On a UK Monopoly Board, Piccadilly is the sixth most expensive property at a whopping £280.00 and bears the colour yellow. To build a Monopoly hotel on the site will set you back £1,200.00. In reality, Piccadilly is a busy, multi-lane thoroughfare in London’s West End, running from Hyde Park Corner past Green Park to Piccadilly Circus. It’s home to the Hard Rock Café, The Ritz and the Royal Academy. Piccadilly is where Russian spy, Alexander Litvenenko visited a branch of Itsu just after he was poisoned by polonium, a deadly radioactive substance, in a modern-day Cold War power struggle. It’s where to browse through book stacks at the amply-stocked bookstores of Hatchard’s and Waterstone’s, ogle gourmet delights at Fortnum and Mason and Caviar House or refuel at The Wolseley, where weekend brunch tables are a hot ticket. With such esteemed neighbours, both historic and present, it’s no surprise that Piccadilly is where the French hotel chain, Le Méridien, decided to install their landmark London hotel – a stone’s throw from Eros and the Circus’s famed flashing signs. It has now resided at the Regency property of number 21 Piccadilly for a sound twenty-six years, since 1986, in a purpose-built building that first housed The Piccadilly Hotel in 1908 and Masonic temples in its basement.
I’m ashamed to admit that Le Méridien on Piccadilly is a place I must have passed thousands of times yet never once entered and I cannot fathom why. This has recently been rectified; not only have I now entered Le Méridien Piccadilly, I’ve also luxuriated in its underground swimming pool and snored soundly in one of its gigantic beds, oblivious to the busy West End traffic artery located mere feet from my head.
My recent stay at Le Méridien has also educated me in their all-pervading approach to art. The arrival art is what a guest encounters first. As part of Le Méridien’s re-branding at the hand of the Starwood Hotels and Resorts group since they took ownership of the chain in 2005, art has been incorporated into all areas of the guest experience, starting the moment you walk through the door. Before I’d even reached the check-in desk I’d already noted a display of limited edition umbrellas by designer Duro Olowu, with snazzy geometric prints that any connoisseur would be happy to shelter beneath in a London rainstorm.
Even the lowly key card has been welcomed into the LM artistic experience. My card, a work of art in its own right, sported part of a Yan Lei Colour Wheel, its design being part of the LM Unlock Art incentive: not only does the key card open your door it forms part of a collection by a contemporary artist. The current featured artist at LM Piccadilly is Langfang-born Yan Lei, a member of the LM100, the collective comprising 100 influencers who contribute to the LM experience, through their expertise across a wide selection of the arts, from art and design to cuisine and perfumery. Some of the previous Unlock Art card collections, by fellow LM100 members, Hisham Bharoocha and Sam Samore, hang in frames by the lifts, but form and function are only two facets to the LM key cards; they also provide free access to Tate Britain and Tate Modern exhibitions – all you have to do is tell the concierge which Tate exhibitions you’d like to attend so he can arrange access for you, then just flash your key card when you get there, unlocking a local cultural experience for free.
Yan Lei’s Colour Wheel paintings hang in the Piccadilly lobby, the bespoke carpets underfoot are awash with lines, thoughtfully reflecting the inspiration for the company’s name – the meridian lines which criss-cross the globe, and in the ground floor internet den the shelves are set with contemporary ceramics, smart and stark against a dark background. There’s a video installation, created especially for Le Méridien, playing on a loop behind the Guest Relations desk and, on your way to the Longitude Bar, you’ll pass an elegant series of black and white portraits of the people responsible for the overall artistic experience that a guest will enjoy at Le Méridien – the LM100. As for that subtle aroma wafting through the lobby? That’s the signature Le Méridien scented candle, LM01, created by more members of the LM100 clan, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi. It’s a unique blend of frankincense, iris absolute and musk with cedar notes, gently adding to the sensory welcome so carefully constructed with a guest’s first impressions in mind.
The final and possibly most important part of Le Méridien’s atmosphere is the human component. In my time at the hotel I truly appreciated the comportment of the staff. From greeting to leaving, there was always a smile, a courteous hand, nothing too much trouble. Lift doors were held open without asking, a troublesome door catch dealt with immediately by not one but three kind and patient staff, an unusual breakfast order delivered on-time, without issue, a forgotten toothbrush taken care of, taxi doors opened and closed, a myriad small kindnesses. Whomever I spoke with on the staff seemed to genuinely care that I had a positive experience of Le Méridien Piccadilly. That’s what I call the Art of Hospitality, and in the travel environment it’s absolutely priceless.
