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Coal Drops Yard + Coal Office Restaurant King’s Cross London

Beyond the Espérance Bridge

At the close of last century, the land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Railway Stations was promoted as the biggest development site in Europe. Over the post millennium decades new places and spaces have taken shape between and inside retained and restored structures. The cast iron frames of gasholders continue to provide a robust architectural presence. An ankle height plaque on one of their columns reads: “Erected 1864. Telescoped 1880.”

Next to the gasholders is Coal Drops Yard, a collection of former industrial buildings transformed by designer Thomas Heatherwick into luxury shops (such as Le Chocolat by Alain Ducasse, Astrid and Miyu jewellers and Tom Dixon’s flagship store), galleries and restaurants. Overlooking Coal Drops Yard and backing onto the canal is a row of gorgeous converted commercial buildings. On the ground floor is designer Tom Dixon’s studio and – whoop whoop! – an Israeli restaurant. Further to the north are some of the most exciting new schemes in London. Not least Allison Brooks Architects’ Cadence tower of apartments over offices. The historic arches of the area are reinterpreted in bézier arched window openings on various levels of the 15 storey tower and adjoining lower blocks to striking effect.

Coal Drops Yard was built in the 1850s close to the canal and railway tracks to receive, sort and store the coal that powered Victorian London. Two decades later the coal trade shifted south of the canal and the buildings found alternative industrial uses. Glass bottle manufacturer Bagley, Wild and Company took over one of the buildings. Little did cousins William and John William Bagley know that a film studio in what was once their warehouse would retain their surname. Better still, the next use, a nightclub, would as well. Bagley’s occupied the three storey eastern block of Coal Drops Yard. It held the biggest and best raves in Nineties London with capacity (often exceeded) of 2,500 partygoers. Each floor would have a different music genre blasting to the beams. Pure ecstasy!

Next door to Tom Dixon’s studio, Coal Office is a collaboration between him and businessman Chef Assaf Granit (who owns the Michelin starred Machneyuda in Jerusalem). Over Saturday brunch at the restaurant bar overlooking the open plan kitchen we chat to Head Chef Dan Pelles. He studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before working for five years at the nearby triple Michelin starred restaurant Jean Georges. His cooking is rooted in Israel and across the Levant: Dan is from Tel Aviv.

We name drop Shila (pronounced like the female name “Sheila”), our favourite Tel Avivian spot for lunch, especially on the Ben Yehuda Street terrace. “Shila is a great seafood restaurant,” Dan agrees, and referring to the owner Chef, “Sharon Cohen is a good friend. Israel is so so tiny – everyone knows everyone! Have some chilli olives.” We’re keen to understand what Israeli cuisine is all about.

“In New York there’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy,” he relates. “So many cuisines are separately defined. Not so much in Israel. In the Forties and and early Fifties Israel was filled with immigrants from Yemini to European. I have a Scottish grandmother and a Moroccan grandmother. It became a melting pot – the common language is food. There’s no other place like it in the world. Israeli cuisine is a blend of international traditions with healthy and fresh local ingredients. My Scottish grandmother made black pudding; my Moriccan grandmother cooked octopus. I eat both!”

“This dish has three types of aubergine.” Tarterie Oto (aubergine tartare, white and black aubergine cream, parsley and chilli aubergine) is served. The weekend brunch menu is divided into Small Plates, In Between Plates and Big Plates. We opt for ample sized Small Plates. Tapogan (salmon sashimi, potato crisp, horseradish crème fraîche, chilli oil, dill) is followed by Salat Dla’at (Delicat pumpkin, dandelion, Galotyri cheese, apple balsamic vinaigrette). Dan’s prestigious training and experience shines through in every dish. Alma White 2021 from Dalton Winery, Galilee, is the perfect accompaniment to the savouries. “Do you want an Israeli passion fruit dessert wine?” tempts Dan when sea salt caramel ice cream on carmelised pretzel arrives.

The sharply defined interior right down to the wine glasses and cutlery is designed by Tom Dixon. We interviewed the designer for Select Interiors Winter 2008. This glossy Irish magazine was published by Brigid Whitehead. Here’s the copy: We keep hearing the word ‘maverick’ bandied about in the media, especially on American television channels. Vice President hopeful Sarah Palin can barely make a speech without referring to her running mate John McCain as a maverick. Whether or not he fits the standard definition (“A lone dissenter: an intellectual, artist or a politician who takes an independent stand apart from his or her associates”) is a moot point. A quick online search of the contemporary designer Tom Dixon’s recent career highlights – of which there are many – wouldn’t immediately suggest he is a maverick either. He’s been awarded no fewer than two doctorates and the highly successful design brand Tom Dixon has now expanded into the US. That’s just the tip of his iceberg sized CV.

His iconic status is there for all to see. Surprisingly, he’s self taught. His maverick status starts to emerge. “He is a self educated maverick whose only qualification is a one day course in plastic bumper repair,” is a quote once used to describe Tom’s background. In place of formal training, his interest in welding led him to experiment with furniture using found objects from a steelyard at Chelsea Harbour including iron tread plate, gas fittings and industrial nuts and bolts. Tom explains, “I was immediately hooked on welding … mesmerised by the tiny pool of molten metal viewed from the safety of darkened goggles. Allowing an instant fusion of one piece of steel to another, it had none of the seriousness of craft, none of the pomposity of design. It was industry.”

