Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Members' clubs in London

There are certain exclusive places in London where you cannot get in without a much desired membership card, or a quiet nod of approval from a doorman. All over the city are unmarked or discretely labelled doors which quietly announce the entrance to private clubs, open to those who subscribe to their membership. The Soho House chain have numerous buildings all over town.  There is the luvvies' favourite, The Groucho, in Soho. Another media professional's hangout is the unhelpfully named Hospital Club in Covent Garden, which is more album playback parties than heart surgery and waiting rooms.  If you fancy something a little weird and wacky in the way of private clubs there can be nowhere more suitable than Sketch, just off Regent Street, where the toilets are white, spacey pods which tell you stories in French, and extraordinary artwork leaps off every wall. All have just a gentle hint of pretension, but are nonetheless always fun to visit.  Thanks to a recent work event which was held within one such club, I recently got an extended glimpse inside, however as most of these clubs are pretty funny about their secrets of interior decor and styling being shared around I shall let you guess where I have been rather than give it away.

Once inside this mystery club the lack of signage and mystery continues. I travel in a lift which only visits the ground, 4th and 5th floors.  The only sign I note on a door simply declares 'Roof'.  The decor is somewhat eclectic, in an expensive East London kind of way.  In our paneled meeting room lime green tub chairs surround a heavy wooden ship's table. A small, surprised-looking owl stares out from inside a glass case on a bashed, black lacquered cabinet.  One wall of the room is formed by paned window glass looking onto the private members lounge, where young, cool urbanites (the kind who wear glasses specifically to evoke geek chic, rather than for any sort of myopic need) sip £4 coffees whilst tapping away on their Macbooks.  For the privacy of both the laptop-clutchers and my work group however the windows are all cloaked in old faded green velvet curtains, reminiscent of those which covered the stage at my old school during plays.

Outside our closetted space are bars, a dining room and an area containing recondition arcade games and a pool table.  9 boxes (yes, I counted) of Scrabble sit bookshelves next to multiple sets of Jenga and Monopoly; although I wonder how many members actually play a single game.  A gym is tucked quietly away nearby, with a television screen broadcasting a livefeed from a swimming pool on the top of the building.  For the two days I spend in the club the streaming shows little more than raindrops plopping into the pool, apart from early one morning where a single swimmer ploughs solomnly up and down, seemingly unaware that their work-out is being broadcast to fellow club-members (and the odd interloper such as myself).

The food is flawless.  As a departure from the usual egg mayonaise sandwiches on industrially thick white bread usually served at corporate events, we dine on thin, wood-fire toasted pizzas and groaning bowls of rainbow salad; purple and yellow beets nestling amid lush green leaves and creamy parmesan.  The service we recieve from the clubs staff is utterly charming and competant.  They anticipate a guest's needs with the skill of a modern day Jeeves, and are just as polite to us one-off non-members as they are to those who pay annually for the facilities. (One day I spy the staff eating lunch from the same kitchen which serves the exclusive guests, seated down the polished wooden benches which stretch the length of the dining room; now there's a work perk worth having!)

Photographs of the inside of this establishments are expressly forbidden, in case one accidentally snaps a celebrity, however the view from one of its upper windows is equally intriguing.  During a slow point in our 2 days of meetings I watch a rainstorm approaching and a building going up, as a large red crane extended high up into the steely sky swinging buckets of materials above the rooftops. Against the blue facade of a huge box-like building a bright, fire-engine red helicopter crouches on its helipad. From time to time it whirls up into the sky and off over the city, before popping back to recharged on its pad again.  I am glad to be inside this cosy place rather than in the dreary cold below.

