Yesterday, it was a view of Istanbul rooftops. Today it is London… When I called down, last evening, for a wakeup call this morning, The Stafford’s operator said in a very-English voice, ‘Crikey, do you mean that early?”
At that appointed hour, today, a very nice (other) voice called and said ‘Good morning, would you like some tea or coffee?’. And, amazingly, only four minutes later a very-English gentleman, immaculate in a suit good enough for a funeral (the gal thought he also had a black tie on) arrived at the fourth floor door. How did you get here so quickly? It is all set up, he said with a smile. We just have to add tea or coffee.
The tray is wood. It has a linen cloth, and it bears white china, designed by Jasper Conran (son of paterfamilias Terence Conran) for Wedgwood, which used to be English but, after having been Irish for a time, it is now American-owned.
Little traditional English touches include both brown and white sugar lumps, and an insulated holder to avoid burning one’s delicate little hands on the boiling-hot metal handle of the coffee pot.
Really traditionally, metal tea and coffee pots had inserts of polished bone in their handles, two per handle so that you could lift the handle between. Really traditionally, of course, there would not have been an iPod dock next to where Mr English Gentleman put the tray.
This is a quick overnight in London, changing planes, so to speak. And where better for a shot of Englishness than The Stafford, the luxury hotel that so many American cognoscenti have loved for many years, and still do. Fifty-one percent of all those who stay here come from the USA, and many of them are probably welcomed at Heathrow by a pleasant guy from Croatia driving a German car (BMW).
The Stafford is tucked away in St James’s Place, an L-shaped cul-de-sac, point of no return, off busy St James’s. It is 200 yards, as the crow flies, from St James’s Palace, the same from Green Park tube station in Piccadilly.
Walking around the immediate neighbourhood is best as you can cut through the cobblestone courtyard at the back direct to St James’s, where you find not only traffic but such necessary retail as Edmiston for yet another super-yacht, James Fox for stocking up on Montecristo cigars, Swaine Adeney for shooting apparel and Justerini & Brooks for your claret.
A few minutes’ further on and you can fill up on beluga at Caviar House & Prunier, and people-watching (if you have a reservation) at the perennially-popular The Wolseley restaurant. Again, if you have a reservation, you could do one of the afternoon tea sessions, first one 11.30, last one 19.30, at The Ritz. Or… you could stay home.
Because The Stafford is, and always was, a home. In 1903 Lord and Lady Lyttelton lived here. It then became Green’s Private Hotel (who he?) and then the more-elegant St James’s Palace Hotel. In 1912 they, the then-owners, added The Stafford Club, in the mews terrace behind, and called the hotel The Stafford.
It was a club for American and Canadian soldiers during World War II, later bought by the Costain construction company, then Trafalgar House (so it was a Cunard hotel), then Thwaites brewery and then on to a private Middle Eastern owner. And he brought in the traditional European hoteliers, Kempinski, to manage the 105-room hotel.
Some regular guests want the mews-terrace rooms, looking into the cobbled courtyard (look left and you can spy the hotel’s American Bar). Others opt for a new block, across the courtyard.
Here, room 431, in soft mushrooms and beige, expects you to do serious shopping as it has no fewer than three closet wardrobes. It has such English necessities as heated electric towel rails, so handy for washing one’s Agent Provocateur underwear when on an overnight stand. There is a yellow rubber duck to keep you company in a bathtub into which you have tipped pale amethyst bath salts from a glass pot.
English-ness must keep up to date. The toiletries are organic (Molton Brown, which is now Japanese-owned). Magazines includes The Economist Intelligent Life and also Le Grand Mag, a super-life compendium that calls itself The Extremely Well Living Magazine, full of watches and private places and polo, and many pages of raunchy corselettes. But you can still do trad here. Books on a shelf in 431 include a Shorter Atlas of Western Civilization, crammed into 224 pages – it has £4 written, in pencil, on the inside fly-leaf.
You can get much of later western civilization actually by going to the above-mentioned American Bar, a serious player since it opened in 1930. For the last few decades visitors have brought model planes, ends of ties, paintings, memorabilia to hang here. Every square inch of ceiling displays such irreplaceable treasures.
Wall cabinets include a display of plastic-wrapped glasses used by members of the Royal Family when they came for a cocktail – it is said Prince Charles helped pay the bills of long-time Bar resident Nancy Wake, 1912-2011, a World War II heroine code-named ‘White Mouse’: she first came to The Stafford to see its then-manager, Louis Burdet, another Resistance hero known as ‘White Rabbit’ and it is almost true to say she stayed put.
Today’s head barman, Ben(oit) Provost is a protégé of another legendary keeper of The American Bar, Charles Guano. Have a martini here, or a glass of Champagne (say Pol Roger, the favourite of that quintessential Englishman, Winston Churchill).
Life at The Stafford goes on and on, thanks to its people, many of whom are ‘characters’ (love the way those who cycle to work string their bikes up as an artwork on the passage from cobbled courtyard to St James’s). You can see some of the team on the hotel’s website – GM Leon Baum, Italian-English concierge Frank Laino (his Frankly Speaking has over a thousand subscribers) and Baum’s PA, Sarah Pendrigh.
She deals with VIP reservations but guess what, it is her boss who personally hand writes, in real ink and totally legibly, a personalized 27-word welcome card. I drank the health of Englishness as I ate my Stafford omelette (mushroom-filled, and truffle sauced) and drank a glass of the house claret (The Stafford Cellars Claret Bordeaux by Maison Sichel, the first Bordeaux wine merchant to create its own label).