Recycling might be all the rage now, but back in the Eighties, Tom chartered new waters with his breakthrough designs. Others were left to play catch up. They still are. He continues, “London at the time was full of scrap metal yards and the skips were piled full of promising bits and pieces due to the Eighties boom … all of which presented themselves to me as potential chair backs or table legs. Unhindered by commercial concerns – I had my night job – or formal training, I made things just for the pleasure of making them. It was only when people started to buy that I realised I had hit on a form of alchemy. I could turn a pile of scrap metal into gold!”

At the end of the following decade, pundits were surprised when he accepted the post as Head of the UK Design Studio at Habitat. In the intervening years, he had been self employed and he was never considered ‘establishment’. Tom confesses his friends were horrified. Perhaps they thought he was losing his hard earned maverick status? According to him, “They said I would have my creativity compromised. I would be entering a stifling world of corporate politics.” But in reality, “It was as though I had a giant toy box … all the manufacturing techniques in the world from basket work to injection moulding. Everything for the home to design … everything at normal everyday prices!”

Six years ago, the company called Tom Dixon was set up by Tom and his business partner David Begg. In 2004 a partnership was established between the Tom Dixon founders and venture capitalists Proventus to form Design Research Studio. Today, the Studio owns and manages the brand Tom Dixon as well as Artek, the Finnish modernist furniture manufacturer established by Alvar Aalto in 1935. But Tom has ensured that he hasn’t sold out, joined the establishment. Instead he is fulfilling his lifetime ambition to make good design available to everyone.

Every icon must have his or her iconic work and Tom’s has grown from single pieces of furniture such as the S Chair and Blow Pendant Light to full blown interiors. Shoreditch House is Design Research Studio’s latest project, led by Tom. As usual, an innovative approach was taken to this private members’ club in a converted biscuit factory. The industrial character was played up by introducing even more raw materials while dedication to comfort with deep-pile rugs creates an enjoyable tension. In Tom’s words, the concept was to, “Celebrate honest materials with all their functional and decorative qualities. Their imperfections too.” We’ve heard that Damien Hirst, Jamie Dornan and Sophie Ellis Bextor all like to hang out there.

Tom has turned full circle. He recently joined a band called Rough; he plays with them when working for Artek in Helsinki. Last time he was in a band was in the Eighties. “We play bad Kylie Minogue covers,” he says, laughing. And in the last six months, Tom has started buying back original Artek pieces from schools and hospitals and replacing them with new versions. The institutions are glad of the update and collectors like to buy the originals. “The big idea underpinning the whole project is this discussion about sustainability,” he relates. It’s a new take on recycling. No matter what career posts he takes on, he’s always able to take an independent stand apart. Tom Dixon, ever the maverick.

Returning to 2023, whole Coal Office is Tom Dixon’s next door neighbour, his upstairs neighbour is the celebrated architectural practice Herzog and Meuron. What’s new in his store below in Coal Drops Yard? He advises, “Elements: a series of fragrances inspired by the medieval alchemist and eastern philosopher’s quest to reduce all matter to four simple elements, four scents of extreme simplicity and individual character that reflect their elemental names of Fire, Air, Earth and Water.” A medium size candle is £125; large, £220. As we edge towards the middle of the third post millennium decade, the land behind King’s Cross and St Pancras Railway Stations has become one of the best developed sites in Europe.

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Kapara Restaurant + Wedgwood Mews Soho London

The Real Chinatown

“Is there such a thing as Israeli cuisine?” Ruthie Rousso asked in the inaugural issue of the Televivian Journal three years ago. “The international response settles the issues for us all: Israeli food is quickly becoming among the most popular in the world. Israeli restaurants bloom and boom in London and New York, Israeli cookbooks win international prizes, and Israel in general has become a place of pilgrimage due to its restaurants and not only because of the Old City and the Dead Sea.”

The Chef continues to muse, “Food is a reflection. Plates have narratives. They tell different stories. These stories have a very personal connection to the traditions and habits that pass from generation to generation. But there is also a much broader dimension related to issues of culture, history, conflicts, wars, international relations, and even GDP. The complex Israeli identity is contained on every plate. In every tiny heirloom Palestinian bamya with preserved lemon and brown butter served in haBasta, and in every steaming pitta stuffed with roasted cauliflower, crème fraîche and local hot pepper … Israeli cuisine, like Israeli identity, is a fragile and frail tissue of crossings and stitching, fraught with youth on the one hand, and with hindering history on the other, full of adventurous urges, creativity and courage. Yes, and some chutzpah as well.”

