There are echoes of Oscar Wilde and Lillie Langtry at the revamped Belmond Cadogan Hotel, but where’s their raffish charm?

Advice

I’m a Chelsea girl. My home was a darling black and white cottage in Coulson Street during the years that my dad was both general manager of Peter Jones (“the Mothership” to me) and honorary colonel of his territorial regiment at the Duke of York’s barracks opposite.

I can’t afford to live in Chelsea, but it’s still “home”, just a 137 bus ride away. I’m drawn there like a magnet, though I do regret its creeping luxification, with Tiffany and other high-end stores much in evidence. Chelsea, whose heyday was the Swinging Sixties, should be raffish, boho, artistic, not glitzy like Knightsbridge.

Owned by Cadogan Estates, the Cadogan Hotel, which first opened in 1887, stands in Sloane Street midway between the two neighbourhoods, and while Belmond’s just unveiled, multi-million-pound reincarnation aims to attract “tastemakers, eccentrics and Bohemian spirits”, it has much of slick, pampered Knightsbridge about it as well. The lived-in, laid-back Chelsea Arts Club it is not; stylish, polished, classy and expensive it is, with more suits than hipsters in evidence, though its town-house vibe makes it homely, and it has a fabulous perk: guests get keys to the huge private haven of Cadogan Place Gardens opposite, including its two tennis courts.

belmond cadogan hotel, chelsea, london

The hotel aims to capture Chelsea’s often lurid past, but its polished interiors are more in keeping with neighbouring Knightsbridge

We used to have tea at the Cadogan Hotel. My parents adored the plays of Oscar Wilde and I was introduced to his wit at an early age. Over tea and cake, my larger-than-life father would declaim Betjeman’s “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde” from memory: “Mr Woilde, we ’ave come for tew take yew/ Where felons and criminals dwell/ We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly/ For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

To me, the Cadogan Hotel is not about the celebrities who stayed there in the Eighties, away from prying eyes, drinking copious cups of English breakfast tea. It’s about Lillie Langtry, who sold her adjacent house to the hotel in 1895 on the understanding that she could live and entertain there for free, and about her friend Oscar, who was living in Room 118 when he was arrested in the same year.

Poor Oscar. His room is now part of the intimate Royal Suite, with a wonderful corner bath, while the door to Lillie’s house, 21 Pont Street, with her mosaic floor and original staircase intact, is now a private entrance for hotel guests. Nods to Oscar include the velvet and tweed worn by staff and the specially commissioned peacock made from 25,000 Swarovski crystals, with a flowing white feather tail. He loved peacocks. He was a peacock himself.

belmond cadogan hotel, chelsea, london

The bedrooms and suites are divine: stylish yet homely, all velvet, silk, wood, marble and chrome, with statement paintings from five female artists

There are other echoes of the past, and of Chelsea: the bold check uniforms of the doormen recalling Mary Quant; Lillie’s panelled, stuccoed dining room, now one of two rooms that make up noted chef Adam Handling’s restaurant; the specially commissioned, all-British art; and the library, and books in every room, curated by the staff of beloved John Sandoe Books, around the corner. Literary Chelsea also features in the much-Instagrammed Lift Lobby, whose walls are lined by 600 real books that have been cast in bronze, and in forthcoming John Sandoe-orchestrated literary gatherings.

The bedrooms and suites are divine: stylish yet homely, all velvet, silk, wood, marble and chrome, with circular tables that double as desks and a statement painting from one of five female artists above each bed. The new lobby is also light and calm, its café curtains lending a domestic air, and its dramatic painting by Simon Casson, of Sir Hans Sloane and his daughter Elizabeth, founders of the Cadogan Estates, lending an arty yet historic touch. There’s an elegant salon beyond, for breakfast, afternoon tea and cocktails.

It’s much calmer than the bar, jammed with locals who have found a new rendezvous. Those destined for Handling’s restaurant then squeeze along a narrow walkway past the de rigueur open kitchen into one of the dining rooms.

belmond cadogan hotel, chelsea, london

Adam Handling’s restaurant is spread across two rooms, the first of which is a recreation of Lillie Langtry’s dining room

There’s something wrong with them. Is it the plain tables, the irritating cutlery that digs into the palm, the lighting? We couldn’t get comfortable, and compared with the wonderful food at his Frog restaurants, delightful Mr Handling’s take on classic English cuisine was a little underwhelming, for the price. Here’s an admission: I’m fed up with the endless casual dining of today, however expensive the menus, and at the Cadogan I secretly longed for a restaurant with starched white linen, candlesticks and traditionally uniformed staff, maybe even a silver salver or two.

Chelsea has a welcome new hotspot, but for me this will always be Lillie and Oscar’s place.

Rooms from £470 per night; breakfast from £20.

Read the full expert review: Belmond Cadogan Hotel

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