Elton, Punk and Britpop; bobbies, Bond and Brexit; Tower, Tate and London Eye. Think of the British metropolis, and images of the former hub of empire, shaped by royalist tradition, spring to mind. These blend with the notion of a modern, pulsating world city to form a cliché-ridden whole. So what’s it like to sample London off the beaten tourist track, alongside someone who has lived here for many years? We wanted to find out, and have enlisted David Stanborough, manager of the JURA shop-in-shop in the palatial Harrods department store, to be our guide. ‘My pleasure,’ he writes back. ‘I’d be delighted to show you round my London. ’
This year, a pioneering construction project celebrates its 25th birthday: the Channel Tunnel. So to set foot on the island by any other means would seem a shabby compromise. Paris, Gare du Nord, 6 am. A broad stairway leads to the separate Eurostar terminal. After security checks worthy of an airport, an alien world opens before our eyes. Dark-coloured marine decking lends an air of classic, high-quality elegance. It would be easy to imagine oneself in the shoes of a figure from a National Geographic travel report or a character from an Agatha Christie detective story.
Reverently, we clamber aboard the streamlined, high-speed train and sink into the upholstery which once yielded to James Bond. On the dot at fourteen minutes to seven, the steel colossus pulls out of the station and glides almost noiselessly through the countryside with the speed of an arrow. After a while, darkness falls outside. The Eurostar takes just twenty-one minutes to transit the fifty kilometres of tunnel that link France to England. At one minute to nine, the hundreds of tons of steel come to a halt at London St. Pancras, amid squeals of protest from the brakes.
Probably the most famous railway platform in London
David Stanborough has not arranged to meet us here. Our rendez-vous is immediately opposite, at the legendary King’s Cross station. ‘I love the architecture of this building,’ this gentleman confesses to us after a reserved but friendly greeting. ‘I’ve fallen in a big way for the geometric roof structure of the concourse.’ King’s Cross – the name awakens memories of the books and films starring the world’s most famous student wizard. In fact an enamel plate bearing the legend ‘Platform 9¾’ is clearly visible on a brick wall. Below it, half a baggage trolley juts out of the wall. So this is where Harry Potter and friends used to board the Hogwarts Express for their journey to the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where they would embark on the most fantastic series of adventures. A long queue stretches in front of the trolley. Young and old alike want to take photos at this magical spot. Our guide discreetly points out the shop, strategically positioned next to the backdrop. ‘Every Potter fan’s heart misses a beat at the range of souvenirs at that kiosk,’ he confirms. ‘You’ll find magic wands, pullovers, scarves – every conceivable item of fan gear. The custom of visitors from all over the world never wanes. Harry Potter is definitely a phenomenon … and an economic force to be reckoned with.’ He strongly recommends anyone to visit the Harry Potter Studios in Watford for an unforgettable day excursion.
Not being British, we find crossing the road challenging at first. To avoid accidents to visitors from the European mainland, the direction from which cars are bearing down on you is written unmissably on the ground at every zebra crossing. London consists of one landmark after another, photographed billions of times and stuck in photo albums in every country round the globe. Next on our itinerary is one of the best-known sights. ‘Tower Bridge is a really iconic monument in Neo-Gothic style,’ David explains. ‘Just 250 metres long, it links Tower Hamlets on the north bank to Southwark, south of the Thames. Though I see it almost daily, its architectural grandeur never fails to impress me.’ We can well understand that. No picture, no matter how evocative, is really able to convey the power that radiates from that bridge.
Off for a coffee to Borough Market
It must be obvious from our appearance that our short night is taking its toll and the weight of fatigue has left us weak at the knees. ‘Now seems the perfect time for a coffee, doesn’t it?’ deduces David Stanborough, in true Sherlockian style. Stepping out nimbly, he leads us to Monmouth Coffee, a popular coffee bar in Borough Market. ‘Fine coffee has been roasted, served and sold here for more than forty years. I’m particularly smitten by the aroma and low acidity of their espresso blend, made from Colombian beans. The team of buyers travel to producers and co-operatives worldwide and sniff out interesting coffee varieties. They establish close relations with the coffee growers and co-operatives and support sustainability and fair trade.’ We find we can taste this in the double espressos we order. Duly revived, we continue to wend our way through the countless stalls of Borough Market. The fresh food on sale here is mouth-watering to behold. ‘This market has fascinated me for many years,’ admits David, revealing that he is not only a gourmet but a keen cook. ‘I prefer to use the high-quality, fresh ingredients you can get here. The market has a long tradition. It offers a fabulous selection of fresh fish, meat, game, poultry, cheese, spices, fruit and veg. That’s why many of London’s most famous delicatessens buy their produce here daily.’
Between modern architecture and historic edifices
Landmarks like The Gherkin and The Shard rise majestically before our eyes. Their modern architecture forms a stark contrast to the historic buildings to left and right. ‘If you’d like to come with me now, I’m going to show you London from on high,’ beckons David. Soon we alight on the 32nd floor of the Shard. From the Aqua Bar at this level, a spectacular view of the city spreads out beneath us. Brandishing a newspaper, our guide points to a building. ‘Over there, on the far side of the Thames, you can see St. Paul’s Cathedral and, a little way to the right, the Tower of London. Take time tomorrow to visit the exhibition of the Crown Jewels. You simply must see them!’ Neatly, he changes the subject from Queen Elizabeth II to King Roger. ‘I suggest the next thing we visit is the hallowed lawn of Wimbledon, where our Brand Ambassador has triumphed eight times to date. What do you think?’ – Love to!
The legendary Underground whisks us off to Wimbledon. En route, we learn that the London subway is the world’s oldest, at 156 years, and the longest such network in Europe. A good fifty minutes later, we find ourselves in front of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament every year.
