The First & Last Voyage of RMS Titanic

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The RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton on the 10th of April 1912. On the 15th of April 1012, she hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean and sunk.

Of the 2,224 passengers and crew, only 710 survived. It remains one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.

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On board were some of the wealthiest people in the world, and some of the poorest, emigrating to a new life in North America. The passengers travelled in three classes, with those in first class experiencing levels of luxury that had hitherto seldom been seen aboard a cruise ship.

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The largest ship afloat at the time, the Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, operated by White Star Line and famously touted as virtually unsinkable. With advanced safety features such as watertight compartments and remotely activated watertight doors, it was thought that a breach to the hull would flood only a single compartment, at worst, which the ship could certainly survive.

It was not the design of the ship alone that lead to the disaster. Message after message from other ships warned of heavy ice in the vicinity, reporting that they had either reduced speed drastically or heaved-to for the night. Between the 11th and the 14th, the Titanic received over 20 such warnings. Although these were all duly logged by the radio operators and passed on to the bridge officers, no order was given to slow down, even as the Titanic entered the region of hazard, and she steamed on at full speed.

Shortly before midnight, the lookouts spotted an iceberg directly ahead. The bridge officer on duty immediately ordered the engines stopped, the wheel turned hard to one side, and the watertight doors below decks to be closed. Though the ship started to turn, it was too little too late, and the huge ice berg scraped down the starboard side of the ship.

The nature of the collision caused hull plates to buckle in multiple locations and opened five out of the ship’s sixteen watertight compartments to the sea.

It took two and a half hours for the ship to sink.

Maritime safety regulations were hopelessly out of date in an era when the size of steamships had increased so much and so quickly. They stipulated that all British vessels over 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats (with exact size also specified). The original plans for the ship included 64 lifeboats, but it was decided that these would not only increase costs unnecessarily, they would also clutter the decks to the detriment of the passenger experience. The Titanic was over 46,000 tons, and in the end, sailed with just 20 lifeboats on board. If each were loaded to full capacity, this would be enough for only 1,178 people, a third of her maximum capacity of passengers and crew. In addition, the ship carried two small cutters, with a capacity of 40 people each, intended to allow for a quick response to man overboard emergencies.

The shortage of lifeboats was compounded by a lack of officer training – the officers didn’t know how many passengers each lifeboat could safely carry – and most were launched barely half full. The crew followed a ‘women and children first’ policy, prioritising those from first and second classes and indeed the 1,514 casualties were predominantly third class passengers, crew and male first and second class passengers.

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Those who didn’t make it aboard a lifeboat or cutter drowned on board or died within minutes from hypothermia in the freezing waters.

The 710 survivors were taken aboard from the lifeboats by the RMS Carpathia a few hours later.

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A collage of passengers from 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes, some who survived and some who perished

 

The Human Story of the Sinking of the Titanic

Of course, the other side of the story is the human one, and tales of heroic or romantic behaviour from crew and passengers alike have long been part of the lore surrounding this tragic event.

Some stories are well known and have been represented by semi-fictional accounts in print, on stage and in film. Others are known less widely.

Margaret “Molly” Brown was a well known American socialite, philanthropist and activist. She helped establish the Colorado chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, was a charter member of The Denver Woman’s Club, an organisation dedicated to helping other women through education and philanthropy and campaigned to help destitute children and establish the United States first Juvenile Court. On a tour of Europe, she learned that her eldest grandson was ill and booked first class passage back to the USA on the first ship available, the Titanic. After the collision, she helped many others to board life boats before being bodily forced into one herself. Once in the water, she ensured that crew and women worked together to row and keep spirits raised. When the Titanic finally went down, Brown and one or two others called for the boat to return towards the ship, in an attempt to take on additional survivors. They were overruled by the others in the boat, who were fearful that the boat would be overwhelmed and capsized by the sheer number of passengers in the water. They stayed away, but like the passengers in other boats, they recounted afterwards the harrowing experience of hearing the screams, for almost an hour after the ship went under. On being rescued by the Carpathia, Brown threw her energy into assisting with the care of other survivors and immediately set to work establishing a charitable fund and practical assistance for those who had lost everything they owned in the disaster. Dismissive of the heroine status accorded to her by the media, nonetheless she became one of the most well known survivors of the disaster. Her fame helped her continue to fight for the causes she felt deeply about, from the rights of workers and women, to education and literacy for children to historic preservation.

Probably the story that wrenches most strongly at my heart is that of Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of the famous Macy’s department store. At the time of the sinking, the couple had been married for 41 years and had raised six children. They were almost inseparable, and on the rare occasions when they were apart, they wrote to each other every day. During the sinking, officers pleaded with Ida to board one of the lifeboats, but she refused to leave her husband, ensuring that her maid took a place, as well as Ida’s fur coat, before returning to her husband’s side. She is said to have told him simply, “Where you go, I go”. A Bronx cemetery monument to the couple carries the inscription, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”

Michel and Edmond Navratil were just 3 and 2 years old, respectively, when their father Michel kidnapped them from his estranged wife Marcelle. On Easter Sunday, on the 7th April, a day he had been accorded to spend with the children, he collected the boys from his mother-in-law, took them to England (from France) and boarded the Titanic under an assumed name. Other passengers reported that Navratil kept himself and the boys isolated during the journey, and rarely let them out of his sight. But after the collision, Navratil knew he must rely on others to save his children, and kissed his sons goodbye, before handing each one into the arms of passengers aboard collapsible lifeboat D. Navratil perished with the ship, but his sons were duly rescued by the Carpathia. Unable to speak any English, and thereby give any clue to their real names, the boys were dubbed the “orphans of the Titanic”, and temporarily taken into care by a first class survivor, Margaret Hays. Initially, the search for relatives centred on the name Hoffman, under which Navratil had booked tickets. Luckily, Marcelle, still in France, read the story of the orphans, and recalled that her husband had a friend by the name of Hoffman. She sent descriptions and pictures which quickly established hers, Michel’s and the children’s identities and White Star Line gave her a ticket on the Oceanic to New York, where she was reunited with the boys, before their return back to France soon after.

Hudson and Bess Allison were successful and hard working young couple who met, fell in love and married against the wishes of Bess’ parents. They had two children, Lorraine and Trevor and owned homes in Montreal, London and Chesterville, Ontario. They were returning home from a European holiday and business trip, and had their children and nannies with them. On the night of the sinking, Trevor’s nanny became aware of the danger, and took it upon herself to evacuate him to a lifeboat. Unfortunately, she was not able to find Hudson and Bess, and they frantically searched the ship, for their son. When crew tried to persuade their daughter Lorraine to get into a lifeboat, her parents refused, wanting to keep the family together. In panic, they waited and waited, until it was too late. Only Trevor and his nanny survived the night. Lorraine was the only first class child to perish in the sinking.

Edvard and Gerda Lindell were third class passengers from Sweden. During the sinking, the couple jumped from the ship into the waters and managed to get to lifeboat A. Edvard managed to clamber aboard, but Gerda could not. Another Swede aboard the boat, August Wennerström, held her hand over the side. The boat was partially filled with cold sea water and those aboard were quickly exhausted by hypothermia. Eventually Gerda slipped from Wennerström’s grip and was lost to sea. Edvard died on board. A month later, a drifting lifeboat was discovered by one of the teams recovering bodies. Within it they discovered a gold wedding ring, later identified as Gerda Lindell’s. It had likely slipped off her hand into the boat, as Wennerström struggled to hold her hand.

 

The Plucky Little Countess, Lady Rothes

650 pix countess lady_rothes_titanic_ss_thg_120405_ssvBorn on December 25th 1878, Lucy Noel Martha Rothes nee Dyer-Edwardes, was known by her family as Noelle. Refusing all suitors, in her first year after coming of age, she eventually fell for and married Norman-Evelyn Leslie, the 19th Earl of Rothes.

Following their marriage in 1900 the couple settled in Paignton, Devonshire. They were very active on the London social scene, and were presented at the Royal Court where Noelle was received by the Princess of Wales. Indeed, both were later invited to participate in the coronation of Edward VII in 1909.

Their first child, Malcolm, was born in 1902 and their second, John, in 1909. Having her own children inspired Noelle to help those of others, and she became active in charitable works to help poor and sick children, and their families.

In 1904, Norman inherited the Fifeshire estate in Scotland, and they moved into Leslie House, where they quickly became well respected by the local community. As well as her fundraising and philanthropic activities, Noelle was also politically active, a chairman of local Women’s Unionist Associations.

The couple’s pursuits were widely followed by the media, who reported on their horse riding, shooting, cricketing and boating pastimes, though the Rothes didn’t care for the attention they attracted. They had their critics – some members of the rather jaded and amoral Edwardian aristocracy derided them for their affectionate domestic lifestyle and they were described by one journalist as “a most unfashionably devoted couple.” But they remained more popular than not.

In February 1912, Norman left on a business trip to America, on a mission to learn from the privately operated U.S. telegraph service, in comparison to the state-run British system. So enjoyable did he find his tour of the States and Canada, Norman invited Noelle to travel out and join him in California, so that they might celebrate their 12th anniversary together.

Noelle invited one of her closest friends, Norman’s cousin Gladys Cherry, to join her for the voyage, which was booked on the Titanic. Gladys planned to visit her brother Charles, who was living in New York. To journalists before the trip, she said that she and Norman were planning to buy an American orange grove, and would be returning home in July, to take their children over. She was “full of joyful expectation” about the crossing.

Noelle and Gladys took full advantage of the ship’s facilities, and enjoyed socialising with other first class passengers, amongst whom they made many friends. The evening of the sinking, the ladies attended a gala dinner in honour of the captain, Noelle dressed in designer gown and jewels, including a new necklace made from 300-year-old Leslie heirloom pearls.

Shortly after 10 p.m. they retired to their cabin, awakened less than two hours later by the collision. Initially, the women put on their dressing gowns and fur coats, and went up on deck to find out more. Assured that the collision was nothing serious, the atmosphere on deck was calm, with passengers excited about the adventure. However, a short while later, Captain Smith came to the group and asked if they would go quietly to their cabins to retrieve and put on their lifebelts, and then go up to the top deck.

