Everyone is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone - even if the food is gaspingly expensive.

Everyone is Beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse

I had enjoyed a small personal victory and wanted to treat myself to a very nice lunch. The Marylebone area – particularly between Marylebone High Street and Baker Street is full of nice little places. 

But somehow as I walked through the side streets towards Baker Street Tube, my ultimate destination, nothing really struck my fancy.  

Then I arrived at what appeared to be a garden terrace. An attendent manned the entrance. He was wearing a suit and tie and he was beautiful. There was no sign as far as I could see.

“Is this a restaurant?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“What kind of food do you serve?”

“Portuguese.”

“Where is the entrance?” I still didn’t see any sign, any obvious way in or any menu posted discretely on an outside wall,as required by law in London

“Right this way,” he said, and ushered me into the garden. I still didn’t know where I was.

Eventually, a hostess offered to find me a seat inside (the garden was nearly full except for the bits of  it that would soon be rained on). She was tall, slim and dressed in a fabulous two piece number in a dark leafy green. She was beautiful.

Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing. Another hostess, in a similarly designerish outfit, all in blue (also beautiful) offered me a seat at the bar. I hate sitting on bar stools but eventually she found me a seat at a sort of banquette with high single tables, facing the bar. The bartender and wine steward were beautifully dressed and beautiful (as you can see in the picture above). 

It was only when someone finally handed me a menu, that I realized I had randomly stumbled into the Chiltern Firehouse, once one of London’s hottest celebrity haunts. The restaurant, with its kitchen “curated” by Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, has cooled down some since the virtual hysteria of its opening months in 2014. But, people still wait weeks to book this place, and there I was settling in, by accident, after a Wednesday afternoon stroll.

All around me, beautiful people were tucking into gorgeous looking food. Nips, tucks and tans as far as the eye could see. And when my food finally arrived, it was absolutely beautiful to look at too.

Did I mention that everyone – and everything – is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse.

I ate a salad of heritage tomatoes with strawberries, a slice of sourdough bread, an omelet of crabmeat and lobster (pictured here) that was the strangest looking omelet with the oddest texture that I’ve ever eaten. It was delicious and I am very curious to know how it was made but I hope I’m not offending the chef when I say it did not satisfy my desire for a nice, tender, eggy omelet. It was something else entirely. 

Lobster, crab and shiso leaves decorate the strangest omelet I've ever eaten, at the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone, London.
Lobster, crab and shiso leaves decorate the strange, mysterious looking omelet at the Chiltern Firehouse.©Ferne Arfin 2017

Oh, and I did treat myself to a glass of Ruinart NV champagne – well I did say I was celebrating.

And with a black coffee to finish, and the 15% tip, the price of my special lunch of omelet, salad and champagne came to an eye-watering £79.93. 

Was it worth it? Well, it was a very nice lunch but I think if you have to ask about value for money, this probably isn’t your kind of place. I’m not actually sure when it will next be mine.

The Nitty Gritty

The restaurant and attached boutique hotel are owned by André Balasz who also owns the legendary Chateau  Marmont in Hollywood, The Mercer in New York’s Soho,  the Sunset Beach on Shelter Island and Standard hotels around America.

  • The Chiltern Firehouse
  • 1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 7PA
  • Telephone +44 020 7073 7676
  • Open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Check the restaurant website for opening times which vary from day to day.

 

 

Le Touquet, France's most glamorous Channel beach.

Seven great reasons to choose Pas de Calais for the weekend

Pas de Calais, for too long overlooked and underrated, turns out to be a great place for le weekend. 

On my first trips to France, my guide was a little red, white and blue (now out of print) book called “French Leave” by Richard Binns. He offered all sorts of irreverent observations about short, off-the-beaten-path visits and quick, cross Channel hops. With my copy of Binns’ latest book tucked in my pocket, I traveled by ferry to the closest French ports then drove on to discover most of Normandy and a bit of Brittany.

