Celebrate Springland in England with top discounts around the country.

English Tourism Week (March 17 to 25), Visit England’s annual promotion of all things English, kicks off tomorrow with discounts on all sorts of activities, events and attractions around the country.  And the good news this year is that some of the discounts are being offered all the way to the end of March.  

These are some of the highlights:

  • 20% off Raymond Blanc cooking classes in Oxford – Fancy yourself a master chef. Take any full day course, Monday to Thursday, at the Raymond Blanc Cookery School on Broad Street in Oxford and focus on the dishes that inspired one of Britain’s first French chefs to become the Michelin star he is today. To book, ring the reservations team on 01844 278881  Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons  and quote ‘Friends of Belmond Le Manoir’.
  • Dogs go free at Ellenborough Park Hotel in Cheltenham – There are 13 beautiful, dog-friendly rooms in this nearly 500-year-old country house hotel. Wallace the Westie and I enjoyed our stay in 2012 just after restoration had been completed. The dog friendly rooms, open right out into the gardens. Dogs are welcome all over the grounds and in some of the public spaces. In 2017 the hotel refreshed and refurbished some of those public areas. (I hope they’ve kept the atmospheric flagstone floors, and beautiful Tudor details) They’re waiving all charges for their doggie guests until the end of March. Find out more.
  • 30% off Brighton’s top three paid for attractions – From this week, until the end of the year, buy a combination ticket for a flight on the British Airways i360 – Brighton’s spectacular moving observation tower – plus the Royal Pavilion and SEA LIFE and enjoy a 30% discount on the price of all three. Find out more.

There are dozens more special events, days out, discounts, activities, shopping spectaculars, foodie, sports and fashion offers available all over the country on the Visit England  English Tourism Week website.   And, what’s more, the offers are organized by geographic region, themes, and types – so you are bound to find something that appeals, near where you live or where you’re planning to travel soon. Check out the events and offers.


Dome and stacks of the British Library Round Reading Room. Photo by Alex Watson ccl

Remembering the Round Reading Room at the British Museum

The British Museum plans to reorganize its collections and displays over the next ten years. Visitors to Britain’s number one visitor attraction can expect a gradual evolution of the museum’s gallery spaces, providing “more compelling and coherent stories”, according to museum managers. Perhaps that means they’ll unite the monumental Egyptian statues – now on the ground floor – with the mummies and ancient artifacts that are now several floors and a maze of corridors and galleries away.

The Round Reading Room

I’m glad to hear that the overhaul will include some serious attention to the Round Reading Room and its role in the grand scheme of things. The 19th century, Grade I listed room, with its beautiful blue, cream and gold dome and its halo of 20 arched windows, holds a special place for me and many other writers. I spent the better part of one intense and memorable summer studying there.

I’d been accepted, as a mature student, onto a famous, competitive Masters degree program. It had been decades since I’d last been in a classroom and the reading list that accompanied the offer might as well have been in Chinese for all the sense I could make of it. Writers I had barely heard of, subjects of which I’d only the slightest awareness, esoteric literary criticism, advanced semiotic studies. 

And to make matters worse, almost all the books and articles were long out of print. The only place to find them was the British Library. You can’t borrow books or journals from the British Library. You have to apply for a reader’s pass, then go there and read.

I have to admit, I felt very special on the day I got my pass. The British Library is not a public library in the usual sense. Members of the general public can only get a reader’s pass if they need something that is not available anywhere else. But, as a graduate student I was entitled to a pass for unlimited use of the Library for a year.

Clutching my pass, I headed for the British Museum where the British Library reading room was then located – in the freestanding, drum-shaped building that now occupies the centre of the museum’s Great Court. Some books were kept there but most were in storage facilities all over London and the southeast of England. Books had to be ordered in advance and then took up to 48 hours to be delivered to the reading room.

Entering the Round Reading Room for the first time was an intimidating experience. The dome, 140 feet in diameter and just slightly smaller than the Pantheon in Rome, hung over a whispering silence, teeming with literary spirits. The only sounds that intruded were the occasional scrape of a chair, a muffled footstep, a hint of conversation at the central desk or the hiss of pencil on paper (pens were not allowed in the Round Reading Room).

