Putting on the Ritz in London

Frequented by Royals, rock stars and the rich and dripping with class, privilege and luxury, the Ritz has long enjoyed a reputation as the best joint in town – any town – Paris, New York, Rome or London. The epitome of all that is exclusive and, often, unattainable, to ordinary folk, it has informed song, in the cheeky “Putting on the Ritz”, story, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whimsical “A diamond as big as the Ritz” and popular expressions, in  those stock retorts to dissatisfaction with fare or service at family tables the world over – “What do you think this is, the Ritz?” or even “Where do you think you are, the Ritz?”  So, what, really, makes the Ritz so special? What is it actually like behind that grand façade? What exactly is it that brings in all those big names and megabucks? I popped in for lunch recently to find out.

 

The Ritz
The Ritz

Arrival at the Ritz is a kind gauntlet run (and probably a well disguised presentation and security check, too) past top-hatted, waist-coated and bowing doormen, from the taxi, up the steps, through glass doors (opened and held by more top-hatted, bowing waist-coats) and across a lobby gleaming with polished wood.

The interior is a symphony for the eye – no discordant note of mismatched colour or misplaced decoration here – no, everything, from the perfectly pleated and draped curtains, the deep-piled carpets, the ceiling roses, the choirs of sculpted cherubs, the plaster cornices, the chandeliers bristling with twinkling bulbs, the huge wall mirrors, the furniture, the table linen, the china to the cutlery, is in perfect, soft-sheened pink, green, cream, white, gold, glass and silver baroque harmony. Classical piano music plays quietly against a background of discreet voices and the subdued tinkle of silver – no musak, no bursts of raucous laughter, no clash of stainless steel or crash of smashing plates here. No camera flash distracts the guests or disturbs the subtle lighting. Photographs are not permitted at the Ritz.

My three course lunch, from an unpretentious, English, three-choice menu, probably speaks for all Ritz cuisine. It all looked too good to eat but, in the end, tasted even better than it looked. The monkfish entrée was small, a manageable, melt-in-the-mouth lead-in to the “just-roast-pork-with-apple-sauce-and-four-veg.-but-oh-boy-what-they’ve-done-with-it” main, while the not too sweet and deliciously healthy vanilla yoghurt and fresh fruit dessert was the ideal finale.

Service at the Ritz strikes the perfect balance between the discreet touch and the flourish. Glasses never empty while plates and cutlery come and go as if by magic. Serviettes flap into place with a flick and a twirl while courses are ferried by waiters in single file who lift their silver covers with one accord. Staff are formal but not stiff, friendly but not familiar, attentive but not intrusive, respectful but not obsequious, efficient but not brisk, and mindful of their jobs but not afraid to be themselves.

Undoubtedly, the Ritz is luxurious, classy and exclusive. But the thing that really made my Ritz experience so special and that would certainly bring me back again, is that it is beautiful, comfortable, pleasant and welcoming.

Covent Garden

In its early days, Covent Garden was a rustic haven where the monks of Westminster Abbey tended their farms and orchards. In 1536, it was appropriated, like much of the land around London, by Henry XVIII and used as a hunting ground. It passed eventually into the hands of the Earls of Bedford who built their family manor there in 1613.

Covent Garden Market
Covent Garden Market

Later, inspired by the grand open city squares of Europe, they decided to redevelop it as a classical piazza. Designed by Inigo Jones, the most gifted architect of the English renaissance, its façade was plain, its wide arcades supported by Doric pillars. In 1637, Covent Garden piazza  was completed. It was the first example of classical architecture in London and the first open public square. Traders and merchants, selling fruit and vegetables were drawn to the vast open space. After the great fire of 1666 destroyed the city markets, the stalls at Covent Garden burgeoned until they covered the whole square.

In 1828 Charles Fowler began work on the Market building. A blend of Greek and Roman architecture, it was built of grey granite and yellow brick with sandstone and painted stucco dressings. It was completed in 1830. But by the end 9th century, after the demolition of nearby Hungerford Market to make way for Charing Cross Station, the market had outgrown the new buildings and had begun to overflow into the surrounding streets.

By the mid-twentieth century, it was clear that the food market could no longer remain on the Covent Garden site and in 1973 it was moved to Nine Elms. A long battle ensued to save the building from demolition and the square from re-development. Fortunately the conservationists were successful and Covent Garden was renovated and re-opened in 1978.

Today it is one of London’s hottest tourist meccas and a popular shopping spot. It is a still a market, but it is craft market where the precious, the priceless and the rare, like jewellery, handcrafts and works of art take their places beside the mundane plastic macs and umbrellas. Restaurants and cafes, as well as exotic little stalls selling ice-cream, patisserie and sweets, have replaced fruit and vegetables.

Street performers have seized the open space in the piazzas and made it their stage. There’s great entertainment of an afternoon or an evening down in Covent Garden.

Fleet Street

London’s Fleet Street is to the U.K. press as New York’s Wall Street is to the USA stock market. Just as the very name Wall Street conjures up images of TV screens flickering above a throng of wildly gesticulating and loudly shouting suits, so does the mere mention of Fleet Street prompt pictures of buzzing newsrooms and reams of papers rolling off the printer.

