In an act of homage to the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, I hoofed half-way across Istanbul last spring to have tea at the Pera Palace Hotel, which inspired her to write Murder on the Orient Express. Alas, the place was closed for refurbishment (it opened again last September).

Last weekend, with rather less expenditure of effort, I visited another luxury hotel — Dame Agatha clearly had a considerable appetite for them — that figured in her impressive oeuvre. This was Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel, in Albemarle Street, Mayfair, which appears thinly disguised in her 1965 novel At Bertram’s Hotel.

I not only visited but actually stayed there, enjoying levels of comfort and customer care that instantly elevated the place to the status of my favourite hotel in the UK. (Rival establishments may if they wish compete for this honour. I am available most weekends.) My invitation came as a consequence of a collaboration between the hotel — the oldest in London — and the Royal Academy, just around the corner in Piccadilly (you can actually walk most of the way under cover through the Royal and Burlington arcades). This is in connection with the Modern British Sculpture exhibition (reviewed today by Theresa Thompson on Page 36).

The hotel is offering one night accommodation for couples, with breakfast, set lunch or pre-theatre supper, fast-track admission to the exhibition and official guide for £389 a night, plus VAT (from £299 for single occupancy). There are non-stay exhibition deals, too, involving lunch and pre-theatre supper for £40 per person. For information call 020 7493 6020, or visit

The particular delight I found at Brown’s was in discovering an establishment at once so traditional — as the pictures on this page illustrate — and yet attuned to the changing expectations of customers as the years pass.

Such has been the way, I feel sure, since it was opened in 1837 by John Brown and his wife Sarah, once a maid to Lady Byron. The year coincided with the first use of Buckingham Palace as London home of the reigning monarch. This explains why Queen Victoria, though a regular Brown’s customer, never had a need to stay there.

Royalty who did stay there, some for a long time, included Queen Elizabeth of the Belgians, King George II of the Hellenes, Haile Selassi of Ethiopia and Napoleon III of France. US Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Rudyard Kipling, Cecil Rhodes and Winston Churchill are among other famous guests.

Copies of Kipling’s Jungle Book are made available to junior guests. Our wonderful room contained a book about Churchill and William Shawcross’s recent biography of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, another Brown’s devotee. Shawcross himself has a Brown’s connection: he is married to Olga Polizzi, Rocco Forte’s sister, and the designer responsible for the hotel’s £24m renovation five years ago. (Fifteen years earlier, she supervised the makeover of Oxford’s Randolph Hotel.) One book notable by its absence was At Bertram’s Hotel. Later I bought a copy, and reread it. Many lovely things are said about what is clearly Brown’s. “It’s far and away the most comfortable hotel in London,” says one character. Another refers to Americans who go home to tell friends: “There’s a wonderful place in London; Bertram’s Hotel, it’s called. It’s just like stepping back a hundred years. It just is old England.” A police inspector finds himself observing the lounge and its occupants at teatime “with an apparently naive pleasure at beholding such a well-bred, upper-class world in action”. Picture me amid the scene above, and I think you’ll get the idea.

In fact, Rosemarie and I did not arrive in time for tea, but later enjoyed a superb dinner (wild mushroom and leek tart, fillet of Kingairloch red deer, chocolate mousse and eau de vie cherries) hosted by hotel general manager Stuart Johnson. Polished and hugely professional, Mr Johnson, who lives in Lewknor, has much in common with the manager of Bertram’s: “Mr Humfries was a man of about fifty. He had very good manners and the presence of a junior minister. He could, at any moment, be all things to all people. He could talk racing, shop, cricket, foreign politics, tell anecdotes of royalty . . .”

Impressed at being greeted on arrival by Mr Johnson, I see how people felt about the fictional boss: “He was not on tap all the time . . . At brief intervals Mr Humfries, like the sun, made his appearance above the horizon and flattered someone by his personal attention.”