July 22, 2016 – A church? A conference retreat? A bed & breakfast? The Royal Foundation of St. Katharine is all that, and surprisingly so much more, billing itself as “an extraordinary urban oasis” located just minutes from the center of London.
I first learned of St. Katharine’s by pure chance while looking online for a budget-friendly lodging. The accommodations had to be located near a Tube stop with a direct run to ExCeL London, the convention center, while allowing me easy access to the city for the usual tourist-y explorations. Lodging also had to be safe, clean and easy on the wallet.
I thank my lucky stars – or Queen Matilda, wife of King Stephen, who established the Foundation in 1147 in memory of her two departed children, Baldwin and Matilda – for this amazingly green and calm oasis in London’s East End.
Even if you are not spiritually inclined, do not be intimidated. The friendly staff, the rich history, and the modern amenities, will draw you in to this superb bed-and-breakfast.
Summary of What I Liked
● Very clean, modest rooms with en suite (private, attached) bathrooms and daily housekeeping service. Facilities were modernized in 2004 to include a Retreat and Conference Centre.
● Free continental breakfast: An amazingly healthy, varied and delicious way to start your day
● Free parking if you decide to drive/rent a car
● Free WiFi
● Tube stop: Only two minutes’ walk from the above-ground Limehouse Station on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), which is seamlessly connected to London’s underground or “Tube” system
I posted this video on my YouTube channel to show how short the walk is:
● While check-in is at 4:00 pm, you might be able to obtain early check-in (1:00 pm) for a small fee (£10), depending on room availability.
● I arrived even earlier (10:00 AM), but the staff were kind enough to store my luggage in their Clock Room at no fee, so I could begin exploring London.
● Long, grassy courtyard with mature trees, landscaping, artwork, sculptures and plenty of outdoor tables and seating to relax, chat and enjoy a glass of wine
● Location in London’s East End: It’s an easy, short walk to local pubs, ethnic restaurants, convenience stores, ATM/cash machines, a Royal post office, and the Limehouse Basin (navigable waterway connecting the Thames River with the Regent’s Canal)
● Integrated with the Local Community: Even though the Foundation is walled (and the gates are locked to outsiders after 10:00 or 11:00 PM), St. Katharine’s is in the midst of a 2-year mission to welcome local residents, whether through various projects, art, food, coffee/tea, and conversation. More information HERE.
● Travel Necessities and Drinks/Snacks: Forget to bring a tooth brush, aspirin or an electrical adaptor? Have a hankering for a snack, beer or wine? It’s all here.
My Assigned Room No. 22
I booked a single-bed room for one person, six months in advance, online at booking.com. You can, of course, book directly with St. Katharine’s at www.rfsk.org.uk/stay, and receive a 5% discount using booking code “StK5”. For group bookings of six or more people, St. Katharine’s recommends emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0300 111 1147.
My rate was £88 per night (about $127 per night at the old January 2016 pre-Brexit exchange rate of £1:$1.44) for a single-bed room facing the interior courtyard. I was assigned Room No. 22 on the “first floor” (for Americans, this is actually the second floor, but in Brit-speak/Euro-speak, street-level is the ground floor, the next level up is the first floor, etc.)
For Americans booking today at an exchange rate of £1:$1.31, you would save $10 per night (compared to what I prepaid in January 2016) thanks to the Brexit vote’s effect on the exchange rate.
Needless to say, some readers will have cheaper rates, others higher, depending on the variables of time of year, availability, room size, courtyard-view (non-air-conditioned) versus street-view (air-conditioned), direct-booking, etc. However you end up reserving your room, the room-rate is very reasonable in one of the most expensive cities of Europe.
The en suite bathroom for the single-bed room is minimalist and sparkly clean. I appreciated the instant hot water and the high capacity water-flow in both the standup shower, with its adjustable showerhead nozzle, and the toilet.
Counter space is non-existent. To store your hygiene items, a narrow “floating” glass ledge is placed above the sink and just below an oval mirror. To the right, just below the glazed window which lets in a lot of daylight, is a deeper ledge to store additional items.
For the ladies concerned about where to store and apply make-up and cosmetics: On the desk is a small vanity mirror and bright desk lamp. The desk includes a single drawer, which holds a Bible and a hair dryer. Additional shelf-storage can be found in the armoire. The armoire, by the way, contains an extra blanket and pillow as well as five wood hangers.
Be forewarned that you will find no mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner or small bars of soap in your bathroom. Ditto for any washcloths. Instead, two liquid-soap dispensers are provided – one in the shower, the other near the porcelain sink. So bring your own loofah, body sponge or shower pouf!
You can purchase shampoo/conditioner (£2), a tooth brush/tooth paste (£2), electrical adaptor (£4), and other items in the alcove next to the lobby desk.