Around the walls, 25 miles of bookshelves contained thousands of reference books – most other books were miles away. Five hundred desks, arranged like spokes of a bicycle wheel, filled the space below the massive dome. Each desk had its own light, its own number and its own sound reducing blotter.

Several full, 20-volume sets of the Oxford English Dictionary, with lecterns on which to read the huge individual books anchored the ends of some of the spokes. It may seem hard to believe but it wasn’t really that long ago when scholars had to look everything up in books. Given the inscrutable language of the academic texts I struggled through that summer, I spent a lot of time at those lecterns.

My Own Private Museum

I also spent a lot of time, exploring the British Museum’s main floor galleries in virtual isolation. You see, the Library was open later than the Museum (on late nights by as much as four hours later) and the only way into the Round Reading Room was through the Museum. So some of the galleries were always accessible.

I became a regular, visiting two or three times a week and staying as late as I could. On any given night, while waiting for books (helpers still deliver the books you order from storage and stacks right to your desk), or when needing a bit of a wake up stretch and coffee in the Museum café (which kept the same hours as the Library) I might visit the Rosetta Stone, or gaze up at the monumental pink granite head of Amenhotep III.

Along corridors 6 and 12, I lingered in the half lit galleries, studying cases full of Greek, Minoan, Mesopotamian and Phoenician jewelry and hair ornaments, (some of which made its way into my own book), game pieces, tiny gold or bronze boxes and urns for ancient ointments and salves. Sometimes a museum night guard would shadow me through the galleries at a distance; sometimes a couple of other scholars would pass on the way to café. But often I had the space all to myself.

Then it was back to work in the Library, honoured to use it in the company of distinguished ghosts – Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells, George Orwell, Arthur Rimbaud, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Mahatma Gandhi and, yes, Lenin and Karl Marx, who spent 40 years writing Das Kapital in this very room.

When the new British Library opened in St. Pancras in 1997, the Round Reading Room lost its purpose and it has been locked behind closed doors, with the exception of a few special exhibitions, ever since.

Last summer when Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, announced the reorganisation of its galleries, he said the plan was to use the room as a kind of introduction to the museum, “Rest assured,” he told The Guardian, “the Round Reading Room is at the centre of our planning … I can promise it will look absolutely stunning.”

I hope it will be more than just a pretty face.

The Great Court of the British Museum. ©Ferne Arfin. The round drum in the centre of the Great Court conceals the Round Reading Room. The double arched windows are the giveaway.

Visitor Information

The British Museum, on Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, is open every day except December 24 through 26, New Year’s Day and Good Friday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Fridays to 8:30 p.m. Admission, except for special exhibitions, is free. Nearest London Underground stations are Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square or Holborn.

The New British Library in St Pancras, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, has several public galleries where permanent and changing displays of the library’s treasures are exhibited for free. These range from the original copy of the Magna Carta to handwritten lyrics by the Beatles. There are also special exhibitions that may be ticketed. In 2018/19, the Domesday Book, on loan from the National Archives, will be part of the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Exhibition (from October 19, 2018 to  February 19, 2019). Tickets are available online. The exhibition is open during normal library opening hours.

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Luxury bathroom in Wales

25 Perfect Hotel Room Essentials

What makes the perfect hotel room?

As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, from the bare bones basic to the breathtakingly expensive. And I’ve learned that the cost of a hotel room bears little relationship to how close it comes to perfection. In fact, one of my most comfortable nights was spent in a cheap chain hotel room at a motorway rest stop. 

Worrying that my standards might be unusually low, I conducted a very unscientific survey of my travel writing and blogging colleagues in the British Guild of Travel Writers. It turns out that, among experienced travelers, traditional luxuries fall pretty low on their lists of what makes the perfect hotel room.

Cost is no indicator of perfection. And, for purposes of this list, neither are views or destinations. Soft, powder sand beaches beside turquoise waters under reliably cloudless blue skies can make up for a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort. 

