Saturday, September 6, 2008

Knocking About Belgravia...and Chelsea

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Saturday...I love the sound of that word and the possibility it conjures for unbounded adventure . Not even the gloom of another sunless day dampened my enthusiasm and breakfast done, I showered and picked out a walk from the book Chriselle and Chris presented me for my birthday--Frommer's 24 Walks in London. I chose the first one in the book--Knocking About Belgravia, which began at Victoria Train Station, lasted 2 hours and wound its way through the most genteel parts of London to Hyde Park.

So all that I will put down in this installment, I learned from the book. Did you know, for instance, that Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond thrillers lived in Ebury Street in a bachelor pad whose exterior looked like a church? Well, I saw the place but not the blue plaque that supposedly proclaimed his occupancy of it. Not too far away was the home of Brian Epstein, Beatles' manager ,who eventually took his own life in the bedroom of a lovely corner townhouse on whose porch the Beatles had often posed for album cover shots.

I walked through the most delightful lanes that were once 'mews'--rows of two storey structures with large doors on the ground floor--they were stables for horses, the thousands that kept the coach trade alive in bygone Britain. On the top floor lived the groomsmen and footmen, their occupancy proclaimed by a row of sash windows. Interestingly, these mews are most in abundance in this well-heeled part of London for the owners of the homes along the squares were the ones that could afford to keep their own horse drawn carriages and the numbers of 'servants' that it took to maintain them. I swear, if you had the imagination to transport you to a century ago, you could easily imagine yourself living in the England of Victoria. These 'mews' homes now cost millions and while they still retain their quaint cobbled streets, their facades are filled with hanging baskets whose gaily colored blooms bring a new elegance to the hamlets.

Passing by the famous 'squares' that were created in 18th century London--Eaton Square and Belgravia Square and Cadogan Square, I did indeed feel transported to a time when the privileged led a charmed life coddled by the attention of devoted servants. But since I am still reading London by A.N. Wilson, I know that in the midst of all that newly-acquired wealth, the city housed millions of people who lived lives of quiet desperation for poverty was rife in London until barely a hundred years ago.

Not that you would know anything of the sort in this affluent quarter. I saw the headquarters of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain--a very unassuming building on Belgravia Square where the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned some of his best known Sherlock Holmes' stories in a chair that has been carefully preserved. Members of the public, my book informed me, are welcome to attend seances here--spooooky!

I passed by two delightful pubs that were straight out of a former era--The Plumbers Arms, dating from the 1820s, so-called because plumbers used to come in for their daily pints and The Grenadier, a pub so tucked away from everything that were it not for my book and the route I was following, there is no way I would ever have chanced upon it. And yet there it was--gleaming in patriotic red, white and blue, right besides the Old Barracks Yard that housed the horses of Iron Man Wellington who presumably mounted his own horse there. All of these hidden corners of London are cutely picturesque and bear examining.

Then, I took my own detour towards Sloan Square in Chelsea to see Cadogan Place where my friend Rosemary Harding told me that she once spent a summer. It was an equally impressive area with wonderfully solid buildings, each sporting a different architectural design from Georgian to Victorian. The Jumeriah Hotel takes up one side of it but the gardens that it faces were welcoming despite the constant drizzle that played all day.

A few steps later, I was at the Sloan Street store of Jo Malone whose products I adore. I sampled some of their fragrances, then arrived at Sloan Square where I rested for a bit on a park bench, taking in the red buses passing in stately languor and the shoppers running in and out of Peter Jones department store laden with goodies. Who said there is a recession in Great Britain?

Then, a long walk down the King's Road led me to an outdoor food fair where I felt sustained by delicious freebie nibbles in the form of cheeses and breads, olive oils, spreads and sausages. Nipping into Waitrose, I bought an exquisite cheese--Stilton with Dates and Orange--a delicious dessert cheese. I also found cold tongue that I rarely see in the United States and which I love in sandwiches--though nothing I have ever tasted comes close to the ones made at home by my friend Marianel in Bombay. I also picked up some fresh vegetables to make a stir-fry tomorrow.

Then, with my feet fairly killing me, I backtracked, going down lovely Walton Street which has a most wonderful store that stocks only Herend and Meissen porcelain. I could not resist browsing through it and thought I was in the Herend showroom in Budapest, Hungary, all over again. I passed so many of the stores I have read about in all my home and design magazines through the years--Dragons of Walton Street, Nina Campbell, etc. The merchandise was so mouthwatering that I was glad my hands were full with the shopping bags I was carrying and had to get on a Tube fast to get back home or else I would have spent the rest of the day there. These walks are the only way to discover London and I intend to reach for the next one in the book really soon.

In the evening, my friend Marian Almeida Kumar from Reston, Virginia, came over to meet me at home--my first visitor in London. We spent the evening together over coffee and flapjacks from Marks and Sparks and caught up on all the happenings in our lives. She is here to settle her daughter Candice into college where she will be studying Fashion Photography. Marian and I hope to meet again next week before her return to the United States. It felt great to meet an old friend again in this city so far away from my permanent home. Though Marian and I meet only rarely, it is always in unexpected parts of the world and our conversations are always fun and entertaining.

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