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Unexpected London

Mark Parren Taylor

Chelsea Physic Garden

Global Lifestyle Editor and diehard anglophile Jason Oliver Nixon ventures off the beaten path in London and offers up a few of his favorite far-flung finds.


Photos by Mark Parren Taylor.

 

As the iconic English photographer David Bailey once quipped, “If you’re curious, London is an amazing place.” And curiosity can be top level. For a first-time visitor, the London bucket list might include a visit to a royal palace, shopping and a dash of culture. Perhaps a spot of tea. And a photo with a Beefeater. Think Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards. Harrods. Covent Garden, Big Ben and a play in the West End. Check, check and check. And then it’s back to the States.

But for me, England is a second home. I spent summers as a child in Oxford, where mom earned her master’s at Lincoln College, and we made weekly visits to “town” to explore a museum or two and see a play. As I grew older, trips to London continued, and I was lucky enough to spend significant time in the city during my junior year abroad.

Fast-forward and today I rent the same VRBO.com apartment on the south bank of the Thames during my frequent jaunts across the pond. I use the pad, er, flat so often that the landlord allows me to store clothes in the closet. I have a Sainsbury’s Local grocery outpost across the street, the fabled Old Vic Theatre down the block and a branch of my favorite burger joint, Byron—as well as a jumping Spanish tapas bar complete with flamenco—just downstairs.

To me, London is the most exciting, easy and engaging city in the world.

But back to bucket lists. If you have visited London on more than one occasion, it’s time to step beyond Oxford Street and the other guidebook checklists. First off, I always top off my Oyster card for exuberant Tube and bus exploration, and then I set out and explore. On each trip I tackle a new neighborhood, and I long ago ditched the “London A to Z” and now simply love getting a tad lost before righting myself.

       
Lamb's Conduit Street.        

When I choose not to rent my favorite apartment on “The Cut,” I sample the city’s latest bumper crop of hotels. And London truly has an amazing assortment of hostelries.

My favorite newcomer is the high-octane Ham Yard Hotel, the latest from Tim and Kit Kemp, the duo behind London’s stellar Firmdale Hotels. Tucked away where Mayfair meets Soho, the Ham Yard is an insider secret that even London’s illustrious, knowledgeable cab drivers have difficulty locating. I love stepping off on either Denman or Great Windmill streets (just off Piccadilly) and through the lively, art-filled courtyard into a color-packed hostel that is both chic and cozy. The last time I stayed there, my room was an unfussy jewel box with glorious hues and patterns against massive floor-to-ceiling windows. Downstairs, I explored the hidden, 1950s-era bowling alley as well as a spa and terrific bar. And I popped into the hotel’s intimate, 190-seat movie theater—Ham Yard Theatre—where films are screened every Sunday.

Friends always ask me where to eat. London is a food lover’s capital. Forget the once-prevalent conception of British cooking: The capital offers every ethnicity and sensibility, at every price point. Even local chains—among them, my favorites Mexican Wahaca, Italian Carluccio’s and pan-Asian Wagamama—don’t feel cookie-cutter and are spot-on choices for inexpensive meals. But I have so many other list-toppers. After shopping Regent and Oxford streets, I settle in for lunch at The Fountain in the culinary department store Fortnum & Mason: Try the Welsh rarebit paired with a cool sauvignon blanc before shopping for epicurean wares upstairs (including honey culled from beehives on F&M’s roof).

For drinks, dinner and postprandial activities, I beeline it for the underground (literally): Brasserie Zédel is a one-stop shop just off Piccadilly. Begin your evening at the art deco-style Bar Américain for a sidecar before hitting the sprawling dining room next door for spirited bistro selections (including the “Wow!”-inducing, inexpensive, two-course £8.75 menu) amid a wonderful hustle and bustle. Afterward, the complex’s Crazy Coqs cabaret boasts an ever-changing roster of performers, including Lorna Luft and the rollicking Miss Hope Springs, a Sunday-night staple. Or I head to nearby, iconic jazz staple Ronnie Scott’s to catch talents such as the Joe Stilgoe Band and Cassandra Wilson in a clubby, throwback setting.

