Story & Photos by: Larry Mayran 

London, and beyond — Just seven days in the southeastern United Kingdom, but time enough to capture the essence of four destinations whose magical allure transcends centuries.

Belmond Le Manoir’s grand 15th-century Jacobean-style country manor with ivy-clad, stone exteriors and mullioned windows.

My 120-mile itinerary in and around London covered a 300-year-old royal retreat morphed into a resort in Hertfordshire a 1,000-year-old estate near Oxford, whose grounds now house a small hotel, restaurant, and famous cooking school, and a chic London boutique hotel with a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant and cooking school. It concluded in Greenwich at Longitude 0, where the world’s time begins and ends.

No destination was more than one hour from Britain’s capital city, and with a British Rail England FlexiPass, I could travel comfortably and relaxed from place to place. As the train sped along, time slowed. I gazed at pastoral images of small farms with herds of black-faced sheep grazing on lush grasses, canals that channeled into the terrain before disappearing into the woods, and a few dairy cows shaded by a lone pasture tree.

“Watford Junction, Hertfordshire,” announced the conductor, jolting me from my scenic reverie. Locals pronounce this city 30 miles north of London as “Hartfordshire.” It’s home to The Grove resort in the former domain of the 1st Earl of Clarendon. During the 18th century, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and the elite of British society escaped London for lavish “weekending” parties at the estate.

A driveway flanked on both sides by a meticulously groomed, 18-hole golf course that leads to an imposing, three-centuries-old mansion on the 300-acre resort. The 1753 home underwent a multi-million dollar restoration between 1996 and 2003, when it was converted to a hotel with 26 individually designed guest rooms. In the adjoining wing are 221 rooms and suites. Also added was an elegant spa, three restaurants and the golf course which hosted the American Express Championship in 2006 won by Tiger Woods.

Amazing  sight of people milling about in 17th century British apparel in 21st century  Greenwich, England.

The modern amenities showcased in the luxurious bathrooms, showers, toiletries, and large plasma screen TVs were everything one would expect from premier resort destination. But the ancient manor still leached vestiges of another era. The small elevator that took me from the lobby to my 3rd-floor room opened to a dark angled corridor eerily draped in black velvet curtains on one side while dimly lit modern art works lined the other wall. The drapes muffled all sound except for my breathing. I felt like I was backstage at the Phantom of the Opera - could the masked phantom still be lurking behind the black drapes or was my imagination playing early 20th century theatrics?

I took a calming and leisurely stroll through the estate’s formal gardens, on my way to the resort’s “Glasshouse” for luncheon. The Glasshouse is a two-tiered culinary theater where guests can watch as chefs put on a flaming cooking show, rapidly preparing British, Mediterranean and Asian dishes, which are served buffet-style. My self-imposed buffet regimen, which generally restricts me to small portions of selected items, was effectively skewered by the lavish display of succulent looking-main courses, cheeses, salads, and desserts. Then there was time for an unhurried round of golf, followed by an indulgent facial at the resort’s Sequoia spa.

The second leg of my itinerary began with a 45-minute rail trip to Oxford. Great Milton, a small town a few miles away, is  Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons (Four Seasons Manor) the domain French chef Raymond Blanc its restaurant, and cookery school now under the Orient-Express brand of hotels.

At the head of Le Manoir’s gated driveway is a grand 15th-century Jacobean-style country manor with ivy-clad, honey-colored stone exteriors and mullioned windows. The adjacent Conservatory restaurant overlooks a flawlessly green, croquet lawn, and beyond, a two-acre vegetable garden.   Centuries-old small buildings with gabled roofs and round arched arcades have been converted into 31 elegant guest residences, secluded amid arbors, walled gardens, and manicured lawns.

In this timeless setting Blanc, one of the most revered chefs in Great Britain designed a purpose built modern kitchen adjacent to his primary culinary facility for use as a cookery school. He and his top chefs mentor recreational cooking classes as well as a professional training center for aspiring chefs using only Blanc’s techniques and his personal recipes.

