Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Messin' About on the Thames

Tuesday, June 20, 2017
Richmond, London

Messin’ About on the River.

            Today was devoting to getting out of the city of London and messin’ about on the Thames.  All regular readers of this blog know that each time I am in London, I tick off one more aspect of it that I have yet to uncover.  The area around Richmond, on the banks of the Thames is known for the grand ‘country’ estates that were built in the 18th century by the nouveau riche. These are: Syon House, Osterley House (and Park), Ham House, Marble Hill House and Strawberry Hill House.  Each is more interesting that the other and every single one of them is different. Now, over the years, I have seen them all—except the last. So, this day was devoting to ticking that item off—viewing and visiting the Gothic Revival confection that was entirely the brainchild of Horace Walpole, son of Robert Walpole, once Prime Minister.
Awake and Off:
            Shahnaz and I awoke at 7.45—this meant that I could not live up to my intention of attending the 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral—something I hope to do at least once while I am still based in Holborn ( and not jet lagged). We did not waste too much time. Quick coffees in our room followed by a hearty Indian breakfast of kheema parathas (made by Shahnaz’s cook and carried by her from Bombay to India), saw us out the door by 9.15 am and walking to Holborn Tube station—only to find that it was closed. We were advised to do the ten minute walk to Covent Garden and pick up the train from there. We rode it to Hammersmith from where we took Bus No. 33 that deposited us at a stop called Shepherd Vale which was just next door to the entrance to Strawberry Hill House. We reached there at 11. 15—which meant we had taken exactly two hours to get there by public transport.

Exploring Strawberry Hill House:
            As soon as you enter the premises, you are struck by the white-washed exterior of what looks like a Gothic castle.  Indeed, as Horace Walpole, designer and owner of the property wrote, in a letter in 1750, “I am going to build myself a little Gothic castle.” The Thames had not yet been ‘cannalized’ then. It was, therefore, much wider than it is today and its waters practically lapped the house. Not anymore. The river seems to have receded, a lot of Walpole’s adjoining acres of property have been sold and are now privately owned and much of his former acreage is built up. It is virtually impossible to gain even a slight glimpse of the Thames from the house today.
            Entry to the house and gardens (which includes a self-guided tour and the services of voluntary docents in each room) is a steep 14 pounds. But it is, I believe, worth it—for you end up walking through the rooms of a one-of-a-kind house that is as idiosyncratic and gimmicky as can be imagined. We bought tickets and made our way into the ‘Discovery’ Room where a short video on the history of the house and its ongoing restoration was playing. Equipped with a little bit of knowledge, we began our tour.

What is Strawberry Hill All About?
     Strawberry Hill House is pure indulgence: it is the fantasy of a very wealthy man who could afford to give in to his wildest whims. Using the services of the finest architects and artisans of the period, he set about creating a home that he filled with his collections of art and artifacts—from engravings and paintings to sculpture and ceramics. The rooms themselves were, in his time, striking for their use of magnificent decoration from plastered and papier mache ceilings to heavily patterned damask wall-coverings. The windows are filled with painted glass that he acquired from cathedrals and churches all over Europe. Furniture was either in keeping with 18th century tastes or a throwback from the Medieval past.
The highlights of the house are the Library with its knights on horseback painted on the ceiling and its bookcases designed with Gothic tracery--all painted white--and the Long Gallery where the fan vaulted ceiling is made entirely of papier mache and heavily gilded.  Fireplaces in the house are inspired by the burial monuments of royalty in cathedrals all over the country from Westminster Abbey to York Minster. One bedroom is remarkable for a heavily gilded picture frame that was carved by the great Grindling Gibbons (a favorite artisan of mine)—it is a portrait of Horace’s father Robert and his mother. This room also contains a portrait of Horace Walpole—a reproduction of the original that is in the National Portrait Gallery—and another of his best friend, the poet Thomas Gray (who wrote the famous Odes including the one in the Country Churchyard).
As the docents in each room kept telling this, this is a ‘theatrical’ home—everything about it is so dramatic that it was meant to stop you in your tracks. It was also meant to be a place of illusions: what you think is plaster, is paper. What you think is marble is a compound. The only room designed by Robert Adams, for instance, has a fireplace inspired by Florentine pietra dura: white marble that is inlaid with what looks like semi-precious stones, but is, in fact, another compound. There is a room called the Tribune which was actually once a consecrated chapel—when Roman Catholics set up a monastery in the house. Indeed, the house has gone through several avatars: it was a residence, a printing press (Horace Walpole founded the Strawberry Hill Press here), it was a writing retreat (he wrote his novel The Castle of Otranto in this house), it was a monastery.
            It takes a good two hours to see the house if you wish to linger in each room, read all curatorial notes and listen to every anecdote that docents are eager to share about the home and its eccentric owners. It is also a tiring two hours and by the time we were done, we were beat. We wished we could have wandered through the gardens that are in their summer glory at the moment—but we have arrived in London while the UK is going through a nasty heat wave. Although it was not quite as awful today as it was yesterday, we were still uncomfortable when we were moving. Nibbling on granola bars (as we were also very hungry by 1.30 pm), we found our way to the bus and got off at St. Margaret’s (just before we arrived on Richmond Bridge).