Back in their cabin, the ladies found Cissy, Noelle’s maid who had come up from her E deck cabin to theirs on the C deck. She reported that water was pouring in to the raquet court. A passing steward helped them locate their lifebelts, and advised them to dress warmly. They donned their warmest woollen suits and heaviest furs. Leaving purses and money behind, Noelle grabbed only a hip flask of brandy and the string of Leslie pearls, and all three women headed out onto deck. Noelle recalled that crowds on deck were increasing, and people were milling about wondering what to do. No orders had been given to abandon ship, but passengers were still secure in the ship’s unsinkable strength, so there was not yet any atmosphere of panic.

However, as the ship began to tilt, people began to grow uneasy. Finally, second officer Lightoller gave the command for women and children to board the lifeboats. As has famously been reported, the ship band set up instruments on the deck and began to play. Noelle, Gladys and Cissy boarded lifeboat 8.

There were no officers aboard the boat, and just 4 members of crew including bedroom steward Alfred Crawford and able seaman Thomas Jones. Captain Smith gave both Crawford and Jones clear instructions to make for what appeared to be two masthead lights in the distance, pointing to the ship lights that could be seen from the deck. Assuming, from the clarity of the lights, that the other ship must be only a few miles away, he instructed them to deliver the passengers to the rescue ship before returning for more.

The inexperience of the crewmen showed and squabbling threatened to scupper their efforts to head for the distant ship lights. However, Tom Jones and Noelle quickly developed a strong mutual respect, and Noelle took over the tiller. Retaining her composure, she offered comfort and encouragement to fellow passengers and was later heralded as a heroine and reported to be the cohesive force that kept all aboard focused and in good spirits during the next several hours. Many of the women took their turns at rowing. Gladys took over the tiller, which she manned for more than half of the time spent in the boat.

As they continued to row it seemed that the distant ship lights never grew any closer.

At 2.20 am the ship broke and sank with a roar, which was followed by the shrieks of drowning passengers. Jones insisted they turn back to try and save some, supported by Noelle, Gladys and one or two other passengers. The majority strongly protested, arguing that it would be wrong to risk their lives on the bare chance of finding anyone alive, and also citing the Captain’s orders to head for the ship lights. Jones lamented, “if any of us are saved, remember I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them than leave them” but accepted the decision of the majority in the boat.

Some hours later, still rowing for the original lights, a new light was spotted in the opposite direction. Lifeboat 8 turned about and headed to the ship they could now see heading full steam in their direction. Having travelled the farthest distance from the spot of the sinking, they had the farthest to travel back but their spirits were raised by the stronger hope of rescue, and they sang as they rowed towards what they eventually discovered to be the RMS Carpathia.

After five hours in the lifeboat, they were eventually taken on board the Carpathia, at which point Noelle fainted, probably from strain and exhaustion, and was taken to the ship’s hospital to recuperate. However, on her recovery, she and Gladys immediately busied themselves with visiting the makeshift hospitals on board, providing what comfort they could to survivors from all classes.

Noelle was a nurse, and was able to assist in bandaging and medicating patients. They also joined a crewman in rounding up spare blankets and linen from which they cut and sewed garments for second class and steerage survivors, some of whom had no clothes at all.

Already, on the journey to New York, Noelle learned of her new nickname, “the plucky little countess” though she dismissed it instantly, insisting that Tom Jones had been the real hero and that the survival of their boat had been very much a team effort.

Just like her more famous fellow survivor, Margaret “Molly” Brown, Noelle did her utmost to ensure that destitute survivors would be taken care of, before disembarking herself and being met by an anxious Norman.

Although Noelle never courted the media, focusing on her husband, family and charitable interests, the papers continued to write about her, fuelled by the reports given by fellow survivors from lifeboat 8 and the Carpathia. When one headline labelled her as brave for taking charge of her boat, she was upset that it overstated her role and overlooked the contributions of Gladys, Jones and others. Though she did try and set the record straight, she soon realised that she could not control what was written.

The moniker given her board the Carpathia stuck, taken up as it was by a world looking for positive stories within such an enormous tragedy.

Norman and Noelle decided against buying property in America and returned to Scotland in the late summer. Over following years, as Britain went to war, Noelle resumed her local campaigns and charitable efforts, throwing herself into providing hospital facilities to wounded soldiers and shelter to European refugees, as well as coordinating fundraising efforts. Norman was called up, and went to serve in France. Wounded once, but quickly recovered and sent back into service, he was eventually invalided out of service after losing an eye when hit by shrapnel.

By the end of the war, the Rothes were struggling financially, and made the sad decision to sell the Leslie estate, much to the upset of their tenants and the local community. They moved down to their Buckinghamshire estate, in England and also spent time in their Chelsea, London residence.

In 1926, Noelle lost her father, and then the following year, Norman also passed away. However, she soon accepted the marriage proposal of a long time friend, and they lived a quiet life his country estate in Gloucestershire. As always, Noelle continued to help those in need.

Noelle didn’t talk much about her experiences in 1912, but did maintain a correspondence with Tom Jones, having presented both him and Alfred Crawford with commemorative watches. Jones, returning her affection, presented her with a plaque on which was mounted the numeral 8, which he had saved from their lifeboat.

Not long before her death, she agreed to share her memories with a young American journalist, Walter Lord, but never lived to see his resulting book, A Night to Remember. It proved to have a big influence on the understanding and perception of the disaster in the decades to follow.

Noelle died in her sleep on September 12, 1956.

 

Rediscovering the Titanic

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Since the wreck was found on the seabed, back in 1985, even more has been learned about the furniture, supplies, passenger luggage and cargo lost when the ship sank.

During a recent visit to Berry Bros & Rudd we (carefully) flicked through an old ledger, covering transactions from March 1912, and saw the entries for orders to be delivered by the Titanic… 2 cases of original yellow Chartreuse, 2 of very fine sherry, 1 of Manzanilla sherry, 18 of dry champagne, 3 of “dry dry” gin and 3 of 10 year old Scotch whisky were loaded as cargo, for delivery to a variety of US-based customers.

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On the wall in the Berry Bros & Rudd shop is the insurance advisement letter from White Star Line. It reads, “Referring to your shipment by this steamer, it is with great regret we have to inform you that the Titanic foundered at 2-20 a.m. 15th instant, after colliding with an iceberg, and is a total loss. Details of shipment are shown at foot, Yours faithfully, for White Star Line”.

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To commemorate the centennial of the disaster, Berry Bros & Rudd decided to create a limited edition Scotch whisky. With scant information about the style of the whisky they had delivered to the ship, they decided to honour the “plucky little countess” Lady Rothes, with a Glenrothes, Speyside whisky. (BBR own the Glenrothes whisky brand, though not the distillery itself).

Called Titanic, their commemorative bottling was distilled in 1998, aged in sherry casks and bottled this year.

BBR’s Spirits Manager, Douglas McIvor, took us through a tasting of the whisky, sharing his own tasting notes and encouraging us to add our own.

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Please click through to Pete Drinks for a more detailed review of Berry’s Titanic single malt scotch whisky.

 

Pete Drinks and Kavey Eats attending the tasting as guests of Berry Bros & Rudd.

In writing this post, I have relied heavily on internet resources including Titanic Titanic, Wikipedia and Randy Bryan Bigham’s article at Encyclopedia Titanica.

 

As you might expect from a modern hotel sited in such an expansive historical estate, the Waldorf Astoria London Syon Park is subtly themed to bring the outdoors inside and to help guests enjoy the peace and quiet of its serene, natural setting.

On a recent late autumn visit, we found it the perfect venue for a single night minibreak – close to home and yet a world away.

History of Syon Park

Syon Park is the home of the Duke of Northumberland, and has belonged to his family for over 400 years. Syon Park, the stately home (in which the Duke and Duchess still reside), was built in the mid 16th Century by the 1st Duke of Somerset but after his death, it changed hands a number of times before eventually being acquired by the 9th Earl of Northumberland in 1594. It has been passed down through the family ever since.

Syon House sits in 200 acres of gardens and parkland designed by famous landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, from the 1750s to 1770s. The 40 acres of garden are registered a Grade I landscape in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Importance in England and renowned for their collection of rare trees.

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image from Syon Park website

The crowning glory of the gardens must surely be the Great Conservatory, built by Charles Fowler in 1826, the first of it’s kind to be built out of gunmetal, Bath stone and glass.

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We caught wonderful glimpses of the Great Conservatory frequently during our stay at the Waldorf Astoria, and plan to tour the house and gardens of the estate next time we visit. Entry to the house, gardens and conservatory is £10 for adults. Entry to the gardens and conservatory only is £5 for adults.

I would guess it must be quite a challenge to afford the upkeep of such an estate in this day and age. However, it seems the Duchy has found additional ways to bring income into the estate.

Also in the grounds of Syon Park are a large and attractive garden centre, where we took lunch on the day of our arrival and a tropical zoo, which I understand is scheduled to move to another site, so do please check directly before planning a visit.

Red Bricks

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an accommodation block

The newly-built hotel (which opened in spring this year) has been built in a modern style, on the footprints of the old stable blocks that originally formed part of the estate. The outside, truth be told, is not very attractive. Neither boldly modern, nor pastiche historical, it strongly resembles a 1980s office block. That’s not the best look for a luxury hotel, so the good news is that it gets better – much better – inside.

The Garden designer (more of which later) has also taken steps recently to break up the expanse of red brick by creating tall narrow “living green wall” panels affixed to the brick exterior. The different shades of green ivy are just starting to mesh together into pretty vertical gardens.

Outside In

Inside the hotel, there are many design touches that refer to the natural environment outside.

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In the main reception hangs a starkly modern art installation – hundreds of white and black pieces of white card or plastic, folded to create sharp lines and angles. It’s only with prompting that we are directed to look at the shadow cast on the adjacent wall by the sunlight filtering through, and gasp at how it looks for all the world like the shadow of a real tree! Syon Park refer to this beautiful and clever piece as the Troika Tree Installation; it was created by London art collective, Troika.

