My Kind Of Town

Camden Market

Camden Market

This is a column I recently wrote for the Sunday Telegraph Travel Section. I was asked to pick a favourite city and discovered that nobody had covered the capital…

Why London?
A city is made by its people. My friends and family are all Londoners, and although I’ve lived in France and America I’m always drawn home by this city’s febrile energy. Despite the deadening spread of chain-stores, there’s a freshness of ideas that’s obvious wherever you go in London, enough any walk unique. The residents are put-upon but irrepressible.

What do you miss most when you are away?
The South Bank from the Royal Festival Hall to Tower Bridge. I love watching the parkour kids and seeing how many new cultural events are being staged along the route. The best time is sunset, as the blue lights in the trees come on. I always make my fictional detectives walk there.

What’s the first thing you do when you return?
I usually hit a good independent bookshop, like Goldsboro Books (7, Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ, Tel:+44(0)2074979230, It’s Britain’s biggest supplier of signed first editions. The staff are great at giving you tips on what’s new and interesting to read.

Where’s the best place to stay?
I’m not a lover of self-consciously cool hotels, nor am I a fan of the Park Lane set. In Soho, Hazlitt’s Hotel (£220, 6, Frith St Soho W1D 3JA, Tel: +44(0)2074341771, www. and its sister the Rookery Hotel (£210, 12 Peter’s Lane, London, EC1M,Tel: +44(0)2070993190 are stylish and low-key. Rough Luxe Hotel (£210, 1, Birkenhead St WC1, Tel: +44 20 7837 5338, combines shabby-chic to startling effect, and has just nine unique rooms. I think it’s harder to get from Park Lane to the sights than from King’s Cross, so I’d plump for Rough Luxe for my visiting friends.

Where would you meet friends for a drink?
In a pub. At the Victoriana-filled Dam Busters’ pub, the Windsor Castle, in Marble Arch, at the Pineapple in Leverton Street, Kentish Town, where Simon the manager runs seasonal events including outings, fancy dress and charabancs. The King Charles I in Northdown Street, King’s Cross is run by Ben, who has retained the bar billiard table, the oddball jukebox and a curious way of ordering food. The Lincoln Lounge, in York Way, King’s Cross, is run by John, who keeps it laid-back and groovy, with a lending library and occasional Victorian cabaret. And the Phoenix Arts Club underneath the Phoenix Theatre, a bizarre fifties throwback for artists and musicians that somehow survives among the trendy cookie-cutter bars of Soho. If you don’t have membership, Maurice the owner might decide to admit you if you can answer three questions on the theatre. Then again, he might not.

Where are your favourite places for lunch?
I don’t often do lunch – everyone’s too busy – but Sunday lunch is different. I enjoy the airy lightness of Roast, The Floral Hall, Borough Market, Stoney St, SE1 1TL, the friendly buzz of The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3AL and the cosy cool of The Fellow 
24 York Way 
N1 9AA.

And for dinner?
For the view of the river it has to be Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, Belvedere Rd, SE1 8XX. For a genuinely original menu and local charm, I’d pick Fig restaurant, 169 Hemingford Rd, N1 1DA.

Where would you send a first-time visitor?
To the Millennium Bridge. In every city you need to get your bearings when you arrive, and this is the easiest and most spectacular way, floating between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern.

What would you tell them not to bother with?
Madame Tussauds, an overpriced, charmless trudge past lifeless TV ‘celebrities’ who bear little resemblance to their originals. And avoid the dreadful Blitz Experience, part of which involves sitting in a shed listening to the radio.

Public transport or taxi?
The tube, every time. I keep a guest Oyster Card so visitors can use it to pay a flat rate of £1.50 instead of the outrageous £4 ticket.

Handbag or moneybelt?
Bags are fine if you’re sensible. I’d never leave a case under a chair if I was eating outside in, say, Covent Garden, but most places are very safe. London is so spread out now that there are fewer epicenters for criminal activity. The worst remains the ruinously pedestrianised Leicester Square after dark.

What should I take home with me?
Camden market and Brick Lane market are both undergoing new leases of life, with designer clothes items tucked in the unlikeliest corners. I bought an astonishing dress-jacket in Brick Lane made by a designer who works for the Royal Opera House, price £150. My friends refuse to believe it’s not from Knightsbridge.

And if I’ve only got time for one shop?
Unfortunately, London’s big design stores are a disappointing lot, and you’re likely to find better home items in other major cities. But at the time of writing, there’s a miniscule unnamed T-shirt shop on the corner of Greek St and Bateman St in Soho that sells unique fashionwear, average price; £15. Beware – it shares a doorway with the local hooker!

8 comments on “My Kind Of Town”

  1. I.A.M. says:

    So… buy a shirt, get a blow, all for under £40? And people say that London is expensive… BAH!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    We enjoyed meals wherever we were – in London or “the Provinces” – and quick meals of the soup and sandwich variety are very good at all the national historic sites, besides benefiting a good cause. The cafe under St. Martins in the Fields is very good indeed if you don’t mind being seated over tombstones. (memorial stones?) and the elevator down is nice, too.
    It must be Christmas in England by now – yes, NORAD has tracked Santa out into the Atlantic – a Merry Christmas, Chris, a Happy New Year and thanks for a pleasant coffee and great view.

  3. Steve says:

    Happy Holidays to all!

    I’ve only had a cappuccino in the cafe under St. Martins but I like the atmosphere.
    We tend to stay where we can get 24 hr room service or have a kitchen due primarily to my wife’s mobility problems. Speaking of which, while it’s gotten better, London is not as friendly to the handicapped as it might be.

    We love it regardless!

    And I suppose the apartments at the Athenaeum are our favorite to date.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    A number of years ago, when mobility concerns first reached into the public consciousness, a taxi company offered a service which allowed a wheelchair to roll right into the cab. This required a fair amount of change to the shape of the vehicle and some people described them as camel shaped. Someone from Montreal, on being told they were “handicapped” cabs, replied that they certainly were. Because everything must now be built accessible I was very aware in England of the difficulties there must be in many situations for people. Can’t imagine how one would get into the British Museum, although it’s fine once you’re there. Retrofitting is always difficult. Merry Christmas, Steve, to you and your family.

  5. Steve says:

    Thankfully my wife was able to get into a lot of places we wanted to see together before her problems reached their current level, including the British Museum.
    Same to you, Helen!

  6. Helen Martin says:

    While chatting with a store clerk the other day Camden Market was mentioned and I commented on these – caryatids? There were immediate ravings of delight. In the midst of it a customer commented that her nephew has a store in the market. It was a London moment in Metro Vancouver. Thank-you Chris.

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