I am a huge garden fan, and England is decidedly a country of gardeners. My favorite secret horticultural sanctuary is the Chelsea Physic Garden. Housed behind high brick walls along the Thames embankment in the heart of posh Chelsea, this verdant oasis dates from 1673 and spans four acres. I like to amble amid the lush greenhouses and verdant parterres that include presentations devoted to medicinal and pharmaceutical plants. Finish off your visit with lunch at the Garden’s charming café. Plant lovers should also hightail across the Thames to the little-known Garden Museum, which occupies the former St. Mary-at-Lambeth. An exhibition celebrating the renowned garden designer Russell Page opens in March. (And note that the castlelike building next door is home to the archbishop of Canterbury.)

While I love to visit Buckingham Palace’s staterooms, the palace is only open in August and September when the queen decamps to Balmoral. But Syon Park is an easy Tube ride (via the District Line to Gunnersbury) and short bus ride (again: Purchase an Oyster card for ease of transport) away, and it’s the ancestral home of the dukes of Northumberland. Stepping into this massive park with its grazing sheep and pastoral landscapes, it’s hard to believe you’re still within the confines of greater London. The massive Robert Adam-designed Great Hall is made for ogling before you pass through wedding-cake-like public rooms, including the massive Long Gallery. The Park has served as the backdrop for films such as Belle and Gosford Park.

       
Pentreath & Hall.        

When I need more city-meets-country pleasures, Hampstead perfectly fits the bill. Hampstead is a moneyed, magical and leafy London neighborhood that has maintained its villagelike quality—albeit a village with tarted-up pastry shops and sleek French bistros. The rural Hampstead Heath, aka the “Heath,” with its 790 acres of unfettered landscape (adjacent to the recently renovated, stunning Kenwood House) is the star attraction. But it’s Fenton House and Garden that tops my list. I stumbled upon this estate a few years back and was instantly smitten. A National Trust property, this 17th-century former merchant’s home sits in the middle of Hampstead Village and hunkers on a residential side street. The creaky, china-filled rooms are charming, but the walled gardens exploding with springtime color are really spectacular.

The National Gallery is tops, as are the British Museum, the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain.And I adore the ever-changing exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery. But one of my favorites is the Wallace Collection, just steps from Oxford Street. Housed within the sprawling, standalone Hertford House mansion, the Wallace includes 25 galleries packed with treasures. The sensational, recently refurbished Great Gallery has been called “one of the most jaw-dropping collections of old master paintings anywhere in the world” by The Guardian and the “best room in London” by The Times. After my culture fix, I settle in for lunch at the glass-roofed Wallace and, inspired by the rococo brilliance nearby, enjoy light French fare.

I am a dedicated shopper, and London’s retail options are wildly impressive—from inspirational department stores such as Selfridges, House of Fraser and Liberty (do look beyond Harrods!) to the ABC’s of global luxury—Armani, Bulgari, Chanel, etc.—that glitter on New and Old Bond streets. Two of my favorite shopping streets that don’t get marquee billing include Marylebone High Street and Lamb’s Conduit Street. Hightail it to these charming stretches for bespoke, unique options. Marylebone sits between the madding crowds of Oxford Street and Regent’s Park and offers up a chic High Street vibe. Atmospheric cafés such as The Providores and Coco Momo sit among boutiques such as Daunt Books, Designers Guild and The Conran Shop. Star wattage has recently moved into the nabe, too, with the opening of the über-buzzy, celeb-favored Chiltern Firehouse eatery and hotel from American hotelier André Balazs.

I haven’t made it into the Chiltern yet, but I probably wouldn’t get in anyhow, and who wants a velvet rope to enjoy your velouté? Nearby, in the heart of Bloomsbury, I head for vest pocket-sized Lamb’s Conduit Street and one-off retail options such as Ben Pentreath’s design shop (just off Lamb’s at 17 Rugby Street), Oliver Spencer and Persephone Books—as well as cozy cafés such as Cigala and Ciao Bella.

So there you have it. Now get out and enjoy my version of London.

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

John Pinkstone
Great article. I grew up in Marylebone and agree its amazing its still a hidden gem and easily accessible. The Golden Hind is a great Fish and Chip shop too on Marylebone Lane.
3/18/2015 2:28:39 PM

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