Did you know that all bees hum in the key of C? Or that bees, which are vegetarian, evolved from carnivorous wasps during the same era that dinosaurs walked the earth?
These are among the fascinating facts you can pick up in London when you visit The Hive. This marvelous combination of 17-metre-high sculpture (designed by Wolfgang Buttress), engineering and science project will continue to be the anchor of Kew Gardens’ focus on bees until November 2017. Inspired by research into the life of bees, it’s surrounded by a wildflower meadow still active with bees in early September.
Called an “immersive sound and visual experience”, the lights and sounds you experience inside The Hive are triggered by bee activity inside a real beehive, elsewhere at Kew.
The promise is “Step inside and discover the secret life of bees”. I don’t know about that, but you can certainly hear The Hive humming away in the key of C long before you see it.
And you can listen in on bee conversations. Clever devices, embedded in columns allow you to hear all the different calls bees make to each other. Insert a thin wooden stick into a slot on the column and put the other end between your teeth to hear the bees through your bones. Apparently that is how bees communicate with each other (and I thought it was all about the wiggle dance they do in the air). They bark and croon and howl too. Who knew?
If you haven’t been to Kew in a while, right now is a great time to go. After our warm/cold/wet/dry summer, the flowers are looking wonderful, there’s a good assortment of live plants in peak condition to buy and several new pretty places to settle in for a cup of tea.
For more than 150 years, buildings scattered around London have been adorned with blue ceramic plaques marking their historic association with famous achievers of the past.
It’s a kind of massive “George Washington slept here” scheme, except you won’t find George Washington anywhere; though you might find Benjamin Franklin. Hundreds of others – writers, artists, performers, musicians, composers, teachers, politicians, inventors, explorers, philosophers, engineers, heroes and heroines are commemorated all over the city.
London has the oldest blue plaque scheme in Britain. The plaques surprise and educate passersby who come upon the discreet reminders of people from all over the world who lived and worked in London. I was inspired to find out more about the blue plaques by the plaque to an unknown (to me anyway) poet on a house across the street from my flat.
Today there are about 900 blue plaques in the London scheme administered by English Heritage. The first was put up in 1866 honoring Lord Byron. The oldest still existing commemorates a short stay by an exiled French king, Charles X.
Up to 20 plaques a year can be added. In 2017, six will go up to honor Francis Bacon, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Rudolph Nureyev, early 20th century working women’s champion Mary Macarthur and volunteering pioneer Stella Lady Reading.
About This Walk
This walk will take you through Chelsea, north and south of the King’s Road. About two miles long, beginning and ending near King’s Road bus stops, the walk is flat and should take you less than two hours walking at a snail’s pace.
To start, take the 11, 19 or 22 bus from Sloane Square Underground Station, up the King’s Road to Carlyle Square. It’s then a five minute stroll to Mallord Street where the walk begins.
From Winnie the Pooh to Count Dracula
1.13 Mallord Street in Chelsea is the house where both Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh were born. A.A. Milne moved there with his wife in 1919. His son, named Christopher Robin though called “Billy”, was born here and while living in the house, Milne wrote When We Were Very Young, Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Christopher Robin’s toys became Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. Few people realize that Winnie the Pooh himself was inspired by a real bear named Winnie after the city of Winnipeg in Canada. The bear was brought to London by Canadian Army vet, Harry Colebourn and eventually ended up in the London Zoo. There, he was a favorite of the real Christopher Robin who changed the name of his toy bear from Edward to Winnie. Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick has written a children’s book about it, Finding Winnie.
To see the houses featured in this blog, click on the matching numbers on the map below.
2. Cross Mallord Street and turn left. At number 28 you’ll find the home and studio built for Welsh Painter Augustus John, brother of artist Gwen John. The house was finished in 1914 and he lived there with his second (common law) wife and their children. John painted some of the most recognizable portraits of literary and artistic celebrities between the wars – notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dylan Thomas and several portraits of W.B. Yeats. He was also a notorious libertine with parties at the house said to end in orgies. He had at least 10 children by five different women. Eventually John tired of this house, calling it a “damned Dutch shanty”, and sold it to British entertainer Gracie Fields. Continue left down Mallord Street, turning left onto The Vale and left again onto The King’s Road. Across the street, you’ll find Paulton’s Square. Turn right into the square.
3. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, usually associated with Dublin or Paris, underwent several months of psychoanalysis in London in 1934. A friend found him lodgings with a married couple at 48 Paulton’s Square. He was a regular at two local pubs, the Six Bells and The World’s End. While here, he published a collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.
Just in case you think you might like to drink where Beckett drank, you are probably about 40 years too late. The Six Bells, at 197 Kings Road, went through several incarnations before becoming The Ivy Chelsea Garden – which bears no resemblance to any pub Beckett might frequented – though you might pick up his vibe in the beer garden if you can get in to this very popular, Made in Chelsea kind of place. The World’s End Pub, which was a real traditional boozer from the days of Charles II to about 10 years ago, is now an upmarket restaurant with a pretend 1930s ambiance. It’s now called the World’s End Market.
Continue to the end of Paultons Square, walking toward the Thames. At the bottom of the square, turn right, then left into Danvers Street.
4.Sir Alexander Fleming was living at 20a Danvers Street, a modest basement flat in a large house, when he made his breakthrough and changed the whole direction of modern medicine with the discovery of penicillin. From his first discovery in 1922, through refinements and clinical trials to his Nobel Prize in 1945 and until his death in 1955, he lived in this flat. In later years, he also had a country house in Suffolk.
Now, continue to the end of Danvers Street to Cheyne Walk, beside the Thames. Turn right and continue in that direction. Cross at the set of lights at Beaufort Street – Battersea Bridge is on your left. Just past this intersection, you’ll see large cast iron gates, with a garden and a big yellow house beyond.
5 and 6.You’ll need X-ray vision to see the plaque that is alleged to be at 98 Cheyne Walk. It’s behind a high brick wall. But just so you know, this was the home of Sir Marc Isambard Brunelwho built the first tunnel under the Thames, the world’s first underwater tunnel through soft ground. He started it in 1825 and it wasn’t finished until 1843. While living here, he also worked on the education of his young son, who became the much more illustrious 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel– designer of the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at Bristol and the giant screw propeller, sail-assisted steamship, the SS Great Britain which you can still visit in Bristol. The lovely yellow house next door at 96 Cheyne Walk belonged toJames Abbott McNeill Whistler and his mother – you’ve no doubt seen her in his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, usually known as Whistler’s Mother.
Bring along a pair of binoculars if you really want to see this plaque. It’s not blue and it’s at least 50 feet from the street, set back behind gates. Judging from the yellow house, you might think Whistler was probably pretty affluent when he lived there. But actually the house is just one quarter of a larger house built in 1674 by the Earl of Lindsey on land that was once Sir Thomas More’s garden. It was divided into four units about 100 years later and among the other rental tenants of this large villa were the Brunels mentioned above.
Now turn and retrace your steps past Danvers Street. Continue along Cheyne Walk, looking out for the statue of Sir Thomas More, at the site of his house, in a small park beside Chelsea Old Church on your left. At Oakley Street, opposite the Albert Bridge, turn left.
7.87 Oakley Street was the home of Jane Francesca Agnes Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother. A larger than life character in her own right, she came to London from Dublin after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. As a poet and essayist in Dublin, she wrote under the pseudonym “Speranza” and supported the cause of an armed Irish rebellion against Britain – which got her in no end of trouble. In London, she continued writing for fashionable magazines and eked out a slim livelihood. But she died penniless in 1896 while her son Oscar was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. Oscar paid for her funeral but there was no money for a headstone until the Oscar Wilde Society erected one more than 100 years later.
Cross the street and head back toward the river to number 56.
8. Doomed antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott left for his last polar expedition from 56 Oakley Street and never returned. He had led a previous expedition, The Discovery Expedition, during which he identified the polar plateau on which the South Pole was located. But it was the second expedition, The Terra Nova Expedition, between 1910 and 1913, when all were lost. He moved to this house in 1905, on the return from his first expedition, and he wrote his famous account of that journey, The Voyage of the Discovery, while living here. In the late 20th century, his reputation took something of a blow with some historians saying his incompetence and lack of preparation led to his death and that of his entire team. But recent discoveries about the weather have restored his reputation as a doomed hero. Continue down to the river and turn left on Cheyne Walk.
9. 16 Cheyne Walk was the home of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, painter, poet and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He moved here after the death of his young wife and model in 1862. Some of his finest paintings, including
Beata Beatrix, were done here and he published his collected works of poetry while living in this house. The decadent poet and sometime hysteric Algernon Charles Swinburne rented a room from him for about a year.
