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.

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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:

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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.  

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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.

“Yes.”

“What kind of food do you serve?”

“Portuguese.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nitty Gritty

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

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

While you’re thinking about food and drink, check out how a hot new gourmet restaurant in Paris lays on the charm and style without the intimidation in this review of Coretta’s at Paris Unlocked. 

 

Thank Goodness for Days Inn. Really? Yes Really!

My friend, my dog and I had spent a few days in France in May. We stayed in several luxury hotels that were, on the whole, long on charm but (with one exception) very short on space. 

photo courtesy of Days Inn, Maidenhead.

The last day of our trip was a long one with a lot of driving and a late ferry crossing. My friend had suggested we book a room at the halfway mark to break the journey. It’s only 80 miles from the Dover Ferry Port to West London (a two hour drive, the AA rather optimistically suggests) so that didn’t seem necessary. 

But roadworks on the M20 heading out of Dover turned our first hour on the road into a 20-mile, single-lane nightmare of orange cones looming out of total darkness, punctuated by the glare of oncoming lorries.  By the time we pulled into the Junction 8 service area on the M20 in Maidstone,  my eyes were burning and my jaw was clenched. I was thankful I’d taken her advice.

It was a Days Inn.

I’d never stayed in one before and if you’d asked me, before this trip, what I thought of the brand, I probably would have said, not a lot. Their no-frills websites with tiny pictures and lurid colours set in an electric blue background were not very tempting. But it was where we needed to stop and it was cheap (£68 for both of us plus the dog) so I booked it.

We arrived, bedraggled, at around midnight. Because you pay for these rooms online, in advance check-in is totally painless.  I just handed over a printout of my reservation in exchange for a digital card “key” and directions to our room.  That was it. No formalities, nothing to sign, nothing to pay.

The room, after several days on the Continent, seemed huge – a separate king-sized bed for each of us plus a pair of upholstered arm-chairs. There were plenty of outlets for our chargers, extra pillows in the cupboard, tea and coffee-making things, flat-screen television and a large, spotless shower room.

Bags of style? No, just your basic, early 21st century motel room. And maybe the towels were a little on the stiff side. But it was clean, comfortable, quiet and there. As I stretched out on the first bed I’d been offered in five days that was actually big enough to stretch out on, I thought, “Thank God for Days Inn. Who knew?”

My life on the road is just full of surprises.

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

 

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.

Travel writer, web editor and author