March 23, 2020

Victoria ~ Through the Looking Glass

Okay, so I promised you guys that I’d start a blog and I thought I’d begin with our latest adventures in shopping. I’m calling this Blog ‘Victoria, Though the Looking Glass’ because I feel like we’ve all collectively gone down the rabbit hole these days and are working to adjust to a very new reality. Hopefully my little tale will help keep you entertained. I promise the next one will be more about jewelry and less about me!

We scheduled our trip, as usual, in early January and based our dates on a show that we like to shop called Adams Antiques fair, it’s held at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London once a month. So, we selected to leave out of Philadelphia, where my brother/business partner lives, on Wednesday, March 11th. That morning I flew in from Madison, Wisconsin (where I live) and made my way to my brother’s for a few hours before heading back to the airport for a 10:40 pm flight to London. We checked in and headed to the American Airways lounge to relax for a few minutes before our flight.

The lounge was notably, but not surprisingly, empty. The tv was on, which it always is, and as we went about getting our snacks we started to notice that everyone had stopped talking and was congregating around the television. President Trump was on and was giving a speech. When the President said “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days. The new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight.” the lounge erupted in talk. After all, most of the people in there were either on our flight to London or on a flight to Amsterdam, which they announced was boarding just minutes later (to gales of nervous laughter). Due to the chatter in the lounge, we missed the part of Trump’s speech where he said that the UK was exempt and so my brother and I quickly conferenced and started to search the web for more information. When we realized that the UK wasn’t included in the ban we decided that we would risk it and go anyway, knowing that it might end up being our last chance to stock up for awhile. Whether or not this was the right decision, only time will tell.

They boarded our flight and we all wiped down our seats with baggies full of Clorox wipes that everyone seemed to bring on (something I always do anyway), I have to say that the plane seemed to be the cleanest I’ve ever seen! As soon as we were seated the flight attended made an announcement. It went something like this “Ummm… ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to need you all to get up and collect all of your belongings and exit the aircraft, this plane has a, uhhhhh, well, aaaah, mechanical issue. Or something.” I kid you not! So, we got off and spent 2 hours in the boarding area with the 35 or so other brave souls who were going to take this flight to London. We chatted with a kid who was on his way to Dublin to meet his sister for St. Patrick’s Day (poor guy, I sure hope he made it home okay!), and we were given hand sanitizer by another guy who was walking around with a large bottle, giving everyone a squirt. Eventually they boarded us onto a new plane, we wiped the seats down, again, and got settled for the 7 hour hop across the pond. We were on our way!

We arrived into London’s Heathrow airport late on Thursday morning and were collected by some friends who we had scheduled to spend a few days relaxing and doing a little buying with. We spent some time enjoying their collection and picking liberally amongst their fantastic selection of jewelry. They mostly do silver jewelry and they always have a fantastic selection of Victorian silver, Arts and Crafts jewelry and some modernist and Scandinavian pieces.

On Friday we got up and took a trek to the fabulous Hever Castle in Kent. Hever dates back to the 13th century, but is best known as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. She was married to the King in 1533 and he sent her to the Tower of London in 1536 where she was executed on charges of adultery and treason (most likely neither of which was true). Hever is a beautiful castle and it was a perfect day to explore it, sunny and warm with fields of daffodils and rows of hyacinth blooming in their extensive gardens. We ate lunch at the aptly named Henry VIII pub, sitting in front of a crackling fire and sipping a pint with our friends. We warned them of what was going on in America, of the school closings that were just beginning and of the social distancing that was being discussed. These things hadn’t yet made it to England and perhaps the English thought we were over-reacting a bit, stiff upper lip and all that!

Anne Boleyn with her Signature 'B' Necklace

Hever Castle, Anne's Childhood Home

On Saturday we visited Hampton Court Palace and got a true picture of the difference between a country estate and a true palace. Hampton Court Palace is HUGE! This palace was Henry VIII’s home and he was a large man (6’2” with a 54 inch waist!) with large appetites; he was said to have consumed 6-8,000 calories a day! The kitchens, gardens, state rooms and dining room were stunning and we didn’t have enough time to explore everything because there was just so much to see, but we certainly enjoyed what we were able to get to and even managed to escape the outdoor hedge-maze (with only a momentary panic when I flashed back to ‘The Shining’).

 

Henry VIII with two of his Children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I

The Kings Dining Room at Hampton Court Palace. The Court consumed 600,000 gallons of beer, 300 barrels of wine, 1,240 oxen, 8,500 sheep, 2,330 deer, 60 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar each year!

Hampton Court Palace from the Palace Gardens (well, some of them anyway!)


We had decided on Saturday morning that although we were scheduled to fly home in 10 days, on Tuesday, we would cut our trip a bit short and change our tickets to go home on Saturday, in a week. We rescheduled our flights pretty easily and also were able to re-book an airbnb in London for the week. On Saturday night I checked my email one last time before bed only to discover that our Saturday flight to Philadelphia had been cancelled. We called American Airlines and were told, erroneously as it turned out, that we had to fly back to the States before Monday at midnight. We scrambled, thinking, what can we do? Who can we buy from? Who do we absolutely need to see? The Adams fair was still on for the next day, but our lovely hosts who usually do the show as well as several other dealers had informed us that they weren’t going to do it. Fear of large groups was creeping in day by day. So, we arranged instead to go to see another dealer at her beautiful home out in the country.