10.The entire facade, including the blue plaque at 4 Cheyne Walk was covered with scaffolding for refurbishments when we visited. But we’ve been reliably told that this with the brief, last home of Mary Ann Evans, known to most of us as the 19th century novelist George Eliot.She moved in with her new husband (20 years her junior – good for her) on December 3, 1880. Shortly after, she caught a sore throat and by December 22, she was dead.
Now, bear slightly left into Royal Hospital Road, turning right at the corner of Tite Street.
Next, continue right, past Mark Twain’s house, to Ralston Street. Turn left on Ralston Street, then right on St Leonard’s Terrace.
13.How fitting that number 13 on this Chelsea Blue Plaque walk was the birthplace of one of the most terrifying creatures in literature. Dublin writer Bram Stoker was living in a pretty Chelsea cottage at 18 St Leonard’s Terrace when he wrote his classic gothic horror novel Dracula. Stoker had come to London to manage the Lyceum Theater for actor manager Henry Irving.
Now that you’ve completed the walk, it’s time for some refreshment and what would be more fitting than to have lunch or a snack at another listed building with a blue plaque. Just beyond Stoker’s house, turn left on Royal Avenue and continue to the King’s Road. Then cross the King’s Road and turn left again. Look for an arched entryway, protected by two bronze birds of prey.
14. 152 Kings Road, The Pheasantry, was the studio of ballet dancer and teacher Princess Seraphine Astafieva. The Russian princess, daughter of Prince Alexander Astafiev, came to England as a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in 1910. She retired from the stage to teach and in 1916 established her school, the Anglo-Russian Ballet, here. Most of the leading lights of early 20th century ballet visited her or took classes here, among them Margot Fonteyne; Alicia Markova, one of the founders of the Festival Ballet which became the English National Ballet; Anna Pavlova and Marie Rambert, founder of the Ballet Rambert. And in case you are wondering about the lunch or snack I mentioned earlier, these days The Pheasantry is also a Pizza Express.
The English Heritage Guide to London’s Blue Plaques is published by English Heritage, who now administer the scheme. It lists 800 blue plaque locations, all over the city that can form the basis of many an enjoyable London walk. It’s availableonline from English Heritageor from Amazon.
My friend, my dog and I had spent a few days in France in May. We stayed in several luxury hotels that were, on the whole, long on charm but (with one exception) very short on space.
The last day of our trip was a long one with a lot of driving and a late ferry crossing. My friend had suggested we book a room at the halfway mark to break the journey. It’s only 80 miles from the Dover Ferry Port to West London (a two hour drive, the AA rather optimistically suggests) so that didn’t seem necessary.
But roadworks on the M20 heading out of Dover turned our first hour on the road into a 20-mile, single-lane nightmare of orange cones looming out of total darkness, punctuated by the glare of oncoming lorries. By the time we pulled into the Junction 8 service area on the M20 in Maidstone, my eyes were burning and my jaw was clenched. I was thankful I’d taken her advice.
It was a Days Inn.
I’d never stayed in one before and if you’d asked me, before this trip, what I thought of the brand, I probably would have said, not a lot. Their no-frills websites with tiny pictures and lurid colours set in an electric blue background were not very tempting. But it was where we needed to stop and it was cheap (£68 for both of us plus the dog)so I booked it.
We arrived, bedraggled, at around midnight. Because you pay for these rooms online, in advance check-in is totally painless. I just handed over a printout of my reservation in exchange for a digital card “key” and directions to our room. That was it. No formalities, nothing to sign, nothing to pay.
The room, after several days on the Continent, seemed huge – a separate king-sized bed for each of us plus a pair of upholstered arm-chairs. There were plenty of outlets for our chargers, extra pillows in the cupboard, tea and coffee-making things, flat-screen television and a large, spotless shower room.
Bags of style? No, just your basic, early 21st century motel room. And maybe the towels were a little on the stiff side. But it was clean, comfortable, quiet and there. As I stretched out on the first bed I’d been offered in five days that was actually big enough to stretch out on, I thought, “Thank God for Days Inn. Who knew?”
The exquisite Marble Hall, pictured in the National Trust image above, was the entrance to Clandon Park, a Palladian mansion built in 1720 by a Venetian architect.
The house, near Guildford in Surrey, about an hour from London, was considered the finest and most complete example of the Palladian style in Britain.
