So... Valentine's Day. Love it or hate it, I thought I'd offer a few tips on truly romantic London spots to visit. Don't try to go to any of them today- surprise your other half with a 'Valentine's Day' treat next month, when everything will be quieter, cheaper and reeking slightly less of desperate commercialisation.
I'm always telling you guys how I still discover new London gems all the time- well earlier this month, I found a real corker. My mum came to town and we visited Leighton House , the former residence of Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederic Leighton ( even if you're no art buff you'll recognize his most famous work, e.g Flaming June ). It's an absolutely incredible building- all traditional Victorian house from the outside, but inside, transformed into a shrine to Leighton's passion for all things middle eastern. The hall is entirely clad in stunning Islamic tiles in opulent blues and golds, surrounding an ornate water fountain. There's even an intricately carved wooden balcony upstairs that looks down onto the hallway.
The house is romantic at the best of times, but especially right now, given the current exhibition: A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón collection. If you're a fan of Victorian art then this is an absolute must-see; it's all beautiful female nudes and the like by artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, John William Waterhouse, Edward Poynter, John Strudwick and John William Godward- all friends of Leighton's. Also on display is the stunning 'The roses of Heliogabalus' by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It depicts the decadence of the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus who suffocated a number of his guests beneath an avalanche of falling rose petals. Romantic, eh? To really evoke the atmosphere, the whole room where the painting is on display is scented with Jo Malone's Red Roses. People might criticise this sort of thing for being a bit gimmicky, but it actually works pretty well, and I do think that art galleries and museums have to start exploring new ideas like this if they're going to compete with all the other entertainment options we have these days.
Another gorgeous London house to explore is Dennis Severs House in Shoreditch. The residence is a sort of living time capsule, capturing the lives of a family of Huguenot silk-weavers from 1724 to the dawn of the 20th Century. Again, I think this place is doing exactly what museums should be doing these days; creating a multi-sensory experience that beats watching a movie at home- imagine the sets of Punchdrunk productions, just without the actors. Every little detail has been considered, from the type of tea that's brewing in the pot on the table by the fireside, the tobacco that's been left in a disguarded pipe, even used chamber pots underneath the beds. It's authentic, to say the least. The exclusive silent night visits are particularly special.
My other favourite museum/residence in London has to be Sir John Soane's eccentric abode- next month they have a Cocktails and Candlelight night there which would make a great date.
If you're already been on a few dates and fancy something a bit more intimate, I'd totally recommend one of London's spas. The gorgeous, art deco Porchester Baths (above) is my personal favourite, though it's certainly a bit shabby round the edges these days. If you want something with more modern luxuries, I'd opt for the Ironmonger Row Baths, where they have wonderful scented steam rooms and herbal tea on tap.
I'm a big fan of places in the city where you can get back to nature. The Barbican Conservatory is one of London's best kept secrets; it's only open on certain Sundays- tomorrow, for example, 11am-5pm.
For more wonderful conservatory inspiration, visit the new Bourne and Hollingsworth Buildings - I really want to try their brunch menu ( maybe the perfect place for the morning after...?)
A stroll around Richmond park is another lovely London weekend activity, visit the wild deer then pop into Petersham Nurseries for some of their great food and drink.
Kew Gardens is an obvious one, but still a classic (here I am at Kew a few summers ago). They currently have an orchid show on til March- orchids being by far the sexiest flower around- think The Secretary, Adaptation etc. You can see some more pics from Kew in this post.
Hampstead Heath is another favourite for romantics, but whilst most people stick to the side of the heath where the ponds are, I'd recommend venturing a bit further to the Hampstead Heath Pergola. It's a bit run down but I think this only adds to the romantic atmosphere there.
And very briefly, if you're after classic romantic restaurant choices, my top recommendations would be Sketch, Brunswick House and Les Trois Garcons ( below).
Re-reading this, I realise that I've actually been to more of these places with my girlfriends than I have with my husband ( who hates any sort of 'organised romance'). So feel free to ignore any Valentines associations and read this post as just being about some gorgeous places to go in London. Go enjoy them with your lover, your friends or by yourself!