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HER WORLD

Reveling in the civilized charms of London

August 17, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

The character of a place, especially a city, is in the details. This revelation came to me last month during a three-night stay in London, a city I had visited half a dozen times and thought I knew well enough.

I had appointments at Westminster and the Tower of London. In between those meetings, I rediscovered quirks that make London so civilized and charming.

Even in the halcyon days of summer, the sky was locked in a constant struggle between rain and shine. The friendly cabby who took me from Paddington Station to my Knightsbridge hotel told me his father was a taxi driver, as were his two sons; moreover, his grandfather drove a hansom cab. I saw a sign at the gate of the private park in the middle of Cadogan Place advising people privileged to enter that they had to register their dogs. And at a dignified Victorian apartment building near Harrods department store, a doorman dressed for the hunt asked, "How are we today?"

We were superb, apart from our alarm at high prices and irritation over a miscalculation in getting to the city's center. We took the Heathrow Express, a bad choice that put us in a sour mood. (It reaches Paddington Station from the airport in an impressive 15 minutes, but at a price of about $20, not to mention the cab ride onward -- about $15 from the station to my hotel.) I stayed at the dignified Basil Street Hotel, just steps from the Tube, Hyde Park, fashionable Sloane Street, and Harvey Nichols and Harrods department stores, which were nearing the ends of their big summer sales.

The hotel is small and slightly dowdy but in a good, solid, amiable way. My $250 room had plum-colored carpeting and armchairs, busily patterned wallpaper, a private bath and a window overlooking an air shaft. (Single rooms begin about $207.) The concierge got to know me, in the evening the maid placed my nightgown on the bed with all the marks of tenderness, and you'd have to go far to find a better club sandwich and martini than those served in the hotel bar.

In past trips to London, I had stuck mostly to Bloomsbury and Soho. Knightsbridge and environs, on the south side of Hyde Park, were a new world to explore. I needed only the current issue of Time Out, a Tube map and my old spiral-bound AZ London Street Atlas to plan my activities and find my way around.

One perfect day, as rain threatened, I started by going for a run in manicured and rolling Hyde Park, Henry VIII's hunting ground in the wilds west of the Palace of Westminster, a broad swath of the bucolic English countryside at the heart of the city. I crossed the bridle path known as Rotten Row to the south side of the Serpentine, a gently curving lake that has its own public beach, the Serpentine Lido. Though it was chilly enough for a jacket, a handful of brave Britons were swimming as if on the Algarve.

Next I hit Harrods, a 154-year-old national institution as beloved as the Victoria and Albert Museum down the street. The department store, in a handsome Edwardian terra-cotta building that occupies an entire city block, is renowned for its huge assortment and service. (When fire destroyed an earlier Harrods building in 1883, owner Charles Digby Harrod immediately sent a circular to his clients that said, "I regret to inform you that in consequence of the above premises being burnt down, your order will be delayed in the execution a day or two.") I wandered through Harrods' maze of 330 departments, from the food halls to women's shoes. It is difficult to find your way out, which accounts partly for the $150 I spent on sale items in lingerie.

I lunched at the Lanesborough hotel, in a landmark Neoclassical building near Hyde Park Corner, where doubles start around $550. Fortunately, the lovely glass-domed Conservatory restaurant was running a midday "Square Meal Deal": an entree, soup, salad and drink for $33. I had a little piece of poached salmon with parsnip soup and greens, all delivered on a beautiful square plate, like a Japanese bento box.

Then I walked along Knightsbridge Road to Royal Albert Hall. This domed jewel, opened in 1871, has three Italianate porches and a mosaic frieze around the crown that reminds me of something out of John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

Tickets for Promenade Concerts were on sale at the box office. The Proms, as they're called, are a series of classical music concerts in July and August, with cheap standing room available on the ground floor where people mingle as if at a cocktail party. I bought a seat in a tier high above the stage, for about $17, where it was hot but the view was divine.

That night I heard James MacMillan's Symphony No. 3 or "Silence," conducted by the composer, then four songs by Richard Strauss, sung by soprano Barbara Frittoli, and after the interval, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, which drummed in my ears as I strolled back to my hotel.

Our day had been spot on.

The Basil Street Hotel, Knightsbridge, London SW3 1AH; 011-44-20-7581-3311,

fax 011-44-20-7581-3693, www.thebasil.com.

The Conservatory at the Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, 011-44-20-7259-5599, www.lanesborough.com.

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