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  • Shelley Dark

#18 if you're tired of London, you're tired of life!

That's the gist of what Samuel Johnson said way back in 1777. I couldn't agree more! So when I woke on Saturday to grey skies and drizzle, I grabbed my brolly and swept up Park Lane as if I owned it.

As soon as I saw the Dorchester I knew I had to call in. Many years ago I came to England with Julie Keegan on a garden tour (omg they were so wonderful!). We visited and had afternoon tea with Lady Anne Rasch at Heale House. An extraordinary garden owned by a delightful and witty woman! Sadly she died in 1995. There was a secret room in the house where the future King Charles II was hidden for six days.

She said that when she was little, her grandmother lived permanently at the Dorchester. She always thought it was the family home until someone broke the news to her that it was actually a hotel.

I made a detour past elegant terrace houses to South Audley Street. I had other fish to fry.

I was blown away by Thomas Goode's shop - every brand of beautiful glassware, bone china and table accessories you could ever imagine! And gleaming copper pans.

With another amazing chandelier!

I adored the Herend tea cups.

And the sparkle of coloured crystal.

Perhaps my next dinner set?

Could anything be more English than the name Pulbrook & Gould, the florist inside Thomas Goode's?

If you're after accessories for a rococo table setting, this is your shop!

​Just nearby, I discovered my own little French gatehouse! In my dreams, an impossibly elegant woman in a silver Rolls Royce drove out of the gates on the right, saw me standing there gawping, and stopped to wind down her window. ‘That’s the gatehouse darling! Uncle Albert was living there but he’s run off with an Argentinian polo player. I knew a new tenant would turn up and here you are! It’s a 99 year lease at peppercorn rent. The little red car is thrown in. You see I only rent to people with love hearts in their eyes. And you’re it! And of course we own a small winery in Champagne so there’s an endless supply....’ As if.....

photo courtesy of Bamford

Actually, I was looking for a shop called Bamford, because I'd seen some of the clothing at the Berkeley's Haybarn spa. Such a restrained almost Japanese-inspired fitout. Softest cashmere, flowing cottons, all in neutral colours. And they sell online.

Lady Carole Bamford OBE married the billionaire industrialist Lord Bamford in 1974 and eventually persuaded him to use organic methods on his extensive land holdings. She has her own line of organic farm produce, beauty products and clothes, all organically and sustainably grown or manufactured.

This is the gorgeous Naoko who manages the shop. She has over her shoulder a bag I was coveting....

Someone heard I was coming and wrote my motto on a shop window....

I can never resist an optical shop like Linda Farrow - deep in thought....

My helper Michaela and I tried to take a selfie. It was so bad that she called the optometrist in the basement, and here we are!

I wandered on, enjoying the lack of crowds on this damp day until I happened upon the Connaught Hotel. When I was planning this trip, it was on the list of maybe hotels. The girl at the door kindly showed me the facilities, then left me to wander down a corridor towards the two-Michelin-star Hélène Darroze restaurant.

It wasn't quite yet lunchtime. The restaurant was empty except for five staff standing together, ready for the onslaught. I cheekily said 'Heavens, you're all ready for me! But I'm so sorry, today I can't stay!'

The maître d' as quick as a flash said 'In that case Madame, you must have your photo taken with us!' and called someone from the kitchen. Aren't some people fun?

English hotels do the men's smoking room look so well, don't they?

The rain had eased so I made a break for the National Portrait Gallery. I held the new phone tightly and walked in. I wanted to see the BP Portrait Award exhibition which I missed last time!

This is the winning painting, 'An Angel at my Table' by Miriam Escofet. The judges' comment: 'This is a spectacular display of restraint, composition and planning. The crisp tablecloth and china are rendered so beautifully - and the you see that one of the plates appears to be moving which adds a surreal quality to the portrait. It is also a very sensitive depiction of an elderly sitter.'

I found it poignant and a little unsettling. Perhaps a little close to home?

Second prize "Time Traveller, Matthew Napping' by Felicia Forte. The judges' comment: 'This is a riot of colour with a brilliant use of paint. While there is no modelling or shading - it is just blocks of colour - the painting still exudes so much atmosphere. It is a very bold portrait, but also distinctly personal and intimate.'

This painting had much more impact in real life, where you could stand back and read the blocks of colour properly.

Third prize 'Simone' by Zhu Tongyao. The judges comment: 'This painting is in the tradition of Renaissance portraiture, with a receding landscape in the background. This makes the figure in the foreground so incongruous and yet compelling - he is very contemporary with his modern haircut and T-shirt. It's also a lovely portrayal of a youth on the cusp of adulthood.'

I found this painting a little sad - I wish the subject looked a little happier!

​Then I remembered that I'd forgotten to go to the New Craftsmen Gallery so back I went. Past Harry Potter. Up Charing Cross Road, down into Tottenham Court Road underground station and packed like a sardine into the tube till I fell out of the doors at Marble Arch.

It was so worth it! This gallery's aim is to champion the British craft maker. The girls on the desk were a delight. I think I may have been the only person to have come in the door for hours. Everyone else was inside out of the rain!

Ceramics, wood and glass, furniture, lights and jewellery. ​Below are photos of some of its stock, and they sell online.

By now I was flagging. My feet were hurting, my shoes were slightly wet, and Pret-a-Portea was waiting for me at the Berkeley!

Head Pastry Chef Mourad Khiat bases his afternoon tea on fashion, each small delicacy representing an item from the current year's couture collections.

