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The English Countryside

Geoffrey Weill

Oct 18, 2021

Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in England during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The inimitable George Bernard Shaw once famously wrote that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. But there are other things that divide us. I enter a pharmacy in the town of Seaford on the English Channel to buy some Aleve. The first thing I encounter is a QR code that enables me to be given – free of charge – a box containing seven Rapid Covid-PCR kits. I happily scan and accept. But my knee is still painful. However, it appears, Aleve – or Naproxen Sodium – is only available in the United Kingdom with a prescription. Hmmm. I look at the shelves behind the pharmacist in search of something recognizable that might help the pain – Advil? Excedrin? – and there I see a shiny display of Viagra, that I can buy over the counter. So, in the land of my birth, I can treat erectile dysfunction all by myself, but I need to see a physician to salve my arthritic knee. I settle on Ibuprofen.

Outside the pharmacy, I get into my rented Mercedes and drive back to the village of Firle. I learned to drive at 17 in London, and even though I’ve lived in the United States for close to 50 years, driving on the left still seems to me the logical way to navigate. Of course, I’ve gotten used to Americans mocking the “weirdness” of British driving on the left – forgetting or ignoring that almost half the world – from Japan to Thailand, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, South Africa, and more - not to mention half the Caribbean – happily drives on the left too.

I rented my Mercedes from Avis three days ago near London’s Victoria Coach Station. I’ve long been a proponent of the notion that “there’s Hertz and then there’s everything else,” but lately I’ve found that in Europe, Avis does seem to try harder. I punch the postcode (British zip codes are so exact that each house has its own) into the navigation system and learn that I will arrive at my destination, Heckfield Place, in 70 minutes. What the Mercedes’ GPS doesn’t seem to know is that there is serious construction afoot along the River Thames embankment on Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk (where one of my ancestors, Thomas Carlyle, happened to live in the 1850’s), and that 70 is going to stretch to 90, and to 120. But it doesn’t really matter, it’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining and I’m in no rush.

The speed limit in the United Kingdom is 70mph, although, curiously, on the M4 expressway, highway widening keeps the speed limit down at 50. On the glorious, green, and winding two-lane country lanes that take me from the M4 to my ultimate destination, I’m allowed to drive a maniacal 70. The English seem happy to do just that, and I get beeped repeatedly as Mini-Coopers, Vauxhalls and Jaguars whoosh past me, their drivers glaring furiously, doubtless cursing the ageing fart who is not in a suicidal rush, and for whom 40mph is just fine.

This is my third visit to Heckfield Place in Hampshire, a hotel set amid a 400-acre estate with, at its heart, a red-brick 18th-century mansion. The hotel is centered in the mansion, onto which additional buildings were built some fifty years ago. Standing in the house’s central doorway stands Welsh-born-and-reared Olivia Richli, Heckfield Place’s General Manager and, yes, its muse. I’ve known Olivia since she opened the Aman in Venice in 2013, as she carefully curated a to-die-for hotel inside the Grand Canal’s Palazzo Papadopoli. We next met when she was overseeing the construction of Soneva Jani in the Maldives. And it was Olivia’s taste, love and knowledge of the British countryside, and her passion for producing perfection, that caused American Gerald Chan to lure Olivia from her home in Sri Lanka, to polish and give life to his dream hotel. Olivia and I hug.

I first visited Heckfield Place when it was a building site. In 2018, it was open and glorious and I occupied a giant suite on the mansion’s second floor. To my mind, Heckfield Place is the quintessential English country-house hotel for the 21st.-century. Designer Ben Thompson has created an environment that is elegant yet one of over-arching comfort. Fine antiques, squashy couches, tables piled with art books and novels, and bowls of estate-grown flowers offset one of the world’s largest and most eclectic collections of 20th-century British art.

I’m shown to my suite on the ground-floor and as I open the door I almost want to cry because it is just too homey, too random, too exquisite for words. Endless effort has gone into making this space somewhere you could happily call home and never leave. A round table is covered with a linen tablecloth and at its center is a bowl of wildflowers. There’s a couch, comfy chairs, and a shelf of books and country curios. The bed is vast and set with mounds of bright-white linen pillows. Beyond it is an ancient pine desk where an iPad describes every possible activity, as well as a detailed inventory of the hotel’s art collection. My bedside table has a lamp and a selection of exotic Penguin paperbacks that feel like they’ve been chosen just for me. A sliding barn door leads to an oblong bathroom with underfloor heating, a colossal claw-foot tub, an endless counter with two sinks, and a shower roomy enough for four. French doors lead from the suite’s sitting room to my private patio. A woolly hot water-bottle hangs from a hook in the entryway. It all feels so massively luxurious – yet without a hint of ostentation.

