150 years of the Lovely Langham Hotel

Well, it was quite a day yesterday up at Langham Place in London. The very grand  (but in a pink floral and friendly sort of a way) Langham Hotel celebrated its 150th birthday.

Albert Roux oversaw the smoked salmon blinis but modestly stayed in the background of  the group picture. The white horses that drew the fairy-tale white carriage got scared by the dozens of pink balloons that were released  - and a nice blonde lass with plaits wandered through and got a lot of young folk outside most terribly excited.   It really was all go.

That's the cake in front of her in the right-hand picture.  I didn't stay long enough to have a bite but if it was anything like the pumpkin quiche or the mini-benedicts with black truffle, it would have been worth the wait. There again, I'd gotten into the banana daiquiris in the Artesia bar so was approving of just about everything that came my way.

Grand Hotels need to stay grand. Just lately a lot of them (no names mentioned) are forgetting this and sacrificing beauty and elegance for a trendy designer statement. The Langham never forgets that we need glamour; we need that moment of instant transformation as we step from the grimy, noisy, scratchy city outside, through the revolving doors into elegance, opulence and romance.  Yesterday, the Langham's lobby was decorated with huge vases of pink hydrangeas and fragrant roses. Branches of blossom arched over the entrance to the restaurant. So we got romance and glamour without the stuffiness.

Charles Dickens used to stay here, they tell me - for £14/6 a night including a meal.  I'm not sure he'd get more than one banana daiquiri for that sum these days but I think he'd approve of the way the old place has endured and flourished.

Sleeping at Gatwick - Yotel or an airport bench?

Leaving London to go by air to  anywhere in Europe seems  these days to involve getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to catch one of those obscenely early flights out of Gatwick or Stansted or Luton. Arriving early at your destination may give you extra time but if you are feeling sleep-deprived and half-dead on your feet, I've never seen the advantage. Some people have taken to sleeping on an airport bench and there is even a website devoted to this http://www.sleepinginairports.net. 

Far better is a night's stay at the Yotel, http://www.yotel.com/hotels/london-gatwick a new form of  cabin-style rooms bookable by the hour or more and right in Gatwick's South Terminal. The cabins are a bit like the sleeping accomodations in a high-class train but also have  monsoon showers, flat screen tvs,wifi and free hot drinks. Rates vary but  promotional rates start at £32 for a standard cabin.  (Pictured below). The premium cabin on the right costs around £85.

If you do opt for a hotel  off-site, remember to check that they provide shuttle service. This is not always the case in the UK and the extra cab fare can cancel out any savings you made on the room. When I stayed at the Yotel a few months back, I left my bags in the room, rode the elevator up to the main terminal and went for a leisurely stroll. Without bags to lug, anxiety about check-ins and the like, I discovered that air terminals can be pleasant places to visit. Who knew?

Sunday Morning in the Bluebell Wood

In the 1992 film, "Howards End" there is a scene of enchantment (glimpsed briefly at the end of this trailer) when the doomed young hero goes walking at night in a bluebell wood. Merchant-Ivory knew how to make the blue of the wild flowers look luminous in the middle of the night. Most of us will visit the woods by day - even then, on  a grey, gently drizzling London spring day  a bluebell wood  can pulsate with colour.

"And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes" Poet Gerald Manley Hopkins said of a bluebell wood in his "May Magnificat".

Bluebell woods can surprise, coming at you from the corner of your eye as you drive down a major highway. That happened to me once in Hampshire. Suddenly a forest floor seemed to be carpeted with blue and I had to stop the car to see what had happened. Bluebells had happened. They happen a lot this time of year. I've stumbled on a bluebell wood  behind the "Sun" pub in Dunsfold and a couple of miles from there, I found a quiet country road with tender green leaves shading blue carpets on both sides. My mother was unsteady on her feet at the time so we declared this our 'drive-through' wood, rolled down the windows to catch their fragrance and drove slowly through. Sometimes they share the wood with wild garlic which can confuse the nose but makes for a beautiful combination of blue, speckled with white.

Last Sunday, The Selborne Society opened the private Perivale Wood so that locals could enjoy the bluebells. People flocked to this woodland not far from the A40 in such numbers that you could be forgiven for thinking a free concert or even free beer was on offer.

Once inside the wood, the crowds were somehow drawn into its peace and serenity. Birdsong prevailed, people faded into the sea of flowers, the A40 roared on its way but we no longer knew it, lost as we all were in a moment of English springtime perfection.

