There’s nothing that says ‘at home in London’ quite so much as having one’s own Club. In the first of a new series exclusive for the Arb, NICK HAMMOND discovers a Club in the heart of the West End that’s maintaining tradition while blazing a new trail…
THERE’S the soporific tick of a hidden clock. Rain spatters plaintively at a window.
A silver-haired gent crosses the room to depress a buzzer secreted on the wall and within seconds, the whisper of well-worn leather on carpet brings a trusty retainer to hand.
This is a scene unchanged for centuries; it’s what the Empire was built on. I could be in Rawalpindi or Rangoon.
Actually, I’m just off Oxford Street.
After just a few short hours at The Oriental Club, I discover it’s no crusty collection of colonials hiding in a guilded time machine. It’s long-revered, much-loved – and all you could ask for from a London pied-à-terre.
Originally founded by fed-up ex-military men looking for something to liven up London lives, it has since become not only a focal point for those with links to the East, but a bastion of traditional club life, albeit with a modern twist.
There is no longer any formal link to the military and ladies are more than welcome here, as members and guests. The facilities are extraordinary, from the silver service dining to the 40 Club suites.
Yes, you still have to wear a tie in the dining room; but there’s beer and billiards to be found, if you want them, as well as a daily club menu option which offers two courses for £14 from Michelin-starred Chef Wesley Smalley – and a bottle of House Claret for less than £20. So what’s not to like?
An out-of-towner like me can find a friendly place to lay a weary head, with amenities akin to a four-star hotel. My bed in the ‘new wing’ is large and comfortable, the towels are fluffy and the flatscreen shows Sky Sports if you’re desperate to catch the end of the cricket (as I am). And if you leave your shoes outside your room before midnight, Antonio, the Club Valet, will arrange to have them polished. Free of charge.
I get lost several times while meandering from room to room, trying to get a flavour of what it’s like to be a member of the Oriental (membership charges range from £225 to £1,100 and the current joining fee is £1,500. All new members have to be agreed by the Committee).
I try to look like I know what I’m doing as I repeatedly pass the same portrait on one particular landing. But eventually, somewhere deep underneath this cavernous old building, I find myself in a barber’s chair.
Fausto is Italian and now retired – but pops in for a few hours a week to trim members’ locks. He gives me a history lesson, a haircut and a straight razor shave for sixteen quid. Then I climb more stairs and wander the passages again.
There is some extraordinary artwork scattered across the rooms at Stratford House (the home of the Oriental Club since it moved in the 1960s from Hanover Square). As well as copious portraits of the great and good – The Duke of Wellington was the Club’s first, and only, President, for example – there are also some strikingly atmospheric scenes depicted on canvases which cover entire walls.
And all of this is underscored with a tasteful reminder of the Club’s heritage – the emblem of the Asian elephant, which adorns flags and teacups, is recreated atop silver coffee pots and stands magnificent in the pachyderm sculpture which has long been a feature in reception.
I eventually stumble into the Calcutta Light Horse Bar and make the most of the happy coincidence by pulling up a stool and indulging in a Scotch and soda. After a perusal of the menu (oysters, potted shrimp, kedgeree, curry or just good old ham, egg and chips, among others) I order up samosas and pakora and after this spicy refreshment, retire to the club courtyard for a digestif cigar (a small but useful humidor of Havanas is kept behind the bar).
It’s a grim old day in London; dreary, wet, blustery and virtually dark and I nestle undercover at the far end of the terrace. In summer, no doubt this space is a hive of sun-splashed activity. But for now it’s just me, the rain clouds and a tut-tutting blackbird.
As the city hunkers down for another long winter vigil, I admire the haloes of light from the myriad rooms, offices, nooks and crannies of this wonderful old Club. Every one of them has a story to tell. And I’m going to tell it.
For more information about the Oriental Club, including details of bars and dining, accommodation and, of course, membership, visit www.orientalclub.org.uk.