The key jiggled in the Cadogan Gardens gate, then caught, and I stepped from the bustle of Sloane Street into a quieter world. Old English roses, heady with fragrance, bloomed in thick shrubs, their creamy petals as flat and wide as camellias. The waxy blossoms of horse chestnut trees shimmered like candles.
It was the first of May and unseasonably warm. Two women were sunbathing beside a tall bronze nude. A tow-headed toddler wriggled out of his cardigan while his nanny watched.
At the far end of the garden, beyond a tunnel of golden forsythia, a doubles match was underway on the tennis courts. Lordly looking men with silver hair moved back and forth murmuring: "Yours . . . yours . . . ."
The Cadogan Gardens, just a few minutes' walk from Harrods, are a buffer of calm in Knightsbridge. Dogs are not allowed (except with prior permission and on leash), nor are ballgames or audio equipment. And no bicycles or tricycles.
London's locked gardens are for the use of those whose homes border the green. As a guest at Durley House, a small and expensive hotel tucked into a row on Sloane Street, I was offered a key.
Lamentably, I could not afford to stay a whole season at Durley House, but for a couple of days I reveled in its country-home luxury, its furnishings of silk and satin, its library with mantled fireplace.
Shortly after I checked in, a London friend came calling.
"How many rooms have you?" he inquired of the young man who welcomed him. "We have 11, sir," was the reply. "All but two face the park."
"The park?" challenged my friend. "You mean the gardens. We have only three parks in London--the royal parks: Hyde Park, Regent Park, Green Park."
My friend is a journalist, a skeptic and a Londoner through and through. He decided that the hotel man was either from outside the city or had changed his terminology for American guests--and he deemed neither position acceptable.
Before I could bring up the status of St. James's Park, which is adjacent to Green, my friend let fly a compliment about the benign ancestral portraits above the hearth. The conversation veered, never to return.
My ground-floor suite, in fact, was one of the two that did not face the park . . . or the gardens. I treasured its backstage view.
What I beheld, over morning coffee, was residential London, a London that opened its doors and paned windows to the welcome sun of May, a London that had planted and pruned its hidden plots and sills as if the Queen might call.
I studied wall-hugging, slim black pipes with their Old World fittings and terra-cotta chimney pots--nine or more in a row, arranged like top hats in a Lock & Co. display. I watched a woman wash breakfast dishes--she was beyond a lace curtain--and I felt very much at home.
On my return to California, I shared these feelings with an English-born friend.
"You," she said sweetly, "are out of your mind when it comes to London.
"You looked out on 19th-Century water pipes and maybe older gutters, and ragtag chimneys that always need sweeping and a kitchen--I promise--with very few conveniences. But since it was all heaped in lilacs and clematis, you loved it."
A beautiful view, I concluded, is in the eye of the beholder.