Then in 2015, a disastrous fire took the roof and damaged or destroyed much of the contents and decor – including the lovely marble entrance hall and the saloon, pictured below.
Restoration work got underway almost immediately and now you can visit Clandon Park to learn about how the house is being restored and reimagined and see the current state of play.
Before work even began, experts recorded every inch of the house with 22,000 digital images. If you are interested in architecture, historic restoration and reconstruction, this is a remarkable and rare opportunity.
“If you are interested in architecture, historic restoration and reconstruction, this is a remarkable and rare opportunity.”
On a generous selection of days between now and October 29, visitors are being invited to don hard hats and high visibility vests (provided by the National Trust at the site), and follow an extended walkway through the Marble Hall and the Saloon. There you can get a close-up view of the structure and the remarkable survival of some of the marble statues and decorative artwork.
Visits are by timed admission and must be booked in advance on the National Trust Clandon Park website. After, you can picnic in the gardens and follow a trail of historic pictures about the house and the people who lived there.
By the way, if the Marble Hall looks familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it before. Its cool, spacious beauty played an important role in the film The Duchess with Keira Knightley.
On our tour of champagne country, we ventured off the beaten path in search of the arts and crafts of the region. There were disappointments and delights along the way but the delights far outweighed the few disappointments.
In this, part two of my champagne adventures, our small breakaway party moves on to Chaumont, once the seat of the Counts of Champagne.
If you plan your trip for 2018, you could witness a rare local pilgrimage festival that won’t happen again until 2019. (Read Part 1 here)
After the glamour of Reims and the long sleepy drive that followed, Chaumont in windy, wet February was shaping up to be a damp squib. The promising looking market, in its belle epoque cage of blue cast iron and glass, was closed;
so also the art and history museum in the remains of the chateau, the donjon; the extensive, strategic views below the stronghold of the Counts of Champagne was obscured by wintry mist, and the new cultural centre that had drawn us here was empty, its exhibition taken down the day before we arrived.
On rue Saint-Jean, sheltering and shivering under the Gothic portal of the 14th century Basilique Saint Jean-Baptiste, I’m sure some of us wondered why we had come to this town, so late in the day, at this unpromising time of year. Then our guide invited us inside.
I could have sworn I heard someone say, “Well at least it will be warm in there.”
Serendipity in the Basilica
Well, not so much. Inside it was cold and dark – so cold and so dark that clouds of our own breath obscured most of what we could see. Puddles of condensation collected in the grooves of the well worn floor. The swirling shapes of baroque angels and saints loomed out of the gloom. (Jean-Baptiste Bouchardon, a 17th and 18th century sculptor and architect, settled here and filled the basilica with his works in wood and stone.)
But the real art treasure here is the 15th century Entombment of Christ, a startling collection of life-sized, polychromed figures in the crypt. The Renaissance figures, gathered in grief around a figure of Christ in an open coffin, are illuminated and separated from the main body of the church by an iron grill just a few feet lower than the floor of the nave.
The entombment figures are so lifelike that, if you’re not prepared, you could easily imagine you’d stumbled upon a private funeral.
Elsewhere, in a side chapel, the Jesse Tree, or Rod of Jesse, is a rare bas relief dating from about 1530. Based on a prophesy in Isaiah, it traces the descent of Christ from Jesse, the father of David, through all the kings of Judah. If you look carefully, you can see the head of Goliath on the lower left, with David in a branch above it, playing his lyre.
The Basilique Saint Jean-Baptist is at the center of a pilgrimage festival that has been celebrated – on a rather eccentric schedule but almost without interruption (World War II excepted) for nearly 550 years.
Back in the late 15th century, local boy made good, Jean de Montmirel, became a bishop and then confidante and aide to Pope Sixtus IV. In gratitude for his service, the pope granted his native village of Chaumont, a special papal indulgence – or Grand Pardon.
The indulgence – a medieval papal pardon of sins – was granted to anyone who attended confession and took communion in the basilica when the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24) fell on a Sunday. That happens at intervals of 5, 6, 5 and 11 years. The next celebration will be 24 June 2018. During the Festival of the Grand Pardon the streets are decorated with paper flowers and people pour into the town for the religious observance and a jolly good time to follow.
