Monday, July 20, 2015

Hovering Around Hampstead: Kenwood House, Serpentine Pavilion, Dinner with London Friend

Wednesday, July 15, 2015:
Hovering Around Hampstead—and Back in London again!

            We awoke to the knowledge that it is July 15 and my brother Russel’s birthday. We started our day with a call to him—for I had also purchased a Lebara SIM card as the O2 Big Bundle plan that came with my new British cell phone did not permit international calling. Although it was almost mid-day in Bombay, India, where Russel is based, he was delighted to hear from us and the call gives us the opportunity also to speak to my Dad.

Breakfast with Another Friend in Hampstead:

But we have a very early start as it will take us about an hour on the Tube to get to Hampstead, a lovely little village on the outskirts of London, where we have plans to breakfast with our friend Marilyn Rixhon who suggested we meet her at White and Ginger, a snazzy coffee shop not far from the Tube station. We leave our flat at 8. 30 and hop into the Tube to Hampstead.

I am always charmed by this part of London which happens to be one of my favorites. Walking through its leafy streets is a simple treat—a little village right in the heart of the city. Taking in its grand mansions, its spruce gardens, walking on its Heath, climbing Parliament Hill for unrivalled views of the city are some of its selling points. Visiting its national properties open to the public such as Keats’ House, Fenton House, 2 Willow Road (home of architect Erno Goldfinger) have brought me to this part of London many times over and it is always with renewed delight that I discover something new and wonderful about it. It was on Church Lane in Hampstead, home of a weekly antiques market, that I found the lovely dropdown antique desk that I had shipped back to the States when my working stint in London had come to an end. I use the desk daily and always marvel at its acorn-shaped drawer pulls and the Tudor linen-fold panel decoration that I adore. This time, since Llew is with me, it is unlikely we will have the leisure to wander aimlessly in the area as I often do when I am alone. Furthermore, it is drizzling and chilly—not ideal walking weather. In fact, it might be a good day to lose oneself in a museum and my mind begins to explore other possibilities since we are in the Hampstead neck of the London woods.  

 It is just 9. 15 am when we walk into White and Ginger at precisely the same time that Marilyn arrives there too. We have an affectionate reunion. I had made friends with her when I had lived in London and it is an association I cherish and nurture by email and regular visits on my forays into the city. Marilyn is a Swiss woman married to a Belgian and has lived in London for a couple of decades. Getting together with her is an opportunity to chat about all sorts of things—our daughters (she has Emma-Louise, now an Art History major at the University of London), our work, our pursuits, our love of travel, etc. We order breakfast: it is Ham and Cheese Croissants with Hot Chocolate for Llew and me and Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon on Toast for her. The coffee shop is full of wealthy and pretty North London housewives married to physicians and financial whizzes who have seen their kids off on the school bus and are now getting together for a gossip session before going home to their chores. Our hour or so passes quickly and Marilyn, who has just returned from her yoga class, is headed to a work appointment. She has treated us to breakfast and we are thrilled to have had the time with her on a busy travel schedule for us and a busy work day for her. We say goodbye regretfully but I know I will see her again for our paths cross frequently.

Exploring Recently-Renovated Kenwood House:

            It was my plan that I should introduce Llew to Kenwood House, a grand mansion designed by the 18th century architect Robert Adams, not too far from Hampstead High Street. The drizzle continues unabated and it is wet and grey—the perfect day to spend indoors inspecting a world-class manor and enjoying its world-class art collection. Llew is willing when I explain the plan of action. He has never been to Kenwood while I have been there often. It was closed for a long while as it underwent renovation—and now that it has reopened, I too am keen to see what changes have been wrought.

            We take the 268 Bus from the High Street and three stops later change to the 210 bus headed to Finsbury Park. It stops right outside Kenwood House which makes it very convenient for those attempting to get there by public transport (this is not the case with many country manors in the UK which are usually located in the middle of nowhere). Llew is repeatedly struck by the assurance with which I use public transport and find my way around this city and its outskirts.  

