James Leavey's Corner
A Friend In London

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
According to the English writer and caricaturist, Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), “Mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.”

If this is true, their epitome must be Claridges.

For whatever your background, you are made to feel like royalty from the moment you enter the hotel’s imposing foyer with its black and white marble floors and sparkling chandeliers.However, it is not just the dignified environment that attracts commoners and kings again and again, but the legendary service from 300 staff who personally oversee every detail of your stay, even if you smoke.

Not many realise that Claridges’ staff to guest ratio is a remarkable 1 to 1.One staff member, in particular, is head hall porter par excellence, Thomas Keatley, who has worked his way up the ranks (as they all do) since joining the hotel as a 15-year-old page boy, 22 years ago.

For his guests, many of them 3rd and 4th generation, Keatley and his team of 25 porters are reliable, informative friends who can point them to the best things the most exciting city in the world has to offer, or find something not available elsewhere. What they don’t know about London, isn’t worth writing about.

“This is certainly not a routine job,” admitted Keatley, who was born and bred in London, and briefly managed to extract himself from his duties to give me his expert, personal guide to Britain’s capital. “You never know what people will ask for next, it could be anything from what is the hottest show at the moment to where to take the children on a wet afternoon.

“200 years ago, Dr Samuel Johnson, the English writer, critic, lexicographer, conversationalist and subject of James Boswell’s famous biography said that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ This is just as true today as it was then.

“For me, some of the nicest places in London happen to be the oldest and quaintest. I like to send our guests somewhere where they won’t try and sell them the most expensive item but are passionate about the subject and can provide real craftsmanship and service.

“For example, some people from drier parts of the world don’t enjoy our occasional rainfall and fancy buying their own brolly.If so, I send them to James Smith & Sons Ltd, 53 New Oxford Street, WC1, who specialise in the two accoutrements associated with the English gentleman and lady – umbrellas and walking sticks. The sticks are made of the same woods and by much the same methods as they were when Smith’s was founded in 1830.

“If they’re fond of water, Captain O M Watts, 49 Albemarle Street, W1, is a genuine, fully equipped ship’s chandler in the heart of Mayfair and first opened on Maddox Street in 1927.

“There are so many wonderful shops here that our guests sometimes ask the best place to purchase extra luggage to convey their shopping home. Connolly Leather, 32 Grosvenor Crescent Mews, SW1, a family business that specialises in well-crafted leather goods and luggage is a real find.They also provide interiors for luxury cars like Rolls Royce and Bentleys as there’s nothing nicer than stepping into a brand new car and smelling the hide.

“Round the corner, Asprey,165-169 Old Bond Street is like an Aladdin’s cave. If they don’t sell it or can’t get it, they’ll usually offer to make it for you.

“In spite of all the constant change in this modern world, there are still pockets of history and craftsmanship in London. For example, in the lower part of St James’s Street, SW1, alone, close to St James’s Palace, there are eight traditional outlets within 100 paces with a combined total of over 1,700 years of service.

“Berry Bros & Rudd, the wine merchant, several of whose customers including Napoleon III, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, have been weighed there over the years, has been at No.3 since 1698.

“James Lock, the hatters, have been at No.6 since 25 June 1765. John Lobb, the shoe and boot manufacturer whose museum contains the prototype of the Wellington boot, is at No.9 and was founded in 1849.Further along, D R Harris, the chemist and perfumers who have long specialised in a morning-after Pick-Me-Up known as the ‘Original’, have been at No.29 since 1790.

“Justerini & Brooks, wine merchants at No.61, was founded in 1749; William Evans, gun maker and outfitter at No.67a, was founded in 1883; and Truefitt & Hill, gent’s hairdressers at No.71, was first established in 1805.

“The first Cuban segars as they were then known arrived in London at Robert Lewis, 19 St James’s Street, in 1830.The shop was first established in 1787 and is now, as James J Fox and Robert Lewis, the oldest tobacco merchant in Britain, and probably the world. Their former customers include Oscar Wilde and Sir Winston Churchill - whose favourite chair is still in use today at the rear of the shop.The two oldest boxes of Havana cigars in the world are in their museum.

“In these days of high security, some of our guests pop round to Counter Spy Shop, 62 South Audley Street, W1, who specialise is surveillance and anti-bugging devices.They can even provide bulletproof clothes, including Burberry raincoats, and armour-plated cars.

“On a different note, one chap comes here every 5-6 years from New York and always brings me his ivory toothbrush.I take it round to A. Maitland, the chemist at 175 Piccadilly, as it’s one of the few places left where you can get hair and tooth brushes rebristled.

“But you don’t have to go far from Claridges for a bit of history, just up the road.Two famous musicians who would have been neighbours if they weren ’t living in London centuries apart were Jimi Hendrix, who lived in a flat at 23 Brook Street from 1968 to 1970 and George Frederick Handel who lived and died at 25 Brook Street from 1685-1759.

