Death exhibition brings life (and a coffin playground) to London

Life. Death. Whatever exhibition at Sutton House, London puts our mortality and the taboos around dying firmly in the frame

When faced with a “coffin playground”, a room featuring three full-size coffins filled to the brim with brightly coloured plastic balls, the most macabre adult-size ball pools you’ve ever seen, there is a degree of awkward shuffling before anyone has the courage to dive in.

Drinks in hand, palpable discomfort as one among us lies prostrate inside the coffin with her hands folded over her chest, face resting in a beatific smile, before giggling, we are at the opening night of Life. Death. Whatever, an art exhibition about mortality.

“We’re all dying, just at different rates,”

Louise De Winter, funeral celebrant.

Would you dive right in? Not everyone was keen on testing out the coffin playground.
Would you dive right in? Not everyone was keen on testing out the coffin playground.

The National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney is an appropriate venue for an exhibition looking at our inevitable deaths. It has medieval foundations, a Tudor kitchen, Jacobean and Georgian interiors, an Edwardian chapel and 1980s graffiti – remnants of the various layers of life this residence has hosted, from its nascent days as home to one of Henry VIII’s privy counsellors, to becoming an ‘80s socialist squat and rave venue.

Good Death Movement

Life.Death.Whatever is the brainchild of two key members of the ‘good death movement’. They want to bring conversations about death and dying into a denialist society which sanitises mortality, removes death from sight and so struggles against it when it happens. They are Louise de Winter, a funeral celebrant nicknamed “the Mary Poppins of Death” by the American press, and end-of-life doula Anna Lyons.

“We’re all dying, just at different rates,” says De Winter. But the London-based 29-year-old former fashion executive is keen to make clear that she’s “not trying to put the ‘fun’ in funeral”. Nor is Lyons, 40, an end-of-life doula (much like a beginning-of-life doula) whose job it is to support a person emotionally, spiritually and practically at the end.

Life. Death. Whatever is not intended to put the "fun" in "funeral". It is attempting to bring a discourse about death into ordinary life.
Life. Death. Whatever is not intended to put the “fun” in “funeral”. It is attempting to bring a discourse about death into ordinary life.

The duo took to social media earlier this year to ask artists to respond to a brief about death and chose the best submissions for the Sutton House exhibition. They had to persuade the National Trust to go with it and some of the more risqué elements (such as a drawing of an old woman stolidly ignoring the grim reaper, titled Fuck Off I’m ‘aving A Cup of Tea, by Kimberley Thomas) were only sanctioned at last minute – the word “fuck” had a paper butterfly over it until moments before press night.

The centrepiece of the show is the aforementioned “coffin playground” (sponsored by Ecoffins no less), which alongside the ball pools includes chalk for visitors to scrawl messages on the coffins and opportunities for in-coffin selfies. It provides a few moments of levity in an exhibition which is at times deeply personal, acute in its presentation of grief and at others almost grisly in how strongly it jabs its finger at the departed and asks “Where did you go?”


The Unsaid staircase carries notes written by visitors to people they've lost, whether through death or other means.
The Unsaid staircase carries notes written by visitors to people they’ve lost, whether through death or other means.

But, as De Winter remarks, there is not a skull or day of the dead symbol in sight. The ancient Tudor rooms, with their blackened ancestral portraits, jostle with raw and honest modern art. An attic room nicknamed “the squat” is transformed back into one to represent the loss of Laura Dee Milnes’ father. His remains were found some time after he had died in a room like this. Photos of the real man are pegged up smilingly, ashtrays overflow, the stuff of ordinary life lies abandoned, but there is also a sofa bearing a dark human-shaped smudge, a fabric throw-turned-shroud, marking the location of his death and the impact of his decaying body.

In the Edwardian Chapel you can hear the life stories of hospice residents from the Bay Area in California, USA. Thoughts in Passing by Claire Bicen is a beautiful collection of real peoples’ lives and emotions at the point at which they are getting ready to die – the voice recordings are accompanied by fine pencil drawings of each person. Sitting in the regimented chapel rows, the stories are a celebration of a changing world, in which the elderly talk frankly about everything from sex to bodily functions. It is really extraordinarily moving.

Modern art jostles with the ancestral portraits that have hung in Sutton House for generations.
Modern art jostles with the ancestral portraits that have hung in Sutton House for generations.
Thoughts in Passing in the old chapel of Sutton House was deeply moving.
Thoughts in Passing in the old chapel of Sutton House was deeply moving.

Another work, Unsaid, an old twisty staircase covered in postcards invites visitors to write the things they wished they’d said to someone they lost. It isn’t just death in its absolute sense this work is interested in, it is also the loss of relationships, the end of life hopes. The first card I turn over says: “Why did you never call?!!”

Death is still a taboo in British society and so holding an exhibition about it hasn’t pleased everyone. “The responses have been so varied and strong. From people who have loved it and embraced everything in the house to one lady who thought what we were doing was damaging,” says De Winter.

“Others have been shocked by the content of the Unsaid staircase. Some children have been scared of the exhibits [in particular Mummers by Laura Ford, a sculpture of life-size figures in what seems to be a playground scene, except one of the children lies on the floor, possibly dead]. While others have had a great time diving into the coffin ballpit and writing in chalk.”

Life. Death. Whatever is at Sutton House, Homerton High Street,  London, until 30 October

Vallebona Launches Warehouse Deli In London

Image Credit: Vallebona
Image Credit: Vallebona

On my first trip to Tuscany to visit a friend on their home turf, I spent what felt like hours squished into the back of an overcrowded Fiat full of his – let’s say passionate – friends. Winding through the hills at a suitably Italian breakneck speed, my tentative suggestions that we might like to stop at panetteria [bakery] after trattoria [casual restaurant] were laughed out of the car. “Ksshhh, no, no, no – we’re taking you for some good, Italian coffee/pizza/ravioli/panzanella. That place is terrible, awful, crap. Like something you get in London.”

