Monday, January 20, 2014

Victorian London: Alive and Kicking

(Terraced homes in Holland Park. All photos by LBG, December 2013.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of London is that it's a layer cake of history. The city doesn't seem to grow up as much as it seems to "grow over": Roman foundations are covered with medieval cobblestones which are then overlaid with Victorian brickwork. Manor estates turn into Rococo pleasure gardens which turn into Edwardian hospital grounds. No matter where your interests or passions lie --  in the Romans, Tudors, Bloomsbury bohemians or even Sex Pistols -- the footprints of every culture are still there, you just have to know where to look.

Below, three fantastic Victorian-era destinations that will make you feel as if you've tiptoed back into the nineteenth century:

1. Paradise, by Way of Kensal Green 

By day, this restored pub is a gastronome's dream with fresh, locally sourced cuisine and one of the best Sunday lunches in London. On weekends, it turns into a nightclub where you're likely to bump shoulders with Kate Moss and Jamie Hince, and also hosts special culinary dinners by the likes of Alex James, Blur bassist turned cheese farmer. 

This is the bar in the front room. Coffered ceiling, check. Gray mirrored bar, check. Tufted leather chairs approaching retirement, check.
(Website HERE.)

Design note for the brave: If your walls are peeling, shellac over them.

You're in the main dining room now. Doesn't it have such warmth and energy? Let's break it down: Gray walls. White floorboards. Gilt-frame paintings. Vintage birdcage pendant lamps. Flea market antique furniture. Secondary colors: Gold, black, cabernet, burgundy, brown.

I ordered a traditional pork roast with Yorkshire pudding and greens. Delicious. It nearly made a man out of me.

I don't know if the Paradise was ever a private residence, but it certainly feels like it. In addition to the pub and restaurant on the ground floor are a variety of rooms upstairs for dining and drinking in. I love how the stairwell has cleverly been transformed into a nook for entertaining, don't you? That area is usually such a dead space.

Upstairs, the tarnished glass chandeliers, shaggy greenery, and general attitude of crumbling glamour lend a distinctive Miss Havisham quality to the place...and I mean that in the best possible way, of course.

Only one of the rooms upstairs was unlocked, but if this one is representative of the others,  a return visit is definitely in order. 

Now about that name. It refers to a line in a G. K. Chesterton poem called "The Rolling English Road" about how the Roman roads were all straight and precise but the Englishman, usually being drunk, created reeling and rolling ones. Funny, right? The Paradise is next to the famous Victorian cemetery, Kensal Green, final resting place for writers like William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Harold Pinter.

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
                                                      ~G. K. Chesterton, "The Rolling English Road"

We walked through the cemetery afterwards and I spied this haunting tombstone. "My heart lies in England, too," I thought to myself.
(Kensal Green Cemetery, 2013.)

2. Tea at the St. Pancras Hotel 

If you watch "Downton Abbey" then you're familiar with St. Pancras Station -- Lady Edith is always alighting here to visit her paramour. The station, designed in 1863, has recently undergone a 2oo million pound renovation and the former Midland Hotel inside has been magnificently restored. Whether you're catching a train or not (the Eurostar leaves from here), it's worth popping your head in--if only to say you've visited one of the greatest Victorian buildings in London.
(Hotel website HERE.)

I oohed over the colorful Gothic-inspired halls with their fleur-de-lis wallpaper, carved marble arches and ornamental tile work...

...and Luca aahed over the absolutely gigantic train shed (my camera only captures about an eighth of it). If you've read the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, then you know a child can never look at a train station clock the same way again. 

We had a restorative pot of tea in the Booking House Bar...

...where I discovered the most amazing tea strainer I've ever seen.

Look, it's a tiny umbrella-shaped bristle that fits into the spout of your teapot and prevents the leaves from coming out with the tea. Why don't they sell these in America?

3. The Charles Dickens House

I visited the Dickens House years ago but it's undergone a renovation so I was eager to see it again, and since my son Luca loved reading "The Christmas Carol" in school last year, I was hopeful there wouldn't be any foot-dragging.

Before the redo, the museum was drab and fusty (and I say that as a fervent Dickens fanatic). You had to peer across roped doorways to see anything. Now, the entire house is open, and they've annexed the house next door and opened a café and tiny gift shop. Period Victorian furniture has been added to Dickens' original possessions to give the house a cozy lived-in feel. 
(Website HERE.)

The master bedroom was dark and still, a perfect sanctuary after a long day of writing.

When we went downstairs, there was a group of school children getting dressed up as scullery servants to "assist" with dinner preparations.

I don't envy the woman who had this job.

Why, thank you, Charles. How kind of you to offer me a hand up these stairs. 


Terra said...

I am oohing and aahing over each photo and each place you describe; I would like to visit each of these places and be taken back in time by so doing. That bar / restaurant is especially beguiling.

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Coulda shoulda woulda said...

Paradise does have one of the best yorkshire puds in town. I think it was always a commercial property though with its proximity to the cemetery. Your pics are so nice - it is usually jam packed or dark so you were lucky to get such clear pics.

Purple Flowers said...

I love your photos. My husband and I were just discussing a possible trip to England. I have already written down some of your findings. Thank you.

holly aka golly said...

Fantastic post as always! I immediately started searching for a spout strainer and I found one here: :)

Anonymous said...