During my 5-night/6-day stay, housekeeping sometimes replaced my bath towel (extra-large, almost a beach-size towel), hand towel and the bath mat every day, and other times every other day.
On a daily basis, the water bottle was replaced and filled, used glasses/cups replaced, both wastebaskets emptied, and bed made up.
Upon returning from a full day of convention-going or sightseeing, the room was always immaculate. And this is the glorious window view I enjoyed:
There are, of course, many other room configurations and sleeping arrangements (not reviewed here) to meet your needs, including double-beds, full-sized beds, cribs and more.
To be candid, I am not a “breakfast person”. Maybe a cup of coffee and a small fruit, and I’m ready to go. But Oh! St. Katharine’s! How you spoil us with your hospitality and fine attention to detail.
If you are going to “break” the “fast”, this is one glorious way to do it – healthily, peacefully, sublimely.
On the other side of the meats/cheese/fruit station and as you enter the dining room, you will be greeted by various fresh-baked croissants and pastries, a loud and whiny, rotating toaster, assorted cereals and boiled free-range eggs.
You can mix and match your own custom-made cereal (gluten-free) – granola, Weetabix (wheat & barley), dried apricots, raisins and dried papaya – and serve it with Soya Milk.
Don’t forget your 3-minute boiled egg:
The coffee-and-tea station or a selection of fresh-squeezed orange juice, pressed apple juice, and chilled water, will rehydrate you for your busy day ahead. (TIP: See the closed door to the left of the hot-drinks station? It leads to a stairwell directly to a floor of bedrooms above. Great shortcut.)
Soon you will have created your masterpiece, taking photos while fellow diners pretend not to notice the odd fellow with the DLSR camera. But who cares? You’re on vacation. Enjoy!
The last challenge on your Breakfast Journey is where to sit. Perhaps the best and most popular tables are those facing the grassy courtyard. As the grounds are a true sanctuary, I enjoyed watching various blackbirds and wood pigeons pecking away as well as a couple squirrels chasing each other. (And later in the evening, I’ve watched two foxes scampering around the grounds.)
Breakfast is served Monday-Friday 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM, and Saturday/Sunday 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM. (HINT: I found the dining room was usually opened several minutes earlier than posted, so if you are in a rush and the staff don’t mind, have an early peek.)
Exploring the Courtyard and Church
The present location of St. Katharine’s is relatively new, dating back only to 1948. Prior to that, for 125 years, it was located in Regent’s Park in northwest London.
Tragically, St Katharine’s by the Tower (full name: Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St. Katharine by the Tower) lost its bid to remain at its original centuries old location next to the Tower of London.
The establishment, which was founded in 1147, witnessed its medieval church, its hospital and other buildings demolished by the city in 1825 to make way for the then-new St Katharine Docks. Commercial pressure for larger docks up-river overcame historical arguments to preserve the 14th & 15th century buildings or to allow its approximately 3,000 inhabitants to remain in place. Of course, it did not help that “(t)here were by now 1,000 houses (including a brewery) in its precinct, inhabited by foreigners, vagabonds and prostitutes, crammed along narrow lanes (with names like Dark Entry, Cat’s Hole, Shovel Alley, Rookery and Pillory Lane) and many in poor repair.” (Source: Wikipedia).
St Katharine’s tradition of hospitality, however, continues centuries later – and you are but the latest beneficiary in a millenial-old tradition.
No matter how busy you are, take at least 15 minutes to explore the grounds and to peek inside the church. There’s no denying the soothing, calming effect of nature’s grounds, the sculpture and artwork, and the architecture.
A covered breezeway along one side of the courtyard holds historical reliefs and friezes, reminding you of St Katharine’s ties to its distant past.
I took these photos on an overcast Saturday morning around 8:00 AM. Most of London’s exhibits and galleries do not open until around 10:00 AM, so why not take a leisurely stroll before breakfast:
As you approach, you will see the first hints of King Stephen carved in stone. His chipped right eye, missing nose bridge, and amputated hands tell you that this artwork is very old.
Once you enter this interior sanctuary, Queen Matilda comes into view, facing her beloved king. She, too, is missing both her hands and has some damage to her visage. They gaze at each other silently at the entrance to the church, a reminder that here, time stands still.
On this quiet Saturday morning, I thought the church was empty, save for some flickering candles at the altar. It was absolutely quiet.
In the vestibule, you can write and leave a prayer request.
But I was not alone. The seated Magister (at least that’s what the sign said, over his head) gave me permission to take some photos while he was in his devotions.
Lounges and Sitting Areas
Semi-private seating areas, in many configurations, allow you to have a private discussion – or to spend quiet reading time alone.
