England became a unified state in AD 927 and, since the 15th century, has had a significant impact on the wider world, developing the English language, the Anglican Church, and English law – the basis for the common law legal systems of many other countries around the world. Its beautiful and varied countryside is interspersed with quaint villages and cosmopolitan cities including the capital, London.
The name "England" is derived from the Old English name Engla land, which means "land of the Angles". The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that settled in Great Britain during the Early Middle Ages.
Knightsbridge and Belgravia – London Insider’s Guide
“Guests want three things: a big smile at the door, comfy beds and fluffy towels,” says Kate Levin of The Capital and Levin Hotels in London’s Knightsbridge. And an award-winning restaurant can be quite welcome, too.
My research led me to a couple of Knightsbridge gems. Discreetly tucked away in a small street next to Harrods, two of London’s most charming hotels: the tiny 12-room Levin and, next door, its sister hotel, the 49-room, award-winning The Capital are both owned by hotelier-wine grower David Levin.
The Levin, which opened three years’ ago, is like a private townhouse inside. My guide Melanie points out the Penguin Classics library in the eau-de-nil painted foyer. Guests can choose from 500 titles while sipping a drink from the Honesty Bar. “Each room has a champagne bar. This is for guests who don’t like champagne,” she explains. There are three rooms to each floor, with earthy brown and deep red upholstery in tweeds and velvets against silvery flowered wallpaper. All the windows open and there are views of Knightsbridge’s Victorian mews. Downstairs, the Levin’s brasserie restaurant Le Metro serves seasonal dishes with Levin Loire Valley wines. “But if the weather’s nice, we can provide a picnic hamper to take to Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens,” revealed Melanie. Or for a really romantic outing, the hotel provides horse, carriage, butler and luxury hamper.
Next door, The Capital celebrates its 40th birthday. I’m greeted by Clive, the smiling concierge who will go jogging in Hyde Park with me, if I don’t want to go alone. The Levins really do think of everything. The foyer here is in peach pink and has an open fire for chilly days. “We wanted a country house atmosphere,” says Kate, David Levin’s friendly daughter and hotel manager. “My father says that guests want three things: a big smile at the door, comfy beds and fluffy towels. People feel so relaxed, one guest even leaves his washbag here! My godparents started off as guests who kept returning.” They’ve certainly got it right, the hotel has won two prestigious awards and the restaurant has two Michelin stars.
Remodelled from mostly Edwardian beginnings, each floor has different décor in warm colours with antique-style furniture. But The Capital also has a secret. During rebuilding, David Levin discovered an early Victorian set of rooms round a circular hall, complete with domed ceiling and columns, tucked away inside. “We’ve been told it was once a small hotel,” said Kate Levin. Now listed and perfectly restored, these are now Deluxe Rooms. I loved the blue and white decor against antique furniture, oil paintings and prints.
But you couldn’t come to The Capital without trying the restaurant, now under the care of top chef, Dieppe-born Jérôme Ponchelle – previously with Wilton’s restaurant. My friend and I enjoy barman Cesar’s famous Bellini in the comfy bar and then move into the peaceful dining room. Decor is relaxing: soft blue curtains, grey carpet. There are fresh roses on our table.
We begin with an appetizer of light chestnut foam and then I choose an inspired smoke haddock Carpaccio – thinnest slices served with a tiny boiled egg, rosti and frisee salad. My companion has delicious terrine of duck, pork and foie gras. Next come roast partridge with Savoy cabbage and grilled wild turbot with sauce Bearnaise, both served with baby vegetables. Charles, our knowledgeable sommelier looks after us, suggesting citrusy Puligny Montrachet, and a fruity red Ampelida, from Pays de la Vienne. Our waiter Alesso spoils us with six different cheeses, including the more-ish Fleur de Maquis from Corsica. But dessert is sheer indulgence. We couldn’t miss the prune tart soufflé with Armagnac ice cream or the Poached Pear with crème brulee and pain d’epice. A tiny glass of Pacherenc du Vic Bilh rounds off a truly memorable – and pampering – meal!
The Capital (5-star), tel: (020) 7589 5171. The Levin (4-star), tel: (020) 7589 6286. Basil Street, London SW3. Report by Pat Moore.
