Our annual respite from the rigors of daily life – otherwise known as a vacation – this year took us to the British Isles, specifically to England and Ireland. It felt like a homecoming, because so much of it is familiar. The language, of course, and the place names that were brought to the New World by those brave colonists so many years ago. The pubs felt very much like bars in the United States, the cooking so familiar – what was listed on so many menus as an “English Breakfast” and an “Irish Breakfast” was pretty much what we serve at our own table, except for the beans and black pudding.
Tradition courses through the veins of its people. We’ve wondered why, for example, they drive on the opposite side of the road, and learned from guidebooks that it is a holdover from Feudal times, when one needed to have the right hand free to engage in combat when astride a horse in battle. Then there’s that relentless affection for their monarchy.
One sees everywhere the trappings of Empire and privilege, a bit faded, but still much in evidence. A plaque at the entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum reminds visitors that the building was dedicated by “Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India.” There was a time when, for example, you could travel the length of Africa, from Capetown to Cairo, without leaving British Territory. That legacy is apparent on a stroll through the British Museum, which is an odd name for an institution that houses objects from just about everywhere but Britain, most notoriously the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. And where else can you see a giant head from Easter Island? The riches to be found in London are mind-boggling.
Yet while being so mindful of its past, London in particular is firmly rooted in the present: witness the infamous Shard, the London Eye, and all of the other modern additions to the city’s skyline, its fashion scene. It’s a vital place, full of wonders.
Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
— Samuel Johnson
First Night in London: Launceston Place.
It used to be that the journey was the point, the experience of getting from point “A” to point “B” was as much a part of the joy of travel as the place. Not so with modern air travel, which has sadly devolved into one insult after another, well known to any traveler. The start was strangely swift, with TSA being not busy at all, but that happy event quickly turned sour with a two-hour departure delay. Fortunately we had a four-hour layover in Dublin, giving sufficient time to be herded and re-processed before flying on to London. Its a shame that modern travel has turned into one insult after another. What is the alternative? Small planes have fatal crashes with distressing frequency, so we joked about winning the lottery and buying our own Boeing 757 so as not to have to endure the experience ever again.
That insult notwithstanding, we arrived on time and braved London traffic to our flat in Kensington, and even had a moment to clean up before heading out to dinner at Launceston Place, a fabulous restaurant just a 10-minute walk from our flat. This leisurely paced and oh so civilized meal was the perfect antidote to the prior 24 hours. We opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings. Each pairing inspired and perfect. The sommelier’s descriptions were as delicious as the food; he had a talent for relating each wine to the place, and to the food so we had insight into how the disparate parts were brought together into a perfectly integrated meal, each course a wonder.
Taste of Launceston Place
22 June 2014
Organic Asparagus cooked on the barbecue, hens egg, mores and wild garlic
2013 Sauvignon Blanc, Dog Point, Marlborough, New Zealand
Hand Dived Scallop with truffle cassonade, confit chicken wing, compressed apple and grated truffle
2011 Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker, Agapé, Vincent Sipp, Alsace, France
Sole with Patron pepper and brandade, piquillo, squid, brown shrimp and fennel
2006 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudésir, Olivier Leflaive, Burgundy, France
Wagyu Beef Rump with Cévennes onion stuffed with Bourguignon garnish and red wine sauce
2006 Bussia Riserva, Giacomo Fenocchio, Barolo, Italy
Selection of Cheeses
Graham’s 20-year Tawny Port
Cucumber Buttermilk with Lime and Mint
Raspberry Delice with white chocolate and caramelized white chocolate
2011 Riesling, Tamar Ridge, Tasmania, Australia
Mike had a birthday a few days before, so they brought a little something at the end. It’s no wonder the place has earned a Michelin star and has been awarded four AA Rosettes in 2013, one of only seven restaurants to receive the accolade in the United Kingdom that year, as well as being awarded AA ‘Notable Wine List’ and ‘Best Wine List’ at the Tatler Restaurant Awards.
Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, London, W8 5RL Telephone 44 020 7937 6912
Windsor Castle and A Night at the Races.
The rest of our group arrive Monday morning. After they got settled, we made our way to a pub for lunch, made our way to Paddington Station to meet the last member of our party, then made our way to Windsor to see Windsor Castle. The history of that ancient fortress is too rich to recount here, but suffice to say it is, in a word, impressive. Majestic is probably a better description, with the Gothic tracery of Saint George’s Chapel, and the Georgian opulence of the State Apartments. As we toured the State Apartments one room was being set up for a dinner for one of Prince Charles’ charities.
From there we made our way to the Royal Windsor Racecourse for Monday night racing. That was a bustling place, and very smart. We had dinner in the Castle Restaurant with a sumptuous three-course meal. Scanning the program one sees some notable name: The Prince of Wales had a horse in a race, as did the Niarchos family, Lord and Lady Rothschild, the Earl of Carnarvon, etc. The food was equally impressive.
A Visit to Kensington Palace.
