Travel & Place / An Englishwoman in New York
Returned from the seemingly never-ending school holidays, our Englishwoman finds respite from New York City in regular inter-state trips away.
It is largely blamed on the tradition of harvest days but the twelve-week (or more) summer holiday enjoyed by children throughout New York reaps nothing but havoc, headaches and ultimately feral children. In my mind it has more to do with keeping the lucrative Summer Camp business afloat, not to mention keeping those taxes down as few people want to be paying over the odds for other children’s education. One thing I can be sure of is that we will have moved back to the UK before these horrific holidays have been brought in line with the rest of the world.
We (child and myself) are fortunate enough to be in a position to ride out most of the summer humidity back in Europe. This year we managed to tour for nine weeks and I filled my spare suitcase with plenty of treasure both of the edible and inanimate kind to ease me back into New York life. We then return to spend the bulk of August in New York and were in town for both the recent earthquake and the fizzled out hurricane. Last year was more dramatic as we witnessed a tornado that whirled down our very street, tossing the garden chairs into a neighbour’s yard and hurling a branch through my son’s bedroom window. As I said, the summer holidays are chaotic.
The final weeks of August leading to Labour Day in early September (a hazy mirage signifying the return to school and life as we once new it) are made bearable with the thought of weekends away, munching my way through the boxes of French Fancies I have brought back from the U.K. and reading the 8 copies of The Lady which have backed up in my absence.
On moving here one thing I was excited about was touring these States. I love few things more than packing a small suitcase for a three or four night trip. The taxi journey to the airport is generally the most stressful part of the trip, closely followed by the taxi journey from the airport back home. On a recent trip to Newark airport we were collected at 5.15am. Having piled in the luggage and booster seat we then re-stated where we were going (having already done so at the time of booking) the driver set off. At the first set of traffic lights he turned round and said he did not know the way and would drive us to his brother’s house who would probably know. We favoured being deposited back at the cab headquarters where waited for another car to arrive whilst the clock ticked far slower than our hearts. The journey from the airport back home is as much of a puzzle and I have now vowed to learn the route myself. Coming back this summer I was taken on a tour of parts of Brooklyn I had not seen in my four and a half years here. The cost of this added treat at 1am U.K time was astronomical and not appreciated.
Our first stateside trip was booked as we faced our first long winter here. I had read of a little beach house south of St Augustine in Florida that was owned by a branch of the Mellon family. It was to offer a little interruption to the long, cold spell ahead. We flew south to Orlando and picked up our open top car. Freedom and warmth. The beach house was cosy and vintage in décor: unravelling wicker furniture, rag rugs and patchwork quilts. It was quirky right down to the little pet gecko that popped out of the bath overflow to peak at you. The fear those peeping eyes wrought meant that baths had to be taken in pairs! The house came complete with a lookout on the roof where we took breakfast and lunch. There was little to look out at except the endless empty beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The trip was a great success with the exception of the very cold weather for which we were not dressed nor the house heated (emergency parcel from Toast would have been gratefully received) for the last two days and notably nights. All three of us huddled in bed together to keep warm. We have had interrupted nights ever since. This was three and a half years ago and a pivotal moment marking the down turn in my quota of beauty sleep.
As a young girl I had coveted a copy of the National Geographic showing glorious photographs of the grand houses of the Battery in Charleston. Charleston had been top of my US visit list since time began. We paid our respects during the month of May when the Gardenias were in full bloom and the heat was tolerable. It was the search for accommodation that proved rather perplexing. It was at this point that I realised the reverence or maybe prissiness that surrounds antiques in this country. It also confirmed the misconception that the US is universally child friendly. The hotels I tried to book were in the fabulous Charleston houses complete with authentic antiques. As it turned out none of these were willing to accommodate a three-year-old boy who, as I explained, was perfectly house-trained and was already living amongst antiques, soft furnishings and paintings. But I was unable to guarantee that he would not touch the Grand Piano and we found ourselves in the centrally located Marriot with roof top swimming pool and car park. Both of which, as it turned, out were worth their weight in gold.
In any case there was barely a moment to spend amongst the fitted wardrobes and coordinating fireproof fabrics of our room. Charleston offers so many pleasures to a lover of architecture and interiors, not to mention history. The ghostly Drayton Hall (above), the charms of the Joseph Manigault and Nathaniel Russell Houses. And for the more complete picture with the slave quarters intact and on view the Aiken Rhett House. I was in house museum heaven – something which is sorely lacking in NYC.
