Exhibition Road and the area around it, in Kensington, London has iconic buildings and institutions: the Museums (Victoria and Albert, Natural History and Science), the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Music and Imperial College. It has dozens of embassies and consulates. It has a wealth of elegant town houses and apartments on broad tree-lined streets and has Hyde Park at the top.
The area is, literally, an exhibition of high Victorian architecture and style. It is busy, particularly with pedestrians but can feel calm, as it did on a warm and sunny evening recently. What it lacks, I began to realise, are places simply to stop, sit, rest or to grab quick food and drink. The outside is all show, and you have to penetrate inside the buildings and institutions to find even basic human facilities. In order to enter the buildings, it feels as if you must have a purpose: to be a proper visitor and to be there for a reason. Walking into a grand museum feels rather different to drifting into a random shop.
I saw a small sandwich board outside an entrance to the Albert Hall, saying that the café was open all day. I thought I would explore. In one end of what was once a grand foyer, there is a coffee bar with tall tables and chairs. It is fairly busy, but comfortably so. There are a few sandwiches and more cakes on display, and behind the counter there is portable food and drink, for concert and event goers. I expect high prices, but it is only normal London, and portions are fairly generous. Coffee and cake are fine. Service is quick and civil. I have a few minutes of rest and recuperation and visit a clean and decent toilet too.
The room is pleasant. The ceiling is high and there are tall windows, which do not throw much light into the room. This allows pools of light lower down, from various fixtures, but the scale and openness of the foyer stops it from being cosy. People are in conversations, in many languages, and I notice that lots of them have security passes and seem connected with the building. There are coaches parked outside and I wonder if there is some large-scale event in rehearsal today. There are a few tables where parents are sitting with student sons and daughters. I remember the excitement and awkwardness of visiting children at university and am sympathetic. I hear lots of American accents and spot one or two Fathers being slightly conspicuous in their generosity.
I tuck myself into a corner and tap at my iPad before walking off, with a purpose, to enter one of the inscrutable buildings nearby.