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I wondered whether the time it was written influenced the elements of charm which could be considered outdated today; the interactions, the manners, the simple afternoon teas (rather than the lavish contemporary affairs awash with champagne).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

You say tom-ate-o and I say tom-art-o

Arguments have long endured between the British and Americans concerning correct class, etiquette pronunciation and tradition.

I certainly held my sword aloft to this debate when I recently hosted a good friend Joe for a couple of weeks. He is American.

I quite happily quoted Downton Abbey, Tea With Mussolini and other worthy and valuable rules books at him when it suited my purpose.

Did not the Dowager Countess profess in Downton Abbey ‘You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.’

I somehow can’t remember Shirley MacLaine’s response.

I have a great greeting card which questions

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Cher was not invited to the picnic in Tea With Mussolini, as according to Maggie Smith, the ‘Americans simply don’t understand picnics’, and was criticised for buying a knickerbocker glory or ‘that American Monstrosity’. Maggie confirmed that ‘they (Americans) can even vulgarise ice cream!’

I love America and have spent significant time there over the years and enjoy immersing in their culture. However, they do get rather antsy when talking about tradition. Great Britain has been great for a long time and had opportunity to develop, enhance and refine tradition. Perhaps our friends from across the pond should look and learn.

Is the difference in language? We seem to speak the same words but in different order and with apparent misspelling (theirs).

From their fannies (our posteriors) to our fags, (their derogatory word for gays) to our vest (their undershirt or wifebeater), to our wifebeater (a slang term for Stella Artois lager). American vests are our waistcoats, and our braces their suspenders, and our suspenders their garter belts.

It’s no wonder conversations are oft difficult. It reminds me of spending afternoons drinking with a group of Glaswegian friends, whose accents grow stronger and they talk faster with each passing drink. After a short time I always hope I am nodding and smiling in the right places.

So I asked Joe for his 5 points of commentary on the differences or challenges he faced while in England. I will try and offer a suitable answer to each.

1)      Air-conditioning: Admittedly, I grew up in the Southern US and always seem to find myself living in places that are warm and muggy, except during the deep freeze of February. So, I like my air-conditioning. Unfortunately, the London Underground and other enclosed public spaces don’t seem to share my love of things cool. It’s about time that England joined the rest of us in the 21st century and condition the air supply. I’m not saying they have to crank the thermostat down to sub-arctic conditions, but a little cool air is refreshing when one is packed into a carriage with 100 other sweaty people. I was there in September, and that was bad enough. I can just imagine what it’s like at the peak of summertime with tourists so thick you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting 50 of them.

Boulevardier: It is rare that air conditioning is necessitated in the United Kingdom. For the few days a year when it would be useful we would rather protect our atmosphere rather than risk contributing to the ozone layer. But fear not Joe, we are always cool. Rest assured that our styling is carefully plucked and arranged to ensure cool at all times.

2)      Ice: Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop frozen. The US traveller will learn very soon to ask for “extra” ice in their drinks. Otherwise, you’ll just get a cube or two. I’m surprised pubs and the like haven’t caught on that there is less liquid poured into a glass that’s full of ice. Less liquid, higher profit margin; it’s simple economics.

Boulevardier: As a frequent visitor to the USA I am overwhelmed with the amount of ice in drinks. I can barely get to the drink sprinkled lightly between the ice cubes. Perhaps this is why Americans are quite quick to involve support organisations such as AA. I mean if you are able to actually get to the drink between the ice you must have a problem.

3)    Language: George Bernard Shaw purportedly said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Don’t even try to call out an Englishman when he’s made a grammatical gaffe; it’s a battle you will never win, even if you are correct. It is, after all, “their” language. I mean who cares if the major contributors to modern English were the Angles, Jutes, Danes, Norse, Romans, and French? Sadly, the original inhabitants’ Celtic has long been phased out of modern English vocabulary, with only traces of its syntax remaining. However, I digress.

The English know everything there is to know about their language; and other speakers of English from, say, the US (aka speakers of English as a foreign language) will never be able to comprehend the complex nature of the language. Just smile and nod.

Boulevardier: I think you make my argument quite succinctly. Unlike you and your fellow countrymen I do know when to keep quiet.

4) Tipping: Don’t tip in pubs, unless you have food. Round up to tip the cab driver unless he/she assists you with your bags, then it’s a pound per bag. Some restaurants include the tip on the bill, some don’t. Look, either do like the US where everyone sticks their hand out for money regardless of how much or how little service they have provided, irrespective of the quality, OR just do away with tipping all together. Who can remember all the rules for how much to tip because of convoluted tipping customs that would require a dissertation to explain?

Boulevardier: On this point I am happy to agree. Tipping here is confusing. Perhaps we should not have attempted to mimic your ways.

5) Public Transportation: I know I’ve been winging (that’s ‘complaining’ for you non-native speakers) about things I feel would improve England, but I have to say London’s public transport has got it right this time. Convenient, efficient, and for the most part, timely, London’s underground, rail, and bus service is on the mark. I never had to wait more than a few minutes for a train or bus, and it’s fairly simple to navigate. Although a bit pricier than public transport in the US, it’s well worth the little extra cost. I was never more than a few minutes’ walk from a station or stop. I think almost every major city in the US could learn a lesson from London, if they could only get that air-conditioning issue sorted out.

