Sunday 29 May 2011

Fennel, Felines, Frampton and Friendship

Comrade Kotsky, the cat of our Russian friends

Dinner guests are extraordinarily generous. Where nothing, beyond their excellent and entertaining company is required, they arrive at the hall door all too often bearing gifts of flowers in profusion, fine wines, wickedly luxurious chocolates and, on one occasion, much to our delight, a stuffed boar's head. Only last week Zoli and Viktor surprised us with a miniature herb garden, carefully and immaculately planted in a terracotta pan all ready to be placed on our outside walkway. Instant gardening, without work or worry!

the herb garden as glimpsed through the window of the Back Hall

In similar circumstances, no more than a week or so back, we became the happy recipients of Saul Frampton's latest book, 'When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?'. The title, as many of you will now have guessed, comes from the writings of that most splendid of Renaissance essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who, in 1570, gave up his work as a magistrate and retired in isolation to a tower of his chateau convinced that there was "no new pleasure to be gained by living longer".

Saul Frampton's book joins others on a table in the Main Hall

But, in this self-imposed solitariness, Montaigne comes to reject much of the thinking of the sixteenth century and embraces a philosophy where life is to be lived actively, rather than passively, and where, as he discovers, there is to be found a "power of the ordinary" and a "value of the here and now".

So, if we are to learn from Montaigne, as indeed we believe we must, then it is the everyday life which is what matters and which counts above all else. And this may be interpreted in all manner of ways: "the touch of a hand, the smell of a doublet, the flavour of wine, the playfulness of a cat", to draw on a few of Montaigne's own examples.

'When I am playing with my cat.....'

For each other, learning to live as we do with the uncertainty which leukaemia brings, the message of Montaigne, explored so delightfully by Saul Frampton, is one which we endorse wholeheartedly. And of everything, it is friends and friendship [with or without gifts] which we value most highly.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

New Look, Nouvelle Cuisine, a Dash of Art Nouveau

the entrance of the Savoy Hotel, London, as seen from inside

Emerald Cunard favoured the Dorchester where, indeed, she spent most of the war years. Ex King Constantine of Greece has made a favourite of Claridges. Each one of us has, of course, a preference where London hotels are concerned. For us it is the Savoy.

And so, a little over a week ago in the middle of May, we returned for the first time since the major refurbishment which, over the past couple of years, has necessitated the closure of the doors of this most iconic of hotels. At a cost reputed to be over £100 million, this has been one of the most ambitious of hotel restorations in British history.

Today the Savoy is a synthesis of past and present, of tradition and modernity, where Edwardian elegance at its grandest, combined with shades of Art Deco, meets most happily with cutting edge, twenty-first century design.

 looking towards the entrance from The Thames Foyer

We lunched at the best possible of tables in The River Restaurant directly overlooking the Thames. Booked by our Russian friends, who stipulate the finest of everything, we secretly wondered if, as with so many oligarchs from that most mysterious of countries, they were sounding out the hotel in readiness for a takeover. Nothing would surprise us with those two! Only time will tell!

the interior of The River Restaurant - later to be filled

Luncheon was delicious. Beautifully presented food, efficiently and professionally served, and accompanied with very fine wines.

a first course of duck breast
a seafood first course

a lime trian for pudding
a main course of lamb

And afterwards coffee, by which time as we left, the afternoon well advanced, within The Thames Foyer through which we passed, afternoon tea was well under way.

outside the Savoy Hotel - the only street in Britain where driving is on the right

But then, as we all know, the Ritz is the place for that!

Saturday 21 May 2011

In Praise of Dining Rooms

Forgive us if we appear a little outspoken. Certainly no rudeness is intended. Put simply, we do not 'do' kitchens. By that we mean we seldom enter the kitchen, have little idea how the oven may ignite, have no interest in what the cupboards and drawers may or may not contain, and NEVER consider for a second that we should eat breakfast, luncheon or dinner within its confines.

our housekeeper [and cook], Tímea, at the serving table in the dining room

If truth be told, Tímea, our long serving and splendid housekeeper [and cook], would neither approve of it, nor allow it. And that said, we are totally at a loss to understand the increasing number of people, many of our friends included, who prefer, or so they say, to eat in the kitchen.

Tímea at work in the kitchen preparing today's luncheon

Which brings us back to the subject in hand: the dining room. There is, we feel, much to be said in favour of a room which, in recent years, appears to be out of favour.

First, it permits an occasion of all meals, simple or elaborate. It provides for a relaxed atmosphere, away from the heat of the kitchen, where conversation is not in competition with cooking, and where dining is aloof from drudgery.

the dining room in readiness for today's small luncheon party

Secondly, the dining room, as other reception rooms of the house, can be both attractive and aesthetically pleasing. Who, we wonder, wishes to face the fridge, confront the cooker, or stare at the sink? Yes, and we are the first to admit this, that there are items of kitchen equipment that are of retro interest, such as an Aga, or in the vanguard of modern design, a Nespresso coffee machine, for example, but...............well, let us just say, they do not a dining room make!

the jib door into the kitchen ajar, and through which we are never to pass

Finally, there is, of course, the moment when, luncheon or dinner concluded, the table is left, and coffee is served, in the drawing room, the piano nobile, the sitting room, the living room, the lounge [but only in hotels and at airports] or wherever. Or is that in the kitchen too?