Left: Raymond Blanc OBE, one of the most revered chefs in Great Britain.
Right: Chef Vladimir Niza looks on as  cooking student  Larry works up a casserole of beef in red wine.

Blanc, a rather boyish-looking, trim-figured Frenchman of modest height in his mid-50s,  is a striking figure in his dazzling white chef’s jacket.

Le Manoir’s premier distinction is its restaurant, which Blanc commands. He invited me for a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchen, where 15 to 20 chefs and cooks were busy prepping for the evening’s dinner guests.

Blanc, in his full-bodied French accent, still undiluted after 30 years in England, explained the absolute need to re-connect gastronomy with the soil.  “We are consuming food with no respect for nature, creating a terrible food chain where values and virtues are cheap. This is mindless and not sustainable. I am trying to instill purity and nobility in our food choices so it is vital to know how and where each item of produce or meat is grown and by whom and what methods are used.”

Blanc intently watched the techniques used by his culinary staff, stopping here and there to check the ingredients and produce, then led me into the bakery. There, he pressed his nose against a loaf of fresh-baked rye bread, smelling deeply with great satisfaction, and then offered it to me to concur. Then off he went, with a faint sheen of wheat flour dusting the tip of his nose.

My dinner of pan fried Cornish sea bass, seared scallops with cauliflower puree, chestnuts and wild mushrooms confirmed Michelin’s  “Sublime Cuisine,” comment awarding the restaurant two stars for the past 18 years.

At 8:45 a.m. the next day, my cooking class of eight women and three men, all from the greater London area, except me, the sole American, convened. We picked up our 45-page Raymond Blanc Cookery School instruction manual, put on our monogrammed aprons, and were assigned with a partner to a cooking station. Chef Vladimir Niza, a senior tutor, greeted us warmly.  What followed was a festive eight-hour “August Dinner Party” session to learn French home-cooking and produce a delicious and simple meal.

We began by making fresh pasta for ravioli stuffed with mushrooms, shallots, roasted pine nuts, and sage butter. To persuade the pasta to come out in two-foot-long, three-inch sheets required dexterity, timing, and hand-eye coordination. Our individual pasta making antics had all the ingredients for an off-Broadway comedy act. Who said cooking isn’t fun?

he Halkin, a boutique hotel on a quiet street in London’s exclusive Belgravia district.

We cooked our way through the curriculum: making brown chicken stock, casserole of beef in red wine, pumpkin soup, fricassee of wild mushrooms, and four desserts:  Tarte Tatin (apple, caramel pastry); Apple Tart “Maman Blanc,” Thin Apple Tart with crème patissiere, Plum Crumble, and a precisely timed Grand Mariner Souffle.
Before we sat down to our feast, Niza addressed the class: “Time is one of the most precious things in a chef’s

repertoire. Your guests have high expectations that their meal will be delicious, beautifully prepared and served in a timely manner. Keep your eye on the clock, pursue your culinary efforts with passion, and in time you will become successful.” And with that final pep talk he presented each of us with a framed Certificate of Achievement from the Raymond Blanc Cookery School.

A few hours later, dusk had settled over Le Manoir as my taxi sped toward the railroad station for the 6:15 train to London’s Victoria Station and the Halkin hotel.

This boutique hotel on a quiet street in London’s exclusive Belgravia district was in sharp contrast to the two grand manor estates. It is a 21st century hotel of contemporary Italian design with Oriental influences. The 41 chic, modern-edged rooms and suites are generous in size with Art Deco accents and custom furnishings. But it is the huge, all-marble bathrooms, with separate walk-in shower and COMO Shambhala amenities, that could easily substitute for a luxury spa visit. I was glad there were no drought conditions in London at the time, because showering was an indulgence that demanded no time constraints. The handsome public spaces are of polished-teak and each floor resonates with palettes of color drawn from water, fire, air, and sky. Commensurate with the hotel’s flair, were the black staff uniforms designed by Giorgio Armani.

