Winter in London

 

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I must admit that leaving the house just after 7am in the dark and the freezing rain made me almost call the whole thing off. By the time I boarded the train for London, my hands and feet were so cold that I spent the entire train journey bundled up in my coat, scarf and gloves, trying to warm my fingers with lots of tea. But then the sight of the magnificent St. Pancras station never fails to lift my spirits and I hurried down the platform to meet Amanda and Sharly by the statue of the great Sir John Betjamin. The first time I met Amanda it was in the same spot but during one of the hottest weeks ever. This time, the contrast in the weather couldn’t have been greater but we still had a wonderful day in spite of the rain. The Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A was sold out but we went to the new Ocean Liners: Speed and Style instead which was just fabulous. I’ve always had a soft spot for vintage photos and posters from the golden age of travel and there were plenty here, along with gems such as The Duke of Windsor’s Goyard trunks which straight away made me think of my friend Jan, Marlene Dietrich’s suit, socialite Emilie Grigsby’s Paul Poiret satin trousers and dresses, a Louis Vuitton vanity set, plus beautiful furniture, panelling and music by Fred Astaire and clips from classic films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to enjoy.

After lunch, we headed for Harrod’s, then Fortnum’s, then Hatchard’s where my energy flagged and I collapsed on a sofa in the art section with my bags full of exhibition merchandise, makeup and tea around me. We said our goodbyes in Burberry where Amanda was trying on a beautiful coat. It’s a shame we don’t live closer but I’m already looking forward to our next meeting in Berlin, Paris, London, New York or somewhere different.

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Winter in London

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Even the most weary traveller would find it hard to resist London at this time of year. Other cities like Berlin are just cold and grey but London has a special atmosphere that brings out the best in it. The Christmas trees sparkle, exquisite decorations light up elegant streets, you pause in front of Fortnum’s famous windows to admire their fantastic displays before going into to stock up essentials like tea, biscuits and marmalade. Even Cartier’s is all wrapped up in a big red bow. And there is always something remarkable to discover. Pausing to admire a beautiful tiara in the window of Bentley and Skinner on Piccadilly, I was invited in to see a small exhibition of exquisite Fabergé jewels and trinkets in the basement before making my way to the Duchamp/Dali exhibition at the Royal Academy. No visit to Piccadilly would be complete either without a visit to Hatchards which is surely the bibliophile’s ultimate dream. After breakfasting on almond croissant, Greek yoghurt with berries and strong coffee, I took the train to Blackfriar’s the next morning for the Red Star Over Russia exhibition at Tate Modern where I spent the rest of the day drifting between the galleries and joining in the fun in the Turbine Hall which is rather like a giant playground. The day ended with a trip to the BFI to watch one of my favourite films of all time, Double Indemnity. In the warmth and comfort of those plush red seats next to fellow cinephiles, the film came alive like never before and not a sound was uttered until after the final credits had rolled. On my final day, I just see the remarkable exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and return to the permanent collection of the National Gallery to admire some of my favourite paintings before catching the bus over to the BFI again to watch Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful The Bad and the Beautiful. The weather had turned very cold and there was a chill in the air as I walked over Waterloo Bridge in the red lights of rush hour to get the bus back to St. Pancras, taking in the lights and beautiful buildings one last time. I can’t wait for Christmas.

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The scent of summer

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We met by the statue of John Betjeman, that great poet and traveller whose efforts many years ago saved St. Pancras, and who today stands with his suitcase ready to embark on another journey. It’s strange thinking back just a few years to when blogging was fairly anonymous and you would wait nervously on the station platform, not knowing what each other looked like but hopeful you would eventually find one another. Thanks to Instagram, we recognised each other at once. Amanda (who writes the wonderful blog Minutiae Review) in a pretty top with colourful patterns which reminded the woman in the Chanel boutique of a dress from their collection a few summers back, me in an orange red dress which left me worried about getting sunburned shoulders on the hottest day of the year.

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We had the whole day to spend together but knew from the beginning it would go too fast. And it did. There was a brief foray into the Great Court of the British Museum, stuffy under that glass dome, and the Egyptian galleries. We glimpsed the blue trails of the jets flying overhead on the Queen’s birthday as we stopped for lunch on Covent Garden. We pondered whether to choose Juniper Sling or Ellenisia at Penhaligon’s, astonishing the sales assistant that we could be torn between fragrances that were so completely different, before deciding upon the famous bluebell scent (Amanda) and Blenheim Bouquet (me). At the travel bookshop on Long Acre, we talked about places we have travelled to, books we love and most of all about our old city, Berlin, which has a special place in our hearts.

