London's a treat for the body and mind
On a weekend of brain food in Britain's capital, Deborah Spillane had a healthy portion of shows, museums and cheese
THINK of all the energy we put into keeping fit and looking good. We are obsessed with the outer appearance. We wax, pluck, exfoliate, dye and groom ourselves in an effort to stay youthful and presentable. I walk mountains and plunge into the freezing waters of the Forty Foot on a regular basis in a desperate attempt to battle the ravages of time. But do we put as much effort into our minds? I may be succumbing to anxiety about my mental fitness due to my age, but I have decided that I need to invest in my mind at least as much as I do in my wardrobe.
I know one way to stimulate the brain is to change your routine and challenge the patterned habits we all succumb to, especially in bleak, cold, wintry months. Not for me another weekend snuggled in front of the telly watching Dancing on Ice or another trip to the familiar galleries and events of Dublin. No, I sought a bit of fresh culture and, restricted to a weekend, decided that while I was on for brain food I did not have the time to travel too far and or to tackle anything too ambitious.
London fulfilled all my requirements. I chose to fly with BMI which successfully got us out of a snowbound Dublin airport on a previous adventure, making a good and lasting impression. The short flight meant I arrived fresh and in full holiday mode.
Travelling around London can be tricky. If the dice roll with you, then the Underground is an efficient and reasonably priced way to travel. If you are not so lucky it can mean a sauna-like experience studying a complete stranger's nasal hair. The odd taxi is an affordable luxury but if it becomes a regular means of travelling it's really expensive.
The solution is the location of your hotel. The Cavendish Hotel, off Piccadilly Circus, is a lovely place to stay and so central to all the good shopping, museums and theatres. Run by Irishman Ciaran Fahy, the hotel is luxurious with great bedrooms which offer a real reprieve from the bustle of being in the middle of a busy city, and it is very much up to speed in its green awareness. What immediately impressed me were the eco-friendly, state-of-the-art air conditioning, its own filtered bottled water in my room and the funky bio-degradable bathroom products. The view from my room took in the London Eye and other famous sights. The staff are really welcoming and great about helping you to plan your day.
I decided that as Soho was only a stroll away I would take in a show and opted for Oliver!. I took in a quick pre-show meal at Ping Pong, a dim sum restaurant which really hit the spot with good beer and a varied menu full of tasty treats.
The staging of Oliver! is breathtaking -- so realistic you are completely suspended in period London. Griff Rhys Jones was an excellent Fagan, the rest of the cast were very strong and the children were outstanding at delivering the familiar numbers with vitality and freshness. The streets were full and buzzing as I walked back to the hotel.
After a hearty breakfast in bed, I headed out onto Jermyn Street which is full of intriguing old shops, including Floris, the Queen's famous perfumer, which stocks a huge variety of classic English scents, such as tea rose, lavender and bluebell, in old glass cases.
Just a few doors down, Paxton and Whitfield caught my attention. Established in the 18th Century, this shop is a delight for cheese lovers. It holds some of the oldest crafted cheeses, and the sheer variety is baffling. How to choose between cheeses with names such as Stinking Bishop and Ticklemore left me at a loss, but the staff are so knowledgeable and give such generous tastings that I soon found a good selection to take home and did not need to address lunch until a lot later.
The National Portrait Gallery is always fascinating and I took in a great exhibition of photographer Irving Penn whose compositions and use of light are stunning. From his portraits for Vogue to his later work, he captures expressions that reveal so much about the sitter. His studies of Alfred Hitchcock and Marlene Dietrich were among my favourites.
When I finally came out and rounded the corner, Trafalgar Square was jammed full of people watching the impressive Chinese New Year celebrations. With hundreds of colourful lanterns and fearsome dragons there was a carnival feel to the day.
Despite my tasting earlier, I was peckish and headed into the National Gallery's Dining Rooms which I would highly recommend before, during or after a cultural fix. The food and service are really excellent and set me up for my next blast of mental stimulation.
London Fashion Week is held in Somerset House and I spent an hour admiring the architecture and all the beautiful people taking part. My head was beginning to hurt from all the things I was seeing so I strolled back to the hotel. I dozed in my very comfy bed for an hour or three and then headed out to The Gore in South Kensington.
This hotel is really unusual and each of its 50 rooms is unique -- whether you decide on Judy Garland's bed or the Tudor Room, with its dark wood panelling and minstrels' gallery. The cocktails in the bar and the celebrity spotting ("Well good evening, Mr Law") were the perfect set-up for a meal in its popular restaurant.
All the treats for body and mind can tire a girl out, but Dr Johnson need not worry. I am not tired of life -- or, indeed, London.