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My London: an insider's guide

Walk the streets of London with Robyn Hodson and follow in her footsteps as she takes you through her favourite boroughs, behind closed doors and into the quieter
side streets and peaceful squares for a glimpse of the real heart of the city.

Text Robyn Hodson
Photography Robyn Hodson & Courtesy of the hotels
There is something magical about flying over a big city. Most people crane to see out of the plane’s windows, hoping to spot its highest and best-known buildings, its great parks, inland lakes and winding waterways.

For me, flying into London rekindles the awe I felt as a child, when I watched Peter Pan take off from the nursery ledge and into the sky, trailing a magic carpet of stars around Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s that sense of wonderment, that below you exists a city of such immensity and diversity, that you can only ever hope to capture it whole for a few minutes as you wing your way over it. Once on the ground, it would take more than a lifetime to know it completely.

If Paris is ‘The City of Light’ and Rome, ‘The Eternal City’, then London for me is ‘Neverland’. A living, breathing paradox, it is at once ancient and contemporary, frenetic and calm, majestic and self-effacing, proper and downright ‘dodgy’. This must be partly why it is one of the world’s favourite capitals. London offers just about everything.

Tourists, LondonMany people visit London for its history and tradition. It has magnificent buildings and world-famous attractions. It has a Queen! Standing on Westminster Bridge and turning in a complete circle affords the visitor a veritable eye-carnival of sights and wonders spanning centuries. Who can picture London without seeing red? Pillar-boxes, London buses, uniforms of Yeomen Warders, telephone boxes. The city has exploded into the new millennium: The Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge, London Eye, London’s ‘Gherkin’ – all born over the last decade standing proud today, landmarks of this wonderful city.

The anonymity, that this vast metropolis affords, attracts outsiders like magnets but it’s in Londoners themselves that perhaps the greatest diversity abides – cultures, languages, customs, all different. As are London’s boroughs: once small villages beyond the walls of London City, today they are linked by a vast transport network. However, they are as different from one another as are night and day. For me, it makes them all the more interesting. I’ve highlighted a sprinkling of my favourite places – shops, eateries, parks, hotels and splashes of culture – a mere morsel of what London has to offer… leaving you to continue seeking ‘Neverland’ for yourself… second star to the right and straight on
till morning.
Just off Oxford Street

Any first time visitor to London who excitedly pops out of the tube at Oxford Circus station may find a circus indeed. Total mayhem abounds as ardent shoppers heave themselves and their shopping around Europe’s largest high street (tip: get out at Bond Street or Marble Arch station instead – they’re far less daunting).

Many people get so caught up in the overwhelming energy of Oxford Street that they miss what is behind the scenes. It is astonishing that you can slip into a tiny gap in the wall between H&M and the O2 store, opposite Bond Street station, and come out at St Christopher’s Place. Here is a tranquil oasis of calm, where a delicious Bicerin (Florentine drinking chocolate, coffee and cream) served al fresco at Carluccio’s –
St Christopher’s Place, +44 (0) 20 7935 5927,, will revive even the weariest of foot. This beautiful square offers one of the greatest concentrations of outdoor dining in London and the little alleyways leading off it, chock-full of eclectic shops and boutiques are a must see.

At lunchtime, workers join shoppers in their frenetic scramble for sustenance. My preferred places are hidden away and Truc Vert – 42 North Audley Street, +44 (0) 20 7491 9988,, a delightful French café, is the perfect place. If it’s too full, grab something from its delicatessen and walk two minutes down the road to bench-laden Grosvenor Square.

If you’re intent on throwing yourself back into the madding throng of shoppers, a hop-skip-and-a-jump away is old favourite Selfridges & Co – 400 Oxford Street,, where just about everything under the sun is available for purchase under one roof. When it all gets too much, prêt-a-pose with London’s fashion pack at the stylish Moët Bar on the ground floor mezzanine and don’t miss their tantalizing champagne cocktails.

