You know you’ve arrived at a good address when the hotel manager greets you in the foyer and announces cheerily, “You’ve come at a propitious time. We’ve just heard that the Cambridges are moving in across the way.”
“The way” is Kensington Gore abutting Kensington Gardens on the brink of London’s Hyde Park. “The Cambridges” are Prince William and Kate, who are moving into a 20-room apartment at Kensington Palace, which you can see from the entrance to the South African-owned Milestone Hotel. This is the palace which until August 31, 1997 was home to Princess Diana and where from that date on for many weeks, thousand upon thousand of wreaths were laid by a tearful world to mourn her sudden death in a horrific smash in a Paris underpass.
Queen Elizabeth’s party-and-whisky-loving younger sister, Princess Margaret, also lived in the palace until her death five years later, in 2002, in her own somewhat larger apartment, where she smoked through an elegant tortoiseshell cigarette holder and drank Famous Grouse while the gossip mill rumbled incessantly on, as it was to throughout Diana’s adult life. You have to wonder what lies in store for the palace’s new inhabitants once the current year-long refurbishment is done and it becomes their home.
But for us, it was a smaller but nevertheless impressive suite “across the way” at the exquisitely Victorian Milestone Hotel, which is owned by South Africa’s Red Carnation hotel group, the grande dame of which, Bea Tollman, happened to be staying while we were there. We caught glimpses of the Tollman family matriarch now and then as she was escorted like royalty by staff with hushed voices, and we fancied we were vicariously having a kind of royal experience of our own.
This extraordinary hotel is pure vintage and we loved it so much that, though we’d had one complimentary night courtesy of Red Carnation, we paid for a second night. I have been lucky to have stayed in other five-star hotels including Claridges, where I slumbered in a gorgeous art deco suite, and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. But the Milestone has more than mere luxury, especially if like me you love Victorian indulgence. The Victorians left nothing untouched in their grand homes, and the walls, ceilings, floors – everything – of the Milestone are adorned with grand curtains, tapestries, original paintings and sculptures, antique furnishings and ornaments. This is no mere décor job. It’s a work of love and passion, and Bea Tollman’s own fair hand is behind it all. What on the walls of our Prince Albert Suite appeared to be wallpaper was plush fabric which yielded to the touch. A vast tapestry covered one wall, the bed was a four-poster, there was an exquisite antique bureau with marquetry inlay that was insanely beautiful.
At night while you’re out dining somewhere in the capital or in the hotel’s own Cheneston’s restaurant or having a drink in its Stables bar, the turndown staff mysterious position something unexpected in your room. In a lovely bit of drama and intrigue, when we returned one night, a bronze horse sculpture had been placed imposingly on the TV cabinet as if by an unseen hand.
From this sumptuous base, there was only one thing to do to complete the experience: go off in search of Victorian London. And you don’t have to go far to find it.
Just along Kensington Gore, which runs alongside Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, is the Albert Memorial, which stands in the park facing the Royal Albert Hall. The most famous of several Albert Memorials in the UK, it has Albert himself sitting like a monarch in bronze at the monument’s base, in a statue by John Henry Foley, beneath a canopy of friezes of architects, composers, sculptors, poets and painters. Stand before it, turn your back on it, and you have a grand view of the Royal Albert Hall, which is, technically, a part of the same memorial to Victoria’s lost love, despite it being across the very busy road. It’s a glorious structure, and if you look up high you’ll see the frieze that circles the building with a legend in terracotta letters that begins, ‘This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort’. But you’ll have to visit it to read the remainder. The hall is also where the famous BBC Proms concerts are held every summer. If you’re visiting London between July and September, check www.bbc.co.uk/proms for details of concerts and how to book.
The Milestone is a short walk from the V&A, as everyone who knows it calls the Victioria & Albert Museum in adjacent Knightsbridge. Like the memorial and concert hall, the V&A was named after Victoria and her beloved Albert, whose death at just 42 in December 1861 precipitated a period of mourning that would last for much of the rest of the century and would have her subjects calling the seldom-seen monarch “the widow of Windsor”. Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, though similar in name, is named for Victoria and her son Alfred, who knew the Cape well in his day.
The museum is vast in many ways, from its enormous corridors to huge galleries and high ceilings, and to do it justice you’d need to book off a week to see its thousands of artworks, period furniture, Asian ceramics and my favourite, the section where you walk through the history of costume, from the British perspective that is. But nobody has a whole week for one museum in a city with so much to distract you, so choose a section of the V&A and leave another part for next time.
Nearby, if you turn left when you come out of the V&A, is Harrods, which predates Victoria’s reign, having been built in 1824, although it is very much a part of what is regarded as Victorian London, having been the grand department store of the era and home to the world’s first escalator in 1898. Women near the end of Victoria’s reign were all a-swoon at the thought of standing on a staircase and have it whisk them up an entire storey, and many became quite flustered, to the extent that the Harrods’ management placed uniformed gentlemen at top and bottom of the escalator with vials of salvolatile and brandy to calm their more hysterical customers.
To see more of the key landmarks of the era in the British capital, buy an Oyster card (to swipe you through the tube’s turnstyles) and head for Trafalgar Square, which rings with the spirit of everyone who has ever gone there, banner and heart in hand, to protest against anything from apartheid to university tuition fees or a ban on hunting. It’s one of those places on the planet where you feel you’re at the centre of the universe and you can breathe in the very thrum of modern human existence.
Though it commemorates a battle waged before Victoria was even born (Trafalgar, 1805 – Victoria was born in 1819), its design was begun in the 1820s by John Nash and finally completed in 1845 to Charles Barry’s blueprint. Owned by the ruling monarch, the square and its attractions are worth an entire day, from the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery to St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church, Sir Edwin Lutyens’s fountains built to lessen the amount of space in which citizens might revolt (if it’s New Year’s Eve, fling yourself in) and of course Nelson’s Column with its bronze lion statues and Horatio himself on his perch atop the plinth where he watches time and generations slip by while Londoners and tourists scurry far below. The fountains now have LED lighting in dayglo colours to light up the cascading waters, one of many surprises the city has in store for visitors for the 2012 Olympics.
Perhaps the most visible physical manifestation of Victoria’s reign in the capital is Tower Bridge, built between 1886 and 1894, many years into her belljar of mourning for Albert. This extraordinary structure, masculine in its sturdy occupation of its expanse across the River Thames and yet feminine in its breathtaking beauty, seems to guard the city from fear of foreign foe, not that today such a threat would arrive by sea and forge up the river.
If there is a pretender to the throne of Victorian architectural perfection, perhaps it is St Stephen’s Tower, mistakenly referred to as Big Ben, which is actually the name of the great bell within the clock. Should it be renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of Elizabeth II’s jubilee? You’d have thought that rather than commandeer a relic of old, somebody would have thought to build a new monument to her.
There is one glorious building of the era, though, that is long gone, and which anyone who loves London of theVictorian era would dearly love to see – the Crystal Palace.Built at first in Hyde Park and completed in time for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and later moved to Penge Common after the original had been destroyed by fire, this glorious masterpiece of concrete and glass is still known to us today thanks to a combination of its splendid reputation and early photographic documentation. I long for London’s Lord Mayor Boris Johnson to decide with a flick of his blond quiff to have it rebuilt.
There is solace, though, back in the Prince Albert Suite at the Milestone Hotel, where as you slip into dreams you cannot help but wonder: did Victoria and Albert ever slumber here?