All posts by Ferne Arfin

Ferne Arfin is a London-based travelwriter, book author and editor. She has been writing about travel since 2002 and her work about the UK, USA and France has appeared in major metropolitan newspapers in the UK and USA, as well as in magazines, travel books and online. She is the author of the novel Tunnel of Mirrors.
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. 
Sideboard, Georgian House, Slave Owners House, Bristol

The Georgian House Museum – The story of a Bristol Fortune Built on the Backs of Slaves

Bristol’s Georgian House Museum is a surprising and sobering glimpse of an 18th century slave owner’s home.

If  you’ve toured in the UK or anywhere in Western Europe, chances are, you’ve walked around more than one historic house. You can expect collections of fine antique furniture, china, silver, porcelain and, depending on the original owner’s wealth, old master paintings or more primitive ancestor portraits. 

After a while, you know pretty much what to expect, which is not much that you haven’t seen before.

The 18th Century Warts and All

What you aren’t often confronted with are the sometimes tawdry stories, the unpleasant side of the 18th century New World fortunes that built these elegant homes.

The Georgian House Museum in Bristol is very different. This upstairs/downstairs glimpse into the lives lived in an 18th century Bristol townhouse tells a story that alternates between swashbuckling adventure and grim reality. It’s like wandering into someone’s private home and admiring the fine china before peeking into the closets to rattle all the skeletons.  And it’s fascinating.


In the 18th century, Bristol was one corner of the triangular trade route over which cloth, guns, manufactured and luxury goods were shipped to Africa to buy slaves for the plantations of the New World. Sugar, rum, tobacco and cotton came back. The sugar plantation slave owners, sugar merchants and shipbuilders of Bristol grew rich from this trade.  


The house, at 7 Great George Street, now a free museum, is an  upstairs/downstairs look at life in a sugar plantation slave owner’s home, circa 1790.

From Disgrace to Respectability

As you tour the 11 rooms, arranged on four floors, from kitchens in the basement to elegant upstairs salons.  enthusiastic on-site guides bring the history of the house to life.

Georgian House, Slave owners house, Bristol Museum, Bristol England
“Eating Room” in the Georgian House Museum

The story begins with family black sheep, Azariah Pinney.  Azariah chose the wrong side in a shortlived rebellion against James II . Saved from the gallows – or worse – when his family ransomed his life. He was banished, exiled to the West Indies for ten years. 

In the early days of the British Empire,  impoverished young men of good families could go adventuring after their fortunes in the colonies. Criminals could be transported to them to make a life in far off corners of the world or die trying.

The fate of the first Azariah Pinney was a little of both. After his disgrace, he fetched up on the Caribbean island of Nevis, eventually becoming a wealthy sugar planter and slave owner there. Several generations later, a younger cousin inherited the family plantations, wealth and name. By the time John Pinney retired to Bristol from his Nevis plantations, in 1783, he had massively increased the family’s wealth. In Bristol he became a sugar merchant, founding a company that made him many times wealthier than he was in Nevis.

Not only was his fortune built on the labours of slaves, but John Pinney actually brought a personal slave, Pero, back to

Bristol, England, 18th century slave
Pero’s Bridge in Bristol remembers John Pinney’s slave.

Bristol. It’s, perhaps, poetic justice, that John Pinney’s name is largely forgotten, but one of Bristol’s most striking modern landmarks is the sculptural Pero’s Bridge, linking Queen’s Square and Millennium Square across Bristol Harbour. 

A small but thoughtful exhibition about the Pinney’s involvement in the sugar trade, the treatment of plantation slaves and the life of Pero adds an important layer of context to this house. In the Georgian period, roughly corresponding to the Colonial and Federal periods in American history, many of the wealthiest families on both sides of the Atlantic were supported by the slave trade and took it for granted.

Upstairs Downstairs

Upstairs rooms in the house give clues to the life led by the family. There is a breakfast room and an “eating room” for more formal dining. Downstairs there’s a beautifully equipped 18th century kitchen, laundry room, housekeeper’s room and large china cupboard. In the housekeeper’s pantry, alongside some of the valuable copper pans, a cone of sugar would normally have been kept under lock and key.

One of the downstairs surprises is the plunge pool used by the master of the house. In an age when few people bathed regularly, John Pinney enjoyed a daily, cold water bath and had apparently become accustomed to the practice while a young apprentice in the family business.

The UK’s Most Complete 18th Century Townhouse 

The nearby city of Bath is known for its avenues and terraces of Georgian houses. But Bristol probably has just as many, if not more. They tend to be a bit less monumental only because Bristol, an important port and aircraft manufacturing city before WWII, lost so many of its buildings in the Bristol Blitz, when the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Georgian House may be less famous than 1 Royal Crescent in Bath but it is probably the most complete 18th century townhouse in the UK. It’s definitely worth a visit to this quiet corner of Bristol, Great George Street, off Park Street, to see it.

  • Where:The Georgian House Museum, 7 Great George Street,Bristol, BS1 5RR
  • Telephone:+44 (0)117 921 1362
  • Opening Hours:The house is open year round though not every day of the week in winter. Because of seasonal variations it’s best to check the website for opening hours and days.
  • Admission:Free
  • Visit their website.

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Bangers and mash - A variation on the pub classic that you can make at home.

