Entries Tagged as 'Europe'

There is no ham at Ham House



The number of people who asked me if there was “ham” at Ham House was borderline shocking. I’ve discovered the true depth of love my friends have for bacon.

During my visit to Strawberry Hill House, one of the guides recommended I venture down the river to Richmond. From there, it is a lovely walk down the Thames Path to Ham House, a remarkable survivor built in 1610. The house was destined for William Murray, the 1st Earl of Dysart and a whipping boy for Charles I. Being a whipping boy was, in my book, the equivalent to drawing the short stick in life… kings could not be physically punished so if the king misbehaved, the “whipping boy” was whipped in his place. Despite all that, the two boys grew up to be friends and Charles gave Ham House to William as a present in 1626.

William was not to live there long however as Civil War broke out in 1642 and he was called away to rally for the Royalists. He transferred ownership of the house over to his wife and four daughters. The house was sequestered during the war, but Catherine managed to hold onto it by paying a fine of £500. She also shrewdly navigated Cromwell’s Commonwealth, despite having the lands officially sold off by Parliament, and the family was allowed to stay in the house.  Upon her death shortly after the execution of Charles I, her daughter Elizabeth and her husband Lionel took ownership of the house. Elizabeth had 11 children – but only 5 lived to adulthood. During Elizabeth’s second marriage to powerful Duke of Lauderdale, they extensively refurbished the house, collecting items from all over the world. Unlike many historic houses, Ham House is still filled with furnishings either of the day, or those that reflect the style of the times. She built one of the first proper bathrooms in England – at time when regular bathing was only just becoming advised…

Her daughter, also named Elizabeth, eventually took over the house but her husband’s debts would diminish both her and future generations’ ability to expand and care for the house. It stayed in the family for nearly 300 years, but was rarely a principle residence for them, before being passed onto the National Trust in the 1940s.

It has since served as the set for quite a few movies (including The Young Victoria and Anna Karinina) and there is an interesting room at the end of the tour which explains how important the film industry is for such houses. The fees the film companies pay to use the houses are often indispensable for their care and upkeep. (Just ask the owners of Highclere Castle & the Downton Abbey crew…)

I personally came out of my visit to Ham House very grateful that I wasn’t around in the 1700s. The house was an interesting mix of quite dark and very overdecorated. But that also made it fascinating – a step back into the past.

Things to watch out for when you visit: the Green Room filled with miniatures (ask the guardian for the stories behind some of them), the library (not the original collection, but an amazing one none-the-less) an early English bathroom, the tiny rooms where the Duchess spent most of her time and the wood-paneled room where food was assembled once it was brought up from the kitchens.

The house is only open from 12-16:00 but spend the rest of the time wandering around the lovely Richmond area. More details here.

The best Eton Mess in London



Full disclosure: I have only had Eton Mess – that quintessential English dessert that looks like a chef went finger painting in a kitchen with some strawberries, cream and crushed meringue – a few times.

But I may have just fallen in love. With the Eton Mess at Bob Bob Ricard in Soho.

My dinner buddy and I were talking about the differences in dining in a city like London compared to smaller European cities like Brussels. Brussels has wonderful, affordable restaurants with great food from all over the world (ahem…except for Mexican – I will continue to gripe until it gets some.) But London has a dining experience factor that is hard to rival. The decor, the presentation, the little gimmicks, the service can be incredible.

And that’s what it was like walking into Bob Bob Ricard. The staff looked like they belonged in a Wes Anderson film. The cocktails were perfectly mixed and presented with a flourish. The menu was supposed to straddle luxury English & Russian cuisine (I don’t even know what that means… I did see lobster macaroni & cheese on the menu however which I don’t really consider to be either).

But then… the Eton Mess came out.

OK, this is isn’t a picture of the Eton Mess. But it is very similar! Eton Mess usually looks (fittingly) like a mess. This was gorgeous. A pinkish ball perfectly placed in the centre of the plate, with little strawberry cubes and tiny fresh mint leaves scattered across the plate. They pour a strawberry and cream sauce over the top. And when you crack it open, whipped cream, mixed bits of fruit and sorbet are waiting for you on the inside. It was heavenly.

I’d heard of Bob Bob Ricard before because the booths have little buttons in them where you can press a button for champagne. Due to an early start the next morning I couldn’t take advantage, but I can attest to the fact they make a mean Black Cherry Amaretto Sour…

To be repeated.

Photography by Paul Winch-Furness for Bob Bob Ricard.

Strawberry Hill House



When I was little, my best friend and I used to sneak into construction sites in new housing developments and imagine what we would do with the houses if they were ours. This should explain a lot about the next few posts where I obsess over historic English Country Houses.

Over the last few weekends, I’ve embarked on a tour of estates that are easily reachable from London (and open – seeing as most large estates are closed over the winter months until March 29th). The first of these was Strawberry Hill House (it was the name… how can you not want to explore a place called Strawberry Hill?)

I took the train from Waterloo down to Strawberry Hill and exited into what looked like suburban London (just outside Twickenham to be precise). After navigating a few tree-lined streets of brick houses – I had obviously found the place. It never fails to surprise me how some European landmarks have stood the test of time as the world grows up literally all around them. This was certainly one of those cases.

The story behind the house involves an English Prime Minister’s son and his fondness for Gothic architecture. Horace Walpole, a bit annoyed at modern trends having strayed away from the gothic style, set about rebuilding a house on the sight in 1749 and continued changes until 1776. He used the house as a sort of treasure trove for objects he collected over 4 years of travel across Europe and wanted the rooms to change along with the feeling for the objects he brought back.

I usually like to wander around a site and take it all in for myself. I have a tendency to avoid tour guides. Maybe its that I’m getting a bit older or maybe its a bit of English charm, but in the UK, I am loving stories guides have to tell in places like this. And Strawberry Hill honestly has some of the best. Every room had a guide with an additional story to tell and a flair for telling it.

My favorite tale was that one of the maids of the House figured out that she could earn a little extra money by charging interested tourists who wanted to see the house for little glimpses inside. It got so popular at one stage that items were being stolen or broken. Walpole eventually found out and decided to open the house regularly to the public, even writing an extensive guide book to the collections to be found inside. But the smart man had a plan. He purchased a smaller house across the street and would escape there when the crowds came – so he could watch the circus at his house go by in peace and quiet.

True story, I had such a lovely time listening to the stories at Strawberry Hill that I didn’t even make it to the last wing of the house (I entered quite late in the afternoon, but still.) A bomb apparently fell on the house during the War – did not get to see the room where that happened. And I wanted to hear more about Walpole’s collections – many of which are apparently now in the V&A.

I got one recommendation from a guide – so well embellished – that it determined my following day’s activity: a trip to Richmond and a visit to Ham House. Next time on the blog.

Strawberry Hill House is open March 1 – November 9th but is regularly hired out for weddings and special occasions.

Check out their website before you go to be safe.

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