THIS is a tale of two Kensington terraces – one housing a delightfully unstuffy hotel, the other an amazingly intact Victorian treasure trove.
Let’s call first at Prince of Wales Terrace, 22 imposing four-storey houses, just off busy Kensington High Street. The name commemorates the coming of age of the future Edward VII in 1862. Until our own Prince Charles he was the longest-serving heir apparent in history.
No 15-16 waited nearly a century and a half to become the Kensington House Hotel, which opened in February 2000 and the interior retained many of the original features including the staircase, balustrade and ceiling mouldings. The rest is very much 21st century, the interior elegantly revamped to offer 41 bright and airy guest rooms, all under the watchful eye of manager Antonio Sola.
I particularly like the Tiger Bar, where breakfast is also served, and the presence of original artworks and sculptures throughout. On my most recent visit, my room overlooked mews and secret gardens that gave a real sense of this fashionable part of Victorian London.
Of course, the area was fashionable long before. Kensington Palace, which hosted courts from William and Mary to George II and was the childhood home of Queen Victoria, is only a five-minute walk away. After the palace was re-designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1689, a private road was made through Hyde Park to Kensington, and beyond the road Kensington Square was laid out with houses for court officials. Within 15 years the ‘village’ had grown to three times the size of Chelsea and was filled with “Gentry and Persons of Note”.
In the 1870s Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne was definitely a person of note, his success enabling him to move into my second Kensington Terrace of note. From the outside, 18 Stafford Terrace, on the northern side of Kensington High Street, looks no different from its neighbours along the white stucco row. Step through the front door, though, and you are transported back in time. It feels as if Sambourne, his wife Marion and their wo children, and their servants are still in residence.
Once the base for the Victorian Society, the Linley Sambourne House is nowadays owned and cared for by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in tandem with the more spectacular Holland Park purpose-built studio of the painter, Frederick Leighton (the Arab Hall is quite extraordinary) – see this link.
Not that there’s anything plain about No. 18. The Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century advocated the use of foreign or 'exotic' influences in the decoration of the home'. This can be seen by the various Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Chinese objects throughout the Sambournes' home.
Their descendants lovingly preserved every last artifact and feature, very household utensil and personal belonging, while maintaining it as a centre for artistic gatherings. Dame Margot Fonteyn, the Sitwells, the Sir Johns, Gielgud and Betjeman, all attended soirees here. But it is not their ghosts, but those of a small artistically Victorian family that rule its warm interior.
Other things to see in Kensington:
1 Kensington Palace
Explore the magnificent State Apartments and the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which includes dresses worn by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Diana Princes of Wales, whom lived here. The gardens re beautiful, too. Horse-riding, cycling and roller-blading can be arranged in the gardens by Kensington House for hotel guests. www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace/.
2 The Royal Albert Hall
Tale in a concert. It is estimated that since its opening in 1871 more than 150,000 performances have taken place, none more high profile than the annual Last Night of the Proms. The Hall is open to daytime visitors for daily tours, with a shop and a restaurant. www.royalalberthall.com.
3 The South Ken Museums
The David Bowie exhibition has now finished at The Victoria and Albert Museum, but there remains an inexhaustible variety of objects to explore. More child friendly are the nearby Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. All are free.
4 The Serpentine Gallery
Situated in the heart of Kensington Gardens, this 1934 tea pavilion has been hosting challenging contemporary art exhibitions since 1970, attracting around 600,000 visitors a year. www.serpentinegallery.org.
Boutiques, department stores and chain stores line the streets of High Street Kensington and nearby Knightsbridge, home to Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Or you could walk up Kensington Church Street, with its antique shops and good pubs to Notting Hill. Portobello Road is till a good place to pick up used cricket balls, cheeky signs, wild west gear and vintage frocks. If it’s posh frocks (and other designer options) you are after turn right on to Westbourne Grove and surrounding streets, which have turned into a mini-Rodeo Drive. Look for Wolf and Badger, Ventilo, Brora, Smythson, Emma Hope Shoes.
6 Eating out
Kensington House Hotel doesn’t have a restaurant, but there are so many fine dining options not far away. Try Racine in South Kensington, Clarkes on Kensington Church Street or The Ledbury in Notting Hill. Or ultra close to the hotel, go for the ultra-reliable and charming Launceston Place. www.launcestonplace-restaurant.co.uk.
Kensington House Hotel, 15-16 Prince of Wales Terrace, Kensington, London, W8 5PQ. 020 7937 2345, www.kenhouse.com. The hotel can arrange for access to the Somar Gym for a fee of £10 per visit. Nearest Tube stations High Street Kensington (District and Circle Line) and Gloucester Road (District and Circle and Piccadilly Lines).
Linley Sambourne House, 18 Stafford Terrace, London W8 7BH. www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums.aspx.
Virgin Trains runs up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk. For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50.
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