Bangers and Mash – A British Pub Classic To Cook at Home

The autumn nights are closing in. Halloween and bonfire night are just around the corner. It must be time for some warm and comforting bangers and mash.

No trip to the UK is complete without at least one meal in a pub. And bangers and mash – or sausages and mash as it’s usually called these days – is standard pub grub on traditional menus.

The good news is that poor quality sausages, packed with tasteless fillers and drowned in gluey gravy from a packet are definitely on the wane. You are much more likely to get a generous portion of three, fat, well-seasoned butcher’s or artisanal sausages on creamy mash with classic British onion gravy. 

So do the British really love their sausages?  

You’d be hard pressed in the British Isles to a find a more universally popular food – though in our diet conscious times they are more of an occasional guilty pleasure than a family staple.

Still, they do eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner (according to some sources, 44 per cent of British sausages are eaten at the evening meal).

There are holidays when sausages are so traditional they are practically required. At Christmas, small ones, called chipolatas, are wrapped in bacon and arranged around the family turkey. On the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes), when the English gather around gigantic bonfires to remember the foiling of a 17th century plot to blow up Parliament, they often eat baked potatoes and sausages. At one time, they roasted them on sticks in the community bonfire themselves. Today, health and safety bureaucrats have stepped in and it’s more common to find local organizations raising funds by selling bangers cooked over a grill at Guy Fawkes fireworks displays and bonfires.

Even vegetarians indulge – in meatless sausages of course.  In fact, the average Brit eats about 4.5 kilos (that’s about 10 pounds) of sausages a year.

 

Sausage facts to bang on about
  • According to consumer research company Kantar World Panel,  86 per cent of British households buy British bangers at least once a month.
  • In 2014, the British polished off 181,853 metric tonnes of sausages.
  • Every day in Britain, 3.7 million meals of sausages are eaten at home. Annually, that’s an unbelievable 1.35 billion home cooked sausage meals.
  • And there are at least 470 different sausage recipes around. Among several traditional pork sausages, the most popular are peppery Cumberland, presented in one long coil; Lincolnshire, seasoned with sea salt and so much sage the raw mixture can look green; London sausages with ginger, mace and sage and Oxford sausages that combine pork, veal and lemon with savory herbs.
  • Boutique butchers combine pork with leek, apples, chestnuts, stilton and port, ale, chives. And lamb sausage recipes are popular, combined with mint or rosemary. Then there are the exotic sausage recipes — chicken and lemon, mango and duck, venison with smoked ham, pork and juniper berries.
  • Glamorgan sausages, from Wales, are made with cheese and have no meat in them at all.

 

Why Are British Sausages Called Bangers?

British slang can often be suggestive but, despite it’s shape and other associations with its name, there’s a completely respectable reason that sausages  are sometimes called “bangers.”

It dates from World War I when food shortages meant very little meat for sausages was around.  Producers filled them, instead, with scraps, cereals and water. When soldiers in the trenches cooked them, on hot shovels, they popped, snapped and sometimes exploded, thus the name bangers.

Today, only the cheapest sausages are fattened up with fillers. Consumer pressure has changed all that. The skinny, shriveled-up breakfast sausages we regularly consume in the USA bear little relationship to the classic butcher’s sausages that are taken for granted in the UK. Whatever the filling, British sausages are thick, generous (at least an inch in diameter and sometimes an inch and a half, 4 to 5 inches long) and juicy. Two, accompanied by mashed potatoes and onion gravy (the classic bangers and mash), make a very filling, man-sized meal.

Sausages with Cider and Apples – A pub meal to make at home

About 20 per cent of all sausages eaten in the UK are eaten as part of a pub meal. If you’ve enjoyed good bangers in a pub on your UK vacation, Sausages with Cider and Apples is a recipe that will bring back good memories and help you create a little taste of England at home.

Sausages and Cider
Sausage and Apple Stew with Cider

It’s a Lincolnshire variation on the classic bangers and mash that’s equally good with beef or pork sausages ( but not frankfurters or hot dogs). Just make sure you buy the best, fattest sausages you can find and treat them with respect. Slow browning prevents sausages from bursting and retains juices. Whether you cook your sausages in a fireproof pan or over an open grill, turn them frequently and avoid the temptation to rush.

 

Ingredients
  • 1 lb. (about 8) fat, coarse ground pork or beef sausages
  • l lb. yellow onions, peeled and cut in rough chunks
  • 1 tsp. prepared English mustard
  • a pinch of thyme
  • 1 cup apple cider (fresh, unpasturized cider or unfiltered apple juice is the best, if you can get it)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 large red eating apple.

Method

Prick the sausages once or twice with a fork, then lightly brown them in a medium sized cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet for about five minutes, turning often. The skillet should provide just enough room for ingredients to fit tightly. Pack the onions in around the sausages, giving the pan a few shakes. Stir in the mustard, thyme and apple juice.

Cover and simmer (do not boil) over medium low heat for about 30 minutes. The apple juice will combine with other pan juices to make a rich gravy. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper.

Core but do not peel the apple. Divide into 8 to 10 slices and arrange over the top of the dish. Cover and simmer for another five minutes. The apples should soften but keep their shape.

To serve, arrange two sausages on a generous portion of creamy mashed potatoes and top with apples, onions and gravy.

 

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.