As I recall, Binns didn’t much rate Pas de Calais so neither did I. It was Flanders, a featureless landscape flattened by two world wars and centuries of conflicts before them; a place to race through along the way to Paris and beyond. With the arrival of Eurostar and cheap European flights, I never gave Pas de Calais nor, frankly, the ferry another thought.

Then, at a travel industry gala, I bought a raffle ticket that changed my mind.

Taking a chance on France 

The raffle prize, provided by DFDS Ferries, Pas de Calais Tourisme and Najeti Hotels, was a ferry crossing, accommodations and meals for a few days exploring this region of Northeast France…and yes, I won.

Westies and boat trips in France go together like love and marriage.
Lulu on her first trip to France.

In May, joined by an American friend and my new best mate, Lulu the Westie (France is mostly dog-friendly), I set sail from Dover on the short crossing to Calais and discovered what I should have known long ago. Pas de Calais is a great, easy to get to short break destination.  Here are seven reasons why:

1.Glorious beaches and seaside resorts

La Manche may be just another name for the same English Channel, but somehow the water looks more blue and inviting on the French side. It must be the beaches. At both Le Touquet-Paris Plage, pictured above, and Wimereux, below, endless stretches of soft golden sands are irresistible. We had to kick off our sandals and wiggle our toes in it.

Le Touquet, southwest of Boulogne was founded in the 1880s and was a turn of the century magnet for wealthy Brits, Belgians and Parisians. It had its Jazz Age heyday in the 1930s and it shows in the many Art Deco homes  that mingle with the rest of the feast of fantasy architecture – Belle Epoque, Empire, Napoleanic.

Beach house with coloured tiles
Colourful houses by the sea give Wimereux a frivolous, holiday feeling.

H.G. Wells once eloped here and it’s where the new French president, Emmanuel Macron has his voting address.

You can ride a horse through coastal forests and along stretches of beach here, bet on the horses or gamble at a casino said to be Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Casino Royale. On a short break like ours, the pedestrianized crosshatch of streets around Rue St Jean, crammed with chic little shops, patisseries, chocolatiers, cafes and bars, is very satisfying and a good place to celebrity spot in season.

Peaches and apricots
In Le Touquet, even the greengrocer is elegantly turned out. © Ferne Arfin

Wimereux, northeast along the coast toward Calais, is smaller but a bit more crowded with its wall of apartments and hotels along a promenade facing the enormous sandy beach. Go inland a block or two and you are back in architectural fantasyland  – mock Normandy-style half timbered cottages, bright pink Victorian gingerbread or shiny, multi-colored ceramic tiles. Stop for a drink on rue Carnot – also good for shops selling regional produce – and watch the passing scene.

For the best variety of coastal towns, steep wooded hills and long Channel views, give the A16 Autoroute between Calais and Boulogne  a miss and take the more scenic D940.

2. Forests and marshes to explore

It is surprising how much and how varied the forest environments of Pas de Calais are. This once heavily industrialized area is the least forested region of France. Only about 8% of the land is covered in woodland. Yet what there is, is wonderful. Pockets of dense pine and deciduous forests break across grass covered dunes surrounding the towns of the Opal Coast and stretch inland along steep river valleys.  Château Cléry, our hotel in the village of Hesdin-l’Abbé on the edge of Boulogne, was surrounded by a woodland park, screaming with birds.

And a huge part of the region, where Flanders, the Opal Coast and the Artois hills come together is the UNESCO-listed  Audomarois marshes,  a biosphere reserve of wetlands, reclaimed land and canals. It was originally dug by monks about 1,200 years ago and has grown over the years so that today it covers more than 22,000 hectares. With its market gardens and floating gardens, it is the only cultivated wetland in France. It’s also the protected home of hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

Amazingly, the town of Saint Omer sits right in the middle of its core marshland area. From Le Maison du Marais Saint-Omer, a newish interpretation center, you can board a traditional boat, a bacôve, and, for about 10€, spend an hour touring a few of the 700 km of canals. 