Shabbat shalom! Kapara is chutzpah in a pistachio nutshell. But first, it’s oh so quiet (to channel Björk). Seems like a no show. Then, predicting a riot (channelling Kaiser Chiefs) it’s suddenly oh so Soho. Sababa! Soon the Galilee Dry White Givon Chardonnay is flowing as the lights get dimmer, the music booms louder, and the imaginary patterns appear in the wall tiles. Or are they imaginary? Everything seems rather naughty but terribly nice. Mezze is: Roasted Plums and Feta (soft herbs). Brunch Plate is: Baby Aubergine Shakshuka (spicy tomato sauce, stewed aubergine, eggs, tahini, pickled chillies, chive). Sweet Ending is: Gramp’s Cigar (brick pastry, pistachio, rose, coco, passionfruit curd, chocolate soil, smoked tuile). From smoky to smoking to smoking hot. And in an even sweeter ending, the cocktails are: The Glory Mole (El Rayo Tequila, hibiscus, cardamom, ginger, lime, soda) and Space Cowboy (Konik’s Tail Vodka, port, pimento, caraway, strawberry, hop, soda).

Kapara is tucked away in a redrawn block stretching from the retained 17th century Portland House (stuccoed up in the mid 19th century) on Greek Street to the replacement Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Architectural practices Matt and Soda combined their pizzazz to bring the best piece of urban design to hit London this decade. Nine storeys above ground (some occupying the air space where the Wedgwood china factory once stood) and four underground. A glazed sliced cone nose diving into the earth lights the subterranean office floors. If this is Soho Estates cleaning up their act what’s not to like? One sixth of the site is dedicated to new public realm. The restaurant spills onto part of this realm: an elusive and exclusive courtyard. Terracotta stained GRC (Glass Reinforced Concrete), glazed bricks and scoop and scallop patterned tiles all add to the Mediterranean ambience. A four metre high stainless steel head sculpture by Cuban artist Rafael Miranda San Juan gazes across the courtyard.

Owner Chef Eran Tibi’s earliest memories involved food. “I helped my father, a Tunisian born baker, in our family bakery and I spent time with my mother trimming okra tips. Family and food became intertwined, inseparable, from a young age. Food was a means to an end for my family – it meant more, it was a way of life. My grandfather was a great lover of life and all its indulgences. He owned a bar, a restaurant and a club. He instilled in me the importance of living for the moment, of being present in the now.” Aged 30, Eran decided to formally train at Le Cordon Blue School in London. His first restaurant in the English capital is the wildly successful Bala Baya in London Bridge. Eran’s mission to bring localised Middle Eastern food to southeastern England proves there really is such a thing as Israeli cuisine.

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Old Union Yard Arches + Bala Baya Restaurant Southwark London

Behind The Music Box

It’s a long time since Gilbert and George sang Under the Arches (1969) and an even longer time since Flanaghan and Allen did too (1941). These days, railway arches are – like every square metre in London – hot property. The Low Line. Theatres, restaurants, bars and community hubs fill the stretch from Union Street to Surrey Row known as Old Union Yard Arches.

But before the arches were redeveloped, there was, and very much still is, The Music Box. The capital’s most exciting apartments and music college scheme. Developer Taylor Wimpey Central London had the vision to commission the exciting young architecture practice Spparc (now in full bloom) to design a building that entwines architecture and music in a standout standalone standing ovation on Union Street.

A mezzanine divides the archway of Bala Baya into two levels. The ground floor is achromatic in deference to the White City of Tel Aviv. Upstairs, the exposed brick vault lends a more rustic allure. Owner Chef Eran Tibi – you guessed it – is Televivian. Interior designer Afroditi Krassa added bright terrazzo slabs from a Haifa factory. Eran says, “I wanted to walk on floors that remind me of home.” Tableware comes from one of Jaffa’s famous flea markets. The rear wall of the mezzanine is built up in perforated breeze blocks of the type you see just about everywhere in gardens in Israel. But the biggest import is the custom built pitta oven from Israeli manufacturer Jagum.

The rumble of trains overhead provides an accompaniment to dancey music. Six years old, Bala Baya still strikes the right chord with a cacophony free lunch. Putting that oven to good use, pitta is served with mezze: Pink Tamara (smoked roe, extra virgin olive oil, chives). Fish Clouds (smoked haddock fish cakes, pita crumbs, poached egg, white taramasalata, apple, fennel) are a reminder of Tel Aviv’s western coast. ‘Bala Baya’ means ‘mistress of the house’ and the pudding Lady Baharat (pink lady, salted caramel, Baharat cream, wonton) proves to be a woo worthy sweet symphony. Israeli wines are labelled “from home”. Pale straw coloured Carmel Selected Sauvignon Blanc 2020 carries aromas of tropical fruit notes against a backdrop of cut grass. Like The Music Box, the wine is aging well.

Unsurprisingly Eran is a protégé of Yotam Ottolenghi. Michael Kaminer explained in his 2017 review of Bala Baya for The New York Times, “Before he became a global brand, Yotam Ottolenghi introduced Londoners to modern Israeli food – a minor trend that has become a phenomenon.” Bala Baya is part of this movement from minor to major, taking it up another octave. Encore! Encore!

