a Volvo loaded with waterproofs and picnic blankets. But we would often break the long journey from Staffordshire to Argyll, and our customary lunchstop usually happened somewhere around Glasgow. My parents for some reason decided that a suitable family refuelling venue was the bar and restaurant at Glasgow Airport, which excitingly (when you're under the age of ten) overlooked the runway. For me however, these visits to this airport planted a tiny seed of longing. As we walked through the airport I would jealously watch those people who were there to fly off on holiday, wheeling their suitcases, losing their passports, clutching paper tickets to exotic locations. I longed to join them in the security queues but year on year the Scottish drizzle called. After a few years my parents bowed to my demands for a change of scene...and we drove to France. Realising I was getting nowhere with my demands for a holiday reached by way of a plane I resolved to make my own holiday plans in the future. And for many happy years I have flown all over the place, from North to South America, from Europe to Africa.  And I have enjoyed my hours spent in the airport as much as I imagined those Glaswegian travellers did, all those years ago.

And whilst I usually have a fabulous time visiting new countries, exploring new towns and observing new ways of life, for me the excitement peaks before I have seen any of that.  There at an airport one is offered an unimaginable wealth of destinations, a vast range of possibility and potential.  They are the launch-pads to exploration.  Where could be more exciting a place than that? 

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Another day, another city

Keen to make the most of the bank holidays with which the end of April and the beginning of May were so  awash, I started eyeing the expanse of long weekends as a potential holiday slot as soon as the Royal Wedding was announced.  It seems I was not alone in this, as many other Brits headed overseas to make the most of their bonus days off from work.  Not for me, however, were the beaches of Europe, or even the (slightly chillier) beaches of the UK.  Nope, I went instead to Ghana, where I have just spent two weeks adventuring ("holidaying" doesn't do justice to the pace at which we hurled around the country, or the number of exciting places we visited).
As a now habituated urban-dweller, wherever I travel I look at cities, and invariably draw comparisons between any new ones I explore and my Accidental home-city of London.  However Ghana is not much like the UK, and where similarities and differences may be easily compared between, say, Berlin and London, the Ghanaian capital city of Accra is not much like our European metropolises.

Accra, like many similar, comparatively young cities, is not governed by long-established urban planning regulations and patterns.  It is wonderfully disorganised and chaotic.  Taking a stroll through Accra is a major health and safety risk.  If you manage not to tumble into the open sewers which dribble merrily along where the pavements should be, Accra's road-users could take you out should you step carelessly into their path.  The cities' drivers hurtle across its roads as if they're all dancing some wild, automotive hokey-cokey; rushing at once into the same tiny spot, then racing away again.  It is no surprise that many vehicles bear the dents and dings of former smashes.  Nor that their drivers bedeck their windscreen with biblical messages, as if to invoke some sort of spiritual protection.  One backscreen reads simply, and somewhat desperately, "Oh! God" (note the placement of the exclamation mark - playing it fast and loose with punctuation as well as the Highway Code).

The city bears the architectural marks of its colonial past, in the former slave forts and British-built lighthouse of Jamestown.  It commemorates Ghana's most famous leader, the prolific writer and pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, with a vast marble mausoleum set amid lush gardens and ranked fountains.  It displays the staggering gap between wealth and poverty, in the varied landscapes of guarded compounds for the rich and the board-built, waste-strewn villages of the cities' poor fishermen.
The tourist in Accra will not find any guided tours of the city, no open-topped buses or maps of must-see sights.  Any visitors need to find their own entertainment, and find their own way around.  This is not a city for tourists.  It is a city for everyday lives, being lived at busy, bustling speed.  There are undoubtably attractions but you need to work hard to find them, and brave the stifling, sticky heat that  turns even the delightfully eclectic national museum into a sweaty greenhouse.
Whilst night falls abruptly around 6pm, like a black-out curtain dropped over the city, the street-life pounds on, in a whirl of crazed cars and twinkling lights.  Behind security fences and slightly further of the beaten track, a sheltered ex-pat microcosm co-exists with the local Ghanaian life.  In that aspect Accra shares a little with London, Paris, Berlin, and even New York; it is being shaped by numerous nationalities and supporting multiple cultures.  It is a city in development, growing before one's eyes.  What will it look like in another ten or twenty years?  Will it be more like London?  Or even less?
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