A luxury hotel, lashings of fine dining and a whirlwind of contemporary art? Chez Epicurienne, that’s what I call a killer combination that I’d be happy to dive into on any day of the week. Courtesy of the Le Méridien hotel group, I was recently invited to partake of just such a tantalising synthesis of sensory stimulants during an arts-focussed stay-cation, based at their landmark hotel in London’s Piccadilly. I’m still recovering, in a good way.
A top hotel’s relationship to food is a no-brainer; the two go hand-in-hand, but where does art enter the equation? In this case, Le Méridien, the forty-year old international hotel chain, has incorporated art into its properties so that wherever guests look, art will meet their eyes – be it on arrival, on relaxing, even on using their key card. Steering Le Méridien’s artistic intentions is Jérôme Sans, the French art curator and critic, in his capacity as the LM Cultural Curator. What’s more, for the past five years Le Méridien has been a principle partner and supporter of an arts initiative called OFT – the Outset/ Frieze Art Fair Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection. Through OFT, the Tate is able to bypass purchasing bureaucracy to acquire work by emerging artists featured at the annual London fair for contemporary art: Frieze.
Over two days, our small group of bloggers along with various members of hotel management and Le Meridien’s PR company, Fleishman Hillard, managed to experience one art discussion panel, several types of unforgettable hors d’oeuvre, one unusual afternoon tea, six delicious meals, one international art fair, three world-famous art galleries, exhibitions various, two nights of sumptuous sleep, meetings with key art experts and personalities, a lesson in Le Méridien’s history and brand and various forms of London transport – including the water kind. For obvious reasons, I will not attempt to squeeze everything listed above into one post, lest it resemble a hefty artistic monograph. Instead, I invite you to join me on a multi-post tour of Le Méridien’s London art-u-cation. It’ll be an inspiration – for locals and visitors alike.
Photo above courtesy of the Le Meridien website, http://www.lemeridienpiccadilly.co.uk
I’ve been quiet of late, but with good reason: Monsieur and I have been moving house and I am officially exhausted. Thanks to this draining yet worthwhile exercise my arms are about 5 inches longer, I sport myriad moving injuries (who knew that cardboard boxes could scratch and bite?), could snore through earthquakes plural and am fast renewing my expertise in rodent control. The good news is that the new gaff has a dream kitchen, the bad news being that it comes with resident mouse so I’m now the proud owner of not one but two sonic repeller plugs and a pair of hands covered in remnants of expandable foam.
The neighbours are friendly (honestly forgot that such people existed thanks to the insomniac nutters who shared our roof at the old place); they’re also a mine of information about the local fauna. In the new ‘hood we have fence-climbing foxes and a council that responds rapidly to wasp infestations. There’s enough bird life in our one small garden to entertain Bill Oddie for weeks, and food options are seemingly endless. We’re not only surrounded by supermarkets and food markets (a far cry from our old gaff between a pair of equally useless teeny Tesco’s), but we’re within easy walking distance of Mien Tay, Soif and a Recipease where I recently received a stern lecture on why not to freeze their ready meals. FYI I went ahead and froze not one, but three (hangs head in shame).
Until last week I never realised that making up and breaking down boxes could give you thumb strain. It’s also likely that I’ll watch the Olympics Closing Ceremony before I get the time to watch the Opening Ceremony, proving the necessity of catch up tv. On a different note the move has been surprisingly educational: I’ve learnt that foxes like houmous, mice enjoy oats and peanut butter and breed faster than rabbits, and there’s an archaic law where local churches can insist on your financial help for maintenance and repairs (or, Heaven forbid, rebuilding) if you live in a house where chancel liability applies.
Energy permitting, I hope to roast a chicken this weekend, for a house is not a home until a chicken has been served from its oven. With some luck I might just manage to get the rest of my clothes into some logical order, find time to fix my laptop and make a start on 3 weeks’ worth of ironing. There’s one thing you can bank on, however: I’m sure to go all Charles Manson on a certain mouse if it dares to show its tail in my kitchen again. Mouse eradication advice most gratefully welcomed. As Monsieur so encouragingly put it this morning, ‘Mouse: 1, Epicurienne: nul points.’ I’m only grateful that mouse-catching isn’t an Olympic sport.
