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In London, a Blooming Array of Urban Villages : From Sloane Square to Soho, England's capital comes alive in the spring.

April 11, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

LONDON — Start ticking off virtues of the world's great cities and it's nearly impossible to name a place with more or better shops, galleries, museums, parks, monuments, tailors, shoemakers, buskers, pubs (on practically every corner), theaters (48 in a six-square-block area) and civilized taxi drivers than Old London Town.

London in the spring has a charm all its own. While hot chestnuts are still being sold in the streets, daffodils are blooming in Hyde Park. Theater and dinner reservations are a bit easier to book than in the summer and there are fewer tourists in the museums. You might experience a shower or two, but we had five days of glorious sunshine in mid-March.

If Britain in general and London in particular once had a cultural calamity on their hands, it was in the kitchen: The steady flow of peas, puddings, chips and overdone meats resembling braised brontosaurus were capable of rendering one physically and morally unfit after the first fortnight.

Yet happily, this all began to change about 20 years ago. It is now possible to dine very well with or without Michelin stars, which have been sprinkled sparingly on British restaurants.

As is the case with many European metropolises, London's character and vitality derive from the collection of villages that make up the city--ethnic or social-strata enclaves like Chelsea, Soho, Belgravia, Bayswater and the City. The latter dates from Roman times and is now a bubbling mix of Cockney and financial London.

About 10 years ago, another "village" took shape around Sloane Square--the turf of young, trendy and upwardly mobile types known only half in jest as Sloane Rangers, for their Kiplingesque resolve to achieve What Really Matters in Life.

Sloanes claim to know exactly which shops to visit for decorating a flat, the au courant places in town to do a proper lunch, which raincoat and boots are de rigueur for mucking about in the country, and the correct London hospitals for soon-to-be-delivered Rangerettes, all hopefully headed some day for Oxford or Cambridge.

Princess Di was the Sloanes' guiding light, since she was always 19th-Century chic (the Sloanes' favorite era), her public duties were always carried off with aplomb, and she was, in short, what being royal was all about. Her recent problems aside, the princess is still looked upon with a great deal of affection by Sloanes and most other Londoners as well.

New and often not-so-stately buildings spring up yearly in London, much to Prince Charles' chagrin, but the profile of the town has changed less in our 30-some visits during the past four decades than in any other major European city we know, save Vienna.

Still, some things are never what they seem to be. The statue of a winged archer in Piccadilly Circus, London's vibrant hub by day or night, has been known by one and all as Eros since its unveiling exactly a century ago. The sculptor, however, titled it "The Angel of Christian Charity."

And flavorful, pulsating Soho, once the home of Mozart, also had Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan getting sloshed regularly in its grotty pubs. London takes all kinds and makes them its own.

Getting settled in: We've been visiting and keeping an eye on the Best Western Mornington Hotel (formerly the Mornington Lancaster) since the early 1950s, watching it climb steadily to become one of the best values in London if not in all of Europe. And its cost is almost in the "budget" range for what is a very pricey city.

Its Georgian entry, just a few steps from Hyde Park's Kensington Gardens, leads into a lobby of deep leather couches, a large Belgian tapestry, Oriental rugs, paneled walls and a library-bar that is as warm and cozy as one is likely to find anywhere.

Bedrooms are all done in soft pastels, as is the cellar breakfast room, and the bar serves light meals costing around $6 or less. Just around the corner is The Swan pub, opened in 1775 and still lively, a great place for lunch or early supper. The Best Western Mornington and The Swan are both terrific finds.

In the same Lancaster Gate-Kensington Gardens area, the Anna Hotel is another small and well-run place. A very contempo rary lobby has a conservatory bar and coffee shop at one end, plus a tiny grotto. Bedrooms are small, but each has TV and refrigerator.

A step up in cost, the Flemings Hotel in fashionable Mayfair is still a good buy. Its lobby, lounge, restaurant and bedrooms are all furnished traditionally. The Flemings is a short walk from the shopping of Piccadilly, Regent Street, Old and New Bond streets, plus the pubs and night life of nearby Shepherd Market.

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