The Heathrow Express may get you here from the airport in just 15 minutes – but Paddington has often struggled to capture visitors’ imaginations (unless you’ve always wanted to follow in the paw-prints of a fictional floppy-hatted, duffel-coated, marmalade-munching bear from Peru, who was famously “discovered” inside the train station).
Yet Paddington has become one of London’s fastest-evolving districts, with huge investment bringing a slew of shiny new apartments, bars and restaurants, as well as the British capital’s first “floating park” – a series of decked walkways with wildlife areas to encourage birds and waterfowl to feed and nest at Paddington Basin, a peaceful canal zone (and SUP – stand-up paddleboarding – hotspot) directly north of the station.
Head 50 metres south-east of the terminus – an iron-and-glass-roofed jewel of Victorian engineering designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel – and you’ll find one of the most stylish of the neighbourhood’s newcomers.
The Pilgrm bills itself as a hotel, cafe and lounge bar, and grabs your attention from the off, when you pull open its glossy brass door handles and enter a gorgeously-concocted lobby that’s begging to be Instagrammed.
There’s plenty of exposed brick, retro blue wall tiles, a marble-fitted coffee counter, a Faema espresso machine, a snug seating area and rack stacked with fashionable magazines (including Monocole, which has its own spin-off caffeine den, Kioskafe, around the corner).
I’m most struck by the elaborately-carved timber staircase – one of several original pieces of Victorian decor restored to its former glory in an establishment that is set across four townhouses and occupies the former Royal Norfolk Hotel.
The Pilgrm’s owners, Andreas Thrasyvoulou, Steph Thrasyvoulou and Jason Catifeoglou, were driven by the concept “of making something that was once beautiful, beautiful again”, and the hotel’s name conveys both the journey the trio made, cobbling this project together, and the fact that many guests are on pilgrimages of their own. Dropping the “i” was an accident when it was jotted down, but apparently, the name stuck.
What elevates The Pilgrm above your standard restoration is that, on top of the spruced-up Victorian fittings, is the hotel’s vintage-style lighting, flooring and furnishings that have either been bespoke-crafted by British artisans or salvaged from places as varied as army gyms, schools, hospitals, eastern European factories and London’s Natural History Museum.
There are 73 rooms, split into four categories, from “Bunk” (tiny with a bunk-bed) to the 14-square-metre “Large Doubles”. We have one of these – room 35, in Y wing, which is accessible via a mix of lift and limestone steps with wrought-iron balustrades.
Treading parquet flooring said to be 200 years old, we find a cosy retreat with a king-size bed laden with cotton mattress, sheets and towels, a Marshall speaker with Bluetooth connectivity, fast and free Wi-Fi, and a compact, utilitarian shower room with REN natural toiletries.
We’d spend longer lingering in our room if it wasn’t for The Lounge, an inviting space with funky soul music, fabric chairs and sofas, cast-iron radiators, and greenery tumbling from pots. You can order drinks here – such as organic cold pressed juices or “globally-inspired” cocktails created by bartenders from cities like Dallas, Tokyo and Rome – along with food by renowned head chef Sara Lewis.
My partner and I share air-dried Scottish venison, soy-glazed crispy pork belly with chickpea puree, and lentil dhal with grilled mackerel, then chocolate mousse with salted almond. It’s all delicious, and the bill, with service charge, is a touch over £50 ($91) – reasonable for London.
Breakfast will lure you back, too, with choices like Le Bacon butty (served with a fried duck egg) and kimchi rice with tea-poached egg, pickled veg and miso paste.
The only slight bugbear during our stay are the early street noises, from buses and builders.
Paddington bustles 24/7 and The Pilgrm’s windows aren’t double-glazed. After feedback from guests, the hotel is mulling over solutions (in the meantime, light sleepers should request a room at the rear).
Overall, however, this is a smart, affordable option for London – whether you’re staying before or after a Heathrow flight or seeking a base in the city’s west. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens are just 10 minutes away on foot.
And if you’re after a selfie with the local celebrity bear, pop to platform one of the railway station. There, perched on his suitcase, is a life-size bronze sculpture of Paddington.
Qantas and Emirates fly to London from Sydney and Melbourne
Heathrow Express fares can be booked for as little as £5.50 ($10) if booked in advance. See heathrowexpress.com
Doubles at The Pilgrm are priced from £129 ($236). See thepilgrm.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of The Pilgrm and Visit Britain.