And friendly, helpful staff are essential. Even the most seasoned traveler is more stressed by minor mishaps and inconveniences when away from home. Knowing you are in the hands of competent, knowledgeable, pleasant staff can make up for a lot of other shortcomings.

The top 25 requirements for hotel room perfection

In no particular order

1. Decent beds – It should go without saying that a comfortable bed, with clean sheets free of critters, is not negotiable. Sadly, some hotels do need reminding.

2. Reliable wifi – Hotels in remote areas where the only internet connection is via satellite have a get-out clause on this one. But if broadband or wifi is generally available in the area, in this day and age, it should be free.

3. An up to date directory of hotel services  – The most basic directions – how to reach reception, how to connect to the wifi, how to work the television and clock, should be on the first page.

4. Convenient power points or electrical outlets – This is such a big topic it deserves its own special section, so here goes:

  • Sufficient outlets for several chargers and small appliances
  • Power points beside the bed, even better, power points above
    Power outlets above the bedside table.

    the bedside table so you don’t have to crawl around on the floor to find them.

  • Power points within reach of a mirror so guests can use their own hairdryers or curling irons.

5. Separate bath or shower – Or even both. But not showers over bathtubs. Not only are they old fashioned, but they’re messy too

At the Hotel du Vin in Bristol the showers and baths are separate  and some showers are big enough for a cocktail party. ©Ferne Arfin/TheViewFromChelsea.com

. Glass enclosures are nicer and more sanitary than shower curtains. And while we’re on the subject of baths these also make a big difference:

  • Enough towels for the number of guests
  • Conditioner as well as shampoo – with labels that can be read without a magnifying glass.
  • Real soap not liquid soap. It’s…. well… nasty

6. Adjustable mirrors – Shaving or makeup mirrors that can be moved over the bathroom basin (where, we hope to find the best light) are a real plus.

7. Bathroom light – Reasonably bright is essential, near the mirror and flattering gets extra points.

8. Smooth, safe floors in bathrooms – Bathroom carpets are almost always mildewed in the corners, damp and disgusting in no time. Shiny, highly polished marble floors can be killers. 

9. Full tissue boxes – What’s with the artfully folded tissue paper flower that fills the top of an empty box? Tissues are not room decor they have a function.

10. Easily adjustable heating, lighting and air conditioning – Guests shouldn’t need an engineering degree to turn off the lights but some trendy modern hotels have to provide a 50-page manual just to come to grips with the room electronics.

11. Bright enough lighting – The first generation of energy saving light bulbs take about twenty minutes to reach full brightness. By then, you’ve stubbed your toe, mistaken the TV remote for a portable telephone and carried all your shirts into the bathroom, one at a time, to see what colour they are. Because those bulbs last for years – getting dimmer and dimmer all the time – some hotels still have them. Replace them with newer, brighter bulbs otherwise the number of lights guests need to turn on and the length of time they have to be on to warm up cancels out any energy saving.

12. Bedside reading lights – Two separately adjustable lights with little light spill in double rooms.

13. Window coverings that let in daylight but protect privacy – Ground floor rooms are a particular problem. You have a choice of putting on a show for passing pedestrians or spending your time in perpetual gloom.

14. Plenty of tea and coffee – This is something that even the best North American hotels still have not cottoned onto.  Most British and European guests expect to find an electric kettle or other coffee making system and plenty of teabags and packets of coffee. And please, instant coffee tubes that can be easily opened without scissors, milk packets that can be opened without squirting.

15. Invisible pest control – I understand that country hotels in farm country or beside rivers may have to keep rodents under control. But really – do the rat bait boxes have to be in plain sight, right outside the door?

16. Human-friendly dog bins at dog-friendly hotels – If you expect me to clean up after Lulu, I need someplace to deposit her gifts without climbing through an evil smelling convention of dumpsters behind your kitchens. One otherwise lovely dog-friendly hotel in Devon expected me to take the stuff back to London with me in my car. No thank you – I’ll leave it to nature.

