Strawberry Hill House

12

28.3.14

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

14

17.3.14

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 :) 

Fighting the Monday blues. With tea

4

10.3.14

Mondays are funny, fickle things. You either love them or hate them. They can be a source of anxiety or a reassuring fresh start.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from last Monday. I knew a manic work-week was ahead but I was (somewhat) prepared for it. The weather was completely unpredictable. And I had been invited to an event I oddly didn’t know how to describe: the “Science Tea” at The Ampersand Hotel.

I already had a bit of a crush on The Ampersand, which in pictures looked to be something of an interior designer’s dream (just look at what you can find on Pinterest.) And such was the scene when myself and 15 other bloggers invaded The Ampersand last week.

I say invaded as I sometimes think this is how a hotel has to feel – it is a happy, giddy sort of invasion, but we do tend to start taking pictures of EVERYTHING and talk about EVERYTHING. (Many of us noticing how much more comforting it was to review something in this kind of setting rather than with a loved one begging us to stop taking pictures of their food so they can finally eat it…)

I can honestly say I look forward to going back to the Ampersand on one of those indulgent weekends when I have a friend in town and we need a break from exploring the V&A or the Science Museum – just a five minute walk down the road.

The tea room is colourful and peaceful at the same time – you kind of naturally exhale when you walk in. A beautiful buffet of sweets and shiny coffee machines line one wall and amusing portraits line the others (my favourite being the giraffe and the champagne glass).

And then we sat down:

Sandwiches: Gloucester old spot ham, sauce gribiche; H. Forman & Son London smoked salmon, dill & cream cheese; Coronation chicken; Cheese with fruit chutney

Scones: Homemade white chocolate scones served withDevonshire clotted cream and homemade strawberry preserve

Pastries: Hazelnut, walnut and chocolate cake with mango mousse volcano and Chocolate dinosaur; Pistachio macaroon with cherry sauce pipette; Raspberry cake planet; Citrus cocktail in a beaker

The sandwiches were delicious and light as a feather. I discovered that all scones should have chocolate as a key ingredient. And just to hit that last point home again, I ate so many scones that I had a hard time getting through the main event.

The staff came around with watering cans which set dry ice floating along the top layer of pastries. The moment reminded me of when my grandparents took me to The Plaza when I was little… that feeling that you are a bit special, rather lucky and maybe just a bit spoiled to there……which sounds precisely like what an Afternoon Tea on what might-otherwise-be-a-rather-dull-Monday should be.

The Science Tea runs through March 21st.  But if I were you, I would also keep an eye out for what The Ampersand comes up with next…

The group was invited to The Ampersand to review the Science Tea. Many many thanks to the lovely Selena for inviting me to join – you can take a look at her take on that lovely Monday outing here.

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