Hooray Henley at Hotel du Vin
Whether you are looking for a riverside retreat from which to enjoy the annual Henley Royal Regatta, or just a weekend break in this picturesque pocket of Oxfordshire, Hotel du Vin Henley-on-Thames fits the bill. Laura Latham reports…
The first time you see the beautiful Georgian townhouse that fronts Hotel du Vin on Henley’s New Street, you know you’re in for a treat. The entrance to the hotel is via a quaint courtyard, while inside is sparsely furnished with bare floorboards and reassuringly solid wooden counters. If it wasn’t for the receptionist asking about wake-up calls and valet parking, you might think you’d stepped back 200 years.
Hotel du Vin may be one of Britain’s best known hospitality brands but there is nothing standard about the company’s outlet in Henley-on-Thames. Located 50 yards from the river, at the heart of one of Britain’s most picturesque towns, the hotel is stylish yet comfortable, historic while offering the best in contemporary service.
The main part of the hotel is formed by the large industrial red-brick building that was once the famous Brakspear brewery, established by the family of the same name in 1812. Despite extensive renovation the building has retained most of its original character and the designers have done an amazing job of converting the former malt house and fermentation rooms into a chic luxury hotel with 43 rooms, three function suites and French-style bistro.
A peek at the rooms reveals a mix of classic and industrial architecture, with quirky features such as ironwork stairways and high-arched windows. “It is all very simple but at the same time has a lot of character,” says reception manager Lavinia Petru.
No two rooms are the same, yet all are spacious, airy and well designed. Standard rooms are priced from £145 per night and offer queen-sized beds and a bathtub with shower, while superior rooms and suites start at £195 and have king-size beds, rolltop baths and separate wet rooms. All rooms have large TVs, CD and DVD players and there is internet access for anyone who would rather work than explore the delights of Henley.
For sheer wow factor book into one of three river-view suites, which overlook the Thames and have vast living areas and bathtubs on the balconies. All rooms are named after wines, Dom Perignon is a duplex-style suite built into the former fermentation tower, while La Grand Dame has adjoining bathtubs, ideal for those who hate to bathe alone. These suites are, understandably, popular with honeymooners, though Lavinia lets on that during July’s Regatta week they tend to get booked up well in advance by people planning to party.
The cute courtyard studios are housed in a separate block of original outbuildings and have crooked stairways and sloping ceilings. My room was Taylor’s Port, which is large and open plan with a roll top bath taking centre stage. It also had a broken blind but a phone call to reception brought a member of the maintenance crew to fix it in less than five minutes.
The hotel bistro is popular with Henley residents as well as hotel guests and justifiably so, though you’ll find it hard to escape the feeling that you’re in France rather than Oxfordshire. The décor feels authentically Parisienne, though the menu is a mix of European dishes that includes good British fare, fish and one of the best selections for vegetarians I’ve seen in a long time.
Starters of aubergine parmigiano steeped in a hearty tomato sauce and a perfect beef carpaccio were filling without being heavy going. These were followed by a winter salad of squash, dolcelatte cheese and honeyed pecans and a dish of red mullet with blue truffled potato, an unusual accompaniment that turned out to be delicious. Make sure you arrive here with an appetite as portions are large.
When it comes to dessert, don’t make the mistake I did and
opt immediately for one of the puds on the menu. Not that my fig-and-almond tart wasn’t delicious, it absolutely was and so was my companion’s traditional plum pudding. But, while we were polishing them off, the cheese board was being presented to the couple at the next table. It offered such a wide and delicious range of UK and French cheeses that I’m ashamed to say I begged to be allowed a plate as well and it was well worth the extra calories.
One can’t stay at a Hotel du Vin and not sample their wines and the cellar here is extensive and evenly spread over European, Antipodean and South American varieties. If you’re having trouble choosing, the restaurant sommelier will be happy to give advice or select something for you and if you want private wine tastings then that can be arranged too.
Extras, for guests who want to live the high life, include a cigar humidor, with a world-class selection of smokes, and a private 12-seater motor launch for those who really want to push the boat out. During Regatta week the hotel will also put together hampers for those picnicking on the banks of the Thames, complete with champagne, canapés and, naturally, Pimms.