While we were there: I stayed at the local IBIS Styles hotel on rue Toupot de Beveaux, (Tel: +33 3 25 03 01 11). This was my first chance to sample an IBIS Styles since the French ACCOR Group launched this moderately priced, design-led brand. Thumbs up for a comfortable sleep in a well-equipped and colourful room, plus free wifi and a decent breakfast included.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins with the oft quoted line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Perhaps if a few more heirs of the Hill family, Lords of Berwick, who built and owned Attingham Park had paid attention to this truth, there might still be a some of them occupying the grand country house today.
Almost from its start, this was a family of lifelong bachelors, spendthrifts and sowers of wild oats. While it remained in the family it often passed from brother to brother, or uncle to nephew so that in the 165 years they owned it, only five generations of Berwicks – and hardly any children – actually lived in this fabulous house.
The best English country houses to visit are those with complicated social and political histories. Attingham Park in Shropshire is an 18th century English country house set in a ravishingly beautiful Humphrey Repton landscape. The family who owned it could have populated a 19th century novel with generations of dysfunctional characters.
The Family Man
Noel Hill, the first Baron Berwick, married for love against his parents’ wishes. They must have relented though, because they gave him the estate upon which he built Attingham Park as a wedding present. Noel grew rich through politics and investments and, in 1782 commissioned a Georgian mansion and stables. He and Anne had six children, three boys and three girls. They were the last children to ever live in the house.
The Spendthrift Bride
Thomas, Noel’s oldest son and 2nd Lord Berwick, inherited Attingham when he was 19. He remained a bachelor until he was 41, when he met and married Sophia Dubochet, a 17 year old courtesan. Thomas had already demonstrated extravagant tastes – commissioning Regency darling John Nash (Architect of the Brighton Pavilion) to design a picture gallery and library with a fabulous (and almost instantly leaky) glass roof. But when he and Sophia married, they began running through his vast fortune at a rate of knots. Two bankruptcy auctions were needed to pay off debts and virtually emptied the house of many of its best paintings and furniture. The couple were forced to decamp to Italy, where living was cheaper and where Thomas died, childless.
William, Thomas’s younger brother and ambassador to Italy, inherited the house and became the 3rd Lord Berwick. He had rushed home for the bankruptcy auctions to buy back as much of the furniture and family paintings as he could. Until he inherited, he leased the house and filled it with 18th century Italian furniture, some of which came from the home of Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister and the Queen of Naples. His attitude toward money may have been more responsible than his brother’s but his taste in women possibly was not. While he had several illegitimate children with his Italian mistress, they never married so the children could not inherit.
Richard, the 4th Lord Berwick, was William’s youngest brother and a clergyman. He never expected to inherit the estate but enjoyed the life of a country gentleman – and running through lots of money – when he did. He was, apparently, particular fond of a drop or two and made a rather large dent in the estate cellars. He was also prolific in the fatherhood department, providing enough long-lived sons to keep the family titles passing along through several generations of bachelors.
By the way, while her three sons were running through their inheritances and basically allowing their fabulous house to fall into ruin, their mother Anne was forced to live in Italy because she could not afford to maintain a separate household in England. Her three daughters, who accompanied her to Italy, don’t seem to merit even a footnote in the family story.
Interestingly, the family motto was “Let wealth be his who knows its use”.
The “Parson” had a passel of offspring. Two of his sons became, in turn, the fifth and sixth Lords of the estate. Richard, the 5th Lord, restored the estate’s balance sheet, created a model farm and established a nationally famous herd of Hereford cattle. He must have been too busy being a gentleman farmer to marry or have any offspring of his own. He passed the estate on to his brother, at 60 years of age, a lifelong – yup childless again – bachelor who was a serving military man. Neither brother lived in the house.
By the time the estate was ready to pass on to the next generation – the 7th Lord Berwick – there were no direct offspring left. But the tippling “Parson” (remember him – the 4th Lord?) had been a busy man. He’d had another son who’d had twins and one of them (a nephew of the 6th Lord – keep up now), inherited. He was a professional soldier driven out of the army because of debts. His marriage, to a Swedish woman, was cause for some late Victorian gossip. They liked to sail and spent most of their time sailing the Mediterranean and spending money. They rarely lived in the house and, what a surprise, they too had no children.