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Campbell-Rey + The London Edition Hotel Fitzrovia London

Club Fenderland

The multi use lobby of The London Edition was a popular concept when it first opened. A decade later, the vast space is still buzzing. It encompasses workspace, a bar, a lounge area next to an open fire, reception, billiards and – from tonight – a Christmas tree designed by Campbell-Rey. The design studio founded by Duncan Campbell and Charlotte Rey takes a seasonal bow to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1816 set design for The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with its oversized Murano glass baubles in colour and mirror finishes dangling between decorations hand painted to resemble lapis, onyx, marble and malachite. The gilded star atop the tree comes straight from one of the artistic Prussian polymath’s Queen of the Night’s Hall of Stars drawings. To celebrate the unveiling of the Christmas tree, guests are serenaded by a haloed cappella choir while devouring canapés and downing cocktails.

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Ardtara House Hotel + Garden Upperlands Londonderry


If there is a commodious Victorian country house which sums up gentry living in Ulster it would be Ardtara House. Tucked away in the countryside on the outskirts of the village of Upperlands, this two storey stone house is all that is good about late 19th century domestic architecture. Timewise, the original 1896 house was extended in matching style 17 years later so contrary to appearances it strictly speaking isn’t all Victorian. No architect is recorded but it’s very similar to Ardara House in Comber, County Down, which was probably designed by the popular architect Thomas Jackson. Ardara dates from the 1870s with a 1900 matching extension and is also a two storey house of roughly rectangular plan with plenty of canted bay windows. It was built by the Andrews family who were flour and flax millowners.

Ardtara was built by linen millowner Harry Clark. In 1699 the English Parliament had enforced the Wool Act to protect the English wool industry by preventing the Irish from exporting it. To offset the economic damage, Parliament encouraged the development of linen production in Ireland. Linen is a strong natural fabric made from flax plant which grows on wet fertile soil – so suited to the Irish climate. Harry’s ancestor John Clarke of Maghera considered building a mill on the River Clady on a site he referred to as his “Upper Lands”. His son brought the idea to fruition by building the mill. In 1740 the first beetling engine began turning. William Clark and Sons Linen is one of the oldest continually running businesses in the world.

Ampertaine House was the Clark family seat on the edge of Upperlands village. It is a five bay two storey late Georgian house with a large wing. Harry decided he wanted to build his own home for himself, his wife Alice and their six children. He died in 1955, a year after his wife’s death. One of the children, Wallace, would later say, “People from all over the world came to stay in our house. There were visits from cousins and friends from Australia, New Zealand and North America. There were also agents from the 40 or so countries where linen from Upperlands was exported.” The house (and 33 hectare estate) fell into disrepair until it was saved in 1990 by Maebeth Fenton Martin, entrepreneur and Director of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board for North America. She opened it as a hotel four years later. Maebeth had impeccable taste and restored the fenestration, plasterwork, panelling, chimneypieces, garden, lake and so on.

In 2014 restaurateurs Marcus Roulston and Ian Orr purchased Ardtara. It is a rural hotel addition to their urban restaurants portfolio of Eighteen Ninety Four in Portstewart and Browns Bonds Hill and Browns in Town both in Derry City. They have retained the period splendour and comfort. The top lit billiard room is now the restaurant; the pair of drawing rooms remains just that with the insertion of a bar; the conservatory has been reinstated as a function room; and nine bedroom suites are on the first floor. The terrace outside the drawing rooms has been put back and the Victorian garden restored. The garden is a dreamlike sequence of outdoor green spaces around a lake.

Marcus explains, “We have lovingly restored the house, combining romantic Victorian architecture with all the modern comforts you would expect in top class hospitality. Our idea for Ardtara was always for it to be a gourmet destination.” He and Ian have revived Ardtara’s early 20th tradition of self sufficiency of food supply supplemented by products from trusted sources within an hour’s travel. And now, to echo Wallace Clark’s words, “People from all over the world come to stay in the house.” Musician Phil Coulter, actor Bill Murray and singer Ronan Keating have all stayed at Ardtara House (although not at the same time).

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Nate Freeman + The London Edition Hotel Punch Room Fitzrovia London

The Second Age of Umber

“You must not ever stop being whimsical.” Staying Alive by Mary Oliver, 2016.

When New Yorker Nate Freeman, ArtTactic podcaster and Vanity Fair writer, comes to town where does he go and what does he do? Why, he fills the Punch Room in The London Edition with 100 of the capital’s brightest. Punch and conversation flow while supper is served. Gruyere and thyme tartlets and tuna kimchi seaweed canapés to be precise. Waving goodbye to Nate and the revellers, the following morning it’s the Sheraton Grand Park Lane Hotel for Women Leading Real Estate. And for breakfast? Canapés of course.

“And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility of your life.” Still Staying Alive by Mary Oliver, 2016.

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The Portrait Restaurant St Martin’s Place London + Richard Corrigan

The Artists as Youngish Men

Chop chop! Who’s slicing and dicing and spicing the veg? Grand Chef Richard Corrigan himself. Next thing he’s marching over to our table: “Here’s mash to celebrate being Irish!” There’s mash and there’s Made in The Portrait by Richard Corrigan Mash. Its sunny complexion is what Nancy Lancaster would call “buttah yellah”. Picture perfect. The best olive oiled potato money can buy and even better when it’s on the (pent) house. Funday Sunday set lunch is best eaten while floating above the Mary Poppins roofscape over Trafalgar Square in a cloud of fervent luxury.

