Tag Archive for London

Escape From Notting Hill — A London Staycation Adventure

Great Northern Hotel lounge, King's Cross, London

Great Northern Hotel lounge, King’s Cross, London

Each year, over the late August UK bank holiday weekend, residents and merchants in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood batten down the hatches and prepare for a storm of sorts — nailing large sheets of wood to buildings’ facades and sealing off fences and access points to their residences and retail outlets.

Despite the local multicultural traditions that the annual Notting Hill Carnival upholds and its aim of fostering community, many residents experience the raucous event like the prospect of an out-of-control party being held in their homes, and pack up their bags, leave, and brace themselves for the worst upon their return.

Likewise, each year, I join the mass exodus, taking off for some nearby locale. One year it was a stylish B&B in a small Cotswolds town; another, a two-day sojourn in Thames-side Richmond Hill. I have come to realize that there’s no sense fighting it; my annual departure from W11 has become both a personal tradition, and an unexpected means of discovering nearby areas and new hotels and inns — some practically on my proverbial London doorstep.

This year, I got the opportunity to experience a couple of new hotels in two very distinct London quarters — South Kensington and King’s Cross.

I breezed through the former upscale museum-side area for a dosage of culture, fresh, creative food and a visit to the relatively new 111-room Ampersand Hotel. The artistic and botany and ornithology-inspired boutique property (opened in late 2012) is more modern than its 19th century facade reveals.

Staying in The Ampersand’s deluxe room presented the rare London luxury of space in which to sprawl out. For about £40 more than a superior chamber, it offers plenty of room in which to luxuriate; my favorite self-pampering spot being its comfortable and luxe double-sink bathroom with rainfall shower, tub and in-tub telly, featuring handy bath-time accoutrements like a loofah and hotel-branded rubber ducky.

With so much going on in the area — effectively the playground of the young Sloanie set who once partied at nearby Boujis — less socially adventurous culture vultures seeking a tranquil night’s sleep may want to request one of the hotel’s back rooms. However, the property is perhaps best suited to those wanting to zealously drink and dine.

Just steps away from Madsen, a laid-back Swedish restaurant with fresh, clean food and a short walk from lively Old Brompton Road tapas spots like Tendido Cero, and campy after-hours watering holes like the Nam Long Le Shaker, The Ampersand is well-positioned for cool night crawls.

However, visitors stopping by for more low-key creative inspiration thanks to the close-by Victoria & Albert and Science Museums, are likely to revel in one of the hotel’s best features: its charming Drawing Rooms restaurant. There, amidst lilac hues and playful and vibrant furniture, afternoon tea, lunch, coffee are served, including a cornucopia of sweets like raspberry hazelnut meringue slices and ‘Intense Chocolate Tarts.’ Although it’s not specifically offered, breakfast can (and should) be requested in this Wonderland-esque salon.

The next stop on my Notting Hill exodus/London staycation was the Great Northern Hotel. Opened in the spring of 2013 in the burgeoning and culturally exciting King’s Cross/St. Pancras railway station neighborhood, it is an uber-stylish high-end boutique hotel gem. Although there are some intriguing up-and-coming spots worth checking out in this hip quarter — like French chef Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store restaurant and the craftsy-cool Drink, Shop & Do — one could almost use the Great Northern as a city resort and barely leave its pleasant confines.

The hotel’s destination restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk is lorded over by none other than Mark Sargeant, who did a 13-year head chef stint at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred Claridges restaurant. The rich and tasty food consists of elegant and upscale takes on traditional British fare — a fine example of which is the creamed smoked haddock with poached hen’s egg (a small but indulgent meal in itself).

The cuisine is only perhaps upstaged by the stunning dining setting replete with a privy corner view of the railway station area (soon to be more glorious upon completion of its refurbishing), dangling hand-blown glass lights and neo-Deco furnishings. The adjacent petite bar (also upstairs) with its charmingly cluttered paintings and fragrant signature cocktails feels a bit like a literary lounge in which a contemporary Zelda and F. Scott might imbibe libations and playfully pontificate, sans the undignified distraction of tech devices.