Windmill in the Audomarois Marais in France.
Windmill beside a canal near the Maison du Marais in St Omer. At one time this waterscape was dotted with hundreds of windmills. ©Ferne Arfin 2017
Flood gate on the Marais Saint Omer.
Traditional methods of water control keep the cultivated land from flooding in the Marais.

3. A rebirth through art

The decline of heavy industry and mining hit Pas de Calais hard. But it is fighting back with art and culture. Ever since the selection of Lille as European Capital of Culture in 2004 revitalized that city, communities across the region have recognized the energetic boost a lively art scene can create. 

Part of that includes cooperative efforts with some of France’s greatest cultural institutions. In 2012, the Fine Arts Museum in Arras began 10 years of cultural sharing with Versailles. The arrangement required the museum, located in the former Benedictine Saint-Vaast Abbey, to strengthen its floors with steel to support the huge marble sculptures from Louis XIV’s palace.

While in Lens, once a major mining center, the Louvre brought tons of glass and steel to the site of a former colliery to create its first provincial gallery, the Louvre Lens. And it’s wonderful. Cool, modern and spacious – the Grand Gallery is a single, 3000 square meter space – it houses a curated selection of Louvre treasures – a kind of Louvre-lite – that will change every five years. In its first year it attracted nearly a million visitors.

We just loved getting within touching distance of  Roman statues; Indian and Islamic art, carving and calligraphy; Renaissance, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings, even an imposing statue of Napolean posing as a classical Caesar.  I was especially taken with an amazing pietra dura table from 17th century Florence.

The museum is open every day except Tuesday, from 10am to 6pm and the Grand Gallery is free. If you are racing down to Paris on the A26, take a quick side trip from the motorway to see it. 

Louvre Gallery in Lens, Pas de Calais
Gallery Entrance at the new Louvre Lens. © Ferne Arfin 2017

4. History written in blood

There is no getting away from the fact that one European and British army after another marched across this northeastern corner of France, fighting for pieces of it.  At the Centre Historique Médiéval d’Azincourt, you can pursue the story of the Battle of Agincourt and search for the battlefield (for enthusiasts only. Really).   

Or you can visit La Coupole, a huge dome-covered bunker from which the Germans intended to launch a massive barrage of V2 rockets on England in WWII. The Allies took it in 1944 before it was operational. Now the dome is a 3D planetarium.

We were most moved after we donned WWI “Tommies” helmets and descended 20 meters underground into the La Carrière Wellington, or Wellington Quarry on the edge of Arras.

The quarries were underground military tunnels and living spaces – including kitchens, space for 700 hospital beds, an operating theater and sleeping quarters – carved out of Arras’s historic chalk quarries by the New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Companies, many of them Maori miners. It was here that almost 24,000 British and Dominion troops lived in hiding for ten days before emerging on April 9, 1917, Easter Sunday, for a surprise attack on the German front. 

The site serves as a memorial to those who built the tunnels and those who lost their lives in the Battle of Arras, in the end a battle with little gain and hundreds of thousands of deaths.  The name, by the way, comes from the street names of Wellington, New Zealand, that the tunnelers assigned to the different spaces and underground chambers.

Realistic tour of the Wellington Quarries, WWI battle site in Arras.
Underground in the Wellington Quarry; 24,000 Commonwealth Soldiers waited beneath enemy lines to launch a surprise attack in the WWI Battle of Arras. © Ferne Arfin 2017

Visits are by guided tour, with audioguides – available in English. The site is open from 10am to 12:30pm and from 1:30 to 6pm. The tour takes about an hour and is wheelchair accessible.

5. A Feast of Medieval Flemish architecture

Arras has two massive Flemish-Baroque squares, la Place des Héros and la Grand’ Place, and a late Medieval Gothic Hôtel de Ville (town hall) with a belfry tower known as the le Beffroi. They are all listed UNESCO World Heritage sites and were extensively reconstructed after WWI. But you’d never know it and it’s worth traveling across Pas de Calais just to see them.

