Entries Tagged as 'Travel'

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.

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.

Life on a roller coaster



This post is a hard one. As much fun as it can be, being an expat is hard and eventually, a moment will come when you question your decision to move abroad. Its a moment I often think only other expats understand. Little day-to-day things can quickly become an enormous challenge. Tiny insignificant things can be fascinating. You can feel incredibly energized (see: sunny Saturday mornings) and incredibly drained (see: rainy Tuesday evenings). Some friendships are strained or others are surprisingly strengthened. Your view on the world shifts slightly – hard to say for the better or the worse. And it is strange to feel oddly empowered by new possibilities but equally weakened by a lack of familiarity.

All this to say, its been a really hard last few weeks. I angry-ate a burrito last week (it involves shoving Mexican food as quickly as possible into your mouth in an attempt to alleviate aggression – just ask any North American.) Its easier on weekdays when you can throw yourself into work but as the weekend creeps up, that pesky tendency to over-think things often arrives with it…

The good news is: London is full of distractions. And I have been taking advantage.

As such I present you: an expat London weekend survival guide.

Friday evening: Hit a museum.

So many museums stay open late on a Friday evening and while much of the city is out fine dining, you can wander the halls of history in relative calm away from the crowds. Any worries are put into some calming perspective when you stare at an ancient mummy (British Museum) or look at the wooden frame of one of the last houses to survive the Great Fire of London of 1666 (V&A – cafe pictured above).

Saturday: Head out to the countryside.

A dear friend invited me away from the big city and the sunshine accompanied me. We toured the grounds of a property fit for Jane Austen (many of whose characters’ emotions seemed to echo my own), dared to forge flooded roads, had a proper pub lunch and went shopping in an adorable little village. The day ended with a cup of tea, a deer sighting and conversation by an open fire. It could not have been more cathartic. Sometimes the best way to reassure yourself you love a new city is to get out of it, breathe some fresh air and come back.

Sunday: Brunch. A stroll. Bookstores. Waitrose. And a show.

Highly recommended that the brunch involve one of the world’s sweetest friends and copious amount of pancakes. Pancakes will heal many wounds simply through caloric intake. And then convince you to get out for a walk. In my case – and thanks to a Tube breakdown – this happened to take place in Marylebone (pictured above).

It was here that I stumbled on what might be my new favorite location (rated by The Guardian as one of the 10 most peaceful locations in London): Daunt Books.

There are a few Daunt locations in London but I could have easily spent all day in the back room of this one, with its double story wooden bookcases and an older gentleman quietly reading in the middle of the room in a huge wicker chair. He was completely oblivious to people milling about and chatting around him. I was so thrilled with my find, I only took a picture on Instagram.

Then I raided a Waitrose grocery store and bought my weight in nicely packaged houmous…

To round out the weekend, I can only recommend not to sit still on a Sunday night. I was lucky enough to catch the final performance of Fuerzabruta at the Roundhouse. I wish I could describe it, but truth be told, the fact that no one could really explain it to me beforehand (but all raved about it) is precisely what made me want to go in the first place. Its like an odd/beautiful performance art piece, Brazilian carnival, interactive aquatics, prankster-theatre-in-the-round, and amazingly-staged party. I hope you can catch it at some point as it continues to make its rounds around the world.

So there you have it – how to fight the expat blues, should they ever strike you in London.

Quite simply: get out there.

*In retrospect, you may realize afterwards that this is a very busy weekend and that you should have rested a bit. Either way, it was still worth it :) 

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