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Enter the secret world of London’s private clubs.

by Andrea on February 11, 2011

Boodle's Private Members' Club in St James's (est. 1762) offers a glimpse into the past that is still very visible today (image credit below)

“Clubland” isn’t just a place: it is also a time and a state of mind.

The Club was where Bertie Wooster could disappear to, away from the demands of his family and ever-decreasing circles of PG Wodehouse’s plots.

The Club was where Regency gentlemen once bet on which drop of rain would reach the bottom of the window pane first or which bluebottle would be the first to fly off.  The Club was the place where fortunes were won or lost at the card table; it was a place of capacious leather armchairs and obsequious servants; it was – above all – a bachelor’s establishment where women were prohibited to enter.

London Clubland grew up in the 18th century around Pall Mall and St James’s.  White’s – the earliest club – was set up in 1693; others followed including Boodle’s and Brooks’.  This was the heyday of the clubs, which in the Regency became high-stakes gambling dens.

There’s a rather different feeling to the great Victorian clubs – the Carlton Club, the Reform Club, the Athenaeum – many of them founded with serious-minded objectives, and with a more learned or political slant than the aristocratic, pleasure-seeking clubs that had gone before.  That’s something you can clearly see in the architecture – Boodle’s at no 28 St James’s Street looks like a luxurious townhouse in the Adam style, as does White’s with its famous bow window where Regency leader of fashion Beau Brummel held court, displaying his taste and style to all passers-by.

Turn into Pall Mall, though, and you’ll see the clubs are architecturally more massive and less homely – the Athenaeum even sports a reproduction of the Parthenon’s frieze, bringing ancient Greek culture to clubland.

The Athenaeum Club is inside one of London's most flamboyant and striking buildings (image credit below)

If you’re visiting London you’re unlikely to see inside one of the clubs.  But you can still see quite a lot of Club culture, since the Clubs spawned businesses supplying their gentleman members with necessities such as perfume, shaving brushes and razors, wine, hats, boots, and clothing.

On St James’s Street you’ll find Berry Bros and Rudd, an ancient wine merchant’s; the facade fascinates me, with its pockmarked paint – it’s never been stripped, just painted over again and again for a couple of centuries (a London secret; go down the little passage at the side to find the Texas Legation, with a charming little courtyard dating from 1842-5 when Texas was a sovereign state).  Lock & Co hatters dates from 1759 and like Berry Bros has a period shop front; the window has a fine display of hats.  And then there’s Lobb the bootmaker – every boot and shoe still made to order.

There’s also Jermyn Street, best known perhaps for its shirtmakers and gentlemen’s outfitters (Savile Row does suits, Jermyn Street does shirts – an odd division of labour).  Jermyn Street has a rather good free WiFi 4 star hotel – the Cavendish – one of London’s best eco-friendly hotels.

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Paxton & Whitfield sells amazing cheeses and fine foods in the heart of London "Clubland" (image credit below)

Other shops make a fine display too.  Floris Fine Perfumes has been at number 89 for 280 years, with its fine mahogany shelves and dainty packaging; there are a number of fine shoemakers; and Paxton & Whitfield, a fine food shop whose window is dominated by a couple of stupendously large, rough-rinded cheeses.

You won’t run into Beau Brummel, though his statue still stands in Jermyn Street just outside the Piccadilly Arcade.  These shopping arcades are another heritage of the Regency; elegant classical architecture, and no need to worry about the rain.  How civilised!

You won’t bump into Bertie Wooster either, though I think I may have seen his double coming out of Hilditch & Key a few days ago.  But just wandering around Clubland can be remarkably good fun; and if you get fed up with window-shopping and the high life, then you can always head for St James’s Park and feed the ducks.

So how about some London hotels which evoke the best atmosphere of private clubs?  We can suggest two exceptional luxury hotel options:

Bertie Wooster’s spirit updated for the 21st century – Hotel 41

The current number 1 London hotel on TripAdvisor delivers a Club-like experience from the moment you step inside (actually it’s a job to spot the hotel front, so discreetly is it nestled away).  A well-dressed young lady is stationed at a minimalist reception desk and whisks you up in one of the hotel’s private lifts to the top floor.  Only guests are allowed inside.

The decor is unashamedly Club-like, with 1920s style prints in the rooms and everything decorated in a characteristic black and white monochrome style.  The hotel is bang up-to-date though with free WiFi throughout.

The lounge at Hotel 41 feels very much like an exclusive members-only club, but without the slightest stuffiness

Hotel 41 is perhaps the ultimate “boutique hotel”: style with substance, beautiful surroundings supplemented by amazing, friendly service and myriad tiny noticeable touches that will absolutely blow you away.

Finally, there’s the hotel’s lounge.  Not only can you “plunder the pantry” free of charge but they also delight in making almost anything you crave to order.  It’s also one of the few London hotels where they serve kippers!

It has a certain cocoon-like intimacy and staff who want to wow you at every opportunity, as its latest TripAdvisor reviews clearly confirm.  Jeeves himself would have faced stiff competition had he worked at Hotel 41!

Traditional English Club-style refinement – The Stafford

The Stafford feels very much like a traditional “club” but has warmth, hospitality and character in abundance too.  You do feel you’ve stepped back in time but without relinquishing your essential modern comforts.

Its location is certainly distinctive – as is the fact it’s spread over several mews-like private buildings (joined by what used to be an 18th century stable courtyard).

Many of the staff have worked there for decades and you can see from the glint in their eye that they love to make their guests feel special.

It is home to the distinguished American Bar – which feels very much like the bar of an exclusive Club.  Its “members” are past patrons who have contributed gifts to help build up its famous collection of memorabilia.

The Stafford has listened to feedback and recently relaxed its dress code, but you still get a definite sense of “occasion” when sipping cocktails there.

Then there’s the amazing 360 year old wine cellar (indeed it’s the perfect hotel for wine-lovers) – where you’ll feel you’ve entered a secret world.

The American Bar at the Stafford has a distinctly Club-like feel (image link below)

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Above all, The Stafford is a hotel with a sense of history and tradition which represents the very best of London’s Clubland.

Book either of the above luxury hotels and you’ll get 5 star service in intimate surroundings – in the very best tradition of London’s private clubs.

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Photo credits: Hotel 41, Ewan-M’s photostream, Matt from London’s photostream, Wolfiewolf’s photostream, Tired of London’s photostream.

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