A small, charming Georgian square deftly removes the Townhouse from the Clerkenwell Road. I arrive at the cobblestone EC1 cul-de-sac and enter the front door to discover… a rather fabulous cocktail bar. There’s no real reception – once we’re identified as staying at the hotel (walking in with luggage helps with that), a member of staff asks us to take a seat, another enquires if we’d like a drink. I wasn’t planning on one, but a quick scan around the room at people settling in and enjoying an afternoon libation, I realise this is exactly the right way to start.
The Zetter Townhouse evokes a certain type of Englishness. Or perhaps many certain types. From stripes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Paul Smith suit, bag or umbrella, to brocante and antique brass lamps, replica ships, animal illustrations, heavy crimson curtains and reclaimed stools. Each piece might not ‘match’ but certainly comes together and creates a distinct whole.
It may be counterintuitive to be envious of a person who doesn’t exist, but the inspiration for the Zetter Townhouse – a character called Great Aunt Wilhelmina – has led a rather fabulous life if her paper (and trinket) trail is to be believed. The intricate free-hand paintings on the lift doors hark back to halcyon hippie-trail treks, repurposed vintage magazine wallpaper speaks of her Lambeth days, and headboards in the top-floor rooms – made from Victorian carousel trappings – are souvenirs from the time she ran away to the circus; the Master at Arms cocktail served in the bar is a subtle nod to a dalliance Wilhelmina had with a sailor during the war. If you’re going to stay in a fictional character’s ‘house’, it may as well be a dun-roaming flâneur with a saucy side, a hefty fortune and some healthy eccentricities.
We’re in the Townhouse Apartment. While still more like a hotel room, it is certainly as big as an apartment – particularly one in Paris or Manhattan – and by London standards, it’s a room of generous proportions. If the Zetter Townhouse weren’t such a stickler for detail you might not feel so green-eyed, but Great Auntie’s story is crafted to be watertight; all modern technology is covered by tapestries or made from repurposed vintage tech, bathrooms have purposefully tarnished mirrors and Roberts radios, the faux-herringbone wallpaper in the bar has been hand-painted and artworks hang delightfully askew in the hallways or have light fittings dangling through them. It’s uncanny, but after just a few drinks here you really do feel like a guest at her house, so you’ll feel utterly at ease donning a lounge suit, cracking open one of the Zetter’s pre-mixed cocktails in your minibar and swanning down to the games room to challenge someone to a furious game of ping pong.
My honorary Mrs Smith lures us to a rooftop party at a hotel in the West End. Arriving at the central London hotel’s foyer that I realise how different it is to the Zetter Townhouse, and how unoriginal and bland some stays can be – even supposed ‘luxury’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘sophisticated’ ones. Thanks to London’s heavy drizzle, the party has been relocated to the bar; we have one drink before longing to be back at the Zetter, a jasmine tea gimlet in hand, knowing that a bed is just a stairwell away… When we do return to the Townhouse, the cosiness and charm of Tony Conigliaro’s bar has been enhanced by the fact that it is now evening, and it is indeed time for a nightcap. An amaretto for the lady and an amaro for myself; the night was capped.
Being in East London on a Sunday places markets high on our agenda. After a continental breakfast next door in Bistrot Bruno Loubet (in the main Zetter hotel) and a super-sized serving of newspapers and plunger coffee, it’s a short walk to the nearest Boris Bike dock and 10 minutes later we’re getting lost in the magical Colombia Road flower market and fighting for space at the bar at the Royal Oak, the wonderfully boisterous pub in the heart of it all.
Finally we retreat back to the hotel room, and settle happily into an afternoon of laptop-tapping while perched facing the window in the square below. A stately antique writing desk, a shiny new silver laptop, a gin from the mini-bar… what more could a writer want? It’s the kind of desk you could pen a memoir at. Staring out into the window as I do far too often, it hits me that the view from the room is lovely – not really of anything at all, other than a cobblestone square and a few brick buildings, but complete with a red phone box, black cab and people scurrying around with umbrellas, it’s a classic London view, yet without a landmark in sight.
As for where to eat, the Zetter’s location dazzles with dining options. It’s just a five-minute radius from some of London’s great London’s drinking and dining spots, including Moro, Caravan, Quality Chophouse and the Modern Pantry, which is literally next door. 10 minutes by cab, bus or Boris Bike puts you at Broadway Market, London Fields, Shoreditch and Dalston, or the same in the other direction and you’re at Covent Garden, Soho and the West End. It inspires you to make like that Great Aunt Wilhelmina, and be a great explorer. And if you’re feeling too lazy you could always stay put – you’ll feel as though you’ve had an adventure from here.