Tuesday, June 28, 2016

London Highlights

Somerset House
Location of the Courtauld Gallery and Spring Restaurant

We had the most wonderful time in London. The beginning of June turned out to be the perfect time to visit. Even though the weather during the first part of the trip was gray and chilly, eventually we had blue skies and the city was lovely. The Chelsea Flower Show had just happened and London was still bedecked with floral installations. The Queen was turning 90 and the streets were festooned with bunting. And since the gardens were blooming and the parks were leafy green, London was at its best. We stayed at the Stafford Hotel on St. James Place near Piccadilly, a great location for walking to so many favorite places. Right around the corner are Hatchards Books, Fortnum & Mason, and the Royal Academy. For a special treat, the elegant Ritz Hotel is close by for an early evening cocktail or afternoon tea. I love thinking of all the history that happened there! Green Park and St. James Park are within walking distance. And there are so many little streets to wander around on late afternoon or evening walks. Virginia Woolf called it "rambling the streets of London." On this trip we returned to some of our favorite places as well as discovered new ones, went to some great restaurants, and saw two excellent performances. As always, London is endlessly fascinating. Here are the highlights of our week in London.

The Stafford Hotel

The Stafford Hotel is located on St. James Place, just off of St. James Street. Within minutes you are on Piccadilly and able to walk to so many places. What I love best is the quiet and tranquility at both entrances to the hotel.  

The lobby at the Stafford

The little lobby is a peaceful place to relax and have a cup of tea after being out all day. And the American Bar is just through that door. If you don't know about the American Bar, try it next time you are in London. It was originally a bar for American officers during World War II and is decorated with all kinds of fun memorabilia. The menu is casual and delicious -- they have a great burger -- and the atmosphere dark and warm. There is also a lovely outdoor space surrounded by greenery and flowers.


The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace had two fabulous exhibitions

The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is such a beautiful space for art. This time I was excited to recognize a Vigee Le Brun painting after seeing the exhibition of her work at the Met in New York in April.

The Tate Britain

I hadn't been to the Tate Britain since I was in my twenties. It is a beautiful museum and proudly claims to house "500 years of British art." I sought out some of my favorite paintings, including  "Ophelia" by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais.

Charlotte Bronte exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's birth, the National Portrait Gallery has mounted a small but very moving exhibition of her life. The centerpiece is the portrait of the Bronte sisters, painted by their brother Branwell Bronte. There are many personal items from the Bronte Parsonage, including the miniature books written by the Bronte children and Charlotte's walking boots.


Fortnum & Mason

London is a great city for shopping and I always go to Fortnum & Mason when I am there. It's pure eye candy. This time the stairs were resplendent with flower lined railings. It really took my breath away!

I couldn't resist buying a couple more pieces from their Burleigh collection. This pattern is "Celeste," which is designed exclusively for Fortnums. I picked up some mugs for my daughters who have developed a love of blue and white ceramics.

After all that shopping, some ice cream at their old-fashioned ice cream parlor is a welcome treat!

This display at Fenwick's was photographed by many passersby

The flowers at the entrance of Liberty, where I bought a "William Morris" patterned bathrobe for myself and two Liberty print smock dresses for my little granddaughter!

Exploring our neighborhood

Around the corner is Dukes Hotel with their cute bicycles for guests 

The streets were decorated for the Queen's birthday

Albermarle Street, just minutes from our hotel, at dusk

St. James Park in bloom

And the window boxes in London, always a beautiful sight!


Royal Albert Hall

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was seeing "Swan Lake" danced in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall. This breathtaking performance by the English National ballet included 60 "swans" moving in unison across the arena floor. I've never seen anything like it. We were in awe! 

A close second was this performance of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Garrick Theatre. It starred Lily James and Derek Jacobi and was directed by Kenneth Branagh. It was excellent!

Afternoon Tea

 Tea at the Lanesborough Hotel

I got a chance to catch up with one of my favorite Londoners, Miranda Mills, over tea at the elegant Lanesborough Hotel. We enjoyed the Pink Princess Afternoon Tea which was created in  honor of the first birthday of Princess Charlotte. If you don't already read Miranda's inspiring blog, please check it out. If you are an Anglophile, you will love all her suggestions for fun things to do in London!

Favorite Restaurants

Clos Maggiore
Photo via here

This was my second time at Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden and I think it must be the most romantic restaurant in London. Sitting under an arbor of flowers and vines and eating dinner is a very unique experience. It is wonderful for a special occasion.

Spring Restaurant
Photo via here

A new restaurant we tried this time was "Spring," which is located in beautiful Somerset House (see first photo). The room is stunning and the food excellent. Another special occasion restaurant!

Design Inspiration

The library at Hamyard Hotel

I have been inspired by Kit Kemp and her hotels for a long time now. I finally got to see one them -- Hamyard Hotel -- and it is stunning. The decor is beautiful, original and fresh! 

