Aunt Margaret’s maxim was, “Never stay anywhere not as grand as your own home.” And she’d an Asprey account and Trüggelmann dressing room. Lavender’s Blue’s take is, “Life’s too short to go four star.” The last time we did lunch at Ashford Castle was a third of a century – a generation – ago. With Aunt Margaret (she approved). Six hour round trip back then (walk in the park compared to her regular 12 hour return journey for breakfast at Sheen Falls). Seafood and lobster chowder starter. Other courses forgotten in the mists of time. Return visit slightly overdue.
Thankfully a leisurely two hour return trip this time. We’re staying nearby (in a country house). Deep breath. Will it live up to our wildest expectations? Repetitiousness joyousness of well spent youth to come? Terrific news! Ashford Castle has just been revamped with huge chutzpah. An all-guns-blazing-shoot-the-prisoners-full-turbo-heel-to-the-steel £40 million revamp at that. The Irishman’s home really is his tartaned up castle. As long as he earns a king’s ransom or has a two comma bank balance. The bill’s arrived. Chowder €13.50 this time. Now there’s commitment to a story arc. As for Ashford Castle 33 years later? It more than meets the hopes held high borne in hazy memories. Sepia transformed into technicolour. Aunt Margaret would still approve. She never did do faded grandeur.
Sapphires or rubies? To tiara or not tiara? The Lanesborough afternoon tea or The Goring afternoon tea? It’s a close run thing, but The Goring steals the crown. It has the stamp of royal approval. Literally. ER is stamped on the top of the chocolate and toffee filled meringue. Plus The Goring, London’s last family owned five star hotel, boasts a garden to turn The Lanesborough green with envy. It’s a spatial rarity for central London and even more so considering Victoria Station is only 300 metres from the front door. Not that you’d ever guess, gazing out at the calm grassy oasis.
“Look out for The Pink Panther’s gloves in a frame in the sitting room. The idea is he has stolen most of the paintings. That’s why there are empty frames on the walls.”
Afternoon tea is served in the darkly atmospheric sitting room and an adjoining gallery-like space lit by windows along its full length. We’re in the latter. The custard yellow walls match the veranda awning and the William Edwards fine bone china and the honey glace and pear mousse to come. A Chinese couple are at the table on one side of us; a pair of Indian sisters on the other. There’s not a Middleton in sight. Afternoon tea by definition is a luxury, floating superfluously as it does between lunch and dinner. Best served with a frivolous glass of Bolly from a jeroboam doing the rounds.
“This amuse bouche is pea mousse, crème fraîche and smoked salmon. It’s unusual and I’m sure it’s good for you. Enjoy.”
We choose The Goring Afternoon Blend tea. It’s mellow Assam and second flush Darjeeling; no milk required. A three tier stand rising from a savoury base to a sweet top arrives. Tradition is adhered to but there are variations. Curried cauliflower finger sandwiches are a welcome surprise. It’s the attention to the most minuscule of details that defines The Goring. Scones in scrupulously folded linen napkins. Perfectly soft miniature rugby balls of Devonshire cream. Sandwiches meticulously laid out in rows of brown | white | brown | white | brown.
“Try something you haven’t tried before. If you would like to change the tea and try another one, just tell me. If you would like some replenishment of anything always ask me.”
Yippee! It’s bottomless, and we mean bottomless, afternoon tea. Utopia, unlimited. Except for the Bolly. Ok, utopia, slightly limited. The Goring lives up to and surpasses its rep as the most quintessentially English hotel in London, starting with the red liveried doormen beyond the reticent Edwardian façade, flowing through the David Linley designed hall and ending with loo humour. The loos. Grey and white marble basins by Drummonds. Who else? Hand lotion by Asprey. Praise be. Amusing Auguste Leraux cartoons lining the walls sadly aren’t appreciated by all. Or at least not by a certain Ted Patton of Kew Gardens. A framed letter expressing his concerns that their allegedly outré content would shock female staff takes pride of place next to the cartoons. George Goring has scrawled on it, “Close your eyes, girls!!” Not so much publish and be damned as post and be damned. Mr Patton’s letter is set to entertain gents going about their business for years to come. As we said, quintessentially English. No wonder The Goring is so popular.
“We cater for around 45 afternoon teas every day. Today we have 49. In June and July it can be 50 or more.”
Like Selfridges, that other great Beaux Artsbehemoth cathedral to commerce, Victoria House confidently swallows up a whole urban block. An architectural display of imperialism with balls of stone commanding attention along one full sweep of Bloomsbury Square, the (breathe in) di style in antis Ionic Erechtheion portico (breathe out) soars heavenward on giant columns through the upper floors to a pediment boxed in by the mother of all parapets below a monster green slate triple mansard. All this is so emphatic. Incidentally it was used as a setting for the television series Mr Selfridge. Again incidentally it is faced with Portland stone from the same quarry as St Paul’s Cathedral. Back in the day, or year, 1926 to be exact, the architect Charles William Long’s brief was to “add to the dignity and beauty of the metropolis”. Something we’re not averse to doing either.
Amazingly the interiors remain virtually intact. Entrance lobbies on all four sides are faced in Subiaco marble, decorated Greek style, dressed up to the nines with brass detailing and capped by coffered ceilings. Three halls with sprung floors for dancing are slotted between the panelled offices. The south hall is now called The Bloomsbury Ballroom. It’s a picture of a fabulous age, a place for roarers and flappers. Is that Alabama Beggs shimmying across the shadows? Seamus Heaney believed, “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.” Conversely we reckon if architecture and the arts do anything, they can fortify your social life, your waywardness. Smash the carapace. Have a ball. And so, an invitation to a glittering world of Divine Comedy Decadence, an exploration of the darker side of paradise, utopia displacing dystopia, delving into a phantasmagoria, transcending into a transmogrification, proves irresistible.
Turner Prize nominee Tris Vonna-Michell “creates circuitous, multi-layered narratives, characterised by fragments of information, detours and repetitions, designed to confuse and enlighten in equal measure.” The same could be said for the bars off the ballroom. The 32 metre Long Bar lives up to its name. So does the Crush Bar: we’re shoulder to shoulder with the air kissing crowd. “Things are always unnoticed until they’re noticed,” declared Tesco Chairman Sir Richard Broadbent, hell bent on stating something or other of consequence. “A monument to our creativity and a brilliant day out,” assertively commented Tony Blair on the Millennium Dome in the days before irony. Returning to paraphraseology we enthusiastically say The Bloomsbury Ballroom is a noticeable monument to our creativity and a brilliant night out. A dignified and beautiful ballroom of one’s own.