Old newspaper buildings in Fleet Street
Old newspaper buildings in Fleet Street

Wynken de Worde, an ex-apprentice of William Caxton, began the long tradition of Fleet Street publishing in 1500 when he established his printing press in this ideal location, halfway between Westminster and the city. Writers followed the printing industry into the area; among them were Samuel Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Boswell. Literary Clubs sprang up, like the Apollo Club, one of London’s first, founded by Ben Jonson in the mid 1600s. In March, 1702 Fleet Street’s first newspaper, The Daily Courant appeared. Scores of others followed. By the end of the 1800s most national newspapers were based in the area and for a century it was one of the most interesting corners of London. The clubs, pubs and restaurants and cafes that grew around the industry buzzed with stories, breaking news and gossip. Although Fleet Street had ceased to be the engine room of the British press by the end of the last century, its legacy remains and its presence still lingers.

Many of it old Fleet Street buildings still stand today. Ye Old Cock Tavern at 22 was frequented by Samuel Pepys, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Johnson, Dickens and Tennyson at its original site at 190. It later became a haunt of T.S. Eliot. El Vino wine bar, at 47, where GK Chesterton worked (and drank) prodigiously, was the favourite of the newspaper world during Fleet Street’s heyday. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, at Wine Office Court off Fleet Street was patronised by Dr Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith. It was home to the Rhymers Club which numbered W.B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde among its members, in the 1890s. Dylan Thomas later drank here.

With its long history, Fleet Street is now something of a Tourist mecca. Ghosted signs on buildings tell of the newspapers that were once housed here, like the Dundee Press next to St Dunstan’s church.

The press presence, too, is still strong in the area. With the Royal Courts of Justice at the Strand end of Fleet Street, journalists and photographers hover constantly for stories and shots. They congregate still in the pubs, the bars and the cafes. They are still part of the fabric of this place and even though their papers and their presses have moved away and their offices are housed elsewhere, their industry still goes by the name of the street where it all began –  Fleet Street.

Temple

One of the great things about London is that just seconds away from the cacophony, the crowds and the chaotic traffic of the modern city there are so many peaceful havens, survivors from past centuries, untouched and timeless. One of the loveliest of these is the old and tranquil Temple, which runs between bustling Fleet Street and the roaring highway along the Thames. 2058

The Chapel at Temple
The Chapel at Temple

The Temple, which dates back to the time of Edward I, was named after the Order of the Knights Templar, who lived here during the 12th century. It is made up of Inner Temple and Middle Temple which, along with Gray’s and Lincoln’s, form the four Inns of Court, the traditional hubs of London law.

Inner and Middle Temple are divided by Middle Temple Lane which, until it was cut off by buildings, ran from Fleet Street to the River. The temples consist now of a labyrinth of little courts and alleys hemmed in by magnificent halls and dotted with fountains, memorials, fragments of garden, ancient trees and vast front lawn.

Some of London’s oldest and most historic buildings are here among the lanes and courtyards of the Temple. The Middle Temple Hall, in Middle Temple Lane, at Fountain Court was opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1576. The Temple Church has served as a Lawyers’ chapel since 1608.

Some of England’s great leaders have been members of the Temple, like Sir Walter Raleigh, who belonged to the Middle Temple. Many of the giants of English literature  lived and worked here, including Henry Fielding, Doctor Johnson, William Thackeray, Havelock Ellis, John Buchan and Anthony Hope, who conceived the idea for the Prisoner of Zenda on his way back across Fleet Street after a victorious case in the  Courts of Justice.  Charles Lamb, son of a law clerk, was born in Inner Temple in 1775 and a fountain, with the inscription “Lawyers were children once”, marks his memory. Oliver Goldsmith died and was buried here, in Temple Church in 1774. The premiere of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was staged in the middle Temple Hall in 1601 in his Henry VI, Part 1, Plantagenet and the Earls of Suffolk, Somerset and Warwick choose the roses for the counties of Lancashire and York from the Inner Temple garden.

And of course, many great legal minds were shaped and many momentous legal prosecutions and defences were forged in the Temple. They still are. Today, as it has for centuries, Temple houses the offices and apartments of London’s great lawyers. Its church still ministers to them and its ancient libraries and halls are still in use.

Temple is beautiful, sheltered, quiet and uncrowded. It is wonderful place to retreat, ramble and reflect – one passage leads to another, one court opens to one more and every plaque, stone and statue holds another story.

London Bridges

The River Thames has been a vital part of London since its beginnings as a Roman fort almost two thousand years ago. The buildings and monuments which cluster along its banks as it snakes its way down to the sea trace the city’s growth and mark the chapters of its history. So too, do the bridges which span it.