And one surprise

 Spencer House, viewed from the back

I had been curious about the elegant white building on St. James Place across from our hotel. It turns out this is Spencer House, an 18th-century private palace built around 1756 for the first Earl of Spencer, an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. The back of the house is much more elaborate than the front and was meant to be enjoyed privately this way. Diana officially reopened the House in 1991, following the restoration of the State Rooms. 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of the restoration and they decided to open the garden gates for the first time since 2011. Apparently this is the "Year of the English Garden" and Spencer House wanted to celebrate. I learned all this because we were at the Stafford Hotel on one of the two days the house and garden were open. We bought tickets and walked right over, touring the grounds which were lovely. I wish we had been able to walk through the house as well, but we needed to leave for Bath. Fortunately I purchased a book on Spencer House and have enjoyed seeing the magnificent rooms of this very grand place. I learned that it is the only great 18th-century town house in London to survive intact. It never fails to amaze me how much there is to see in London!

Next up, London bookstores!

Monday, June 20, 2016

My Trip to England, Part One

We just got back from a wonderful trip to England. We went to London and Chippingham, Wiltshire, which is just outside of Bath. Because there's so much to share about the trip, I thought I would write three blog posts. One on English gardens, one on London highlights, and one on London bookstores. So here goes, number one -- Gardens!

There's nothing like going to England in June if you like gardens. Everything is in bloom and the roses are prolific. English gardens are filled with a poetry that is created by so many iconic features. Sweet peas growing on a trellis, hedged enclosures, old garden gates, weathered benches, burbling fountains, and ancient stone walls. These are storybook gardens. For me there is no more quintessential feature in an English garden than roses climbing on a brick wall. It doesn't hurt if that wall has the patina of age which you can pretty much count on in England. Some of these walls even date from the Elizabethan era! Here are the glorious gardens we saw on our trip.

1. Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Gardeners' cuttings for the day

Sissinghurst Castle Garden is the creation of the English writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband the diplomat Harold Nicolson. In 1930 they bought a dilapidated Elizabethan castle in Kent and set about restoring it. Everyone thought they were crazy but Vita was enchanted by the idea of restoring a castle. They decided to create a garden on the property and it has become one of England's most famous gardens. This was my second visit to Sissinghurst and once again I was struck by its romantic quality. I understood why Vita was so smitten with the old brick structures, fell in love with their romance and history, and dreamt of having a garden there. As they restored the castle they also began to design the garden. She and Harold envisioned a series of garden "rooms" separated by hedging and stone walls. And within this structure they planted a riotous jumble of plants. It was an English country garden in an organized system. The contrast of formality and looseness makes this garden very special. And the roses! By 1953 there were at least 194 different roses growing at Sissinghurst. Vita especially loved the old roses. Their history, their colors, and their evocative names appealed to her imagination. The first rose she and Harold planted was Madame Alfred Carriere and it still survives today. If there is one highlight at Sissinghurst -- the thing that everyone wants to see and searches for -- it is the White Garden which is beautiful and slightly ethereal. This place is a dreamscape!   

The head gardener's notes

Rose-covered walls

Burnished bricks and leaded-glass windows. This place just exudes romance!

The tower with Vita's writing room looms in the distance
We walked through many garden "rooms"

The view of the garden from Vita's tower

And from the other side

It's a steep climb to the top of the tower on a very narrow staircase but well worth it to see the glorious views at the top. You will see Vita's writing room on the second floor. I was touched by the photo of Virginia Woolf on her desk. The room is very cozy with a fireplace and books spilling out of bookshelves. A Persian carpet covers the floor. The spirit of Vita lives on in that room.

The entrance to the White Garden

It has a magical quality

White roses climb on the wall

It is simply enchanting!

And added bonus was lunch at The Three Chimneys Pub at Biddenden, a traditional Kentish pub.

There's nothing like a country pub for coziness. And the food was delicious!

By the way, Sissinghurst was relatively uncrowded on a Thursday afternoon in early June.

2. Lucknam Park

We decided to go to Bath for a couple of days in the middle of our trip and stay at Lucknam Park, a beautiful hotel six miles from Bath in Chippingham, Wiltshire. I was celebrating one of those big birthdays and this seemed like a very special place for a celebration. An18th-century manor house set amid many acres of parkland, this place has it all -- gardens, a spa, cooking classes, tennis courts, an equestrian center, and a great restaurant. Since we were there for just two days, we mostly hung out -- walked, relaxed, read, had afternoon tea, and soaked up the beauty of the place! 

The combination of flowers and ancient buildings was stunning

There are many beautiful green spaces

If you stay outside until 9:30 pm you will be rewarded with a beautiful sunset

The hotel is covered in vines and has many lovely garden details

I couldn't get enough of the beautiful exterior

Including these pots

An expansive lawn

Flower beds

Lovely old buildings

Climbing roses

Intimate green walkways

And a meadow! Staying here was like a dream. I highly recommend it for a special occasion!

3. Bowood House and Garden

Just 30 minutes away from Lucknam Park is Bowood House and Garden

We learned about Bowood while at Lucknam Park and decided to go

It was a great decision as this place is amazing! Over half the house is open to the public with the Shelburne family living in the remainder. It was built in the 18th-century and Capability Brown landscaped the extensive grounds.

Which include a lake, two streams, and a forest of trees. Close to the house are the famous flower-filled terraces and majestic boxwood yews.

The alliums were stunning

And there were roses everywhere!

This is the Lower Terrace steps and fountain with sculpture designed by David Wynne

I loved the gardens at Bowood. They are truly magnificent. As is the house, though we weren't allowed to take photos. If you are in the area, don't miss this very special place!

Next up, London Highlights!