If you prefer to treat your whole body rather than your taste buds alone, take yourself down New Bond Street and straight to the Elemis Day-Spa – 2/3 Lancashire Court, +44 (0) 20 7499 4995, My favourite ritual is a steam rasul – a combination of mud treatments and a steam, which all takes place inside a tiny Arabian temple – followed by a dreamy, hour long, well-being massage. It’s agonizing even to contemplate moving afterwards.

However, the promise of a cosy chair, a fireplace and a glass of your favourite tipple may just tempt you back to reality. Jump into a black cab outside the spa and ask for CVO Firevault – 36 Great Titchfield Street, +44 (0) 20 7580 5333,, which is a few minutes away by car. This hidden gem is a designer fireplace showroom during the day, becoming a flickering, flame-lit bar and restaurant by night. The food is a tantalizing mix of Gallic origin, infused with a delicate contemporary English style. Watch where you seat your derrière, as the beautiful furniture is by partners Ligne Roset, +44 (0) 20 7323 1248, and you may want to take it all home!

Soho and beyond

At the Tottenham Court Rd end of Oxford Street, make your way south and you’ll find yourself in the heart of Soho. Unlike its wealthy neighbours Marylebone and Mayfair, Soho has always attracted a different crowd. From the early part of the 1700s, immigrants arrived and it never became fashionable for the rich. Instead, it ran a little rough and wild, which appealed to creative sorts and intellectuals. Today, it has not lost any of its wayward charm and has become ‘trend central’ for television and radio stations, the film industry, designers and all things ‘arty’. Soho is most famous for its frenetic energy, which can be experienced in its pubs, clubs, bars, theatres and restaurants, many of which seem to stay open all night (along with a sex shop or two)!

Soho Hotel, London Most important in London is to find a hotel that is easily accessible to your favourite haunts and if you are a first-timer, a place where you can set off on foot and explore. My absolute favourite is The Soho Hotel – 4 Richmond Mews, +44 (0) 20 7559 3000, The minute you walk into its bustling lobby and meet the charming staff… as you drink or dine at Refuel, its hip restaurant and bar… and by the time you’ve encountered the spectacular fifth floor suites, each with wraparound terraces and views stretching far over London, you’ll want to be adopted permanently. From here, the delights of Soho sit right on your doorstep. Everything is within walking distance: Charing Cross Road is famous for its bookstores. I can’t walk past my favourite art bookshop Shipley at 70, +44 (0) 20 7836 4872, without having a peek inside. It’s packed with volumes and slightly musty – exactly as a bookshop should be.

Itsu, LondonFor a quick bite, grab a ready-made sushi box from Itsu – 103 Wardour Street, +44 (0) 20 7479 4790, ‘Perfect for one person or two supermodels’, it’ll take all your restraint to walk up the road to eat in the vibey Soho Square without devouring it en route. I love that you never know what’ll happen over your lunch there… it’s so full of lively, happening people. Last time, over my tuna nigiri, I was asked to introduce a Take That song on camera for a trendy TV music channel!

Shaftesbury Avenue has London’s main concentration of theatres along its length. Do go and see ‘Mary Poppins’ at The Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street, +44 (0) 87 0850 9191, and then find out what’s in an Electric Iced Tea at popular and well-established Bar Soho, +44 (0) 20 7439 0439, opposite. Once you’ve sampled one or two more specialties from their huge cocktail list, you’ll be ready to take on Soho by night! If it’s simply another venue or some lively club action you seek, ask the barman what’s hot and happening as the scene changes weekly.

For the hungry, one of my favourite restaurants for lunch or dinner is just around the corner in Frith Street, Arbutus at 63/64, +44 (0) 20 7734 4545,, which has recently won the ‘Time Out’ London 2007 award for Best New Restaurant. The menu changes weekly so you’re assured of something innovative as well as fresh goods from the market.

Royal Albert Hall, London Tower Bridge, London
The tube, London Mind the gap, London
Eros, Piccadilly Circus, London
British Museum, London Big Ben, London
Chelsea’s Sloane Square and the King’s Road

Unlike Soho, Chelsea has always been a popular location for the well to do. Historically it was known as a village of palaces because of all the resident aristocracy and it originally served greater London as a market garden. I think that’s what makes it so special. Although it was absorbed into the greater metropolis over two centuries ago, it is still full of big, beautiful houses… as well as trees, parks and gardens.

