London: Get lost in the musical magic of Mayfair
Short breaks in Europe
When Jimi Hendrix lived in London, his next door neighbour was George Frideric Handel. True story… almost.
Hendrix did live at 23 Brook Street and Handel at number 25, but they were separated by not just a wall but also some 200 years.
Mind you, Handel was the key reason Hendrix had rented the attic flat in the first place. He spotted the blue plaque commemorating Handel and decided he had found his English home.
The composing neighbours are now celebrated together in Handel & Hendrix (handelhendrix.org), a museum that has reconstructed and preserved both their homes. As you might expect, there are more harpsichords in one abode, which are brought to life for regular recitals of one of the composers.
Interestingly, Handel and Hendrix did not live in some destitute artistic ghetto, they lived in the very gentrified Mayfair. This is a part of London that remains to this day the exemplification of high living. It is a slice of opulence that should be indulged in at least once.
I walk around a few corners from their street and find myself outside the most venerable of hatters, Lock & Co (lockhatters.co.uk). This is officially the oldest hat shop in the world, having started measuring brows back in 1765. They soon became established as the connoisseur's hatters, with a global reputation. In 1800, Admiral Lord Nelson placed an order for his signature bicorne complete with eyeshade.
The fabulous fans came fast and steady. Oscar Wilde bought his famous black fedora here. Sir Winston Churchill wore a Lock top hat to his wedding and ordered many hats from them, including his trademark Homburg. Charlie Chaplin bought his iconic black bowler here. Lock's even measured Queen Elizabeth's pate for her coronation crown. In other words, if you want your head to be properly dressed, come to Lock's.
I put my head inside a curious contraption called the conformateur. Invented in France in 1852, this Victorian device is one of the most precise ways to measure all the bumps of the circumference of your head. It pushes a series of pins into a small piece of paper and this is an accurate representation of your head shape. Both Evelyn Waugh and Laurence Olivier had remarkably smooth ovals. My own resembles a foot suffering bad corns.
Lock & Co is down the road from one of the most beautiful shopping arcades, the Burlington Arcade (burlingtonarcade.com). Opened in 1819, this is one of Britain's earliest covered shopping arcades and was built by Lord George Cavendish, later Earl of Burlington, 'for the sale of jewellery and fancy articles of fashionable demand, for the gratification of the public'.
Back then, women were only allowed in the arcade in the company of men. We are allowed to roam freely now, but not all rules have changed, there is still no cycling in the arcade, nor can you whistle - the popular practice of the expert pickpocket. It has always been patrolled by the Burlington Beadles who uphold a strict code of conduct dating from Regency times. Our guide, Mark, is himself a Beadle, though he doesn't resemble any beadle I have encountered before.
The Arcade remains as exclusive as ever, with only very high-end boutiques. There are beautifully refined jewellery shops such as Hancocks & Co offering the likes of the diamond ring I tried for a mere £1.25m (€1.35m). Hancocks is the maker of the Victoria Cross, the highest award presented by the queen. And history abounds everywhere here.
Burlington Arcade is also home to the heritage perfumier Penhaligon's, who offer scent profiling by appointment. The master scenter - possibly not her official title - is Snezana Dardova Ivanov from Armenia. With just a few judicious questions, she can narrow down the perfect scent for you.
Clutching hat boxes and with my own arches aching, I require somewhere to recover and recharge. And where better than at the Sheraton Grand London Park Lane hotel, facing out on to Green Park.
Manning the front door is the optimistic Roman doorman Francesco. He even considers the rain to be a delight as he ushers you into this art deco haven. The Sheraton has just finished a radical renovation that has enhanced the opulence of its origins. The devil is in the detail and no flourish has been left unpolished. Not to mention the palatial beds that invite you to collapse on to them.
Built by Sir Bracewell Smith, the hotel officially opened in 1927. The location was considered as a possible alternative home for the Houses of Parliament if they had been bombed in the Blitz. The ballroom was also used as an air raid shelter during World War II and its walls remain impressively thick, in case you feel inclined to dance loudly.
Breakfast is in the Mercante restaurant, an interesting mix of Italian influences and oak panels bought from American financier JP Morgan's London home. The waffles are unmissable.
When this hotel's restaurant first opened, there was a bell direct from Westminster to alert the many politicians who dined there. The hotel does boast strong royal connections too - the queen learnt to ballroom dance in the Tudor Rose room.
The Birdcage afternoon tea in the Palm Court lounge is a necessary indulgence. This is the heart of the hotel and it serves up the most quintessentially British fare augmented by petits fours Parisians would be proud of.
But make sure to leave enough space for a late supper in the nearby Park Chinois restaurant (parkchinois.com). Heavy doors open to reveal another world - it's like stepping into a pulsating 1940s jazz club. And this makes for an unexpectedly good marriage with haute cuisine Chinese food delivered on sharing plates in the centre of the table.
You can bring a girl to Mayfair but you can't teach her how to elegantly un-shell prawns with chopsticks.
From its heyday as the hangout of choice for socialites, celebrities and the aristocracy, the 303 room Sheraton Grand London Park Lane has a long history of bringing people together in the heart of Mayfair (sheratonparklane.com).
In the hotel's famous Palm Court Lounge, sleek furniture and a magnificent stained-glass ceiling provide the perfect backdrop to afternoon tea.
The authentic Italian restaurant, Mercante, offers seasonal dining. As a more traditional offering, the 1920s themed bar Smith & Whistle serves cocktails and craft beers alongside British-inspired sharing plates. Outdoor dining is also available in both Mercante and Smith & Whistle.
Sunday Indo Living