I always like to stay in a hotel in an interesting area. While I might be spending most of my time actually inside the hotel, I want to be able to go for a stroll right from the front door.
The Radisson Edwardian Mercer Street where I stayed when researching this article certainly fits the bill, being located on the corner next to the Seven Dials monument. You can’t get a much more intriguing place than Seven Dials. Strike out in one direction and you come to Charing Cross Road, where the second hand bookshops offer an intriguing mix of bargains, valuable first editions and complete junk – with Chinatown just the other side of the road. There are the music shops of Tin Pan Alley a bit further along, while further up is Tottenham Court Road with its bargain electronics stores.
Take another of the radial roads leading from Seven Dials and you come to Neal’s Yard (top photo) with its hippy new-age vibe. Victorian industrial buildings preserve their huge wooden doors and even a crane for lifting packages up to the top storey, and there are meditation centres and shops as well as the salad bar in the odd-angled courtyard. There’s also one of the smelliest places in London – I mean that in a good way; the amazing Neal’s Yard Dairy with its fine English cheeses.
Covent Garden has the Royal Opera House, but also the market with its many boutiques. I can never resist Pollock’s Toy Theatre shop – I want the lovely cardboard Comédie Française as a birthday present! Last time I was there, it was busy with unicyclists, living statues, an operatic soprano singing to an orchestral backing track and a man disguised as a dog in a kennel (okay, you had to be there…). The Jubilee Market features antiques and bric a brac during the week and a craft market at weekends where you can buy anything from solid English oak cheeseboards to glittering glass baubles, a gin-drinking, fag-smoking doll to a fluorescent glass Big Ben.
Don’t take that walk too soon after a meal though, or you won’t have room for the amazing ice cream at La Gelatiera on New Row (en route from the Royal Opera to English National Opera). Try the amazing flavours of their artisan ice cream – balsamic vinegar, or honey-rosemary-and-orange-zest, for instance – sitting at a table in the tiny shop. A little further on is Chandos Place with the Harp, a former national Pub of the Year with a wide selection of real ales and ciders, and a hidden upstairs room where you feel as if you’re in a slightly seedy actor’s front room rather than a pub.
If you keep your eyes open there are some wonderful mysteries to be seen. In King Street, for instance, a pub rejoices in the name of The Essex Serpent – apparently so called from a dragon found at St Osyth, Essex, in the reign of Henry II. Or there’s the twisty floating glass bridge suspended in the air over Floral Street between the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet School. All were just a short walk from my luxury hotel in Covent Garden.
Double up through St Martin’s Lane and then Long Acre on the way back to Neal Street, and you’re walking a huge loop past some of the most interesting shops around – Stanford’s, the travel bookshop which boasts a huge range of maps and guides as well as good travel writing; Rabeanco’s leather handbags in bright jewel-like colours; the Cinema Store for movie buffs, Freed with its dance shoes, and the bookshops of Cecil Court, including shops specialising in theatre and music, as well as literary first editions.
Don’t expect to get fit on a stroll round Covent Garden, though. I always start out thinking I’ll stride briskly through the streets – but the window shopping is too good for that resolution to last more than a few minutes!