Another week, another all suites hotel. Hosts Giles Jauffret and Amaury de Villoutreys’ residence in a walled garden hidden down a laneway behind tall wooden gates in the honeycomb coloured city of Avignon always proves the perfect getaway. “Being a relatively small residence, we can focus on our guests,” says Giles. “The real luxury is being able to receive them as friends, and to have time for each one on an individual basis. We present our house more as a family home than a hotel. We wanted to share our French history, passion for art and l’art de vivre with others.” There are 42 watercolours of the city of canals in the Venetian Suite. The Naples Suite is hung with Neapolitan gouaches. And then there are the animals. Whether statues or the real thing, from a stuffed horse to a hatted stone dog, Persian cats to Weimaraner dogs, they all match the décor.
“The sun always shines on the righteous!” claims hotelier Astrid Bray and sure enough the clouds fade to reveal an unblemished cobalt blue sky over the Capital City of Northwest Ulster. For once it’s not “foundering” as the locals would say. Depending on your persuasion, the name of this place is a four syllable binational portmanteau (Londonderry), a three syllable aristocratic surname (Londond’ry) or a rationalist nationalist two syllables (Derry). The city is one of two in Northern Ireland to share its name with its host county; Armagh does as well (Antrim doesn’t count as it is a mere town and county).
Sisters Margaret and Laura Bowe are joint châtelaines of Marlfield. Laura is Chairperson of Ireland’s Blue Book. “Now entering its 47th year,” she explains, “our collection of properties and restaurants continue to offer luxurious, memorable and unique experiences across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland… We are very proud of our chefs and patron chefs, with many of our restaurants boasting one and two Michelin stars.”
Guests at Bishop’s Gate Hotel are greeted by a framed picture of a quote by the sage Madame Lily Bollinger, clearly not the abstemious sort: “I drink when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” Equally educational are a series of framed architects’ drawings illustrating the genesis of the architecture of the hotel and other significant buildings in Derry.
Like all cultural tourists to the city, we ask our waitress for directions to the Derry Girls mural. “Not a bother!” she enthuses. “Just like a lollypop lady I’ll direct you!” Her shortcut is through the rear of the hotel. “This room used to be a garden and that’s a covered up well in the corner. The house where the hotel is now was used to hold prisoners during the Siege of Derry. They were able to travel underground from here to a well on Shipquay Street and from there across to boats on the River Foyle to escape.”
Zelda Blakley is the latest top model to don Mary Martin London haute couture. So what does Zelda have to say about her new outfit? “This ballgown is simply purrfect! I’m feline very elegant. I’m like the cat that got the cream!”
“Seriously though,” Zelda purrs, “In the words of my favourite French philosopher Roland Barthes, ‘Fashion the myth… at the very moment it produces… attempts to substitute its artifice, that is, its culture, for the false nature of things; it does not suppress meaning; it points to it with its finger.’ Or rather, claw.”
“C’est très chic!” exclaims Parisienne Maud Rabin mid flow in Hôtel Meurice Paris. We are of course discussing Aux Merveilleux de Fred. That bakery. It’s the ultimate Franco British style signifier: you know when Frédéric comes to your postcode you haven’t just made it, you’ve arrived, you’re at home. So if whippin’ up a frenzy is your thing, stay tuned. We’re about to give away a half a century or so old secret recipe. Cancel the lawyers Fréd, we’re off to speak to the 21st century Mrs Beeton of Ireland. She’s more than ready to spill the beans or at least count the ounces of castor sugar. It’s the alternative Irish recipe for meringues.
It’s all yours Mrs B: “When you put all your egg whites in a deep bowl you have to whisk those up until they are literally standing in stiff and dry peaks. It’s worth doubling the recipe – three egg whites – to make enough meringues, especially when the oven has to be so low. You fold the three ounces of granulated sugar into the stiff eggs that you’ve just whisked up. Keep whisking them until they are as firm as before. You’re then left with the three ounces of castor sugar. Fold in the castor sugar but just give it one whisk – don’t whisk away up like before. Use two spoons to ladle out into separate meringues on a paper lined baking tray.” Like a good photograph the rule of thirds applies to meringue making. As Frédéric would no doubt murmur, “C’est incroyable!” Or as Maud puts it, “In Paris we always say c’est la vie! It means ‘this is destiny’. We always say it in a positive way.”