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Also in the main lobby is a large glass butterfly house, though you wouldn’t know it to peer in – there are currently no butterflies inside! The glass house didn’t meet specifications on temperature and humidity, so the hotel made the decision not to risk live insects until they knew conditions would be perfect for them. Minor fixes proved not to do the trick, so it may be some months before a new glass house is in place. This is a shame, given that the hotel’s motif – visible on crockery, bath robes and stationery – is a butterfly, but definitely the right decision for an ethical business.

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Another aspect of the exterior spaces that I like is that there are quite a few of them. Not just one single outdoor seating area but a number of them, allowing guests to find their own peace and quiet. There’s the front patio, next to Brownies (where afternoon sweets are served), some large wooden relaxation stands, with huge comfy beanbags in them, and a variety of seating round the back, next to the herb garden.

Afternoon Brownies

I love the idea of a hotel sweet shop where one can buy sweet treats, ice cream sundaes and pastries.

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Unfortunately, the reality is a bit of a let down. Some of the ice creams needed to make the signature sundaes listed on the menu are out of stock. According to our waitress, few people want ice creams in October. My response is either to remove them from the menu (and make it seasonal) or ensure you have the ingredients in stock regardless of the weather.

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The Manhattan (£12), a boozy ice-cream sundae described as “the king of cocktails in an ice cream coupe” features a bourbon and pecan ice cream served with a sweet vermouth reduction and cider brandy, and macerated cherries. Though I should love it given my love of pecans, cider and cherries, it doesn’t really work for me.

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Pete’s lemon and dark brown sugar crepe (£6.75) arrives dressed with the largest raspberries we’ve ever seen. Sadly they’re the best thing in the dish, with not even a hint of lemon juice or brown sugar discernible in the well-cooked but exceedingly bland pancake.

For me, Brownies just doesn’t hit the spot, which is a shame given the attractive indoor and outdoor seating areas it enjoys.

Cocktails in Peacock Alley

Peacock Alley is named for the grand social promenade that connected the original Waldorf and Astoria hotels in New York, which jointly became The Waldorf-Astoria. Described as a martini bar, Syon Park’s Peacock Alley is much more than that, offering an unusual and appealing selection of cocktails not to mention what Pete tells me is an impressive range of whisky and bourbon.

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I find the space very attractive, with it’s mix of bright peacock colours – mustard yellow, hot pink, pretty purple, lime green and cool turquoise. Like the rest of the hotel, decor is a mix of traditional luxury and funky modern touches; there’s definitely a decent smattering of quirky. My only downer about the whole look is the carpet, which reminds me of the stuff we stripped out of our ’60s decorated house, and for good reason. It’s cheap motel chain on acid!

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Having ordered our cocktails, olives are served to our table and we enjoy watch the bartender mixing furiously.

Pete chooses a Divine Enchantment, in which rose and geranium are combined with fresh raspberries and rosé champagne. A little pretentious, but fun – when the cocktail is delivered, a puff of rose and geranium perfume is sprayed over the glass, to give an extra scent experience. It’s a delicious cocktail, fruity and flowery with the refreshing acid and bubbles of the champagne.

I go for a newer cocktail, called Cool as a Cucumber, based on some of my favourite ingredients – cucumber, pineapple juice, Midori and vodka. This is simple but deceptively good and I absolutely love, love, love the distinctive taste of cucumber mixed with one of my favourite liqueurs and that sweet sharp balance of pineapple. It’s brilliant, though packs a punch and slips down rather too easily!

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A touch I really like is the cordials or syrups that the bartenders of Peacock Alley make themselves and use in several of the cocktail recipes. As well as the rose and geranium one used in Pete’s cocktail (and the perfume bottle which you can see, above) there is an ale syrup made from Meantime pale ale (using beer instead water when making a sugar syrup), a highly scented and flavoured lavender syrup, and a range of spiced ones including star anise, cinnamon and a mixed spice syrup.

Signature cocktails are £14 each, classics (some of which have been tweaked a little, Waldorf-Astoria style) are £12.

Dining In

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image from hotel website

For me, The Capability restaurant is one of the highlights of a visit to the hotel, and is certainly proving popular not only with residential guests but also with diners coming in just for the food. I can understand why.

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image from hotel website

Last time we visited, we were fortunate to spend time with executive chef, Lee Stratton, who expressed his genuine commitment to using high quality, sustainable, British ingredients. Just like the rest of the hotel, he is keen to bring the outside in and also to grow and forage as much as possible within the hotel and estate grounds.

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To this end, the hotel have engaged landscape garden designer, Robert Stoutzker, who has worked closely with Lee to decide which fruits, vegetables and herbs can be used by the kitchen. Robert has created and planted the herb garden, a large vegetable garden behind the hotel (which will be expanding further in coming years), and a large and beautiful greenhouse which is used not only for growing produce, but is also a venue for intimate dinners, served at the enormous wooden table at one end. He has also taken on the rest of the hotel landscaping, and is responsible for the living green wall panels I mentioned earlier. He’s also replacing the somewhat pub-like bedroom balcony window boxes with more elegant ones that make use of stark black grasses and white flowers.

(I’ll be posting more about Robert’s thoughts over at A London Gardener in coming weeks).

Even though the hotel only opened this spring, the kitchen has been incorporating as much of their own produce as possible into regularly changing menus. This is set to increase in coming years as the gardens and orchards extend and mature.

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As always, we look for a red wine priced between £30 and £35. There are several listed, 3 that particularly appeal.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of high demand over recent weeks (and, perhaps poor stock control and delivery management?) the first three choices we requested are not available. That rules out the 2009 Saam Mountain Paarl Pinotage (£30.00), the 2009 Alamos Malbec (£31.00) and the 2009 Chateau L’Eglise Bordeaux (£32.00). Personally, after coming back to the table on three separate occasions to explain that our latest choice was also out of stock, had I been the sommelier I would have offered a more expensive bottle of something similar for the same price. Instead, we scrabble through the menu again and come up with a fourth option. Thankfully, the 2009 Cotes du Rhone Rouge Clocher Saint Michel Pierre Dorvin (£31.00) is in stock.

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Warm bread, freshly baked white sourdough I think, is excellent, served with butter and sea salt.

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An amuse bouche plays on the famous Waldorf Salad, first created in the late 19th Century at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. A mouthful of apple, celery and pickled walnut with a light dressing, it’s a refreshing start.

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I love the sweetness of the crab in my spider crab salad with quails eggs and mayonnaise (£14.50). The generous white crab meat is served on a thin layer of what I think might be brown crab meat with a little mustard mixed in, though I’m not sure. It’s nice, whatever it is! The quail eggs are superfluous, flavour wise, though they make the dish look pretty, as do the edible flowers, grown in the kitchen garden. I enjoy this dish very much.

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Pete’s chargrilled courgettes with Lancashire bomb and Heritage tomato relish (£9.25) is an enormous serving and exactly what is described in the menu. This is a simple dish, the kind that’s often described as “honest” (though I’m not sure that I’ve had many deceitful dishes to compare it to).

When it comes to mains, we both think we’re the winner.

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My hay baked Cornish mixed lamb with pan haggerty and green sauce (£24.75) includes slow baked belly, fried tongue, sweetbread, cutlet and kidney all of which are perfectly cooked, as is the cheesy, pan haggerty, something I’ve not had before. With my meal come two sauces, a fresh and vibrant green herb sauce and a sinfully rich reduced wine and stock sauce. Both work well with the different cuts of lamb. I always adore British lamb but this dish takes it to another level and I’m a very happy diner indeed.

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To counteract the lack of greens, I order a side of garlic spinach (£4.50), which is a nice foil for the heaviness of my meat and potatoes. I also give into the temptation of an order of Meantime beer battered onion rings (4.00) which are amongst the best onions rings I’ve had.

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Our friendly and well-informed waitress, Dayna, is very helpful when it comes to choosing between the Bannockburn rib eye and the Aberdeenshire sirloin, agreeing that the rib eye may win purely on flavour but pointing out that the sirloin would better suit Pete’s preference of medium-rare steak. The 400 gram Aberdeenshire sirloin is described as 28 day aged beef on the bone with bone marrow butter & chairman’s chips (£29.75) and is served with an excellent Béarnaise sauce, a green herb sauce, a pat of bone marrow butter and two herbed salts, rosemary and sage. That may sound overkill but it makes for a pleasant variety, and Pete enjoys his steak with the different sauces and salts in turn.

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Crème brûlée, or Trinity burnt cream with Dorset blueberries (£6.50), as it’s listed here, can be tricky to do well but the texture and flavour of the custard are perfect. The blueberry compote is not too sweet, making it an excellent foil to the burnt sugar topping, of which there is just the right amount.

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The raspberry Eton mess (£6.50) is served with a raspberry coulis on the side, which Pete quickly pours into the glass. Although first appearances suggest insufficient meringue to fruit and cream, on eating the ratios prove themselves well judged.

Far too full to squeeze in a savoury (I could choose Welsh rabbit, buck rabbit or Scotch woodcock, priced at £7.50 each) we dither over whether to have tea and coffee or retire to our room. Our waitress, on overhearing, kindly suggests that she send these to us via room service and they arrive not long afterwards, with some delicious chocolate truffles.

A wonderful evening meal indeed.

The prices are a little on the high side – our bill would have been approximately £140 plus tip – even given the provenance of the ingredients and standard of cooking. This is a factor of being within a high end hotel, I guess. But given how busy the restaurant was during our visit, especially during lunch and afternoon tea, it’s clearly a price point the local population are happy to pay.

Head Down

Most of the rooms at Syon Park are fairly similar. The standard Syon rooms are very slightly smaller than the rest, at 27 square metres. The Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms are all described as 30 square metres, the difference lies in the views. Estate rooms look out onto the larger estate, garden ones give a view over the landscaped hotel gardens and so on. I’m guessing the standard ones have an outlook towards the car park, though the layout means they all look over grassy lawn first and foremost. After these categories are the junior suites, one bedroom suites and presidential suite.

The standard, Estate, Garden and Arboretum rooms all share the same design and features. My photos are all of our Estate room, which looked out over the greenhouse.

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I must make a mention of this quirky corridor which linked the farther accommodation block to the central building. Passing through, motion detectors trigger audio tracks of birdsong, horses hooves drumming along hard ground and snatches of strange poetry. More of that “outdoors in” theming which succeeded in making us giggle each and every time we walked through.