The Last of the Berwicks
Thomas, the last of his family to inherit Attingham (as 8th Lord), was nephew of the 7th Lord Berwick through a younger brother. He was sent to Paris as a diplomat before WWI and developed a taste for French art and furnishings. He mortgaged parts of the Attingham estate to collect paintings, sculpture, carpets and furnishing for the house. He and his wife, Teresa, the daughter of painter Thomas Hulton, are considered the saviors of Attingham Hall. When they came to Attingham, the house had been rented to tenants and most of the larger rooms were in a sorry state. They spent most of their married life restoring the house as best they could on limited means. Four thousand acres of the estate’s original 8,000 acres were sold to make this possible.
There was a further 9th Lord Berwick after the house was given to the National Trust. He was a relative from an offshoot branch of the family descended from yet another son of the prolific 4th Lord – the “Parson”. He died only a few years after inheriting the title and, in keeping with family tradition, was a childless bachelor. So in the brutal language of Debrett’s Peerage, the family and title became extinct.
In 1947, when Thomas died, he left the house to the National Trust. For a while, it was leased to a college but, in the 1990s, the Trust began to gradually bring Attingham Hall back to life through a process of careful and painstaking rediscovery. Cleaning, for example, on an upper stairway suggested a hidden decorative scheme. Restoration involved removing six layers of oil paint. Ultimately, an original 1807 design on sheets of handmade paper was revealed.
Since 2006, the award winning conservation project, Attingham Rediscovered, has carried out restoration and highly technical conservation work in plain sight of the visiting public. Visitors can watch the process of restoration as it happens, talk to well informed guides and experience Attingham as it must have looked to its first inhabitants. So if you are interested in “mixing rabbit skin glue, couching silk damask threads, taking crystal chandeliers apart piece by piece and cleaning decorative schemes over months with cotton wool buds”, and more of the painstaking, time consuming tasks of bringing a historic house back to life, you’ll love a visit to Attingham.
And What’s Missing
Because of its history – and partly because of so many generations of neglect, Attingham Park is the most complete Georgian house and interior in the UK. But one thing visitors won’t see any evidence of is a nursery. Since the first Lord Berwick and his wife Anne, no children have ever lived in Attingham Park.
The National Trust is particularly adept at bringing the colorful stories of England’s stately homes to life. Nowhere is this more evident than at Attingham Park with it’s Regency interiors, woodland gardens and extensive parkland shared by champion Hereford cattle and a historic herd of fallow deer.
I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).
During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means, ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.
I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless. And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.
But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region. Starting with today’s post and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.
First Stop Reims
Notre-Dame de Reims
Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battled scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.
Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.
Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.
An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.
The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.
Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne. Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world, are headquartered here. Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.
Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.
We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.
Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.
She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.
Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact as it bursts from the bottle.
Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters, turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.
In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, has become another extension of the commercial frenzy of the holiday period. Especially in London. But it doesn’t have to be.
(I’ve been lifted off my feet by the press of the crowd during the holiday season around Oxford Street Tube Station. Now I avoid it until February at least.)
Instead of rushing around to the post holiday sales, take advantage of this year’s extra-long, 4-day UK Bank Holiday weekend*. Shopping can wait.
Have a lie in, eat chocolate and Christmas cake for breakfast, watch movies on the telly – or football, if you must. Then, when darkness starts to fall, head for London’s Regent Street and Piccadilly to enjoy this year’s fabulous lights and shop windows away from the urgent press of hysterical shoppers on Oxford Street.
The Regent Street lights, designed by ex-theater designer Paul Dart, are particularly spectacular this year. And at Fortnum and Mason – which has brilliant windows year round – they’re reflecting the current mood by bringing normally warring pairs together in a festive dance.
Here’s what to expect…
And at Fortnum’s
Check out the decorations in the arcades off Piccadilly, Burlington Arcade and Piccadilly Arcade are particularly splendid this year. And as for the goods for sale – well who knows, you might win the lottery one day.
Then warm up with tea and treats or a hot chocolate at Fortnum’s casual restaurant, The Parlour. It has an all day menu to 10pm but you might be wise to make a reservation.
Other good choices –
Richoux – an old favorite, best for teas, coffees, cakes and treats
Kahve Dünyasi – a Turkish coffee shop on Piccadilly with amazing hot chocolate, cold and hot drinks.
SAID dal 1923 – the London branch of a Roman chocolatier. The shop, with all its chocolate molds and constantly bubbling cauldron of chocolate must be seen. And you can stand a spoon up in the tiny, dense cups of hot chocolate. It’s just a short walk away on Broadwick Street in Soho.
