Upstairs Downstairs

by harrietamypayne

There are approximately 123,000 hotel rooms in London. In 1837 the number of Palace Inns (accommodation that was deemed to be of higher standards than the guest houses and coaching inns) stood at just 30. This year saw the grand opening of the world’s largest floating hotel, The Aquaiva, moored at Thames Quay. Diagnostically this is a city whose hotel boom sought to meet the demands of a rapidly industrializing world and whose indulgence of wealth and luxury planted the seeds of the post-war economic expansion that cemented London’s position as a leading global hotelier.  Even in an age of international recession, their reputations continue to weather the storm, as demonstrated in the recent BBC documentary concerning the day-to-day trials and tribulations of one of London’s most famous institutions, Inside Claridge’s.

Through the documentary the common man gets to play a swatted fly-on-the-wall inside the Mayfair monolith, witnessing the true extent Claridge’s seraphic staff will go for its esteemed guests. The first episode shows the work force clambering over themselves to transform one of the floors into a would-be palace, opening up all connecting doors, creating in-house kitchens, closets, replacing baths and allocating two suites exclusively for the storage of shopping bags. All this, and the royal party still arrives two days late. Later on in the documentary, we meet the oligarchs of American tourism, who drive exclusive business across the pond for a tidy profit. Later still, we meet an elderly rags to riches couple whose relationship with Claridge’s and more importantly its staff, seems to surpass the faux-importance it sells to its clientele en masse. Mrs. Melchor is greeted in the foyer with a set of keys to the hotel, an enduring joke that were there to be some sort of micro-climate bio-disaster in the managers offices, she would be able to run the hotel perfectly to meet its pedantic standards.

More characterful than New York, less superficial than Paris, the city’s 69 five-star hotels continue to flourish in these austere times.  Still, this was not always the case. Before the 19th century, there were few if any hotels in London, on account of the fact that wealthy landowners who came to the city for business would usually own or rent property here. Those who did not would rent rooms either at coaching inns, located for the pre-railway form of transport, or lodging inns, usually run by widows. The last of these, The George Inn, marked ‘Gorge’ on the Duchy of Lancaster’s 1543 map of Southwark, still stands today on the spot where previous regulars like London’s social messiah Charles Dickens enjoyed their poison.

The modern equivalent of these inns would be hostels, of which there are thousands, both official and unofficial. London is as much a poor man’s playground as it is a rich man’s, and travellers from across the globe continue to flock to its bunk beds expecting maximum experience for a minimal fee. The London Hostels Association (LHA) was set up in 1940 to put up people who were displaced by the Blitz and in January 1941 Mrs Churchill opened the first hostel, which charged £1 a week and a shilling for weekend meals. By the end of the following year there were 33 hostels across London.

The hotels of the early-19th century were traditionally small, more akin to the ‘boutique’ hotels of the modern age. However, the expansions of railways were bringing more out of town business into the capital, so growth in both the industry and of the establishments themselves proved essential. Marylebone’s Langham Hotel opened in 1865, the largest at that time, boasting a clientele that included Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde  and more recently, Haile Selassie of Ethopia. Institutions that followed its lead included The Savoy, the Ritz and of course, Claridge’s.

Construction of London’s grand hotels ceased during the period of the two World Wars, but by the mid-1960s was required to respond to an exponential boom in international travel. Still, London’s hotel market found itself in overcapacity by the 1980s, and seems to have reached its peak during the post-war period, notwithstanding the boutique trend during the 1990s, the growth of the City and the advent of the Olympics, where, during the period of 2009-2012, around 4,000 extra hotel rooms were added to the city’s armory of hospitality.

Though London’s grander hotels dominate the overall global reputation of the city’s beds, it is important to note that only 10% of these are certified as the sort of five-star accommodation offered by Claridge’s, Langham and the like. One only has to look at the brutalist Guoman Tower Hotel to see the wide range of tastes offered in a city renowned primarily for its languorous, art-deco style. Most of the visitors to the city will be more than satisfied with a more modest welcome, requiring somewhere merely to rest their heads after exploring the corners of the city.