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How to describe the room styling? I’d say it’s traditional luxury applied with a firm nod to contemporary tastes.

I like the choice of furniture and bed linen and even the strange sculptural ceiling light.

I like the colours, which range from purples and blacks through to creams and pale browns.

I like the 42 inch HD TV with Apple TV, on which we play the latest LoveFilm DVD we popped into our luggage when we packed.

I like the large wardrobe with sufficient hangers for my clothes, that I can take out of the wardrobe to more easily use, and a light that comes on automatically whenever I open the doors (though I’m not so keen on the oversensitive sensor that switches the light on when I creep past to the bathroom during the night).

I like the sliding doors onto our own patio area with table and chairs. And I’m relieved to discover that, although we can see out clearly, with lots of sunshine flooding into the room, the glass is tinted such that the stream of passers-by walking along the path a short distance in front of our room can’t peep in.

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I love the spacious marble-lined bathroom with indulgent under-floor heating, walk-in monsoon shower and separate tub (with its own TV). I will be taking some inspiration from this bathroom for the makeover of the one at home.

The bed is huge and very comfortable, allowing for a restful sleep though I wish I’d thought to take advantage of the pillow menu, as the soft squishy default ones were far too soft and unsupportive for me.

I’d also advise you to take advantage of the “do not disturb” light when you’re in the room as housekeeping have a tendency to knock and barge into the room in a single fluid movement.

These are not rooms that will set the world on fire in terms of innovative design or experience. But they are attractive, comfortable and feel suitably indulgent, especially for the price.

A search for a Saturday night booking for 3-4 weeks time (at time of writing, in early November) came back with some great value rates such as £142.80 room only in a standard room, booked and paid for in advance, non-refundable, £258 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a standard room, which can be cancelled up to 4pm on date of arrival or £402 for advance purchase, non-refundable bed and breakfast in a luxurious junior suite.

Most Important Meal Of The Day

For someone who seldom has anything at all for breakfast at home, it’s amazing how hungry and eager I am to enjoy a hearty breakfast whenever I overnight at a nice hotel.

Initially tempted by the option of enjoying breakfast in our room (or on our private terrace, in warmer months) in the end I am swayed by my desire to check out the buffet and we traipse back to The Capability.

There are three choices when it comes to breakfast. One is to order from the appealing array of a la carte dishes, adding fruit juices and hot drinks as extras. The second is to fork out £22 per person for the breakfast buffet, which includes juices and hot drinks. The third is to spend £30 per person to enjoy your choice from both the buffet and the a la carte, drinks included.

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Of those two,I’d say the first and last are your best options. The buffet is underwhelming for the price, with a far smaller selection that I’d expect to see from a hotel at this level. You can see it in its entirety in the images above. It consists of a selection of cereals (with dried fruits and nuts), fresh fruit salad, fresh bread, a plate of smoked salmon and a very small choice of pastries.

Whilst I appreciate that the quality of the individual components is excellent, I do find it disappointing and have seen better choice in low and mid-range hotels.

The a la carte menu, on the other hand, is fantastic – a long list of appealing choices that we struggle to narrow down.

Prices are reasonable, though be warned, portions are on the small side.

In the end, we both go off piste. I order the fried Braddock’s white duck eggs on toasted sourdough with woodland mushrooms (£10.75) with a side of Streeton’s West London smoked salmon (which usually comes with scrambled eggs for £13.75 but is also part of the buffet) and Pete has a three egg omelette (£10.50) choosing cheese and tomatoes as his fillings and also an order of toasted crumpets with Marmite (£6.75).

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While we wait, toast, fruit juice and our hot drinks are served to the table. The jam and marmalade are particularly good.

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My egg, toast and mushrooms are decent (though I wish more care had been taken to brush the gritty dirt off the mushrooms). Streeton’s salmon is truly delicious.

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Pete’s omelette is of the heavy rather than fluffy variety, but well cooked and generous. The crumpets are home made but not freshly. His own are better!

Other options you might fancy for breakfast include the full English (£18.50), Eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale (£8.50 for 1 egg £12.75 for 2), Orkney kippers with lemon (£10.50), crêpes with spicy sausage, potatoes and onion (£11.50), waffles with wild boar bacon and Syon Park honey (£7.75) and a variety of smaller items such as Organic porridge (£6.75), toasted bagel with cream cheese (£6.75) and croissants, pain au chocolat and muffins (£5.50).

Rest & Relaxation

Like any good luxury hotel, London Syon Park has a spa. Kallima Spa offers a large, modern pool, a sauna and steam room and a jacuzzi, which are open to guests from 6.30 am to 10 pm in the evening. There is also a well-equipped gym.

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All the facilities are in the basement, which means no natural light but the designers have incorporated the lack of light into the design, going for a dark and sultry space lit by candles and with bold wall textures and designs.

Instead of providing a list of treatments that guests can book, at Kallima you specify (and are charged by) the duration of treatment and only discuss what it is you’d like on arrival.

Whilst I do appreciate the simplicity this brings to the pricing (our one hour treatments were priced at £96 each) I’m not entirely convinced by the discussion that establishes what treatment might be most suitable. Being asked to describe “the outcome you desire” must surely elicit one of only a small range of answers – to relax, to release muscular tension or to improve the skin? I say I am hoping to release tension, but without knowing what the options are, I’m limited by my memory of treatments offered elsewhere, and forced to make stabs in the dark about what I might like.

Unsurprisingly, given this process, I plump for a bog-standard massage and acquiesce to the suggested oils from the Anne Sémonin range.

After being lead to the changing room and lockers, where I wish they had private changing cubicles rather than an open changing room, I’m shown to a (rather chilly) relaxation and waiting room until my individual therapist collects me. The massage itself is very good, as one would expect. Pete (who also ended up with a massage) says the same. Afterwards, we are invited to return to the relaxation or change and head back to our rooms.

Skilled, well-trained and friendly staff ensure that our experiences are positive but I’m sure we’re not alone in finding the lack of structured information about potential treatments off-putting.

Only when I ask for more information the next day am I regaled with different kinds of massage, seaweed wraps, facials and pedicures and more.

As the spa is also open to non-residents, I strongly recommend booking time slots as far ahead of your visit as possible, especially if you would like to enjoy your treatments simultaneously.

In Totality

I think there are small things that London Syon Park can do better: stock control of wine and food ingredients, a rethink of Brownies’ menu and a more structured presentation of available spa treatments would not go amiss. And the landscaping of the outdoor green spaces has a way to go, though I know it’s already in hand.

However, for a hotel that’s been open only a few short months, I’m surprised by how much is well-designed and well implemented. It’s young but anything but brash!

Rooms are comfortable cocoons for relaxing. The bar and restaurant are fantastic. The public spaces are sumptuously appealing.

After just a one night stay, we came home feeling like we’d had a proper holiday and felt spoiled and relaxed.

What’s certain is that next time I’m looking for somewhere local for a relaxing celebratory minibreak away from home I won’t forget the option of dinner, bed and breakfast at the London Syon Park.

Kavey Eats was a guest of London Syon Park.

 

When invited by Bath Tourism Plus to spend a day in Bath, taking our advice on what to visit from twitter, Pete and I jumped at the chance. We started asking for suggestions in the run up to our visit and by the day itself, the advice was flowing in at a great rate.

Both twitter friends and complete strangers came to our aid and between them, gave us lots of great ideas on how to spend our day.

The Pump Room Restaurant
The Roman Baths
Minerva Chocolate
Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution
The Star Inn
The Raven
Bath Ales’ The Salamander Pub
Paxton & Whitfield
Sally Lunn’s Buns
Thermae Bath Spa
Other Attractions
Next Time

The Pump Room Restaurant

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We started our day with breakfast in the Pump Room restaurant at the Roman Baths. Shown into a vast and elegant room with a trio playing live classical music on the stage.

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Starving after an early start, I went for the enormous Beau Nash Brunch (£12.95) which resulted in two enormous and very good eggs benedict, a pot of tea, a small glass of fresh orange juice and then, when I could barely eat another mouthful, toast and jam.

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Pete, being far more restrained, opted for the Tompian Treat (£6.25) and enjoyed two hot-buttered crumpets with blackcurrant jam, a pot of coffee and an apple juice.

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The food was excellent and seemed reasonably priced, especially given the grandiose setting and live music. However, service, was slow and it proved extremely difficult to attract attention despite the high number of staff working in the dining room.

The Roman Baths

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Of course, after our indulgent breakfast, we couldn’t miss a tour of the Roman Baths themselves. Wanting to cram as much into our day as possible, we opted to skip the headset audio tours and do a short sweet walkaround.

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Most visitors took advantage of the audio guides, which lead to an oddly quiet crowd meandering slightly myopically around the attraction but the lack of annoyingly voluble and high volume chatter was actually a relief. That said, on our weekday visit in late August, it was frustratingly crowded.

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There’s a huge amount of information to please history buffs and if I could go back and spend a few hours there, without the company of the madding crowds, I would love to take it all in properly.

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This under floor heating system took me immediately back to (happy days) studying history at school.

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This golden head of the goddess Minerva was found in the old temple ruins. We’ll come back to her head later.

Adult entry is £12. £7.80 per child. Or buy a family ticket (for up to two adults and four children) for £34.

Minerva Chocolate

After our visit to the Roman Baths, Pete and I went in different directions. I was invited to a special chocolate workshop with Philippe Wall, chocolatier and founder of Minerva Chocolate.

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I confess, I seem to have a bit of a thing for French men at the moment; I can’t help myself. Especially ones that humour me and let me rabbit away in French to them. Yes, yes, Philippe is Belgian but he’s a French-talking Belgian which, as he put it himself, is totally the same thing as a Northern Frenchman anyway!

It didn’t take long for me to fall utterly for Philippe’s charms. I challenge you to find a more jovial, affable chap in all of Bath!

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I only just resisted sticking my mouth under the tap of hot, melted chocolate. But was quickly distracted by a cup of rich, delicious hot chocolate.

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Philippe gave me and Tim (this year’s Masterchef winner) a short workshop on working with chocolate.