Now I could bore you with lots more architectural and historic boilerplate that you can research as easily as I can. But, since this is my blog and these are my photographs, why don’t I just show you.

Continue blog post below slide show

6. Markets

Wherever you are in France, there’s probably at least one market day a week with fresh produce, household goods, clothes, odds and sods on offer. This region has two particularly good ones. We missed the covered market in Le Touquet on this visit but were in Arras in time to catch the market that spreads beyond the  two great squares and also fills Place de la Vaquerie behind the Hôtel de Ville and stretches along rue de Justice and around Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste.

You can buy almost anything. For me that meant some cheap socks, a rather chic French shopping basket, ripe peaches, dazzling red perfumed strawberries, dried serpolet – a Provencale herb, fat white asparagus and a big bunch of fresh cut chives. I could also have stocked up on plants, sewing notions, sweets, gadgets, meat, poultry, fish, cheeses, eggs and – had I been so inclined – horsemeat. 

Arras Market basket seller.
At the Arras market, a tempting array of baskets to fill up with market goodies. ©Ferne Arfin

The Arras market runs from about 8:30 Saturday morning until around 1:30pm.

7. Regional food and drink

  • Cheeses  It wouldn’t be France without a good selection of locally made cheeses, would it?  The cheeses of Pas de Calais seem to share two characteristics – relatively mild taste and incredibly smelly rinds.  Some to try include Maroilles, Coeur d’Arras – a heart shaped cheese with an orange rind, and Vieux Boulogne, according to the Independent, the world’s smelliest cheese – yet remarkably mild.
  • Beer  With its proximity to Belgium and its Flemish heritage, it’s no surprise that beer is probably more popular here than wine. There are at least 30 artisan breweries within the region.
  • Chips If you have a hankering for chips, french fries and other batter-dipped fried foods, this is the place for you. Again, the Belgian influence is at work here. Whether they are food vans or small cafés,  frîteries are everywhere. Les Friteries, a French web portal that lists  frîteries all over the country lists 835 places in Pas de Calais. The nearest competitor is neighboring Picardie, with only 33. 
  • Flammekueche –  Technically this is an Alsatian or southern German specialty, but it is widely available in the casual
    tarte flambee with creme fraiche and lardons.
    Alsatian specialty now widely available in Northeast France. ©Ferne Arfin

    brasseries of Northeastern France and makes a tasty, quick meal with a local beer. A bit like a pizza, with a much thinner, crisper crust, this is a flame-cooked tarte covered with crême fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons.

If You Go:

Getting there

We sailed on a recently refitted and immaculate DFDS ferry from Dover to Calais, the so-called short crossing. It has been a while since I did that and I can highly recommend it. The vessel was comfortable, the coffee and munchies pleasant and the smooth crossing only took 90 minutes to the heart of the action. And it was fun to wave goodbye to the white(ish) cliffs of Dover. There are 15 crossings each way on weekdays. Prices start at £39 each way for a car and up to 9 passengers, though prices vary by season and time of day.

Staying

Najeti operates several luxury hotels with nearby golf privileges. We stayed in several and particularly enjoyed the Najeti Hôtel Château Cléry. The 18th century country estate is set in a woodland park in Hesdin-l’Abbé, on the edge of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Rooms and suites spread across the chateau as well as several cottages and “fermettes”, or little farmhouses. Prices are relatively reasonable with the “demi-pension” option – or dinner, bed and breakfast – in a luxury room going for about 225€. 

http://www.anrdoezrs.net/links/3352686/type/dlg/https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g666644-d581088-Reviews-Najeti_Hotel_Chateau_Clery-Hesdin_l_Abbe_Pas_de_Calais_Hauts_de_France.html

Do you have any recommendations for things to do, places to stay, things to eat in Pas de Calais? We’d love to hear them so do share your ideas by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post.