Somewhere within this single building you can swim, go bowling, drink, eat, celebrate, screen movies or even rent a room and sleep.  Yet I would find it hard to keep my head on a pillow here, with so much else going on.  I would worry I was always missing out on something else happening just a few, unlabelled rooms away.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Liberty London

As London Fashion Week dawns once again the city's shops are abuzz. Themed window displays and promotions of British designers have appeared on all major high streets. London's fine department stores offer designer showcases and even host catwalk shows. London boasts numerous department stores, containing anything and everything from clothing to cutlery, some of which are part of nationwide chains and others which are unique to the city; many are popular stops on any tourist's trip to London There is opulent Harrod's, the high temple of commercial excess. The original, largest or just best loved branches of bright yellow Selfridges and middle-class favourite John Lewis are based here too. The outer facade of Harvey Nichols on Knightsbridge, with its stunning and imaginative window displays, is as much visited as its floor of shops and restaurants inside the building. But for sheer department shopping pleasure there is nowhere more perfect than Liberty.

The tudor-style building, all white plaster and black timber reclaimed from the skeletons of two ships, stands out among the heavy red brick and gaudy shopfronts of Carnaby Street on the corner of which it sits.  Inside the ancient and utterly beautiful timber structure forms a Globe Theatre-like stage for the mannequins draped in fabulous clothes.  Carved animals and less easily discernible beings peer down the five floors over the edges of the balconies.  Even the glass and brass lifts are panelled.

The very top floor is home to antique and vintage furniture and homewares, whilst on the next floor down the vintage collection continues in womenswear; couture Dior, Moschino and Vivienne Westwood hang out together on brass rails, sharing glory day stories of fancy parties and red carpets, amid piles of collectible Chanel handbags. One floor houses the store's unrivaled haberdashery department, filled with shelves of ribbons and wool and thread and fastenings. Having searched for a very particular type of button for months (the way one does!), Liberty was the place I finally ended my quest with success.
Liberty is famed for its lawn and distinctive Liberty print, some of which features designs by William Morris. This fabric can be bought by the metre, or covering various Liberty souvenirs. Some are evidently geared towards the tourist (paperweights and playing cards), others towards the high class tweedy shopper (handkerchiefs and tea-trays), and some for those who just can't live without a beanbag frog covered in the stuff.  Entire rooms are dedicated to gloves and scarves, or even scented candles (although distinctly high end ones, with matching high end price tags - quite literally money up in smoke).

Cocooned by the fragrant calm of Liberty one can easily forget the whirling chaos of nearby Oxford Street's retail experience. Its comparatively empty shop floors allow peaceful browsing of covetable items without the jostling and elbowing of Topshop, HMV, H&M and Zara across the road. I would happily shop here forever, although I fear my bank balance would not appreciate it. And so I will just visit Liberty like one would a museum, wandering amidst the pretty things on display. Just occasionally I might even buy a button or two.

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Friday, 11 February 2011

Famous former inhabitants: London's blue plaques

As I roam the streets of London, I am often struck by the wonderful eccentricity of its architecture.  Solid square buildings many hundreds of years old stand huggermugger with brand new edifices, all angles and aerodynamic curves.  Glass cosies up to ancient brick which abuts shiny steel.  A city is an organism; it is dynamic.  Bits of it live, die and are reborn every second of the day.  Materials and land are constantly recycled.  Offices move into shops, and warehouses are reborn as penthouse apartments.  Owners pass on much loved homes to others, others who move in and change everything the previous owners adored.  And in London, as in any metropolitan city, many of these former owners were not your average Londoners.  Former inhabitants could be actors, writers, playwrights, architects, designers, artists, pioneering scientists and explorers.

In London, and across the rest of the UK, buildings which were once home to some pretty remarkable people are sometimes distinguished from their neighbours.  A small, unobtrusive blue plaque appears bearing a legend describing who lived there, when they lived there and what was particularly remarkable about them.  Professions celebrated include everything from chefs to astronomers, and from cryptologists to fraudsters.  Even fictional characters are commemorated, as a plaque appears on the Baker Street address where Sherlock Holmes supposedly consulted with those who sought his crime-solving wisdom.