Boulevardier: Agreed. We agree on two of your five points. It was rather lovely when you even knew the times of the W7 bus to and from Crouch End. They come every few minutes so we natives just turn up and ride.

So the war is far from over and Americans may have size, voice and an air of entitlement but it’s no match for our class, style, tradition and age. All in my own humble opinion of course.

TNW

Rules of a displaced Boulevardier

To celebrate over six months of weekly blogging I thought it was time to share with you the very essence of a displaced Boulevardier.

The trusty World Wide Web tells us that a Boulevardier is a man who promenades the fashionable streets of Paris. In other words an urbane, fashionable city dweller, who is usually of higher class and has knowledge of the city, and in particular how to find the best advanced cultural entertainment.

I do think that Crouch End is a suitable replacement for Paris. I also just about manage to replicate the criteria albeit in a displaced fashion.

I will now enlighten (and hopefully entertain) you by providing the seven areas of consideration in my self help guide.   

Hair

A Boulevardier, however displaced, should have a good head of hair. This should be coiffured into a chic style. The quiff is a good example of en vogue tresses, which equally retains a classic and classy element.

Regular visits to the salon are also required. Barbers do serve a purpose, but seem to deal more in volume sheerings than dazzling creations.

The most important part of the appointment is the initial consultation. It is not enough to provide the instruction

‘Just a trim please.’

The Tonsorial Artist will perform much better with a detailed description of each area of the how the cutting should take place for each area of the head.

For example ‘Please don’t cut any length from the front and top. The sides and back should be much shorter, and as short as possible without showing the scalp, and disconnected from the top rather than graduated.’

Healthy (some might say excessive) attention to clothing

Fashion is constantly changing and evolving, and while it would be fantastic to keep right up to the minute with every microscopic change it’s simply not practical. It is important to ensure sartorial sophistication exudes from your wardrobes and this can be achieved by developing your own essence of cool. Of course this will be wrapped around various genres, from hippie to punk, but it will be your own.

A cautionary note should be added. Please check with your friends and family first to validate your ability for natural panache, as without this creating your own style could lead to disaster.

Adding the right and the right number of accessories is vital. Think jewellery, manbag (to manbag or to not?), and shades. Shades are mandatory and the choice should be around which pair to wear.

And contrary to popular belief a man can never have enough shoes.

Social Media Presence            

Updating social media is an art. Each tweet, status update or photo should be interesting and make the reader or viewer wish they were in your world.

For instance if you wake feeling too tired to get up, then you post should read something like the following

‘Decadently lounging in bed savouring endless cups of tea.’

Timing your updates is also key and ensuring you still pay sufficient attention to any company you are keeping. It’s not wise to constantly update when you are in a social situation but sometimes needs must. Much will depend on the duration of your social intercourse. If you are meeting for a short lunch then it’s probably not prudent to be constantly tapping your phone or tablet, but if it’s a longer affair then it’s only reasonable to keep in touch with your wider circle.

Theatre, concerts and the arts

Regular visits to all manner of cultural events are required and enjoyed. Crouch End is vibrant with its own annual arts festival, and with so many nearby local theatres there is always something to watch and enjoy.

From the revue showings of new plays in bars to the acoustic music sessions in the cafes there is always something on.

These experiences should enrich your cultural conversational referencing.

We even had crocheted squares and woven pompoms decorating the trees and railings near the Clock Tower this summer.

Immergence and appreciation of all artistic expression is required.

Elegant Hosting

This is the area of Boulevarding (I think I just invented a new verb!) I struggle with most. The kitchen is not my natural sanctuary. If you think Carrie from Sex and the City, and her redundant kitchen you won’t be too far from the truth. However, I would like to protest that it is almost sacrilegious to stay in when there are global gastronomical opportunities minutes from my residence. Crouch End is bountiful with eateries. Everything from Caribbean fusion to Pan Asian via Spain, Italy, Turkey and Japan to name just a few.

The hosting at my home is finer tuned to thirst quenching and entertainment. My piano forte is often in use.

Drink Sherry and Tanqueray

A preferred tipple which coincidently sets you aside from the pack is also a bonus.

Sherry has certainly made a comeback in recent years, and our palates have been warmed to an excellent Fino or a darker Amontillado. Sherry is an elegant drink to enjoy and certainly raises the eyebrows of most bar staff when requested.

However, while it has been revived Sherry is not freely available. It is therefore important to have an alternate in mind. I oft for Tanqueray a lesser known London gin. My spirit of choice has long been gin, and I really don’t like the taste of the default Gordons. Amy Winehouse introduced me to the joys of Tanqueray when she sang of it in her track You Know I’m No Good.

If in doubt ask ‘What would Amy do?’

Replace ‘Amy’ with your own hero but it has to be someone qualified in style, cool and presence.

I hope my short and perhaps self-indulgent guide spurs some of you into the joys of Boulevardier hood.

TNW