Image: Brijesh Patel
January 09 2011
As old jokes go, one of my favourites is the one about Windsor Castle that has an American visitor to the Queen’s Thames Valley pied-à-terre commenting that it would be a really pleasant country retreat, if only the builders had not chosen to locate it so close to the freeway. Something similar might be said of Buckingham Palace and Victoria Station.
The royal family bought the place off the Duke of Buckingham’s descendants in the early 1760s. But I have always been of the belief that it was only when the notorious William Crockford built his eponymous super casino at the top of St James’s Street, making St James’s Palace seem a little less than splendid, that George IV pulled his finger out and really got cracking on Buck House. Even so, the first monarch to live there was Queen Victoria. She found it unfit for purpose, and embarked on an ambitious refurbishment, moving Marble Arch, which had been in the courtyard, to its present location. It seems that by 1856 she had the place more or less how she wanted it and gave a ball to mark the end of the Crimean war in the splendid new ballroom, which was at the time the largest room in London.
And then in 1860 the London Brighton and South Coast Railway opened a station a couple of hundred yards from the back door. Talk about property blight; even if they did name the station after Victoria, railway termini are seldom salubrious. The only reason I can imagine that future generations of the royal family stayed put was that in 1910 the Goring Hotel opened up round the corner (although I believe there was a Goring House on the site long before the Duke of Buckingham arrived on the scene).
The Goring is a gem and this became apparent when I met someone there for tea the other day. The first member of staff I encountered was kind enough to remember my name – I visited once when I wrote a restaurant column about 10 years ago – and to greet me as if I were a regular patron rather than a once-a-decade man. Impressive. The second noted that I was looking flustered and divined by some sort of ESP that I was concerned about leaving my car parked on one of those telephone-operated parking meters that I find tricky to use. My car was whisked immediately into the hotel’s car park. I daresay that had I requested my vintage Cherokee be washed, serviced and replaced with a new Bentley, they would have been happy to oblige.
All in all, by the time I arrived in the Edwardian surroundings of the tea room my feelings of anxiety were beginning to abate. Then came the tea. I just ordered a pot of Earl Grey and it came with two miniature loaf-like bits of ginger cake – I wolfed them down, turned away and found that they had been magically replaced. I would have polished those off too had it not been for the plates of canapés that began to circulate as the hotel timetable merged from tea into pre-prandial cocktails.
I slightly dreaded the bill, but I needn’t have done; it was about 12 quid for two and as far as I can tell the cakes, canapés, telepathic staff, superb welcome and valet parking came as standard with the tea – surely the best value in Belgravia and a favourable contrast to the five euros I paid to drink a macchiato while freezing to death outside some brasserie facing the Gare du Nord the other day.
It is to be one of my New Year’s resolutions to recommend that friends visiting London consider staying at the Goring; moreover, unlike so many of my past resolutions, this should be a relatively easy one to manage.