More Treasures in London
Written by Mary Jane Grant
On a recent trip to London, I made it my quest to slow down and deeply savor the small pleasures tucked into the corners of this magnificent city. I discovered independent shops, intimate hotels, fascinating lesser-known sights and welcoming pubs. From my centrally located home base in picturesque Primrose Hill, I ventured out to explore the smaller side of life.
Step Back in Time at the Persephone Book Shop
After a bit of research, I found myself in a street called Lamb’s Conduit – one long block, pedestrian only, lined with young UK designer clothing shops, wine bars, pubs, storefronts boasting the latest in French cookware, and my personal favorite, the Persephone Book Shop.
Persephone is both a bookshop and a publisher, printing mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women. The 104 titles in their shop and catalog have been carefully chosen to appeal primarily to women and Persephone guarantees their books will be ‘readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.’
It is the design of a Persephone book that is so satisfying. With their distinctive dove-grey jackets and cream ‘labels’ for the title, the books look the same from the outside. Inside, each is different, with the endpapers and matching bookmark chosen especially to match the date and mood of the book.
The Persephone philosophy is that books should be beautiful, because it is important to get pleasure from how they look and feel. There may be nothing more elegant than a tall stand of Persephone books. The Irish Times said, “There are cute books, there are beautiful books, and there are Persephone Books.”
The shop is a cozy room with well-worn wooden floorboards, comfy chairs, cluttered tables, vases of flowers, and low light from china lamps. The grey books line the bookcases, stacked by title. The employees, (I’ve only seen women working here, usually pretty girls dressed in serious clothes), sit at desks toward the back of the shop, and are always on hand to help. Persephone Books is an elegant personal library caught in just the right time warp, back when surroundings were simple and beautiful, tones were hushed, and humor was light and witty.
After this stop, I felt an urge to experience more of traditional London, and I thought the best way to do that was afternoon tea. In my mind, “taking tea” represents the quintessential small pleasure – when you and a friend can steal away from the rigors of your daily schedule and sink into a time and place that is suspended between day and evening, past and present.
London’s Best Kept Secret?
One of the loveliest places to experience this special treat is Brown’s Hotel – a small pleasure in its own right. Not only is it London’s oldest hotel (founded in 1837 by Lord and Lady Byron’s butler and maid with money left by their employer), Brown’s is among the most exclusive, and its guests consider themselves to be in on London’s best kept secret. Entering the front door, you find yourself in an intimate foyer leading to a compact lobby. No soaring ceilings, huge open spaces here. Rather, the hotel is laid out in a series of small spaces, one opening to the next, in a continuous path of discovery and delight.
In keeping with the design philosophy of the hotel, the English Tea Room is comprised of three distinct, intimate spaces. Oakwood paneling, soft lighting and fireplaces envelop you in comfort. Low chairs and tables, as well as contemporary design touches, add an air of modern ease to the experience. It is not a surprise that Brown’s was bestowed the honor of ‘Top London Afternoon Tea 2009’ by The Tea Guild.
The best way to begin the experience is with a glass of crisp, dry Ruinart Champagne. As you sip, you can peruse the tea menu and choose from 17 teas, selected from top growers worldwide. Brown’s own blend is a rich and aromatic black tea – a perfect complement to sandwiches and pastries, as suggested by the exceptionally helpful waiters. The triple tea tower has a bottom plate for sandwiches, a top plate for pastries and a middle space, thoughtfully left blank until the last moment, when warm scones wrapped in a linen napkin are slipped into place.
You begin with the sandwiches – fresh and delicate rectangles, snuggled tightly together in an array that includes for each person – egg salad, smoked salmon, lightly curried chicken salad, ham, and cucumber. As you finish your Champagne, the waiter brings the teas – one pot per person, plus pots of hot water and milk. Tea is poured into generous cups through silver strainers. You can take a moment to savor the aroma of the tea while you admire the beauty of your small table resplendent in sterling silver accoutrements. When the sandwiches are gone, and not a moment before, the waiter slips the warm scones into place and sets down pots of Cornwall clotted cream and homemade strawberry preserves. Break open a flaky hot scone to reveal a soft centre. Layer on the thick cream and top it with sweet preserve. If there is a heaven, it serves these scones, just so. Alternating between plain and fruit scones, you prolong the pleasure and peek back inside the linen napkin to ensure that more scones await. (You never need to worry, actually, because the staff is pleased to replenish the plates as often as you’d like.) When you have enjoyed your scones, you may wish to take a short pause and might even want to change the flavor of your tea, before proceeding to the delicate pastries that sit atop the tea tower. Our selection featured a mousse of dark and white chocolate, an almond tart with a liqueur-steeped cherry, a deep berry crumble, a light lemon cake and a smooth white macaroon with a rich and delicate green tea flavored filling. Depending on your stamina, you may also choose from a selection of freshly baked cakes on the cake trolley.
When afternoon tea has come to a close, you’ll want to continue your exploration of the hotel. Carry through the tearooms to discover, in a back corner of the hotel, Donovan’s Bar. Here, energy levels ascend, voices mingle, and the gender balance swings back toward 50/50. The Donovan Bar features the work of celebrated British photographer Terence Donovan. Off to one side is a seating nook for up to 12 guests, in what has become known as ‘the naughty corner,’ as it is surrounded by some of Donovan’s more risque photographs. Donovan’s offers innovative signature cocktails as well as wines and Champagnes by the glass.
If you are lucky enough to be an overnight guest of the hotel, you’ll relax in contemporary comfort in a uniquely decorated room or suite. The rooms are large by London standards, and include roomy seating areas and work areas in addition to beautifully appointed bathrooms. The “Kipling Suite,” is named after Rudyard Kipling who was a frequent guest of the hotel and is believed to have penned “The Jungle Book” while onsite. The suite includes an oversized sitting room with a wooden floor and huge windows. It’s a wonderful way to entertain in a private space that feels very much like home.
“Home” may be the best way to describe Brown’s Hotel – a discreet, intimate hotel tucked into a quiet corner of Mayfair. And afternoon tea at Brown’s may be one of the greatest small pleasures London has to offer.