November 23, 2014

The Wedding, the Fascinator, the Castles and Me

I ’m invited to a wedding at St. Paul’s, London, that magnificent, baroque cathedral where Lady Diana became a princess. At the bottom of the creamy, elegant invitation are the words, “miniature medals may be worn.” I have no idea what this means. The bride’s accompanying note says, “Hats are not absolutely required.”

Oh dear. I’m pretty sure I know what that means: Who would be so crass as to show up at a St. Paul’s wedding bareheaded?

Though I’ve always felt silly in hats, I vicariously enjoy the gorgeous chapeaux so stunningly worn by tall, willowy women at Ascot, Churchill Downs and our own Naples Botanical Garden’s Hats in the Garden party. The feathers! The jewels! The ribbons, bows, organza and flowers! The price tags!

Absolutely required or not, I can’t risk a fashion faux pas on such hallowed soil. Besides, wouldn’t it be terribly authentic to shop for a hat on London’s famed Oxford Street?

With that decided, I can relax and enjoy envisioning my friends marrying at St. Paul’s, and the honeymoon possibilities in this land of castles and palaces. Which is how I came to sleep in the royal bedchamber of King Edward VII (sort of), encounter the ghost of Marie Antoinette’s daughter (honestly) in a royal English manor, go hunting with a hawk in the medieval forest of a 13th century castle and wear my first-ever fascinator. 

A fascinator is a hair ornament that demands attention. It can be a simple organza bow or a veritable cottage garden. It simply must have movement to it. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II sanctified fascinators in 2008 by wearing a snowy white-with-champagne confection to her grandson’s wedding. She then proclaimed “substantial” fascinators acceptable for admittance into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Soon after, Sarah Jessica Parker showed up at her Sex and the City premiere in a riotous green, 12-inch-high bloom, and Lady Gaga—well, that’s another story. 

Fascinators are far more practical than brims, really, for receiving lines and air kissing. Maybe there’s one out there for hat-challenged me.

I arrive mid-day on friday at London’s Victoria Station and check into my luxe Edward VII, Prince of Wales room in The Rubens at the Palace. The classy little hotel, with views of the Royal Mews, is the closest luxury hotel to Buckingham Palace. I’ve just missed today’s changing of the guard, but that’s probably best, as the wedding is less than 24 hours away and I’m still hatless.

Each room in the Royal Wing is named for a monarch. There are crowns and coats of arms, mirrored walls, heavy moldings and a cushy, faux fur-covered bed. With a virtual curtsy to the oil portrait of my personal king presiding in his gilt frame, I’m off to Oxford Street.

Passing up the exclusive milliners (let’s be realistic here), I head for the promising department stores suggested by my Rubens concierge. First stop: shimmering, pulsating, sexy Selfridges, the edgiest department store in the Western world. The higher one ascends at Selfridges, floor-wise, the less pulsating. By the time I reach the couture floor, mellowness has set in.

In the hat salon, my eye is drawn to a sophisticated construction of fuchsia straw. “Ah, you love the Philip Treacy,” says the statuesque blonde with “Elizabeth” on her name tag. “This one is 990 pounds [$1,567].” 

“Well, I’m not sure it would go with my pink suit,” I whisper. “What about the white disk with the pearls? It’s so elegant, and just my proportions.”

“A lovely choice,” says Elizabeth. “Vivian Sheriff—an excellent buy at just 250 pounds [$395].”

“To be honest,” I say, “I need something for a wedding tomorrow, and I’ll probably never have a chance to wear it again.”

Elizabeth nods. “I suggest a small fascinator. What color are your shoes?”

“Silvery gray, and the suit has silver buttons.”

She retreats, returning with a hair comb embellished with a bow of silver grosgrain ribbons, silver sequins and dyed-to-match feathers. Understated like I wanted, and the price is right, at just 40 pounds ($63). But I still feel silly with those sequined feathers bobbing around my head. Maybe I’ll keep looking.

It’s three hours and hundreds of fascinating fascinators later. I’ve pranced before hat mirrors at John Lewis, Debenhams and House of Fraser. I’m actually beginning to feel undressed without a head ornament. Eventually, I trek back to Selfridges. Elizabeth carefully wraps up my tasteful silver confection as though for a royal and tucks it into the signature yellow Selfridges bag. I may not qualify for admittance to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, but I’m ready for St. Paul’s.