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First we tempered some of the melted chocolate and then we made chocolate buttons, dipped whole English black cherries, finished off some pralines and Tim poured a tonne of chocolate into a strange Buddha mould.

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Philippe has many custom moulds including some in the shape of Minerva’s head, the Roman goddess for which his shop is named.

I’m hoping to return to Bath and do a full length chocolate workshop with Philippe when I do.

Do visit Minerva Chocolate for a drink and tasty snack (takeaway or eat in), to buy some great chocolates or to attend a workshop with Philippe.

Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution

Initially planning to visit the Herschel Museum of Astronomy but finding it closed until later in the day, Pete turned to twitter and was quickly pointed towards the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

He enjoyed a quick tour of ‘Earth + Fire = Vessel’, an exhibition of pottery and artefacts from throughout human history.

Entry was free and the institution has a wide range of exhibitions, talks and events on offer.

The Star Inn

Pete’s next stop was The Star Inn, a small traditional pub which is the brewery tap of Abbey Ales, who describe themselves as Bath’s only brewery. Of course, Bath Ales may disagree! However, Abbey Ales are the only brewery still physically located within Bath itself.

The Raven

Next on Pete’s list was a visit to The Raven for another quick pint. It’s a small, attractive pub serving decent real ale including a few beers brewed especially for them by Blindman’s Brewery. Likewise, they are well known for delicious pies, made for them by Pieminister.

Bath Ales’ The Salamander Pub

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Bath Ales’ Moussa, taken later that evening

We’re no strangers to Bath Ales, and have a great twitter friendship with their social media guru so it was great to finally meet Moussa for a Bath Ales lunch at The Salamander, where we also reunited after our solo explorations.

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It’s a lovely pub, just the place to stop and rest weary bones, grab a pint or two and indulge in some simple but very tasty food.

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In the photos above, is Mark Dredge, one of the UK’s top beer bloggers. He organised our lunch time meet.

The Salamander has a great location and a very warm welcome.

Paxton & Whitfield

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I can’t imagine there’s a single reader of Kavey Eats who hasn’t picked up by now that I adore cheese. So it’s no surprise we popped in to Paxton & Whitfield on John Street.

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(Sorry for the variable photos, some were taken on my phone).

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Martin, the Bath store manager, talked us through a number of cheeses and we tasted a few, my favourite of which was the truffled Brie. Unlike most versions of this that I’ve tried, which have a vague smell but no real truffle flavour – even though you can clearly see a smear of black truffle across the centre – the Paxton & Whitfield version was heady in it’s truffly aroma and then, to my delight, kicked in with a very clear truffle taste. So heady that I was unable to leave without buying a generous slice to take home!

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It’s always great to buy cheese from genuine turophiles, like Martin, who can educate you about the cheeses on offer and help you work out the right ones for you.

Sally Lunn’s Buns

Sally Lunn’s is not the only provider of Bath buns in Bath. But it’s probably the best known.

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According to the ever handy wikipedia, a traditional Bath bun is “a rich, sweet yeast dough shaped round that has a lump of sugar baked in the bottom and more crushed sugar sprinkled on top after baking. Variations in ingredients include candied fruit peel, currants or larger raisins or sultanas.”

The cafe’s website relates their version of the history of the Bath bun: Sally Lunn was a Huguenot refugee (better known as Solange Luyon) who came to Bath in 1680 via Bristol, after escaping persecution in France. Finding work with a local baker, she introduced the light and delicate bun to the town. The bun quickly became popular and its fame spread far and wide. Apparently, the original and secret recipe is passed on with the deeds to the house and still made there by hand. Strong insistence is made that their true Bath bun differs greatly to the London copycat version which is also called a Bath bun.

On the other hand, I have found reference to the claim that the Bath bun descended from the 18th century Bath cake, devised by one William Oliver, a doctor treating visitors who came to Bath for the famous spa waters.

Whatever the truth of its history, we were determined to sample the famous buns and chose to do so at the most famous purveyor.

The buns are available with a range of toppings including butter and strawberry or blackcurrant jam, cinnamon butter, traditional thick cut orange marmalade, rich raspberry topping, lemon curd, coffee and walnut butter, chocolate butter, ginger butter or brandy butter, most of which are homemade.

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The menu also offers a wide range of savoury and sweet snacks including sandwiches, soups, rarebits, pates, a small range of full hot meals and sweet cakes, pies and tarts.

Pete chose half a Sally Lunn Bath bun with homemade lemon curd and I went for the homemade coffee and walnut butter on mine.

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When the buns arrived, we were a bit aghast – they looked huge and we’d not long had a generous lunch. But they were much lighter than we expected and we polished them off pretty quickly.

They’re simple buns, and those expecting a truly novel experience or a bun utterly distinct from all they’ve tried before, may be disappointed. But we were glad we stopped here. They may be simple but they’re awfully good and we appreciated the homemade toppings.

We will be hunting down recommended recipes to recreate the Bath bun here in North West London!

As an added attraction, the kitchen museum at the same site shows the actual kitchen used by Sally Lunn back in the 1600s. Entry is 30 pence.

Thermae Bath Spa

Although I am a huge fan of spas, I probably wouldn’t have taken time out of our day in Bath to go to the Thermae Bath Spa had we not been given complimentary 2 hour entry. And that would have been a huge, huge mistake as I truly loved the experience!

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Located just a short stroll from the Roman Baths, the Thermae Bath Spa has been built to give modern-day visitors the opportunity to take the famous Bath spa waters in a modern-day setting.

The main building is called the New Royal Spa and comprises a large indoor mineral pool called Minerva, which has a ‘lazy river’ current that moves floating swimmers slowly around the pool, a series of steam rooms, each with differently scented steam and a roof top thermal pool with magical views over neighbouring rooftops and Bath Abbey.

There is also a small separate facility just opposite, which offers a small open-air thermal bath with its own changing facilities. This is known as New Cross and is ideal for small group bookings. Entry for New Cross is not included with entry to the New Royal Spa facilities but we were taken across to have a quick peak before starting our own spa session.

Of course, spa treatments are also available, including regular, hot stone and hydro massages, body wraps, facials and so on.

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Image courtesy of LuxeGuru, another bathtwitrip participant

During our visit we enjoyed the Minerva thermal pool, the steam rooms and the roof top thermal bath.

The steam rooms were wonderful but the enormous waterfall shower in the centre of the room was underwhelming and the individual foot baths around the edges of the room were difficult to access, tight and more than half were broken.

It was the roof top pool that stole my heart; bobbing in warm waters and admiring the magical view out over the historical city of Bath is an experience I will not quickly forget.

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Images from Thermae Bath Spa website – New Cross, New Royal Spa rooftop thermal bath, Minerva pool and steam rooms

There were only a couple of frustrations: The cleverly designed lockers were operated by electrical keys integrated into unusually poorly designed wrist bracelets which constantly came loose. It was also frustrating that showers and toilets were on a different floor to the changing rooms.

To my surprise, prices for entry are very affordable with New Royal Spa charging £25 for 2 hours, £35 for 4 hours and £55 for a full day providing access to the indoor and outdoor pools and steam rooms as well as a cafe restaurant. Entry to the more limited facilities of New Cross costs just £15 per person for 1.5 hours or £150 for private group hire for the same period, for up to 12 people.

For a really different perspective on Bath, I wholeheartedly recommend the Thermae Bath Spa and will definitely be visiting again next time I am in town.

Other Attractions

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We were very pleased to be able to take in the Wild Planet Exhibition by London’s Natural History Museum. Featuring 80 spectacular images from Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, we lingered over the wildlife and landscapes whilst enjoying live classical music and singing from buskers in the open square in front of the Abbey and Roman Baths.

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Image from store website

It’s down to will power that we managed to visit the wonderful Kitchen cookshop on Quiet Street without making any purchases, though had the bank balance been healthier, we absolutely would have done. It’s a paradise for cooks and I could easily lose hours inside.

Next Time

Although we packed as much into our day as we could, in the end we had time to visit only a fraction of our twitter recommendations which included favourite cafes, delis, bakeries, restaurants and more. It looks like another trip to Bath is in our future!

We’re also hoping to do a course at the charming Richard Bertinet’s cookery school soon.

If you have your own Bath favourites, please do share them in the comments.

With many thanks to Bath Tourism Plus for their invitation to participate in this hugely enjoyable day.

 

Then

I know you aren’t all fellow history graduates, and didn’t necessarily study the history of the East India Company, but I’m sure you’ll have heard of it. In its very long history, it’s also been referred to as the East India Trading Company, the English East India Company and the British East India Company.

Elizabeth 1 granted the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies an English Royal Charter on 31 December 1600, making it the oldest amongst several similarly formed European East India Companies, the largest of which was the Dutch East India Company.

As the various names imply, it was a company formed for pursuing trade with the East Indies, a term used to refer to South East Asia. Instead, the company ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and China, trading mainly in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre and, of course, tea and opium.

On merging with a rival English company in 1708, it became more commonly referred to as the Honourable East India Company, colloquially called John Company or Company Bahadur (meaning brave or authority).

It all sounds jolly exciting doesn’t it?

Certainly, we might think about romantic notions of adventure and exploring and innovation and discovery… and perhaps, in it’s earlier days, that’s what it was like, its officers travelling far and wide to find exotic goods to bring home for sale.

At first, the Company was simply given rights by local rulers to establish factories and trading posts in coastal positions. However, over time, the company came to rule large areas of India, exercising military power, assuming administrative functions and moving away from its original commercial pursuits. It’s dominion over the Indian subcontinent is variously referred to have begun in 1757, when it won the Battle of Plassey and the Nawab of Bengal surrendered to the Company, in 1765, when the Company was granted the diwani, or the right to collect revenue in Bengal and Bihar, or in 1772, when the company established a capital in Calcutta, appointed its first Governor-General and became directly involved in governance.

At its peak, it employed about a third of the British workforce and accounted for an enormous share of world trade. It had a 24,000-man army and even issued its own currency coin.

Officially, Company rule lasted until 1858 when, after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British government passed the Act for the Better Government of India and the Crown assumed direct administration of India; the new British Raj. EIC’s armed forces were incorporated into the British Army.

