Shortly the front door will swing open and Mrs Smith and I shall discover a world of bold colour and relaxed decadence. But for the briefest moment I find myself hesitant to ring the bell. First of all, there's the fact that we’re in 'up and coming' (read: still pretty shady) King's Cross: a neighbourhood known when we were children more for its red lights than boutique hotels (when I first revealed to Mrs Smith that we were off to King's Cross for a spot of 'Rough Luxe’, I'm sure you can quite imagine the eyebrow that raised). Then there's the yellowing hostel sign above the doorstep declaring 'No Vacancies'…
But every inch its name, Rough Luxe is about playful contradictions and theatrical misdirection. And suddenly, as though by magic, there’s the proprietor beckoning us with a beaming smile into the adjoining living room – a joyous explosion of grandmotherly chintz and bold, contemporary design. Beside the blood-red sofa a large wicker basket holds a back-catalogue of Monocle, Wallpaper* and Slightly Foxed book review. Beneath it Spud, the house Jack Russell, twitches in his sleep. While holding pride of place above the fireplace is an enormous portrait of the iconic art duo Gilbert and George. In this last is perhaps an outline of the entire Rough Luxe premise: artistic, unique, but with a sprinkle of indulgent classicism. The manager claps his hands, grabs our bags and hits the single, mostly stripped wooden flight of stairs that corkscrews up through the hotel (we soon discover that everything in here is ‘mostly’ something, whether it be stripped, painted or wallpapered).
The very embodiment of the 'shabby chic' aesthetic, the old building is narrow and tall almost to the point of caricature. Expect no Jacuzzis here. No treadmill-strewn gymnasia or three-acre breakfast halls. Hell, there isn't even a TV in our room (a fact that Mrs Smith observes with some bemusement). In many ways, it’s like the ultimate boutique B&B. But we wouldn't change a thing. Our ruby-red bedroom is a respite from the cold minimalism of so many urban retreats and the hustle and bustle of the cities that house them. With its lack of contemporary distractions (unless you count the Collected Works of Sir John Betjeman as modern) this is a place of peace and passion in equal measure. A space for nothing but talk and play, for fun and escape and, in wretched Oprah-speak, ‘us time’. It's like the mad-cap artist friend you never had, with art and literature at every turn.
It’s like a tower of fairytales: every room with its own voice, its own playfully contradictory story to be imagined. Take our bathroom: the left wall is all beautifully ornate fleur-de-lis tiles that shimmer in the afternoon sun, while the right is a pleasing stretch of tastefully half-peeled wallpaper. Its glass-doored rainfall shower is a perfect example of chic modernism, while the bath beside it – an impossibly deep free-standing behemoth of copper – is a testament to timeless indulgence.
After an afternoon of settling in and poking our noses about the place, Mrs Smith and I ponder the question of food. There is no in-house restaurant or even bar here, so Rough Luxe might not be the best destination for debauched gluttons (there’s also all those stairs to consider). But craving something a touch less depraved, the Mrs and I take it on the manager's recommendation to saunter through the tree-lined sides-streets to Acorn House, one of the many lauded local restaurants. While we’re out, he seeks to facilitate as much of the signing-in procedure for us as possible with a little cursory Googling of his new guests (how’s that for service), and somehow stumbles across a reference to an old thesis of mine on Brazilian capoeira. So when we get back to our room, there’s a book by his favourite Brazilian author on the table, bearing a simple welcome note scribbled on the inside cover. The gift feels neither trite nor false. Rather, like so much here it seems honest and unrelentingly personal. As Mrs Smith turns down the sheets on the bed, I ponder that little book by our bedside and how rare such details and gestures have become.
In the winter, breakfast is apparently a talkative, social affair served amid the hotel’s quirky frescos and irreverent art. But since our stay is blessed by that rarest of beasts – the fabled English summer – we’re out on the peaceful cobbled patio behind the hotel in the shelter of a vast canvas parasol. Croissants are fresh from Ottolenghi, the famed brasserie up the hill in Islington. And as it seems that all the other guests are already out investigating the city, our sole breakfast companion is Spud the dog, scampering about on a joyful mission to rid this fair isle of flying ants.
We had planned to test out the Rough Luxe afternoon tea that a friend had recommended. But after a long, leisurely walk into the West End and back, we learn that the hotel's chef is sadly stuck in Whitstable sourcing oysters (tough job, I suppose). By way of apology we’re treated to a complimentary 'liquid tea' of crisp, cold prosecco and a rather adorably ad-libbed cheese plate to see us through. One bottle soon becomes two. The afternoon drifts comfortably into the evening. A local bar round the corner puts on a round of tapas and cocktails. And before we know it, it’s home time: back to the spiral staircase, up to the ruby red walls, our crow’s-nest refuge and that impossibly tall copper bathtub.
Ah, the bath. Mrs Smith has never been much of a bather. Which isn't to say she isn’t clean – just that she generally prefers the modern attractions of a large rainfall shower over a long, languishing soak. I, by contrast, am every inch a languisher. Not all the rooms have a bath like this, but as we do and with another chilled bottle of prosecco by the side of the shimmering tub, a backdrop of shabby make-believe all around us, my better half begins to falter in her conviction. Five minutes later, both of us chest deep in its cavernous embrace, chilled glass in hand and she's sold. Hook, line, and prosecco’d sinker.
So when I tell you that I'm currently soaking in the biggest bathtub on Earth, a flute of fizz by my side and my beautiful partner sliding beneath the mountain of bubbles at the other end, you'll understand why I'll be signing off here. They say that some things are best left to the imagination. Thankfully that’s a currency in which Rough Luxe is rolling.