Sigh....sometimes i miss living in london particularly after seeing this post. we lived in the east end before it was fashionable (10 yrs ago- it was the only part of town we could afford). we bought a ground floor flat just like the houses in the first image. We were lucky in that it had its' orginal black and white checkered ceramic pathway leading to a gorgeous cast iron porch with a glass canopy and the most fabulous original red door with stained glass....sigh........Had the best neighbour... a true cockney who loved to garden. one day I was admiring the amazing number of plants and flowers she grew. It was very unruly. Definitely not a manicured garden. And she responded..."oh this...I call it my bung and 'ope garden Margaret...I bung it in and 'ope it grows". loved her ! I wonder if she's still there ?

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

It's so worth going there - the Sunday lunch was spectacular. my husband was very impressed with me!

Coulda shoulda woulda:
how lucky you are to be able to go whenever you want! I think if I lived there, i'd be a regular.

Purple Flowers:
How exciting -- hope you get to go!

Holly aka golly:
YOU ARE AMAZING!! I just bought four!! Thank you so much!!

gorgeous events:
"Bung and 'ope" is the BEST name for a garden ever. Genius. I love that neighbor and I don't even know her! I hope she's still there and that her garden is flourishing. Thanks for the story xx

Emily said...

I love exactly what you capture on camera, and your well written commentary.
Yay Holly! Thanks for locating the tea strainer.
Lisa, have you seen "The Invisible Woman"? It's been hard to find a showing here. Wonder if you know if there is any truth to the story about Dickens and his young lover? It is on my list to see, eventually!

Lisa Thomson said...

Wow, what beautiful photos. I haven't been to England in about 15 years and now want to go again.

I think the lighting makes a big difference in these places. Our lighting has become cold here, with the new led, energy saving light bulbs. They are cool and not the same as the golden old bulbs which seem to still be used in London?

Thanks for the wonderful tour!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

I am desperate to see "The Other Woman" and yes, it's true. Dickens did have an affair with a younger woman after his marriage ended: Nelly Ternan, an actress. I'm going to try to see it this week! xx

Lisa Thomson:
Ah yes, the bulb quandary! I have still been able to find low light (25 watt) bulbs that have a nice golden glow to them…at least as of three weeks ago. But now I'm wondering if those were the last of their kind? Hmm…thank you for your comment, I'm off to the hardware store tomorrow!

Unknown said...

yay I'm heading to london in April to visit my sister, and now I'm going to hit all of those places. Lovely!

Anonymous said...

Really adorable post. I love each pictures which shows unique designs and it is good to have these type of decorations for the home.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for this great post Lisa - and we were in London at the very same time! We might have had a cup of tea! And thank you also for your earlier post with list of books - I'm reading and loving "An English Room," because I gave it to my daughter-in-law as a gift. My heart's there, too!

Unknown said...

I just got home from work here in LA and came across your blog. I worked for many years off and on in England and lived for time in East London near St Patricks Cemetery. Your great pictures and love of Dickens and Victorian architecture brought it all back to me and made my day. Thank you..

Lucindaville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucindaville said...

I bought 6 of those tea strainers at Mariage Frères several years ago. They were wonderful presents. Of course I saved a couple for my tea pot!

Slim Paley said...

That teapot umbrella strainer! How have I never seen one of those before?!
I do believe Wilkie Collins was not a good influence on Dickens- I'm sure Mrs. Dickens wasn't a fan! Perhaps that's mentioned in the film?
Wonderful post as always.


debbie bailey said...

I just saw the movie Hugo that was based on the book. It was really good! And that tea strainer; brilliant!

noreen said...

looks like an adventure! train stations and clocks are precious to harry potter fans, too! the dickens house is interesting. there's a new movie out about him… joy to you, n

teamgloria said...


having been away from england for over 12 years (apart from irregular visits) now we get a slight *shiver* at the sight of it - it's so Victorian.

we lived in a house in herne hill straight after university with 6 actors and someone's american boyfriend who did something in banking (or the mafia, could never quite work it out).

it looked exactly like those houses in kensal green - but on Completely the wrong side of the River of course ;-)


_teamgloria x

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oooh. Read the comments. Found the strainer. Bought the strainer. My work here is done! xoxo

Unknown said...

Your view of London is mesmerizing. Thank you!

Angela said...

I love the cut little booth under the stairs at Paradise.

Unknown said...

That's just awesome pictures, It's great luxury interior designes. The globe, lightnig and the plants are amazingly designed. It gave me the awesome tips and ideas to select the decorating interiors. Thank you for sharing such a great post.

kim at northerncalstyle. said...

Lovely post. A few summers ago we rented an apartment in a home on Harrow Road across from the cemetery. It was such a beautiful cemetery. They even had a family fun day there, if you can believe it, where kids were invited to activities like hunts, and trying out coffins. We didn't go, but you would never see that here! Sorry we missed that great pub. You always find the cool spots!


Jacqueline said...

Wonderful photos! You have such a knack for showing the interesting details in each space. It has been so much fun looking at Antwerp and London through your camera lens, and it's making me want to hop on the next airplane!

Bmore Bungalow said...

Gorgeous photos. I;m glad I discovered your blog today.

Susan's Snippets said...

Good Morning Lisa. . .it is Susan Snippets and I wanted to say. . .I have been away. . .from blogging that is. . .but you are still doing a fabulous job at what you do!

Sending a HELLO and a HOW ARE YOU!!


Anonymous said...

This gastro-pub is absolutely incredible. It's design has blown us away!

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Anonymous said...

I've always loved London for its unique architecture. It really stands out when you compare it to other Eauropean capital cities, which sometimes look alike. Great photos as well!

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