Saturday evenings are all about the tasting menu at Muddlers. Make that tasting with matching wines. It’s both local and international: eel from Lough Neagh up the road; wine from Syria across the world. All eight exquisite courses are beautifully choreographed by the waiting staff. An open kitchen along one wall and a bar along another adds to the conviviality. The interior is as industrial as the approach to the restaurant and suitably dark: Chef Gareth McCaughey named his restaurant after a secret society that met on this site two centuries ago. The architects were Oscar + Oscar who designed another of Belfast’s Michelin star holders, Ox. It’s more than a meal, it’s an event: The Muddlers Club doesn’t do things by two quarters (halves).
“My heart will always be in Brixton,” Olive Morris, a heroine on the Wall of Fame, once said. Born in Jamaica in 1915, she came to the UK aged nine. Her first home was off Wandsworth Road and she went to Lavender Hill Girls’ School. As an adult living in Brixton, her activism took off. Olive was involved in many campaigns including the scrapping of Suspected Person Laws which permitted police to stop and search anyone suspected of loitering but was used indiscriminately against black people. She died in 1979.
A showcase of some of the dresses of the UK’s leading black fashion designer Mary Martin London is on display on the mezzanine level of this exhibition at 12 Waterloo Place. “I’m thrilled to have been asked to be part of this important event,” Mary confirmed. The designer is providing demonstrations each day on how her clothes are actually made: the sewing machine is clearly on overtime. Pointing to one of her pieces she exclaims, “It’s called the Death of a Queen as it nearly killed me making that dress!” Attendance has been lively. Westminster Councillors were at the opening and the flow has been constant ever since – the exhibition lasts five weeks. Heather Small, the Voice of M People, and soprano Nadine Benjamin are two of many well known supporters to enjoy it so far.
Seriously. It was that good. The revivification of Countess Markievicz. Luton is the new Paris. Katie swapped a runway for the runway. The revolution has begun. Game on. As for the legendary niche leap….
“There are little nods and big gestures to Cruella throughout the afternoon tea,” explains Annabel. “Cruella is very Vivienne Westwood – 1970s punk rock and anarchy. She’s a super chic sassy gal with anarchic attitude. It’s all rock and roll and a little bit mad.” The egg and cress mayonnaise sandwiches and mint yoghurt and cucumber filled may be classics but they are placed alternatively on the plate with white and dark bread. The striped effect is of course inspired by Cruella’s two tone hair. All very Daphne Guinness.
Every plate is full of devilishly delightful signature pieces. “The Lanesborough is very dog friendly,” praises Annabel P. “When I arrived a bed with a couple of treats was set out for Winne my mini wire haired dachshund. “I’m sure Cruella would approve!” This season is all about reinvention of the A line and afternoon tea. And killer heels of course. It’s all brilliant, bad and more than a little bit mad.
In the land of champ and Portavogie scampi and pasties (Ulster not Cornish) and soda farls and wheaten bread and dulse and Tayto crisps and fifteens and rocky roads and yellowman there’s something new and exciting to go and explore for a wee dander. The original house at the heart of the Culloden Estate – the Bishop’s Palace – may be 145 years old but Art and Soul, the Holywood International Art and Sculpture Fair filling its grounds and interiors, is very much a meantime use.
Dr Howard Hastings, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, explains “At Hastings Hotels, I believe that we can distinguish from our competitors by highlighting the local culture and heritage surrounding our hotels. One way we do this is by focussing on our own locally grown produce in our menus. At Culloden Estate and Spa, another way we achieve this is through the artwork on display throughout the hotel. Some of these paintings were acquired by my father, Sir William Hastings. He selected paintings he liked and which he thought were in keeping with the Bishop’s Palace setting. More recently we’ve concentrated on supporting our local artists, many of whom have international reputations, yet still live and work in Northern Ireland.”
Statues have become something of a fraught subject of late in London but one deserving gent of yore is commemorated in Victoria Embankment Gardens. This linear stretch of rich greenery and extraordinary multicoloured bloom is one of the Capital’s less obvious open spaces, sandwiched between the 19th century embankment along the River Thames and the elevated built form of The Strand. It’s Victorian with a vengeance, viscerally exhilarating and visually rewarding.
The Victorians loved a philanthropist and they don’t come much better than Robert Raikes. This turn of the 19th century journalist and hospital and prison reformer is best remembered as the founder of Sunday schools. Noting the unsupervised behaviour of children on Sundays in his home town of Gloucester, he engaged local women to teach them reading and church catechism. The experiment was so successful he reported in his paper the Gloucester Journal that the town had become “quite a heaven upon Sundays”. The movement spread across the country and in 1785 the Sunday School Society was formed. Robert Raikes’ statue, sculpted by Thomas Brock in 1880, stands proud among the summer bedding.
