8:00 PM April 17, 2022
It was but a stroll from The Bloomsbury Hotel, our comfortable central London retreat, for us to view perhaps the greatest piece of Suffolk in exile. We walked into Room 41 in the British Museum and there he was, startlingly, thrillingly, straight ahead of us. For what seemed like an age – probably less than a minute – fortuitously we had him to ourselves. We were back in AD 600, face-to-face with the most magnificent icon of our Anglo-Saxon past, the Sutton Hoo Helmet, the fiercesome-looking armored head of a warrior – perhaps even that of the fabled Raedwald, King of the East Anglians.
Nothing quite prepares you for this moment. We had read John Preston’s superb novel ‘The Dig’ about the 1938 excavation of the 27m-long ship and the rich treasures found in its burial chamber, watched the excellent film of the same name with Randolph Fiennes as the dogged archaeologist Basil Brown, and of course visited the evocative site itself.
But to be close-up and personal with the biggest treasure of them all – even though the helmet is behind protective glass – is a haunting experience. Weighing 2.5kg and made of hammered iron, it would have taken a mighty opponent to break through its iron cap, neck guard, cheek pieces and face mask with spear, sword or ax. Peer closely at the face covering and you can clearly see the beautiful carvings of a wild bird of prey, a dragon and a boar – all with sets of sharp fangs, as these symbolic creatures of the age were the warrior’s animal bodyguard.
The Bloomsbury Hotel in Great Russell Street is perfectly situated to explore this and a host of exciting artistic and literary venues in Central / North London – and of course, right next to theatreland.
Part of an eclectic group that make up the Doyle collection, The Bloomsbury is a newer kid on the block of London’s elite, five-star hotels. It’s actually only been open as a hotel for 22 years, but the building itself boasts a fascinating history dating back to the late 1920s.
This elegant, red-brick structure, designed by the great architect Sir Edmund Lutyens, was for most of its life (1932 -1998) the Central Club of the Young Women’s Christian Association. Now it’s probably true to say that the women who stayed at this unique ladies’ club in the 1930s and beyond were not of the hedonistic variety of those – like Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf – who were members of the famous’ Bloomsbury Set ‘.
But it’s fair to say that it was the London hub for the emancipated young women, and feminism in all its shapes and forms flourished in a grand building where there were 86 bedrooms, a concert hall seating 400, drawing rooms, class rooms, library and high school. The Royal Family always took great interest in the Central Club – Queen Mary laid the foundation stone, our present queen came to view the new swimming pool in 1939 and took tea in the cafeteria, and the Queen Mother was there in 1953 to celebrate its 21st anniversary.
Times change, attitudes alter, and recession strikes. The Central Club closed its doors in 1998, and the then Jurys Doyle Group opened it as a hotel in September 2000. When that group split, and the Doyle family took over sole ownership, it was refurbished and reopened in 2008 as The Bloomsbury.
This is a very modern-thinking hotel which nonetheless takes great pride in its past; there is a copy of the history of the site in every guestroom. But what strikes you immediately about The Bloomsbury, before you even consider all its amenities, is the friendliness of all the employees, from the welcoming greeting of the doorman, through the cheerful approach of those on the checking-in desk, and over to the helpful waiters and staff in the jazzy bar The Coral Room, and the hotel’s lively restaurant the Dalloway Terrace.
We stayed on the fifth floor in one of the hotel’s 11 suites (there are 153 rooms), decked out largely in dark blue, which had a spacious entrance hall, very comfortable king-sized bed and Art Deco armchairs resting on a beautifully patterned, light-colored rug. The stylish, bright bathroom, in monochrome Italian marble, had plenty of room, with twin wash basins, a lovely free-standing roll top bath tub and large walk-in shower.
On our first night we ate at the hotel’s al fresco Dalloway Terrace restaurant (named after the eponymous heroine in Virginia Woolf’s famous novel). It’s an unusual, romantic spot, festooned with flowers and fairy lights, and the food – classic British – was pretty good too. A starter of Dorset dressed crab, followed by miso-glazed cod fillet and washed down with a Pinot Grigio (from an extensive wine list) went down very well.
But a stand-out part of the hotel is where you go for pre-dinner cocktails. The glitzy Coral Room is the piece of resistance from designer Martin Brudnizki, and is a throwback to a more exuberant era. The centrepiece of this seductively-lit space – formerly the hotel’s lobby – is the sparkling Art Deco bar, while opulent Murano glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling and palm plants brush up against you in the corners.
From deep sunk sofas in dark corners you can order from an extensive cocktail list, having first perused a beautifully illustrated little book which lists them all – Atlantic Roller, Play the Pyramid, Fools and Horse, Spiers and Shires, Heathcliffe, Cheshire Punch and of course the signature drink, The Full Bloomer. We invited a group of our London-based relatives and friends along, and they loved the atmosphere and the buzz.
We made one other cultural excursion, just a stroll away, to a hidden London gem – the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square. Here you can learn the often sad, quite equally often uplifting, stories about the abandoned children who came to stay in what was called the Foundling Hospital (from 1739-1954). It was the UK’s first ever children’s charity – which also doubled as the nation’s first ever public art gallery, as many of the early champions and benefactors were well-known artists like Willian Hogarth.
A salutary experience to take back to The Bloomsbury, where it was time to pack up and head home to the kingdom of King Raedwald.
Book your stay at The Bloomsbury direct at doylecollection.com/hotels/the-bloomsbury-hotel