An ode to Chateau Impney

I recently finished reading Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner for the first time. How it had escaped a prior read is beyond me.  It’s an elegant beautiful but gentle love story with a subtle plot marking a massive change in the main character’s life. It’s set in a Swiss hotel next to a lake, or lac, right at the end of the season. The end of the season could symbolise the changes in the main character.

I wondered whether the time it was written influenced the elements of charm which could be considered outdated today; the interactions, the manners, the simple afternoon teas (rather than the lavish contemporary affairs awash with champagne).

I knew where I was heading as I drove up the M40. My journey ended as I was swept off the A38 near Droitwich Spa and onto the long driveway of Chateau Impney. As I passed the horse paddocks to my right the Chateau with its towers came into view.

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I was transported to Hotel Du Lac.

Unfortunately I was not there to work on my novella but to attend a management meeting. Several years ago we found the hotel for meetings being equidistant from our North and South offices. The premises do not deliver a modern convenient hotel but instead ooze character and kitsch from every orifice.

I walked through the main entrance with my rucksack and overnight bag, rather weary from the journey. Something looked different. Gone was the wood-panelled semi-circular reception where the staff would complete registration cards and hand out oversized keys. In its stead was a work in progress with accompanied contractors. The much smaller marble desk looked chic but was certainly not the Chateau I had come to know.

Chateau Impney reception

The contractors pointed me further into the hotel and to the temporary home of the reception while the works were being completed. I was informed the hotel was undergoing change and I would be accommodated in one of the new, modernised rooms. On the one hand I was grateful as I needed to rest but wondered if the unique and dated charm had been removed.

I was instructed to head to the 2nd floor to my room 601; the lift was out of service.

The room was lovely and very modern with soft tones, a firm mattress and a newly fitted bathroom.

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I had to pause and remember the character of the rooms of old.

Some background information about Chateau Impney tells us it was born in 1875 as a dream of John Corbett after marrying a French woman. The property was built in the style of Louis XIII. It became a hotel in 1928. The website speaks of a major refurbishment in the 1970s. From my visits it’s clear that no major works or updating have been carried out since.

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I first visited in 2011, again for a management meeting, and had gotten rumours of the quirky set-up and rooms. I suspected that some at least of what I’d heard must be myth.

As I checked in I was informed my room had a name rather than a number. All the rooms in the main Chateau had female French names. We had lots of Carry On laughs about ‘being in Lucille’ ‘Marianne’ or countless others.

We planned to dine in the carvery. The restaurant and one of the two bars were situated in the bowels of the hotel. The bar was a mix of hot red leatherette banquette and stool seating against wood with large wooden cart wheels built into the bar. The Carvery was within a stone cave with a beamed ceiling and arches creating snugs. The food was carved and served from one corner of the cave and the meat and vegetable plates and serving dishes were in quite a small space with a self-service salad bar to the side. It was not unusual to have a chef cutting your meat (choice of two/three) and two waitresses loading your plate with vegetables, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and gravy. You would find yourself nodding or verbally affirming every second second as your plate gained weight in your hand.

Chateau Impney dining

The rooms themselves had beds with built in bedside tables and were generally adorned with bedspreads of many colours. The carpets were pink, green or beige and the bathrooms every colour of 1970s décor: sky blue, pampas, champagne, chocolate, avocado, pink or burgundy.

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Chateau Impney

So as I lay on my new modern bed with scatter pillows, I wondered, or hoped, that the carvery was still there. It was certainly a trip into the past. I descended the grand staircase framed with beautifully wood-panelled walls and headed towards the smaller staircase which would transport me to the basement. It was closed off. Dinner was in one of the ballrooms which had been temporarily changed into the restaurant. It was lovely and the food great but it wasn’t the carvery. Would the modernisation remove the carvery? I dare not ask. At least the views were consistent.

Chateau Impney view

At our meeting the following day I was glad to see that the plate loaded with homemade shortbread biscuits was present. The shortbread is too much temptation to resist and I suspect contains a day’s calories per slice.

Other features include very pretty manicured gardens which are perfect to take a turn around, hidden meeting rooms up secret staircases and the afternoon teas which bring in all the local aging folk; the kind who take afternoon tea as a regular meal as they would breakfast, lunch or dinner rather than as an event.

I am going to miss you Chateau Impney of old. Many of your touches are displaced yet classic, and mirror my Boulevardier persona.

TNW

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Breakfast at Prada

Why was having breakfast at Tiffany’s so important to Holly Golightly?

She needed somewhere to escape where the pressures of life evaporated and she could dream. Looking at all the beautiful, shiny jewellery gave her a tinted view. Think Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the feeling of rose-coloured spectacles.