By 10 a.m. Saturday, it seems that all of London has turned out to enjoy the perfect blue-sky day. Casually dressed tourists are already crowding the forecourt at St. Paul’s Cathedral. People move aside with mild curiosity as I step from my taxi, all pink and silver with feathers bobbing. I put on my dark shades for effect.

The main sanctuary of St. Paul’s is reserved for actual royal weddings. So my dear friend Mary Eugenia Kent Cox will marry Lt. Commander Robert Edward Doyle, OBE, RN, in The Crypt, near the remains of the Duke of Wellington, Admiral Nelson and others of the highest distinction in British history. This is where the medal comes in. To marry in The Crypt, one must be a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE): knights, dames, gallant warriors, distinguished military men and civilians who have done the Empire proud. No OBE medal? No wedding in The Crypt.

Hundreds of tourists swarm the cathedral, but access to the OBE Chapel is blocked off for the wedding and guarded by docents. As a Cathedral verger in a medieval cassock leads the bridal procession from the South Portico to the Crypt staircase, people are snapping pictures, just in case the wedding party turns out to be celebrities. Someone asks me if I’m famous. It’s the fascinator, I’m sure.

The wedding is a blur of glamour and sweetness: The groom (wearing his small medal) awaiting his bride beneath the banners of the royal family, as the stone walls absorb the magnificent Prelude to Te Deum. The solemn vows and service conducted by The Reverend Sarah Eynstone, minor canon and chaplain of St. Paul’s. The official signing of the register in a private anteroom, just as with royal couples.

At the reception, beneath the ancient catacomb arches of the Crypt’s Wren Suite, I have time to study the headgear. Velvety royal blue, seashell pink and seafoam green. Also, dramatic silver, pristine white, sensuous black and sassy London phone booth red. There are nets and flowers and feathers and jeweled pins. Hats and fascinators: I adore them all. Even my modest one gets a few compliments. But here’s the thing: Neither the bride nor her attendant is wearing a headpiece. Nor are about half the guests.

So what have I learned from my first wedding at St. Paul’s Cathedral? Two things:

(1) Hats are not absolutely necessary, and (2) Next time: Fluffier feathers! More ribbons! More sparkly jewels!

Go Royal

Maximize the royal experience! For about $100 a year, a couple can join the National Trust, entitling them to free admission to 300 fabulous historic houses and gardens throughout the U.K. The U.S. affiliate is the Royal Oak Foundation: www.royal-oak.org.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

The Rubens at the Palace is a member of the Red Carnation Hotels Collection. www.rubenshotel.com

For more travel information:
www.visitbritain.com
www.discoverireland.com
www.stpauls.co.uk

 

ROMANCE PLUS

Not that the newlyweds asked my opinion, but after a romantic wedding at St. Paul’s, where better to honeymoon than a castle? I envision stone walls, turrets and a tower. The grounds would be laced with gardens (topiary a plus) and surrounded by virgin woodlands. It would have massive gates and a heavy wooden door, pock-marked with antiquity, and imposing oil portraits of the royals, nobles and warriors who have tarried there.

There would be afternoon tea, of course, and at least one incredibly medieval pursuit—archery or falconry, perhaps—once enjoyed by the lords and ladies of the manor. I’d naturally expect gracious Old World manners, lavish spa services and insanely decadent bed and bath amenities. Oh, and if it’s not too much to ask: one eccentric but harmless ghost.

Here for the newlyweds’ consideration—and all you romantics out there—are three excellent choices: a 13th century fairy tale castle, an Irish country house and the English estate of an exiled French king.

 

Ashford Castle

This sprawling castle in Galway, Ireland, has enough towers and turrets to re-enact every fairy tale you can remember, simultaneously. King George V slept here; so did Neville Chamberlain and scores of other royals and near-royals pictured on the castle’s wall of dignitaries.