Boring is definitely not a word in my vocabulary and, for better or worse, it certainly doesn’t apply to my travels with Monsieur. Invariably, be it on the first day of our time away or the last, something will go wrong. For instance, on honeymoon I got food poisoning, on our way to Venice we got diverted to Rome thanks to a transport strike. I swear I’m the only person I know who has been stuck on a train going nowhere, in the middle of nowhere in Germany, which is usually über-efficient (except for during my visits), and at one point in time, Monsieur’s suitcase was so frequently delayed or misplaced that the lost luggage people at Heathrow knew his name.
So when Monsieur and I set off for France recently, we were prepared for our usual dose of misadventure, but not necessarily with immediate effect.
Traffic in London was diabolical. It took hours plural to get out of town, which meant, naturally, that we missed our ferry, but not before a maniac in a metallic orange car tried to run us off the road by overtaking us on the hard shoulder. Moral: never trust a man who drives a metallic orange car. Orange cars should be reserved for advertising purposes only.
So we finally reached Dover and checking the time I worked out that our ferry was about to dock in France. Darnit, we could have been there by now! We changed our tickets to a berth on the next available ferry, but it didn’t leave for hours plural and we had to pay £26.00 for the privilege of twiddling our thumbs. Moral: pay the extra for a flexible ticket OR take P&O, who allow passengers a three-hour window around their booking time so they can change to earlier or later ferries if required. But did we take our own advice? Hell, no. We showed allegiance to the tricolore and booked Seafrance. And Seafrance made us pay.
The fun part was yet to come. By the time we drove off the ferry in France, it was well past midnight local time and we were tired. But we had to drive. A long way. A very long way to the little Norman town of Honfleur.
2.5 hours isn’t that long when you say it out loud, unless you’re dog tired behind the wheel of a car, like Monsieur was. As designated navigator, I couldn’t doze off because (a) I had to read the map. In the dark. And (b) I felt obligated to make sure that Monsieur didn’t doze off and crash us both into oncoming traffic. Not that there was any oncoming traffic. It was too late for oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic had sensibly gone home to bed.
After an hour of driving on blessedly empty roads we passed the turn off for the Baie de Somme. I sighed. If only the sweet little hotel I’d found there hadn’t been fully booked, we could be veering towards a warm bed right now. But it had been fully booked, so we still had a ninety-minute drive ahead of us. And at two in the morning, ninety minutes is a very, very long time. By now I was all but convinced that Monsieur and I would end up in a ditch before the drive was through. I hoped the air bags would work. Oh, me of little faith.
As we approached Le Havre, my attention switched from air bags to the sky; it was lit in the strangest of ways. In my dopey state I started to wonder why the Northern Lights were here. Shouldn’t they be in Scotland or somewhere further north? Above and around us the sky glowed a strange, flickering terracotta. It was far too early for dawn. Had a bomb gone off somewhere, perhaps? (Things always seem more apocalyptic to me at night and on checking my watch I could see that it was definitely still night.) Would we pass over yonder rise to find a big round spaceship like the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? No. There would be no entente cordiale between the Frenchman, the Pacific Chick and a bunch of inter-galactic joy-riding extra-terrestrials. Not tonight, anyway. We passed over yonder rise to find Le Havre. And for anyone who hasn’t seen Le Havre in the wee morning hours, I’ll try to describe it.
Le Havre is a massive port, the second largest in France, and among other things, a large proportion of the country’s oil deliveries arrive here in gigantic tankers. It glows thanks to all the lights from the port and warehouses and giant flames from multiple refineries. Driving through Le Havre was like driving through a Lego town lit with bright white fairy lights and fire. What’s more, there was no one on the road and we didn’t see a single human as we passed through, so where was everyone? Were they dozing off on the late shift? Keeping an eye on their safety meters? Or were they at home asleep while secret armies of Oompa Loompas fanned the flames? All I could see around us was industry, concrete, lights, fire and wire fencing. It was so bright, it could have been day. But, no. It was just before 3am.
