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An English Summer

One trip to London is all it took to uncover the vibrant side of royalty, writes Aasheesh Sharma.

brunch Updated: Sep 28, 2013 16:52 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

Londoners are wilting under the heat. The rupee is plumbing new depths and what do those English know about cricket that we don’t?” Or so went the naysayers. Unperturbed, I firmed my resolve to indulge in my wanderlust. The Stones were likely to play at Hyde Park the fortnight I’d be in London. I may even get to travel on the Orient Express. This would be my first visit to the city where street artist Banksy first earned fame and what the heck, ‘extreme summer’ in England means 32 degrees and there’s always a tall, cold glass of Pimm’s to beat the heat.

In hindsight, I am glad I accepted the invitation to be part of the festivities at the Buckingham Palace grounds to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s 1953 Coronation. One of the ‘highlights’ of the event was interacting with the royal warrant holders – businesses that have been supplying goods or services to the Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh, or The Prince of Wales. All my apprehensions about meeting boring, loyal-to-the-royals businessmen doing a curtsy every second minute vanished the moment I made my way through the balustraded gates to meet William Skinner, boss of Dege & Skinner, bespoke tailors and shirt-makers since 1865. “Last year, we stitched the suit that Prince Harry wore for his royal engagements. It was cut by our head cutter Peter Ward for [Harry’s] tour of the Caribbean. And guess where it ended up? On the cover of Tatler magazine, with the headline reading ‘Dirty Harry’,” said the heir of one of the two remaining Savile Row families upholding the tradition of bespoke tailoring on London’s celebrated lane of darzis.

Hunter Boots was just one of the royal-warrant holders at the festival to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation Photos courtesy: visitengland

Taking the family legacy forward is also a credo that Stephen Twining, the 10th generation heir to the London tea firm that got its royal warrant in 1836, lives by. At the festival, Twining donned an apron and got down and dirty to make chai for guests. “On the lines of the BBC series Desert Island Discs, we asked the world’s 14 best blenders about which tea they’d like to take with them to a desert island. They scoured the earth for rare teas and came up with this range. So, we’ve included Assam Adventure, a beautiful second-flush Assam, and lots of Darjeelings,” says the businessman, who visited India last year to work with tea-growers in West Bengal.

A fragrance commissioned by Gaj Singh Photos courtesy: visitengland

A Whiff of royalty
It was the second week of July. Although we were at the Buckingham Palace grounds and presumably, the biggest British pastime was guessing when the Royal Baby would arrive, the Queen was away, holidaying in Scotland, we were told. Still, the tents of the royal warrant holders offered a glimpse of the way the royals lived: their tastes in clothes and shoes, choice of automobiles or preferred beverages. At the evening gala, which cost £90 per head, Britain-bred musicians such as Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and Katie Melua matched steps with bhangra dancers going balle balle.

But we came within sniffing distance of desi royalty, courtesy Vaara, a signature fragrance commissioned to Penhaligon’s (the London-based perfume house) by our very own Gaj Singh of Jodhpur. Penhaligon’s showroom – they’re a royal warrant holder too – has the unmistakable aura of a barber shop: perfume bottles, vanity cases, picture frames and manicure sets. Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling are among those they’ve created scents for. “Vaara, our new range, is named after the daughter of Shivraj Singh and the granddaughter of Gaj Singh,” said the sales executive at the Regent Street outlet.

Di Another Day
Although there was no sign of Kate (yet!), a trip to the Kensington Palace allowed us to ogle at iconic royal outfits worn by Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, the Princess of Wales, in their heyday. Even as the group of South American journalists cogitated over a Catherine Walker dress that Lady Di wore to Brazil in 1991, I was more impressed with the spunky kaftan and turban ensemble created by Carl Toms for Princess Margaret in 1976. The most adventurous of the royal fashionistas, Princess Margaret routinely donned kaftans as ‘ethnic’ clothing flooded London boutiques in the 1970s.

The British Pullman leg of the Orient Express Photos courtesy: visitengland

On the Orient Express
The clink of cutlery on china, starched tablecloths and smartly uniformed stewards serving exotic cocktails in a restaurant car as the lush countryside flashes past your window. Travelling on the British Pullman leg of the Orient Express from London’s Victoria Station has to be one of the finest luxury travel experiences in the world.