There is a private club feeling to the whole establishment with its much-appreciated double-glazed windows and locked (to non-guests) floor entrances. The hotel’s extra-wide hallways are also a rarity. They were fashioned during Victorian times to accommodate the full-style dresses women often wore. An added modern, communal touch: pantries on every floor, stocked with gratis tea, coffee and edibles for guests.

The rooms — masterfully designed by the architects at Archer Humphryes, featuring hand-crafted furnishings– also delicately straddle the line between modern/contemporary and retro (’20s/’30s).

Of the hotel’s three room styles, two pay homage to the property and area’s historical railway past: the Cubitt (named after Lewis Cubitt, the master builder behind the property’s first iconic incarnation in 1854) and the Couchette (a small, contemporary rendition of a train sleeper carriage with a geometrically riveting view of the top of the King’s Cross concourse). The other is the oaky and masculine Wainscot.

Although there is no traditional central front entrance to the railway-side boutique hotel, I originally accidentally discovered it through its downstairs bar, which feels a bit more modern and night owl-conducive than the aforementioned literary lounge. Thankfully, serendipity and happy accident led me there… and continue to lead me to explore new areas and hotels like The Ampersand and the Great Northern, each year at Carnival-time.

Originally Published in Huffington Post | Travel

An American’s Search For London’s ‘Personal Bubble’

American Expat Living in London England

By Shana Ting Lipton

[originally published on Huffington Post | Travel]

…Any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally…

Anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan is familiar with the term “personal bubble.” Although invisible, it is the nucleus of a New Yorker’s life. It promises — in a city of 8.2 million — a safe zone, not to be penetrated by the masses.

You may be centimeters away from four sweaty people in a crowded space, so close you can smell what they ate for lunch — yet, despite this proximity, eyes shall not meet, actions shall not be acknowledged and personal space shall not be violated. Such unwritten codes keep urban denizens from going mad via overwhelm and confrontation in such overpopulated milieus.

So, masses of Manhattanites grumble to themselves, exhale after a long day, roll their eyes when seeing something irritating and so on, with little fear that their private expressions shall be viewed and then confirmed by another humanoid. Quite simply put: They are ignored.

I’m quickly learning that although there are crossovers between London and New York living, the rules are essentially different in the former. Actually, when I first moved to London, I found the cultural learning curve quite flat — compared to my move to Amsterdam. London, like New York, is highly populated (7.8 million, I believe) and of course a very sophisticated, international city. Londoners are busy, busy, busy and that’s a good thing.

People are generally not too needy but rather independent. There’s a group social dynamic, but because everyone is preoccupied with juggling the many facets of London life, adjustment (for a international city-dweller like myself) is fluid…save for one social no-no I have inadvertently engaged in time and again.

Although stiff upper lips abound around these parts, I have found the aforementioned “personal bubble” to be, generally speaking, absent (save for during Rush Hours on the Tube). However, any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally, as that would be engaging in said no-no. Such gestures are also called out.

Sometimes this can be heart-warming. You’re having ‘one of those days’. Soaking wet from a windy rain. You have an asthma attack whilst chasing a bus. Its doors close in your face, the driver grins wickedly and peels out. You’re soaking wet, have ripped your stockings and finally, wheezing like an old man, you manage to hobble onto another bus when an ornery driver berates you for swiping your Oyster card when the machine is broken.

That final straw, along with hormones, drive you to tears. Then, a kind stranger leans in and says, “The bus driver was quite rude. Are you ok?” You have no desire to engage as the combination of your tears and mascara have transformed you into ‘The Crow’ but you’re thankful for his concern, nevertheless.

On other days, the lack of ‘bubble’ feels intrusive. Your computer has randomly sent out multiple emails to the same people transforming you into a spammer in the eyes of esteemed colleagues. It crashes. You spend three hours waiting in the Apple store only to hear ‘iCan’t’ (fix your laptop). Downtrodden, you shuffle home, slumped over, exhaling as you think of ways to erase the day’s events when a complete stranger looks you in the eyes and blurts out, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen.” He means no harm but his scant few words have externalised and validated your internal worries.