Heckfield Place’s secret is to create an environment of uniquely English lavishness, stripped of the Downton Abbey frou-frou. Instead of frock-coats and vests, the staff wear fabulously expensive, casual brown and cream cotton that makes you think you’re an extra in a movie of a Thomas Hardy novel. There is total deference yet without a breath of formality. I’m handed a wooden key-card encased in a yellow cardboard holder in which my initials have been stamped, I unpack in a giant, exquisitely manicured walk-in closet, and suddenly realize I’m hungry.

I make my way to the Marle restaurant – which is, in a sense, the nexus of what Heckfield Place is all about: food. The kitchen is overseen by Australian chef, Skye Gyngell, whose London restaurant, Spring, in the august confines of the Strand’s Somerset House, is one of the city’s most fresh and fabulous. Skye specializes in taking what could be matter-of-fact, and transforming it into some of the freshest, most startling, most delicious meals to be found anywhere. Every ingredient is organic, and 90% come from the estate’s farm. Gyngell doesn’t do “out-of-season.” If you want sugar snaps and strawberries, come in July. If you want the estate’s perfect quinces, apples, plums and pears, come in October. The dining room is like a giant country kitchen. Its atmosphere, sunlight and view of the estate, combine friendly and gracious service with dishes that simply burst with flavor. I wolf down what the menu calls a cheese toastie – which turns out to be an orgasm of four cheeses melted between chunky slices of the hotel’s homemade sourdough toast, accompanied by a salad of leaves you know were plucked that morning. It took some months before restaurateur Gyngell realized that a hotel is not a place for one-off restaurant meals, and she expanded the offerings with food that is very varied – with a Children’s Menu that combines haute new cuisine with the type of fare 21st-century kids will tolerate. Sated, I return to my room and climb between linen sheets. As gorgeous as the house is, as delicious is the afternoon tea and homemade cake, I barely want to leave the suite. So, I don’t.

But Heckfield Place is a heck of a lot more than a hotel with good food. At 400-acres (half the size of New York’s Central Park, which, for readers who aren’t from Manhattan, is massive), the estate extends to the horizon. From the mansion’s terraces, you see the lake with, at its center, a shimmering fountain. There’s a Regency-era gazebo with Grecian columns. Immense trees are 200-, 300-years-old. The house is surrounded by walled gardens bursting – even in October – with the season’s last roses and antique hydrangeas. Some way from the house is the estate’s bio-dynamic farm. There are meadows with caramel-colored cows who provide the hotel with the freshest pasteurized organic milk, part of which is churned into cream and butter. Squeaky clean black and white pigs provide bacon. Happy chickens trot around, each night magically producing the hotel’s daily supply of cage-free eggs. There are fields of organic vegetables – right now, kale and cabbage, squash, pumpkins; in summer, peas and green beans. The next meadow produces a dozen species of herbs. More giant fields produce flowers: a farm hand is staggering back to the house, her arms clutching masses of the seasons last dahlias. Inside greenhouses, edible flowers, tomatoes and basil are growing, and long tables are laid out with hundreds of gourds, in fanciful yellow and green shapes weirder than any I’ve seen in America.

Heckfield Place is not somewhere you ever want to leave, which is why the elites, the royal, the celebrated – along with the normal, slide in here – leaving their titles outside - to be cosseted, pampered and mercifully ignored by the other guests. A giant jigsaw puzzle sits atop an antique table in one of the parade of public rooms. The bar makes daring yet magical cocktails from obscure liquors and farm-grown herbs. Nothing is quite “expected UK” at Heckfield Place, yet its specialness is neither precious nor contrived, just oozing with a sense of cozy, and uniquely natural English hospitality. There is only one aspect of Heckfield Place – and all of England itself right now - that this American finds alarming: and that is that virtually nobody is wearing a mask. I can’t get used to it. Actually, I have no desire to.

Dinner is ten-star, offering dishes that feel as if plucked out of a 300-year-old English country recipe book and swirled into the 21st-century with new flavors, ingredients and creativity. So is breakfast the following morning, after which I’m given a tour of the 17,000 square-foot spa, set to open in 2022. I’m back in a hard-hat, wowed by its generosity of space, its marble, its intricate tile work, its woods, and even though it’s a dusty construction site, you can’t help knowing it’s going to be gob-smacking.

I wonder how many people could ever be happy checking out of Suite 17 at Heckfield Place, but check-out is what I have to do after two nights and much of three days. The ritual takes place in the mansion’s elegant study, my luggage is brought from my room and placed into my washed car. Olivia is off today, so two warm and friendly staff members stand in the doorway waving until my car disappears into the forest.

