Thursday 23 November 2017

London calling... for a spirited city break

Short breaks in Europe

City colour... Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and the London Eye — just a few of the many attractions to keep any visitor to London busy
City colour... Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and the London Eye — just a few of the many attractions to keep any visitor to London busy
Even the wallpaper at Kensington Palace, which Mary visited, reflects on the life of Diana
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

It was in the spirit of Dr Johnson's great maxim, "He (or she) who is tired of London, is tired of life," that a city break there was chosen to celebrate the big birthday of a dear friend.

Tired of life - perish the thought. Her appetite for fashion and the finer things of life have merely grown with the years and it seemed the gods had conspired to provide an embarrassment of events to satisfy her.

Top of her list of things to see were the Diana collection in Kensington Palace and the Balenciaga Exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum, so an easy-to-access hotel was a must, and an invitation to stay at the recently refurbished Lanesborough hotel on Hyde Park Corner in London SW1 was timely. We couldn't have got more central or more luxurious; the hotel is right next to the Tube but in fact we were able to walk to both our exhibitions, and to Harrods and Harvey Nicks. Heaven.

Frankly however, after settling into our hotel we really didn't want to move, it was so delightful.

It's a stunning combination of old world elegance and cutting-edge technology.

The building, built in 1719 was originally the private townhouse of Viscount Lanesborough and has all the gorgeous features of the period - high ceilings, marble mantelpieces, wonderful cornices - and when it was recently renovated it was decided to make the most of these elements. It's also been decorated in the warm colours favoured during the Regency period.

Decorating techniques such as stencilling, gold leaf and trompe l'oeil, were employed extensively in those days as were fabrics like silk and taffeta, and there is impressive use of all in the redecoration, both in the public areas and the bedrooms - apparently 42,000 sheets of gold leaf were used.

One really outstanding feature was the green tented room - a little sitting room just off the reception area. The room represents the kind of battle tent used by Napoleon and which Wellington would have purloined as part of the spoils of war, and it was given the tented effect by means of painstaking trompe l'oeil paintwork that took one expert six months to paint.

The 18th century theme is continued in the artwork - it's the hotel has the largest known collection of 18th century art outside of museums.

By way of complete contrast to all this elegance is the ultra-luxury modern spa and the technology in each room - TVs in the mirrors, TVs that slide out of sight when not needed and Sony tablets controlling lighting, curtains, and hotel information, and it was fun testing all the things that could be done. Each room is also assigned a butler around the clock but it was all so perfect I couldn't think of a thing I needed the butler to do. She was particularly keen to pack my case on my departure but I declined her offer thinking my bits and pieces too flimsy to be bothered with. Later I was kicking myself that I didn't accept her offer and learn her secrets. Another time, I hope.

Despite all the technology, the excellent personal service was really the highlight of the hotel and this was nowhere more evident than at dinner in the Michelin-starred Celeste restaurant, where we were treated like queens. The food was sublime. Foie gras, lobster, prawns, duck are flat words on a page but given the Michelin-starred Celeste treatment, they became the sustenance of the gods. And of course it wasn't just any old lobster, it was native blue lobster and the lamb was home country lamb - in other words the acme of local ingredients.

For me the dessert is always the most important part of a meal, and it didn't disappoint. The Celeste doesn't go in for fancy titles so it was simply called 'chocolate' but as I discovered it was the best - it was Guanaja chocolate mousse, with caramelised cashew nut praline and vanilla ice cream. My friend is something of a connoisseur of fine food and wine being a regular at Patrick Guilbaud's, and to her delight she knew the sommelier on the night, Pierre Marie, who had worked at Guilbaud's for years. He seemed thrilled to see Irish faces and plied us with an incredible selection of wines.

We had to remind ourselves that we came to London to see some sights, so early the next morning we took ourselves across Hyde Park, through Kensington Park and into Kensington Palace to see a selection of Princess Diana's clothes, from her early days as a gauche teenager to the elegant fashion leader she went on to become. It was interesting to note that when she started dating Prince Charles she had only one good dress, one blouse and one pair of good shoes - it was hardly a money problem so it can only be deduced that she had no interest at the time and yet she developed such incredible style.

Her most beautiful dresses were certainly the ones she wore after she and Charles divorced, when she consciously used fashion to express her liberation from monarchical constraints and her new iconic international status.

It was quite moving to see them there on the tailors' dummies - no longer worn, pristine, lifeless. The exhibition continues until February 2018 (www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/explore/diana-her-fashion-story)

Diana spent her last night on earth at the Ritz, Paris - we couldn't go there so instead we went to the Ritz London, for champagne afternoon tea, where we toasted her style, in style.

I never realised it before but there was actually a Mr Ritz; Cesar Ritz founded the hotel and the phrase 'Puttin' on the Ritz' from the musical actually came from the hotels. And afternoon tea there is like something from a Broadway show. The Palm Court where the famous afternoon tea is served is delightfully over the top, all gold and pink with plasterwork cherubs, art deco mullioned mirrors and a profusion of fresh pink roses and ferns. The waiters race around in matching tails carrying heavy silver teapots and pushing vast trolleys groaning with eye-watering confectionery and tiered silverware of finger sandwiches.

The clientele was a fascination too - lots of young women in head-to-toe Chanel and other designer brands nibbling at the corner of a tiny sandwich without actually ingesting any of it, as well as jolly family gatherings celebrating birthdays and other anniversaries.

Naturally we devoured it all. My friend is coeliac and her whole tea was specially gluten-free, and she declared it delicious. There was a rather dramatic moment when she decided to break her own rules and have some of a particularly inviting cake that was not a gluten-free option. Our waiter summoned the head waiter who solemnly advised her of the dangers to her health but foolhardy woman that she is, she ignored him. Happily all was well. (www.theritzlondon.com)

After another wonderful night at the Lanesborough we headed to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Balenciaga show (runs until Feb 18, 2018, www.vam.ac.uk).

The V&A always does things brilliantly, and this was no exception. As well as photos, videos and endless examples of the avant garde creations of this great Spanish designer of the early-to-mid-twentieth century who influenced all who came after him, including Dior and St Laurent, there are tributes from many contemporary designers including our own Simone Rocha and JW Anderson; they explain in what ways Balenciaga influenced them. Balenciaga who created many shapes, including the baby doll dress, the sack dress and the balloon hem is widely credited with changing the way we dress. The funnest part of the exhibition was a copy of a skirt/cape that Balenciaga designed to be worn both ways and which was available for all to try, and like all the other women visitors we had to put on a Balenciaga if only for a moment.

Karl Lagerfeld famously said fashion is neither moral or immoral, it's for rebuilding the morale, and our weekend of luxury, fashion and fun certainly did that for us.

Take Two

Top attractions

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Liberty of London

No trip to London is complete without a visit to Liberty, one of the world’s most beautiful department stores with its mix of fashion, iconic fabrics, antiques and rare finds.  www.libertylondon.com

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National Gallery

To mark the centenary of his death, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is staging a wonderful exhibition of Degas’s paintings (until May 2018). More details:

www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

Getting there

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The gorgeous Celeste Restaurant at The Lanesborough

Rates at The Lanesborough start from £645 per night on a room-only basis.

For more information, you should visit

www.lanesborough.com/eng/home

Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only four-star airline, flies up to 30 times daily from Ireland to London, Gatwick and Heathrow, flying out of Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Shannon and Knock. Fares start from €27.99 one-way including taxes and charges.

See aerlingus.com for latest offers.

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The exterior of The Lanesborough

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