Nikki Gemmell London
WITH LITTLE OTHER THAN A WINTER COAT AND A MANUSCRIPT FOR HER NOVEL, THE WRITER ARRIVED AT HEATHROW IN 1997 TO HOOK UP WITH AN EX-BOYFRIEND. SHE MARRIED HIM AND THEY NOW HAVE THREE CHILDREN.
W e live in Notting Hill. It’s the London of my imagination: tall white stucco terraces, cherry blossoms in spring, antique shops and street markets. But it’s also threaded through with a fabulous Caribbean community that lifts my heart. It has blue plaques on houses stating that writers such as George Orwell lived here once – I love all that. The area’s changed a lot in the past few years though. Bankers are moving in and the artistic vibe is moving elsewhere.
I love the glorious, fractious, aggressive energy of this city. You wander the West End, Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden and feel that the whole world is here, people from all corners of the globe. I love London’s wonderfully bold institutions – the Tate Modern gallery (tate.org.uk), Royal Albert Hall (www.royalalberthall.com), the Victoria & Albert Museum (www.vam.ac.uk) – and its quiet ones – the London Library (londonlibrary.co.uk), the Royal Geographical Society (www.rgs.org) and even Sir John Soane’s Museum (soane.org). It’s like playing in history over here.
At places like the White Cube Gallery (www.whitecube.com) you might catch an exhibition by Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, but the Tate Modern by the Thames is excellent for the sheer spectacle of the building as much as the collection. It also has a gorgeous, kid-friendly restaurant on Level 7, which must have the best view in London.
The kids adore the Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk); it’s our indoor playground. There’s the most fabulous play area in the basement involving all manner of hands-on experiments and live science shows. You can lose a whole day there.
For me, a roam through the deeply eccentric London Library in St James’s Square is the quintessential London experience. Charles Dickens was one of the founding members, T. S. Eliot was a vice-president and Tom Stoppard is the current president. Its wood-panelled reading room is a dream and it’s the only library I know that doesn’t subscribe to the Dewey Decimal System. Books on sex are filed under “P” for Pleasure and “F” for Flagellation – so English!
One of my favourite local shops is Rellik (relliklondon.co.uk), a great vintage store on Golbourne Road that Kate Moss often visits. I also love a rummage through Portobello Market (www.portobelloroad.co.uk) when all the vintage stalls are out in force (fashionistas go to the market really early, particularly during London Fashion Week).
It’s hard to describe the sheer bliss of the divine Topshop (topshop.co.uk) at Oxford Circus. There are clothes, bags, shoes, jeans and homewares on three massive levels plus a lolly bar to stock up on sweets while you roam. I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t adored it. And if you’re too busy to go there they’ve got a service called Topshop To Go, where a stylist and truck filled with the latest gear will visit your home and kit out you and your friends – a Tupperware party for 21st-century girls.
The Wolseley restaurant (www.thewolseley. com) on Piccadilly is great for star-spotting (Jude and Sienna were both lunching there, with different people, during their break-up period). It’s always a treat for special occasions when you want to glam up. Equally, you can just pop in for afternoon tea after shopping in the West End.
I like to drink at my club, Electric House (electrichouse.com), a private members’ club which is the Notting Hill branch of Soho House. It also has a lovely brasserie that anyone can go to. If it’s a really special occasion, I like sipping champagne in the bar at Claridge’s (www.claridges.co.uk). Afternoon tea there is divine as well, or at The Ritz hotel (www.theritzlondon.com) on Piccadilly.
If you’ve got the dosh, indulge in a most British way at Fortnum & Mason (fortnumandmason.com), between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus tube stations. It has a Royal Warrant (which means the Royal Family uses it) and is foodie heaven on several floors, all of it exquisitely packaged. Afterwards, if you’ve got kids in tow, take them to the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground (www.royalparks.org.uk) by Kensington Palace – it’s the best I’ve ever been to. Regent’s Park (on the Bakerloo Line) is lovely for grown-up picnics.
A summer evening on the promenade out the front of the Southbank Centre (www.southbankcentre.co.uk), right on the Thames, is a great place to sit and watch the world go by, especially if the sky is blue.
London is at its best at Christmas time. Imagine fairy lights everywhere, ice-skating outdoors at the Natural History Museum (www.nhm.ac.uk), real Christmas trees, holly wreaths on doors, velvet, sequins, rosy cheeks, beautiful carol services and the possibility of snow – it’s magical.