Roland Gardens is the epitome of affluent London – a quiet street with row upon row of grand Victorian redbrick houses. This might be why Anouska Hempel picked this quiet precinct of South Kensington for her boutique hotel, Blakes London, in 1978.
The 70s actress and It girl turned interior designer and hotelier now has an extensive portfolio to her name that includes residences abroad in Beirut, Lisbon and Istanbul, as well as London – The Franklin in Chelsea opened at the end of 2016. However, Blakes stands a cut above the others in its reputation as Hempel’s first foray into hospitality. As soon as you walk into the moody lobby with its dark mahogany and charcoal palette and dim lighting, you can recognise her signature sultry caress.
It nurtures an ambience that’s obviously popular with the locals (the restaurant seems filled with them). When I am shown to a quiet corner table, the Japanese-Italian menu proves just as seductive as the interiors. Maldon Rock Oysters send the meal off to a heady start; the miniature bottle of Tabasco providing just the right kick. The soft shell crab starter dissolves on the tongue while chargrilled octopus offers a meatier bite. I order the lobster pasta but am slightly overwhelmed by the size of the plate so swap it with my guest’s leaner dish of venison. For dessert, we’re tempted by the ice cream bucket, but read the small print just in time to discover that it serves four – a gluttonous step too far perhaps. Instead, the gluten-free mango mousse slides down with ease.
For those who want to continue drinking into the night, there is Blakes Below, a basement bar oozing Hempel’s provocative flair. It’s for an exclusive crowd of hotel guests and friends of Blakes, open from Wednesday to Saturday. DJs run the show until it closes at midnight. However, with such quirky design throughout the rest of the hotel, it seems a waste not to return to one of the suites for a nightcap.
Rooms are small but that has not held Hempel back. There’s chic Parisian; regal Dorian Gray; a whitewash of pristine linen in the Corfu room; or the theatrical Cardinal suite in vibrant crimson laced with gold that, despite its name, seems to encourage all manner of sins.
However, I am led to the discreet private residence. The whole place – four suites – can be rented complete with its own front door; or else rooms can be booked individually with access via a courtyard. The traditional mortice key that replaces the usual hotel key card makes the Red Striped suite feel like a private bedroom in someone else’s house, which I guess it is.
A red bed in the centre of the room is flanked by heavy curtains concealing a private balcony and – as warning to any shy bathers out there – a bath that is entirely exposed. Although the stripy red and white walls fail to charm in the same way as the high glamour of the other suites, I can’t help but think all of the rooms are designed for a certain type of rendezvous. Especially, when, on opening the bedside table drawer, I find a condom wrapped in a black velvet drawstring bag.
These discoveries aside, it’s equally alluring for those staying on their own. After a light breakfast of fruit salad in the restaurant the next morning, I spend the remaining few hours before check-out soaking languidly in the tub.
Although Blakes stands alongside the more conservative regal residences of the Royal Borough, the inhabitants tend to be quite different. The hotel claims to provide ‘a home for the free spirit’ and encourages a ‘lust for hedonistic abandon’; a place for ‘lovebirds’ as well as the person who feels the need ‘to wear shades for dinner at midnight’.
There’s a truth to bear in mind that nobody knows what happens behind closed doors, least of all at Blakes.