17. A few lighter choices for breakfast – If a hotel offers breakfast as part of its room price, a full English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish fry up is lovely once in a while. But it’s nice to have a choice of lighter options beyond mini boxes of cornflakes. And while we’re on the subjects of breakfasts, please label the elements that can be confused, such as:

  • Juices – Is that cloudy yellow drink grapefruit, cloudy apple, pineapple or even papaya juice? Is that pinkish, reddish stuff pink grapefruit or blood orange juice? 
  • Dairy products – Is it yogurt, sour cream, double cream or quark? Is the milk skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole?

18. Soundproofed rooms –  Whether it’s the couple next door having a really good time, or the drunken revelers staggering home on the streets under your window (ah Inverness), I don’t want to know about it. The perfect hotel room should be soundproofed. For airport hotels, even at the budget end, this is an absolute requirement.

19. Adequate space – Rooms don’t have to be enormous to be perfect, but they should be big enough to move around in without constantly bumping into the furniture.

Even a hotel room crowded with furniture can have a place to unpack a bag.

20. A place to put luggage – A small folding luggage rack  is all that’s needed. It’s annoying to have to run an obstacle course around your open suitcase on the floor.

21. Real hangers – When I find those two part hangers in the wardrobe of an expensive hotel, it affects me the same way as finding bottles of liquid soap or printed notes reminding me to please leave the toiletries. Is that birdsong I hear – cheap cheap cheap?

22. Drinking water – If the water that comes out of the tap is warm or unpalatable or in short supply, guests should not have to pay for bottled water. 

23. A chair and table – An alternative to the bed for having a cup of tea, getting some work done or letting the kids play with their colouring books.

24. A clock – Ideally, a radio alarm clock. Not everyone carries a smartphone and hotels can be unreliable about wake-up calls. It’s nice to have the reassurance of an easy to read and easy to set alarm clock.

25. An absence of places for bedbugs to hide – so no flounces and ruffles and upholstered  headboards please. I’d really rather take home happy memories of a hotel than a zoo in my hair.

What makes a hotel room perfect for you?

Even though I interviewed traveling colleagues, this list is still somewhat personal. Have I left out hotel room features that spell perfection for you?  Please let me know. Click here, scroll to the bottom and share your suggestion in the comments box. 

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Tewkesbury Park Hotel and Golf Club

A Dog-Friendly Short Break in Tewkesbury

We dog lovers are really not that hard to please. For the ideal dog-friendly break, we only require a few things:

  • A comfortable, grown-up hotel where dogs and their traveling companions are not made to feel like pariahs, relegated to the smelly room next to the laundry.
  • Lots of outdoors to run around in; fields, forests, or sandy beaches will do – we’re not fussy.
  • A good choice of attractions, at least some of which welcome dogs as well as people

A few dog-friendly coffee shops or pubs don’t hurt either.

Last month Lulu the Westie and I, along with her Westie pal Darcy and his human chums, discovered Tewkesbury, a medieval market town at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. Just two and a half hours northwest of London, the Gloucestershire town beneath the Malvern Hills sits on the Northern edge of the Cotswolds.  It has, we discovered, everything needed for a dog-friendly break and then some.  

Where to Stay

Tewkesbury Park , was named”Fido’s Favorite – Best Pet Friendly Hotel”  in the 2017/18  bestlovedhotels awards. What better recommendation for a Westie outing?  We went (at the invitation of the owners) to check it out.

The family-owned hotel in a converted 18th and 19th century manor house has been undergoing a dramatic programme of refurbishment.  In late 2017 a series of glamorous “heritage suites” (lovely but not dog-friendly) and a wing of ground floor, dog-friendly rooms were launched.

Public areas, including an informal reception, a dog-friendly piano lounge, a bar and several comfortable sitting areas, are spacious and airy, decorated in soothing combinations of French blue, mellow yellow, grey and taupe. Have a look:

Photo courtesy of Tewkesbury Park Hotel
Photography at Tewkesbury Park Hotel, Spring 2016
One of several cocktail bars.

Rooms in the dog-friendly wing are comfortably furnished in a contemporary, country house style – tartan carpets, memory foam beds (one for you and a memory-foam doggy bed for Fido). Ours had plenty of closet and drawer space, two comfortable chairs, a table and a dressing table with enough power points for all my chargers and devices.

