‘We don’t have far to walk for dinner, do we?’ asks Mrs Smith as she climbs out of heels that have spent the afternoon punishing the pavements of Kensington and Chelsea. We have retreated to the safe tranquility of our comfy room at the Cranley hotel, beaten back by the retail forces of the Fulham Road, at considerable podiatric cost. The Cranley is perfectly placed within this London borough, with its galleries and museums, parks and gardens and river all close by. And the shops. Good God, the shops.
‘Well, I’ve already booked our table for tonight,’ I reply, having figured out my ruse on the walk back down Bina Gardens. ‘And it’s this one,’ I say, tapping the mahogany of the grand circular table nestled in the bay window of this Victorian townhouse. Mrs Smith surveys this room that distinctly doffs its cap to the Regency era and squeals with delight. It is feet-up, hotel-slippers-on time for these Smiths, for the rest of the evening.
The Cranley doesn’t have a restaurant as such. They have turned that into a positive, and cheery staff and an obliging kitchen can turn out quintessential British dishes (roast beef; fish and chips; afternoon tea) to enjoy in the lounge or in your own quarters. The extensive in-room information pack also carries recommendations for restaurants in the area, but room service works just fine for us. You see, Mrs Smith and I are using this weekend break to relax, unwind and escape the varying demands of the four Smith progeny. Did I say escape? I meant ‘evade’. Evade? Ahem. I mean ‘miss terribly’.
Londoners by birth, and northerners for a long time since, we’re tourists in our hometown which lends an enticing, nefarious dynamic: we’re hiding our heads under the luxurious duvet in this Kensington bolthole, having made none of our friends and family aware of our visit south. The Cranley itself shares a similar heritage. The 60-acre Gunter estate was originally purchased by another displaced northerner – a Yorkshire landowner – in the 1790s, when it was used for horticulture (rather than the haughty couture the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea now makes a specialty). It was the eldest son, Robert, who founded Messrs Gunter in Berkeley Square, once as famous a food emporium as the nearby cornershop, Harrods. The coming of the railway turned the Gunters into property developers in the 1860s and the Cranley Hotel is formed from house numbers 8, 10 and 12 Bina Gardens.
As we wait for dinner to arrive, Mrs Smith attends to her evening ablutions in the elegant, period-styled bathroom, and yelps upon uncovering the toiletries – the Blenheim Bouquet perfume from Penhaligon’s. ‘Darling, you do realise that a previous owner of this very house, one Robert Moggridge, actually ran a perfumery in Notting Hill?’ I casually remark through the bathroom door. ‘Which he sold to William Penhaligon, who was a Cornishman of course…’ Mrs Smith has emerged from the bathroom befuddled by my sudden professorship in British history, only to discover me leafing through the hotel’s literature. Busted.
Back to the toiletries. Posh potions are usually a good indicator of a bunk-up’s attention to detail and here at the Cranley, along with the tasteful decor, they betray just that. Along with the welcoming open fire in reception and Chinese-blue walls, Benninson-clad cushion-scattered settees and Georgian chandelier of the downstairs drawing room. As for our high-ceilinged boudoir: the heavy curtains, purple tones and a bespoke four-poster Beaudesert bed you need a stepladder to scale, all confirms that this is somewhere where the devil is in the detail. Even the lift here is elegantly hidden, Scooby Doo style, resembling the insides of a Queen Anne cabinet.
Our uncharacteristically elastic, childfree weekend is spent simply mooching around our temporary London locale, letting the changing of traffic lights or the whim of an interesting pedestrian dictate our direction. The area is full of striking Victorian architecture, these proud buildings adorned with blue plaques that loudly drop names such as Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and George Elliot. We crisscross the River Thames, heading over Battersea Bridge and back over eccentric Albert Bridge, then via antique markets, old bookshops and charity stores (Kensington cast-offs are not to be sniffed at). We meander along the Kings Road, pop into the Saatchi Gallery and wind up at the Chelsea Physic Garden, close to where the Chelsea Pensioners reside (no, not Frank Lampard). We spread out in a local hostelry with pints and the papers, people-watching local chaps in their crisp shirts and khaki shorts.
Back at the Cranley, our bed has been turned down and fresh water and cakes provided. We accept an invitation to step onto the hotel’s terrace to enjoy complimentary champers and canapés, then retreat to our room, to hide back under that duvet. Deep in the velvet quiet of the night, I strain to hear the ghosts of the blue plaques pull free of their portico prisons to stalk the wide streets of Kensington – Thomas Carlyle, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Mick Jagger (though not technically dead yet) – have all been local characters. These are the personalities with whom we share this perfect weekend, enjoying a window into a world of Bentley magazines and The Daily Mail, of bubbly and amuse-bouches on the terrace of our SW5 des res.
After saying farewell, we extend the fantasy by upgrading to first class on the train home, grazing on a posh picnic of Belgian chocolates, fine wine and Hummingbird cupcakes given to us as Mr & Mrs Smith members. We polish it all off just as the train pulls into Stockport station… recharged for an extended period back in the very loveable brand of chaos that we call home.