Whatever you get up to for the holidays and between the holidays, have a great time. Merry Christmas and back in 2017.
*In the UK, both Christmas and Boxing Day are bank holidays. So when Christmas falls on Sunday, most people get Monday and Tuesday off.
When Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild plonked a somewhat edited copy of the 16th century Chateau Chambord in the middle of traditional English Buckinghamshire in the 1870s, the neighbours were aghast.
Even as late as the 1940s, when a Rothschild heir offered the house, Waddesdon Manor, to the National Trust, the Trust wasn’t sure it really wanted it. Afterall, the house was hardly English; it looked like it belonged in the Loire.
Fast forward to the 21st century and Waddesdon Manor is now one of the National Trust’s most popular attractions.
One reason – apart from the sheer fabulousness of the house and its contents – may be the regularly changing exhibits from the collections of Ferdinand de Rothschild and Alice de Rothschild (his sister); a dazzling array of paintings, furniture and Renaissance objects d’art. Another is, undoubtedly the steady stream of guest exhibitions, art commissions and special events supported and organised by the Rothschild Foundation (who manage Waddesdon).
And every year this fabulous treasure house – built to show off Baron Ferdinand’s collections and to entertain his friends – becomes the backdrop for a Christmas spectacle that’s worth a special trip.
We went along this week for a preview of what the creative team at Waddesdon Manor got up to for Christmas 2016.
Christmas 2016 at Waddesdon
A shuttle from the public parking dropped us off at the North Fountain so we could walk up The Avenue while enjoying Waddesdon bathed in a changing array of coloured lights. Music, from a dramatically good sound system, filled the grounds with familiar classics. What we didn’t know until later is that most of the music played for the “Winter Light” son et lumiere was chosen from the works of composers and musicians who had a connection with the Rothschild family. Chopin taught piano to several Rothschild children. Rossini was a frequent visitor to the house. And there were others – but that was all just the warm up. The best was yet to come.
Inside, an entry passage beside the Manor Restaurant – once Waddesdon’s kitchens – was a sparkling tunnel of coppery trees, twinkling lights and copper painted pots and pans.
The theme within the house in 2016 is Magical Materials. Broadly interpreted, that ranges from a giant ammonite fossil resting on a nest of brightly colored, polished stones to a ten-foot tree created entirely from sculpted paper flowers, an ethereal passage lined in illuminated lace and decorated with lacemakers’ bobbins, and 12 different decorated trees.
The corridor of lace may have looked chilly but was just an illusion of light and colour – the magic of magic materials. The star of this year’s Christmas at Waddesdon is Bruce Munro’s outdoor installation, Field of Light. And we had to bundle up and find our way through darkened woodland paths to find it (word of advice, bring along a little LED torch or charge up the flashlight on your smart phone).
It was well worth the effort. The international artist, known for light-based immersive installations, has filled Waddesdon’s Aviary Glade with 9,000 glass globes topping slender stems like enchanted, glowing flowers. They’re linked and powered by optical glass fibers and cover acres of gently rolling landscape with ever changing waves of light and colour.
After, we warmed up with flatbreads topped with grilled meats and salads (£6.50) and very gently mulled wine (or hot chocolate for teetotallers and designated drivers) in the Wigwam Café. It’s tucked away in a little forest glade, lined with twinkling lights and surrounded by trees decorated with more lights.
This extraordinary (edible but who would dare) masterpiece will be on display at Waddesdon until March. Compare these pictures of the gingerbread dollhouse rooms with their actual equivalents, to judge the skill and craftsmanship involved.
The State Bedroom, above, and the gingerbread State Bedroom, below.
Where: Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0JH England
When: Christmas at Waddesdon, including Dazzle@Waddesdon – the outdoor sound and light experience, Bruce Munro’s Field of Light and the decorated Bachelor’s Wing will be on from now until January 2, 11am to 6pm Wednesdays to Sundays and Tuesday December 27.
Admission: Adult admission for the grounds and the house is £20, for the ground only, £10. Advance booking to tour the Bachelor Wing is required and sells out long before Waddesdon’s Christmas opening. But, don’t be discouraged. This year, Waddesdon is holding back 100 house tour tickets every day for sale on the day. These tickets go on sale at Waddesdon at 11am and must be purchased at the Waddesdon ticket office in person. National Trust members are admitted free but must book for the house tour.