Dog friendly rooms at Tewkesbury Park overlook the golf course
Dog-friendly room overlooking the golf course. ©Ferne Arfin 2018

The hotel sits on what seems to be the highest hill in Tewkesbury, with views of rolling countryside in all directions. It’s surrounded by an 18-hole golf course which is  “Highly Recommended” by Golfshake and gets good marks from UKGolfGuide and Leading Courses.

Great for golfers but less so for travelers with pets. The dog-friendly rooms are all on the ground floor with French doors onto the golf course (which are unusable, as you can exit but not re-enter through them).  As soon as we arrived, Lulu found the doors to the grassy lawns madly exciting.  And the golfers, who pass frequently in close proximity to the hotel, found Lulu – her nose pressed against the glass – entertaining as well.  So much for rooms with views, privacy or morning daylight.  The curtains had to remain firmly shut through our entire stay.

On the plus side:
  • the staff are universally helpful and welcoming.
  • the hotel’s peaceful spa has a reasonably-sized, heated pool, steam room, sauna and outdoor hot tub (a bit of a challenge to get into on a wintry evening though) as well as a gym. A variety of treatments are available too.
  • the breakfast buffet is generous and varied (but leave Fido in your room because the buffet is laid out in a separate room, down a corridor and a short flight of steps, from the piano lounge where dogs are allowed. It makes for a bit of a juggling act and someone has to stay behind with your pooch).
  • if you opt for a dinner bed and breakfast package, Fido gets a special meal, cooked to order in the hotel kitchen.
Chef prepared meals for Fido at Tewkesbury Manor.
Party manners – Lulu is attentive and on best behaviour as food and beverage manager Leon puts the finishing touches to her room service meal of chicken, rice and gravy.

The Canine Retreat package costs £199 for two plus one pampered pooch and includes a welcome pack of doggy treats with suggested walks, bed and breakfast accommodation,  a traditional afternoon tea, a £25 spa voucher and a three-course dinner for two as well as a dog’s dinner. Lulu enjoyed her generous chicken, rice and gravy supper. As is common in the travel industry, we were guests of the hotel.

Where to Eat

The Tewkesbury Park Hotel  has a competent restaurant with a menu based as much as possible on locally sourced ingredients as well as a varied, reasonably priced and well-chosen wine list.  Quite a few wines – including champagnes – are available by the glass and the selection of moderately priced bottles is very good. Most of Europe is represented on the list as well as a few New World wines from South America and South Africa. 

But my oh my what gorgeous desserts. Go if only to finish your meal by sampling the genius pudding efforts of Chef de Patisserie Dinesh.

White chocolate and passionfruit panacotta with blood orange sorbet, gels, meringues, nuts and bits of greenery. Divine.

A white chocolate and passion fruit panacotta, topped with tangy blood orange sorbet, was wobbly and sweet yet interestingly astringent. A companion’s dark chocolate and praline mousse looked both light and rich – how is that possible? He reported that the balance of flavours worked very well.

The restaurant at Tewksbury Park is fully licenced, so you don’t have to be a hotel guest to dine there. Elsewhere in the town, pickings are pretty slim though we have heard good things about My Great Grandfathers and The Abbot’s Table.

Things to do in Tewkesbury

We don’t know if Tewkesbury is trying to attract dog lovers but there certainly seemed to be a lot of “dogs welcome”  signs on the doors of coffee shops, cafes and pubs around the town.

