It's always fascinating to see beautiful restorations of proud old buildings, and, on recent trips to London, I've seen two excellent examples carried out in very different styles.

First on the list is the Langham Hilton in Portland Place, just off Regent Street, which brought back some eerie memories. Many years ago, I'd stayed here when it was used as BBC offices and as a staff hostel! Its history, though, goes back well before Auntie years when it was built as London's first Grand Hotel and opened with due royal pomp by HRH the Prince of Wales on June 10th, 1865.

Visitors were amazed by the first hotel in London to offer air conditioning, hot and cold running water, its own post office, and hydraulic lifts (wonderfully referred to as 'rising rooms').

Some amazing people have passed through the doors over the years including Oscar Wilde, Dvorak, Mark Twain, Noel Coward - and now me!

One of the last galas to be held there was an eve-of-Coronation Dinner in 1937 with entertainment by The Two Leslies (famous radio entertainers of their day). The six course meal was considered 'unusually steep' at fifteen shillings (75p).

Pricewise, going even further back, in 1879 Charles Dickens noted in his London guide that the Langham charged 14 shillings and sixpence (72p) for a bedroom, breakfast with coffee and cold meat, dinner with soup and a joint of meat. Oh for a time machine!

Sadly, towards the end of 1940, a series of wartime bombing raids eventually fractured the huge water tank on the roof and caused massive damage as nearly 40,000 gallons of water cascaded through the building.

After 1945, the building was patched up and used as offices, eventually being fully occupied by the BBC until 1986 when the Hilton people bought the building and started an amazing renovation. Some of the detective work is worth a book in itself, as old scraps of wallpaper and friezes were discovered and painstakingly copied to bring back the glory of the place. One lovely touch was to keep the corridors at the front of the hotel to their original width that was designed to allow two ladies to comfortably pass each other -- while wearing crinolines.

The Langham, which originally cost £300,000, was restored after four years and a bill for £100 million. What they now have is simply superb, with top class rooms, restaurants, function facilities, and a three storey leisure club. It's well worth a London treat, and the feeling you get when you walk into this haven of calm after the bustle of the capital is quite an experience.

I'd particularly recommend their cavernous underground swimming pool, whose indulgence is only matched by the hotel's splendid Concierge Club which offers complimentary breakfast and an evening cocktail. Even Oscar Wilde would have been impressed.

Just a short distance away from Portland Place, the Trafalgar Hilton has taken a totally different approach to modern use of a historic building. Because the exterior is listed it has been carefully restored, but the interior uses breathtaking contemporary design. It really is minimalist; so much so that my expert London cabbie had trouble finding the place, marked only by a very discreet nameplate.

Some rooms have enormous full length windows with stunning views and, because of their soundproof glazing, you can watch the Trafalgar Square mayhem in an almost surreal way.

On the ground floor is the Rockwell, London's first bourbon bar, which features 100 varieties of bourbon, three of which were only average! Before the War, this building was known as America House (Canada House is still next door) and was used as offices by the Cunard Shipping Line. Today, you can book the former Cunard Board Room for a business meeting and revel in the history. If fictional history is more your thing, have a look on the first floor for M's office from the classic Bond movie, Dr No.

The Rockwell has become one of the trendiest bars in the capital (I sneaked in though) and Friday night was very busy with the movers and shakers celebrating the end of the working week. Dickens would have found it a bit pricy (£18 for 2 Manhattans), but he'd also have had a ball in people watching. The style of the bar is excellent with minimalist design and huge pillars echoing the feel of the famous Square outside. There's a lot of work going on under Nelson's feet, and, when it's complete soon, it will give London a better public space with much more room for pedestrians. This really is one of the hubs of London, with direct routes to Buckingham Palace and Downing Street, and a drink in Rockwell really does place you at the centre of things.

Downstairs is the outstanding Jago restaurant which changes atmosphere totally between breakfast and dinner. It's worth lingering over breakfast with papers at hand and a very comprehensive buffet. Dinner was superb (and open to non-residents of course) with exemplary and stylish service.

Details of both hotels, and great pictures,

Published: 03/04/2003