Scouring Thrift Stores for more DVDs:
            St. Margaret’s is one of those upscale Thames-side villages that have an elite population that make superb contributions to their local charity shops. It is a good place to shop for all sorts of goodies and today, I hit the jackpot when I found a pure silk, genuine Cartier scarf that retails for no less than $350 in a thrift store for 8 pounds! I also found so many really great European TV series such as The Killing (the entire First Season for a pound) and Friday Night Dinner. As we drifted from one store to the next, Shahnaz too found all sorts of trinkets to carry back to Bombay. Had I the space and the need for one, I would have grabbed a beautiful Italian leather designer bag for just 45 pounds! But this is the sort of thing that I have to sadly let pass.

Lunch in Richmond at Wagamama:
            Crossing Richmond Bridge on foot (the oldest bridge on the Thames and a prototype for so many stone bridges across the country), we arrived at Richmond Town Center. But not before we took pictures of the beautiful Embankment with its lovely waterfront buildings and its steps leading to the banks. Once on The Quadrant, the high street with all the shops, we arrived at Wagamama and Shahnaz decided we would have lunch there.
            Nothing was more welcome on the blistering day (although, thankfully, there was a breeze playing) than the large bottle of Asahi beer that she suggested we order: we split it and drank deeply of its cooling contents. We then scoured the menu for something else we could share and found the new Pad Thai Salad. This had no resemblance at all to traditional Thai Pad Thai (which we both love), but it was hearty (studded liberally with chicken and prawns) and it was absolutely delicious with its sweet sour dressing and sprinkling of fried shallots and peanuts.

Climbing Richmond Hill:
            Fortified with our delightful lunch, we marched ahead towards the next item on our agenda: the climb up towards Richmond Hill to see the famous View of the Thames from the peak. It is a very gentle slope which did not make for a very strenuous climb. At the top, we looked out over Petersham Meadows to the tranquil spot where the Thames forms a sort of horse-shoe as it curves around a small island. Many painters including Turner and Constable were inspired to paint this view in different seasons. We took many pictures from this vantage point and gratefully sank down on one of the benches overlooking the meadows and the river.
            Had we more time and had the heat not been quite so enervating, we would have carried on walking towards Richmond Park with its famous herds of deer. Instead, Shahnaz suggested we start back: I had to get off at Knightsbridge to pick up my phone from Chelsea and then had the dinner to attend which would kick off our Colloquium activities tomorrow.

Journey Homewards:
            Going downhill was, of course, much easier on our feet and lungs and in no time, we were back on The Quadrant waiting to board a bus to Hammersmith. It came in no time and off we went. From buzzing Hammersmith, the Piccadilly train line took us eastwards into the city. I got off at Knightsbridge, easily got a hold of my phone from Jimmy the Porter, at my friends’ building in Chelsea, and took the Tube back to Holborn.
            In less than an hour, I was back in my hotel room, getting my clothing ready and taking a shower.  I left the hotel half an hour later and arrived in time for the dinner.

Dinner with NYU Colleagues at Hubbard and Bell:
            The venue chosen for our dinner that would kick off our London Colloquium was Hubbard and Bell, a lovely restaurant near the Holborn Tube Station end of High Holborn where we were assigned a large private ‘apartment’—read Private Party Room. There were a few people already present when I arrived and within minutes, I found a gin and tonic in my hand—tinkling with ice and spiked with a twist of lemon. Nothing could be more refreshing in the heat. After much socializing and meeting with a lot of my colleagues from New York and a number of new faces (colleagues from other NYU satellite sites such as Florence, Paris, Washington DC, Berlin, Accra and Buenos Aires), we settled down at long tables to partake of a wonderful meal.
            Large communal platters of starters including crab crostini, crisps with hummus and pesto and a green salad. Mains included cod in a lemon sauce, roasted broccoli jazzed with chilli flakes, bavette steak with potato gnocchi and more salad. Dessert was pistachio profiteroles, a chocolate and passion fruit roulade and a cheese board with fruit.  How absolutely charming! Wine did generous rounds as we had a fruitful first exchange with old friends and new ones. It truly could not have been a more congenial gathering.
            And so ended another exciting day in London. Back in my room, I reviewed my presentation for tomorrow and sat down to scribble this blog.

            Until tomorrow, cheerio…    

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