Posted by: Sarah Lee | November 30, 2009

London, a cultural classic

Detail from Paul Day's The Meeting Place | pic Sarah Lee

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A few years ago I left the bright lights of London for a tiny Midlands village, but deep down I’m a city girl and London is one of my favourites. Of course most people love their hometown, but London, despite it’s many flaws (any commuter would happily fill you in on those) is one of the most amazing cities in the world.

So myself and another relocated Londoner feeling starved of city life, hit the capital at the weekend, first stop St Pancras train station.

Brief Encounter

It is beyond rare that I will sing the praises of a train station. But St Pancras is now so much more than a place to pick up your next connection – it has commuter chic in abundance. The concourse is lined with boutiques and cool cafés, but this is not where it’s charm lies.
Everywhere you look it offers a modern take on the classic film Brief Encounter. From the rich interiors of the St Pancras Grand Restaurant, reminiscent of opulent train carriages, to snuggling up under blankets in the heated booths of the world’s longest champagne bar (sidled up to by Eurostar trains whose occasional high-speed hiss reminds you that Paris is just over two hours away).
The station is a design wonder from the enormous Dent clock and blue ironwork (my friend tells me a throwback to the station’s original paintwork, previously hidden by 200 years of city grime) to it’s modern lines. Then there’s the art – a statue of former poet laureate John Betjeman and my favourite The Meeting Place, by sculptor Paul Day. The nine metre piece is a fine representation of St Pancras – it’s history, function, form and emotional connection.

Day presents life in 3-D

The 3-D sculpture portrays the station’s comings and goings from the main piece – lovers embracing below the giant station clock, to the recently added friezes around its base. These capture moody commuters trudging up escalators, a lowly tramp looking for a place to spend the night and battle-weary soldiers returning from war. I have posted more photos of Day’s masterpiece here, but to see it is to really appreciate the intricacies of his work.

Finally St Pancras gains kudos for having free wifi throughout the station.

Stuck in the Reformation

I’m rarely drawn to museums, prefering to take in the urban landscape than eye dusty artefacts. But I love the Museum of London so coerced my friend into heading there. It charts the capital from prehistory to the present and really focusses the mind on who previous city dwellers were. The brilliant displays and archeological finds make you consider what used to be on the site of your office, house, or favourite shopping street.
I’d been telling my friend about the museum’s more modern highlights – the Lord Mayor’s golden carriage is housed there, as is a beautiful art deco lift that used to transport customers from hardware to haberdashery in 1920s Selfridges. So she was all geared up for Victorian London and in particular the 20th century exhibits.

But between the Black Death and the Reformation we found ouselves stuck. We circled for a while trying to find a continuation of London’s story, but there was nowhere to go but back towards the entrance. The history of London it seems has been temporarily curtailed at 1534 (1666 if you’re able to catch the current Fire of London exhibition). The museum is undergoing a £20.5m facelift so all other displays are under wraps until next May.
We were disappointed, but I’d still thoroughly recommend the Museum of London. For now just for fans of pre and early history, but it’s a fascinating place, and entry is free. Comes next year it’s likely to become one of the best museums in the world charting urban life.

Time for tea

The Winter Gardens, London Landmark Hotel

Our classical London day wouldn’t have been complete without indulging in that very British of customs, afternoon tea.

So after a brief stop at Marylebone High Street, London’s latest trendy shopping enclave, and checking out the Cabbages & Frocks market we headed for the Landmark Hotel. It’s not the most famous of London’s hotel teas, but offers a beautiful setting.

The hotel’s Winter Garden is a huge elegant conservatory with palm trees shooting towards it’s high ceiling. The room has had a fascinating history – originally a coachyard when the hotel was first opened in 1899. You could imagine the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles and hoardes of porters scurrying between coaches helping guests with large trunks.

Then, in the 1920s the Winter Garden became a fabulous ballroom, perfect for the flappers of the day.

The tea itself was perhaps one of the more reasonable around – £38 for a Tattinger pink champagne tea – and it was good. But the service was a little slow so it loses points on others I’ve visited like Claridges and The Ritz. But even with this, it was the perfect end to our day.

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