Then there are the times when someone has shoved you and stepped on your foot, without so much as an ‘excuse me.’ A verbal, “ouch!” is your regrettable knee-jerk reaction. At that point, you’ve invited someone to step inside your bubble and proverbially stomp around with careless abandon in Doctor Martin boots. You will be confronted, and firmly reprimanded, as I discovered: ‘What are you complaining about? It was as much your fault as it was mine’!

Curious and perplexed by these and other confrontations in such a mannered albeit highly populated metropolitan centre, I asked some of my English friends for illumination. They all seemed to concur that this behaviour relates to the ubiquitous ‘stiff upper lip’ philosophy. The idea of expressing displeasure through facial gestures would be the opposite of holding it together, I learned. What was easily ignorable in New York, displays as a neon light festooned billboard in London–especially for someone like me whose face betrays her emotions.

As someone who was born in London but has moved about from Hong Kong to LA to New York to Amsterdam, I’ve spent my life studying cultures and analysing how my behaviours are received in them. I try to adapt as much as I can without being dishonest about my quirks and God-given flaws.

So, I wouldn’t say that this essay amounts to a gripe or a public complaint, but rather an attempt to understand it for myself. But I suppose it’s quite the opposite of keeping a stiff upper lip. Instead, mass-blogging about my take on such social mores is quite simply the literary equivalent of furrowing my brow and expelling air.

U.K. Meets LA Via David Hockney’s Brushstrokes

David Hockney a Bigger Picture London Los Angeles

London becomes another city when it’s sunny out. All the grim, pale facades that once were, in the overcast light become sanguine, hopeful, and full of new life. That could be said of any city but I feel that London–and England for that matter as well– is particularly prone to pulling a meteorologically-induced Jekyll and Hyde of the positive variety.

Few creators have been able to accurately capture Britain’s ‘other side’ as well as David Hockney. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he spent all those years in sunny LA. I have often imagined a hybrid city London-LA (or LoLA) and how perfect it would be with its uplifting, balmy weather, magnificent architecture and cultural contributions.

As a LoLA denizen myself, I was particularly looking forward to seeing the David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It’s sold out and I’ve heard nothing but stellar reviews.

Hoards of slow ambling salt and pepper headed visitors filled up the galleries on my visit–Hockney is, after all, their generational emblem of creativity. Yet, even though the space was cramped and packed, the exhibit delivered on its inherent promise to depict both the scale and depth of Hockney’s work–largely his country lane and tree paintings.

Truthfully, I was really only familiar with the vintage LA stuff–the pools, Hollywood Hills homes, etc. So experiencing (and that is the word when you’re dealing with pieces of this scale) the work was phenomenal.

The best view in the space beckons as you enter the first sparsely populated, modest exhibition hall of open-space tree paintings. If you peer through to one of the back galleries you get a perfectly pulled-back vista of one of the largest tree paintings that occupies an entire massive wall.

The rustic country lane paintings made me nostalgic for California road trips. They were rich in vibrant colours and promise (as a road trip is). I read a placard that named some of the works including a piece called ‘Nichols Canyon’ (which is just a stone’s throw away from my LA home). So of course I felt a sense of nostalgia and closeness to the work. Imagine my surprise when I inched closer to a particular piece that recalled Central California and saw that it was not California or the States but the English countryside.

Sense of place, memory, seasonal shifts, geographic markers–all of these things seem to blur in the works of the show–into the realm of the universal.

Some of my favourite paintings were small and hung side by side (clusters of many) on a massive wall. More ‘tree tunnels,’ country lanes and such. In all of them, a common thread: that distant point that he’s manoeuvring your eye towards. It’s very Jungian, archetypal and profoundly magical.

Despite the fact that most of the show was centred on these natural pieces, towards the end of the exhibition there were a few paintings of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ that had a dreamlike feeling to them…Something archetypal, a shared memory in the consciousness of all, a past life becoming present…

[The exhibition runs through the 9th of April]

Chic Trek: London’s Savile Row (VIDEO)

Travel and culture journalist Shana Ting Lipton explores London’s Savile Row and James Sherwood’s recently released book Bespoke, which focuses on the history and impact of its tailored ‘London look.’

