London: Summing Up


IN THE PAST WEEK, I’ve been all around London, from the mews of Mayfair to the thrift shops of Dalston, from the obsessively planted Avenue Gardens of Regents Park to the tiny back gardens of friends in Islington, from David Hockney at the Tate to Amy Winehouse at Camden’s Jewish Museum. Not to mention a few historic pubs.

The weather has been changeable. It’ll be dreary and drizzly for the better part of a day; then it suddenly stops, the sky opens up, the light is crystalline and the sun slants in at its low angle, touching everything with radiance.

Brexit has been little mentioned in conversation, U.S. politics mercifully little, too. Tonight, the horrific incident on Westminster Bridge dominated the news.

My trip ends tomorrow and I’ll soon be back in New York, drinking more coffee than tea, trying to keep up the walking and appreciate New York with the same interest and enthusiasm it’s been so easy to rouse for London.


Coming into Kings Cross last Thursday night from Edinburgh felt like coming home.


On assignment last Friday, I did an interview with an architect in Mayfair, right around the corner from Claridge’s, above.


A curious old building and a neon-lit storefront in the area around Oxford Circus.


The too-much-ness of the display in the cafe at Liberty of London. Flowers at the front entrance of the ersatz medieval building, which has an extraordinary skylit interior.


Scones just out of the oven at the home of friends in Islington.


Their sitting room and back garden viewed from a window.


Fragrant clematis going crazy, spotted on a walk around De Beauvoir Town, which also took in…


my favorite local source for take-out, cheeses and fancy groceries, The De Beauvoir Deli, above.


Vintage architecture and signs of spring in De Beauvoir Town and Dalston, above.


The Dalston Curve Garden, a community garden that also serves as a cafe and gathering spot for young families living in blocks of modern, garden-less flats nearby.


Note to self: plant more euphorbia.


Colorful houseboats in Regents Canal as it passes between De Beauvoir Town and Hoxton.


We made a field trip to Hampstead, below, whose hilly residential streets are lined with the homes of the arty and famous, from Romantic poet John Keats and painter John Constable to Sting, Judy Dench and Ridley Scott.


Etched glass, soft lighting and a fireplace make The Flask a very inviting stop-off on a wet day. There’s been a tavern on this hilltop Hampstead site since at least 1700.



Ploughman’s lunch and a couple of half-pints at The Holly Bush.


Thank you, Tate Britain, for a full-on David Hockney retrospective, from his student sketches to recent video installations. Hockney is now up there in the Pantheon for me.


Below, a Hockney experiment with Polaroids.


A Chelsea morning, below. More blue-plaqued celebrity homes, past and present.


Our outing included a visit to the Chelsea Physick Garden, a 350-year-old medicinal/botanical garden. That’s Hans Sloane, below, an early garden benefactor (who became rich after inventing hot chocolate, we learned).


These two Chelsea row houses were the homes of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in the late 1960s through ’70s:


Above, Sloane Rangers on Kings Road.


At London’s Jewish Museum in Camden, there’s an intimate Amy Winehouse exhibition organized by her brother Alex, on through September. It includes her hand-written list of favorite songs, below, among other personal memorabilia.


Below, Regents Park after a rain, and its formal Avenue Gardens.


The top deck of London buses provides a slightly different angle on the city.


The number 30 brought me back to my friend’s mini-Eden in De Beauvoir Town, below, my home for the past three weeks.


Last dinner in London: chicken and mushroom pie with mash and cabbage at The Albion, below, an Islington standby since the pre-Victorian era.


Old York, Old York


LONDON HAS ENOUGH 17th, 18th and 19th century houses to keep an old-house aficionado busy for years. But because the Great Fire of 1666 swept away nearly the whole of the city, it’s lacking in domestic architecture that predates the 17th century.

The city of York, on the other hand, an easy 2-hour train ride north of London, has an entire district of medieval buildings, still leaning at least, if not quite standing tall. The most picturesque street is “the Shambles,” the medieval butchers’ quarter, where many of the buildings have been put to use as stores selling chocolates and other sweets.