Whenever Holly experienced fears and anxieties, or ‘the mean reds’ as she called them, she would jump in a taxi and head for Tiffany’s. She told us that ‘Nothing bad could happen amid that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.’ Her dream was to have breakfast in this safe and soothing setting.

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Can retail establishments do that for us? Do they need to have a glossy and exclusive appeal?

It is well documented, clinically, that we experience a rush of endorphins and dopamine giving us a natural high which we want to repeat and repeat and then repeat. But Holly was often not making a purchase. It was just being in that environment that washed her drama away, temporarily in any event.

This flashes me back to a beautifully warm morning in central Rome in late September 2007. Opportunities to enjoy al fresco dining were fast disappearing along with the temperatures in London. After a long morning on the tourist trail we stopped for lunch at a wonderful Roman café. It would have been foolhardy to sit inside, and from memory I don’t think inside seating was available. However, there came, with the collection of outside dining tables, chairs and place-settings,the threat of the dirty scavenging pigeons. My fear of birds kicked in at that time and thoughts of them pecking around my toes, or in fact anywhere in my vicinity always sends me into a virtual panic attack.

Where does my fear come from? Two of my cousins are equally afflicted. However, I suspect my mum helped, in making sure that we ‘ran from the chickens quickly’ when visiting my grandfather’s farm. This coupled with an early memory of sitting on my dad’s shoulders as he chewed the cud with my granddad outside one of the barns. I watched a brightly-coloured cockerel pull back on what would be its heels, as if tensing a catapult ready to fire to maximise the power of its forward momentum, and lunged at my dad’s leg. Dad wasn’t bothered. He had grown up on a farm, and was used to vicious birds and other animals overstepping their mark, and kicked it away. It didn’t come back but that made no difference to me. The vivid picture of brightly-coloured fast feathers, sharp-attacking beak and aggression was etched in my mind.

So we sat down in Rome and ordered a beautiful pasta lunch washed down with cold and refreshing Italian beer. I kept my eyes on the pigeon situation and we were code green and safe. I relaxed and then all of a sudden I spotted a couple of filthy pigeons below a neighbouring table. I made a loud gesture in the hopes of scaring the pigeons away. They did move but this also resulted in some odd looks from the people on the pigeon-infested table. My lunch company Catia (our host) and friends Marc, Martina and Florian were bemused at my activity. However, my senses were heightened, green replaced by amber, and within the next couple of minutes I had shoooooed a number of nearby pigeons away. Amber gave way to red and I was on full alert with an attack imminent. When I spotted the next heading towards our table, and my legs, I leapt up and declared in a panicked voice ‘This is ridiculous. The place is crawling with filth.’ This drew a lot of attention from my companions and neighbouring gormandisers. Catia, no stranger herself to dramatic outbreaks, jumped up too and emphatically told me to take a walk around the square while they finished their drinks and settled the bill. I needed no convincing and was out of there like a lightning bolt.

I walked around the beautiful ancient square and tried to settle on the inspiring architecture and warm sun, but it wasn’t entirely successful in removing my anxiety. I met my friends back at the café entrance and informed them that there was only one cure. We had to head to Prada.

It was only a short walk to Via Condotti. A beautiful old cobbled street leading to the Spanish Steps or as Catia likes to call them Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti. She disapproves of the term Spanish Steps as it’s not Italian (fair point), and was not impressed when I showed her a sign next to the steps calling them ‘Spanish Steps’. She threw her arms in the air and declared that she would write to the municipality. It was odd that on my next visit the sign had disappeared. Catia innocently contested it was not of her doing. I am not convinced.

Prada

Prada spans several shop fronts and we entered the men’s department. My breathing settled a little as I was able to feast my eyes on the chic and tasteful man bags, sunglasses and organisers before me. Accessories were at the front. We worked our way through the store. I paused at the clothing and was really attracted to a black woollen holey sweater. Unfortunately they only stocked children’s sizes masquerading as adult. Beyond the clothing was the footwear section where a pair of gold-coloured trainers sparkled at me. They were beautiful. I had to have them. Sizing was perfect and within an hour I exited the store with wonderful new trainers and another pair of oversized sunglasses. The Prada experience had washed away the dramatic episode with those darn birds.

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Holly, I am completely there with you and understand the need to have an inspiring, shiny, new and healing sanctuary to head to when needed. Prada, like Tiffany’s, comes with a hefty price tag and I am therefore reluctantly grateful that Crouch End does not yet host a Prada emporium.

TNW

Because Laughing Matters

Exercise is an important part of the Boulevardier’s routine, and to comply I am a regular at Virgin Active, Crouch End. A few weeks ago I went to the Saturday morning spin class, as usual. I was, however, incredibly tired and after about ten minutes started to feel dizzy. Mia, on the bike next to me, looked at me and said I didn’t look great and recommended I stop immediately. I left the class feeling a little dramatic. As I walked to Waitrose I started to feel a pain right across my chest. There was a familiarity to it. It was not as severe as it had been in January and I hoped it was muscular pain rather than more pulmonary emboli. I took to my bed for the remainder of the weekend.