Rubies, diamonds and naked ladies in the sand dunes

The Royal Opera Arcade is nowhere near the Royal Opera House.  Even Londoners are confused when they stumble across this peaceful, beautiful passageway  next door to the Sofitel Hotel between Pall Mall and Charles II street in St James - a full 10 minutes walk from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.  Just around the corner on Haymarket is Her Majesty's theatre. This was once the Royal Opera House and, in its new incarnation has, appropriately enough, contracted "The Phantom of the Opera" to play there for, what may well turn out to be, eternity itself. I'll devote a post to this, the oldest shopping arcade in London,  next week but for now, here's a quick look at a wonderfully sensuous evening at the La Galleria Pall Mall last Thursday.

The Edinburgh auction house, Lyon and Turnbull had brought a private collection of Sir William Russell Flint watercolours to the gallery in advance of their April 30th sale in Edinburgh.  For good measure they had thrown in a wonderfully eclectic collection of jewelry and, best of all, they were letting visitors to the opening trying on any piece they chose. Here on the left,   is Catriona Macpherson from the Pall Mall Art Advisors wearing  a ruby and diamond necklace. And here is my wrist displaying, probably for the first and last time in its life, a bracelet of gold diamonds.

Once I'd stopped playing with the jewelry,  I wandered around
Sir William Russell Flint's utterly happy, sunny watercolours of sultry half-naked women on idyllic beaches or bathing in provencal fountains or dipping their feet in an Ardeche stream.
Flint always wore a jacket and tie to paint and sat at his desk. This methodical, rigorous man produced painting after painting filled with the delight of living and glowing with the joys of summer.

I jump from great heights at Milbank Tower with Skyscanner

I'm at the top of the Milbank tower in London in their  Altitude bar. This is the softest of April evenings. Across the river the gardens of Lambeth Palace are frothing with trees just bursting out in that tender green of early spring. Who knew that the Archbish had such vast grounds?  The London Eye turns almost imperceptibly, Big Ben tolls 7pm. I don a helmet and when a German voice says "Go to the ledge and jump!" I do just that, and hurtle through space, bumping into the edge of buildings as I go but feeling nothing but a giddying, plummeting sensation. "Get ready to land!" cries the German. Before I can figure out how to do that, he says "Oh dear, you died," and gently removes the helmet.

The German is Nils Müller, CEO of Trendone who along with Skyscanner's Filip Filipov has come to the Altitude to talk to us about the way we will travel in 2024. The helmet, or rather Oculus Rift head-mounted display, was one of several alluring gadgets brought along to illustrate the ways in which the burgeoning field of virtual reality will allow travellers to 'try before they buy.'  And no, jumping from a ledge will not necessarily be a routine holiday choice in 2024 but it did show how powerful the virtual experience has become.

A better example of 'try before you buy' was another  display that, when the headset was donned, took the traveller to a Tuscan villa on the Mediterranean. I tried that one and found myself walking through a somewhat stylized, albeit beautiful, Tuscan garden into a villa where a fire burned in the grate. When Nils, from outside the helmet, suggested I go upstairs, I reached, needlessly, for the banister and started lifting my feet up - also unnecessary because I was only going upstairs in my eyes and brain. Once on the balcony I had a breathtaking view of the sea beyond a garden where dozens of butterflies danced. I said I thought the butterflies were a stretch but was assured that this is just a prototype.

"Try before you buy" will not just be a visual experience. Haptic technology will also  allow the user's touch to feel the texture of a hotel bed or warm sand beneath their feet.  Skyscanner also foresees the use of  "Digital Travel Buddies", an Artificial Intelligence device with, perhaps, the face of a favourite actor, friend,  fictional hero or heroine that can appear as a hologram image. It will  know our choices, habits, dislikes etc and will be able to assess our mood or emotional reaction  and make suggestions accordingly. This digital travel buddy would be always with us (hmmm...) contained inside a watch or a small piece of jewellry. And you thought Aladdin's genie was just a fairy tale???

And yes, Google Glasses were in evidence. More sophisticated versions will allow a traveller to translate a menu instantly, or interpret what your Turkish taxi driver is saying.  And for those of us who thought Google Glasses were a bit scary, the University of Washington is developing contact lenses that serve the same function. Are you ready for Wifi in the eye?

