Our Secret Garden

Six days in London and then three days in the Cotswolds – a short, manageable vacation with only two packings and unpackings of our behemoth suitcases and carry-on pharmacies as we call them. I planned this trip for my sister and me, selecting a new boutique hotel called the Belmond Cadogan in the posh neighborhood of London’s Chelsea that was once the home of Oscar Wilde.

The hotel is set across from a verdant park that requires a key to enter – a secret garden as it were. The Queen Anne style mansion with its claret colored bricks had undergone a major renovation without destroying the historical bits and bobs such as a gorgeous winding staircase and inlaid wood and mosaic tile floor.

Movie Star

Waiting in the lobby for my sister, there was a flurry of activity and then a movie star came through the door and settled his reservations for himself and his family at the reception desk. I winked at the concierge Daniel who gently put his fingers to his lips to indicate that this was not a celebrity who wanted attention. It was hard not to stare, and his voice – low and mellifluous – was unmistakable – think James Bond – and even more handsome in person than on the screen. I live in Los Angeles and am used to celebrity sightings – but this was up a notch or two.


My sister is an artist, I am a writer, and we are both serious window shoppers. The majority of our time was devoted to museums and galleries and various department stores. At the Tate Britain, we spent an hour or so in the gallery devoted to William Turner, admiring the cloud formations, the roiling sea, the stranded sailors depicted in his oils. At one point, my sister pointed out the veining in one of the paintings. I didn’t hear her and thought she said, “The veining is called Cockadoodledoo.” What? I repeated what I thought she had said. She looked at me, her blue eyes getting wider by the second and said, “That’s not what I said. It’s called craquelure.” At which point we burst out laughing uncontrollably in the same way that we used to laugh as children. We share the same sense of humor and are never surprised when we are the only two people who find something hysterical. We carry with us all the memories of our mother’s dry wit, and our father’s sarcasm, and our own silliness. Craquelure will now be added to our vocabulary that stands in for an entire adventure. Much like the joke of the prisoners who had been together for so long that instead of repeating their jokes over and over again, they just said, “22,” or “That reminds me of 107.”

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

At the same museum we stopped to admire Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose an oil-on-canvas painting made by the Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent. The painting depicts “two small children dressed in white who are lighting paper lanterns as day turns to evening; they are in a garden strewn with pink roses, accents of yellow carnations and tall white lilies behind them. The two subjects of the painting are the 7- and 11- year old daughters of a friend of the artist. The title comes from the refrain of a popular song "Ye Shepherds Tell Me" a pastoral glee which mentions one of the dark-haired girls wearing "A wreath around her head, around her head she wore, Carnation, lily, lily, rose". (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sargent-carnation-lily-lily-rose-n01615). The light emanating from the Japanese lanterns and lilies seems to glow against the lengthening shadows. The artist was able to capture a fleeting moment in time when day is fading into night. My sister and I gave the painting our highest honors. What we didn’t point out to one another at the time, is that we have a photograph of ourselves at a young age dressed in starched white pinafores with ruffles, our dark red hair in sausage curls painstakingly arranged by our nursemaid so many years ago playing in a garden, enveloped in Nature and its soothing grace.

My sister and I have often been mistaken for twins as we are only fifteen months apart. As children our mother dressed us identically explaining, “Well, if I lose one of them and the policeman asks what my child is wearing, I can just point to the other daughter.” Today, we will often buy the same dress. At Selfridges on one of our forays, my sister ended up with an identical Diane von Furstenberg dress that I had in my suitcase.


The next day we went to a number of contemporary galleries – some of them were closed it being Saturday, but we were lucky enough to find the Flowers Gallery open. Inside a jewel box of treasures awaited us that were in total opposition to the nature paintings at the Tate Britain. The gallery was devoted to the large-scale photographs of Canadian-American Robert Polidori of frescos taken in the Dominican priory of San Marco in Florence. Entitled Fra Angelica, Opus Operantis, (https://www.flowersgallery.com/exhibitions/current) each photograph is framed through a doorway, or an oculus window as if the friar were coming upon the exquisite religious image for the first time, intended to inform the friar’s religious practice. Standing in the middle of the gallery, I could almost feel the spiritual power of these frescos – so far removed from Nature – and instead straining to capture a Heavenly world. In a downstairs gallery room, another photograph from Polidori’s suite of Versailles rooms captured a single celestial blue satin coverlet adorning a bed.