​First a wonderful selection of ribbon sandwiches, and I was HUNGRY!

photo courtesy Berkeley Hotel

Then the pièces de résistance! I loved Miu-Miu's vanilla bikini biscuit and the Aruna Seth handbag! Can you pick the other brands?

My favourite was Tom Ford's stiletto shoe - that's a bread and butter plate, so you can imagine how tiny the icing!

There were a couple of very friendly Norwegian girls next to me who asked me to take their photo - so I asked if I might post it! Because I air-dropped it to the girl on the right, I was able to text her after they'd gone to tell her she'd left her scarf on the bench.

Here's the bikini biscuit up close.

press photo from Royal Albert website, © David Iliff

I just had time for a quick rest before it was time to catch an Uber to the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth. It's an amazing building isn't it? The interior has two circular corridors all the way around the outer rim. It's an ingenious design which copes amazingly well with its huge crowd capacity.

I booked this months ago, and chose a seat in a box looking straight down at the orchestra. Second row of two rows, four seats in each. It was going to be brilliant!

Except it wasn't. Half covering my chair was a big red velvet curtain, and in front of that was a post. Thinking back, it's making me laugh out loud. I mean, really??????

I went out and asked an attendant if it would be possible to change seats. 'I'm so sorry,' she said. 'Tonight is a sell-out.'

I had the most delightful trio with me in the box. Kay and her daughter in front, her grandson next to me. When he left and returned with a drink and some chips, his mother Fati said 'Hurry up and eat those - we don't want you crunching through Beethoven!'

The atmosphere in the hall was electric with the warm excited buzz that only five and a half thousand people can make. Despite my seat, I couldn't wait!

The conductor was David Parry - you can see him there with the shock of white hair.

​I was relieved after the performance to read that he's younger than I am. ​It takes a huge amount of energy doesn't it, to stand there for a couple of hours with your arms raised, moving constantly. First a gentle hypnotically calming interweaving of hands, then tense pent-up jerky movements, and finally a frenetic outburst. Putting the very essence of his physical and mental being into coaxing the orchestra into a presentation extraordinaire.

You can see the huge choir sitting on the right at the back of the orchestra during the last two movements. It's harder to make out the tenor, bass baritone and sopranos on the left at the front of the stage.

This gorgeous young thing is the pianist Ivana Gavrić who was signing programmes during the intermission. She really gave a masterful performance and although I couldn't see her I could see the conductor. I loved how she was her own boss during her solos - he was obliged to abide by her timing. I know nothing of music so please correct me if I'm wrong!

When I returned after the break, the piano was gone from the stage - I would have loved to see it disappear! And Kay had moved from her front row seat to sit in my chair.

'I want to sit next to my grandson,' she smiled. That made me laugh too. 'Kay what a fibber you are! That is such a kind gesture thank you, but I could never accept. And in any case, I've made up my mind to stand for the second half.'

Kay moved back to her seat. I stood two steps up at the back of the box where I had a spectacular view of the whole orchestra and choir. If I can sit on an aircraft for 24 hours I can stand for half a concert! And at least in a box you can do that. Although I knew I had to stand still, because I could see right into the back of the boxes across the hall.

I love the last movement of the Ninth. It's like a game of cat and mouse. Beethoven gives you a little of the melody of 'Ode to Joy' and then he takes it away. Then it's back again, softly in the background, then swelling. And again and again, until the final crescendo. Magnificent!

It's incredible to think that Beethoven was quite deaf when he finished writing this symphony. I've read that although he was on the stage, he had to be turned around at the end of the performance conducted by someone else, to see the standing ovation.

David Parry, his orchestra, the solo singers and the choir, on the other hand could hear theirs. It was well-deserved, enthusiastic and deafening. And anti-climactic when it was over.

It had been quite hot in the theatre, so it was marvellous to go outside to stand on the roadside waiting for my Uber. To think about the performance. Bracing cold air with a slight wind. And a lingering melody. Doesn't it make you feel alive?

On Sunday I slept in and woke to proper rain, so I lolled about in my room like a garden slug.

I wrote a little, had a fabulous massage at the spa (where everyone kept touching my SOFT gown - the spa's are made of normal towelling).

I looked out of the windows at the rain.

Later, I wrote a little until I could see blue sky through the window. I had to get out. I walked down Constitution Hill past Buckingham Palace in the late afternoon shadow.

The guards looked reassuringly doll-like.

Through St James Park with its dramatic borders.

And the wildlife.

The squirrels must be fed by tourists because they came scampering up for food quite unselfconsciously.

This one did more - he climbed on to my ankle as I was trying to photograph him, then further until he disappeared up my leg under my coat! I kept taking photos but I could see the headlines 'Imbecile tourist mauled by rogue squirrel'.

Big Ben has plastic all over him as if he's having an extreme facial, but Westminster Abbey retains its solid composure.

​I didn't know the Methodists had a Central Hall let alone such a handsome building!

I arrived back at the hotel as the sun was setting on another London day...

The rain had quite gone. That's the Battersea Power Station development with the four chimneys. And eleven cranes. The work of the Russian oligarch.

We squashed a lot into a weekend didn't we? Here are your flowers for today courtesy of Pulbrook & Gould.

Now it's Monday night and I'm back at Kew. I had a great day today with a brilliant Insta-meet with @helsburd! I'll tell you all about it in my next diary entry. Until then, buddies. I wait you.

shelley dark, writer 

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