There’s a stupendous cathedral, York Minster, which took 252 years to build, starting in 1220, and nearly intact city walls built in the 13th and 14th centuries, that enclose 263 acres, with original gates of varying complexity. (The earliest stones date to the Roman presence in York.)

If all that wasn’t enough reason to make a day trip, I also thought, as a resident of New York, I should see the city for which mine was named, though that turns out not to be the case (it was named after James II, the Duke of York).

York is an eminently walkable city. A friend and I spent the day mostly outdoors, making a circuit from the train station, across the River Ouse, to the first-rate gardens around the charred Gothic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, to the cathedral area, the ancient business district and eventually back over the river to catch trains in opposite directions (she returned to London, I went on to Edinburgh).

Come see the city of York with us, in the order we saw it.


The expertly planted grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey, below. The once-magnificent building was burned in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.


York Minster, the largest medieval building in England, has been an Anglican church since the Reformation.


The Treasurer’s House and garden, below, extensively remodeled and restored over the centuries, is now a National Trust property.


Scenes from the warren of ancient streets…


Barley Hallbelow, a restored medieval townhouse open to the public, illustrates York life in the 15th century. The building had been so altered over the centuries, even being used at one point as a plumbing shop, that no one even realized that below the brick facade was a 500+-year-old timbered house.

In the 1990s, it was restored by the York Archaeological Trust with painstaking accuracy, using original building methods and at great expense. The great dining hall is the most impressive room.


Tea time in a quaint 1960s-ish tea room


More medieval eye candy and city views…


The building below, still having a useful life as a tea shop, dates from the 14th century, with 17th century additions. 


The 1762 Fairfax House, below, a fine townhouse with an important collection of Georgian furniture, was restored in the 1980s after having been used for a time as a cinema (?). 


Over the Ouse again on a different bridge on our way back toward the station…


And what do you know — yet another timber-framed house of the 15th century, below. Known as Jacob’s Well, it has a carved portico from a different house and a different era.


Mickelgate was the principal street into York from the south, with this most elaborate of gates. You can walk along the parapet for quite a distance.


 The British Museum, Housing the World’s Treasures for Us All

  LONDONERS LOVE THEIR INFREQUENT SUNSHINE, as I learned the other day on the way to the British Museum. From my top-deck bus seat, I saw them out in force, basking in any available square of green, like Gray’s Inn Field, above.  

I had been to the British Museum only once before, decades ago, always daunted by its reputation and enormity. In practice, I found it much more manageable than New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which it even bests for a world-class collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman material.

But since a thoroughgoing renovation around 2000, which produced the spectacular skylit entrance court by Britain’s chief starchitect, Sir Norman Foster, and re-organized the interior spaces, it’s actually far less chaotic and more manageable than the Met.

With the aid of an audio guide, customizable and comprehensive, I was able not to aimlessly wander, but to zero in on the things that most interested me, and spend a pleasant 2–3 hours without feeling overwhelmed or harried.

My first thought on entering the museum was: Wow. My second was, look at all this plunder! Here the former might of the British Empire is on display, the spoils of centuries of imperialism arrayed in central London for the world to see and appreciate. 

The argument has always been: we saved all this for you. Otherwise it might have been destroyed by barbarians – and indeed the recent demolition by Isis of ancient sites in the Middle East gives a tad more credence to the view.

It’s still evident in the 19th c. photograph, above, of the removal of a millennia- old Assyrian stone lion, now greeting visitors in the museum’s entrance hall, by a team of British engineers, and in the defensive labels and explanation in the audio guide of how the sculptures that once graced the pediment of Athens’ Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles, came to repose for the past 200 years in Bloomsbury — to this day, an ongoing controversy with the Greeks.

Still, it would be churlish to complain about this glorious institution, filled with visitors from around the world and their children, taking in whatever it is possible to take in of the planet’s history and culture in a single gulp.