Leaving Le Havre behind us we had the stunning stretch of the Pont de Normandie to ourselves as we crossed the dark River Seine to reach Honfleur and our motel. Most importantly, a comfy bed with our names on it was now close. In spite of all the delays in getting here, we’d done it and in spite of my fears would not be spending the night in a ditch by the side of the A29. A well-deserved rest was imminent, and there was the motel, but where on earth was the entrance? Would Epic and Monsieur ever get some rest? Would their travel adventures ever disappear? Hmmm. You’ll just have to tune in soon to find out.
Last Sunday I decided that something had to be done about my current addiction to (a) duvets, (b) blankets and (c) our gas fire. Donning as many layers as possible I took my camera to photograph the canals of Little Venice, which had frozen over.
Looking down Regent’s Canal from the blue Warwick Avenue bridge the canal looked more like a road you could drive along, rather than a waterway to float along.
A rare patch of water was visible under the other side of the blue bridge. Further along I found the beautiful red puppet theatre barge, which brought its optimism to the otherwise grey-and-white day.
Around the corner, poor old Jason sat quite inert. In the warmer months of the year he keeps busy chugging tourists up to Camden Lock and back, but now the canals are frozen solid so there’ll be no chugging for Jason for a while.
Some local folk had been testing the solidity of the ice, throwing bricks and other rubbish onto the canals to see whether the ice would break. It didn’t for this piece of scrap metal that will soon be polluting Browning’s Pond.
I once watched someone walk across an iced-over canal in Regent’s Park, but didn’t feel like risking an icy bath by trying to do so here. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a couple of joy-riding youths narrowly escaped death this week when they took their Peugeot 406 for a spin on the frozen Union Canal. Were their brains frozen? Apparently so.
This barge-café was open as usual, serving mugs of tea and coffee to walkers in need of somewhere to thaw.
Looking back at the Puppet Theatre and the blue bridge on Warwick Avenue, all of Browning’s Pool had disappeared beneath the ice.
The seagulls and other inhabitants of Browning’s Island took to their feet, walking about the ice in confusion. Where had the water gone?
Bilster wisely wore a coat against the weather.
And Bilster had obviously been around for a while, having been part of the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, in the days where the canals were used to transport goods up and down the country. FYI London hasn’t seen a phone number like CITY 4755 for quite some years.
The plants on this barge were hardy in the cold, but still I wondered if they might like to be taken inside to warm up, if only for a little while.
Further along, I met a swan in a patch of water near Paddington. He was swimming in circles, bleating at me as he searched in vain for his friends. Where had they gone? How ever had he been abandoned?
Still, he seemed happy of my company, even if the other walkers looked at me with concern each time I replied to his cries with a quack of my own.
Near Paddington I found a barge with homely plume of smoke coming from its chimney and two loads of firewood stacked on its roof. The occupants must be long-time residents of the canal and know how to protect themselves against the elements.
It was time to turn back. At Browning’s Pond the island’s usual population of Canada Geese were on the ice, preening themselves with the aid of watery reflections.
But now it was time to trudge home, careful not to slip or do involuntary ballet-like manoeuvres in an attempt to stay upright on icy patches. Enough of ice and snow. Bring on the gas fire, duvets and blankets!
(Image courtesy of Toonpool)
London’s Hammersmith, where I work, is full of what some might call ‘colourful’ characters. There’s the evangelist who shouts “are you a SINNER or are you a WINNER?” through a loudspeaker at lunchtime, the He-She who bums cigarettes off anyone who hasn’t yet encountered him/her, scoring a big, fat FAIL from those who have, plenty of teenagers with prams and pushchairs (they’re not babysitting), and your fair share of people of working age who do everything but between the hours of 9 and 5.
Most of the time, it’s okay working around here, but sometimes I really do wish I could transport my entire office to a quieter part of town. Take last week, for instance. I was having a typically busy time at work so I popped down to a local deli to pick up a salad box to munch at my desk. “Back in five!” I called to my boss. Little did I realise how optimistic that was.
As I was chatting away to the deli girls, a couple of cars screeched to a halt in true Dukes of Hazzard style across from the shop, their occupants jumping out and breaking into immediate violence. Shouting ensued, attracting our attention away from food (not so easy) and onto a couple of women laying punches into a third who’d been pushed off her feet. Had speech bubbles been hanging in the air around the trio, they would have read “Kapow!” “Whallop!” “Bang!” “Crack!”. Please note: these were NOT teenagers in some petty brawl, rather grown women of some proportion who were apparently quite skilled in the art of beating each other to a pulp.