However, in reality, Pitt’s India Act of 1784 had already brought the administration of the East India Company under the control of the British Government who were keen to address wide spread concern about corruption and poor governance by the Company, which had so badly mismanaged its affairs as to be forced to turn to the British Government for financial aid. This, despite the fact that individual Company officers returned home with immense personal fortunes. The act set up a system that allowed the government to supervise and regulate the Company, rather than take full direct control for itself, as occurred 74 years later.

Although the company was effectively dissolved in 1858, it was formally dissolved only in 1874, by an act of parliament.

There were many reasons for the Indian Rebellion.

The old aristocracy had slowly seen their powers erode, as the Company annexed states and took over administration. They were also indignant about the lack of courtesy shown to them and the theft of their treasures such as precious jewels. The nobility were angered by the Company’s interference in traditional systems of inheritance.

Rural landlords in modern Uttar Pradesh lost many of their landed estates to peasant farmers as a result of land reforms. Many were also vexed by heavy-handed revenue collection which resulted in huge debts or loss of their lands.

Many sectors of society were upset about the social reforms introduced by the Company including the abolition of sati (where widows were immolated on their husbands’ funeral pyres), the legalisation of widow remarriage and the lack of adherence to the caste system when employing and promoting Indians. European schools were said to be replacing Indian religious instruction with other subjects and exposing girls to morally unacceptable teachings. There was strong suspicion that the British wanted to supplant Indian religious traditions with British ones.

The justice system was considered to be very much stacked against Indians who tried to bring cases against Company officers. Brutality and crime on the part of the officers often went unpunished.

In addition, the sepoys (Indian soldiers in the service of European military forces) were grieved by a wide array of issues, not least unfavourable changes to their terms of service and the short-lived introduction of tallow-greased cartridges. As the soldiers had to bite the cartridges open to release the powder before loading their rifles, this would mean they would ingest some of the animal-derived tallow. For high-caste sepoys, this would strip them of their caste and was therefore hugely offensive.

 

Now

The East India Company was revived last August by Indian businessman Sanjiv Mehta.

The original company itself dissolved in 1874. What Mr Mehta purchased, back in 2005, was the registration of the name, previously owned by UK private investors (1).

Mehta has been quoted expressing a great feeling of redemption in buying back the company that once owned India (1)(4). He has also dismissed any concerns about reopening the old wounds of colonialism, saying that many thousands of Indians have contacted him from all around the world, expressing support and joy that an Indian now owned EIC (2).

Instead of focusing on the oppressive side of the East India Company, Mehta chooses instead to remind people about the positive influences on India such as the English language, ports and cities, the railway network, the civil system of government and more (3).

Of course, as an experienced importer and businessman, Mehta also knows the enormous value of a 400 year old, internationally recognised brand; the world’s first multinational organisation. It would be impossible to create a new brand of this magnitude, even in a lifetime (4). Associated with bringing all manner of exotic goods from East to West, the East India Company is also indelibly associated with the history of the British Empire and Mehta plans to bring the romance of that era to modern day shoppers (3). In fact, Mehta made many international trips to talk to museum curators and historians about EIC’s history, to ensure that he fully understood its heritage, explaining that he feels his role as custodian of the brand is a great responsibility (4).

Mehta, who himself moved to the UK over 20 years ago, has started by launching a store in London as well as an online shop, currently selling food and drink items. The plan is to open further stores, and to expand internationally, including into India, one of the world’s fastest expanding economies, with a growing appetite for luxury goods.

(1) East India Company to be revived by Jonathan Guthrie for the Financial Times
(2) East India Company returns after 135-year absence by BBC
(3) East India Company relaunches as luxury brand by Jim Boulden for CNN
(4) With one eye firmly on the past, new chapter begins for East India Company by Adam Fresco for The Times

 

Review

I was invited to review the new East India Company products and suggested an item from 3 or 4 from their various categories, which include tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, condiments, biscuits and cordials.

On the website, you’ll find much flowery language describing the history of the company and its impact on the world’s tastes and opinions, rules of commerce, communities and countries. It tells how the employees were explorers, traders and innovators who took risks, broke new ground and sometimes got it wrong (this is as much of a nod to the darker sides of the Company as you’ll find).

Whilst I’m fascinated by this attempt to pull the best bits from a historical institution into the present, the proof is, as they say, in the pudding.

Unfortunately, as you’ll see below, two out of four products are just not good enough to justify their price tags nor to live up to the promise of the brand.

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The Campbell Darjeeling Loose Leaf 125g (£12.00)

Tea was the one thing I had hoped the new East India Company would get right, being so strongly associated with the original Company. Sadly, I was hugely disappointed with the Campbell Darjeeling which was bland and dusty and lacking any complexity of flavour. Good Darjeeling tea has a wonderful hint of citrus fruit and is really light and refreshing. This tea had none of those qualities. It’s actually so poor I’m not going to finish it, which is saying a lot for me.

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Champagne Chocolates in the Scarlett Princess Box 250g (£25)

I really like the box designs, most of which feature unusual, colourful art work such as my “Scarlett Princess” with the head of what looks like a lilac breasted roller on the body of a princess. Sadly, the champagne truffle contents disappoint, being far too sweet and sickly. I know I’m fussy about my chocolates, but these reminded me of cheap fiver-a-box chocolates and they simply don’t justify the £25 price tag.

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Jasmine Cordial 25 cl (£7.95)

I like the range of cordials on offer, though I notice that this jasmine flower cordial is no longer listed in the online shop. £7.95 is not an unreasonable price either. And the good news is that I like the product. Thus far I’ve only used it, diluted, as a drink, but am keen to experiment with using it in cooking.

The website currently lists hibiscus, lavender, mimosa, orange blossom, poppy and violet cordials, all of which appeal.

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Chocolate Sugar 225g (£10.00)

As with the jasmine cordial, the chocolate sugar is no longer listed in the online shop, though you can still buy Demerara, Guadeloupe and vanilla sugars. £10 is expensive for the size of the jar, but it’s an attractively packaged gift and I’d consider buying it as such, though probably not for myself.

Salts

I wasn’t able to review any of the range of salts, but do find them appealing, sold in the same cork-lidded jars as the sugar, and at the same price. There’s a Pacific smoked salt from the USA, a Persian blue salt from Iran, a pale green Bamboo salt, an inky dark Hawaiian black salt produced in natural lava pans and a Hawaiian red salt that gets its colour from local clays. These are all quite intriguing and would probably be a welcome gift for a cook who likes the unusual.

 

As you can see, I didn’t think too highly of the products I reviewed. They simply didn’t live up to the promise in terms of quality, especially given the pricing. Even during a recession, there is growing interest in really good produce from perfectionist producers; the East India Company needs to up its game.

 

Revising my history for this post puts me in mind of my favourite professor at university; this post is dedicated to professor J J Scarisbrick.

Jun 232011
 

We had a marvellous fortnight in Lebanon, as will already be clear from my recent posts about the overall trip and our day with Abu Kassem. After our Taste Lebanon tour was over, Pete and I stayed on in Beirut for 3 extra days, basing ourselves at The Phoenicia hotel, part of the InterContintental group.

About The Phoenicia

It was during Lebanon’s golden era in the 1950s and ’60s that Lebanese businessman Najib Salha decided to build a world class hotel on the shores of Beirut. With a group of like-minded investors, he founded La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban and invited American architect Edward Durell Stone to design his dream hotel.

The Phoenicia InterContinental opened its doors 8 years later in 1961.

It immediately became a firm favourite with the rich and famous jet set and was party central for royalty, world leaders, celebrities, businessmen not to mention wealthy Lebanese.

After years of closure due to the war, La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban decided to rebuild Beirut’s grand dame. After extensive refurbishment and extensions, it reopened in 2000.

In its new incarnation, it offers 446 rooms and suites plus a residential complex with serviced apartments. As well as its own range of restaurants, the larger complex also provides a home to a number of other stores and restaurants including the Beirut outpost of Gaucho.

This year The Phoenicia celebrates 50 years since its original opening.

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Our Room

Invited for a review visit, we were allocated a Club InterContinental room which comes with its own check-in and check-out area on the 6th floor, a club lounge area in which complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening finger food buffet are served during the day, access to a business centre and library plus use of the meeting room if required, WiFi in the room and public spaces (and high speed internet in the room), complimentary limousine transfers (though these only seem to be offered for pick up from the airport and not drop off back to it), a butler service to help with in-room or concierge needs and a complimentary 15 minute neck massage, plus discount on any further spa treatments.

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Our room was lovely and spacious. The king size bed was comfortable, a usable desk working area with internet, TV and mini bar fridge, wardrobe space plus a handy storage for suitcases and bags, so they didn’t clutter up the room. I would have preferred a two-seater sofa or two arm chairs to the chaise-longue but that’s just me.

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I liked our little balcony, with side views of the marina and coast. The windows were well sound-proofed against the constant buzz of traffic below.

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And the bathroom was super lovely, with a large walk-in shower closet, a separate bath, gorgeous L’Occitane toiletries and a separate toilet area.

What we liked about our room is that it was a space we were happy to relax in, and felt positive about coming back to during the day and for the night. You might think this is a no-brainer but, believe me, our first night in Lebanon (after which we moved quick sharpish) made it strikingly clear that this is not always the case!

The only negative with our room was the number of times we were interrupted for house keeping services, turn down service and then, the one that really annoyed, a manager check that the turn down service had been provided or offered. This was not just for us because we were on a review visit, but repeated along the length of the club rooms corridor, I think. I felt like responding that if they didn’t trust their staff to perform the duties they were paid for, they should employ people they did!

Public Spaces

 

As expected from a hotel of this stature, public spaces are enormous and sumptuously decorated, though they’ve been refurbished lately with a lighter, more modern touch, introducing sleeker silver check in desks, purples and greys in carpets and furnishings and less of the heavy gold and red that we were told used to be prevalent. At the same time, with all the gleaming marble, one doesn’t forget one’s in a traditional luxury hotel!