I hoped Monday morning would bring a refreshing spring to my step. Once awake I took a deep breath and could still feel the pain. Eleven hours later I heard those fateful words ‘I’m sorry but there are more clots on your lungs.’

I thought my January episode was a one-off, and with clots dissipated by the anti-coagulant medication, my only reminder was a degree of tiredness, which had been a feature of the year.

This chapter means anti-coagulants for life, a lot more tests and the return of the debilitating weakness and tiredness. I was determined not to let it affect me the way it had previously and tried to press on.

After seeing a preview of Laughing Matters starring Celia Imrie with Fidelis Morgan’s direction, I purchased tickets as soon as they were available. I had been looking forward to the show and wasn’t about to let the blood clots ruin my enjoyment. They would limit but not destroy it. The only challenge was that the performance was five days after diagnosis.

Saturday evening soon came around. I felt tired and weak and needed to ensure I used my depleted energy reserves sensibly. I made quick decisions regarding my outfit and settled upon Ralph Lauren painter’s jeans, All Saints T, and H&M jean and jersey jacket.

The Revue was held downstairs at Brasserie Zedel, which is just behind Piccadilly Circus.

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The Brasserie looks quite modest from the exterior. However, the downward sweeping staircase leads to a lovely restaurant, retro American bar, and an intimate and unique venue called The Crazy Coqs.

Crazy Coq’s oozes Art Deco with rich banquette seating along two sides, the stage and a Great Gatsby era bar occupying the others. The walls were lined with pictures from France in the 1930s. Chandeliers are draped richly from the ceiling. The room was filled with clusters of bistro style tables with red atmosphere lamps. 1930s Paris surrounded us.

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It was all very civilised, and while it was not possible to reserve seating, the  Maître d’ had our names and escorted us to our table. On stage were a set of drums, a coat stand and an ebony and sleek grand piano. The pianist enticed us to get into the spirit of the show with lots of Noel Coward numbers. I wanted to immerse and enjoy cocktails, served by blackuniformed waiting staff, but decided against it due to the state of my health.

I started to feel too tired already, but I was determined to ignore it. Stomach cramps were setting in too which added nicely to the way I was feeling. I was lucky to be surrounded by Michael, Alkan, Michael and Ange who looked after me.

Celia burst from the back of the room imprisoned by a straitjacket and launched into her version of Twisted made famous by Annie Ross which parodies the psychoanalysis of the protagonist’s insanity.

We were off and early signs were great!

The Revue combined music, dance and sketches perfectly and seamlessly. We were transported back to its golden years, the first part of the twentieth century.

This was going to be good and I wasn’t about to let my clots spoil the evening and popped a couple of paracetamol to lessen the pain.

The marketing for the show told us that Celia really believes that… laughing matters. It was true, she was clearly enjoying herself and we were too. Her classic training, pedigree and star quality shone through. However, she was not aloof. Celia was right there with us; yes on a stage, but if we were around a piano having a sing-song she would have been there too. And yes these evenings still occur. Only recently, after a few glasses of Prosecco at my friend Marina’s birthday, we retired to the home of her friends Patrick and Neil. They have a white, baby grand in the sitting-room of their terraced Islington Villa and we gathered around and sung show and popular tunes to our hearts’ content. Needless to say, we accompanied our singing with a few more refreshments.

One outstanding sketch for me was Common Talk by Alan Melville. It told the tale of a woman who had recently left the safety of central London and decamped to Wimbledon. Her vista allowed her to observe all the untoward (and mostly nocturnal) activity on the Common. It really is a common Common, or so she tells us a number of times.

I also really enjoyed ‘Smut’ where a rather well-to-do campaigner against double entendres tried to persuade us to reconsider hobbies to take our mind off of sex. She asked us to consider gardening and innocently delivered her own double entendres about her impressive melons and the like. I heard this piece, performed by Celia, earlier in the year at a Literary Salon where it was equally successful in having the audience guffawing out loud

There was a mass of nostalgia, of times lost, throughout the show and I for one would welcome back the Revue. We live in an age of auto tune and technical wizardry but none of that supplants the enjoyment received from raw and intimate performance.

I wish I had had the energy to laugh outwardly as loudly as I was inside. The show was all too soon over, but by this time I was really weak and needed to jump in a cab and straight home to bed.

The reviews of the Revue have been mixed, and perhaps I am not a professional, and therefore overlooked missing elements required to make the show a resounding success, but I thoroughly enjoyed its mix, and refreshingly new retro elements.