E’er so slightly at odds with its posh address, is the bohemian Chelsea Farmer’s Market set back from the hustle and bustle of popular King’s Road at the bottom of Sydney Street. It’s small, but a quick walk around the market is interesting as there is an organic supermarket alongside shops selling holistic and natural medicines, a nursery, cafés and bars all set in wonderfully laidback surroundings. Perfect for a sunny day. A little glamour arrived on the Kings Road in the 1960s in the form of resident rock bands The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Since then, more and more glitterati have arrived and the area is populated by an assortment of film stars, musicians and supermodels, who neighbour investment bankers and the English military establishment. For me, sipping an al fresco glass of springtime rosé at The Oriel – 50-51 Sloane Square, +44 (0) 20 7730 2804, is to feel a real part of London’s café society. This popular brasserie is the best place to people-watch in Chelsea and many a famous face may sweep past while you’re enjoying the creamiest potato dauphinoise on the planet.

Sloane Square Hotel, London A little jewel of a place to stay, overlooking the square, is the brand new Sloane Square Hotel. Stylish, modern and extraordinarily well priced for a central London boutique hotel (spring specials start at £125p/rm); it’s one of the best placed for shopping and sightseeing around. A steady stride up Sloane Street past Tiffany, Gucci and Chloe, will see you into the heart of Knightsbridge; over the road is the underground station and about two minutes away is Kings Road. +44 (0) 20 7896 9988,

The Kings Road is a must for any shopaholic. Not only does it have all of the usual high street stores, but it also caters to all sorts of ‘special tastes’. These few
I always have a moment to look into: Cowboy boots at R Soles – 109a, +44 (0) 20 7823 3459. Don’t be without a great gift or something sexy from Ad Hoc – 153,
+44 (0) 20 7376 8829. Steinberg and Tolkien – 193, +44 (0) 20 7376 3660 is a vintage clothing paradise, then step back in time to the height of couture
Vivienne-Westwood-style, at World’s End – 340,
+44 (0) 20 7352 6551, first opened as punk shop SEX in 1970. Then, if you’re not too overwhelmed by it all, the only stop for exquisite household interiors is Brissi – 352, +44 (0) 20 7352 8686,

In the evening, especially after a long day, I’m always easily led to the nearest glass of wine. In London, it’s
a little distressing how overpriced wine is in bars and restaurants. I believe I have thus found my true spiritual home in the form of The Wine Gallery –
49 Hollywood Road, +44 (0) 20 7352 7572,, which sells wine and champagne at shop retail prices. With a simple but delicious gastro-pub style menu (and sublimely tasty fish cakes), my summer lunchtimes are greatly enjoyed under the shady trees in their garden, white blossoms drifting down upon my shoulders.

Baglioni Hotel, London Knightsbridge is the grande dame of London neighbourhoods and is host to the crème de la crème of the capital’s hotels. The Baglioni Hotel – 60 Hyde Park Gate, +44 (0) 20 7368 5700, is a favourite of mine (and the likes of Hugh Grant and Penelope Cruz) because it is elegant, private and expertly managed. The hotel is perfectly situated within a stone’s-throw of beautiful Hyde Park for views, long rambles and browsing in the Serpentine Gallery – Overlooking Kensington Palace, it’s also an easy walk from the Royal Albert Hall as well as two serious shopping meccas: Kensington High Street and Knightsbridge. The on-site pampering at lush ESPA is another reason to stay put!

The buzz of the Fifth Floor Café at Harvey Nichols – 109-125 Knightsbridge, is difficult to beat for breakfast or brunch. It’s always busy, a little frenetic, and yet it’s fabulous for people-watching and good cappuccinos. Then of course there’s the shopping thereafter to work off your cheese omelette. Walk straight out of Harvey Nicks, round the corner and into the world’s most famous department store Harrods – 87-135 Brompton Road, – natch darling! It’s impossible to make a trip to Knightsbridge without having a look inside, even if it’s only to buy a small chocolate so that you can keep the bag!