“Where else will you be served a Bellini at 75 miles per hour?” asks Jeff Monk, train manager of the Orient Express. “It is the original recipe, as invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice,” he adds. Momentarily, I picture myself as Hercule Poirot having breakfast in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which the eccentric detective sits in the ‘favoured position of the table’ and is ‘served first and with the choicest morsels’.

Monk mentions that the celebrated chef Raymond Blanc has cooked numerous times in the train’s kitchen for his travel shows. He also recollects his encounter with Hollywood legend Paul Newman in the mid-1980s. “He came with his wife and they went to the Venice Film Festival. It was about 5am and he sat up outside his room. I don’t think he could sleep because of the train rocking. We had a great conversation for nearly 90 minutes while travelling through the Alps. It was one of those moments you can never forget.”

The train’s dining car has been part of our popular imagination since the 1930s and the ’40s. Has the Orient Express has made concessions for the sake of technology or convenience over the years? “The makeup of the train hasn’t changed,” says Monk. “The marquee and the panels are original. There is no Wi-Fi and the food is entirely cooked on gas.”

The train has 11 cars: Audrey, Cygnus, Gwen, Ibis, Ione, Lucille, Minerva, Perseus, Vera, Zena, and Phoenix. Persesus, the car we were travelling in, designed in the 1930s, was part of Churchill’s funeral train in 1965, said Monk.

The Blenheim Palace where Karan Johar shot a film Photos courtesy: visitengland

Filmi Connection
On a visit to Blenheim Palace in Cotswolds, one realises that Princess Di was actually a door ka rishtedar of Winston Churchill. Also, that Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Churchill, was a gift from Queen Anne to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, in recognition of his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Today, it is the residence of the 11th duke. The palace, apart from housing a fabulous collection of tapestries, paintings, porcelain and furniture in the State Rooms, has a Hindi movie connection! “It is where Karan Johar shot large chunks of Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham,” our guide tells us.

After an overdose of royalty, in case you feel like seeing the edgy, alternative side of the city, you could, perhaps, head towards East London, like I did. (see box, right). Visit the galleries, soak in the street art and raise a toast to Pimm’s Elderflower. Your wanderlust will be quenched, I promise!

While in England
Classic London experiences you can’t miss – and we don’t mean Madame Tussauds!
A night at the Opera: Your London trip isn’t complete if you haven’t watched the Phantom of the Opera musical or taken the backstage tour of the Royal Opera House.
Art Dekko: Visit the Tate Modern for its modern art collection and the Victoria and Albert Art Museum for its incredible range of historic artefacts that spans more than 3,000 years and includes art, design, photos, sculptures, textiles and design
Royal retreat: Visit the Kensington Palace, Princess Di’s last home, or take the walking tour that comes with your hotel booking, courtesy the British Hotel Reservation Centre.
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East London, the new Soho
Every city boasts a fashionable up-and-coming quarter. According to Stylist magazine’s list of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world, which includes Hauz Khas in Delhi, Red Hook in New York and Santa Teresa in Rio, East London is to the 2010s, what Soho was to the ’70s. “The East End is one of the areas that are throwing up a rash of exciting performances, often in unexpected spaces,” says Sunday Times theatre critic David Jays.

Many of these venues host live music, visual arts and workshops – in repurposed buildings that weren’t designed for performance. “The Arcola, east London’s most interesting theatre, for instance, opened in a former sweatshop,” adds Jays.

East London is also home to an array of interesting eateries, quirky designers, bars and of course, street art (see photo). “You can see Banksy’s street art on every corner and keep bumping into popular British artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst at the area’s hangouts,” says Mae Shummo, the popular Shoreditch tourist guide, who keeps a close watch over the neighbourhood’s shops, pubs and restaurants.

Before Shoreditch and Brixton became synonymous with the spirit of bohemia in London, Soho was where people went to eat, drink and listen to good music. A tour of the area can still take you to rock and roll heaven. A must-visit is the 2i’s coffee bar, a hangout for influential musicians of the ’60s, says Bob Barber, our guide for the Beatles London Rock Tour. “It features in the autobiographies of musicians of the ’50s and the ’60s who made London the swinging place it was,” adds Barber.

Away from snobbish central London, East London has turned into a breeding ground for contemporary artists, says Shummo. “Banksy was an outsider who set up his own environment here and was followed by the first generation of street artists who used the neighbourhood’s empty facades and clean walls to give their creativity a vent,” she adds.

The writer was hosted by VisitEngland, the national tourist board for England and the luxe Montcalm at The Brewery Hotel, London City.

From HT Brunch, September 29

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