Rock, Riots, Rebellions and the Real Notting Hill

James Fox and Mick Jagger on set in 'Performance,' filmed in Notting Hill in 1968

James Fox and Mick Jagger on set in 'Performance,' filmed in Notting Hill in 1968

“Where are you staying?” asked a sweat-glazed, red-faced Englishman at a party I was attending in London’s staid and pristine South Kensington.

“Notting Hill,” I replied, feeling a bit proud of the location of the flat I had rented for the month.

“Oh, of course, you’re American, Notting Hill… keen on Hugh Grant and the movie, are you?” he slurred smugly.

Could it be that this alleged Londoner had never encountered or been remotely curious about the rich, deep music and counter-culture history of Notting Hill and its Westbourne Grove and Ladbroke Grove sections? Or perhaps he was just giving me the ‘For Tourist Dummies’ version of his cocktail diatribe.

Cinematic enclaves like The Travel Bookshop and “William Thacker’s unrealistically fab flat off Portobello Road” may give some folks a case of the quaints, but they played no part in my decision to park myself in a summer rental in Notting Hill’s trendy and up-and-come (present tense) quarter of Westbourne Grove

Having a home in Laurel Canyon — the upscale bohemian neighborhood that has played raucous party host to The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Fleetwood Mac — I was on some level channeling the creatively fertile underbelly of a ‘hood. Yet, I longed for someplace a bit more polished and easy-on-the-eyes than edgy hipster E. London areas like Dalston.

And so it turned out that my discovery of ‘the real Notting Hill’ was serendipity, a happy accident. This is a bourgeois bohemian (in the best of possible ways) quarter that spawned the U.K. underground scene of the ’50s, ’60s and beyond. It was the stomping grounds of the Teddy Boys and the mods. Its pulsating historic centerpiece: the so-called race riots of the late ’50s.

Such watershed moments were depicted in films like Absolute Beginners, and the racy ’60s (de rigueur for hipsters) counterculture flick Performance (starring Mick Jagger).

Ladbroke Grove, its North Western point, was the birthplace of The Clash, the booze-doused playground of Lemmy and his band Motorhead. Naturally, such bacchanalian and sybaritic efforts resulted in rock n’ roll suicides — so to speak — indigenous to the region, such as the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Steve Took of ’70s glam duo T. Rex.

In more recent decades, musical wizards like Brian Eno and Damon Albarn set up shop with studios in Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Grove, respectively. And spitting distance from Albarn’s Studio 13, rock gods like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Hendrix recorded at a studio that was initially Island Records and later evolved into Trevor Horn’s SARM Studios.

But to focus only on these iconic relics would be to diminish the magic of Notting Hill and environs. This neighborhood is alive, vibrant, colorful, stylish and oh so charming with its mostly Victorian townhouses — some painted (a-la Caribbean) side-by-side in hues from the full spectrum of the rainbow. People chat on stoops, and rare and forgotten psychedelic tunes waft out of flats.

When I look outside the windows of my little second floor dwelling at night, the scene recalls a painting by René Magritte — surreal and magical with its ambient over-sized street lamps. Painted into it, something of the ‘anything is possible.’

That sentiment is echoed in the enthusiasm of the unrehearsed accounts of its true stars — the local characters of this village. It doesn’t take much to get these villagers to perch on their soapboxes and have a nice long chat.

My new Afghan friend who sells bedding on the Portobello market turned me onto a book about non-conformity and creativity in business and introduced me to his favorite Greek restaurant. The Portuguese woman who owns a cafe in Ladbroke Grove proudly described how she bakes her own organic, fruit-juice sweetened, wheat-free pastries. This is after all a neighborhood whose earlier denizens were hippies.

And then there’s the coffee barista from New Zealand who’s opening up a new bakery with a garden in Westbourne Grove. He enthused, “Notting Hill is alive and exciting, it’s the equivalent of being in Hollywood.” If I were going to argue, I’d have chimed in that it was more accurately the equivalent of my home neighborhood of Laurel Canyon.

Such special areas possess an almost mystical knack for retaining the pure essence of creative revolutions past, pre-marquee names, agents and high-powered deals.

This is why Notting Hill will continue to attract both talented bohemians on the up-and-up, and ‘been there done that’ celebrities… for even the Hugh Grants and Julia Robertses of the world need a daily infusion of the inspirational fuel that once jettisoned them to the top.