It all started at a private party in Chelsea. What doesn’t? Many moons ago, back in the sway, we shimmied up to developer Orpheus’ latest townhouse feeling just a little bit on form. By midnight we’d hit the top terrace dancefloor and before we knew it, we were tearing it up with the gorgeous Clea Irving. She was of course Art Curator of sketch. We’ve always been drawn to fabulosity.
A fuchsia painted rollercoaster of engagement parties, afternoon teas with models and planners and model planners, breaking the midday rule (“More Champagne darlings… time… places… people…”) over Christmas fairies and fairy cakes, summer madness and some insanity, pre Masterpiece cocktails, post Masterpiece nightcaps and post post Masterpiece parties ensued down the years.
We mightn’t have three Michelin stars or boast egg shaped loos or own a dining room big enough to thrash out a game of badminton in but – hey! – at The House of Lavender Blue we reckon we’re sorta up there with the artistic antics of sketch. A dismembered mannequin posing as Surreal garden sculpture. Goddit. More dioramas than a Victorian playground. Goddem. Architectural sketches and artistic endeavours of varying substance. All watched over by the attendant eye of Art Curator Zelda Blakley. Godda get more. Godda get out more. What’s more, more’s more.Knock knock. “What’s there?” A reverse Pandora’s Box. A pink cuboid of delights decorated with drawings of the ceiling plasterwork of sketch dining room. A bureau style ensemble with an extending board for playing monopoly or chess or miniature croquet or Russian roulette. And a menu signed by Executive Head Chef Fred Don and Executive Pastry Chef Christophe Gasper in a watermarked envelope. Sealed with an S. Which stands for superlative.
It all ended with a private party in Battersea. What doesn’t? Well, when we say ended… a new day has just begun (“More Champagne darlings? Time! Places! People!”). sketch afternoon tea is like a decadent lifetime away. The carousel must continue. We’re drawn to the new dawn. The fabulous new dawn.
Ever since Heather Small unleashed to the world her unbelievable vocal range with the ultimate Eighties remix Ride on Time (accurately described back then as “a payload of pure euphoria”), she’s been forever moving on up, projecting a pure renaissance. Oprah Winfrey chose her British Olympics Games solo single Proud as the theme tune for her chat show. As well as being the frontispiece of the internationally successful band M People for decades, Heather’s own career has remained stunningly stellar. “I step out of the ordinary | I can feel my soul descending,” she sings in her extraordinary anthem Proud. In her next hit Close to a Miracle the opening lines embrace hope, “It could all be so beautiful | Like a ray of sunshine | From the inside looking forward | With a whole different view.” Today Heather is dressed head to ankle in Mary Martin London. She’s working those Jimmy Choo heels.
Londoner Heather Small is the petite toned embodiment of empowerment blessed with an orchestra of a voice and a down to earth yet megawatt presence. Yep, she’s stunning. “The love we have for each other should be regardless of colour or creed. I’ve grown up in a society that doesn’t reflect me. I’m a dark skinned black girl. I’m a proud sista! Everyone should be proud. I’m in control. I’m aware of who I am – I am very happy with that. Fashion means quite a lot to someone like me in the music industry. Fabric, cuts, the way fashion makes you feel.”
“I met Mary at a fundraising event,” reveals the legendary singer. “Mary spoke quite a lot – so do I! She’s got a wonderful brain. Mary is very very observant – any situation gives her inspiration. She reimagines her surroundings as a piece of clothing. A feeling, a vibration. That’s what I noticed about her. Mary’s clothes are ultra creative, a really good cut. It’s always about the bigger picture with her, more than fashion. There’s a bigger statement at the heart of them, what it’s like to be different, marginalised; she’s an inspiration, it’s more than apparel. It’s about sisterhood! Let’s laugh. Let’s have continuous applause by putting a crown on each other’s head! Above all have fun. Mary’s as mad as a box of frogs!”
Rising up, Heather confirms, “I do believe in God. We are put on earth to fulfil a purpose. We need to learn how to be the best to ourselves and each other. Take yourself to a higher place and touch others. I believe in the goodness of people. Always tell the truth because anyone who hears the truth whether they want it or not they take notice… Singing has been a passion all my life. Mary’s clothes represent me.” Angel Street is an address and an address and a dress.