Timeless elegance in three London hotels

In the morning, behind the sound of birdsongs, we heard the voices of schoolchildren trying to carry a tune. In late afternoon we retreated to a tiny terrace to plumb the mysteries of the cream tea. And at night, returning from the theater or dinner, we had to ring the front bell and be let in by a porter. Such is life at 11 Cadogan Gardens, a hotel in name only, hidden away on a bend in a leafy street a few minutes' walk from Sloan Square in London. It was one of three home bases we sampled -- my wife, Pamela, and I -- in nearly a month's peregrinations in England. The others were the swank Dorchester and the surprising Hyde Park Hotel, and each was a reminder that London's hotels are as much a part of its personality as its parks and squares, shops and stalls, tooting double-decked buses, and bowler-hatted barristers.

Perhaps the only unwieldy thing about the comfy 11 Cadogan Gardens is its name, which happens to be its address. Cadogan (pronounced Cuh-DUGG-en) Gardens is a little street that runs into the King's Road not far from Cadogan Lane, Cadogan Place, and Cadogan Square. All that announces the establishment is a slightly enlarged No. 11 on one of four connecting, high-peaked brick row houses that hold a total of 60 guest rooms. There is no front desk, no lobby, no restaurant (though breakfasts, teas, and other repasts may be summoned from a crack, in-house catering service), and almost no sign of other lodgers.

``Our regulars like their privacy,'' said Charles Harbord, one of three owners whom we met on our terrace for cream tea one balmy summer afternoon. ``We have diplomats, antique dealers [when there's a sale at Sotheby's or Christie's], businessmen, and some minor European royalty. We do no advertising. But we have all the services one needs -- theater bookings, museum hours, and our own guidebook to nearby restaurants.'' All guests are privy to a key that admits them to the green and landscaped Cadogan Gardens across the street, with a deck chair included.

He also took time to instruct us in the custom of cream tea consumption. One first spreads a scone with a layer of jam, then covers it with a dollop of Devon clotted cream. The rest is in the eating.

We seldom saw another soul at 11 Cadogan Gardens except those we passed in the drawing room en route to our sequestered No. 4 suite. The drawing room was well stocked with copies of Country Life, Road and Car, and other journals celebrating the good bucolic life. We had all the diversion we needed from the Thomas's London Day School next door. From our terrace we could peek over the chimney pots and see little girls waltzing to a tinny piano. (Prices for double rooms at Cadogan Gardens range from 74 to 98 a day, or $90 to $119.)

On our next pass through London a fortnight later we put up at the fashionable Dorchester, hard by Hyde Park in Mayfair. The hotel was built in 1930, and everything about our spacious chambers smacked of the Queen Mary, the Comte di Savoia, or other luxury ocean liners of that period. The bathroom was the size of a modest hotel room, the bathtub grand enough to be floated up the Thames. Our only regret with the Dorchester -- then owned by a Lebanese group and since bought by the Regent International chain of Hong Kong -- was the closeness of the air on that sultry week. To open the windows was to let in the buzz of traffic on Park Lane. We were told floor fans were available. We got by without one, veterans of Manhattan summers that we are. (Air conditioning is part of a big renovation planned by the new owners.)

There was surely no lack of service in the 285-room building. The press of a button immediately summoned a friendly gent stationed across the hall with food prepared in a galley on the same floor. (At the Dorchester, double rooms cost between 110 and 125 a day, or from $133 to $152.)

Next time through town we stayed at the Hyde Park, a huge ornate red-brick tower built in the 1880s and opened as a hotel in 1904. It backs onto Hyde Park just up the road from Harrods and across the street from the Scotch House and Harvey Nichols, serious London shopping country. Thanks to a sizable renovation over the past seven years, the hotel has taken on new wiring and piping, new bathroom showers and upholstery, without spoiling its wonderful long-ago flavor.

Indeed, general manager Aldo Grasso explained one day, much of the Hyde Park's old furniture, covered with layers of white paint and hidden away for years in basement storage, has been rescued and stripped. Mr. Grasso admitted his service is not up to that of the Dorchester or the Connaught. ``If there's a scratch on the furniture, we'll fix it, but we don't have legions of servants waiting outside your door.'' Nonetheless, he thinks his rooms are the finest in town. The price for double rooms starts at 115 (or $140). Most desirable are those facing the park, but I can also vouch for the street-front No. 231, with a canopied four-poster bed, loads of closet space, antique mirrored dressing table, brass lampshades, and another vast London bathroom.

The drone and rumble of buses did not go unnoticed, but that too is water off a New Yorker's back. The main concessions to modernity were a TV and air-conditioning system. For breakfast or tea, the airy Park Room, with its muraled walls and wide-paned windows looking onto Hyde Park, was a favorite refuge. If you dawdle over breakfast (waffles with maple syrup was my choice, but there was also corned beef hash, poached finnan haddie, grilled lamb's kidneys) until 10:30, you will see seven ranks of Horse Guards clop by in their red finery. Not the usual accompaniment to my shredded wheat.

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