An awed silence, which can only be likened to a church, prevails on Centre Court. ‘Allow me to present: Roger Federer’s living room,’ whispers David. We pause, fascinated. In our mind’s eye, we run action replays of a few of the maestro’s most thrilling volleys. No-one who has ever admired the lush green of this carefully tended grass will ever feel smug again about the lawn back home. A visit to the Tennis Museum is an absolute must for all friends of this elegant sport.
On the way back, as if by magic, David fishes two tickets from the inner pocket of his tailored sports jacket, hands them to us as a special surprise and explains, ‘London is the city of theatre, musicals and extraordinary shows. It was already in Shakespeare’s day and will always be so. I’ve got you tickets for the Apollo Theatre. Treat yourselves to ‘Wicked’ tomorrow. It’s a sensation for all the senses. I’ll let you know this much: it completely redefines gravity. I’m confident you’ll be just as enthusiastic as my family and I were.’ Wow! Thank you very much. We’ll look forward to it immensely.
London hallmarks: from the Natural History Museum to Hyde Park
Back in town, the next highlight of our tour is the gigantic Natural History Museum. The sheer size of the imposing Romanesque-Byzantine building sends a shiver down the spine. With more than a hint of pride, David records that this is one of the world’s largest natural history museums. In the dinosaur exhibition, it fully dawns on us how small we are. Friendly and interested staff are ready to help us find our way round the cavernous galleries. The state-owned London museums display their treasures to the general public without charging for admission. So there is never any lingering impression of elitism. A correspondingly mixed and colourful crowd thread their way through the vast halls, pausing here and there in astonishment at the exhibits.
The home of the monarchy holds a special place in nearly every British heart. The royals are omnipresent, and even hard-bitten Londoners can often be found among the tens of thousands of fascinated tourists who watch the daily changing of the guard ceremony in front of Buckingham Palace. Many have not yet got over the tragic death of their ‘Queen of Hearts’, Lady Diana, and often seek out the Diana Memorial for a moment of quiet reflection. The fountains in the south-western part of Hyde Park, one of London’s many green lungs, are an attraction to visitors great and small. ‘The kids love paddling in the water and letting off steam in this safe, traffic-free park. For many adults, the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain is a place of meditation, where they can remember her great charitable work for underprivileged children and her humanitarian commitment in general,’ is David’s description of this special place, which has an air of calm and reconciliation.
In the world’s most famous department store: Harrods
As our time marches on, our host continues to guide us with a spring in his step. We are having obvious difficulty keeping up with him. The reason for his quickened pace is that now we are nearing his personal domain. Suddenly, there before us is the imposing building of the world’s most famous and probably most exclusive department store, Harrods. With the poise of a sleepwalker, Mr Stanborough – as several members of staff greet him as he passes – ushers us through the twists and turns to the JURA brand concession. David Stanborough and Harrods were ‘love at first sight,’ as he explains. ‘In 1999 my wife and I emigrated from South Africa to the United Kingdom and I was looking for a position in the high-end and luxury bracket. So Harrods was my first port of call. I was over the moon when I not only landed myself a job, but was also offered the opportunity for progression within the company. A few months after starting in sales at Harrods, I joined the management program, which led me into work in departmental management. Since 2012 I have been responsible for the JURA shop-in-shop. The job of my dreams! In South Africa I had worked in catering and retail. From then on, it was always my goal to build a career around one of my greatest passions – coffee!’
As we take in the broad range of goods amid tasteful surroundings, the London Retail Manager briefly gives us the slip. Gentleman to a T, he is advising a lady customer interested in an S8. She arranges home delivery for the machine, moves off visibly impressed by the service and expertise, and David resumes our guided tour of his emporium. ‘The world’s most famous department store can’t be without the world’s finest automatic coffee machines. Here we offer products from both the home and professional ranges. This brand presence is very prestigious. Harrods is not only one of the tourist attractions of London. Because Harrods is in a class on its own for its choice of luxury products, restaurants and services, all the main opinion leaders flock here in search of inspiration.’
Before we check in at our hotel, there is one more absolute ‘must’ on David Stanborough’s list: the JURA store in Marylebone Road, opened in 2016. Our colleagues bid us warmly welcome, invite us to sample some coffee (what else?) and guide us round the modern, brightly lit shop. How gratifying it is, for once, to see the real thing, about which we have heard so much, actually on display, instead of looking at pictures. We receive superb hospitality and service. For David Stanborough, it is perfectly normal that the motto of exceeding customer expectations applies to the team at the JURA Store, as it does to him. ‘We want to impress our clientele with our products, our love of detail and our determination to spare no effort to please them.’ Indeed, for this reason, people are keen to return and we, of course, are no exception. But right now we are longing for a rest, a shower and a fresh outfit, to spruce up and take our places at dinner in appropriate attire.
After only ten minutes’ walk from the JURA store, we stop off at the Landmark Hotel. Inaugurated in 1899, this imposing luxury accommodation was originally built as a Victorian station hotel. David promises we will be delighted with the attentive service. In fact, from Reception onwards, they could not be more obliging. The room exceeds our wildest expectations. ‘Enjoy fine dining in one of the hotel’s two fantastic restaurants,’ recommends our man in London. ‘And be sure you don’t miss afternoon tea in the eight-storey atrium with conservatory.’ We wouldn’t miss it for worlds, Sir. Before the Eurostar wafts us back through the tunnel to the continent, we shall continue to enjoy the fascinating life of this vibrant city to the full. In any case, we aren’t short of tips from our Londoner …
Images: Natasha Ferreira