Also in the hotel is Nahm, the only Michelin-starred, pure Thai restaurant in London.  I had planned my visit to take a cooking class with David Thompson, the celebrated chef/founder of Nahm. Unfortunately, Thompson was called out of town and I missed the rescheduled cooking class. Instead, I dined at his restaurant and chatted with head chef Matthew Albert about the precision of Thai cooking, where most of the ingredients are added at the last minute to keep them fresh and vibrant.

“Eating Thai food, said Chef Albert. “ is an excursion through a series of flavors and textures that flows around a sea of exotic tastes between fiery hot and mild, sweet and tangy, soft and crisp, crunchy, sugary, salty, and more heat. From large and small plates, petite bowls and cups, I dipped, and swooped my way through caramelized prawn and chicken on bites of pineapple and mandarin, then plucked and dunked delicate scallops, prawns, wraps of minced salmon, salmon caviar, sugar and watermelon in a glossy green betel leaf, then scooped rice with fish cakes and glossy, cubes of pork, and minced prawns simmered in yellow beans.

At longitude zero Larry  astride the line of the Prime Meridian dividing the eastern and western hemispheres of the earth.

The next morning, the train departed Victoria Station at 9:20 for the short ride to Greenwich, a place that really is all about time. Greenwich, on the south bank of the Thames River, is home to the Prime Meridian, at Longitude 0 degrees. The Borough of Greenwich is great for walking, casual dining, and visiting friendly pubs. Its 17th- and 18th-century buildings and museums display an endearing historical collection of the British Empires most illustrious scientific, military and artistic endeavors.

Setting out from the Devonport House, an unpretentious but ideal hotel located in the heart of this World Heritage site, I joined a group of day-trippers slogging their way up an increasingly steep pathway toward the Naval Observatory situated atop the summit of Greenwich Park. The Observatory offers a fantastic skyline view of London. The young and the fit bombed their way upward like mountaineers, while the older and less fit wheezed their way aloft, stopping frequently to admire the scenery (and catch their breath).

Established in 1675 by King Charles II, the Observatory contains many exhibits relating to the measurement of time as well as seafaring, navigation and astronomy.  Its original mission was to find a way for sailors at sea to determine longitude. Unlike latitude, which has the equator as a natural starting position, there is no natural starting position for longitude.

In 1735, John Harrison (1693-1776) completed the first chronometer that would remain accurate regardless of weather and the pitching and rolling of a ship at sea.  Eventually, all the world’s chronometers would be set to Greenwich Mean Time for navigational purposes.

Thames cruise line passes under the famous London Bridge.

n the courtyard outside of the Observatory, brass strips set in the ground mark the exact site of the 0 line of the Prime Meridian. This is a tourist photo opportunity because it is possible to stand astride the line that divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the earth, with a foot in each hemisphere.

To take a break from walking, I headed down to Canary Wharf, where cruise ferries ply up and down the Thames River through the London Bridge on 11/2-hour sight-seeing excursions.

Late in the afternoon, as I turned a corner between 17th and 18th century buildings, I was caught up sharply by the sight of a hundred or more people milling about — dressed in British colonial apparel. The men were bewigged or pony-tailed, in three-cornered cocked hats, knee britches and shoe buckles, the ladies in long Watteau gowns with petticoats and aprons. Some were cooking with huge kettles hung over open fires while carriages drawn by black horses pranced up and down the street a squad of red-coated soldiers marched by.

When I crossed the Prime Meridian at the Observatory was I transported back in time? A hand tugged on my shoulder and a voice said, “Sorry mate, this place is restricted. Can’t you see we’re making a movie? “A movie.” “Right, a movie for TV. The Duchess.  It’s about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. She’s an ancestor of Princess Diana, you know. You’ll see The Duchess on American TV in 2008. Now please move along and get behind that yellow tape.”

For a while 18th century characters come back to life in a 21st century digital landscape and I walk right in on the scene. History, buildings, and cooking do transcend time, don’t they?

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You can contact Larry at larrymayran@bellsouth.net.