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Big Sur - Hiking Andrew Molera State Park

One of the great delights of living in the Bay Area is the proximity to the natural beauty of California and it's hard to beat the stunning drive down Highway One to Big Sur. This is certainly one of the iconic American road trips, but for me the joy of being in the area is getting out of your car and hitting a trail, so you can be "in" the landscape rather than just looking at it from the asphalt. 

Fenton House, Hampstead

What a find, the  Fenton House and gardens are  just so lovely. It's  a joy and something of a surprise to find an elegant, historic country home ensconced in the leafy suburb of Hampstead. Everything is on such a manageable scale here, even the trip there and the short walk from Hampstead tube, is easeful.
 

Owned by a series of wealthy merchants, Fenton House is well worth visiting and it makes an excellent day-out when combined with some of the other attractions of Hampstead.  What I liked about the house is that it has a very individual feel, this is clearly a family home and it has been shaped by the aesthetic and personal collections of Lady Binning who moved here in 1936. 

The house is a repository for her Chinese export porcelain (inherited from an extraordinarily wealthy relative) her collection of Restoration needlework as well as a great deal of beautiful Georgian furniture. 
But what makes it for me is the lived-in ambiance, the lovely printed wallpaper, the comfortable upholstery. I adore this handprinted Victorian wallpaper.
Yes, there are several interesting collections and some impressive china, but for me it was the lovely interiors completed by John Fowler which were the main draw. They are timeless with a delightful combination of antiques and fabrics that works seamlessly even forty years on. Who would think of this as a 1970's interior? Unfortunately there's only a glimpse of the lovely curtains which had a scalloped frill which sounds horrendous but was in fact charming.
 It's all so English, I love the chintzes. Florals can be included without overwhelming, they just have to be done well and Fowler was a master. All-in-all this is a great destination if you want a country feel without leaving London.
This is an ideal setting in which to admire Lady Binning's fine collection of English needlework. The handwork is extraordinary and there's a wonderfully naive character to some of the representations as you can see below.


The whole place is crammed full of china in custom display cases, I'm not particularly fond of most of it but I even I can see the charm of the Chinese dragon below.















Hampstead isn't very far from central London and from the roof  of the house you get a gorgeous view down  the hill. The  pretty village main street, the proximity to London and the open parkland of Hampstead Heath combine to make this area highly desirable. From the roof it's fascinating to look down at the nearby houses many of which sell for in excess of £15 million pounds!  As you can see below the view encompasses, the City and the Shard, luckily the leaves hadn't yet come out on the trees!
Fenton also houses  a curious collection of period instruments (that have no historic association with the house), there's even a harpsichord owned by the Queen. While I was visiting  a student  from the Royal College of Music was practicing on a spinnet and it was a great treat to hear her. Apparently you're most likely to hear students practicing on a Wednesday and I felt lucky to  randomly catch some music on a Friday.
There's a formal  walled garden of great symmetry and beauty and there are lovely espaliered fruit trees in the kitchen garden, which you'll find down some steps on the left at the back of the main garden.I visited in early spring but it must be fabulous in the summer.
It's an easy walk from the Hampstead Underground and it makes a nice dayout in combination with the Modernist National Trust property Two Willow Rd which I'm still hoping to visit. Nearby Burgh House has a nice cafe and a small (free) museum outlining the history of Hampstead. I loved my lunch and the museum was moderately interesting. Keat's House at the bottom of the hill or you could combine a visit with walking on the Heath.
The Keats House was more interesting than the Keats Museum in Rome, in that it has a greater connection to his life and work. There are also some items from Fanny Brawn, pictures, engagement ring etc.. But somehow these literary museums often fail in translating the work, the passion or the inspiration of the writer. It feels somehow more mausoleum than anything else though it gives a good sense for the changing demographic of the town. 
I used the overground to travel back to Hoxton which was easy and more comfortable than the underground, it also saved me walking all the way back up the hill! Overall, Hampstead is leafy, expensive and charming. It's interesting to see the development from country estates, to spa town to artist's enclave, to today. I don't think they have too many starving poets living there anymore, though who knows they may be the people doing the gardening at those multi-million pound houses I passed!

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