As if you would ever forget the rich history that surrounds you, a red-backed glass-enclosed case displays some relics from St Katharine’s storied past:
Safety and Security
So how safe is the Limehouse neighborhood? While a small number of commentators on various websites (e.g., TripAdvisor) have expressed qualms about the East End, I felt reasonably safe.
Perhaps the somewhat gritty, less-than-polished streetscapes, or the old warehouses and factory buildings, scare away the tourists? The East End was the home of Jack the Ripper, after all, and has long attracted immigrants, refugees and those down on their luck from every corner.
But London’s East End is colorful and evolving. This is where Alfred Hitchcock started his filming career, and where Grafitti artist Bansky and chef Jamie Oliver call home. This is where fish and chips was invented and where, locals claim, actor Sir Ian McKellen soemtimes visits his pub, The Grapes, within walking distance of St. Katharine’s. Artists and hipsters are drawn to the East End, actively transforming the urban core.
So here are five reasons why I felt reasonably safe:
(1) The Royal Foundation of St. Katharine’s is a walled compound. During daylight hours, the gate is wide open, and you must pass by the front desk to enter the residential area. The front desk is supposedly manned 24 hours plus there’s a call button;
(2) In the evenings, the main gate is electronically locked. You must use your electronic Room Key Card (pictured here) to open the front gate, then open the main door, then to access your room;
(3) The Limehouse Station on the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) is a short two-minute walk away. There are lots of pedestrians and local residents about. If all you do is walk between the Tube station and St. Katharine’s during daylight hours, coming and going, then you should feel perfectly safe … and even at night, I felt comfortable;
(4) During daylight hours, St. Katharine’s has its adjacent property open – the St. Katharine’s Precinct. (More HERE). Here you will find the Yurt Cafe, artists’ studio, picnic tables, a future planned outdoor theater, and a paved walking path – practically leading you directly from St. Katharine’s to the Limehouse Station. (After hours, the two gates are locked, and you will have to walk partially around the compound. But still, it’s a short walk to the main entrance.); and,
(5) Always use your common sense and urban instincts. You’ll be fine.
Beyond the Gates
► A two-year ongoing project, the St Katharine’s Precinct has been converting an adjacent weedy lot into a community-friendly hub. Run by the Foundation, the goal is to “build connections with and across communities through projects, conversation, reflection, art and food.” More details HERE.
► Nearest ATM (or cash machine/cash point/hole in the wall in Brit-speak) is two blocks away at CostCutter on Commercial Street
► Easy, short walks to local pubs, ethnic restaurants, convenience stores (Sainsbury’s and Costcutters), ATM/cash machines, a Royal post office
► Try cutting through St. James Gardens (see map below), cross the pedestrian bridge over the busy A1203 motorway, and walk down Narrow Street and toward the Limehouse Basin (a navigable waterway connecting the Thames River with the Regent’s Canal). You will encounter hidden pubs, a few restaurants and a feel for this Limehouse neighborhood.
● No TV’s in any room or common area: I actually found this to be a strength, as the constant noise of a television invades the quiet and calm of St Katharine’s. Besides, if you’re on vacation, why are you watching TV? Go and explore London!
● WiFi Signal: My WiFi connectivity was 50/50, requiring me to refresh my iPad connection frequently. It could be that my Room No. 22 (upstairs and next to a stairwell, and far from the lobby) was in a weak zone. WiFi reception was minimally adequate for emailing and light browsing, but not for streaming. Your experience could be better.
● No hallway ice-machine or in-room compact refrigerator: Yes, I’m from America. And yes, Americans certainly do enjoy their iced beverages and ability to store things in a compact refrigerator. To St Katharine’s credit, however, if you are really dying for a cool beverage, you can purchase one in the alcove by the front desk.
● No complementary mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner or small bars of soap. No wash cloths, either. The former you can purchase from the front desk; the latter you are on your own. So don’t forget to bring your loofah or bath sponge!
● In mid-July 2016, temperatures soared for a couple days to 31/32 °C (88/90 °F). The courtyard-facing rooms do not have A/C, while other outward-facing rooms do. Fortunately, housekeeping dropped off a portable fan, and an open window allowed cooler evening breezes in.
Notwithstanding the foregoing small points, the positives vastly outweigh the minor inconveniences.
In terms of quality and value, convenience to transportation, neighborhood walkability, and its long rich history, The Royal Foundation of St Katharine is an experience I am happy to highly recommend and to repeat on my next visit to London.
ADDRESS: The Royal Foundation of St Katharine, 2 Butcher Row, London E14 8DS
TEL: 0300 111 1147
DIRECTIONS from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and London City Airports: Click HERE
Click for PDF map: RoyalFdtn StKatharine-MAP