Richard’s menu is imaginative and concise with just four or five options per course. Keeping it vegetarian, today’s choices for lunch are burrata (peach, fennel, pistachio), conchigliette (cauliflower, Spenwood) and goat’s milk ice cream (English cherries, Riesling). This top floor new restaurant really is the English cherry on the icing on the cake that is the revamped National Portrait Gallery. Chop chop! It’s time to go dancing.

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Sigi Schelling Werneckhof + Werneckstrasse Munich

Her Namesake

A German restaurant serving German food, it is named after its Chef Patron and address. Sigi Schelling is the Chef Patron. Werneckstrasse is the address. It’s one of the classiest streets in one of the classiest areas of Munich: Schwabing. And it turns out to be one of the classiest restaurants in the city. Werneckstrasse is a quiet leafy street off the quite lively Feilitzschstrasse. The walled miniature estate of Suresnes Schlöss dominates the northern part of the street. This castle was built in 1718 for the aristocratic Cabinet Secretary Franz von Wilhelm. It is now a conference venue owned by the Catholic Academy of Bavaria. A sunny yellow façade and Mediterranean shuttered windows can be glimpsed through the cast iron entrance gates and screens.

At the southern end of the street set among townhouses and wooded gardens is Sigi Schelling Werneckhof. A metal sign projecting from the facade and an inset porch with a table of flowers and a stack of business cards in olive green, damson blue and plum red heralds the culinary destination’s presence. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a traditional mixed use block also painted sunny yellow. A small lobby leads into two adjoining dining rooms. The kitchen is out of sight behind a sliding mirrored door.

Sigi explains, “Cooking is my life. My dishes combine originality, sophistication and lightness. For me, perfection on the plate means straightforwardness in harmony with accompanying elements. All masterfully prepared. Our menus reflect love, passion, experience and appreciation for authentic high quality products. It is a pleasure for my team and me to present you with an unforgettable experience. Nice to have you here!” Later, the waitress will add, “Each day Sigi is the first one in and the last to leave at night.”

The five course tasting menu on a Saturday evening is easily adapted to pescatarian needs. “The Chef is going to make you sole,” the waitress confirms, replacing the venison course. And this being a Michelin starred restaurant, cutting and deboning the sole is a performance carried out by no fewer than three staff in the middle of the dining room. Amuse bouches and canapés bracket the meal but not before fennel infused Don’t Mix the Drugs Gin is served with Thomas Henry of Palatine Tonic Water. Cuvée Excellence Blanc 2019 from Rhône accents the five courses.

The tasting menu is a classic that could match the orders. The original simplicity of Doric: Bretonic Lobster (marinated garden tomatoes, yuzu, bergamot). The organic fluidity of Ionic: Char (pumpkin, pumpkin seed oil, buttermilk). The refinement of Corinthian: Brill (shrimps, gnocchi, cauliflower, Thai curry anise sauce). The structural simplicity of Tuscan: Sole (quince, chestnut, mushroom). The richness of Composite: Curd Cheese (goat’s cheese soufflé, marinated blueberries, poppy seeds, plum, sour cherry ice cream). Saturday dinner is a lively four hour affair.

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Munich +

A Foreign City in a Faraway Land

Munich is so far south it’s twice the distance from Berlin as it is from Zürich. The German city is slightly closer to the equator than Paris. Salzburg is signposted out of the centre. Little wonder it’s so metropolitan. When in Munich … Nothing tastes as good as skinny fries (in Bayerischer Hotel of course). Except for strawberry tart (in Brioche Dorée overlooking a rainy courtyard behind Isabel Marant in Residenzstrasse).

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Kaisergarten Bar + Restaurant Munich

Bavarian Nights

For 100 years an Art Nouveau house on the corner of Kaiserplatz and Kaiserstrasse opposite St Ursula’s Church has been an hospitable hotspot of Schwabing. Kaisergarten’s interior (think dried flowers and chopped logs) overlooks a chestnut tree filled beer garden. Cheers everyone to the Kaiser!

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Stapleford Park Hotel + St Mary Magdalene Church Melton Mowbray Leicestershire

Making a Splash

It was 35 years ago and there was no escaping Stapleford Park in the print media. American entrepreneur Bob Payton knew how to make a splash. Instead of hiring only interior designers to decorate the bedrooms of his newly converted country house hotel, he threw a shirtmaker, a porcelain company and a perfumier amongst many others into the mix. It caught the press and public’s attention. Eight years later, another media savvy entrepreneur, this time Englishman Peter de Savary, took over Stapleford Park and opened it as one of his Carnegie Club outpost adding not least the Knot Garden in front of the main entrance door. Cue double page spreads in the supplements once more. Skibo Castle in Dornoch, the home of the Victorian philanthropic industrialist Andrew Carnegie, continues to be a Carnegie Club. His portrait hangs in the gents’ bathroom at Stapleford Park. Just when we thought life couldn’t get any more glamorous, we find ourselves pottering about the Wedgwood Room of the hotel, weighing up a walk in the Capability Brown designed parkland of heaven verging fields versus tea on the terrace. Happy camping. We do both.