Hotel du Vin may have made its name by providing quality accommodation and fine dining but it is the people working here that complete the package. Yes, the location is stunning, the building is a haven of well-designed comfort and the food is amazing but the helpful and friendly staff make the place tick over so well.
French style and ambience in a historic and beautiful British setting, what more could you want?
Hotel du Vin, New Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon RG9 2BP. Tel: (01491) 848400; www.hotelduvin.com
One Lombard Street: Eat, drink and be merry in the City
ONE LOMBARD STREET restaurant in the City of London, with its Michelin star and dramatic former banking hall interior, tickles our editor’s tastebuds with its Festive Season menu.
Much as I adore the traditional Christmas meal, it can be overwhelming, so it was with great delight that I found that the Michelin-star One Lombard Street restaurant, in the City of London, is offering a special Festive Season dinner menu. My tastebuds were suitably amused by the celeriac and apple veloute with warm truffle oil. Then came the starter, a delicious warm salad of caramelised scallop and John Dory, Jerusalem artichoke and pomegranate seeds, ginger, curry and lime vinaigrette. Don’t think curry, think delicate flavours that enhance and don’t overwhelm the seafood. As a nice change from turkey, the more traditional goose followed: a confit with seared foie gras and stuffing, glazed winter vegetables and chestnuts, black winter truffle sauce. Seriously tasty. Followed by a palette cleansing clementine and mint granita. Normally the thought of Christmas pud in any form is too much for all but the most ardent Christmas foodie at this stage of a Christmas dinner but, because of the perfectly sized portions so far, we’re still up for it and the Christmas pudding souffle, vanilla ice cream, brandy butter makes the perfect conclusion to this delicious meal.
This former banking hall, right across from Bank underground station in the City, has a fabulous grade II listed neo-classical interior, with domed skylights by Pietro Agostini, under which is a circular bar. There’s a brasserie in the main banking hall and a separate, more formal restaurant at the back. If you’ve got any space in your festive season diary or are visiting London for Christmas shopping (and fitting in a visit to the nearby Tower of London, too), One Lombard Street’s Michelin-style Christmas cuisine, with its more delicate portions, is definitely the way forward. Tel: (020) 7929 6611.
Sir Richard Branson joins with RAF Museum London to honour Battle of Britain hero
IN THE YEAR of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Sir Richard Branson narrates the podcast on Battle of Britain ace Douglas Bader, on the centenary of the pilot’s birthday.
ON THE 70TH anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the centenary of the birth of former Battle of Britain pilot, Douglas Bader, RAF Museum London’s February podcast is narrated by aviation entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
The podcast was commissioned to mark the centenary of Bader’s birth on 21st February 2010 and forms part of the museum’s commemoration of the former Battle of Britain pilot. It examines the life of Douglas Bader from his near fatal air crash in 1931 – with the loss of both his legs at the knee – through his Second World War service as one of the highest scoring aces in the Battle of Britain and his subsequent efforts to escape from German captivity after being shot down and captured in August 1941.
To listen to the podcast, visit www.rafmuseum.org/podcasts.
There’s also a small exhibition, running to 31 March, of Bader artifacts, including his log book and, of course, you can visit the Battle of Britain Hall at Hendon, which has a large collection of aircraft that fought in the world’s first decisive air battle.
On a lighter note, the RAF Museum also featured in the last series of Strictly Come Dancing (BBC Worldwide’s hit ballroom dance competition also shown as Dancing with the Stars) in a segment where the Lindy Hop was demonstrated. The routine, named after Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic Crossing in 1927, was danced by Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas, resident dancers of the show, at the museum. The Lindy Hop was one of the four dances that the two couples, Chris Hollins and Ola Jordan, and Ricky Whittle and Natalie Lowe, tackled in the final episode, before Jordan and Hollins went on to scoop the trophy.
The RAF Museum London is based on the site of the former Hendon aerodrome and displays 100s of historic aircraft. It has a sister museum at Cosford in Shropshire, which houses many more aircraft and is also home of the National Cold War Exhibition – a fascinating place to learn more about the decades following the Second World War. For information on both museums, go to www.rafmuseum.org.uk.