Tuesday 17 May 2011

And No Bird Sings

Such was the popularity of Potter's Museum in the small Sussex village of Bramber that, by the end of the nineteenth century, it became necessary to extend the platforms at the railway station in order to accommodate the longer trains required to carry the increasing number of visitors and day trippers. Less than a hundred years later, it was all but forgotten.

Born in 1835, Walter Potter spent much of his lifetime creating his museum of taxidermy. Built around his first major tableau of 'The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin' [now preserved in the Booth Museum of Natural History in Hove], Potter went on to create an extraordinary, if somewhat macabre, collection of tableaux in which not only birds but puppies, kittens, rats, rabbits, mice, et al featured in a series of scenes from grand weddings to tea parties, from schoolrooms to police raids, from croquet to cricket.

Today the collection is dispersed and we, certainly, have none of it. What we do have, and mostly dating from Victorian times, is a number of cases and glass shades housing specimens of birds, the smallest a canary

a shade containing a canary sits alongside other birds on a table in the drawing room

and the largest, which actually dates from the mid 1950s, a heron.

the heron at home in our Brighton 'rooms'

Exotic birds, from faraway places and warmer climes, have a place in the dining room where a large case of colourful specimens originating from, we are told, Australia sits

a colourful case of 'foreign' birds in the dining room

within calling distance of a parrot on the opposite side of the room, no doubt once a much loved companion.

a nineteenth century green parrot

Not to everyone's taste, these birds represent a time and a practice which has, very largely, disappeared into history. What was once considered as the height of fashion is now regarded, outside of a museum, with a degree of disdain.

an Edwardian pot plant stand holds a single shade in the drawing room

Rather than something we particularly espouse, they are but a small part of the eclectic mix with which we have furnished our homes. And having lived with them for so many years, we should not choose to be parted.

But just occasionally, as in remembering Potter's now far flung tableaux, we look at the lone seagull held captive in our Front Hall in landlocked Hungary and wonder,

a seagull alone in the Front Hall
Does he dream of seaweed and scavenging on some distant shore?

Wednesday 11 May 2011

When the Last All Clear is Sounded

Today we shall hang bunting from the balustrade, blow up balloons on the beach, and parade along the pier. No more, for the present at least, must we respond to the call of, "Lance Hattatt, this way, please," which has become for so long now a part of our daily lives.

Nearly nine months ago we faced a long and uncertain uphill road. Diagnosed with a very rare form of leukaemia, the future looked bleak, at best. Now, only hours ago, weeks of treatment over, the prognosis is good: no cure but full remission.

the facade of The Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton

To The Royal Sussex County Hospital, and particularly to the Oncology/Haematology Department, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. The level of care received has been exemplary, the professionalism from Consultant to cleaner beyond excellent. Brighton should be proud indeed of its medical services.

Built in 1828 The Royal Sussex County Hospital is distinguished on several counts. Designed by Charles Barry [1795 - 1860], later responsible for the Houses of Parliament, the original building, now woefully inadequate and disfigured, is named the Barry Building and is the frontage to much later C19 additions, including a Millennium Wing of 2000.

But the jewel in the crown must surely be the hospital Chapel where, each Sunday when in Brighton, we attend morning services.

the interior of the Chapel in The Royal Sussex County Hospital

Later than the Barry Building this appendix, for it is an awkward and precarious addition, is by the architect William Hallett and dates from 1856.

the roof lantern in part

Lit by a roof lantern the finely panelled walls glow with a seasoned warmth in the sunshine. Victorian stained glass reflects colour onto the marble chequered floor, whilst memorial tablets to former staff and patients recall a history of more than a hundred and fifty years.

a stained glass window depicting Christ the Healer

And now the hospital looks to a major rebuild at a projected cost of £400 million. Plans submitted to date will see the demolition of all of Barry's work as well as the Grade II listed Chapel. Protests at this act of vandalism are few, and largely go unheard.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Three Lines Make a Triangle

'Hove Villa' - 1909 Lines Bros. Ltd. dolls' house

Call us, if you must, Peter Pan. Or, simply, if you wish, Kiddies at heart. Or, believe us to have been deprived as children. But, whatever, neither of us, and not out of lack of want, ever owned a dolls' house. That is, until now.

Purchased privately, and delivered to the door, the latest addition to our Brighton 'rooms' is a 1909 Lines Bros. dolls' house complete with window glass, period fireplaces and original 'brick' paper. Hove Villa, as we have named it [Kemp Town, where we are,  not having quite the same ring] is of very good provenance.

the interior of 'Hove Villa'

G. and J. Lines Ltd. began the manufacture of children's toys in or around 1876. By the end of the Great War in 1918 the second generation of three brothers, then named Lines Bros. Ltd., developed the brand 'Triang', the success of which resulted in their becoming in the 1930s the largest producers of children's toys in the world. Deemed neither a protected nor an essential industry during the 1939 - 1945 War, when the factory concentrated on the making of machine guns, production declined in the years thereafter and by 1971 'Triang' had finally closed its doors, calling in the Official Receiver.

interior view of the kitchen at 'Hove Villa'

And that could well be the end of the story. But not quite for our friend, Jeremy, now over 80 years is, intriguingly, the surviving grandson of one of the original company founders. Following a working life of designing yachts for the boat builders, Camper Nicholson, grown up toys here, he is nowadays most often to be found aboard his own boat sailing the Solent.

a Lines Bros. Ltd advertisement of 1923

Meanwhile, on shore in the Never Never Land, the hunt for furniture is on!