Sunday dawned and our friends kindly drove us out to the country. We spent a couple of hours looking at jewelry and chatting and drinking too much coffee. For the first time ever we wore disposable gloves while we examined and weighed and priced a fantastic selection of things, hemming and hawing as we always do over the things that were fabulous and pricey (these two thing almost always go hand in hand). We made our choices and ran off into London to try and see one more dealer. We arrived at our lovely flat in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London (my favorite) and since we’d discovered that we didn’t actually have to leave London on Monday, but rather that we’d have to fly into an approved airport (of which Philly was not one), we called to rebook our flights yet again. This time we scheduled ourselves out on Thursday. We decided that this was the best day in order to minimize the risk of getting trapped there and yet maximize the amount we could buy, as it turned out we were right on the money with this pick. We also decided, with heavy heart, to skip all the markets and to only see dealers privately, mostly in our own flat. Happily there were a lot of paper towels (and toilet paper) in the flat and more than one bottle of anti-bacterial spray cleaner. I sprayed down the whole flat as soon as we got there and would use up most of a bottle of spray over the next few days.

We walked the fifteen or so minutes over to Portobello Road to see our friend in her office. The streets were a little quiet, but people were still out and about (although most of them seemed to be in the pubs), actually not atypical for a Sunday evening in London. We picked out the items we wanted to consider and our friend packed them all up and brought them back to our flat where we ordered delivery from Pizza Express and priced and picked the jewels we wanted to buy. She had a lot of really lovely gear and so picking was tough, but I think we did pretty well. I bought a three stone diamond ring that I’m a little bit in love with, my brother picked up a fabulous fat emerald ring that was a little more than I could spend, but oh, so lovely. We saw our friend off just before midnight and fell grateful into a comfortable bed.

On Monday we saw a couple of dealers who we normally see at Gray’s antiques market (so okay, we did go to one market, but that is more of a shopping center than a true mass of humanity like Portobello or Horti), there were very few people there, most of the stalls were shuttered and only a few buyers roamed the halls. We got some lovely things and then headed over to the office of another dealer just blocks away where we got some wonderful French gear, a life saver as we’d already cut out the French part of our buying trip. Scouring gorgeous gems, weighing and sorting fabulous gold long guard chains made it easy to forget what was going on outside, but an occasional glance out the window showed a distinct lack of people and an even eerier lack of traffic. On Monday afternoon they cancelled our rescheduled return to Chicago and re-routed us yet again, this time through Dallas, as we nervously read news stories of large crowds and long lines to get through the screening process at US airports and shivered with a bit of dread.

On Tuesday we got up early and saw three people in a row at our flat, buying as much as we could with the knowledge ever dawning that we didn’t know how long this would last or when we’d be able to get back. We had been offered a place to stay in the country for a month if we got stuck in the UK, but neither of us wanted that and we nervously checked our flight status every few hours. We would only stop doing this when we started to move down the runway of Heathrow. On Tuesday night we went out to dinner at a restaurant that normally has a line around the corner, we got a table instantly and were one of only four tables of diners in the whole place, easily ten feet from any other person except the waiter. We ate a delicious dinner and left an exorbitant tip.

The ever-delicious Granger & Co. on Westbourne Grove, as empty as you'll ever see it!


On Wednesday we got up early again and saw another three dealers at our flat, diligently cleaning and spraying the surfaces between each one. My hands were looking ancient and felt like sandpaper from all the washing and hand sanitizer, but that seemed a small thing and I moisturized again and again. We bought and bought and bought. Our last dealers of the day and of the trip lived nearby and brought us a delicious takeout dinner complete with chocolate and champagne. We asked if they could possible print out some stuff for us that we needed for customs as our broker was in Philadelphia and we’d be flying into Dallas. They said they would, but would have to charge us in toilet paper. Several people had gifted us with some and we weren’t in need so we passed along half a dozen rolls and chuckled at this new economy. By this time London was beginning to realize what was coming, the streets were quiet, devoid of cars and walkers, the restaurants were empty, lit up like Hopper paintings, showing a lonely diner here and there. Schools were being called off and the mayor of London was talking about shutting the city down. The pubs in Ireland had closed two days earlier and the Brits seemed to find that unfathomable and yet seemed to also know it was coming to the UK.

The next day we got to the airport early, as we always do, the airport wasn’t empty but was noticeably quiet. About 30% of the travelers were wearing some sort of mask, many also wore protective eye gear and rubber gloves. I admit I chuckled a little when I saw someone in a full HazMat suit and I really laughed as I watched a man in a large mask trying on sunglasses in duty-free. Hmmmm…. do you think he knew about not touching your face, especially with sunglasses a thousand other people had tried on?

I’m always sad to leave London and this time was no exception, it’s a city that I’d happily live in (if I could afford it) and that in twenty plus years of visiting I’ve never gotten tired of. There is always something to do there and I usually make it a point to go shopping at Liberty and Selfridges; to visit my friends, The Crown Jewels and roam the Tower of London; to walk through Hyde Park as much as I can and eat and laugh with the many English dealers that I’m privileged to call my friends. This time I did none of that, I stayed in my flat and worked and did paperwork and bought pretty things and then I rushed them home.

By the time we got off the plane in Dallas they had worked the kinks out of the screening process, we were interviewed and checked over by a woman in a mask and a hat that read ‘CDC’, she told us to self-isolate for two weeks and that is what we are doing, my brother in Philadelphia and myself from here. On the plus side, we both have beautiful things and we are already starting to clean them and process them through inventory. In the coming days and weeks I’ll bring you photos and stories of the jewels. For now I leave you with this thought; antique jewelry and antiques in general, art and literature passed down through the ages, are reminders that Humanity survives and thrives during all kinds of conditions. The black plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century led directly and indirectly to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest periods in art, literature and architecture in Human History. Antiques remind us that this too shall pass, that we need only be patient and kind. Wash your hands, check on your neighbors and enjoy your time at home. And thank heaven for the internet!