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I don’t often get a chance to share my passion for perfume and beauty. Few friends are interested at all but we had the best time shopping for fragrance at Chanel, Harrod’s and Liberty. Amanda introduced me to Byredo fragrances by purchasing the exclusive Cuir Obscur while I was unable to resist the lure of Chanel’s Bois des Îles, Guerlain’s Liu and Frédéric Malle’s Lipstick Rose, along with two more red lipsticks which I need like a kick in the head but never mind. The heat by the afternoon was overwhelming, especially on a short but brutal ride on the Tube to Oxford Circus which explains the lack of great photos and also why I was content to collapse into a chair in the children’s section in Liberty, surrounded by all my purchases, while Amanda scouted out a fabulous animal print washbag and sweater by Scamp and Dude. We were just too tired to even contemplate going to Selfridges afterwards and had a bite and a cool drink in the quiet corner of a nearby café, saying our goodbyes in Green Park Tube station, before heading off in different directions. At St. Pancras waiting for my train, I wished it was still morning with the whole day ahead of us and felt sad that we live so far apart but later in the taxi ride home with the colours of the sunset still on the horizon and the smell of cut grass coming in through the window, I felt glad that we had met at last and that it had been such a special day. Smelling any of the new perfumes is enough to bring it back.

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London pride

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I’m always critical of the UK for being poor at certain things other countries do well, such as providing affordable and reliable public transport and producing decent bread. But then again, the tea is superb and the museums not only have amazing collections but are a real pleasure to visit. Never have I been told off for eating a sweet, not carrying my handbag on my arm instead of my shoulder, getting too close to paintings or even just having a camera. There is simply a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy the art.

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The courtyard of the Royal Academy where I called on my way to the NPG.

I’ve been going to the National Portrait Gallery for many years and have lost track of the number of wonderful exhibitions I’ve seen there: Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Singer Sargent, Russian portraits, Man Ray, Giacometti, Audrey Hepburn portraits etc. But I have fewer opportunities to visit the permanent collection which is really a shame because whenever I return there, I realise just how magnificent it is and see how much I still need to discover. There are familiar paintings and photos to visit again, almost like old friends. Perhaps a portrait of a favourite writer or someone I admire, or others where the subject is less important compared to the extraordinary face or the beauty of the fabric. And then you see something new and find it impossible to tear yourself away from that particular room. Needless to say, however much time you spend there, it will never be enough to see everything you want to and there is always a little sadness and frustration upon leaving this wonderful place.

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No visit to London would be complete without refreshments though and I knew I had to return to Maison Bertaux in Soho which I discovered thanks to my friend Jan. This was my second time there and I enjoyed it even more than the last. The staff are lovely – finding you the best table, waiting patiently while you agonise over which cake to choose because there are so many and everything looks amazing. In the end, we chose a wonderful chocolate one as well as some cheesecake and devoured the enormous slices, accompanied by a huge pot of delicious tea. They really were some of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. My only regret was not having lunch there because the range of quiches was truly mouthwatering.

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At the end of each visit to London, there is a little sadness and regret at not living closer but also the promise I make to return very soon to discover more. And you really can’t ask for anything better than that.

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Some impressions from my walk around Mayfair.

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Dreaming of my future scarf and handbag at Hermès.

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The Burlington Arcade.

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Some Manolo Blahniks.

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At Maison Assouline on Piccadilly.

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London calling

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Whatever the season and however often I go to London, I always seem to end up in the same part – that stretch between Green Park and Piccadilly Circus. It’s a habit I’ve had for at least 15 years. Sometimes I feel bad about neglecting other interesting sights and areas but then again, you have so many wonderful places there. There’s the park itself with a few brave daffodils at this time of year standing proud and further on, the trees in blossom along many of the winding paths. The beautiful Burlington Arcade where you can admire the pink pyramids of Ladurée macarons and agonish over which mouth-watering flavours to choose. And when you’ve finally made your selection, there is Frédéric Malle to spritz or repurchase new and old favourites like Portrait of a Lady or Chanel to discover more of Les Exclusifs perfumes. Or if you’re broke, it’s a chance to just savour some old world elegance.