Thank Goodness for Days Inn. Really? Yes Really!

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. 

photo courtesy of Days Inn, Maidenhead.

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?”

My life on the road is just full of surprises.

Check out what other guests think on Tripadvisor and book this hotel.

 

Witness Clandon Park Rising From the Ashes

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.

Clandon Saloon before the fire.
The Saloon at Clandon Park, Surrey, before the 2015 fire. Image courtesy of The National Trust.

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.

Covered walkway high up in the Marble Hall at Clandon Park gives a glimpse of what remains, what has been lost and the challenges ahead. Photo courtesy of The National Trust.

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.

Visitors on a hard hat tour of Clandon House. National Trust Image by Arnhel de Serra,

 

 

Cast Iron in Chaumont

Highlights of a Tour in Champagne Country – Part 2: Surprises in Unlikely Places

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;

The covered market in Chaumont. Tantalizing but shuttered. © Ferne Arfin

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.

basilica of John the Baptist in Chaumont
In better weather, and from a distance, the Basilique Saint Jean-Baptiste in Chaumont is an impressive sight. Photo by Murielle 29 ccl

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. 

Entombment at Chaumont
The Entombment in the Basilique Saint Jean-Baptist, Chaument. Photo by Murielle 29 ccl

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. 

Visit the basilica to see its treasures between 9am and 6pm every day.

The Jesse Tree in Chaumont, © Ferne Arfin

A Rare Chance to Share the Grand Pardon

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.

Find out what other travelers think about Chaumont in Champagne, read traveler reviews and book a hotel on TripAdvisor. 


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.

Longleat’s Cheetah Cubs Could Use Some Wellies

Longleat will be opening for the 2017 season soon. It’s the 50th year for the oldest safari park outside of Africa, and their new cheetah cubs are worth the visit alone.

I loved their new baby cheetah video and this post is just a quickie to share it.  Apparently, they’re puzzled about getting their feet wet. Get used to it kiddies – this is England.

If you are traveling with kids, Longleat should definitely be on your must do list. Find out more about visiting Longleat here .

Find a deal on places to stay near Longleat.

 

Liberty 2016

A London Boxing Day…Without Shopping

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

The Lobster and the Chef share a champagne toast. Photo © Ferne Arfin
The Lobster and the Chef share a champagne toast. Photo © Ferne Arfin
The Boy and the Brussels Sprouts at Fortnum and Mason. Photo by @copy; Ferne Arfin
The Boy and the Brussels Sprouts at Fortnum and Mason. Photo by @copy; Ferne Arfin
The merry dance of the turkey and the butcher - an no one loses any limbs. © Ferne Arfin
The merry dance of the Turkey and the Butcher – an no one loses any limbs. © Ferne Arfin
One occasion when the polar bear and the penguin are not poles apart, © Ferne Arfin
One occasion when the Polar Bear and the Penguin are not poles apart, © Ferne Arfin
The Wolf leads a Choir of Sheep. © Ferne Arfin
The Wolf leads a Choir of Sheep. © Ferne Arfin
The Woodsman the the Christmas Tree in peaceful coexistence. © Ferne Arfin
The Woodsman the the Christmas Tree in peaceful coexistence. © Ferne Arfin

And After

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. 

All Aglow for Christmas at Waddesdon Manor

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.

View of Waddesdon Manor @copy; Ferne Arfin
View of Waddesdon Manor @copy; Ferne Arfin

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

Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor. Photo © Kathy Chantley/The National Trust
Winter Light at Waddesdon Manor. Photo Kathy Chantley ©The National Trust

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.

"Batterie de cuisine" © Ferne Arfin
“Batterie de cuisine” © Ferne Arfin

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.

