Friday, October 2, 2015

Day 34 - Queen's Gallery, State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, The Importance of Being Earnest and Dinner at Spring

There’s no room for error today. But we make room and leave a little later than we should have. We’re heading to Green Park then we have a walk through the park to get to the various attractions of the Royal Collection.
Green Park is a lovely swathe of green in the city. Hubby's hurrying me along as I dawdle admiring the Diana Fountain, glossy green saw-leaved fruiting trees and watching a squirrel bounding across the grass. I enjoy the simplicity of this park. It's not over groomed or formal. People sit, relaxing on park benches.
Hubby's chore of dragging me along gets just that bit harder as we come within the sphere of influence of the Victoria Memorial. How proud Londoners must be of their city.
We have a 9.30 time slot for the Queen’s Gallery and rock up at 9.40. Not a drama we just line up among the people who’ve arrived a little early for the 9.45 slot. The exhibition is called Painting Paradise, The Art of the Garden. I’m keen to keep our time here fairly brief and move on to the State Apartments at Buckingham Palace.
Once again we set out with audio guides to explore the gallery. The style of the gallery is very different to the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh. It’s much older and was purpose built as a gallery. The ornamentation is very formal with some beautiful moulded or carved features in the ceilings and there’s some beautiful railings as well.  The other thing that always strikes me in these formal spaces in Britain is the bold use of colour. The dark greens and reds used look great and I think work much better in the soft light and large spaces.
Given we don't have infinite time, we need to prioritise so I start out just going around looking at, reading about or listening about the things that I like best or that peak my interest for some reason.
This time there’s a lot of really fascinating objects that don’t seem to have an audio guide commentary. These are usually my favourite things of all.
Probably foremost among them is a little illuminated presentation copy of Francis Bacon’s essay Of Gardens given to Queen Alexandra. It is absolutely exquisite. Then there’s the fabulous porcelain. A Minton encrusted pen tray that belonged to Princess Victoria catches my eye, the fine detail in the individual flowers a work of wonder. The same applies to the enormous floral clock from the Vincenne’s Porcelain Factory. All you can do is shake your head in wonder at the perfection and craftsmanship. A rare and beautiful chandelier bought by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert hangs from the ceiling.
Another aspect of the exhibition I particularly enjoyed was to see the portraits of various royal gardens at different points in time. Having done the garden tour at Hampton Court it was great to see the layout in 1710 and listen to the curator’s remarks.  Hubby’s taking longer in the earlier parts of the gallery than me so I go and find him and let him know I’m pretty much done. He works his way through what he’s yet to see and I point out some of my favourites to make sure he doesn’t miss them then we really need to get away.
We head for the entrance to Buckingham Palace and line up in the entrance queue, pass through security which this time includes x-ray and the whole bit. Then the queue snakes it’s way around the courtyard and a long series of billboards with information about the house and portraits of the Queen. There is a particularly beautiful portrait of her taken in her old age and dressed in the rich green velvet of the Order of the Thistle standing by a little burn and the rising ground behind her covered in flowering heather.
As we get to the main Entrance the Australian State Coach is on display. It’s good to see it again. I last viewed it in Australia in 1988 when it was on display at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney before being shipped to London. It is actually made of metal and has electric windows and air conditioning. The ornate gold is shaped as a garland of native Australian flowers.
We move along with the crowd and make our entry into the palace up the grand staircase and into the green drawing room listening intently to our audio guide. We continue to move along with the steady pace of the crowd who, obviously, are also pacing their exploration more or less in accordance with the audio guide. As we leave the Throne Room Hubby, who is behind me leans forward and says “This leaves Versailles for dead, doesn’t it.” It does. This is a working royal palace. Everything is so supremely tasteful and more importantly completely schmick. This is the unifying aspect of the Royal Collection attractions (other than The Palace of Holyroodhouse) it’s quality and good taste at every point. These are things that Britain should be and I am sure is extremely proud of.  I suppose as an Australian I feel a good measure of pride in them too we have nothing like this at home and the Queen is our head of State also, but it’s a fractured situation and we pay nothing toward the upkeep of this place as far as I know, other than our entrance fee, so any sense of personal pride is rather irrational and misplaced.  Part of the mixed feelings of many Australians I should imagine.