“It’s a pretty safe bet that they both enjoyed at least one drink in the Red Lion, Crown Passage, SW1.It’s the second oldest pub licence holder in the West End and goes back about 350 years.It has certainly been patronised by many royal figures over the years from Henry VIII and Charles II, both on romantic encounters, to the late Duke of Windsor.

“Some music lovers like the Dove Inn, 19 Upper Mall, W6, a 300 year’s old pub which has one of the smallest bars in Britain.‘Rule Britannia’ was composed there and Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway used to pop in for a drink.

“In North London, Hampstead is a charming village to potter around and you can visit the former home of the poet, John Keats. You may even bump into Glenda Jackson, the local MP.

“While you’re there, try the first floor bar of Jack Straw’s Castle, North End Way, NW3; it’s the city’s highest.

“Back in central London, there are over 600 mews or small, cobbled hidden sidestreets, most of them housing former stable blocks that date back to the time when the horse, not the car, was city’s main form of transport.

“On Easter Monday every year, there’s still a Harness Horse Parade in Regent ’s Park, and every August there’s an annual blessing of horses and their riders at a church near Hyde Park.

“Not many people know that the Piazza in Covent Garden was London’s first square, laid out by Inigo Jones in the 1630s. Until 1974, it was the home of the capital’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market and you could listen to the singers at the Royal Opera House rehearsing while you bought a pound of oranges.

“Since then the Piazza, Central Market and surrounding streets have been transformed into central London’s liveliest areas, full of interesting shops, pubs and excellent street entertainers – who have to audition before they are allowed to perform.

“East of London is well worth a look.Next to the Tower of London, is St Katharine’s Dock, a good place to wander around and admire the boats moored there, shop, or enjoy a drink at the Dickens Inn.

“Across the Thames, the Anchor, 34 Park Street, SE1 has been a favourite riverside pub for centuries and dates from after the Southwark fire of 1676 which devastated the area south of the river, almost as much as the Great Fire of London had done a decade earlier to the north side of the Thames.

“Close by is the George Inn, 77 Borough High Street, SE1, which also dates from the 17th century and is the only remaining example of a traditional galleried coaching inn left in London.

“Many of our guests collect antiques and go along to Portobello Market on Saturdays.It’s not quite what it used to be but every antique stall is now listed in a free guide.

“A better place for antiques is Bermondsey market early on a Friday morning. It’s a dealer’s market and everyone I have sent there has usually come back with something interesting wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into a carrier bag.One of our guests said her best buy of the day was the fresh bagel with cream cheese she bought round the corner for 90 pence!

“A lot of overseas visitors want to take the boat from central London down to Hampton Court.The trouble is the trip lasts up to four hours and after the first half hour of seeing chimney stacks and the backs of houses it gets monotonous.They’d be much better off taking a boat to Greenwich from Westminster or Charing Cross pier it’s only half an hour.

“Greenwich is the chosen site for Britain’s Millennium celebrations. Next to the National Maritime Museum is Greenwich Park where you can stand with a foot on either side of the Meridian line that divides the earth’s eastern and western hemisphere.

“Greenwich Park is also a fine place to enjoy a picnic on a warm day and we can supply a basket of food and drinks, chairs and a table.Richmond Park is another good place to eat alfresco as is Kenwood, near Hampstead Heath, where they have wonderful open air concerts, one with fireworks, on summer evenings.

“The Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park specialises in musicals and Shakespeare’s plays and while you’re there you should sample the scents and colours of Queen Mary’s Gardens, famous for its roses.

“Not far away is one of the best places to view London – the top of Primrose Hill overlooking London Zoo, especially on 5 November, Guy Fawkes’ Night, when you can see bonfires and rockets lighting up across the city.Another good spot is Waterloo Bridge, on the bend of the river Thames.

“We have a standard saying here ‘It’s ten minutes in a taxi’ which is a shame really as central London is still one of the safest places to walk, in the world. A good place to stroll around is Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, as many famous writers and artists have lived in its 18th century houses, including, in Carlyle Mansions, Henry James, TS Eliot and Ian Fleming.The painter JMW Turner lived quietly at No.119 and George Eliot, the novelist died at No.4

“It also pays to look up in London, especially if you walk from the Law Courts and through Fleet Street, as there is an incredible range of architecture going back hundreds of years.

“There is something in London for everybody’s taste.If we don’t immediately know where it is, we’ll always do our very best to find it for you.It’s meeting the challenge that interests me, and you’re always learning something new about the city no matter how much you think you know.”

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BC), summed up why the likes of Keatley are so vital to the scheme of things, “…those who have improved life by the knowledge they have found out, and those who have made themselves remembered by some for their services: round the brows of all these is worn a snow-white band.”

And a fat cigar.

Copyright James Leavey, 1998.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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