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Outdoors is an attractive pool area with plenty of greenery, day beds, seating areas and the Amethyste bar area. We tried to enjoy a drink here one evening but a wedding party in a nearby building had their music turned up outrageously loud, not the fault of The Phoenicia. What made it worse was the hotel bar’s insistence on keeping their own loud music switched on – the clash between the two was unbearable and we gave up and retreated indoors to the Cascade lobby lounge. A shame as the seating areas around the pool are delightful; one of my favourite spaces in the hotel.

We didn’t make it into the outdoor pool during our May visit, as the weather wasn’t quite warm enough.

Spa Pool

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located via Google image search, no photographer information found

Instead we used the indoor pool within the spa area. This has been well designed. The separate mens’ and womens’ changing areas each have steam rooms and showers. A large shared jacuzzi is in the open area next to the pool. The pool has high ceilings and is just big enough to do lengths if you want to exercise a little. (There is a gym nearby, for those who really want to work out; I walked past without giving it a second glance). I particularly loved looking out while I was floating in the pool, through immense glass windows, onto a residential scene that summed up Beirut – a number of beautifully refurbished buildings and one windowless shell, pockmarked by sniper fire and bombs.

Spa Treatments

Next to the indoor pool and changing rooms is the spa reception, and, up on a mezzanine floor, the treatment rooms. We booked a massage each, Pete opting for a 50 minute hour Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage and me for an 80 minute therapeutic deep tissue massage. Pete couldn’t work out why the treatment was classified as Ayurvedic, since it had no Ayurvedic aspects to it. At all. None. Moreover, it was an average massage at best. Not bad per se, but not good.

Mine was a bit of a disaster. Firstly, my therapist sulked when I didn’t take him up on his determined offer to split my treatment time between massage and therapist-directed (power) jet shower. This came up twice more during the massage itself, too. Then, we started the treatment to the thunder of drilling work, the treatment room clearly just on the other side of the wall from the construction work on Mosaic restaurant. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I could feel the vibrations reverberating through my head. My therapist quickly worked out this wasn’t going to work and left me lying there as he went off, for a very long time indeed, to find an alternative. Of course, the spa were not to blame, having not known about it, but some internal communications in advance would have allowed the spa to avoid accepting bookings for those treatment rooms during the noisiest works. Eventually, he returned and said we’d use a free bedroom within the hotel, where a mobile massage table had been set up. I was not very comfortable following him through the hotel in a too-small bathrobe, but eventually we got into the room, only to find it didn’t have a massage table. Off he went again to get the key for the correct room, and then we had to wait again for the massage oils and towels to be delivered. The massage itself, sorry to say, was also not very good, with the therapist refusing to heed my requests about where on my body to focus his time, or to work more gently. Nor did it help that he sat down for so much of it, meaning he didn’t get a decent angle with which to reach my back muscles. He stopped to grab himself a drink from the minibar in the middle too! Near the end, he wanted to work on my neck. Immediately, I told him that I’ve had some issues with my neck, something I’d mentioned during our initial discussion, and to go very gently indeed. He ignored me once again, actually strong arming my resistance away, insisting he knew best. I’m just lucky he didn’t do any damage and I was not a happy bunny. Five minutes before the end of our allotted time, the spa reception called the room to check whether he’d finished; surely better to wait until he called them than risk interrupting the client’s treatment. And to cap it all, he then insisted on asking me in person, what I’d thought of the treatment. Alone in a bedroom with a therapist who had delivered a bullying treatment, I was too timid to say anything other than “time will tell” before escaping as quickly as I could and feeding back in detail to management shortly afterwards.

Offered a replacement massage, I was reluctant but agreed to give it ago. I was assigned to Imad who took genuine time to check my medical details and requirements, and gave me, in complete contrast, one of the best massages I’d had in my life, though marred a little by the bruising left from the first treatment. With his excellent massage training, not to mention diploma in osteopathy and further training in reflexology, Imad was a great therapist and he fixed a lot of the pain caused the previous day and helped with some of the aches I’d hoped to heal in the first place. He is one of the best therapists I’ve ever encountered, anywhere.

Were all the therapists at The Phoenicia of the same calibre, I would not hesitate to recommend that you book a treatment here. But our 1 out of 3 hit rate means I’m loathe to do so; it’s a hit and miss affair and the hotel needs to invest a lot more effort into hiring and training better therapists.

Dining

The hotel offers a number of dining options from casual to formal.

I met with the hotel’s executive chef Jacques Rossel and with Rabih Fouany, Eau de Vie’s head chef, ahead of our evening meal there. Here’s an interview.

 

Eau de Vie

The Eau de Vie is The Phoenicia’s flagship restaurant, situated on the eighth floor, with views out over the sea and the city and offering French and Mediterranean cuisine. It’s recently been refurbished and we all found it a calming space, in muted colours and simple, elegant lines. Window tables were each separated by chiffon curtained partition walls, giving welcome privacy. Live music was pleasant, but not too loud to preclude conversation. Service was helpful, friendly but not overly obsequious.

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Foie gras was served in a generous slice though more brioche would not have gone amiss; rich and unctuous, as it should be.

Caesar salad was brought on a large trolley and assembled in front of the diner, with the dressing made fresh. The only question asked was whether the diner wanted anchovies and, disappointingly, these were not crushed and mixed into the dressing. The romaine leaves were very fresh and sweet, but the dressing was deemed so-so.

Cod croquettes were given the thumbs up.

The tomato tart with lobster salad was light and sweet from the small tomatoes. The lobster had a nice texture but didn’t have much flavour.

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The wagyu burger was deemed excellent – cooked pink inside, as agreed on ordering, and decent moist meat.

Chicken chasseur was rich with the flavour of mushrooms and bacon in a thick sauce, and served without fussiness, befitting the nature of the dish.

I had been about to order a regular steak but was encouraged to try the wagyu version instead. All the beef, wagyu and regular, was from Australia, by the way. I gave in to the upsell and was pleasantly surprised. My steak had great flavour but was also far more tender than I would normally have expected from the cut (though which cut has slipped my mind, and I failed to note it down).

The stand out dish of the meal was seabass with mushroom sauce. The seabass was absolutely superbly cooked, if I’m pressing this point, it’s because it really was a perfect balance between firm, moist and tender. And, to our surprise, the robust and rich marsala mushroom sauce did not overwhelm the fish, the flavour of which came through very clearly. Vegetables were simple and cooked with a light touch. The odd pipette of extra sauce stuck into the croquette at a jaunty angle was an odd touch, an out of place nod to molecular cuisine, perhaps.

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An assiette of chocolate desserts was decent, with mousses, a chocolate lychee shot and a macaron.

A chocolate praline (not pictured) was excellent, with great flavours and just the right crunchy texture.

The crème brûlée trio – vanilla, raspberry and sumac – was the winner for this course. Pete is very fussy about the texture of the crème custard and gave it top marks. Both the vanilla and the raspberry flavours were tasty. But, oh my, that sumac one was delicious, imparting a refreshing citrus flavour to the custard. I hadn’t thought it would work but everyone tried and really liked it.

With our meal we enjoyed a Ksara rosé Gris de Gris before and with the starters. With our mains, the restaurant General Manager, Nicki, recommended a Massaya red which she described as fruity and full but which would still work with the fish dish as well as the meat ones. She was right, the three red drinkers agreed!

After our meal we enjoyed a digestif each – two chose whiskies from the extensive whisky bar menu and two of us had a glass of dessert wine.

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Coffees and teas came with a visit from the petits fours trolley, which is fun to choose from.

Our meal was on the house, but the bill would have been approximately $470 between four of us. That said, the red wine selected for us cost more than what we’d have selected on our own and both Pete and I were encouraged to have wagyu burgers and steak rather than regular. And we were invited to try the whisky bar too. You could dine for a fair bit less here, but you are still paying a premium for the view, the exclusive environment, the posh hotel level of service and the location within an expensive hotel.

That said, we did have a very enjoyable evening.

Caffe Mondo

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At the other end of the scale is Caffe Mondo, a casual Italian eatery that Bethany told us was a favourite hang out during her student days. The prices here were on par with many lower to middle range Beirut restaurants and we thought it great value and tasty too.

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Most of the starters were intended for one but Pete’s caprese di bufala al pesto was enormous, easily enough for two and priced at similar point to my starter, labelled as for two. It was lovely good with moist, flavoursome mozzarella, decent tomatoes and a pleasant but not overpowering pesto.

I really really fancied the deep fried calamari rings (described on the menu as for two people) so ordered it anyway and stuck to my guns in not finishing it, so I’d have room left for my pizza! Fresh squid, a light batter, cooked for just the right amount of time, served hot with two dips, it was just the ticket.

The starters were on the pricey side, ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 Lebanese pounds (1,500 LP = $1).

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Most mains were much more reasonable with pastas costing 12,500 to 19,000 Lebanese pounds and pizzas between 20,000 and 27,500 though fish and meat dishes ranged from 26,000 to a whopping 120,000 for a grilled wagyu sirloin.

The pizza chef worked at a counter open to the restaurant, so we could watch him tossing and stretching the dough, before adding toppings and cooking the pizzas in a proper pizza oven. They were both excellent and as good as my favourites in London and Italy.

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Grazers also be interested in the lunch and dinner buffets which are extensive and varied, and I think priced at around $20. The buffet shelf features an integrated chiller unit that keeps the food cold. I have often found restaurant buffet selections disappointing but I’d have been happy to dine from this one.

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Tiramisu (10,000) was pretty good. But hazelnut pannacotta (also 10,000) was awful, with about 10 times the amount of gelatine required, it was like spooning into solid rubber, and after a couple of bouncy bites, I gave up. A shame, as the flavour was decent.

Other Dining

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Also in the hotel is Wok Wok offering pan Asian cuisine, Amethyste bar offering drinks and bar snacks and the Cascade Lobby Lounge serving drinks and light meals. The hotel’s all day dining restaurant, Mosaic, is currently undergoing major refurbishment, and is scheduled to reopen later in the year.

Service and Ambience

A friend had visited Beirut last year, accompanying her husband who was there on business. She had described The Phoenicia a little impersonal, and said that service (for their large business group) was a bit slow, so I’d been nervous about how we’d find it. To my relief, we genuinely enjoyed our stay, and were treated with courtesy and a helpful attitude by staff throughout the hotel. Of course, with over 400 rooms, there is a vast army of staff, most of whom will interact with any given guest only once, if at all. However, the staff in the Club lounge, who look after a smaller subset of guests, clearly made efforts to remember and interact personally with all their customers.