Bob Payton bought the house and its 200 hectare estate from Lord Gretton for £600,000 and spent a further £4 million rejuvenating and opening it as a hotel and leisure resort. We’re privileged to exclusively share his last recorded interview before he died in a car crash in 1994: “I first saw Stapleford Park from the back of a horse riding nearby in rolling countryside. Stapleford has been for many centuries a sporting lodge with riding, shooting and lavish entertainment all part of its heritage. It is our endeavour to keep that same style for many years to come. So interesting is the history of Stapleford Park and fascinating its architecture that the house was open to the public for several decades. Walking through the house and around the grounds is like going on a magical mystery tour. Through each and every doorway, there is another adventure. Set in 500 acres of woodland and parkland, the house provides breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside from every room.”

“Our approach to life in the country is that of a relaxed, comfortable, casual existence. We’ve replaced the servants and butlers if the old days with a team of people who are dedicated to making sure you enjoy our home and all it has to offer. We hope you like our approach to hospitality. To complement the eclectic architectural style of this most unusual house I invited several famous names to design bedrooms based on their own image of life at Stapleford Park. Signature bedrooms have been created by Tiffany, Wedgwood, Lindka Cierach, Lady Jane Churchill, Crabtree and Evelyn, Nina Campbell, Liberty, Max Pike and many others. We’re thrilled that these folks found Stapleford Park such an exciting challenge.”

“The dining room is decorated with ornate and intricate woodwork accredited to the most famous of all English carvers, Grinling Gibbons. In these luxurious surroundings, we serve traditional English cuisine with the occasional flair of old fashioned American cooking. You can enjoy the food that Stapleford’s guests have enjoyed over the centuries and much much more. As for sport, the surrounding Leicestershire countryside is most famous for its equestrian links. We offer most kinds of equestrian pursuits including carriage driving and riding instruction. There is clay shooting on the property and game shooting can be arranged. You can fish on the lake in front of the house or at nearby Rutland Water. If that’s not enough, there’s tennis, croquet and basketball, as well as walks through and around the property in this most lovely of settings.”

“Come and discover a truly great undiscovered part of England. Stapleford Park is in reality most people’s fantasy of the quintessential English countryside. Let me tell you about Edward Prince of Wales. His mother wouldn’t let him buy Stapleford Park because she felt that his morals might be corrupted by the Leicestershire hunting society. Well that was 100 years ago. Fortunately the Royal Family settled at Sandringham so that all of us may now enjoy the pleasures of this most idyllic estate.” The Royal Family are still happily ensconced at Sandringham and we are even more happily enjoying life at Stapleford Park.

The house glows a golden hue in afternoon sunshine and shimmers a mysterious grey in morning mist. Poet Mary Oliver writes in her essay Wordsworth’s Mountain (Upstream Collected Essays, 2016), “This is to say nothing against afternoons, evenings, or even midnight. Each has its portion of the spectacular. But dawn – dawn is a gift.” Every elevation and wing is a piece of architecture in itself and together they form a visual whole in material only. Crunchie the ginger cat (technically the neighbour’s but wise enough to hang out on the estate) matches the ashlar stone. One minute Stapleford Park is a Jacobean manor house; turn a corner, the next minute it’s a Queen Anne stately home; turn another corner, a Jacobethan hunting lodge; one more, a Loire château. As for the entrance front facing the quiet waters of the lake, the nine bay string coursed perfection is as symmetrical as a supermodel’s face. No big name architects are recorded (unlike the landscape and panelling!) but two owners have added their name for posterity in stone carvings on the exterior of a wing: “William Lord Sherard Baron of Letrym Repayred This Building Anno Domini 1633”. Underneath there’s a postscript: “And Bob Payton Esq. Did His Bit Anno Domini 1988”.

Indoors the eclecticism continues thanks partly to the layering of six or so centuries and partly to the aforementioned cohorts of dreamers and designers let loose on the fabric and fabrics. The main block is laid out around two vast double height top lit spaces: the Staircase Hall and adjacent Saloon. Public and private lounging and dining ebbs and flows throughout the ground floor. The Morning Room (with its mullioned bay window). The Harborough Room (crimson Gainsborough silk wallpaper). Billiard Room (converted games table). The Orangery (windows galore). The Grinling Gibbons Dining Room (festooned panelling by his namesake). The Old Kitchen (stone vaulted ceiling). Formal dinner is served in the Grinling Gibbons Dining Room: Baron De Beaupre Champagne; pea, goat’s curd, mint pistou tartlet and crispy onions; butter roasted cod, fennel and leak cream, new potatoes, sea herbs. Stapleford Park is a bread roll’s throw from Melton Mowbray and its Stilton Creamery so a generous cheese board offering is called for: Beacon Fell, Bingham Blue, Pitchfork Cheddar, Ribblesdale Goat’s, Tuxford and Tebbut Stilton. Five tall sash windows frame the descent of darkness. Mary Oliver again, “Poe claimed he could hear the night darkness as it poured, in the evening, into the world.”