My A-ha! Castle Moment: My hawk, Wexford, and I are walking through the medieval forest on the castle grounds. His massive talons are gripping my heavy leather falconer’s glove. It’s raining, hard, but we don’t care. I extend my arm. At a flick of my wrist, he displays his great three-foot wingspan and soars, disappearing into the trees. In ancient days, his job was to hunt food in exchange for his portion. But here at Ireland’s School of Falconry, life is sweet. At another signal, his powerful form appears from nowhere, making a perfect landing on my upturned fist. His razor-sharp beak ferrets out the scrap of meat tucked into my gloved palm. How many people can say they flew a hawk on their honeymoon?

Romantic Rooms: Insiders say 440 is the most romantic room at Ashford Castle. Or, check out Pierce Brosnan’s honeymoon suite (Room 221). Caveat: To preserve the magic, request a room facing away from the 21st century parking lot.

Tea and Waterford: Romantics can dine beneath the Waterford chandeliers of the castle dining room,
George V, and have glam afternoon tea in the Drawing Room. I also love the intimate thatch-roofed ambience of Cullens at the Cottage, a brasserie just outside the castle gates.

More Amenities: Golf, horseback riding, fishing, lake cruising and spa. Seasonal and themed packages, like Hogwarts (Harry Potter) weekends and holiday retreats, offer generously discounted room rates.

See for Yourself: www.ashford.ie

 

Mount Juliet

This 17th century country house in Kilkenny, Ireland, is set on 1,500 acres of parkland owned variously by earls and monks and viscounts and a duke-turned-king dating back to ancient Norman times. It’s just a one-hour flight, plus a one-hour drive from London. Surprisingly reasonable rates start at around 150 euros ($200) per night.

Castle Sports: Archery, stables, a clay target academy and a croquet lawn. Salmon and trout fishing on the River Nore. Also, a top-rated spa and the only Jack Nicklaus golf course in Ireland.

My A-ha! Castle Moment: Unlike the more theatrical Ashford Castle, Mount Juliet is very private and intimate. Luggage is delivered, beds turned down, lamps lit, towels refreshed, and requests instantly filled, yet staff seems to be visible only when called.

See for Yourself: www.mountjuliet.ie

 

Hartwell House & Spa

This regal country estate in England’s Vale of Aylesbury was listed in William the Conqueror’s 11th century Domesday Book. Impressive occupants through the centuries have included the brother of Richard the Lion Heart, Louis XVIII, exiled king of France, and the ancestors of one of my personal countrymen, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The movie-set great house just outside of London is now a 30-room hotel; with additional suites in the former rectory and 18th century riding school. It has rococo reception rooms, the ruins of a Gothic Revival church and a sensuous spa secluded in an orangery.

Romantic Suites: Though the king’s personal suite (Room 12) is considered the honeymoon suite, the most romantic room in the house is definitely Room 18, the boudoir of his niece, the Duchesse d’Angoulême, daughter of Marie Antoinette. It’s a bride’s dream, with pale pink and yellow chintz décor, queenly canopied bed and an ethereal light streaming in through massive bay windows.

My A-ha! Castle Moment: It is the Duchesse herself who provides the ultimate castle moment. I liked her the minute I noticed her, gazing at me from her formal oil portrait beside the hearth. She has a sweet, careful look, and before I read of her sad history, I knew this room was a safe haven and sanctuary for her. I take a picture, but a crazily tilted lampshade ruins it. I straighten the shade, but before I can snap the picture, it falls back into the tilt. There’s nothing to hold it straight. As I’m giving it one last try, the shade seems to be snatched from my fingers and jerked into position. It stays, even when I wiggle it! I get my picture, and then head off to the spa.

I return two hours later, feeling royally pampered and relaxed. The first thing I notice is the lampshade, crazily tilted once again. And I do believe the Duchesse is smiling.

Amenities: Located barely an hour from London’s Marylebone Station, the Hartwell House & Spa lures couples seeking nothing to do except be nurtured, stroll the gardens, dine exquisitely and indulge in afternoon tea.

See for Yourself: Hartwell House is a member of the elite Historic House Hotels of the National Trust group. www.hartwell-house.com

Taking flight: Ireland’s School of Falconry at Ashford Castle lets participants have a close encounter with Wexford the hawk.

Watch over me: Inside The Hartwell House & Spa in England’s Vale of Aylesbury (top) is a suite (above) that was the boudoir of Marie Antoinette’s daughter, the Duchesse d’Angoulême.