The Duchess of Cornwall goes back to school
THE DUCHESS of Cornwall was greeted by flagwaving when she visited Westonbirt’s new school for its official opening. She also toured the gardens which are being restored by the Holford Trust.
THE WESTONBIRT ESTATE in Gloucestershire, home of the National Arboretum, received a royal visitor recently. Staff and pupils of Rose Hill Westonbirt School, now open on the Gloucestershire estate, welcomed the Duchess of Cornwall to the new school for its official opening on 30 November. Her Royal Highness toured the campus, meeting the pupils and teachers, then was taken to see the Italian Garden and the Camellia House, which are being restored by the Holford Trust and which can be visited by the public on special heritage tours.
There she was entertained by the school choir, before unveiling a plaque in the Palm House. The new school is just part of the estate around Westonbirt House in Gloucestershire, which is also home to the famous National Arboretum.
Christmas Time-Travelling at the Geffrye Museum
DISCOVER HOW Christmas was celebrated in the English home over the centuries from 1600 to the present day at the Geffrye Museum.
|Christmas in 1935, photo by Steve Speller|
A NOSTALGIC exhibition called Christmas Past, running to 3 January, takes visitors time-travelling through London’s Geffrye Museum. Eleven period living rooms – which show middle-class taste from 1600 to the present day – are decorated in authentic seasonal style. The journey begins in the oak-panelled 1630′s hall, where sweet-smelling greenery entices guests towards delicious sweetmeats like marchpane (a kind of marzipan) decorated with gold leaf. Sugar is expensive, but for these festivities, it’s been made into amusing imitations of dishes like egg and bacon! Family and friends will eat hugely in the early 19th century, too, but a highlight of Regency festivities is the Twelfth Night cake. Diners who find a hidden bean or dried pea in their slice are ceremoniously crowned King and Queen with gold paper coronets. Royalty also influences the Victorian Christmas. From the 1850s, Christmas without Prince Albert’s favourite decorated tree is unthinkable. Beautiful glass ornaments and (then) real candles make it magical. It is also the first time children take part in the celebrations, so there are toys galore in this room set.
|Christmas in 1870, photo by Jayne Lloyd|
It’s all a huge contrast to the cool cocktail party of the l930s, laid out with frightfully smart canapés and special cocktail sticks to stir your gin sling! In contrast, the 1965 room has fashionable Scandinavian-style furniture. Here are tasteful garlands and a smart table decoration of holly and ultra thin red candles in a blue bowl. The children wanted the new – and expensive – plastic toys, but are given a wooden train set and jigsaws instead. Christmas Past is a fascinating festive stroll through domestic history.
Geffrye Museum’ London, (in the former Ironmongers’ Company almshouses), Kingsland Road, London E2; tel: (020) 7739 9893; www.geffrye-museum.org.uk.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard celebrates the 10th birthday of Victorian Festival of Christmas
This year it’s the 10th year that Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is staging its Victorian Christmas festival, with a host of Victorian characters and entertainment and a huge Christmas market.
Step back in time to enjoy Christmas in Victorian times, with a Victorian Father Christmas – decked out in a traditional green outfit in his grotto on HMS Warrior (which dates from 1860).
This year there’s also an exhibition with Father Christmas models and toys on display in Portsmouth, Hampshire.
In the Victorian Street, there’ll be music and actors, traditional funfair rides and a nativity farm (with animals).
In Fagin’s Tavern you can enjoy a drink and a sing-a-long, then head for Actions Stations which is transformed into Theatre Victoriana.
Queen Victoria pays a visit in her beautiful horse drawn carriage, accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown and the Fort Cumberland Guard. And there’s even a Victorian schoolroom where you’d better be on your best behaviour for the strict teacher, Mr Bumbury.
Each day, there’s a parade of all the festival characters leading to a carol concert alongside HMS Victory.
Entrance tickets also include admission to the attractions of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard; HMS Victory, Royal Naval Museum, HMS Warrior 1860, Mary Rose Museum and Action Stations. Tel: (023) 9283 9766; www.historicdockyard.co.uk.