The images made my sister and me gasp at the level of detail, captured by using a wide-open camera lens that takes pictures slowly and forces the viewer to spend more than a few seconds studying the work. The overall message of the exhibition is to slow down and really look at what’s in front of you, rather than to simply drive by, as we did on much of our sojourn in London. One morning we hired a cab and asked the driver to take us to some of the main tourist attractions: the Tower of London, the houses of Parliament, the Tower Bridge, and of course Buckingham Palace. We took photos to prove that we were there, but skipped the lines.


Evenings in London were spent eating at “top ten” restaurants including Spring at Somerset house, the Clos Maggiore, rated the most romantic restaurant in London because of its flower festooned ceiling with twinkling lights and stone fireplace (dormant because it was still summer according to the calendar), and the restaurant at the old Connaught Hotel, helmed by Jean Georges. The hotel lobby was decorated with enormous bouquets of flowers and garlands which wound their way up the stairs to the bedrooms on the upper floors.

As part of my duties as head tour guide, I bought theater tickets to three shows. The standout was “Bitter Wheat” by David Mamet starring John Malkovich wearing a fat suit to enhance his likeness to Harvey Weinstein/a/k/a Barney Fein. The audience laughed even at the “inside the industry” jokes and squirmed in all the appropriate places. The ink isn’t even dry on the story of HW and yet is fodder for one of London’s biggest hits. Some of the Jewish jokes made me uncomfortable. The funniest and harshest one being, “How did he know my mother is Jewish?” Barney’s long-suffering assistant, Sondra answers,” Who else would be caught dead returning a scarf to Bergdorf Goodman’s?” I felt guilty tolerating the scenes in which Barney sets a trap for an aspiring Korean-English actress-director who in the end blows the whistle on Barney. The curtain goes down on Barney as he tries to figure a way out of his mess. A standing ovation followed. I still haven’t figured out how I feel about the anti-Semitic banter. What Mamet does show us is that “All the devils are here, and Hell is empty,” a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which is inscribed on a mug I bought at the Old Globe on the last day of our stay in London.


And then it was off to the Cotswolds. On the journey west out of London, we stopped at Highgrove, the elegant pile belonging to Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles(https://duchyofcornwall.org/high-grove.html). It had begun to rain, and unlike the stalwart English tourists who had paid for their tickets in advance as we had, we skipped the tour of the gardens but not before seeing a video in which Prince Charles personally greets his “guests” and explains the importance of the gardens as part of his environmental initiatives. We arrived a few minutes late, and the tour guide held up the video for us. As we entered the room, someone remarked, “Ah the Hollywood stars.” It was all a bit embarrassing as if we were getting special treatment. As the image of Prince Charles appeared on the screen and in a sonorous voice he intoned, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Highgrove,” my sister and I became apoplectic. Whether it was his voice, his rosy red complexioned face, or the seriousness with which he addressed us, I can’t say, but my sister and I couldn’t look at the screen or at one another. Our shoulders bounced up and down as we tried to hold in a rude howl. We didn’t want anyone to think that we were making fun of Prince Charles. When the presentation finally closed with an appeal for money to carry on Prince Charles’s good work (was I the only one who thought that maybe there was enough in his personal coffers to afford the maintenance of the gardens, etc.) the tour guide instructed everyone to stay on the path and asked that the last person in line, please close the gate behind them. We waited as everyone filed out so as not to be found out that we were escapees and headed to the tearoom for a bite to eat before continuing on to Cirencester, the capital of the Cotswolds.

Barnsley House and Spa

I had done my research and discovered Barnsley House and Spa, a private mansion converted into a retreat with gardens designed by Rosemary Verey that are so famous that they are a stop on a tour of Asian tourists intent upon absorbing the Cotswolds. Our room had a name – the Secret Garden – with a gate separating it from the rest of the property. Our private garden included an outdoor galvanized bathtub and shower, and a fire pit with an abundance of cut logs and fire starters. The bedroom included a living room, two television sets and a glassed-in walk in shower. The only thing lacking was internet service which was spotty. We discovered that there was some internet reception in the main house, but even there it wasn’t guaranteed. This meant that guests were actually looking at one another and talking rather than staring at their glowing smart phones.