Instead of the country lanes and villages I expected to traverse, Apple tells me the fastest route to the Ram Inn, Firle, West Sussex, is on two expressways and then a short drive on small roads through the South Downs, a range of hills that separate the spread of London from the beach resorts on the English Channel. And as I’d rather do 79mph on an expressway than on a winding lane barely two car-widths wide, I go for it. It turns out to be a good decision: I’m in West Sussex in 90 minutes, a short drive from Brighton, the beach-town near which I spent many a youthful summer.

I’d never heard of Firle or its Ram Inn until reading the weekend Financial Times a month ago. Firle seems straight out of Masterpiece Theatre: a small village with Victorian houses and manicured gardens, the 13th-century St. Peter’s Church, and an 18th-century pub known as the Ram Inn. I park and enter the bar which, at 1PM, is bustling with locals at the counter, and rooms full of tables where country-dressed villagers are tucking into lunch. The ancient rooms have eggplant-black gloss walls carpeted with well-lit old oils in gilt frames. The cast-iron Victorian fireplace contains a roaring fire. Rachel checks me in cheerily and shows me to the Birdcage room high in the gabled roof – which is large, bright and perfectly comfortable, whose bathroom contains antique towel racks and my trip’s second claw-foot tub. I unpack (of course) and descend for a lunch of locally caught mussels subtly steamed in wine and garlic, so fresh and plump that it’s as if I am on the nearby beach. A pint of Guinness is the perfect accompaniment. I look around me and it could be the set for a Miss Marple mystery. I think we expect the English to be reserved – but not here, where guests of all ages are lunching amid loud chatter and a hearty bonhomie. Beneath most tables, large fluffy dogs nap.

I like this place. While without the luxe of Heckfield Place, it feels like the cozy England of 1950’s Central Casting. Instead of Missoni and Bentleys, it’s wellies and Land Rovers. Instead of Adele and David Bowie, it’s Colin Firth and Emma Thompson. Despite Brexit, for which, I suspect, many of the more elderly patrons might have voted, the dinner menu is English laced with Continental. Bowls of olives are meaty Tuscan Cerignolas. There’s hummus and Shepherds’ Pie. I go for a rare steak, mashed potatoes, green beans and Burgundy. And sticky toffee pudding with the kind of butter-dense, only-in-England cream, whose cholesterol clogs the Burgundy is sure to dilute. Over dinner, I chat with my neighbors, a middle-aged couple who have just come from seeing Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Glyndebourne Opera House, ten minutes from Firle. Nobody is masked; I guess we all presume we’re all vaccinated, and onward we plunge.

I sleep soundly in my garret room that is as silent as a grave. Breakfast isn’t served before nine, and the guests from the six rooms (I am the only foreigner) wander in to serve themselves granola, fresh figs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, yoghurts and croissants laid elegantly on an ancient table. There is a menu that includes traditional English breakfasts, as well as poached eggs with smoked salmon and smashed avocado. And there’s tea, of course, as well as cappuccinos and lattes with all the hold-the-foam options. There’s something very calming about breakfast that doesn’t start early: it demands you relax and are not expected be up at 6:30 to jog or meet your tour guide at 7.

The coast town of Seaford is a 15-minute drive away. I walk on the shingle beach where the waves of the grey English Channel crash ashore. Next to the town a giant chalk cliff faces the channel, and it makes you remember that it’s that channel and those cliffs that have kept this island safe from invasion since 1066. Seaford is antique shops, pubs, pharmacies, groceries and a general sense of retirement well-being. It’s a stone’s throw from Newhaven, where ferries depart for the French port of Dieppe, and from the once-depressing beachfront settlement of Peacehaven, founded by pacifists after World War One. Seaford’s parade of comfortable turn-of-the-20th-century white-painted houses that line the beach reek of sleepy calm and gentility.

The next morning – after my long-after-nine breakfast – it’s time to wend my way back to London. And even though the M20 expressway takes me halfway, there remains the almost two-hour traffic-clogged crawl through South London I remember from my childhood. It’s a thrill to cross Westminster Bridge and to see the gothic Houses of Parliament. And look, there’s Big Ben still encased in renovation scaffolding.

Bye-bye to the Mercedes and “Hello” to Rubens at the Palace, an Edwardian hotel that has been refreshed by the Red Carnation Collection, that overlooks the side mews and stables of Buckingham Palace. When you enter the Rubens, the first impression is red. The doorman wears a scarlet frock coat, the carpets are red, the walls are red, the velvet upholstery in the New York Bar is red, and, of course, so are the hundreds of fresh carnations all clomped together into a magical ball in a giant vase. The Rubens is English-English-English, with the kind of old-fashioned courteous service that we all thought was lost. Upstairs, I emerge from the elevator on the third floor and there is red wallpaper, and a red couch beneath a gilt-framed Old Master of a 18th-century aristocrat dressed in guess what? You guessed it. The walls of the hallway to my room are upholstered in red and cream stripe fabric. And, actually, my room isn’t red, it’s grey and cream and, as it faces the courtyard, mercifully quiet. Breakfast at the Rubens is served in the elegance of The English Grill, opened three years ago to give the renowned Simpsons-in-the-Strand a run for its money, with giant roast beefs carved tableside on silver trolleys by white-toqued-and-aproned chefs. The English Grill will reopen for lunch and dinner later this month, but for now it’s a stately place for breakfast. There’s a lavish buffet, wait-staff who really care that you have everything you want from the à la carte menu, and heavy linen napkins so magnificently starched, they can stand upright on their own.

