London’s Corinthia Hotel originally opened in 1885 as the Metropole. It was designed to occupy a corner of Northumberland Avenue, a new wide boulevard just south of Charing Cross. This road was so wide thanks to the local planning restrictions forbidding any building to be taller than the width of the road it fronted. As there was a need for grand seven storey hotels this close to Charing Cross Station, a wide carriageway was the clever answer. On the avenue’s south side, two hotels - the Grand and the Metropole -- were built. Because the Metropole occupied a tight junction with Whitehall Place, the structure resembles New York’s Flat Iron building when viewed from the Thames Embankment.
Over the years this splendidly-located hotel was a London home for wealthy travellers arriving from the Continent who would get on a train at Dover or Folkestone and then disembark at the busy Charing Cross Terminus. It was also frequented by officers attending the levees at St James Palace and by ladies invited to Buckingham Palace. Britain’s playboy Prince of Wales – and eventual King Edward VII - kept a box reserved for him in the hotel’s ballroom, and on the night before the British Expeditionary Force embarked for France in 1914 its two Commanders-in-Chief, Field Marshals John French and Douglas Haig, both stayed at the Metropole.
Because of its proximity to Whitehall the hotel spent a lot of the 20th century being requisitioned as government offices. Much of the crucial Battle of Britain was commanded from the Metropole and during World War II it became home to the newly-created MI9 Special Operations Executive. Right up until 1992 the Metropole housed the bulk of the Defence Intelligence Staff. When the James Bond comic strip was drawn in the Daily Express newspaper from 1958 to 1983, the artist Yaroslav Horak nodded to this fact by using the distinctive triangular facade of the Metropole to depict M’s headquarters.
In 2011 the Maltese Corinthia Group reopened the hotel as Corinthia London and in 2012 its ballroom was chosen as the venue for the official announcement of the James Bond movie Skyfall.
Today the Corinthia is one of the most glamorous hotels near Trafalgar Square. Its triangular Northall Restaurant sits at the apex of that pointed footprint. (Its name is a portmanteau of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall.) The bedrooms immediately above it have a glorious view of the Thames, all the way from St Paul’s Cathedral to the Houses of Parliament and beyond.
Yet if you step outside the hotel for a walk there are all sorts of unexpected corners of London to discover. A two-minute stroll north across Northumberland Avenue and into Craven Street brings you to the Benjamin Franklin House where for nearly 16 years the scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor and Founding Father of the United States lived as colonial ambassador before the revolution of 1776. The house has been beautifully preserved and the eager staff offer a fascinating tour.
Cross Northumberland Avenue to the south and nip under the massive Victorian railway bridge - still bringing trains across the Thames to Charing Cross Station - and you’ll come to Victoria Embankment Gardens. This urban oasis was created in 1874 after the River Thames had been narrowed and a major road, the A3211 built along its embankment. You can see how far the width of the Thames was reduced if you stand outside Gordon’s Wine Bar that faces into the park. Gordon’s originally stood on the shore of the Thames and its terrace was where boats unloaded their goods.
Walking through the Embankment Gardens you’ll find memorials to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Stuart Mill, and Sir Arthur Sullivan whose operettas were premiered at the Savoy Theatre nearby. The theatre itself isn’t visible from the gardens because Richard D'Oyly Carte, Sullivan’s producer, used the profits from their collaboration with W.S. Gilbert to build the Savoy Hotel behind it. That huge structure is most definitely visible. From one of its windows Monet painted Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridges between 1899 and 1905.
Also visible from the Embankment Gardens is the York Watergate, built in 1626 by Inigo Jones for George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham as the portal through which he could board his private boat. This sturdy neoclassical construction is yet another reminder of how much wider the Thames was before the Victorians stepped in and rationalised it.
There are many other memorials – to Gordon of Khartoum, Robbie Burns and the actor Sir Wilfred Lawson. There is even a monument to the Imperial Camel Corps. This is a lovely historical walk to take, especially with the prospect of breakfast in the Northall Restaurant never far away. The Corinthia’s house champagne is not to be passed up.