In the morning we stopped by Kensington Palace, that ancient pile that is another home of the royals. The public areas give glimpses of the ruling families from widely divergent viewpoints: the 17th century on view in the Queen’s State Apartments, the 18th century represented by the majesty of the King’s State Apartments, and the 19th century with an exhibit called “Victoria Revealed.” An unusual view of the 20th century royals is presented by a review of exquisitely tailored royal fashion from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The Churchill War Rooms.
From there we made our way east and stopped at Memorial Albert Hall for lunch, for no particularly good reason other than being famished and it was the first place we came to that was open at that late hour. Next up was a stop at the Churchill War Rooms for a look at Winston Churchill’s underground bunker where the British action for that terrible war was conducted underground. Fascinating to learn that after six years underground, at the conclusion of the war the soldiers who worked there tidied their desks and went home. The rooms were sealed up just as they were when the lights were cut off on 16 August 1945 and not disturbed until Adjacent is the interactive Churchill Museum, which tells the story of the incredible story of the great man.
After a stroll through Saint James Park to see the exterior of Buckingham Palace, we traveled to Regent Street to dine at Veeraswamy, the venerable Indian restaurant that is the oldest in London.
Veeraswamy, Mezzanine Floor, Victory House, 99 Regent Street, London W1B 4RS 44 20 7734 1401
Iconic sights spanning the centuries: The Tower of London with parts dating to the 11th century at one extreme, and the 20th century London Eye on the other. The Tower is a bit much, with a Disney-ish air, entertaining nonetheless.
“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
Our original plan was to take a train out to Canterbury to see Canterbury Cathedral, but on checking the price of train tickets discovered that the price had tripled since we last looked, so we opted to stay in London. Its not as if we had seen everything already; far from it. Like all great cities, London is burdened with a near deafening roar of traffic, and a break from it would certainly be welcome. We’ll be on our way to Cambridge soon enough.
So instead we took the tube to see Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Its heartening to know that the thing was completed in his lifetime. His tomb bears an inscription in Latin composed by his son:
Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you. Died 25 Feb. 1723, age 91
The crypt in particular is filled with melancholy monuments to many of the great men who contributed to the nation, military figures like the Arthur, the Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon) and Horatio Nelson, who perished in the Battle of Trafalgar. Interestingly, many poets, scientists and artists, too.
From there after lunch at The Punch Tavern on Fleet Street in The City (and had a fabulous Chicken, Wild Mushroom and White Wine Pie), it was on to another sort of monument, only this one a monument to a single man, Sir John Soane, an early 19th century architect whose quirky museum were given to the nation on his death in 1837. The objects are arranged as he left them, all in their Enlightenment exuberance in spaces lit on many odd levels with the walls and ceilings punctured in the most unusual places. From there a stroll to Covent Garden to see the old market, then back to the flat to recuperate a bit.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP +44 20 7405 2107
Punch Tavern, 99 Fleet Street, London EC4Y 1 DE +44 20 7353 6658
A Day and Night at the Museums.
One of the benefits of empire is the collection of “stuff.” Through Britain’s long history, the combination of military might and an acute awareness of status led to the acquisition and building of the most amazing houses and collections. The British Museum and the National Gallery are but two repositories containing objects that are preserved not just for Britain, but for the world.
Take, for example, the remains of the Parthenon now housed in The British Museum. The name of the institution is itself a bit of a misnomer, given that most of the objects have come from outside of Britain. Sadly due to a late start we did not have much time, so we visited a few highlights: a Moai from Easter Island; the Portland Vase; and of course, the Elgin Marbles, those remnants of the Parthenon that the Greek government attempts to reclaim every few years, without success.
We started the day with a sufficiently large English breakfast at a tea room called Richoux in Knightsbridge across from Harrod’s (followed by a stroll through Harrod’s), and that afternoon we had high tea at another timeless institution, that venerable department store Fortnum & Mason, which has been at the same location on Picadilly for over 300 years. The list of teas was mind-boggling, and we don’t take caffeine in the afternoon and settled on a bottle of wine while the rest of the group had tea. After an assortment of finger sandwiches stuffed with chopped egg, smoke salmon, and cucumber (of course), towers of sweets and scones were brought to the table. All very civilized, but far too much sugar for this chronicler.
Suitably fortified, it was off to The National Gallery to view the nation’s premier picture collection in a suitably impressive 19th century building facing Trafalgar Square and the Nelson Column. Strolling the galleries was like paging through an art history text: one gallery held an unfinished Michelangelo, a favorite Bronzino (Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time), and works by Titianm Giorgione and Pontormo. Elsewhere one finds the iconic Leonardo da Vinci Cartoon of the Virgin with Saint Anne and John the Baptist, works by Botticelli and Vermeer; name a world artist from the last 500 years and they have not just an example of their work, but some of the best.
The museums are open late on Fridays, so that evening we stopped at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is dedicated to the decorative arts and design. We arrived quite late so there was not much time for it, but it took on the quality of a disco with a disc jockey, drinks and a very young crowd milling about (museums wishing to broaden their demographic, take note).
And with that, the next day, on to Cambridge.
Richoux Restaurant, 86 Brompton Road, London SW3 1ER +44 020 7584 8300
Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER +44 020 7734 8040
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control — that, perhaps is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.
― George Orwell, Why I Write