As one of the deli girls called the police, we locked ourselves in, just in case the thugs ended up punching each other so hard that they landed on our side of the street. They didn’t, thankfully, but we stood, mouths agape, as a valiant passerby attempted to stop the fight, only to have the girl with the strong left upper cut round on him. The poor chap backed off from an unrelenting torrent of verbal abuse until the three women went back in the ring, so to speak, hurling one practised punch after another.
Next, the burly men from the two cars joined the dispute, punching each other, trying to drag the women off each other, then punching the women. That wasn’t enough for one of the guys, who marched up to his chief opponent’s car, punching the windscreen so hard that it shattered. Meanwhile, the singled-out woman was being dragged along the ground by her hair by the two other women, so hard that her trousers were pulled down by her weight. A flash of wobbly, white butt later, she was back on her feet, pulling up her trousers with one hand as she jabbed the air with the other in a continuation of her display of temper at all the others, both men and women.
At this point community officers had appeared in force, encouraging the men to retreat to their cars in an attempt to drive away, but the officers stood in front of the cars to stop them, in spite of the fact that they could easily have become road kill. Then the real police arrived, cuffing the men, one of whom had had his wife-beater vest ripped apart at the shoulder, revealing a very unattractive whale of a belly. These fighting folk were definitely not English; Albanian sprang to mind, as their reputation for domestic and other violence is renowned throughout Europe, but I couldn’t be certain. All I knew was that whatever it was they were shouting sounded Eastern European and one of the deli girls who’s Polish said it definitely wasn’t a language with which she was familiar.
In the deli, we stood glued to the scene outside. Had teeth flown across the street and struck the window, we’d hardly have been surprised, such was the violence playing out before us. In spite of police intervention, the woman who’d been dragged along the footpath was now trying to punch one of the men, the police struggling to hold her back. Sirens wailed, announcing the arrival of yet more uniforms. Before long, the group was under control. Ish. But still I hung back for a couple of minutes, just in case it all kicked off again.
Once back outside I could see that crowds had gathered to watch the unfolding of this real-life drama. Overhearing one bystander tell another that the argument concerned a watch, I hesitated, keen to find out more.
“Yeah, the guys were all shouting something about a watch,” he explained, eyes wide.
“A watch? What, in English?” Now I was confused.
“ No, not in English. Someone over there understood what they were shouting about and said it was a watch.”
Ah, a classic case of Chinese whispers. Unconvinced, I turned away.
“This is what happens when we open our doors to other nationalities,” said another man, stood in my path, nodding wildly,
“You wouldn’t see this on the streets of London if it weren’t for filthy immigrants like that!” he continued, gesturing at The Punch Bunch now being cuffed by police, forgetting that plenty of local crime is committed by born-and-bred Londoners. Just a couple of years back, a sixteen year old was stabbed to death in broad daylight, just down the street from our office, his youngest killers a mere 13 years old. They were Londoners. So were the Krays. Oh, yes, this Ranting Ronnie was doubtless a living, breathing member of the BNP, physical proof that such right-wing opinion is growing in this country. Lips firmly sealed, lest he twig my accent and tell me to go back to wherever it was I came from, I slunk away from the man, leaving two police cars, one police van and a lot of uniforms to get Mr BNP’s so-called filth off to the clink.
The whole episode made me shaky. Back in the safety of the office, I recounted the drama to my colleagues.
“Could’ve been Albanian,” commented one, “I knew a woman who was married to an Albanian once. He used to beat her all the time. Her kids were taken into care and then, years later, I bumped into her. ‘How’s your husband?’ I asked, wondering if she’d seen the light and moved on. ‘In a word? Dead,’she told me, ‘His uncle shot him.’ “
As it turns out, The Punch Bunch were all related, so what we’d witnessed on the streets of Sunny Hammersmith was the latest episode of a long-standing family feud. I can only imagine the amount of polyfilla stuffed into cracks in their walls at home, or how many gummy gaps they display when smiling. For a few days after the brawl, I found myself checking the footpath for leftover clumps of torn-out hair. After all, it’s not every day that you see a woman being dragged along the street by her long, black tresses. I’m only grateful to have escaped being born into a family like that, if you can call it a family…