Jason Dunne, the app developer behind the clever Toiluxe app (which locates your nearest, and often most glamorous public convenience) has even devised a tool to help plaque-hunters with smartphones.  Using the GPS functions on iPhones and other smartphones the app will show you where your nearest blue plaques are; which famous names have lived near you at one time or another?  Although (little note to Jason!) the keenest blue plaque nerds might appreciate a check-list function to see the extent of their hunting.
English Heritage is the current organiser of the blue plaques scheme, although the system of commemoration has been ongoing since 1866.  Earlier awarders of plaques have included numerous London Councils, whose names appear on the plaques they awarded.  The plaque displayed in 1867 at the birthplace of Lord Byron was the first to take its place on one of London's walls.  I'm sure, at English Heritage's head offices, they are, as I write, finalising the lettering on the blue plaque shortly to be mounted above my front door: "In this house lived the Accidental Londoner, from 2010 to whenever I finally leave.  Office slave, aspiring writer, blogger and wishful thinker."

Monday, 7 February 2011

Spring is sprung in Marylebone

London has sunshine, and even the odd hint of Spring in the air. Can it be that the miserable gloom and freezing fog of our latest winter is over until next  November? I dare to think that once again our seasons may be about to change. At lunchtime I pry myself from my desk in the office and head out to stretch my legs. It really must be spring - I realise two streets from the office I have left my gloves behind but I can still feel my fingertips. My bare feet look strangely naked in my flimsy ballet flats, having spent the last few months cocooned in multiple pairs of socks and huge sheepskin boots.
(When I went back to take a photo of Marylebone to accompany this post it was vile and grey, so here is a cheering Spring-y flower instead!)

To blow away the lunchtime work cobwebs obtained by far too many hours spent staring at my computer screen, I start walking west. Crossing Harley Street I head for Marylebone High Street, moving thorough wide streets lined with large, bright white buildings. This area is known as "Mah-lee-bone" or "Marry-leh-bon", depending on how posh or pretentious the speaker is. Pronunciation issues aside, Marylebone is far more than a square on a Monopoly board, and much more than a train station. Sandwiched between the tourist-infested Oxford Street and the crashing traffic of the A501, Marylebone is a central pocket of the city's wealth.  Property prices are exorbitant. Somewhere near here is a multi-million pound bachelorette pad previously owned by Sienna Miller, with a full sized Turkish bath in the basement. On my lunchtime stroll I spot three Hermes Birkin bags in five minutes; a cool several thousands pounds of leather and metal hardware, each carried as if they were of no more value than a Tesco plastic bag. Every second person walking down the street has perfect blow-dried, highlighted hair and manicured nails. Even the animals here are immaculate - I spy a divine French Bulldog sitting watching passersby in the window of a gallery, wearing a black and white stripy jumper. (Could he BE more French, without a string of onions and a packet of Gitanes?!)

Marylebone High Street is a perfect place to shop.  Designer stores and the upper end of the traditional high street line the pavements, with the odd pub and cafe with little metal tables outside. The perfect place to recover from a heavy retail session and to do some people-spotting. Daunt Books, one of the few remaining independent bookshops in London occupies a prime spot here on the high street. Yet equally fabulous for those on the hunt for things to read is the Oxfam bookshop a few doors down.  This wonderful literary haven has a whole range of books in excellent condition from fiction to travel, and at a fraction of the price of the pristine versions in Waterstones.

You can turn off the high street and investigate the tiny side streets too. Unlike the imposing Harley Street mansions and wide roads, the side-streets are ancient and cobbly. They are well worth exploring as they hold all kinds of wonderful boutiques, even a shop devoted entirely to buttons.  They are also home to some wonderful restaurants, including the delicious Union Cafe, where I once had a work dinner that was a far cry from the hideous mass-catering one is normally subjected to at work do's. But make sure you don't go too far south or you'll end up on Oxford Street - not nearly so civilised or charming. It may not be Spring down there yet either...
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