Our tour continues through room after room of spendour until we come to some exhibition displays to do with preparing for a State Banquet. In these spaces we appreciate the opportunity to sit down as we listen to our guide and look at the items arranged in portable display cases. We move on from the preparation to the Ballroom all kitted out for the Banquet. It’s superb. Surely nowhere on earth does a better job of pomp and pageantry than Britain. Long may that continue.
We emerge from the Bow Room out onto the Terrace. We don’t have time to sit down and eat at the café so we refresh ourselves at the facilities and start the fairly long walk down along the garden path to the exit. Hubby’s lobbying for skipping lunch again. What happened to your learning from last trip I ask. I thought you said wandering about without lunch is something you didn’t want to do. He shrugs. We take our time walking the path. I’m entranced by the flocks of geese grazing on the lawn by the lake. They're a long way off but some look like Canada Geese. Are the others Greylags? I zoom in. 
Ah, they're Egyptian Geese
A sign lets us know about the less tended areas of the garden. I wonder what, if any, influence Prince Charles has had on this approach. It's so much in line with his philosophy and experience in regeneration of the wildflower meadow at Highgrove.
We sit on a bench and eat a tub of their extortionately priced ice cream. Glad I carry a spoon in my handbag once again. In due course we make it to the end of our visit and sign over our entrance fee as a donation to get our tickets stamped as annual entry. Others doing the same are firmly encouraged to ring before just rocking up because sometimes the free entry cannot be accommodated and they would hate people to waste a journey. 
We’ve got another walk back around toward the Royal Mews. We’ve not got a lot of time left before we need to move over to the Strand. In the end we decide there’s not enough time to brave that queue and take the risk of getting stuck in the crowd. Our next treat has cost us a bomb so we’re not missing that. The Royal Mews can wait until another visit to London.
By now we’re in position to need to head to Victoria Station, which seems particularly appropriate given that our destination is the matinee performance of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring David Suchet as Lady Bracknell. As we make our way through to the tube I can hear in my mind Judi Dench’s strident …”Prism!! Where is that baby!” I can hardly wait to see this great classic of English wit on the stage in London. It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, or how fluently you can recite the lines, this is a wonderful treat and it’s going to be such fun to see how David Suchet handles Lady Bracknell.
We’re not late but we’re later than all the other people in our row and yep, we booked early and have seats in just about the perfect position in the middle of the row. Awkward excuse me’s, and sorrys, and we all sigh with relief as we take our seats. There’s not a lot of room to get past people. Happily seated we’re not moving from here until the final curtain!
Well, what’s to say other than Oscar Wilde is the star of the show. David Suchet fairly spits out some lines, especially when referring to her precious daughter forming an alliance with a parcel. He camps it up with an extravagant performance and the audience is with him. Fantastic stuff. A real treat, funny and feelgood.
We file out taking our time, we’re in no hurry for our next deadline. It’s another walk down the Strand to Somerset House. I had no idea Somerset House was on such an enormous scale. We’ve walked past it before but not really looked in. We wander in to the courtyard and spend some time admiring some shiny seashell sculptures which later research tells me are by Marc Quinn. Much of the artist's intent is invisible to us as we admire the immaculately polished stainless steel and the fountains are not running today which enables us to get in close among the work. 
As our reservation time approaches we find our way to the entrance to Spring restaurant, Skye Gyngell’s new project. Well, new since we were last in London anyway. We have an early reservation so not too late a night and given that we have no deadline for departure we are free to indulge in the a la carte menu.