Giant Ammonite at Waddesdon © Ferne Arfin
Giant Ammonite at Waddesdon © Ferne Arfin

Gingerbread decorated tree in the White Drawing Room Mike Fear © National Trust Waddesdon Manor
Gingerbread by the Biscuiteers decorates a tree in the White Drawing Room M ike Fear © National Trust Waddesdon Manor

Tree of books©Ferne ArfinTree of books in the Bachelor Wing ©Ferne Arfin

Red tree outside the White Drawing Room ©Ferne Arfin
Red tree outside the White Drawing Room ©Ferne Arfin
Gingerbread decorated tree in the White Drawing Room Mike Fear © National Trust Waddesdon Manor
Gingerbread decorated tree in the White Drawing Room Mike Fear © National Trust Waddesdon Manor

Ten feet of paper roses in one of the most original trees © Ferne Arfin

Paper roses reach a height of ten feet in one of the most original trees © Ferne Arfin

Undersea "treasures" in a Victorian bathroom. ©Ferne Arfin
Undersea “treasures” in a Victorian bathroom. ©Ferne Arfin
Lace corridor, part of the Magical Materials decorating theme. ©Ferne Arfin
Lace passage under a ceiling strung with lacemakers’ bobbins, only looks chilly – an effect of the Magical Materials decorating theme.  ©Ferne Arfin

Dress Up Warm for the Pièce de Résistance

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).

Find a place to stay near Waddesdon Manor on TripAdvisor

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.

Field of Light by Bruce Munro © Ferne Arfin
Field of Light by Bruce Munro © Ferne Arfin

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.

The Gingerbread Dollhouse

Gingerbread Waddesdon by the Biscuiteers. ©Ferne Arfin
Gingerbread Waddesdon by the Biscuiteers. ©Ferne Arfin

Down in the Stables Gallery, The Biscuiteers, Notting Hill-based icing artists, had been busy creating a two-metre long gingerbread model of Waddesdon itself. We were hit by a wave of sweet, gingerbread scent as soon as we entered the gallery.

The Gingerbread Waddesdon by the Biscuiteers Photo by Mike Fear ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor
The Gingerbread Waddesdon by the Biscuiteers Photo by Mike Fear ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor

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.

State Bedroom Photo by Mike Fear ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor
State Bedroom Photo by Mike Fear ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor

The State Bedroom, above, and the gingerbread State Bedroom, below.

State bedroom in gingerbread ©Ferne Arfin
State bedroom in gingerbread ©Ferne Arfin
Dining room at Waddesdon Manor. Photo by Chris Lacey ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor
Dining Room at Waddesdon Manor. Photo by Chris Lacey ©National Trust Waddesdon Manor

The Dining Room, above, and the gingerbread Dining Room below.
Gingerbread Dining Room ©Ferne Arfin
Gingerbread Dining Room ©Ferne Arfin

Essentials for Visiting Waddesdon at Christmas

  • 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.
  • Visit the Waddesdon Manor website for directions and information about other holiday events and shopping.

Time to Think About Wimbledon?

Yes I know, it’s a long way away. But if you think you’d like to go to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 2017 and want to have a chance at good seats without camping overnight in the Wimbledon queue, you have to enter the public ballot for tickets right about now.

Andy Murray, photo by Ian Dick ccl
Andy Murray, photo by Ian Dick ccl

Applications for the ballot are being taken by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) now – and until December 15 – from members of the public in Britain. If you are an overseas tennis fan and want to enter the ballot, you’ll have to do it online. Instructions for overseas visitors will be published on the AELTC website on 1 November.

To find out more about how to apply for a chance at Wimbledon tickets through the public ballot as well as other ways to land a seat at the world’s top Grand Slam tennis tournament, click here for full details. 

The Mary Rose Unveiled in Portsmouth

Henry VIII’s lost flagship, The Mary Rose, has finally been revealed at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.  More than 50 years after her rediscovery in the Solent and after 34 years of undersea archaeology and preservation,  the wraps are finally off. Visitors to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, can finally breathe the same air as this 500 year old ship.

Watch the moment of her unveiling and then find out more about The Mary Rose and how you can visit her.

Travel writer, web editor and author