London has reopened. In fact, London was perennially open for the 25 years that I lived in the town before the pandemic hit. Hence there was no rush for me to rediscover the Capital even though it is an ever-changing metropolis. But Covid-19 has changed our perspective about wanting to escape to far-flung cities for a few days rather than being content to explore our own hometown. A few days ago, I took my son to see the Brent reservoir known as ‘the Welsh Harp’. It isn’t that far from my home but I got close to it only once, on a bike trip to Wembley.
When I stood at the edge of the reservoir, I felt transported to San Giuliano Park in Mestre, which offers a clear view of Venice and its lagoon – I had travelled there a few months before the pandemic struck. I saw more birds flapping over the Welsh Harp than I could count, let alone identify. An acquaintance told me recently that he travelled to the Welsh Harp reservoir from the other side of town just to indulge his taste for bird-watching.
The downpour the day before made the grass and trees look very fresh. I promised my son that in June I would take him to visit Epping Forest, which straddles London and Essex. This is partly because I am captivated by a Lucien Pissarro painting that depicts cursive trees behind a garden gate in Epping.
Many people living in the home counties surrounding London are planning to revisit the town after a gap of many months. A lot of office workers in Central London commuted from other towns outside Greater London before the pandemic. On walking through Waterloo station recently, I wondered if it was still one of the busiest stations in Britain since it was so sparsely filled with commuters. However, if you compare the scene with May 2020, that is a big improvement. I spotted a few buildings in Central London that were used as co-working office spaces in pre-pandemic times but are now empty. The work-from-home proposition has become de rigueur during the last year. There are many neighbourhoods in Central London that have very few residents and the absence of office-workers during the day makes those areas look desolate.
After a long interval, I had arranged to meet my friend Omar last week near Green Park and took a number 13 bus from Finchley to Victoria. I wanted to walk along Piccadilly from Hyde Park Corner. Visitors to London think of Piccadilly mostly as its familiar ‘Circus’ with flashing billboards and central statue of Eros, rather than the long road that it is. The bus was caught in traffic around the infamous double bend in the road near Swiss Cottage but then cruised smoothly towards Central London.
The hotels in Park Lane are gradually returning to life. The Dorchester has placed globes made of glass and metal under its plane tree in the forecourt to shelter their guests from the elements while they are having high tea. I got off the bus at a stop near Como Metropolitan hotel and walked through Old Park Lane to get to Piccadilly. Hyde Park looks greener through its decorative gate, due to the abundant rain in May. The number of parks in London is mind-boggling – 3000 in all – but Hyde Park stands out as one of a kind.
A few hotels along Piccadilly have placed tables and chairs outside for outdoor dining but they were unoccupied on this occasion as it was very windy. I encountered small
groups of smartly dressed men and women on their way to various establishments along this road. There are many discreet private members’ clubs in Mayfair and you usually come across couples – women in colourful hats holding the arms of men in berets – walking toward some century-old club. Omar had invited me to meet him in one such club housed in a building at the edge of Green Park. I entered the park but couldn’t find the entrance to the building. When I rang Omar, he told me to walk around the building at the corner to reach St James’s Street.
I walked past the side entrance of the Ritz but it looked to me like a dead end. No fewer than two doormen stood outside the hotel, one of whom directed me to an alleyway at the bottom of the cul-de-sac and told me to walk down a flight of steps to reach the club. Le Caprice restaurant behind the Ritz – where in the past you usually saw paparazzi waiting outside to snatch pictures of celebrities – has gone out of business during the pandemic.
I had never set foot inside a private members’ club in London and wasn’t even sure if they were going to let me in since I wore jeans and trainers. But the man at the reception desk turned a blind eye and asked me to sign in. I wondered how Omar had become a member of this club. He said that his father had been a member of a similar club in Lahore and had therefore been recommended by his father’s friends. When the cashier came around with the bill for a pot of tea, she made a swift gesture with her hand, having recognised me as a former colleague she had worked with in a hotel a few years ago. I had initially failed to recognise her because she wore a face mask. It is indeed a small world if you work in the hospitality industry.
After saying goodbye to Omar, I planned to say hello to a friend in Waterstones in Piccadilly and walked towards the bookshop. A poster displayed in the window of a fancy restaurant advertised a sandwich for £29. You could buy a freshly-made sandwich in Pret a Manger a few doors down the road for £3. It is always beguiling to see what is on offer in a fashionable street in London.
A private art gallery was hosting a cocktail evening with a security guard at the door to keep out passers-by, while the Royal Academy on the opposite side of the road is inviting the public to see ‘The Arrival of Spring’ exhibition by David Hockney. The RA’s neighbour, Le Meridien, has been rebranded during lockdown and is now called ‘The Dilly’. I remembered running an errand a decade ago for a guest staying in my hotel to deliver a package by hand to a guest in Le Meridien. He turned out to be the renowned Maltese physician, Edward de Bono, who coined the term ‘lateral thinking’. These days, some employers ask poor job-seeking graduates to give them an example of their lateral thinking just to confound them.
I wonder if Mr de Bono would regard this wayward essay as an embodiment of his principle.