Other things to do with your canine companion:

  • Visit Tewkesbury AbbeyMore than 900 years old and a Benedictine Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII,  the Abbey Church was saved from total destruction when the townspeople bought it from the King for the price of the lead in its roof. It’s now a monumental parish church with seven impressive medieval stained glass windows and, at 14 metres square and 45 metres high, the largest Norman church tower in existence, anywhere. Remarkably, it is completely dog-friendly. Your well-behaved pet is even welcome during services and concerts.
  • Explore this ancient market town. It has 379 listed historic buildings, a photo op around every corner. There are at least 30 interesting alleyways worth a look including Old Baptist Chapel Court, leading to the 17th century Old Baptist Burial Ground and Meeting House.
  • Enjoy the rivers. The upper reaches of the Severn and the River Avon come together here. There are peaceful, dog-friendly walks along the mighty Severn, Britain’s longest river, and boat trips on the Avon with views of medieval cottages and an ancient mill.  Severn Leisure Cruises offer ferry services and half hour pleasure cruises around the town and between Tewkesbury and Twyning from April to September.
  • Follow the Battle of Tewkesbury Trail – The Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses, putting the House of York in power for the next 14 years. Much of the battlefield remains undeveloped rolling meadow and woodland, perfect for dog walking leavened with a bit of history. Pick up a map leaflet in the Tourist Information Centre on Church Street, near the Abbey, and head out.

Tewkesbury  Gallery

Tewkesbury Abbey, a 900-year-old Abbey saved from destruction by the locals and now a parish church.
inside Tewkesbury Abbey
The vaulted ceiling of the nave of Tewkesbury Abbey.
Ceiling above the high altar
One of seven medieval stained glass windows at Tewkesbury Abbey.
17th century courtyard in Tewkesbury, site of a historic Baptist Chapel.
Old Baptist Chapel Court. Courtyard in Tewkesbury, site of a historic Baptist Chapel. The town was a center for nonconformists in the 17th century.
Old Baptist Burial Ground at the end of Old Baptist Chapel Court. The court is one of 30 ancient lanes that wind through the town.
Listed historical buildings in Tewkesbury
Evocative of 17th and 18th century – or much earlier, these houses are a typical sight around the town. Tewkesbury has more than 370 listed historical buildings.

Explore the region on a two-day tour of the Cotswolds with Get Your Guide

Things to do nearby

Toff Milway and visitors at his Conderton Studio
Potter Toff Milway explains his working methods to visitors at his Conderton studio, near Tewkesbury.
Visit the Conderton Pottery 

Shop for beautiful and original salt-glazed pots, jugs, platters and planters at ceramic artist Toff Milway’s studio in Conderton,  about 6.5 miles on the B4080 from Tewkesbury.  Milway is friendly and generous with his time.  If you are genuinely interested he will take the time to explain the mysteries of salt-glazing and how the subtle colours, gentle iridescence and interesting textures of his work are achieved. The Old Forge, Conderton Near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire GL20 7PP.

Both sides of a salt-glazed jug with fish handle, by Toff Milway of Conderton Pottery. Ceramic artwork shown with permission of the artist. ©Ferne Arfin 2018


Admire Roman interior decoration in Corinium 

After Londinium,  Corinium, was the second largest city in Roman Britain. Today it’s known as Cirencester and it’s a 40 minute drive from Tewkesbury but well worth the effort to see the national collection of Romano-British mosaics at the Corinium Museum. 

 If you get the munchies, stop off along the way in the spa and racing town of Cheltenham, where local girl turned world traveller, Emma, of The Gap Life Diaries, recommends a handful of tempting, relaxed, all day eateries.

Above and below, details of mosaic floors at Corinium Roman Museum in Cirencester.

 The mosaic floors, most discovered in Cirencester but some brought from other Roman sites, offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of first and second century  Romans in Britannia.

There’s a small admission charge to the Corinium Museum which, unfortunately, is not dog-friendly.  But medieval Church of St. John the Baptist, nearby, is.

Porch of Church of John the Baptist in Cirencester’s market square. The English perpendicular Gothic church is what is left of an Augustinian monastery destroyed by Henry VIII

The 900 year old church, built in the English Perpendicular Gothic style, is all that remains of a former Augustinian monastery (yes, Henry VIII at it again).  Cirencester’s ancient street plan includes twisting passages and alleys lined with independent shops. In one of them, The Stableyard on Black Jack Street, we stopped for coffee at Jesse’s, an interesting looking dog-friendly bistro that we later found out has two AA rosettes and is listed in The Good Food Guide, Hardens and the 2016 Michelin Guide. So a return visit is probably in the cards.