            We cross the street, enter Kenwood House, and are greeted by volunteers in the lovely Robert Adams’ foyer that is done in the style of Josiah Wedgwood’s Jasperware: think pale matt shades such as pink, blue and lavender with embossed white motifs all over. We have all seen ceramic bowls, plates and teacups in this design. Now imagine the same aesthetic transferred to the walls and ceiling of a country home and you can guess how stunning the effect can be. Robert Adams created and popularized this look by using Plaster of Paris to cast the various rondels and other decoration that would adorn the homes he designed. The Library is the piece de resistance in this home—it is the one room that was most affected by the renovation. The excessive gilding that had been added later in the Victorian Age was painted over as it was not part of Adams’ original conception. The room looks far more subdued today. Ceiling paintings by Antonio Zucci bring it the only bright spots of color. There are mirrors, chandeliers, a marble fireplace and mantelpiece and period furniture that are not original to the home. The home was built for Lord Mansfield and was later purchased by the Irish aristocrat, Lord Iveagh (pronounced Ivor), heir to the Guinness Brewery fortune.

            Our exploration of the art work then follows as we enter the huge Dining Room where many of the masterpieces in the collection are to be found: Jan Vermeer’s The Guitar Player, for instance, is a huge draw. One of Rembrandt’s last self-portraits stunningly occupies one wall. There are important portraits by Gainsborough, Franz Hals, Van Dyke, Thomas Lawrence’s charming portrayal of Miss Murray, loads of works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, even John Singer Sargent. We move from room to room admiring these works and chatting with the guides in each room who are exceedingly knowledgeable about the rooms and their decoration. Lord Iveagh amassed the small but exquisite art collection that he bequeathed to Great Britain in his will as he wanted the general public to be able to enjoy Art free of charge in a house he loved. Hence, entrance to Kenwood House does not cost the visitor anything. When we climb the stairs to the second floor, we find more portraits from the Tudor period to the 18th century. There is so much to see, so much to read, for the exhibits are well-curated. When we have spent over two hours in this lovely home, we get ready for our 1.30 meeting with my relative, Joel, at Shepherd’s Bush in the Westfield Mall.

            Thankfully, it has stopped raining and the skies are brightening up miraculously. The sun quickly dries up pools of water that have accumulated everywhere but the rain has left a residual freshness that adds to the purity of the air. We do not have the time to walk on the Heath, but head straight to the Bus stop to take a bus to Hampstead Tube Station.

 A Chat with a Former Professional Cricketer:

                It is while we are waiting for the bus that takes an unusually long time to arrive that I get into conversation with a fellow passenger. Before we know it, we are deep in discussion with him. A few stops later, he alights with us and then offers to accompany us as we walk downhill to the Tube station. Introductions are done and he turns out to be a Michael Huxley who once played professional cricket for Middlesex as a reservist and who toured the world with the team. His best friend even today is England’s former cricketing captain Mike Brearly who, he informs us, married an Indian woman and has settled down in Hyderabad, India. Instantly, he and Llew have a lot to discuss about cricket past and present and, on the walk to the station, our conversation scintillates. I am repeatedly struck by the way people I turn to randomly for a few minutes’ chatter end up being some of the most interesting folks I know. He tells us that he began playing cricket at the age of six while in school in neighboring Highgate. He continued at university and turned professional shortly afterwards. The Ashes matches have begun, between England and Australia, and England has been hammered on Day One which has made the nation feel down in the dumps. Michael shakes our hands, bids us goodbye when we arrive at the station and is gone. We are left with the distinct feeling that our meeting was fated.

 On the Tube to Shepherd’s Bush:

            My Dad’s cousin’s daughter Sybil (now an invalid in a hospice in Kent) was once married to a man called Joel with whom I have continued to keep in contact despite their divorce. Joel, who now lives in Guildford, Surrey, suggested we meet for lunch at the Westfield Shopping Mall in Shepherd’s Bush as this would be mutually convenient for us. He has never met Llew and was keen to make his acquaintance. Those of you who know me well also know that I am allergic to modern shopping malls and avoid them like the plague. However, this Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush, had opened to much fanfare when I had lived in London and I was pretty keen to see what the fuss was about. Hence, when Joel suggested it, I complied.

            Like any mall, the Westfield, an Australian chain, is huge, crowded, noisy, filled with designer showrooms (that do nothing for me) and food courts that I find equally bland and characterless. After meeting Joel, we had a long debate on the best place to eat and Joel suggested the “Set Lunches” offered by the restaurants outside the mall.  It was at Madmaloun, a Lebanese restaurant that we finally settled. I chose their Mezze Sampler which included some of my favorite spreads: hummus, babaganoush, lebnez, dolmas (Greek rice stuffed vine leaves), salad and taramasalata—all absolutely delicious eaten with pita bread. Llew and Joel chose to have the Lamb Shwarma Platter which seemed to have impressed neither of them. One of the other reasons I love being in London is the ability to indulge in all sorts of ethnic food offerings although, truth be told, I am partial to standard British classics myself such as Bangers and mash, Shepherd’s Pie, Steak and Ale Pie or Cornish Pasties. Still, the meal was secondary to the opportunity to catch up with Joel and his family news. He is always so eager and happy to meet me and to drive me around to places outside London. This time, he seemed less buoyant since he was recovering from recent surgery.