I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, as I write this, so it’s fitting to end this post with the above image of two whimsical 800-year-old Lewis chessmen, borrowed from the National Museum of Scotland (discovered there but carved of walrus tusk 1000 years ago by Vikings, most likely), part of a complete medieval chess set on display and another example of how the all-powerful British Museum secures “permanent loans” of that which it cannot outright own.

This is the first time I’ve ever written a casaCARA post on my iPhone, a tricky business, and I have no idea how it will look in other formats. And it’s the last time I will ever travel without my laptop. When I get back to London tonight, or soon thereafter, I’ll be posting about my one-day visit to York, which satisfied my interest in architecture much older than that we have in the United States, followed by two fascinating days in Edinburgh, dramatically sited and historically unspoiled. 

London: Victorian Holland Park, Preserved in Amber


ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER NEIGHBORHOOD, another historic house museum…in yesterday’s drizzle I took the Tube to Holland Park, en route to 18 Stafford Terrace, the perfectly preserved upper-middle class home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne and his family.

The Sambournes moved to the newly built five-story row house in 1876 and spent the next ten years furnishing it in then-fashionable Aesthetic style, with William Morris wallpapers even on the ceiling and bric-a-brac everywhere. No surface, vertical or horizontal, was left uncovered, by framed drawings and photographs (Sambourne was an avid amateur photographer, especially of female nudes), bronze statuettes, Japanese screens, blue-and-white china and so on.

The family lived in the house for 36 years. After the deaths of Linley and Marion Sambourne, their children, Ray and Maud, kept the furnishings intact. In 1989, the Sambourne’s granddaughter, Anne deeded it to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and it was opened to the public.

On my way to 18 Stafford Terrace, I got a bit hung up in Holland Park itself, larger and more photogenic than expected.


They don’t stint on daffodils in the wilder sections of the park…


Other areas of the park are more formal, above. There’s even a small Japanese garden inspired by Kyoto’s temple gardens, below, along with playgrounds and cricket fields.


The Linley Sambourne house is on a block lined with uniform rows of same.


Then I walked the surrounding streets, enjoying the glossy painted doorways and signs of spring.


I had lunch at The Ivy Kensington Brasserie on nearby Kensington High Street. My chicken and quinoa salad, below, came with a lime-yogurt dressing.


In the evening, I met a friend at Shakespeare’s Globe for a Jacobean tragedy, The White Devil, in a production lit only by candlelight. We made it to the intermission.

London: Sunday Sail to Greenwich


MUCH IS NEW in London since I was last here a decade ago, development spurred largely by the 2012 London Olympics.

Not least of the improvements are the new Overground train service, which makes access to central London from some outlying neighborhoods, including Dalston, near where I’m staying, much more convenient, and the Thames Clipper, a large-capacity ferry service with a score of stops at newly built wharves on both sides of the river.

This past Sunday, my friend and I joined the throngs of tourists speaking a babel of languages on an eastward sail to Greenwich, a pretty riverside town with a long maritime history, where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born.

It’s the site of another masterpiece of classical architecture, Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital, now a university campus, as well as the red-brick Victorian Royal Observatory, now a family-friendly planetarium — a steep climb gladly undertaken for the view — and the Meridian line that establishes Greenwich Mean Time (just a line).

Beyond that, Greenwich is a vast swath of hilly parkland, with rewarding vistas of the city skyline five miles to the west, and a long-established village with several lively outdoor antiques markets and crowded pubs.


A view of the new building called the ‘Walkie Talkie’ from our embarkation point near London Bridge. Heading east under Tower Bridge…


Past modern residential developments and re-purposed old warehouses…


Glimpsing of the historic pub The Prospect of Whitby tucked between more massive newer structures…


Christopher Wren’s and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor’s classical set piece dates from 1694. Until 1998, it was The Royal Naval Hospital


Enjoyed my Ploughman’s lunch (bread, cheese, pickled vegs) at the Trafalgar Tavern 


The classical complex at Greenwich is now a university campus, with a chapel, an art museum and some rooms open to the public