The first floor is filled to the ceiling roses with the Grand Rooms: Savoir Beds, Crabtree and Evelyn, Wedgwood, Lady Jane Churchill, Baker, Turnbull and Asser, Flemish Tapestries, Amanda by Today Interiors, Campion Bell, Sanderson, Eleanor, Lyttle, Lady Gretton, Zoffany, Warner. We’re in the Wedgwood Room, one of the very grandest, with views across the green pastures. Below a Waterford Crystal chandelier and over a Wilton carpet everything is iconic Wedgwood blue and white from the wallpaper to soap dish. Life and Works of Wedgwood, a book by Eliza Meteyard (1865) in the library, praises the entrepreneurial potter, “His name lives in the industrial history of the country he loved so well, and so enriched by the bounties of his art and the example of his worthy life.” Ah, on the table that’s just what we like: a handwritten welcome note. And sash windows that open fully.

The second floor is filled to the rafters with the Slightly Less Grand Rooms: Panache, Wishing Well, Haddon, Treetops, Bloomsbury, Savonerie, Sanderson, Molly, Peacock, Lake View, Game Larder, Burley, Early, Green Gables, Melody, Max. A row of servants’ bells in the corridor reveals the more prosaic original room names, “First Floor: No.1 Bedroom, No.1 Dressing Room, No.2 Bedroom, No.2 Dressing Room, Bathroom, No.3 Bedroom, No. 4 Bedroom, No.5 Bedroom, Bathroom, No.6 Bedroom, No.6 Dressing Room, No.7 Bedroom, No.8 Bedroom. Second Floor: No.1 Bedroom, No.2 Bedroom, Bathroom, No.3 Bedroom, No.4 Bedroom, No. 5 Bedroom, No.6 Bedroom, Dark Room, No.7 Bedroom, No.8 Bedroom, Front Door, Luggage Room, Tradesmen.” Windows are open to the sights and sounds of birdlife: cooing pigeons, flying geese, scarpering pheasants.

Beyond the exquisitely manicured formal and semiformal and informal suite of gardens, the former stable block turned spa matches the house in both material (ironstone rubble with ashlar dressings) and style (baroque revival). There’s a named architect and exact construction date: Peter Dollar, 1899. The Oxfordshire born London based architect Peter Dollar is best known for his Majestic Picturedrome on London’s Tottenham Court Road. In contrast to the historicist appearance of Stapleford stable block, the cinema was an Edwardian looking brick and rendered four storey with attics building. Opened in 1912, it was demolished just 65 years later. His fine stable block has fared rather better. The stalls are occupied by beauty treatment salons and are labelled after racehorses: Apple-Jack, Black Beauty, Red Rum and so on. There’s also a thatched roof theme running through the estate secondary buildings from the gatelodge to cottages and contemporary houses for hire.

The parish and estate church, St Mary Magdalene, is an architectural and acoustic marvel. Again there’s a named architect and exact construction date: George Richardson, 1763. Ashlar with ashlar dressings retains the material theme but the style is high Gothick. The architect trained as a draughtsman under James Adam. Across the west end of the nave is the galleried family pew. A chimneypiece kept the chills at bay in winter.

Lord Nelson’s Prayer at Trafalgar dated 21 October 1805 is framed and nailed to a post in the nave: “May the Great God whom I serve grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just case which is entrusted me to defend.” At the afar end of the nave, on the pulpit lectern the Bible lies open at Psalm 23.

It’s a family church. Literally. Or rather families church. Heraldic shields are displayed on the elevations between the windows and buttresses. On the long south facing nave elevation: Cave, Hill, Noel, Verney, Pedley, Faireax, Denton, Calverly, Christopher, Bennet, Bury, Brow, Folville. On the gabled east facing chancel elevation: Branchester, Bruley, Danvers, Bisett, Mosley. On the long north facing nave elevation: Brabazon, Woodfort, Burges, Fitz-Maxilion, Consull, St Hillary, Clare, Lacy, Verdon, Hauberk, Eyton, Melville, Woodville. And on the west facing towered entrance front: Roberts, Hearst, Sherard, Reeve. It is Sherard that takes pride of place: this family owned the estate for half a millennium.

But it is a servant’s gravestone which is positioned closest to the entrance pathway: “Sacred To the Memory of Mary Carnaby who departed this life the 13th Day of January 1799; aged 59 Years. The daughter of Mrs Drake of Woolsthorpe, and Granddaughter of John and Ann Peele of Cockermouth in the County of Cumberland. She was Housekeeper to the Earl of Harborough for 17 years, which employment She discharged with uprightness and fidelity, becoming the imitation of posterity. Earthly Cavern to thy keeping, We commit our Sister’s dust. Keep it safely, softly sleeping, Till our Lord demand thy trust. Erected by her Aunt Tarn of Cockermouth.” Bless Aunt Tarn.

