After a streak of beautiful, sunny days, the weather took a turn for the worse today. In fact, it is the first day I would classify as truly miserable. Half an hour in, my feet were soaked, my hands were frozen and I had ice chunks in my hair. So I did what any fearless, take no prisoners explorer would do: I spent a good portion of the day in some of London’s most decadent and sophisticated establishments.
All of these places have been on my list to visit for a while so it was actually really nice to have an excuse to nip into them and steal some warmth between my frigid expeditions. I learned some pretty interesting facts along the way too!
The Great Outdoors
Between my visits to the world of the upper crust, I did manage to get in a little street time. Although I only covered a small area, it was a really interesting one. There’s Victoria Embankment Gardens, one of my favourite places, with it’s gorgeous flowers in bloom.
John and Robert Adams’ Adelphi House, a building that launched a new movement in architecture.
And, of course, Villiers Street home to another London great, Gordon’s Wine Bar (if you haven’t been, you have to go). This alley is also one of five connecting streets which are each named after one part of George Villiers Duke of Buckingham‘s title. Yes, he was even so arrogant as to require an “Of alley”. It has has since been renamed to York Place and I bet he’d be none too happy about it.
And that’s about all of the outdoors I could handle before I had to go inside and thaw out.
Everyone who is anyone has stayed at the Savoy, Britain’s first luxury hotel: Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, you name them, they have stayed here. You’d think with a star-studded guest list like that, I wouldn’t be allowed in the door with my dripping hair and mismatched socks, but I felt more welcome here than any other fancy hotel I’ve wandered into. The staff were genuinely friendly and happy to answer all my questions about what I should expect the next time I visit for afternoon tea (£45 for four courses of all-you-can-eat decadence).
I have a tendency to stroll into posh places like I belong there, pretending I don’t see the judgement coming from the other guests (and occasionally the staff). I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of that here and was shocked when the hostess not only allowed, but encouraged, me to wander through the tea room, snapping photos of famous patrons (or their portraits at least). I felt completely welcome in every way.
On my stroll through this gorgeous place, I learned a fun fact about Savoy Court, the driveway entrance into the hotel. Back in the day, cabbies used to open the door for their guests by reaching around and pulling the handle on the outside. In order to place their guests directly in front of the hotel door (and not on the opposite side of the cab), the cabbies would drive in on the right side of the road and circle around. The convention has held to this day, which makes Savoy Court the only street in the United Kingdom where vehicles are required to drive on the right side of the road.
The list of elite patrons continues down the road at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes (via Sir Conan Doyle), George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone are all said to have visited the Grand Divan for a juicy roast and…a game of chess.
Simpson’s opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house and has since become Britain’s Home of Chess. Every major name in the game has played here. I personally know very little about it or any of its star players, but I find the culture around chess fascinating. This place must have been delightful in its heyday; every table engrossed in a battle, the players devouring one of London’s best roasts between moves. The games were so intense that food was left on the trolley next to the table and kept warm in its silver-domed platter so as not to disturb those in the throes of a match. This service tradition has held and is now one of Simpson’s signature touches.
I moved to the UK because I love good, solid, (ridiculous) British traditions, but living in London, I sometimes find it challenging to find things that scratch that itch. Simpson’s is truly the exception. It prides itself on a Bill of Fare (no “menus” here, that’s far too French) made from only top quality UK ingredients. I loved the cartoon above (though sadly it’s a little hard to read here) that shows the reaction of the carver and all the other guests when a gentleman asks if the meat is English of foreign (how frightfully embarrassing for all involved). The staff also exude British politeness and, similar to the Savoy, let me wander through the dining room leisurely to see what it was all about.
The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy
The next break from the cold I took was in a place equally beautiful but far less expensive than the previous two. It is free, in fact. Similar to those places though, the gentleman on staff here was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about the chapel. He was even kind enough to give me a brief rundown of its history. A few things about it stand out and make it worth mentioning (hint: these are good facts to wow your friends with if you ever happen to be in the area).
Firstly, it is really quite beautiful.
Secondly, this chapel is the only one owned by the Queen in a private capacity. She doesn’t own it under the Crown, she owns it under her family title as the Duke of Lancaster. That’s right. Duke. I knew the queen had several titles but I didn’t realise just how many or that they might be titles traditionally held only by men (apparently she is also Duke of Normandy and Lord of Mann). As a result of this ownership, the chapel is a Royal Peculiar, a place that falls under the Queen’s jurisdiction instead of a bishop’s.
Most interestingly, for a time, the chapel was disowned by the then-King because it had a reputation of marrying couples without “banns”. This meant they would perform marriages that might not have otherwise been technically legal. Whether you were still married to other people, under vows of celibacy, lacking consent from your guardians or just cousins, this chapel would seal the deal, no questions asked.
Embankment Place Cab Stand
The last place I want to share with you comes from a personal fascination of mine. I was particularly excited about it because, until six weeks ago, it was closed up and I assumed it would remain that way indefinitely. But, after all these posh places let me wander through their ornate lobbies, taking pictures of their crystal chandeliers and famous guests without batting an eyelid, it may surprise you to learn that I was not allowed into this one:
It’s not that they aren’t friendly. The man in the window was really helpful in answering all my questions and we happily chatted about the place for quite a while. Still, I’m not allowed in because I happen not to be a taxi driver.
London cabbies are unlike any in the world. They study an average of 3-5 years to pass their test (the Knowledge) and they have to memorise all of London. It’s far more intense than this “little” project of mine and an accomplishment I highly respect. I chat frequently with Knowledge boys and girls (those in training), trying to get a feel for what the process is like. It’s hard, as you would imagine. So I’m ok with the fact that they earn the right to sit in these little huts among their own kind.
Luckily for all of us yet to complete The Knowledge, we can still benefit from these taxi stands. Anyone is free to order takeaway at bargain prices. Plus, not only do we get cheap food, we help keep the green huts running which helps taxi drivers get good food, making them less hangry and the streets more fun for us all. Keep an eye out for these little green shacks when you’re out walking around. I certainly will.
See you next time!
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