The décor is predominantly white and I was a little bit worried when I was looking at the website that given the prices and the elegance of the set up it might be a bit formal and stuffy. Not so. The service is beautifully friendly and laid back. Just what we want. The light fittings are like suspended clusters of cuttlefish spawn.  A young lady shows us to a comfortable booth by the window. We’re nicely out of the way. We start out with some water while we peruse the drinks menu. After the delicious apple and sea buckthorn juice at the Three Chimneys I’m keen to see what Spring has in mind for us. House made  Fern Verrow Apple and Pistachio juice. I’ll try that please. It arrives in due course presented in a funky glass that has vertical stripes of clear and brown glass. With the glass full the stripes are, obviously, green and brown. It looks almost as good as it tastes.
We have a few questions about the menu. What’s nduja (soft pork sausage)? How about datterini (a richly flavoured tiny tomato)? And can you tell me about Halibut?  Our waitress is clearly familiar with what’s on offer and is able to confidently describe the texture and style of the fish. Impressive, but even so, at this price and with a 12.5% service charge routinely added to our bill that should be expected. OK. Down to business.
I throw out the challenge. I’ll have the Ravioli of onion squash and buffalo ricotta with marjoram butter £13 followed by the Wild halibut with deep fried Jerusalem artichokes, rocket and datterini £34. As you can see I’m taking another risk and ordering the fish. If a chef at this class of outlet can’t make your fish delicious for you, then you’re beyond help.
We’re entertained by beautiful bread and house made butter as we wait. Our table is adorned by a beautiful giant squash.
Hubby’s eyes narrow as I finish outlining my plan of attack. As our waitress turns her attention to him he turns his attention back to his menu. Courgette flowers with ‘nduja and crab £21 he glances in my direction smugly. I have to confess that’s a safe and reliable course of action. Then he takes a daring detour from his usual reflex which would be the pigeon.  Slow cooked veal with artichokes, preserved lemon, olives and polenta £30. Ooh, I say, that’s not your usual. “No.” He replies with a quick flick of the eyebrows.
My ravioli is thick and silky and rich served in the thickly liquid marjoram butter. Hubby’s generous with his serving of three courgette flowers and simply lets me have a whole flower. We tie.
Onto our main courses. The portions are generous and reduce us to equally generous mms and entreaties to try this. The flavour of my fish is enhanced by the tiny tender little olives. I don’t like olives usually either. The blending of flavours creates a culinary synergy, the rocket and, ah, I guess you might call it a gremolata and a touch of the creamy butter and lemon create a beautifully balanced dish. The fish is cooked to perfection.
How’s your veal? Try it. Mmm. Nods. That’s great.  Huge portions for high end isn’t it. I hope I’m not too full for dessert. Another round of the juice please. I notice that this is a regular item on it’s way to tables around the restaurant.  I absolutely love this trend I’m noticing on this trip for high end to include non-alcoholic non-fizzy delights among their offerings.
Our dessert arrives. I’ve chosen Peach and Toasted almond cream with cat’s tongue. £9. It’s reasonably similar in overall style to my dessert last night. Simple and adorned with a lovely viola flower to complement the rich claret purple of the surprise berries, but look, I have to admit, I would normally expect a little more technical difficulty for £9.  The cat’s tongue makes it without that it would seem a tad pedestrian. Hubby’s Chocolate Mousse with Jersey cream and candied cumquat caramel is rich and thick. The mousse is dense and dark and white violas are an important presentation touch. Again we tie. Once again the kitchen is the winner. You really shouldn’t have winners at a meal in this class and we don’t.  I don’t check the bill. I think I’d rather not know what this meal cost in total. No mental mathematics going on in my head today either!

We settle our bill and have a final little chat with our waitress, complimenting her on the friendly service that she and her colleagues have provided. She’s clearly so enthusiastic about this restaurant and loves working here. She tells us that it is a reflection of the fact that this is such a happy place to work, you can tell when the staff love working at a restaurant. Haha perhaps that’s why Hubby’s cappuccino was delivered with a love heart as noted by the man who brought it out! We share the rich chocolate truffles and we’re away home by 7:30. Our meal has also been nicely efficient. I’m not entirely keen to spend 3 hrs over dinner as we did quite a bit in Scotland.
Our last item of business is to claim a copy of the menu from reception on the way out. A souvenir of a beautiful and memorable meal.

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