Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 2. Queen’s State Apartments and King’s State Apartments.

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Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne.  Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.

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The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.

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These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious,  we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.

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The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.

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The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.

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The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.

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Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.

 

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Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

Porches Velho, Porches, Algarve, Portugal

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Porches Velho is a restaurant that could be called a hidden gem. Porches is an attractive village about three kilometres inland from the Southern Algarvian coast, between Carvoeiro and Armacao De Pera. It is quiet and calm, with narrow cobbled streets and is relatively untouristed, even in the height of summer. The area is famous for its pottery and the local workshops are certainly worth a visit. However, the largest of these are on the nearby N125 and not so many people go into the village itself.

The village has a pretty church. Its bells rang (8pm on a Wednesday, if you would like to try to recreate the effect) as we walked up the hill to the restaurant and a sliver of moon shone over its steeple, making us feel a little like we had stepped into a spaghetti western, so the romantic scene was set even before we entered the restaurant. The room itself has high vaulted ceilings, it is a 200 year old converted wine cellar. It has thick whitewashed walls decorated sparsely with antique agricultural equipment, tiles and old fashioned lamps. It oozes Portuguese tradition from every beam.

Porches Velho is a “Restaurante Tipico Potugues” which means that it serves classic Portuguese food. The tables are dressed in white linen with white napkins and soon after you are shown to your table the waiter brings the couvert dishes, fish paste, olives, pickled carrots and pickled beetroot, also a basket of sliced local bread with oil and butter. The wines are all Portuguese and there is a full list to choose from.

The starters consist of fish, soup or vegetarian dishes. We had a Portuguese Gazpacho and the vegetable soup. Both were excellent, the vegetable was thick and hot and the Gazpacho was spicy and juicy. The main course menu has many traditional dishes. Rabbit Cataplana, Alentejo Lamb and chicken casserole are among the interesting choices.

We went for the Old Portuguese Style Steak and the Medallions of Black Pork Tenderloin. The Pork was perfectly cooked, and served with a sauce of wild mushrooms on the side. The sauce was delicious and thick with different types of mushroom. The Steak is served in a deep dish, covered in serrano ham, surrounded by sliced potatoes, in a thick brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. This is a traditional way to serve steak in the Algarve and many restaurants offer this dish. This particular version though, was beautifully tender, the steak was very good quality and one of the nicest that I have had.

For the dessert offering, the waiters come to your table carrying the choices available. This is a clever idea, as one is much more likely to be tempted by seeing the dishes than by reading about it on the menu. The ice-cream is homemade and I can certainly vouch for the chocolate one being rich and flavourful.

The service was very good, we felt that they were genuinely interested in our opinions of the food and went out of their way to ensure that we had a good evening. Porches Velho is a wonderful Portuguese Restaurant with lovely traditional Portuguese hospitality. It is a hidden gem of the Algarve, a little of the beaten track but all the better for it and certainly worth the trip to visit it. Highly Recommended.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson) 2011

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In 2008 Tomas Alfredson made “Let the right one in” an excellent vampire movie that was totally unlike any other film in that genre. Here, three years later in his first English language movie, he makes a spy thriller that is as different from a James Bond film as it is possible to be. Set in London and Budapest in 1973, it is a simple story with a very complicated plot. Basically, it has been discovered that there is a double agent in the London office of MI5 and George Smiley, nicely played by Gary Oldman, has been brought in to unearth his identity.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is set in a world where spying is anything but glamorous, dull offices full of middle aged men, who drink too much to disguise the fact that their lives consist of paperwork and petty office politics. The cast reads like a who’s who of British and Irish actors, Gary Oldman was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BAFTA for his role. Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy all feature. Cathy Burke has a lovely cameo as Connie Sachs, a sacked secretary who misses mothering “her boys”.

The script is well written, in that the dialogue is terse and tight, this was also nominated for an Oscar. I suspect there is not enough exposition, I already knew the story and had to put some pieces together from memory, so for an audience coming to it completely fresh it might be quite difficult to follow in places. The costumes and setting direction was definitely approached as a 1970s period drama and attention to detail was maintained in the interior scenes and fashions. It was nice to see a few tantalising shots of London, I guess Hampstead’s Swimming Ponds haven’t changed much in the intervening years.

The movie won Best British Film at the BAFTAs for 2011 and was in many top 10 of the year lists. It is a very good London film and I recommend it if you like spy stories and would be interested in seeing a rendition that concentrates on the intricacies of the storylines and highlights the more prosaic work of a secret agent.

The Patate, Kerb, Camden Market, London NW1

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The next step on our hunt for London’s best burger led us once again to Camden Market. This time we went on a dreary damp Monday in December, and still the place was mobbed. We had friends visiting from Ireland, who combined the trip with some light Christmas shopping. On a side note, the market appears to be a very good venue if you are searching for unusual and funky gifts. The Patate is unit 215, the centre of a bank of three purpose built food stalls facing into the square. The main sign says French Burger with The Patate in smaller letters underneath.

