Visiting London ranks high on the wish-list of many people around the world who want to explore the town, and yet many native Londoners rarely venture beyond the river to see the other side of their city. More than 20 million tourists visited London in 2019 but the figures for 2020 tell a different story. Many businesses in the West End of London rely heavily on the tourist trade so it was not an easy year for them. The official guide, Visit London, launched a campaign last summer called ‘Because I’m a Londoner’to promote tourism in the Capital. The song ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’ was made popular by the music hall duo, Flanagan & Allen, before I was born. However, the line ‘I think of her wherever I go’ still strikes a chord with me. There is a new hotel due to open in Central London called The Londoner.
April is the most beautiful time of year in London, when its parks and gardens are in bloom. April is the cruellest month only in a wasteland, not in a bustling city like London. However, while riding my bike through the empty streets last April, I thought T. S. Eliot’s premonition had come true when I saw the sun shining but the parks deserted because of the first lockdown. We had just two days of unusually hot weather in London at the end of March this year and I saw Londoners in droves heading for Hampstead Heath. I cannot wait to hear the Rag’n’Bone Man sing, ‘I’m Only Human’ in an open-air concert in the grounds of Kenwood House in June.
In the absence of tourists this summer, Londoners might have to get out a bit more to support the local hospitality industry. London hoteliers have become very creative in order to lure Londoners instead of foreign tourists this summer. One of the hotels has built beach huts whereas others have placed tables on their terraces for outdoor dining. A chef in a hotel once told me that when you have laid out a feast, you need people to relish it. Otherwise, what is the point? The affluent among Londoners can stay in a Mayfair hotel for a few nights. I encountered guests at my hotel who lived in the neighbourhood but stayed in the hotel for a night or two just for the change of scenery.
I like walking on Hampstead Heath, which isn’t far from where I live, but whenever I visit Hyde Park in Central London I feel entertained by the festive atmosphere there. I took my small son to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park a couple of times and he didn’t want to leave this Christmas market.
During the last decade, when I sometimes visited Hyde Park, I would walk into Grosvenor House through its pedestrian entrance under Lutyens’ colonnade on Park Lane to have a cup of tea. No, not high tea in The Park Room but a humble cup of English breakfast tea in the cafe known as Park Lane Market. I have even attended a function in its grand ballroom as a guest of a guest and was dazzled by the interior of the Great Room.
I knew the current GM of Grosvenor House, Stuart Bowery, as my first hotel manager when I started work in its sister hotel 20 years ago. After moving on to other hotels, for many years he would still come to our hotel for his haircut and shake hands with staff members in the lobby. In fact, I was surprised to see him shaking hands with most of the employees when he arrived for work in the morning. I was even more surprised that he could remember my unfamiliar name on my first day at the hotel. I have learnt from Stuart Bowery how important it is to remember the names of people when you work in the hospitality industry.
I explored the town for several years after I moved to London in the mid-1990s and thereafter, like other Londoners, became ensconced in my own neighbourhood. It was only after my son was born that I began to rediscover London with him. It is an ever-changing metropolis. When you visit other neighbourhoods in London after some time, you can’t help noticing that some of the building you once knew as landmarks have completely disappeared.
I learned only recently, thanks to a friend who works at the Hard Rock Café, that one of the largest hotels in London, The Cumberland, is now known as Hard Rock Hotel, a change of name that took place two years ago. London is a gateway city and all the hotel brands like to maintain a presence in the town. A Pan Pacific hotel is about to open in Bishopsgate and the first Westin branded hotel, which belongs to the Marriott hotel chain, is due to open near St Paul’s in September.
I cannot wait for our cultural institutions, such as museums, galleries and libraries, to reopen, so I can visit some of them again. I had taken their open doors for granted but the pandemic has shown us that the only certainty in life is death and sometimes we have to expect the unexpected. Now that spring is upon us, I have resolved to go for walks in other parks and gardens besides Hampstead Heath. And as international travel looks uncertain this summer, it is time to explore and enjoy our own backyards.
A relative who studies the dynamics of environmental systems at Berkeley emailed me this week to say that ‘if we reach some of the feared tipping points due to climate change, London could become a frozen city. There are concerns that the thermohaline circulation that includes the Gulf Stream is being seriously affected by the warming oceans.’
It has to be a green recovery post-pandemic if we are to save our cities and towns for posterity.