Back to Britain, Part 2
Dolphin Square Apartment Hotel
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 2, 2003)
By Lewis Nolan
June 11, 2003, Wednesday – In London
We had a spacious, studio apartment at the Dolphin Square Apartment Hotel for our seven nights in London. The Dolphin Square is 1,000-unit, residential development in the Westminster borough of central London, a couple of blocks from the Pimlico tube station. About 140 of its one-bedroom and studio apartments are set aside for use as a hotel.
|Lewis and Betty in Dolphin Square's garden|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
It is just off Chichester Street in a quiet section of town and across busy Grosvenor Road from the Thames River Embankment. It is near the Vauxhall Bridge. The Dolphin Square is one of the facilities used by Grand Circle Travel’s extended vacation packages in London and has reasonable proximity by foot, by bus or tube to many of London’s most popular landmarks. We liked the idea of having a space and convenience of a flat while still being able to enjoy the services of a four-star hotel, plus reasonable proximity to the many of London’s most popular attractions.
Our strategy of a late morning arrival at Gatwick Airport worked and we were spared hours of grumpy boredom waiting for our room to be prepared. It took a couple of hours to collect our bags, clear customs, ride the train to Victoria Station and then catch a cab to the hotel. We checked in without delay about 1 p.m., familiarized ourselves with the hotel’s facilities and then napped for a couple of hours.
We learned from Adrian Ray, general manager of the Dolphin Square, that the 1,000-unit apartment development was built in 1938. It consists of four, red brick buildings constructed around massive, bomb-resistant piers made of concrete, an important attribute when the war clouds were gathering. In fact, Ray told us, the construction method kept the buildings from collapsing when the Dolphin Square was hit repeatedly by German bombs and rockets during World War II. One can’t move a step in London without encountering history; the city dates to Londinium, a Roman colony founded two millennia ago.
The late Charles de Gaulle of France made the Dolphin Square his headquarters during World War II. Among other notable residents who have kept in-town apartments there were former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Princess Anne.
The highest buildings have 10 stories. All are built around 3 ½ acres of exquisitely landscaped gardens that are by themselves worth a visit. Comfortable, wooden benches are strategically placed so residents can alternatively enjoy sun or shade, depending on season and mood. Some read. Some work on their tans.
The formal plantings of white, red, pink and yellow roses were in full bloom and were gorgeous. Other beds included geraniums, allyssem, lobelia, ivy leaf geraniums, begonias, fushia, cannas, lavender and grapevines. In the middle of the gardens is a beautiful fountain with water gushing around a metal sculpture of three dolphins that are about half life-size.
One young man told us he paid just over £1,100 (nearly $2,000) a month for his one-bedroom apartment, comparable to New York and San Francisco prices. He said that sum was relatively low for central London. Later, we met another young man – a Yale MBA student working for the Morgan Bank in London for the summer – who said he was paying $2,500 a month for a 1 ½ BR apartment a block or two from the Dolphin Square. Again and again, in London and elsewhere, we marveled at the sky-high housing prices and wondered how so many people can afford such rent and buy small condos with a view of the Thames for $500,000 and up.
The Dolphin Square complex is old but charming. We have a freshly decorated studio apartment, or flat, that includes a marble and tile bathroom with a huge tub and one of the odd, shower-on-a-metal-hose contraptions one finds in Great Britain. A tiny kitchen includes an office size refrigerator and a clever Panasonic, multipurpose cooking unit that can be used as an oven, a microwave, a grill or a convection heating device. We only used the kitchen equipment to make toast, heat sandwiches and chill beverages. The bedroom/living area is large and includes a dining/work table, easy chairs, a kingsize bed and TV that broadcasts CNN plus loads of British news and sports programming.
I was struck at the huge offerings of sports on “the telly,” at all times of the day and night. There were endless hours of soccer, rugby, cricket and horse racing. There was live coverage of the U.S. Open golf tournament underway near Chicago.
Air conditioning was achieved by opening the windows or turning on a fan. That’s the way it is done at most English residences including St. James Palace, home of Prince Charles. With highs during our stay in the low and mid 70s and a cool wind from the nearby Thames, we were never uncomfortable. Oddly, London doesn’t seem to have the mosquito problem we have back home. None of the windows at places we stayed - the Dolphin Square, the Hilton in Bath or the Trewinnard Hotel in St. Ives - had screens. It wasn’t until our last night in England, spent at the Holiday Inn Gatwick (part of a chain that was founded in Memphis and caters to Americans) that we had air conditioning.
The Dolphin Square offers its hotel guests - plus those complex residents and a few others who pay membership fees – the use of a large and elegant health club, called “Zest.” It reminded me of the “Vertical Club” fitness facilities in New York City I patronized years ago when staying at the nearby Hyatt Regency on 42nd Street. Zest has an 18-meter, indoor pool; lots of aerobic and weight resistance equipment; and individual rooms for a range of therapeutic treatments including massage and aromatherapy.
It offers a mini-mall of sorts that includes a small grocery store, liquor store, hair salon and deli. It also has a business center with Internet connections and office support services, travel agency, two restaurants and a bar. The deli was our main source for lunches, delicious ham and tomato sandwiches on baguettes we ate in our flat. Breakfasts usually consisted of sliced ham from the deli plus some toast or sweet rolls bought at the grocery and heated in our tiny kitchen.
