A Tuesday hangover has never been so welcome.
The capital is (finally!) back open for business and unsurprisingly, a few morning snowstorms and baltic evening temperatures did little to deter pub-goers, spin class-addicts and shaggy-haired Londoners queuing for a post-lockdown chop. Clearly, we are ready for a party: John Lewis reported record sales of decanters and highball glasses when doors opened yesterday morning, the Primarni army were snaking out of shopping centres, and Soho was described as having a “carnival” atmosphere, with revellers likening it to VE Day. So how did it feel to be back?
My overriding memory from The First Night Out? Laughter. It bounced off the beer garden walls and ricocheted off condensation-drenched pint glasses. Tears of laughter - or were they joy? - rolling down cheeks. It was all there during the glorious four hours I spent at a pub in London Bridge last night.
First the Covid stuff. Tables were socially distanced, the staff wore masks and there was hand sanitiser a-plenty. If you ventured out at all in the few months between lockdowns last year, nothing has changed. It felt safe, but most of all it was fun. We ordered a bottle of sparkling Chapel Down to celebrate and burgers and chips to soak it up. We clinked glasses, said cheers and congratulated each other on big and small life achievements. A new baby! A new flat! Re-watching all 17 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy! The waiter did that annoying thing where they don’t write down your order and lo and behold forget something, but - who cares? - he was lovely, clearly thrilled to be back in a buzzing beer garden surrounded by life, gossip and lots of love. Through the pub windows, as staff waited to ferry giddy punters frothy pints and soul-warming glasses of red, I could see them dancing. Toe-tapping, hip-shaking and clapping at once again being part of this brilliant, vibrant city on the best Monday I think we’ve all had in a long time. Same time tonight?
Someone is caressing my scalp. For once, these are not the hands of my three year old using my head as a train track or those of his older sister sidling up to me for more screen time. My head is being expertly shiatsu-ed. It isn’t what you would describe as erotic although it’s hands down the best five minutes I’ve had since the middle of December. 119 days since non-essential stores were closed and the capital’s hairdressers are now back in business with talk of 1000 strong waiting lists. At George Northwood, (he of Alexa Chung, Rachel Weisz and Meghan Markle fame), a stone’s throw from Oxford Circus, every one of the 28 chairs, separated by Perspex screens since last July are booked for the rest of the month.
Over 750 clients are expected to walk through the doors this week. This morning has already seen a steady stream of fashion and beauty editors. There is the thrum of excited chatter, the whoosh of hairdryers and fevered people-watching with nary a pair of tracksuit bottoms in sight.
Masks are handed out at reception. A temperature check is taken on arrival and on every surface are bottles of hand sanitiser. “Safety is obviously key, “says Northwood who during lock down has been busy launching his UNDONE hair product range which champions the sort of effortless looking hair which has fast become his signature.
Rows of his distinctive bottles which recall the stubby pastels of Rachel Whiteread now line his salon shelves.
I chicken out of having a FLOB, this summer’s must have bob styled with a grungy flat iron wave but no matter, I still leave feeling utterly transformed, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders, even if the reality is a mere two inch trim and the most barely there waves in London.
“It’s a godsend for everyone,” the shop assistant at And Other Stories in Coal Drops Yard told me. “The changing rooms are open, you can try on shoes, no more online shopping and returning.” I could have hugged her and from the beatific smiles on the faces of my fellow shoppers, they could too.
Of course I’m excited to go to pubs and see my friends, but really I couldn’t wait to get back into the shops (and I needed to as well, I have holes in all my shoes). I am done with online shopping. I enjoy real life browsing, not yet more scrolling on my phone; and if you do not have the body shape of a Barbie doll, it is nothing but a pain trying to predict what will fit. I know my local DPD courier by name now having spent three months getting parcels delivered and sending them back and patient as Mohammed is, I am ready to say goodbye.
Coal Drops Yard was nicely buzzing - there was no queueing to get into shops but there were queues to pay. Hand sanitiser was at the door of every shop (it had already run out at Nike), masks were de rigeur (which makes trying on sunglasses an experience, I looked like a gangster’s moll) and best of all, you can try clothes and shoes on (and they are not quarantined after after studies showing that Covid does not live on surfaces). I had gone to buy new trainers but was drawn into the other shops. There were a few clothes I remembered from before Christmas on the sale rails but also plenty of shiny new items on display. I worried I had forgotten how to shop and would be so overwhelmed by novelty that I would buy everything in sight but actually the reverse happened. I was shopping shy, looking but not committing - after all I can come back at any time.
