For nearly the last two years my daily commute to work has sailed me along Piccadilly, from manic Hyde Park Corner to slightly seedy-looking Trocadero. (Barring unscheduled diversions via Park Lane and Victoria when the usually reliable buses fail me, of course.) Early on I noted that, among the vast club-houses and glossy shops, Piccadilly has its grottier, less-cared-for-looking buildings; some in clusters and others standing alone. After the first few trips one seemingly-abandoned building caught my eye in particular.
Set back from the tearing traffic, behind heavy black ironwork and a small, round gravel drive is No. 94 Piccadilly. Two high metal gates are accompanied by thick, grubby pillars, two displaying the word "In" and two the word "Out". The windows are dark and empty, unlined by curtains or shutters. Occasionally a strip light was visible, glowing luminously, attached to a grimy wall inside. Once or twice I even saw a car in the drive - a heavy, black and blacked-out cruiser, the kind usually favoured by gang-members and professional footballers.
I imagined it was a London crash-pad for an absent Russian oligarch. A site for illegal gambling activities or a secret drinking club. Each day I could conjure up a new shadowy purpose for this mysterious building. Never did I see a living soul go in or out. Imagine then my disappointment when I discovered recently that the building was not the shady den of vice I had into which I had romanticised it.
Built in the eighteenth century for the 2nd Earl of Egremont, the Palladian-style building has a fascinating history, during which it has assumed many identities. First Egremont House, then Cholmondeley House, it remains today Cambridge House, named for the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Adolphus. Lord Palmerston took possession in 1855, and after his death The Naval & Military Club expanded into it. The Club bestowed on it the nickname "The In & Out Club" due to the signposts at the gate, and took the nickname with it when it moved on to larger premises 13 years ago. In 1994 the original "In and Out Club" hosted the after-party for the premiere of Four Weddings and A Funeral, and was thus the site where Liz Hurley launched her infamous safety pin dress, and herself, on the world. And if that isn't slightly sinister, I don't know what is!
Now the palace is owned by a property magnate, Simon Halabi, who uses the place purely as a car-park for his hummer. Having abandoned plans to turn it into a 6 star hotel, he is now trying to sell it on. The credit crunch being a major reason behind this decision, I don't imagine it will be snapped up instantly - few of us have a spare £250 million down the side of the sofa these days. So for now the club will be frequented only by the ghostly political and royal formal inhabitants of No. 94, having the phantom party of the century, with weeds to welcome them up the drive, illuminated by flickering neon strip lighting inside the long-locked doors. And not one of the tourists and commuters passing the gates will ever know.