The sense of family intensifies even more in the chancel. Facing each other are impressive monuments. In the northern recess is a memorial to the 1st Earl and Countess of Harborough (in 1719 they were upgraded from 3rd Lord and Lady Sherard by George I) and their young son (all wearing Roman clothing) in white marble by the Flemish born sculptor Michael Rysback in 1732. A Sherard family memorial predating this church occupies the southern recess: effigies of Sir William and Lady Abigail and their 11 children. An even older memorial salvaged from the demolished church on this site is a brass engraving dedicated to Geoffrey and Joan Sherard and their 14 children dated 1490 and set in the nave floor. All three memorials highlight the commonplace nature of the once infant mortality.

The inscription on the plinth of the Harborough memorial reads: “To the Memory of Bennet 1st Earl of Harborough, only surviving son and heir of Bennet Lord Sherard of Stapleford, Baron of Letrim in the Kingdom of Ireland. By Elizabeth daughter and coheir of Sir Robert Christopher of Alford in the County of Lincoln Knight. He married Mary Daughter and Coheir of Sir Henry Calverley of Ariholme in the Bishoprick of Durham Knight. By whom he had issue one son, who died an infant. He was many years to the time of his death Lord Lieutenant and Custos Rotulorum of the County of Rutland, Lord Warden of Justice in Eyre North of Trent. He died the 16th day of October in the year of our Lord 1732, aged 55.”

A plaque on the wall over the Sherard memorial reads: “William Lord Sherard, third Sonne of Francis Sherard Esquire, Had Issue seaven Sonnes, Bennet, Philip, George, Francis, William, Henry, John, foure Daughters, Emelin, Abigail, Anne, Elizabeth, By his Wife Abigail eldest Daughter of Cicil Cave Esquire, third Sonne of Roger Cave of Stanford, in the County of Northampton Esquire. And this hee most affectionately dedicated to his Memory for him, herselfe, and their Children.” Doesn’t “seaven” look better spelt to emphasise it rhymes with “heaven”? Another inscription is set into the plinth below: “Here lies interred the Body of Sir William Sherard, Lord Sherard Baron of Letrime in Ireland, His most singular. Piety, Bounty, Courtesy, Humanity, Hospitality, Charity, Crown’d his mortall life, which (after he had enjoyed LII years) he changed for that which is immortall, the first day of April in the yeare of our Lord God MDCXL. Whose coming he here expectes.” During our stay we come across several spellings of the Irish county of “Leitrim”.

Australian entrepreneur David Fam, CEO of Dreamr Hotels, has owned Stapleford Park since 2022 and is instilling his expertise in “wellness, healing and ancient wisdom” into the hotel. “One can roam all day, constantly finding new works of art and hidden rooms in this labyrinth of style,” wrote Luc Quisenaerts in his guide Hotel Gems in Great Britain and Ireland, 1997. We do, we do. Mary Oliver one final time, “How wonderful that the universe is beautiful in so many places and in so many ways.” We could dwell in this house forever.

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Café Parisien + Robinson + Cleaver Belfast

Starboard Home

An English visitor to Northern Ireland recently remarked to us how two of Belfast’s key tourism drivers are based on tragedies: Titanic and the Troubles. On a downbeat note, we do miss all the Edwardian department stores in the city that disappeared decades ago: Robinson and Cleaver, Brands and Normans, Anderson and McAuley. On an upbeat note, the thriving city has since become a foodie destination. Manchester, with a population almost twice the size of Belfast, has one restaurant with a Michelin star. Belfast has three. Famously, Robinson and Cleaver had a grand sweeping Sicilian marble staircase with a mezzanine arch leading into a silvery tearoom. Maids in their monochromatic finery served coffee in individual pots. Infamously, the staircase was auctioned and shipped off to the late entrepreneur Eddie Haughey’s Ballyedmond Castle in County Down.

Fortunately the former department store is still intact on the outside. The six storey stone building with its distinctive copper cupolas began life in 1886 as the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse designed by Young and Mackenzie. All is not lost inside. Café Parisien is a two storey restaurant occupying the frontage overlooking Belfast City Hall. Taking its name from one of the eateries on the doomed ocean liner, the restaurant is all saloon class and no steerage.

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Dumpling Library + St Anne’s Square Belfast

Deep Love

Sunday morning opens with a cacophony of hymns on the drawing room family piano deep in the wild west. Things can only get better, as the Belfast singer D:Ream famously once hoped. Eucharist is just sliding into memory at Belfast Cathedral by the time we glide up to the east coast bright lights. Sunday lunch is just a block away in St Anne’s Square. Dumpling Library is a gourmet rather than literary experience. Gucci clad model Janice Blakley joins us for lunch.

Covering most Oriental bases our waitress confirms, “The Dumpling Library is Asian, Canton, Chinese and Malaysian fusion. Sundays are our busiest day.” A solitary unbusy unhurried diner sitting at an island table is reading Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss under a crimson heart dangling from the ceiling. Fried spinach wontons, Japanese tofu, prawn avocado tempura, salt chilli tofu, sweet potato chips … we’re on a (kimchi) roll at our window table.