Tuesday 23 July 2019

Barry Egan in London: We walked to the Palace but the Queen wasn't in

London Calling

Buckingham Palace, background for countless selfies.
Buckingham Palace, background for countless selfies.
A statue outside Hyde Park
The Rockwell Hotel, London
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Barry Egan swaps work for pleasure on a whirlwind weekend in London.

I go to London regularly for the Sunday Independent: fly in the morning, interview, say, Taylor Swift, and fly out in the afternoon. That kind of malarkey. So it was wonderful to go to London for 48 hours with She Who Must Be Obeyed without having to think further than, will we go for a Saturday-morning walk through Portobello Market or will we go for a Sunday-evening meander around Notting Hill?

My wife and I flew over after work on a cheap flight on a Friday evening. At 8pm we had checked into our hotel, the lovely (lovely because it is a chic mixture of Victorian and modern) Rockwell on Cromwell Road. At 8.10pm, we were having a beautiful dinner at the hotel's chic restaurant.

We then sat outside in the large south- facing walled garden and enjoyed the simple pleasure of conversation. We had grand plans to go out on the town in the West End. We actually ended up in bed on a Friday night in London reading magazines and watching telly in our charming, if small, room. It was bliss to do nothing. But, by God, come early the next morning, She Who Must Be Obeyed made up for it. After a hearty breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we put on our walking shoes. My wife was determined to see every inch of London. I just wanted a bit of a lark.

We compromised ... every inch of London it was.


Selfridges, London

We walked all the way to Buckingham Palace. Once we got there, after what appeared like hours because there were various stops at coffee shops along the way, we took selfies outside the palace gates along with seemingly one billion Japanese tourists. Her Majesty wasn't in. When Her Maj is in residence, the Royal Standard flies. When Her Maj is not present, the Union Flag flies instead. Then we went for a brisk, three-hour stroll around Hyde Park, together with thousands of other people - to paraphrase Blur - happy in their parklife.

I loved the fact that that bould horndog cum wife-killer Henry VIII created this park in 1536 for his own personal hunting. It wasn't until 1637 that Charles I opened Hyde Park to the great unwashed. And still they cut his head off in 1649.

Book a fab 4-star city break in London with Independent Travel here.

For lunch, we had gourmet ham sandwiches we bought on the way. We ate them, ever so romantically on our laps, on an ever-so-slightly chilly park bench. Then we walked to the Serpentine Gallery for a nose around. Despite the fact that our feet were starting to get sore, we also walked to Oxford Street and went into Selfridges to have a nose around there too. Irish retail god Paul Kelly runs the place and it is an absolutely beautiful shop; and great for daytime hanging-out too. We had late afternoon tea in the ground-floor cafe The Brass Rail followed by a potter around The Vintage Magazine Store on Brewer Street. After spending a good 90 minutes in the window seat of a local cafe in Leicester Square reading old magazines bought in the aforementioned treasure trove, we went to Bentley's Grill & Oyster on Swallow Street in Piccadilly for dinner.

We had earned it. We could have walked back to Ireland with all the miles Aoife made me do that day. In fact, Bentley's indomitable Irish proprietor Richard Corrigan had gone back to Ireland (by plane; he didn't walk) that afternoon with his wife Maria for the weekend. He left two glasses of chilled champagne at the bar for us upon our arrival. (Aoife had two sips of her champers all night because she was expecting a happy event.)

A statue outside Hyde Park

Hyde Park, London

Back in the late Noughties, Richard, as good a raconteur as he is a cook, used to bring me out regularly for far-from-dull nights in London, that invariably culminated in the Groucho Club or the Hempel Hotel. Tonight, in his absence, the Queen of England's favourite Irish chef has left precise instructions with the manager as to what we should order: wild native oysters, lobster, steak, chips, warm Spice Cake with Orange & Ginger Pumpkin, Crème Brulee. It was one of the best meals we ever had.

If I ever found myself in the admittedly somewhat unfortunate position of being asked to request a last meal before my execution, I would have no hesitation in choosing - this.

After leaving Mr. Corrigan's incomparable eatery, we didn't go far; perhaps 400 metres. But we did do what I have been yearning to do for maybe 20 years of visiting London: spend a late Saturday night in The Coach & Horses in Greek Street.

The former landlord, Norman Balon, was a legend in his own liquid lunchtime. Despite picking up the title as London's rudest barman, which he seemed to relish (he called his 1991 autobiography You're Barred, You Bastards), Balon made the Coach And Horses in its 1980s heyday a second home to the likes of Peter O'Toole, Lucian Freud, and Jeffrey Bernard - who infamously wrote his 'Low Life' column for The Spectator magazine at the bar of The Coach & Horses. It was all brought to another dimension in Keith Waterhouse's play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

Jeffrey (originally played by Peter O'Toole) finds himself in heaven: locked in his favourite watering hole for the night. Alas, we weren't afforded the privileged of being locked in Soho's most iconic public house for the night.

We were afforded a much finer privilege, however. The night we were there, there was a sing-song, around the stand-up piano, like something straight out of EastEnders.

We all sang Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner and then, when some gay male nurses from Wales came in, there was an Abba song (Mama Mia, I think) slung into the mix too. It was the best sing-song Aoife and I have ever been to, or are likely to go to, in our lives.

At around 1am, we walked back up Piccadilly, purchased, perhaps unwisely, a hot-dog, from a vendor on the side of the road and walked hand in hand towards Oxford Street, where we eventually hailed a cab back to The Rockwell for a well-earned, and heavenly, sleep.

We'll be back. My poor feet possibly won't be.

The Rockwell Hotel, London

The Rockwell, London

Getting there

Both Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operate regular daily flights to airports in London.

The Rockwell, 181 Cromwell Road, London, SW5 0SF. Rates at The Rockwell start from £140 per room per night based on two people sharing. For further information: (0044) 207 244 2000 or see therockwell.com

Book a fab 4-star city break in London with Independent Travel here.

Read more:

The Getaway: London for a night at the Old Vic Theatre

East London: The Insider's Guide

Take Three: Unusual London hotels

London's Tower Bridge new glass walkway smashed two weeks after opening - by man dropping beer bottle 

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