 

The have a pot of boeuf bourguignon heating on the griddle and it is this that they make their burgers from. They are very specialised, that is all they do. You can have it with or without cheese and with or without fries. They do have three different types of cheese, and they do have béarnaise sauce to go on the chips, which you can have with added chilli. When you order, they take the beef bourguignon and make it into a patty on the griddle and cook for about five minutes drizzling the gravy over as it cooks.

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We had one with Raclette cheese and one with a Camembert Blue. The hamburgers were beautifully moist and the meat was incredibly tender. This burger is probably not for you if you do not like your meat to be well done, but there is still a lot of taste in this meal because it has been cooked in the gravy from the stew. The cheeses were both delicious and creamy, unusual for a hamburger, but they set off this particular one very well. The chips were nice and crisp and the béarnaise was divine.

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Once again, being from a street food stall, there was no knife and fork, but I guess we knew this would be the case when we came. The burger was delicious but if you are a person who chooses to have their meat rare, or even medium, you will not have that option here. A great meal, lovely friendly service and for a tasty variation, I would certainly recommend it. If we were looking for the best burger in Paris it might be the one, but its a bit too sophisticated for the best burger in London.

Handel & Hendrix in London, Brook Street, London W1

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London has a number of small and quirky museums. This one dedicated to life and works of George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix is certainly an unexpected combination. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the 18th Century and Hendrix lived at number 23 for short time in the 1960s.

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Bach’s house is decorated in the slightly austere Georgian style that was fashionable when he lived there. It does contain some beautiful musical instruments, including a wonderful harpsichord and a chamber organ. The bedroom has a four poster bed and there are some good paintings and a bust of Handel too. There are recitals held in the music room at least once a week and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.

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The Hendrix flat is laid out somewhat differently. The bedroom/living room is decorated as it would have been when Hendrix and his girlfriend lived here, this is borne out by the many photos of the room published during this time. The rest of the apartment is done in a more traditional museum style, with guitars and jackets in glass cases and commemorative posters on the walls.  The bedroom is interesting, the fact that it is so classically psychedelic Carnaby Street 1960s in style probably reflects the huge effect that he had on the fashion of the time.

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Unlike many museums in London, this one is not free unless you have a National Art Pass. It is small but it does contain a number of curious items. It is striking to compare what the height of fashion was in the centre of London two hundred years apart – and there is something apt in the fact that it doesn’t open until 11am on any day. Half an hour or forty minutes will adequately see you round this exhibition, but if you are a fan of either rock or baroque, I think there will be something here to please you.

Mac & Wild, Great Titchfield Street, London W1W

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Mac & Wild is a restaurant that markets itself as serving the highest quality ingredients in its dishes – with a Scottish bias. It is known for its venison, steak and salmon. It is listed in the 2018 Michelin Guide and the Evening Standard named it in their “5 best places to eat game in London”. In 2016 it won the award for the best burger in the UK and it is in Time Out’s list of the best in London.

It opens for dinner at 5.30pm and we arrived, without a reservation, before 6. The place seemed pretty quiet, but they told us they would be able to squeeze us in at a table near the window. It was a damp autumnal Tuesday so I was a bit sceptical, but sure enough, by twenty past six they were turning people away and the restaurant was packed by the time we left at 7pm.

The room is long and narrow, decorated in a rustic style, with plain walls, rough hewn wooden tables and chairs and monochrome photos of Scottish countryside on the walls. There is a cellar room too, the same shape and decorated similarly. Even the bathrooms continue the rustic theme, with an old fashioned overhead ceramic cistern and a chain pull flush.

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The menu is basically steak, venison, salmon, cod or hamburger. The sizes and cuts of steak vary according to their stock, they have a list on the wall and cross them out as they are sold. There are vegetarian starters and one main course on the list.  We ordered the scotch egg and fish bites to start. The fish was delicious as was the egg. We were here late October and the Scotch egg came Halloween style – stuck with a syringe and oozing blood! Very funny, but possibly not for the fainthearted.

The burger has two patties, one beef and one venison, it comes with caramelised onion melted cheese and béarnaise. The taste is good, a nice meaty flavour, juicy and with a lovely texture. Be aware that it will come rare unless you ask for it to be well done, unusually they did not enquire when we ordered. The bun is a nice toasted brioche and the chips are skin on and tasty.

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It is served on a tin tray, with the chips in a small metal bucket by its side. For a restaurant that is proud of its Scottish heritage, a plate seems like an odd thing for it to forgo. At least it did come with a knife and fork. The lager was quite pricey, a hair under a fiver for a small tin. There are a number of wines served by the glass and the Pinot Grigio Rose was good. The service is excellent, the waiters are likeable and honest, they seem genuinely invested in making sure we had a good time.

All in all we had a really good experience. Mac & Wild are proud of the provenance of their ingredients and this shows in the quality of their burger.  If you plan on going, I would certainly recommend that you book – even as we left there was a couple standing outside in the drizzle waiting for us to pay the bill, so they could have our table.