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As usual, I headed for the Royal Academy, sipping coffee and enjoying a huge slice of moelleux au chocolat, bought across the street from Paul’s bakery, in its magnificent courtyard underneath the watchful gaze of Sir Joshua Reynolds. On the hottest day of the year, it suddenly felt like summer with everyone in T-shirts, soaking up the sun. Inside, they had rolled out the red carpet in honour of the Russian Revolution exhibition. Room after room was filled with monumental, extraordinarily beautiful and amazing displays, finishing with the room of memory which featured just a few of the people arrested or shot in the age of terror. Looking at their faces, some famous, others just ordinary citizens, I thought of all the lives destroyed, talents lost and broken dreams. People no different from us today.

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IMG_3395 After seeing so much and fighting through the crowds in the gallery, I headed to the sanctuary of Fortnum and Mason across the street. Gigantic displays of Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, stacks of teas from all over the world, silver and glass teapots are just a few things that transfix you when you walk in. That and the beautiful staircase leading to the wine section downstairs. I was content that day to order a pot of Afternoon Blend and watch the world go by in the tearoom.

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But what is tea without books? Just a couple of shops down, you enter the world of Hatchard’s, my favourite bookshop ever. Holly Golightly famously had Tiffany’s but this is my ultimate place for “the mean reds”. It’s a sanctuary where nothing bad can happen to you and as an anxiety sufferer, the ultimate refuge. I took my time choosing, lingering by a whole section devoted to P.G. Wodehouse, another to Churchill. On the first floor, I curled up on a comfortable green sofa with a pile of books before deciding upon Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Put Out More Flags’, ‘Carol’ and ‘Deep Water’ by Patricia Highsmith and ‘The Goodbye Look’ by Ross Macdonald. At the till downstairs, a man with many Fortnum’s bags was trying to order an obscure novel from the American assistant while alongside, another customer with a suitcase was enquiring about a rare children’s book. “Take him up to the second floor”, his colleague insisted. “One person waiting isn’t a queue”, before asking if I agreed with his definition. Who was I to argue?

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But even in a favourite area, there are new things to tempt you away. My friend Jan had told me about Maison Bertaux, an old French patisserie in Soho. I had passed close by this place many times before but had no idea of its existence until he told me about the amazing croissants and old-fashioned atmosphere. On my last morning, a cool, grey day, we were there for breakfast first thing, seated at one of the corner tables with its blue checked cloths. The pastries and coffee were the best I’ve ever had in London but hunger and the dark interior that early meant I didn’t manage to take decent photos. I can’t wait to return there next time to sample some of the wonderful cakes, getting off just a few stops earlier than usual on the Piccadilly Line, even if it means going to Hatchard’s a little later.

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Bloomsbury in bloom by our hotel

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Sir John Betjeman, poet and saviour of St. Pancras.

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Just time for a glass of champagne at the long bar before boarding the train.

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A walk by the Thames

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Dr. Johnson famously declared that, “The man who is tired of London is tired of life,” but I have never really understood the appeal of the city. Much as I love all the things you can do there, it’s too huge, the beautiful buildings are often overwhelmed by modern monstrosities and the crowds make me feel I can’t stop to breathe for a moment. And then there’s the Tube. As a Berlin U-Bahn girl through and through (accessible stations, quick to exit), I dread taking those escalators to the centre of the earth and joining the ranks of sardines. Paris at least has the most beautiful architecture and poetic Métro names to make up for the hoards of tourists.

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But yesterday, I really loved it, even the strangely deserted Tube and can see why my very stylish friend Jan, who writes an equally stylish blog, is always telling me how fabulous it is. I met another very stylish friend, Patricia, at Embankment station which reminded me of trips to the nearby theatres many years ago to see Juliette Binoche in Pirandello’s ‘Naked’ and later Kristin Scott Thomas in Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’.

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We crossed over the Thames to the South Bank and walked past other old haunts of mine – the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the BFI, Festival Hall, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. Sunshine and a light spring breeze swept over our faces as we looked down at the footprints in the sand on Ernie’s Beach and listened to the waves breaking. We stopped for the most delicious lunch at one of the restaurants at the wharf, resisting with difficulty one of the beautiful large glasses of gin with grapefruit which the woman at the next table was enjoying.

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IMG_2616   Continuing our walk by the Thames while chatting about everything and anything, the time just evaporated with the fading light. Some tea, coffee and cake, then goodbye after crossing once more over the river. IMG_0865

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Travelling back home on the train speeding into darkness and glimpsing the lights of the windows passing by, I felt torn between people, places and languages and wondered where I belong. But later that evening, curled up with a new book and a pot of Fortnum’s Royal Blend tea, I realised none of that mattered for the moment, that the simple pleasures are the best and that I’m lucky to have such wonderful friends.

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