History on the Heath

Highgate and Hampstead, London. Today started, as many good days in London do, with our friend Bernard picking us up at the Kentish Town tube station, heading for a nice long visit with him and his wife, Liz.

They figure prominently in our own personal history, as we met about 40 years ago, when they were visiting New York City, via our upstairs neighbors. Somehow, we just hit it off and over the years, we have had the opportunity to connect many times. Christmas at their home in Highgate, visits to our home in Hudson – there were many – but never enough – encounters on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, Bernard was kind enough to arrange to be in Edinburgh 35 years ago this month to be the best man, at our Scottish elopement. (Thanks again for that, Bernard, best man indeed.)

Today, Bernard first took us on an exciting trip to the local recycling center – a place that June and Alan have somehow never put on the Lambert Tours itinerary. Yes, it was a thrill to see where the better quality garden refuse of Highgate ends up, and impressive to think of Bernard in his role as garden keeper. It is obviously a role that builds muscles and upper body strength!

Then it was off to Liz and Bernard’s lovely home on the heath in Highgate. Their home is more modern than many in this magical corner of London, but it melds into a hexagon of vintage homes perfectly, and comes with a jukebox as well as its own private park. The newly added conservatory on the back of the house opens up the entire space to light and air. Impossible to do it justice here.

Now, as to their outdoor space, they would call it a garden, but it has so many special features that I think it definitely qualifies as a rival to corners of Kew. It gets more beautiful every year and today was the perfect day to admire it.

We sat on the new balcony and just soaked in the sun, the birds, the flowers, the tea, and the presence of dear and old friends, Bernard and Liz.

After a special pub lunch, (cue Don), we explored some even older history in a wonderful home in Hampstead, the Fenton House, a 17th-century merchant’s house. It is a detached house with a walled garden, which is large by London standards, and features a sunken garden, an orchard and a kitchen garden.

The interior houses a collection of early keyboard instruments, some of which are often played for visitors during operational hours, and collections of paintings, porcelain, needlework and Georgian furniture.

The brick mansion, with 1693 inscribed on its chimney breast, is at one of the highest points in London, and, even in May, offers good views of the far-off modern city. Standing on the attic balcony, one can even watch the landscaper next door do his thing.

Quite the location – and it even has a tube stop down the road. I’ll take it.

Don’s Food Corner

After tea overlooking the garden at Liz and Bernard’s house, we made the short trip (by car) to the center of Highgate to have lunch at a very high-class pub called the Red Lion and Sun. A winner of some type of “best” award for pubs in the U.K., it was beyond a classification of gastro-pub, which is how they officially categorize themselves,  and brushing up against a category of restaurant. Unlike conventional pubs in the U.K. where you usually order all food and drink at the bar and someone delivers the food, the Red Lion had table service.

The refined manner of the service and decor of this “pub” extended to the equally sophisticated menu. No steak and ale pies here. No shepherd’s pie either. There was an offer of fish and chips hidden at the bottom of the menu, but otherwise it was a another departure we’ve found on this trip into “Modern British” cuisine. Unlike the first attempts of “Modern British” that we encountered some 20 years ago  that seemed self-consciously tortured, there is now a greater confidence in presenting something that is not “continental” and certainly not French (or American) although you can find some influences from everywhere. Something uniquely “British” and “modern” has emerged

We started by sharing a carrot hash topped with carrot hummus pea shoot salad. The carrot has was prepared like you would expect a traditional British fish cake — a patty of a carrot mixture of something or other that was fried. The hummus and pea shoots were piled on top. It was also offered as a main course served on a roll. It was robustly flavored and delicate at the same time. A winner. And a vegan alternative to a fish cake.

For the main course choices, tastes were divided into two camps. One camp chose the pan-fried halibut with potato rosti and a side of a green we were unfamiliar with called samphire. Samphire, according to an internet search, is a succulent that is found in salt water marshes on the coast of England. It looked a little like ragged asparagus. And tasted somewhat like that as well. Again, apparently a new interpretation of a largely unique England vegetable. A nice discovery along with a perfectly prepared fish filet.

The other choice was a mushroom and spinach Wellington, which means, of course, it was served within a crust. The crust was flaky and nicely browned. It came with slender stalks of broccoli, which I think was actually what we would call broccoli rabe, and some mashed potatoes. There was a little pitcher of “gravy,” but since this was advertised as a vegan meal, the gravy was probably made from the juices of the mushrooms and spinach.

After all this healthy food, we split a decadently rich molten chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.

We left Highgate with a very good taste in our mouths. It helped that the sun was shining bright but without any hint of heat or humidity. The perfect May day in England — all surrounded by gardens at their peak.


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