"Chocolate Afternoon Tea" with Paul A. Young at the Grosvenor House Hotel

Afternoon Tea has run a bit out of control in our city.  A couple of decades ago, just a few top hotels offered the 3-tier cake stand with scones, finger sandwiches and cakes. Now every establishment that can cut the crusts off a few sandwiches has muscled in on the ritual.  I recently came across a bicycle repair shop offering afternoon tea. Things, it seems, are getting a little silly - and mightily expensive.

One of those "few top hotels," the Grosvenor House  on Park Lane, has come up with a novel and delightful way of making afternoon tea special again. Working with award-winning chocolatier, Paul A.Young, they've introduced a "Chocolate Afternoon Tea" in the Park Room.

This sounded good to me - chocolate always sounds good - but did it risk being a little cloying?
All that sugar! I hadn't reckoned with Paul A. Young's wonderfully dark, subtle and original chocolates and pastries. Even before I got to them, the smooth Madagascan cocoa nib tea was marking this afternoon tea as being different. Most leaf teas wind up brewing too long and turning bitter while tea-drinkers eat and talk. 
"More hot water please" has been the cry for at least a century in grand hotels throughout the world.  But to little avail. Once the bitterness has set in there's not much you can do - which is a metaphor for life too come to think of it.

The Madagascan cocoa nib tea needs no milk, has been brewed to perfection, stays just that way while you tuck into....well just what do you tuck into at a "Chocolate Afternoon Tea"?

Not too much chocolate for starters.  Just the right amount. Stand-outs on our cake stand were Paul A.Young's Earl Grey Tea Chocolate Tart with Salted Lemon Truffle and an Orange, English Honey and Geranium Ganache.

But the utterly wonderful, ludicrously indulgent moment came when the warm, crusty, fluffy scones were served with clotted cream and Young's award-winning sea salted caramel. Blimey! I mean really, I haven't allowed myself to venture near this sort of pure ambrosia in years.  After 3 scones, (yes 3) I was convinced that I would have to pay for this much sweet pleasure. An hour later, I would try for redemption by walking for 3 hours around Mayfair  and the West End. Anyone who knows Mayfair, will guess that that nearly got me into an entirely other sort of trouble....

Back to the tea. The scones and that marriage of salted caramel and clotted cream were the highlight. And yes, they do serve some good finger sandwiches including a cucumber and Venezuelan chocolate offering as well as the more classic smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise and cress etc. But let's be honest, these are really just a formality to get us to the chocolate,caramel, cream etc.

This Chocolate Afternoon Tea is served in the serene and lovely Park Room across from Hyde Park, and is priced at £39.50 per person or £49.50 if you add a glass of champagne. I did. It relieved the guilt just a bit.

Carpo - Greeks bearing chocolate, coffee, nuts and honey make Piccadilly cosy

London thoroughfares don’t come much more distinguished than Piccadilly. Home to the Ritz, the Royal Academy, Fortnum and Maison’s  and the Burlington Arcade and breaking  out at its western edges  into the gentle green slopes of Green Park with Buckingham Palace visible through the trees. Piccadilly, the street not the Circus, has always been one of the favoured avenues to walk in the capital.

With great hotels, great art, the city’s finest department store and an elegant, historic shopping arcade, Piccadilly seemed to have it all. But, until recently, it could not lay any claim to cosiness or neighbourliness. Until Carpo arrived from Athens.  So who or what is Carpo? Well simply put,  Carpo sells nuts, chocolate, honey, coffee and  dried fruit in their lovely store close to the Meridien Hotel at number 16 Piccadilly. But that dry description does not do this delightful venue justice.

Already wildly popular in their home base in the Greek capital, this is Greece and the Mediterranean at its best.  This is the place to stop for a coffee or a tea with honey where you can escape the predictability of the coffee and sandwich chains nearby. There’s a toasty smell of roasting nuts wafting from the back of the store. A soundtrack of  jazz, Sinatra or Montand fills this big high-ceilinged space with its, slabs of chocolate, sacks of macadamias, walnuts, cashews, almonds and  mini-mountains of preserved fruits: figs, dates, confit lemons, goji berries- all reminding us that while Greece is in Europe, part of her will always face east to the Orient.  Elegantly decorated, warmly lit and with friendly Greek staff who will remember you after a visit or two, Carpo is a surprising and welcome  arrival that brings a human scale to the grand avenue that is Piccadilly.