Category Archives: Travel Writing

London’s Blue Plaques: A Chelsea Walk

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 Brunel who 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 to James 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.

Lindsey House, once home to James Abbot McNeill Whistler – and his mother. © Ferne Arfin

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.

Lady Wilde

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 by Rosetti

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.

11. 34 Tite Street was the home of Oscar Wilde, his wife Constance and their two sons. He lived here for 10 years, writing The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. 

Now retrace your steps, cross Royal Hospital Road and continue along Tite Street to the corner of Tedworth Square.

12. Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, took his lecture tour on the road in Europe between 1891 and 1900. During that time, his base was 23 Tedworth Square. After the death of his daughter Susy in 1896, the creator of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, The Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and many more classic works, maintained virtual seclusion, with the rest of his family, in this house.

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 available online from English Heritage or from Amazon.

 

 

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.

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).

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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. 

Strawberry Hill – London’s Little Suburban Castle

When it comes to visiting historic houses, it’s rare to find an empty one as interesting as one that’s full of antique treasures. Strawberry Hill is an exception.

This mini-castle in Twickenham, one of London’s western suburbs, is a true jewel box of a house — but its collections were sold off in the 19th century and it’s completely empty. 

It hardly matters.

Horace Walpole, an 18th century dandy, Member of Parliament, collector, world traveler and writer (his novel The Castle of Otranto was the world’s first Gothic novel) was enamored of Medieval Gothic. So much so that he kickstarted the fashion for neo-Gothic architecture decades before it really took off.

His house, built to show off those now vanished collections, was the first in the style and one of the only examples of it in domestic architecture, inside and out.  And Strawberry Hill’s very emptiness adds to the Gothic romance, the ghostly whispers that follow when you walk from room to room, armed with the guidebook Walpole wrote himself.  Gilt ceilings, gothic windows, stained glass, mirrors and the most amazing fireplaces and chimney pieces are everywhere you look. 

And it’s just a Tube and bus ride from Central London.  Check out the pictures below, then click here for more pictures and to find out more about English eccentric Horace Walpole and how to visit  his fantasy house, Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill House
Pictures of Strawberry Hill often make it look like a substantial mansion. In fact, as castles go, it’s really tiny. It was built from two suburban cottages.

The Long Gallery at Strawberry Hill

All the rooms at Strawberry Hill have gilt details but the Long Gallery, with it’s elaborate ceiling, has more gold than any other room in the house. It was inspired by a chapel ceiling at Westminster Abbey.

The Holbein Chamber
The Holbein Chamber once displayed a collection of copies of Holbein drawings. The chimneypiece was inspired by a tomb in Canterbury Cathedral and the red hat of Cardinal Wolseley (hounded to death by Henry VIII) was once part of this room’s collection.
Walpole's gothic chairs.
The black, gothic style chairs in the Great Parlour were designed by Walpole and his friend, Mr. Bentley. These are copies – the originals are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gilt frame at Strawberry Hill
This picture frame combines 18th century Rococco style with very modern technology. It was made by creating 3D photographs from 2D drawings, then printed in plastic as a template from which the gilt plasterwork frame was finally made. It was put together from more than 30 pieces.

Plan a visit to Strawberry Hill.

Read traveler reviews and find a place to stay near Strawberry Hill. 

 

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.

Spreading a Little Sunshine Because We Need It

Saturday the sun finally made its London debut and the temperature rose to real summertime levels at last.  The sky was almost sapphire and striped with jet stream clouds.

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin

It seemed like a great day for an aimless walk around the neighbourhood, ending up at the wonderful Chelsea Food Market at Duke of York Square for some international nosh.  After the miserable few weeks we’ve all had,  the

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin

relentless bad news, the cold and rainy weather,  the topsy turvy politics, the insanity and death, I needed a moment to turn it all off and just enjoy a day full of light.

I’m thinking some of you may be feeling the same, so no big messages today, no information laden travel advice – just some nice pictures of a beautiful day to remind you that we really still do have them once in a while.

Enjoy.

Stopped off first to watch people messing about in boats on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.  Then up the King’s Road for the Chelsea Food Market.

From Upmarket Groceries to a People’s Feast

Partridges, the very upmarket grocer, started it all with about 15 stall holders – mostly small producers – selling cheeses, handmade sweets and baked goods.

food stalls in Chelsea
© Ferne Arfin

Now there are 70 who set out their wares every Saturday selling everything from Mexican and Argeninian food to fish and chips, fresh pasta, farm-assured meats and rather unusual Scotch eggs.

Chorizo eggs
© Ferne Arfin

There’s even a Philly cheese steak stand for homesick tourists and Brits with adventurous tastes.