As you step out of Harrods and onto Brompton Road, you may want a little peace from the tourist masses. Take a left into Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) Place and treat yourself to a coffee at Expresso Bar.
It’ll probably be the only thing you can afford on the street but it’s worth it for window-shopping. At the bottom, turn right into Walton Street, which is deliciously quiet. There are some odd little art archive galleries
and beautiful interior design shops, not to mention some great clothes boutiques and my favourite store for towels, baby clothes and little gifts: The Monogrammed Linen Shop – 168-170, +44 (0) 20 7589 4033,

In 1995, Baker & Spice – 47 Denyer Street, +44 (0) 20 7589 4734,, originally wafted onto the waistlines of the well-heeled in the area as
a tiny bakery on Walton Street, using the original Victorian ovens in the basement. Everything in the shop was made completely from scratch and because it was so good, their popularity sky-rocketed and they moved to larger premises a few roads down in Denyer Street, as well as opening in four other postcodes. Today, it’s as popular to Londoners as the Magnolia Bakery is to New Yorkers. Completely impossible to walk past, with irresistible aromas floating on to the street, it’s also a heavenly place for lunch… and they cater too!

Wander slowly back up to the Cromwell Road for a little culture. Three of London’s best museums await you: the V&A –, known to be the world’s greatest museum of design and the arts; not to mention the Science Museum – and the Museum of Natural History – Leave me in the dinosaur section please!
Notting Hill and Portobello Road

If you’re shopping in London, you’re shopping around the world: London is a global bazaar - spices from India, antiques from China, haute couture from Paris, carnival masks from Venice, wines from the New World. One such stop on the list for most people who visit London and one of my favourite haunts is Portobello Road. It is so famous; it even starred in a movie!

Antique robots, LondonNestled in among art galleries, eateries and the many retro and avant-garde boutiques of Notting Hill, it offers a cornucopia of delights. Housing the world’s largest antique market (open on Saturdays), the surrounding streets are littered with hosts of arcades, galleries, shops and cafés catering to tourists, famous writers and eclectic local personalities who flock to its centre. An addition to the Saturday market is the Arts & Crafts section, which is located on the Tavistock Piazza. Definitely take in Portobello Road in the morning as it gets extremely busy, or go during the week and browse the fruit and vegetable market – there are delicious hot food stalls to try… and on Fridays, the second-hand goods market is open.

Blenheim Crescent, off the bottom end of Portobello, houses two of my favourite bookshops. I love to grab
a hot chocolate from Starbucks and wander inside to browse the shelves. Books for Cooks at 4, +44 (0) 20 7221 1992, has an amazing 8,000 cookbooks lining the shelves – full of recipes, foodie-fiction, biographies as well as books on nutrition. Right in the back is a café that rustles up various dishes taken from the shop’s recipe books and they also offer cookery classes. Also make time to leaf through the wonderful array of travel books and guides in The Travel Bookshop at 13-15, +44 (0) 20 7229 5260, You’ll get such a sense of déjà vu as you look around.

Take your newly purchased travel book, pop into The Hummingbird Bakery – 133 Portobello Rd, +44 (0) 20 7229 6446,, to pick up a few of their decadent fairy cakes and then walk back to one of the best boutique hotels in the area to enjoy both.

Guesthouse West – 163-165 Westbourne Grove, +44 (0) 20 7792 9800,, is slap in the centre of it all. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to come across a B&B like this in London. It’s unfussy, tasteful, value for money and situated in one of the best neighbourhoods in the capital. At last!

Notting Hill is its own village and when you get to know it better, you’ll notice a wonderful sense of community. If you’re around for the Bank Holiday in August, the Notting Hill Carnival is one of the biggest parties of the year. Everyone is invited. There’s plenty of music, food, drink and fun to be had for all ages no matter who you are or what part of the world you’re from.

London - deckchairs in Hyde Park