After a good night’s sleep, at daybreak, we opened our gate to hear birds twittering overhead, and the slight odor of cow dung wafted from a nearby pasture. This was farm country. It was a perfect sunny day, and the leaves on the trees seemed to have been painted in emerald green. The estate has its own head gardener to tend to the property which was designed by the now famous landscape designer Rosemary Verey, the former owner of the property and features knot gardens, statues, golden chain trees (known as Laburnums) an ornamental fruit and vegetable garden whose abundance ends up on a plate at the Potager Restaurant, and a decorative pond with a Pavilion. The English love their gardens, and this one is among its most beautiful without feeling fussy or pretentious. Coincidentally Rosemary Verey is the gardening angel of Prince Charles and helped him for many years designing and working on the gardens at Highgrove.


In the Barnsley library, in addition to a multitude of gardening books – some of which were written by Rosemary Verey for her acolytes (The Making of a Garden; The Scented Garden and the Art of Planting) -- I found a copy of Alain de Botton’s collection of essays, “The Art of Travel,” the perfect serendipitous accompaniment for our trip. I managed to read the essays before we had to leave Barnsley. The framework of the essays included reference to philosophers, artists, writers, and explorers whose opinions de Botton includes in order for his readers to think about travel. The Guardian, in its review of the Art of Travel, concludes that de Botton “recognises the naivete of supposing that distance can separate us from ourselves. All of his expert witnesses - from Baudelaire to Flaubert to Caspar David Friedrich - offer us abstractions of experience. And that, surely, is the art of travel, no different from the art of art. We are often more aware of ourselves when travelling - we are cold, hot, ill, exhausted, isolated. Yet without these discomforts we would never be allowed those moments of transcendence that justify our efforts. The world is still full of wonders. Being able to fly to any country in a single day has not really brought these wonders any closer. Finding them is just as difficult, and just as rewarding, as ever.“

I hadn’t thought of this trip as self-revelatory. I was too busy making sure that everything went smoothly; that the limousine arrived on time; that the reservations for the restaurants were in place; that we had enough pounds to tip the porter, the housemaids and so forth. I felt somewhat like a tour operator rather than a relaxed traveler. This fact gob smacked me on our final night at Barnsley when my sister and I had our last supper in the Potager. My sister had contracted food poisoning at Pret a Manger, a chain of takeout places in London, and by day two of our trip in the Cotswolds, she felt like death warmed over. The nurse at the urgent care facility instructed her to eat nothing other than dry biscuits (an English favorite), rice, and to consume lots of water so that she would be recovered enough to get on the plane back to New York. We never got to see the towns of the Cotswolds with names like Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter, Painswick, and Burford, or pop into the quaint shops lining the cobblestone streets. Instead we spent our time mainly in our Secret Garden so that my sister could recuperate. For another time…When I told her that I would stay with her rather than taking the tour that we had paid for in advance, she said, “What do you mean? You’re not going?” I was a bit shocked at her reaction. Of course, I would stay with her. What was more important? But then I thought about it. In the past I might well have left her behind afraid that I might be missing out on something, rather than valuing my time with her, and being able to take care of her. What are sisters for anyway?


We left our Secret Garden for “dinner” with a flashlight because the light was fading, and I anticipated that by the time we would be returning to our room it would be pitch-black. The local area is designated an International Dark Sky place. All the lights around the property are low wattage so that guests can enjoy the splendor of the nighttime sky. Unfortunately, that night the sky was filled with end-of- the- day clouds and there were no stars in sight, but it was still magnificent just to be surrounded by this unadulterated darkness.

As we entered the main house, the general manager, a jovial Italian with a broad smile and twinkling eyes, greeted the sisters. I asked him, “Can you print out our bill as we are checking out tomorrow morning to go to Heathrow?”

He replied, “Oh goodness, why don’t you enjoy your dinner first, relax, and we will have everything ready when you have finished dessert and coffee.” I realized in that moment that even at the end of nine days, my habit of always taking care of business – which is a fine trait when working – is an impediment to uncovering the transcendence, not just of travel, but to the miracle of being alive. He was right, of course. The bill could wait.

Looking at my sister across the table from me – no craquelure lines on her face – still youthful in spite of our years, I felt blessed to have my sister to share our memories both old and new and tend to our secret garden as the light faded and evening arrived.