 Off to See the Serpentine Pavilion at Kensington Gardens:

            At 2. 30 pm, we bade Joel goodbye and got back on the Tube after spending some time shopping for our food goodies from Waitrose before we returned to the city laden with our grocery bags. The sun had come out fully by this time and walking outside was a sheer pleasure. I suggested to Llew that we should get off at Kensington Gardens and make our way to the Serpentine Gallery, one of London’s better-known art galleries with changing exhibits.

            Each summer, for the past 15 years, the Serpentine has invited artists to create what they call a “pavilion” right outside the main entrance of the gallery—an installation that reveals the innovative thinking of the Artist. Over the years, I have visited many of these pavilions that have taken the form of gardens, outdoor seating areas, etc. This year, the Serpentine Pavilion has been designed by Spanish architects SelgasCano who are showing off their nature-meets-synthetics genius. The duo has designed a stunning chrysalis-like structure made from brightly-colored transparent plastic. Once you cross the broad expanse of lawns that is Kensington Gardens, past the Italianate formal gardens at Lancaster Gate, the pond that teems with mallard life and the lovely sculpture of Peter Pan that is a tribute to author J.M. Barrie who frequented the park and was inspired by the family he met here to write his masterpiece, it is, to quote from the Gallery's publicity material, “a space in the middle of London to get lost in, to marvel at the Modernist architecture and to realize that, yeah, London’s actually not too bad after all! There’s talk of a ‘secret corridor’ from which to marvel at the building’s awesome stained-glass effect. Other than inspiring daydreams of caterpillars mating with Fruit Pastilles, what else is going on here?” Well, whatever you make of it, really, for the installation is fully open to interpretation.

            Llew and I spent a lovely time here. We entered the pavilion which reminded me of a colored plastic igloo. Inside, Fortnum and Mason had set up snacks, beverage and ice-cream stands and people were enjoying the relaxed ambience. The long trek across the Park and the sudden heat had rendered me thirsty and looking for a water fountain and finding none, I was offered a cold glass from a staff water cooler—God knows how far away they walked to bring it to me. It is little gestures of kindness like this that continually strike me in London for its people are nothing if not kind and polite, considerate and compassionate.

Homeward-Bound on the Bus:

            We then walked briskly out of Kensington Gardens and found a bus on Kensington Gore Road to get us to Holborn. The day had been saved miraculously and the city was crawling again with visitors being tourists or shopping for that special something to take back home. We needed to offload our shopping, take showers and get dressed—for we had yet another dinner invitation from yet another London-based friend that I had made when I had lived there: Sushil Velu. And since he lived on Theobalds’s Road right behind High Holborn where we were based, his place was very easy to reach.   

      Sushil is a very good cook and he chose to cook us a meal himself. He lives alone in a flat in a wonderfully central location. He had also invited another mutual friend, Owen Berkeley-Hill who was supposed to arrive with his English wife, Barbara. She, however, was tied up with something and Owen arrived alone. Llew was meeting all these friends of mine for the very first time, so conversation was more of an introductory sort. Sushil served wine and brought out the most delicious sautéed chicken wings we’ve eaten. The marinade was truly finger-lickin’ good. He also served us steamed rice with his signature Beef Curry and a marvelous concoction of cauliflower with broad beans flavored with mustard, coconut and lime juice. Dessert was ice-cream, vanilla and chocolate, and a simpler, more scrumptious home-cooked meal would be hard to find. I was pleased to see Sushil looking so well. It has been a few years since I have seen him as his travels to India often caused us to cross one another on my visits to London. Llew was finally able to put faces to these names with which he has become familiar over the years.

            At about 9.00 pm, after Owen had left to return to Kent where he lives, Llew and I had some alone time with Sushil who filled us in on his future plans now that he has retired from the BBC. We resolved to continue to stay in touch and left his home about 10.00 pm for our short and very pleasant walk home to High Holborn where we called it a night.

            Another very pleasant day had come to an end for us in London—a day that started and ended with friends and which had been punctuated by world-class art offerings in grand country manors and en plein air. We were not disappointed with the way it had turned out despite its gloomy start.                

            Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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