This is a favourite walk I’ve been doing for years - essentially a stroll through one of the posher parts of London, some mews, hidden pubs and lots of embassies! Takes about twenty to thirty minutes depending on how slow you walk. If you stop in the nearby pubs - and there are nice ones on this route - then this time can easily stretch to a full afternoon.
A few years ago - before time began, before Land Securities redeveloped Cardinal Place in Victoria Street - I worked in Portland House. For those of you that don’t know, Portland House is a 1963 concrete skyscraper near London’s Victoria Station. If you’ve been in the area, you’ve probably seen it standing like an inappropriate erection menacing the surrounding area. However, it does have a good view from the top floors over the nearby private Buckingham Palace Gardens (Hi Queenie - put that bikini top back on).
I had a stressful job back in the early 2000’s. I know, I know, you weep for me. Occasionally though I would break the chains of my captors, shoo away the ravenous eagles pecking at my vitals, and head West (young man). I’d explore the quieter streets of Belgravia. So when my company moved to Belgrave House on Buckingham Palace Road a year or two later, I found I could walk to Harrods in my lunch hour. Once there I’d give my Harrods loyalty card a heavy work out. That’s how I roll. And so the Victoria Station to Harrods walk or - it’s more famous cousin - the Harrods to Victoria Station walk was born.
I retraced my steps recently, reminding myself, as I walked, of memories, memories of people and situations long gone but, as I turned familiar corners, not forgotten. For you see, whilst I often did this walk alone, I often didn’t. There was a girl once. There’s always a girl. But I’ll get to that.
As you come out of Harrods, turn away from Brompton Road, past the tube exit and into Hans Crescent. Latterly, this quiet road has become infamous as the place where that self-regarding idiot Julian Assange turns a whiter shade of pale inside the Ecuadorian Embassy. But also, marvel at the illegally parked limos littering the road. Clearly very rich people can’t be expected to obey petty traffic restrictions. They have to launder, sorry spend, their ill gotten gains in Harrods.
Turning right onto Sloane Street, we cross the road and idle past all the high-end shops no-one I know uses. Around the corner we get to the Jumeirah Carlton Hotel on Cadogan Place. It’s an ugly 60’s built hotel but very popular with rich people who like the nearby shopping. Here, if you linger, you can watch the rich go in and out, observe old men parade impossibly beautiful women - maybe to stock up on lingerie at La Perla next door - and then wonder, ‘why the fuck isn’t that my life?’
And across the road to Motcomb Street. I’ve always liked this little high street. There’s an elegant Waitrose, where, back in the day, I used to come to for lunch, buy some rolls, some ham, sun-dried tomatoes and make an al fresco sandwich in the open space behind the Pantechnicon across the road. Back in the mid 2000’s this was where old Roma ladies in shawls used to gather for lunch after a hard morning’s begging outside Harrods. It was quite the style back then; full East European garb, a walking stick, a shake and a shudder. Anyway, I’m pleased to report their various ailments seemed to be much improved by lunchtime as they discussed the day’s take.*
There’s just one pub, latterly called the anodyne The Alfred Tennyson but previously, the more spicy Turk’s Head. In either incarnation I never much liked it and, on my last visit, it seemed a restaurant masquerading as a bar. Anyway, I always turn left just in front of the pub and walk down the mews that is Kinnerton Street. Clearly I never go in Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus. Instead I head to the rather marvellous Nag’s Head and less marvellous but more spacious Wilton Arms.
The Nag’s Head has two bars; a tiny front bar - curiously low down - and a larger room down some stairs at the back. It didn’t allow mobile phones nor - as I found out - laptops. It’s a quirk but one I’m happy to abide by. I fondly think that much of Franco’s Fiesta was handwritten here. It wasn’t. That privilege goes to the bar in Burgess Hill’s Beefeater. A classy joint where you get thrown out for not wearing a football top.
Years back, I used to hold team meetings in the Nag’s Head, gaining the respect of my team by playing endless games of Shag, Marry, Push Off a Cliff. I usually ended up as ‘Marry’ which personally I’m okay with.
The pub almost next door - The Wilton - is a bit louder, a bit brassier. Outside in the summer it tends to be populated by Belgravia estate agents braying loudly about their latest deal. I’ve eaten here a couple of times. Nothing special.
A twist and a turn and we’re on Wilton Crescent, one of those gorgeous arched stucco terraces that home old money, embassies and money launderers. When I make my millions, I think I might buy here. No, not a flat. A whole house. And then I could pop out to The Grenadier - London’s most difficult to find pub which is out back, in another mews. I’m usually too pissed to find it. It’s worth a stop. Tell Madonna ‘hello’ from me. I still remember that night in Ciprianis.
Into Belgrave Square and we’re now into serious embassy country. Armed police, CCTV, manic taxi drivers, diplomatic plates, Simón Bolivar statue. Then down Upper Belgrave Street. Usually I’m picking up the pace by this point because either I’ve got a train to catch or - more likely - I’m needing the loo. A good place to stop is another hidden mews pub - The Horse and Groom. There’s a couple of tables outside on the road, summertime this area in front of the pub gets crowded. It’s much quieter in the afternoons if you’ve snuck out for a cheeky half. Yeah, WTF is a ‘cheeky half’?
Now I’ve really got my head down and heading towards the station. Two points of interest. First is St Peter’s church. Now this could be either Upper Belgrave Street, Lower Belgrave Street or Eaton Square. Not a clue. Shame someone couldn’t invent software where one could look up these things - you know like a telephone directory but online. Anyway, it’s a pretty church in a vaguely temple type way. It’s the picture at the top of the page. And then we have The Plumbers Arms. If I’m heading in Victoria / Harrods direction this tends to be my first port of call.
Of course, it’s famous as the place where Lady Lucan fled to after getting whacked on the head by her soon to be missing husband (they lived opposite). The staff seem to have no idea about the history of their pub and look at me like I’m a nutter when I ask about it. Anyway, it’s a decent boozer, usually busy, not bad food. Good place to start but not end the walk.
For we have one more pub. Now called The Victoria I’m sure it used to be The Princess Victoria back in the day when I used to go there. Needless renaming. It’s hidden down a mews - Phipps Mews - so tourists never find it as it has no entrance onto Buckingham Palace Road. I used to work in the next door office - Belgrave House where American Express and Google used to uneasily share the building. It tended to be the place we headed after a hard day’s toil. But that’s not why I remember it…
Back in the 90’s I attended South Bank University doing some useless Masters Degree. There I met a girl. Both of us had other attachments. I suppose we all have our secrets... We used to go into The Princess Victoria - as it then was - and make plans, organising the gloomy logistics of our affair. I don’t remember there being many laughs. And then a furtive kiss outside before I headed off back down to the South Coast and she went home to Hammersmith to another man.
I raise a glass to the memory when I go in.
And then, cross the mayhem of Buckingham Palace Road to the Station - now thankfully liberated from the ridiculous three foot high fence that we all vaulted pissed trying to get our train. Some colleagues would mistime their jumps and end up sprawled in the road (yeah, you know who you are).
To conclude, do this walk either way. Do it in winter. Do it in summer. Do it sober and take in the great architecture, the sedate upstairs / downstairs history. Do it for the shops or exercise. Or have a great pub crawl in some great pubs with a sense of the past, with stories to tell, in places you wouldn’t normally find pubs without knowing. Do it for me. Or for an idea of me. Once.
*Fashions change. Here in Clapham you’re not considered a beggar unless you’ve got an accordion on which you bash out some meaningless tune.