I had imagined we would also pop to Savannah whilst in Charleston. I soon realised that the distances in the United States never allow you to just pop. What looks like a short drive on the map inevitably turns out to be a four-hour journey. Savannah still awaits and I hope with a six year old who now takes piano lessons we may be looked on more kindly.
Virginia truly stole my heart. We flew (a lovely short European-style one-hour flight) to Richmond and then drove to our hotel in the countryside to the north of the State capital. It was the end of August and a little steamy but still the colours were vibrant greens.
On the agenda was a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. A University town, this is the beautifully restored 18th Century former Capital of Virginia. It is on the edge of being a living theme park with everybody period clad, from fife and drummer soldiers to auctioneers. Thomas Jefferson even holds a daily talk at the Museum. The absolute gem in Williamsburg is Bassett Hall. This very unassuming frame house was the home of John D Rockefeller Jr and his wife Abby. It was their efforts, enthusiasm and money that preserved Williamsburg as it is today, a project that started in the 1920’s. Abby Rockefeller was an avid collector of folk art and a truly sensitive decorator with a keen eye for understated beauty and comfort. A tour of this enchanting house is what you need before embarking on a quick whizz around the town. Once you have admired those fabulous paint colours and pretty gardens you have got the gist.
We also briefly stopped by Jamestown and then took the ferry across the majestic James River over to Scotland. Such reassuring names! The banks of this wonderfully wide river are a scattered with splendid Plantation Houses. By now a pretty circumspect tourist, and not at all interested in too many guided tours especially when the guide is dressed in crinoline, we opted for Brandon which, centuries on, is still an operating farm. The house was deserted and the car park empty. With the last remaining information pamphlet in my hand we made our own way through the beautifully laid gardens leading down to the river. Quite breathtaking. The Palladian-style house was supposedly designed by Thomas Jefferson. To whom we would make a pilgrimage the following day.
Jefferson’s Monticello (above) is picture perfect. Perched, as the name suggests, on a mountain overlooking Charlottesville and the University of Virginia (which Jefferson both founded and designed). The air was clean and the view remarkable. The house itself is a testament to Mr. Jefferson’s brilliance, whatever his misdemeanours may have been. It is wonderfully light and airy, yet still small and rather cosy. It is delightfully laid out internally using as much common sense as appreciation for the aesthetic. I should gladly return.
One epic flight, during which time I could have travelled all the way to London, took me instead to visit Los Angeles (twice now!). I appreciate L.A. for the clear, luminous quality of the light. Also the people do seem more friendly and relaxed than in N.Y. Due to my husband’s work commitments my boy and I were left to roam by day. L.A. without a car can be challenging, but there is a bus stop in Beverly Hills at which my boy and I waited for the long bendy bus to Santa Monica. We certainly raised a few eyebrows stepping aboard.
We were heading to the Annenberg Community Beach Club. We were the only ones on the bus who were, and without doubt the only people ever to get there by bus and the ensuing twenty-minute walk. This club is open to daily ticket holders and lies on Santa Monica beach in the grounds of the destroyed mansion of Marion Davies (mistress of James Randolph Hearst). All that remains is the swimming pool and a guest-house. The historic pool has obviously a million tales to tell. We spent a very pleasant day and I was able to enjoy a guided tour of the guest-house, designed by the architect Julia Morgan, thanks to a packet of Skittles a fellow party member gave to the small boy.
With a car a trip to the nearby city of Pasadena is an absolute must. Here you will find the renowned Huntington Garden and Galleries. So much of the best of Europe is to be found here; rooms filled with paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough and so forth. The Norton Simon museum is also a must, its rooms filled with Degas bronzes amongst so many other fabulous things that it is difficult not to be blasé. My little boy has now pretty much run out of fingers to count the number of fourteen-year-old Degas dancer bronzes he has seen; but here he spotted her naked as well as in a tutu.
Finally in Pasadena the magnificent Gamble House, built in 1908 for the family of Procter and Gamble wealth in the American Arts and Crafts style (a fusion of Asian and Alpine in this instance), should not be missed. A contemporary clad tour guide awaits at the elaborate Tree of Life Tiffany stained glass front doors. We are told this is to avoid anybody knocking on it. It seems you cannot take common sense for granted here. In all house museums you are actively encouraged to hold on to the staircase handrail – in this house it was well worth it just to feel that wonderful piece of wood that steps up with each tread. It is left to your own common sense to breathe and move your eyeballs; everything else is absolutely not allowed and spelled out at length.
The opportunity to travel and explore has been a veritable perk of being Stateside. It is always a relief to venture out of New York City and should be done regularly on doctor’s orders. That New York is representative of the US at large is an easy mistake to make. It is a relief to find that it is not and that NYC is in a category all by itself.