The Rubens’ location is ideal. It faces the side entrance to Buckingham Palace, particularly handy if one has an appointment with Prince Andrew which I don’t. The Buckingham Palace Shop is just down the block, where you can buy aprons, cups, towels and knick-knacks that look like you secretly pocketed them from the palace – perhaps a tribute to the late Queen Mary, a lady famous for lavishly admiring tchotchkes in friend’s mansions, thus obliging the friends to gift them to Her Majesty.

This evening I meet old friends at Maggie Jones in Kensington, a 40-year-old restaurant that opened as Nan’s Kitchen. It’s adjacent to Kensington Palace and it was Princess Margaret’s favorite haunt; indeed, there are unproven rumors that there existed a tunnel from the palace to the neighboring barracks and on to restaurant’s basement. Her Royal Highness had her reservations made “anonymously” under the name Maggie Jones (she married Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960) – and after her death the restaurant was renamed in her memory. It’s all pine tables, gallons of art and artifacts and a menu so English it could make you weep – me, at least, with joy.

The West End on Saturday morning is a zoo. The sidewalks are crammed, the stores are crammed, the cafés are crammed, the pubs are crammed, and nobody is wearing a mask…except yours truly. I lunch at Bentleys, a seafood restaurant unchanged since it opened in 1916 (who in their right mind would open a restaurant in the middle of a war, I wonder). Its oysters from nearby Whitstable in Kent, are so vast you need a knife and fork. And its fish pie, full of chunks of haddock, plaice, shrimps, béchamel sauce and mashed potato makes me swoon.

As much as I want to see the well-reviewed Leopolstadt tonight at the Wyndham Theatre, I decide against it because, unlike on Broadway, vaccination certificates and mask wearing are not required…and, frankly, that just doesn’t do it for me. This is my hometown – but, as much as I love it, the startling lack of COVID precautions is unsettling and alarming. I ride the tube from Piccadilly to Victoria and even though there are signs everywhere announcing that masks are mandatory and disobedience will provoke a fine, I am smashed up against crowds of which a full 60% are not in masks. Not my cup of tea.

The concierge at the Rubens sends me across Buckingham Palace Road to Dam Health to have my pre-flight-home antigen test. Despite the sign on the window that says “no appointment necessary,” a thoroughly disagreeable woman tells me I do need one and directs me to the most complicated app in the history of mobile phones. On the third try, I have an appointment for the following morning and £29 is charged to my American Express card. The following morning it’s raining, and there is a line outside Dam Health. And I notice around the corner there is another Covid Center. It’s empty and staffed by two women who could or should be models. I am antigen-tested, proven negative, and £39 poorer within seven minutes. I think Dam Health is a very good name for the store around the corner that still has my £29.

On my last evening in London, I dine with a friend at the Ivy. The Ivy is the “Sardi’s” of London, made famous in the 1920’s by the likes of Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, sited opposite the St. Martin’s Theatre where Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” has been playing since 1952, uninterrupted except by COVID in 2020. But I don’t dine at THIS Ivy. The Ivy is now a chain, and I choose the Ivy that is steps from the Rubens. Inside, its stained glass, evokes the original. Even on a Monday night, it’s packed, although not with an arty theater crowd: these patrons work in the offices that line Victoria Street. I’m intrigued by the couple next to me. She is in a black velvet, off-the-shoulder evening dress and pearls: he is in jeans, tee-shirt and sneakers. They seem in love with each other, and with a gin, champagne, and rum cocktail that is topped with a hunk of blue cotton candy.

Check-in at Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is a breeze, even though the pre-check-in clerk reads my passport, my COVID result, and my vaccination certificate with the intensity of a student studying for bar exams. At Heathrow, I am back in COVID sanity, as everyone MUST wear a mask. The Virgin Lounge is its usual hospitable self – and an Airbus A350-1000 has me at JFK in just over six hours. The only downside is I am in state of raging depression: airlines seem to find obscure new movies with major stars that nobody has ever seen - and I have watched Christoph Waltz murder an ancient Vanessa Redgrave in Georgetown, Olivia Colman stuggle with Anthony Hopkins’ Alzheimer’s in The Father, and Colin Firth be traumatized by the advancing dementia of his lover, Stanley Tucci, in Supernova. The minute I get home, I need a drink.

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