Travel: Stay in the hotel where The Jungle Book was written

The lavish front hall at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair

The lavish front hall at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair - Credit: VIA DEI MONTI PARIOLI

Emperors, kings and queens, presidents, prime ministers and leading lights in the world of science and literature have all beat a path to Brown’s of Mayfair. But who would have guessed that the originators of this august establishment back in 1837 -  reputedly the oldest hotel in London – were two ‘downstairs’ individuals who could have leapt out of the script of a Sunday night episode of Downton Abbey? 

Queen Victoria was just on the throne, and a handsome Georgian property at 23 Dover Street had come on to the market. The prospective buyers (apologies to those few who haven’t watched the popular drama) were the Mr and Mrs Bates of their day, James Brown, a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, and his wife Sarah, a lady’s maid – to none other than Lord Byron’s estranged wife.  

Between them (and there is a strong suggestion that Lady Byron’s largesse helped considerably) they cobbled together the cash to purchase No 23. A year later they bought No 22 Dover Street, and six years after that Nos 21 and 24. With their backgrounds in service James and Sarah were ideally placed to provide hospitality and accommodation, just as the advent of the railway was bringing thousands more travellers to London. The legend of Brown’s was born. 

For our visit Eileen would be following in the footsteps of her grandfather Eugene, who – when he was able to take time off from his exacting job of developing a 600-acre farm in Cavendish, Suffolk – liked to check in regularly to Brown’s in the late 1940s and early 1950s for some quality rest and recuperation. 

As much as the pretty tinsel and the baubles of the Christmas preparations, what caught our eye immediately was the gorgeous hand painted wallpaper covering the entire ground floor. 

The hotel was acquired by Rocco Forte in 2003 and since then interior designer Olga Pollizzi – sister of Sir Rocco – has been putting her stamp on the place, augmenting the traditional dark woods of the Victorian and Edwardian eras with fresh, bright colours and strong patterns. 

Two years ago she hired the Slade-trained artist Adam Ellis to design this wallpaper for Brown’s, to ‘convey the quintessential English garden in a fun and playful way’. So a floral Eden is what the guests see, with cascading beautiful oversized blue and green ‘whimsical’ wisteria hanging down, populated by bullfinches, blue tits and robins – and the occasional more exotic hummingbird. 

Inside the Kipling Suite at Brown's Hotel

Inside the Kipling Suite at Brown's Hotel - Credit: ©Hotel Photography

Inside a Classic Suite at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair

Inside a Classic Suite at Brown's Hotel - Credit: ©Hotel Photography

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Brown’s has 115 rooms and suites – some of the most luxurious of the latter named after illustrious guests, like Rudyard Kipling (who wrote the Jungle Book during one of his many stays).

Our Junior Suite featured a little dark wood with a long desk, but essentially it was a light, bright spacious room with a contemporary feel (including the artwork, two nudes, on the walls), together with a view out onto the tempting shops of Albemarle Street. 

The elegant Drawing Room at Brown’s has long been a favourite haunt of London’s great and good for afternoon tea. Queen Victoria is said to have spent time here, and you can imagine Agatha Christie – who stayed here and based her 1965 Miss Marple novel ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’ at Brown’s – taking a seat quietly in the corner, notebook in hand, sharply observing different characters come and go, picking one of them as a candidate for murder. 

Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, London

Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, London - Credit: ©Hotel Photography

We chose not to indulge ourselves there this time but saved our appetite for dinner at Charlie’s. It was a special evening, not just because of the superb food (orchestrated by Michelin-starred chef director Adam Byatt), but because Eileen was able to meet up – after a long absence – with an old friend, a true icon of the London restaurant scene. 

Charlie's restaurant at Brown's of Mayfair

Charlie's restaurant at Brown's of Mayfair - Credit: Contributed

Bolivian-born Jesus Alorno arrived in the UK aged 19, intending merely to learn English and then return home to teach it. But he was quickly captivated by the restaurant world and elected to stay on, soon landing a plum job as head waiter at a brand new place, Le Caprice, in 1981. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Le Caprice became a London institution – amongst others, Princess Diana had her favourite corner table – and Jesus established his reputation as the capital’s most charismatic maître d. 

When Le Caprice closed its doors in the summer, Sir Rocco Forte wasted little time in snapping up the maestro’s services, and Jesus is now firmly ensconced as Brown’s director of hospitality, overseeing the front of house. 

Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise at Brown's Hotel

Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise at Brown's Hotel - Credit: Contributed

A few of Brown’s past luminaries have already been highlighted, but it’s worth mentioning one other from hotel’s rich historical tapestry. It’s widely accepted – although actual documentary proof doesn’t exist – that Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call in London here in 1876, all the way through to the home of the then owner James John Ford five miles away in Ravenscourt Park. 

In 1837, the very year Brown’s opened, John Constable died unexpectedly (of heart failure) on the night of March 31 at his home in Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia. He was 60 and had been working hard right up to his death – teaching in the Life Class and Painting School of the Royal Academy, and working in oils on his painting Arundel Mill and Castle. 

We had a treat in store as we left Brown’s to make the short journey over to the Royal Academy to view a brand new exhibition entitled Late Constable, featuring the great painter’s work in the last 12 years of his life (it runs until February 13). 

It was during this period, in 1829, that Constable had been finally, belatedly inducted into the Royal Academy – astonishingly late, from our perspective, given the magnificent landscapes like The Hay Wain and Stratford Mill (the so-called River Stour ‘six-footers’) that he had already produced.  

It is clear from this magnificent exhibition that Constable had not lost his touch – in fact he was diversifying, not just in subject matter (although still primarily landscapes) but in medium, as he had turned his attention back to watercolour with renewed enthusiasm. 

People forget what a superb drawer of animals Constable was. The highlight of this collection has to be another awesome six-footer, The Leaping Horse’ (1925), a dramatic episode on Float Bridge, near Dedham, depicting a rider urging his barge horse to jump over a barrier on the towpath. 

There is so much else to admire, away from his Suffolk landscapes –  for example The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1932) commemorating Wellington’s great victory and probably (at seven foot) his largest work, and the watercolour Old Sarum (1834), depicting the famous stone fort against a huge backdrop of swirling, threatening clouds. 

We returned to Brown’s to pick up our bags and make our way back to Constable country. We had felt very much at home in our short stay.