London Bridge is the city’s oldest, dating back 2000 years to Roman times. 1000 years later, the invading Vikings, led by King Olaf, stormed the bridge to attack the settlement. The then Londoners fought to defend it until they were thrown into the river and drowned. In a final blow, the victorious Vikings torched the bridge which gave rise to the famous nursery rhyme “London Bridge is burning down”. Since then the bridge has been rebuilt many times. In 1968, when it was up for renewal, an American developer bought the old version, shipped it out stone by stone and reconstructed it in Arizona. Today London Bridge, although architecturally somewhat plain and unremarkable, is one of the city’s busiest and most important.

Westminster Bridge, opened in 1750, was the first link between Westminster and the South Bank. It was rebuilt in 1862 in the same style as the Houses of Parliament and painted green to match the benches in the House of Commons.

Old Blackfriars Bridge illustrated in tiles
Blackfriars Bridge, Travelstripe

Built in 1769, Blackfriars Bridge takes its name from the Black Friars, the black-robed order of monks whose monastery sat nearby, on the north bank of the Thames, during the Middle Ages. The original bridge was demolished and rebuilt a century later but tile pictures of the first bridge remain in the passage which runs beneath it on the south bank.

The first Hungerford Bridge, was a small foot bridge, built 200 years ago to allow the people of Lambeth on the south bank access to the north-side Hungerford food market, which was named after the family whose mansion was originally located there. The foot bridge became a railway bridge when Charing Cross Station was built on the market site. The two Golden Jubilee foot bridges which flank the railway bridge were added to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

Construction began on Waterloo Bridge in 1811. Originally it was to be named Strand Bridge as it connected the south bank with The Strand. However by the time it was completed in 1817, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and it was the Bridge was named to mark his victory.

The first Southwark Bridge was designed by John Rennie and built in 1819. The present arch traffic bridge, completed in 1921, is the work of George Basil Mott. It is known as the Car Park Bridge because of the tourist coaches which wait there for their sightseeing passengers. Below the bridge are the original steps and mooring sites, used by the waterman of old, who ferried passengers across the river

Tower Bridge, which takes its name from nearby Tower of London, is a London icon and possibly the world’s best known bridge. Although it fits the style of the nearby Tower which dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, it was not built until the late 19th century, when increasing traffic in booming city created an urgent need for a new crossing lower downriver. The design was Horace Jones, the City Architect’s winning entry in an 1884 City Council competition. The bascules, or leaves, which can be raised to allow ships to pass on the river below, were the brainchild of engineer John Wolfe Barry.

Millenium Bridge which runs between the Tate Modern Art Gallery is a suspension foot bridge, carefully designed and constructed with cables running along its sides rather than above it, so that it is low enough to allow a view of St Pauls’ Cathedral, yet high enough to allow ships to pass underneath. It was built, of course, to mark the new millennium.

It is a picturesque, fascinating and not too taxing walk along the Thames bridges from Westminster passing under, or if you like over, Hungerford/Jubillee, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Millenium, Southwark, London and finally Tower. There are plenty of pleasant places to rest and catch the breath, lots of lovely cafes and quite a few pubs with spectacular views of the bridges and the river too.

 

A cruise on the Thames

‘There’s nothing, simply nothing, like messing around in boats’

Rat, Wind in the Willows.

If, like Ratty, you like messing around in boats, then London’s Thames River cruise on the Lady Margaret, definitely isn’t for you. There’s absolutely no messing about with this boat. It makes a first business-like beeline from Westminster Bridge to Festival Hall where it loads more passengers, then another to St Katherine’s pier at the Tower of London, dropping off visitors to the Tower and picking up people who have already been, before steaming back up-river to the home landing.

A view from the Thames
A view from the Thames

.I’d resisted the whole river-cruise idea, strongly. I didn’t fancy being crushed among several hundred other tourists in the stuffy centre of row upon row chairs in the bowels of a rumbling launch. But I caved in the face of that old “can’t visit London without a cruise on the Thames!” argument. Oddly enough, after watching other craft ply the tide, day after day, laden to the gunnels with people, I found myself one of only half-a dozen people on the Lady M’s outward journey and only a handful more on her return. This was probably because on that particular Sunday, the rain that had flooded the Midlands swept down and drove most Londoners indoors.

So we sat in the front row seats and looked out over the bow on a spectacular Thames vista, uninterrupted only by rivulets of rain.  Somewhere from on high a disembodied David Beckham voice pointed out the landmarks and described them with droll, dry, deadpan British wit as we passed – the London Eye (world’s largest bicycle wheel) The Tate Modern Art Gallery (presently showing a great exhibition of scrunched up newspaper – a must-see for the whole family) the Oxo factory (0s and Xs clock to cheat the advertising ban of the time) the million and one windows of the HSBC building (designed by and headquarters of a pair of Italian window cleaners) Traitor’s gate (where traitors, like Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, entered the Tower from the river to lose their heads) and the bridges – Tower, London, Millenium, Waterloo, Jubilee and finally Westminster.

The trip was too much too short and far too expensive. But still, there is something to be said for getting out among the boats and barges on the Thames, even if it was too cold and too wet to brave the top deck and feel the sting of the wind and the spray. London looks different from the Thames.