Laughing Matters

I can do no better in summary than to quote The Telegraph:

The evening is tinged with palest blue, but the allure is definitely more Anglo-Saxon than Gallic – saucy rather than sophisticated, more Marie Lloyd than Mistinguett, with overtones that are sexy, but also strangely comforting – as though your favourite auntie had dressed up in something sparkly and started twirling her knickers around her head.

We need more shows like this, and who knows, I might just be brave enough one day to put one on.

TNW

Phone box of my youth

Change is always in the air, and as we mature there are more layers of transformation to observe.

When I lived in Hackney in the mid to late 1990s regeneration was in the early stages of gestation. I lived on Richmond Road, overlooking London Fields. As I walked along Richmond Road to Mare Street I would pass Flowers East Gallery, and an old factory, which became derelict while I lived there.

There was a group of shops at the Mare Street/Richmond Road junction among which was a newspaper shop, Hair By Byron (Greek barber called Vic), a rundown off licence (selling more special brew than anything), and a builders’ café.

Now the area is unrecognisable with high blocks of offices and flats with beautiful cafes and shops below. The factory and Byron are long gone.

Sometimes however, it’s not just areas that disappear and alter beyond recognition, but parts of our heritage. The change is slow and sometimes we don’t notice until something is gone. Perhaps even several years later we ponder ‘What happened to…?’

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Libraries for one are reducing in number and a recent report from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport tells us that the proportion of adults using them has fallen from 48% to 36%. How long before they become defunct, empty and destitute?

How about the humble British telephone box?

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The iconic red boxes started to disappear from our streets as far back as 1985 when BT announced modernisation and redesign. They are no longer being modernised or iconic but disappearing. The availability of mobile telephones has rendered them more redundant. Many sit derelict, vandalised and unused.

Recently while I waited for a friend outside Camden underground station I noticed two telephone boxes, side by side, keeping each other company as everyone walked by them, and didn’t even notice they were there.

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I kept focussed on the phone boxes to see if any of the multitudes of brightly coloured pedestrians even noticed or acknowledged their existence. After a few minutes a solitary, rather desperate looking, middle-aged woman went into one and attempted to make a call but was soon out to try the other. She left that swiftly too and I had to deduce that both were ‘out of service’.

These phone boxes, booths, kiosks or whatever you prefer to call them were once the centre of society. Everyone knew where their nearest was. They played a key role in social planning and events. People planned to call or to be called at a public telephone at set times so as not to miss each other. There was not the modern convenience of being able to call, and reach your friends, family and business acquaintances at will.

The mind is an odd contraption and it’s bizarre how memories are triggered. Thinking of telephone boxes in Camden took me right back to my youth…

In the Hertfordshire village, Flamstead, where I grew up there were two phone boxes. One was adjacent to the combined Post Office/grocer’s store and the second was directly outside my childhood home.

Our boundary was a privet hedge and gates across the driveway. Beyond that was a grass verge with a phone box situated on the corner. The grass verge wasn’t part of our property but Dad always mowed the grass when he cut our own. He reasoned that he didn’t want the verge to look unkempt as it affected the street side vista of our home. He would also park his van on the grass verge to keep a vehicle off the street, particularly as we lived on a sharp corner.

The phone box presented a challenge. It had been there for a significant number of years and long before the roads were so full of cars. Vehicles would frequently park directly outside the box creating a hazard, or worse, blocking our driveway. Mum acted as a great sentry and would charge out when she spotted the vehicle and demand that the vehicle be moved immediately. On a few occasions several callers actually pulled into the drive which generated a similar, if not even more, strident response.

Eventually my parents made representations to the local Council to have it removed. The response was disappointing and the letter confirmed that Trowley Hill was a public highway and unless there were yellow lines present vehicles may park at will. Our corner was not considered in need of yellow lines. Further representations concerning common courtesy and blocking points of access fell on deaf ears.

That said, Mum would also go out armed with a dustpan, brush, dishcloth (as long as it could go straight in the bin after as it wasn’t welcome back in the home after servicing the box), polish and duster to ensure that the phone box had the same level of sheen as our home.

I asked her why she would expend energy cleaning a public telephone box. She replied

‘I am not having that filthy thing outside our house!’

She would also collect stray one and two pence coins and deposit them in the charity box in the aforementioned village Post Office.

I guess it was a love-hate relationship.

Many of the village inhabitants also used the phone box and quite often there would be groups of my friends making calls to whomever. I even received a phone call once from an admirer asking if I was at home. I had no idea she was calling from the telephone box outside my house!

Do you remember your own phone box experiences? Ask anyone under 35 when they last used a phone box, and if they even know where their nearest is. I sadly now don’t know where my nearest is, or when last I used it. They are indeed confined to the past, but that doesn’t mean we should forget them and this blog shall serve as my homage to a disappearing but vital part of our social and communications past.

TNW