London is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in or to visit. Decent hotel rooms that are small by American standards are $200 a night and up, and usually way up). Nonetheless, we found that we could eat reasonably well pretty cheap. We fended for ourselves at breakfast and lunch most days with takeout food. Dinners were eaten at inexpensive restaurants or neighborhood pubs recommended by hotel concierges. Our typical evening meal cost $15-to-$20 each, plus wine – about what we pay in Memphis unless we get fancy.
We followed the dining advice of a very helpful, bellman/concierge named Raymond, who lives in the neighborhood. Our first night in London, we ate “pub grub” at The Gallery, a watering hole across the street from the Pimlico tube station. The fish and chips were excellent and included generous servings of fresh cod, French fries and a salad for £7.95. I soon learned that it’s tough to stick to the Atkins way of eating only low-carbohydrate foods anywhere in England, especially in a pub.
After dinner, we walked around the neighborhood and hotel gardens. Across the street from the Dolphin Square is the most ugly school building we’ve ever seen. In a “Clockwork Orange” architectural style of retro modernism, it is built of stainless steel and glass jutting out at odd angles that makes one think of a prison. It is a middle school, one of many in Britain that are grossly under funded because of the country’s economic contraction and quite possibly government mismanagement. Aesthetically, it is an abomination. The grounds are absolutely filthy with accumulated grime and trash that can only come with months of indifference. The asphalt playgrounds were sunken perhaps 8 feet below ground level, making them large repositories of blown trash and leaves from seasons past.
We were flabbergasted to see that the mean playgrounds served as a venue for what appeared to be a fairly important Net Ball tournament. Net Ball is a co-ed, British team sport that seems to combine volleyball with basketball. The couple of dozen teams of young adults played for their league championship over the weekend. One of the players told us everybody participating lived in London, but their team uniforms and banners reflected their countries of origin. There were teams of transplanted players from such Commonwealth countries as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
Striking up a conversation with another player about to join her teammates for an after-game pint at a nearby pub, I asked why the tournament was being played in such a crummy venue. She politely informed me that “there isn’t money available for quality venues like you have in America.” I thought this quite odd, because London has hundreds of acres of open land in the Royal Parks. But none seem to have the ball fields and other recreational facilities that are customary in U.S. parks. I suppose there is a fundamental difference in values and thinking between Americans and Brits about proper uses of public land. I recall the oft-quoted line attributed to the writer George Bernard Shaw about “two great nations separated by a common language.”
The school at the front door of the Dolphin Square serves as a reminder that there is a gulf of much more than water that separates America and England.
What a depressing place for children to learn. It made inner city schools in America (like the one in Memphis where Betty has taught for many years) look like showplaces of civic pride by contrast. We asked ourselves, “Where is the famous British pride in appearances? Where is the PTA or other parental support? Where are the neighbors?”
The hotel’s general manager told us that a proposal to raze the school and rebuild had been shelved several months ago by worsening government finances. No wonder so many affluent Britons send their children to private schools.
We are always amused by the differences in customs and designs we encounter when traveling to other countries. Great Britain certainly has its quirky way of doing things.
For example, the ceiling light in our flat’s bathroom is activated by a long, pull string that hangs down alongside the door and often gets tangled in the door knob. Why didn’t they put a switch in the wall? Why didn’t they hang the string from the light rather than connect it to a switch and conduit hidden in the ceiling?
The bathtub is mounted on a platform 6 or 8 inches high. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the extra height, which poses a risky step down for bathers climbing out of the tub. The door handles are mounted about 18 inches higher than they are back home, in perfect position to catch shirt sleeves. The tub’s glass splash wall only extends a foot or two from the shower head, guaranteeing that a shower at full force will dump a lot of water on the floor. In England, hard-boiled resistance to change still has most new plumbing installations of basins featuring separate, hot and cold water faucets rather than the U.S.-favored, single-handle water mixers.
I’m sure our British cousins are equally mystified by the way we Americans approach design. They certainly have reached out to their American visitors with signage reminding of opposite flowing traffic. Crosswalks on busy streets frequented by tourists have “Look Left” or “Look Right” warnings painted in bold letters to help visitors look out for approaching traffic coming from unexpected directions.
We found not a hint of anti-American sentiment anywhere in England. The newspapers were full of protest coverage and commentary about the wisdom – or lack of it - of Prime Minister Blair’s unwavering support of President Bush and the U.S. position over the invasion of Iraq. But the frenzy of outrage in the non-Labor Party press didn’t spill over into any private contacts and conversations we had with everyday Brits. They were unfailingly polite and accommodating to our requests for directions or information.
Certainly, the substantial falloff in American tourism is affecting the economy here and Brits have a reason to be extra nice to their visitors. But I think what is more important is the deep reservoir of goodwill between Americans and Britons that transcends passing government policies.
In fact, just over a month after our return home, Prime Minister Blair was given a thunderous welcome by a special, Joint Session of Congress. He cracked that he was received better in the U.S. Congress than in his own Parliament. He brought down the house when he reminded the Americans that his just-presented medal was first given George Washington for defeating the British and that he had toured the site where British soldiers had burned the original Library of Congress in 1812: “I know it’s a little late for this, but ‘Sorry.’” Love the English! Would that we had a man of Blair’s wit, intelligence, toughness and political skills.
London is a city of contrasts. The character of neighborhoods often changes drastically within a block or two, and sometimes even across the street. Pockets of elegance and shabbiness seem to co-exist far more prevalently than in American cities, where worries over real estate values lead to zoning restrictions and building code enforcement actions.