The landscape of shops has changed. I went to the Persephone Bookshop wondering if it was the last time I’d be there - they are moving to Bath in two weeks and joked that they, a shop specialising in women’s literature, would be taken over by a men’s clothing boutique who could afford the rent. The biggest change though is how happy everyone looked to be out browsing, spilling out into cafes and pubs afterwards. London is coming back.
I’m on a treadmill. All around me are sweaty looking people working out and loud, slightly tinny dance music is blaring across the room. I’m in heaven – I’m back at the gym!
What did you most miss in lockdown? a) pubs b) clubs c) restaurants?
I’m almost too embarrassed to admit what I missed most was the gym.
Ah, David Lloyd in Acton with its friendly staff, endless classes, fields (kind of) and heated all year round outdoor pool. It’s a place I go to work out, meet friends, and relax. It’s also somewhere I feel much better after having been.
I can’t pretend I haven’t enjoyed lockdown. As someone who likes to live their life at 100 mph in London it felt pretty good to slow down, WFH and enjoy time with my children.
I exercised, I bought a bike and went for brilliant runs around Gunnersbury park and by the river in Hammersmith. But it wasn’t the same.
Last night the gym car park was full and the gym was packed; everyone looked really happy to be back. They’re doing classes outside in marquees and I’m booked for almost every day.
Anna van Praagh
Considering they’re meant to be the crucible of the avant garde, there’s rarely anything more decorous than a visit to a commercial gallery. They’re hushed as cathedrals at the best of times, without the lovely music – post-Covid, they’re practically deserted. Doing a quick trawl of five of London’s top commercial exhibition spaces on Monday morning (during which I came across the same woman and her small son in two different places – he was especially taken with the tiny blue horses in the Ugo Rondinone show at Sadie Coles HQ, I can report), it honestly might as well have been 2019, except for the fact that the reception staff were protected by Perspex screens, the invigilators wore masks (all the better to hide their boredom) and occasionally I was asked to loom into a camera to have my temperature taken.
Other than that, nobody was interested in me at all. It really was quite normal. And God, it felt good. How wonderful to be roaming the (borderline deserted, but then they always are) back streets of Mayfair, rattling between Gagosians, popping into Hauser & Wirth, nipping into Sadie Coles, to see actual art, in person, sharing a smile (eyes only, obviously - visible mouths are a no-no) and a nod with the other art-obsessed stalwarts getting in there early. Bring on the museums.
To get to the Langham hotel, which sits opposite Broadcasting House, I cut through Soho. For those who have forgotten the feeling of a thronging crowd, head to W1: all very safe, lots of police keeping a watchful eye on things, but God, was it gloriously busy. The sound of the laughing rabble flooded the length of Dean Street and spilled out through the alley onto Oxford Street, where for a while it managed, somehow, to drown out the buses.
There was a similar happy chatter floating down Cavendish Place from the hotel’s Wigmore terrace. It is a soothing sight: behind wrought iron gates and nestled in the Georgian garden sit rows of benches under pergolas wrapped in soft yellow lights. After the now usual – an encouragement to sanitise hands, an insistence on using track and trace – we followed masked staff across the packed courtyard to a table lit by its dangling, glowing heater. The Langham have not been optimistic about the weather: roaring patio burners acted as de-facto bouncers to keep tables socially distanced, and most covers are, well, covered. I was grateful at the end of the day that had begun with breakfast in the snow.
This was a busy, gossiping, celebrating place, a night I heard bottles of Champagne pop and hiss as if to mark every five minutes passing. The staff didn’t seem just to cope but to flourish – the hotel is using a mix of teams from across its restaurants to keep things running through a summer they’re expecting to be constantly full. Every time I looked up trays were out, piled with plates and pints: we ate buttered miniature crumpets piled high with crab, croquetas rich with smoked chicken and aioli. A lobster roll brought the table a blush of orange; steak was pretty in pink. Wines were matched because, why not? We could. And that was the night – one with every choice and order relished, where we gleefully let ourselves be spoiled. Joy is the word for it.
London Rising: Reboot Our Capital
Join us for the Evening Standard’s London Rising online events series (28 April – 16 June) as we explore the challenges and opportunities ahead; championing the people, ideas and emerging trends across business, the arts, fashion, hospitality, retail, sport and politics that will help London soar again. The future starts now. Register for a free eTicket: https://londonrising.standard.co.uk #LondonRising