Certainly, The Phoenicia is a more traditional style of hotel than we naturally gravitate towards, but it’s attractive, comfortable and offers good service, albeit for a price (see below).

Additionally, my friend had commented on the views from the hotel out over derelict neighbouring buildings, finding them unappealing to look at. But I must confess, I found them a bittersweet reminder of Beirut’s war-ravaged history and often could not tear my eyes away from the contrast between new or refurbished buildings and derelict buildings standing cheek to cheek.

Even the Stop Solidere signs intrigued me, a political protest against state-approved but privately owned building projects that are erasing all trace of Lebanon’s conflict-ridden past. Returning Beirut to its pre-civil war appearance, argue the protestors, amounts to state-sponsored amnesia regarding a period that had such impact on Lebanese lives and culture. I’m not remotely qualified to hold an opinion, but find this debate fascinating, drawn as I am by the history those war-pocked shells evoke.

If you prefer modern style to traditional, my friend recommended the more intimate Le Gray, which has an excellent location in the heart of town, near the new souk shopping district, Place de l’Etoile, Martyrs’ Square and many other sites. The Phoenicia is about a kilometre or so further from these sites, so still well located for both business and tourist visitors.

 

Costs

 

The Phoenicia is not a budget option, by any stretch of the imagination. Standard rooms cost from $400 a night. Our Club rooms cost from $700 a night. (This is very comparable with other high end hotels in Beirut, including Le Gray).

Spa treatments are at the top end of what I’ve come across, even in hotel spas, with Pete’s 50 minute Ayurvedic massage priced at $110, my first (80 minute) massage priced at $133 and the replacement massage priced at $100.

The dining options range from very reasonable to pretty high. (We found eating out in Beirut was more expensive, generally, than we’d expected; on a par with London prices).

Extras are not cheap either; for example, we found the taxi service used by the concierge service was (literally) twice the price of the one we’d been using throughout the week, as recommended in our Taste Lebanon information pack.

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views from the penthouse suite, an incredible and enormous space on the 22nd floor, yours for $9,000 a night…

For all that, you do get what you pay for. The Phoenicia of 2011 still reflects the opulence, tradition and service of i’s jet set hey day and offers what you’d expect from a hotel of its style and calibre.

Beirut is an expensive city, but one I am eager to get back to.

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Phoenicia hotel.

Nov 112010
 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

I have always had an interest in World War Two. Not a Boy’s Own fascination with military manoeuvres, tanks and planes or playing soldiers, but from a historical, political and people perspective.

At school, history was one of my favourite subjects. I never much cared for learning about British monarchs – William the Conqueror, the Tudors and the Church of England, the Stuarts and the Parliamentarians (though I love the term “Roundheads”) – but as soon as the subject turned to the 20th Century, and I could clearly trace a line between historical events and the current world, I perked up and paid attention.

Luckily both my school and sixth form chose modern history curriculums so history lessons were a pleasure.

I loved learning about how so many disparate happenings in different corners of the world were interconnected and how they shaped the current global balance of power, the development of current political systems, the values, belief systems and cultures of people in different parts of the world.

And I was sobered by the many stories of war and oppression and what men (as a species) can do to each other.

WW2 was of particular interest to me. Our closest family friends (adults and children both) were a Jewish family. The father had come to England as a very young boy when his father made the decision to abandon their lives in Germany, after his sister was attacked. Other family members chose to stay behind and suffered the consequences. How this came to happen was something I wanted to understand.

Anyone studying WW2 could not fail to be drawn into tale of the Battle of Britain and the role of the RAF.

The Battle of Britain

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The Battle of Britain is the name given to the air campaign waged by the German Luftwaffe (Air Force ) against Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940.

The name came from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech which he delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940. He said:

“What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

Background

Towards the end of May, British, French and Belgian soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk. Although it was hailed as a great success (and as an evacuation, it was certainly miraculous), it was, in the words of Churchill, “a colossal military disaster”, with troops completely cut off by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk. As well as loss of life, Allied troops had to abandon all heavy equipment and vehicles; 9 Allied destroyers were sunk and many more sustained heavy damage.

A few days later, the French Prime Minister, Reynaud, resigned and was succeeded by Marshal Philippe Pétain who immediately requested an armistice with Germany. Thus the Battle Of France was officially over on 22 June 1940 when the armistice was signed.

Hitler believed Britain would soon come to terms (negotiate peace) too and focused his attentions on planning an invasion of the Soviet Union. However, Winston Churchill had just become Prime Minister and flatly refused to consider an armistice with Hitler.

Hitler’s military advisors told him that an invasion of Britain should only be contemplated as a last resort, and only then with full air superiority. The Royal Navy was in vastly better shape than the Kriegsmarine (Germany Navy) following the Norwegian Campaign and the continuing Battle of the Atlantic.

Nonetheless, in July, Hitler ordered his forces to create a plan for a land operation against England in mid-September. Part of these plans included the directive to bring about the preconditions that would make such a landing in England possible – an English air force weakened to the extent that it could no longer muster any real resistance to the German invasion.

For Hitler’s invasion plan to succeed, the RAF had to be neutralised beforehand.

It starts

From July 1940 the Luftwaffe targeted shipping convoys in the Channel and coastal shipping centres.

A month later, the Luftwaffe shifted to attacking the RAF Fighter Command in an attempt to gain air superiority. Initially, the Germans bombed fighter airfields and then began to also target aircraft factories, though not very effectively – British fighter production continued at an increasing rate throughout the campaign.

In August, general industrial targets were also attacked and the use of night raids increased. Airfields were still key targets.

On the 24th of that month, following a raid on the Thames Haven oil refinery, some of the German bombers dropped bombs on residential areas in North and East London. The British retaliated with a bombing raid on Berlin the following night. The Luftwaffe high command were furious, and Hitler too. He demanded further attacks on major British cities, by day and by night.

Hitler hoped these terror bombing tactics would demoralise the British people.

The Blitz

The Blitz, as we called it in Britain, began on the evening of September 6th.

Although RAF and industrial targets were still attacked, the additional focus on major British cities reduced pressure on the RAF airfields. Of course, it resulted in a great many Civilian deaths and vast amounts of destruction of property.

The fortitude and resilience of Brits during the Blitz is a whole other topic; full of both harrowing and uplifting tales of courage and loss.

Incidentally, whilst Hitler certainly didn’t come up with the tactic ascribed to Blitzkreig (lightning war) – finishing a war quickly and decisively by deployment of a fast and overwhelming military force – the term assumed significance through Nazi propaganda journalism from where it was quickly adopted by Allied journalists following the invasion of Poland in 1939.

The RAF

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On the 20 August 1940 Churchill made another speech to the House of Commons and the British people in which he said:

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. All our hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day… “

To this day, “The Few” continues to be the nickname for the airmen of the British RAF who fought in the Battle of Britain.

These aircrews comprised not only Britons but many from Britain’s former colonies, particularly New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa, exiles from conquered allies including France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Belgium and a handful of others too.

The RAF was founded in 1918, during the First World War, when the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were merged. Although it was relatively quiet during the inter-war years, it underwent rapid expansion prior to and during WW2. During the war, it’s ranks were hugely bolstered by recruits into the RAF Volunteer Service.

Aircraft production kept pace with demand, despite the raids by German bombers.

Towards the start of the Battle of Britain, there were almost two RAF pilots in the RAF to each aircraft. But not all of these were fully trained fighter pilots. Fighter Command struggled to assign sufficient numbers of fighter pilots to each squadron to maintain operational strength in the face of casualties and allow for pilot rest, recovery and leave. Many pilots were also assigned to staff positions, since RAF policy insisted that only pilots could make staff and operational decisions.

Despite the lack of full training, the RAF aircrews went into battle against an enemy air force that was able to muster larger numbers of more experienced fighter pilots, many of whom had fought in the Spanish Civil War and were well trained in aerial gunnery and fighter combat tactics.

Grim determination and stamina won through. The Luftwaffe experienced a faster decline in operational strength, due to a lack of sufficient pilots, as the battle progressed than did the RAF.

In October, after a number of British victories in individual skirmishes in the skies, Hitler postponed the invasion until Spring 1941 and the regular bombings of Britain ended, though there were a limited number attacks after this time.

It’s easy, reading this narration of events, to miss the personal stories of courage, determination, loss and sacrifice made by the men and women of the forces during the Battle of Britain and WW2 as a whole.

I urge you to do some reading on your own and learn about what it was like to live through such a time.

An Celebration on the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain

A few weeks ago, I was invited to meet members of today’s RAF at an event instigated by Henrietta Lovell of the Rare Tea Company and hosted by the Coach and Horses pub.

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The pub laid on some WW2-inspired food (including a marvellous rabbit pie).

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Henrietta provided tea and tea-based cocktails (and some wonderfully amusing posters). The tea in question was her specially blended Royal Air Force Tea, which she first created for Terry Clark, a veteran of the Battle of Britain.

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The Wolf Brewery provided beer brewed especially to commemorate the Battle of Britain. (Read Pete’s review of the beer).

It was a lovely evening and gave us the opportunity to talk to men and women serving in the RAF today, though none of the veterans from the Battle of Britain were present on this occasion.

Henrietta is donating 10% from each sale of her Royal Air Force Tea to the RAF Association’s Wings Appeal.

Wolf Brewery are donating 10 pence from each bottle of any of their 4 Battle of Britain Beers to the same association.

Remembrance Day: Commemoration & Thanks

I believe it’s important to give thanks to all those, the many and the few, who sacrificed their lives for us during the wars (and to spare a thought for those who continue to do so through peaceful times and times of conflict).

You might think, hang on, your family didn’t emigrate to Britain until the late 1960s! What do you need to be thankful for? But, of course, the nation we are today (and the region and world as a whole) owes a huge debt to those who fought back then. Because I am proud to be British, I am grateful to those who defended it then.

Join me in remembering and giving thanks.

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