Philly cheese steak stand
© Ferne Arfin

I stopped to watch some girls making Chinese dumplings and could not resist buying a box of five, freshly made, for myself.

Artists painting street scenes seemed to be all over the King’s Road on Saturday and several of them were trying to capture the buzz of the Market.

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin
artist at Chelsea Market
© Ferne Arfin

The team from Maldon Oysters were busy shucking oysters for the crowds. They looked spectacular but after a particularly bad bout with an oyster a few years ago, I couldn’t risk it. Still, you really can’t get them any fresher than these unless you pull them out of the oyster beds yourself:

The selection of mini-doughnuts at Cakehole was mind-boggling. I couldn’t resist the tiny ones filled with salted caramel cream and, as a matter of fact, I am polishing off the last of them right now.

The Cakehole
© Ferne Arfin
salted caramel
© Ferne Arfin

The Chelsea Food Market, organised by Partridges, takes place every Saturday, year round, rain or shine, from 10am to 4pm.  If you’re shopping along the King’s Road in London it’s a great place to people watch, to stop for a quick bite or to pick up some treats to take home.

Find a place to stay and search the best London deals on TripAdvisor.

Another Chelsea Morning – With Apologies to Joni Mitchell

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I saw…

…was a pair of well dressed ladies in red and pink silk and chiffon day dresses worn with stilletto heels and architecturally impossible hats.  Helped by a gent in full formal morning suit, tails and dove grey vest, they are moving folding chairs, a portable lawn marquee and a box with his top hat from a blue Maserati Ghibli to a Porsche Cayenne hatchback.

They disappear around a corner.

Next comes a supermarket delivery van, double parking as normal to drop off someone’s groceries.                                                                               And behind it, a Kensington & Chelsea Enforcement vehicle – aka a big, flatbed tow truck. The driver of the tow truck must be hung over because he thinks he can pass the double parked delivery van with its big, sticky-out wing mirror.

Something’s gotta give.

Re-enter the well dressed party of three, bearing square, blue chiller bags from Carluccio’s Al Fresco and heading for the Porsche Cayenne.

Just in time to see it taken out – as well as the Maserati and the sticky-out wing mirror -by the K&C tow truck. So much for their Closing Day at Royal Ascot outing. Might as well comfort yourselves with the champagne now.

And, from the likely insurance bill, so much for the tow truck driver’s job too.

Just another Chelsea morning, folks.

Read guest reviews and find a boutique hotel in Kensington and Chelsea on TripAdvisor.

 

 

A Café for Windsor Castle at Last!

Windsor Undercroft
The 14th-century Undercroft at Windsor Castle will be developed into a visitor cafe as part of the £37 million Future Programme developments at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

April 5, 2016 – The Royal Collection Trust, the charity that makes the UK’s Royal Palaces available to the public, has just announced it will spend £37 million in the next two years on improvements to Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. The plan, rather unimaginatively to be known as  Future Programme, will:

  • add more welcoming entrances and learning centers to the palaces,
  • open up previously unseen and private areas of Windsor Castle,
  • create themed pathways through the castle and palace, offering visitors more choice and
  • create the first ever café for visitors in Windsor Castle….Hallellujah!

If I seem overly excited about the prospect of a café in the stony Undercroft of the castle, pictured above, it’s because it is about time this long overdue and much needed facility was added.

Starve, Die of Thirst or Just Leave

Windsor Castle is huge and fascinating; the sort of place most people can easily spend a whole day visiting. Unfortunately, it has never had any place to take a break, to relax, to look over your  brochures or your pictures and to fuel up for your next foray into a gallery, exhibition or series of fabulous rooms.

The most the Queen ever offered members of the public was the chance to buy a bottle of water and, in winter, to stand outdoors on the windy castle hill to drink it.  The alternative was to leave the castle at lunch time, try to find something besides a Big Mac in the unpromising retail precincts of Windsor town, and then return to the castle to continue your visit – permitted with your ticket but inconvenient and unrewarding.  So the prospect of a casual café by 2018 is very encouraging.

Appropriately, the Undercroft, where the new cafe will be located, was used for centuries as the refectory where the royal household staff took meals. We hope there will also be some space for families and groups to bring their own packed lunches.

Works Getting Underway

Designs for Future Programme are getting underway now and construction is set to begin in 2017 with completion planned for 2018. Windsor Castle and Holyrood  will both remain open to the public as normal during the works. Financing for the £37 million project is coming from admissions to the castles, palaces and houses in The Royal Collection as well as associated retail sales.

Book a Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge Tour with Rail Europe

Find out More About Visiting Windsor at About.com United Kingdom Travel:

Windsor Castle under a moody sky.
Photo by Craig ccl