Blakes Hotel in South Kensington, the Original Boutique Hotel

40 Rooms for £40 at one of London’s Most Glamourous Hotels

The year was 1978.  In London Glam Rockers were on the wane but the equally flamboyant New Romantics were beginning to spread their langourous style onto the fashion scene. Design was everything – the more ecclectic, individual and luxurious the better.

Onto this stage stepped Anouska Hempel, socialite, former Bond girl, Hammer House of Horror and Dr. Who actress now turned designer and hotelier.  Her first hotel venture, Blakes Hotel on Roland Gardens in South Kensington, reflected the exotic extravagance of the period.

Each room was individually designed with doubles and signature suites expressing the kinds of elegant fantasies that instantly appealed to the rich and famous.

Though some hoteliers in New York would like to take credit for the invention of the boutique hotel in the 1980s, Blakes  was undoubtedly the first luxury boutique hotel in the world. Movie stars, rock legends and super models flocked to its theatrical rooms with their – gypsy flamboyance, sexy red velvets, Victorian stripes, Asian and colonial styles,  beds draped in embroidered hangings or floating in airy netting.(Check out the gallery)

Glam lounge at Blakes Hotel in South Kensington - a magnet for movie stars, supermodels and rockers.
One of several glamorous lounges at Blakes Hotel

Blakes is 40 years old in 2018, still going strong and still attracting the rich and famous – who treasure its exclusive privacy.  It’s an ambiance you can share – at a bargain basement price – if you’re quick.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the hotel is offering 40 rooms for only £40 during the month of January.  The rooms, from the hotel’s selection of Parisian doubles,  would normally go for £295 a night. It’s first come, first serve and it’s just one room per person – if you are lucky enough to land one.

The rooms go on sale on Monday, January 8 at 9 a.m. They will be bookable between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during January for as long as they last. To be in with a chance, telephone +44 (0)20 7370 6701 or email reservations@blakeshotels.com    A little bird tells me you’ll have a better chance of getting a room if you phone.

Good luck.


Jewelry from prehistoric times to yesterday in this hidden away gallery at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum – A Between the Holidays Treat

I’ve only just discovered the Jewellery Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I cannot wait to head back there to explore them at leisure. 

The galleries, rooms 91-93, showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection ranging from precious metals to plastic, raffia and rubber and spanning millennia – from prehistory right up to yesterday.

As soon as you enter the first, darkened room, a large, beautifully worked embossed gold collar, alone in its glass case,  casts a warm glow across the entrance to the gallery. Is it from ancient Egypt? A piece from Agammemnon’s treasury? No, this stunning Bronze Age object, made between 800 and 700 BC, is the Shannongrove Gorget, found in an Irish bog in Co. Limerick.

The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog.
The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog. © Ferne Arfin

If it’s bling you’re after, there’s plenty of that to see. But what really makes these objects so fascinating is the craftsmanship and creative imagination, as well as some of the poignant stories, behind them.

There’s a Fabergé letter opener given by the doomed Tsarina Alexandra to her former English governess and lifelong correspondent, Margaret Jackson, for Christmas. The clear slice of rock crystal, simply adorned with gold and enamel was given to the museum along with a note of Christmas wishes to Miss Jackson dated 1900. The Tsarina,  Queen Victoria’s granddaughter,  was later among the members of the Russian imperial court shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Another object, the steinkabinett – an 18th century box by  Johann Christian Neuber, the court goldsmith at Dresden – is a kind of pocket natural science museum with 77 stone samples, identified on a paper map kept inside it. The “pearls” are particularly clever. They aren’t pearls at all but flat pieces of rock crystal, the underside carved into domes and then silvered.

Fabergé letter opener in rock crystal, gold and enamels. © The Victoria and Albert Museum
18th century Steinkabinett by Johann Christian Neuber. © Ferne Arfin



These objects and hundreds more are part of the museum’s permanent collection and you can drop by any time to see them, for free – maybe something to do before moving on after dark to see the London Christmas Lights in Piccadilly and Regent Street.

Before you go, you might want to book tickets to the V&A’s current special exhibitions: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in the new Sainsbury Gallery until February 25 and Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. on until April 8.

Christmas at Waddesdon 2017

Winter Light at Waddesdon – Christmas 2017

Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.

This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine. 

In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection. 

The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.

My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.

Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.

Enchanted Menagerie in the Smoking room
Imaginary animals decorate the Christmas tree in the Smoking Room.
Noah's Ark at Waddesdon Manor
Noah’s Ark on the Billiards Table

Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.

Electric Menagerie by Lauren Booth. The Aviary. Photo by Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting.  We left with shopping bags full.

Waddesdon Christmas Essentials

  • Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm 
  • Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
  • The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
  • Visit the Waddesdon Manor website to find out more. 
At Kew bees hum in the key of C.

Did you know that bees hum in the Key of C?

The Hive at Kew Gardens

Did you know that all bees hum in the key of C? Or that bees, which are vegetarian, evolved from carnivorous wasps during the same era that dinosaurs walked the earth?

These are among the fascinating facts you can pick up in London when you visit  The Hive. It’s a  marvelous combination of 17-metre-high sculpture (designed by Wolfgang Buttress), engineering and science project. And it will be the anchor of Kew Gardens’ focus on bees until November 2017. Inspired by research into the life of bees, it’s surrounded by a wildflower meadow still active with bees in early September.

Discover the Secret Life of Bees

Bee activity, inside a real beehive located elsewhere at Kew, triggers the lights and sounds you experience inside. They call it an “immersive sound and visual experience”.

The promise is “Step inside and discover the secret life of bees”.  I don’t know about that, but you can certainly hear The Hive humming away in the key of C long before you see it.

And you can listen in on bee conversations. Clever devices, embedded in columns allow you to hear all the different calls bees make to each other. Insert a thin wooden stick into a slot on the column and put the other end between your teeth to hear the bees through your bones. Apparently that is how bees communicate with each other.  And I thought it was all about the wiggle dance they do in the air. They bark and croon and howl too. Who knew?

If you haven’t been to Kew in a while, right now is a great time to go. After our warm/cold/wet/dry summer, the flowers are looking wonderful. There’s a good assortment of live plants in peak condition to buy and several new pretty places to settle in for a cup of tea. 

Highly recommended.

Find out more about The Hive

Essential information to plan a visit to Kew

London’s Blue Plaques: A Chelsea Walk

Spend a morning or an afternoon discovering the London Blue Plaques of Chelsea. For more than 150 years, London’s blue plaques, on buildings scattered around the city, mark the homes and achievements of the famous and infamous 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.

The Oldest Blue Plaques in Britain

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 London Blue Plaque Chelsea 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


A.A. Milne London Blue Plaque1. 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. Canadian Army vet, Harry Colebourn brought the bear to London. Eventually, when he could no longer keep it on military expeditions, it 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.  

The film Goodbye Christopher Robin is based on the life of Milne’s family and son while the author lived in this house. Watch it on Amazon Prime.

To see the houses featured in this blog, click on the matching numbers on the map below.

2. Augustus John London Blue PlaqueCross 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.

Samuel Beckett London Blue Plaque

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.

Alexander Fleming discoverer of penicillan London Blue Plaque4. 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.

Home of Whistler and Whistler's Mother, London Blue Plaque


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.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler's London home.
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.

Oscar Wilde's mother, London Blue Plaque
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.

Scott of the Antarctic London Blue Plaque

8. Doomed antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott left for his last polar expedition from 56 Oakley Street and never returned. Scott identified the polar plateau, on which the South Pole is located, on a previous expedition, the Discovery expedition. 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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne London Blue Plaque

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. 

George Eliot London Blue Plaque

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 Oscar Wilde London Blue PlaqueConstance 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.

Samuel Clemens - Mark Twain - London Blue Plaque12. 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. 

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula here - London Blue Plaque

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. Pizza Express was the studio of a famous dancer - London Blue Plaque152 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.

English Heritage who now administer the scheme, publish the Guide to London’s Blue Plaques. 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.



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.


“What kind of food do you serve?”


“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.



Travel writer, web editor and author