Image Credit: Vallebona
Image Credit: Vallebona

That, as we found out at the launch of Italian food brand Vallebona’s new London deli, is an image that can be thoroughly discarded. If you’re willing to venture to their warehouse space in the wilds of a Wimbledon industrial estate (quite a trek for a pair of east Londoners), you’ll find heaps of carefully-sourced produce – from smoky charcuterie and peppery oils to the chewiest nougats and marmalades that taste like an Amalfi lemon grove smells.

Image Credit: Vallebona
Image Credit: Vallebona

We were treated to some of the canapés designed by the brand’s cheffy pals (a smoked tuna and orange zest number went down especially well), as well as piles of produce from across Italy. The highlight was slow roast pork, sourced from Yorkshire and coated in ground fennel flowers before being cooked for 12 hours straight. It was delicately fennel-y and inimitably Tuscan. We had not just seconds, but thirds.

Image Credit: Vallebona
Image Credit: Vallebona

White truffle honey glopped over chunks of bread and runny gorgonzola was another new taste experience that had us moaning strange noises of delight. All this washed down with wines from Liberty, Astrum and Bibendum meant we toddled off into the night very satisfied.

Image Credit: Vallebona
Image Credit: Vallebona

As well as buying the produce at Vallebona, you can book to attend one of their pop up events, or ask the team to cater to a dinner party, event or buffet. They also do regular Saturday morning tasting sessions, which would show any dubious Italian Londoner that you can get plenty of top notch food from their homeland – and just where they’d least expect it to be found.

Review: Radisson Blu Stansted Airport Hotel

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

HOTEL NAME: Radisson Blu Hotel London Stansted Airport

LOCATION: Stansted, England

BEST FOR: Easy and relaxing one-night stays before or after a flight.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS:  A sleek, modern hotel with friendly, professional staff and intriguing architectural features.

ROOMS: All rooms feature flat-screen TVs and free WiFi, as well as laptop-sized safes, minibars, and tea and coffeemaking equipment. The decor style is simple, modern and understated.

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

AMENITIES:  There are 4 dining venues including an American grill and an Italian restaurant, plus a bar area with a wine-tower and acrobatic hostesses. There’s also a spa, a gym and meeting space on-site. The express check-out service means you can just pop your keycard in a postbox at reception and head inside the airport when it’s time for your flight.

BREAKFAST: A standard hot and cold buffet breakfast is included in some room rates and deals, or available for a surcharge on the day.

PRICE GUIDE: Prices start from £99 for a standard double room (excluding breakfast).

Image via Radisson Blu
Image via Radisson Blu

LOCAL AREA: The Radisson Blu is the only hotel within walking distance of Stansted Airport. Just a 5-minute walk from both arrivals and departures, it’s a super convenient before an early flight out or after a late return journey.

GETTING THERE: The airport’s train and bus stations are just a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel. Short-term and long-term parking options are available at the hotel for additional fees.

CONTACT INFO: Radisson Blu Hotel London Stansted Airport Hotel, Waltham Close, Stansted Airport, Stansted CM24 1PP | 0127 966 1012


City Hopping: London to Brussels

It was a freezing winter week and all I really wanted to do was curl up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and the company of a cat. Instead, work compelled me to drift for a week between two of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities: London and Brussels. As you’d expect, those cold November days were framed by compelling architecture and delicious meals. Here are the highlights.

I jumped the train to London for a night at Hotel Xenia, where my journey began.Hotel Xenia is located on Cromwell Road, in the heart of London’s West End, and is set in a stunning Victorian building. Everything about it beams sophistication, and it unsurprisingly boasts membership of the Great Hotels of the World collection, a project that brings together the world’s best luxury boutique accommodation options in one place for travellers.

Dinner in its Evoluzione restaurant was the peak of my stay. It offers something I didn’t think was possible before visiting: scrumptious Italian cuisine with a healthy twist. Everything is organic and natural, with inspired presentation. The seared tuna steak was the best I’ve had in a good long while, and I especially loved the pistachio adornment – something I can only describe as enchanting culinary décor. After finishing a three-course long sitting and guzzling a glass of wine or two, I headed to the Living Wall Bar for a snazzy cocktail and a cigar from its well-stocked glass cabinets.

With an early start ahead of me, I retired to my room. Looking across the city skyline from my windowsill, with a towel presented in the shape of a bird for company, it was time for bed. And what a comfortable bed it was.

The next morning, I sought out another train and travelled onwards to Brussels. I’d visited the Belgian capital just once before, passing through on my way to Bruges. Last time I found myself there, I hadn’t strayed far beyond the Midi station, so as soon as I was off of the train this time, I was desperate to start exploring.

My first meal was at Belga Queen, a renowned Brussels brasserie with a difference. This spot is a popular choice for the Eurocrat crowd, and the clientele on the night that I visit are well dressed and visible oozing class and panache. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the landmark building’s grand architecture. Dating from the 18th century, it previously housed the Hôtel de la Poste and, later, the Crédit du Nord bank.

Abandoning the idea of close-knit dining that is so characteristic of the traditional Brasserie, the atmosphere is busy but somehow still manages to be both intimate and relaxing for diners. I chose one of the set dinner menus, weighing in very reasonably at below €40 per head for three courses. The addition of beer to a number of modern dishes gives it a distinctive Belgian flare, while the waiter tells me that ingredients are chosen carefully to fit with the brasserie’s commitment to the slogan ‘made in Belgium’.

This whirlwind trip around two European cities was made possible, given my absolute lacking sense of direction, by a newly acquired toy that deserves a mention at this point: my Tesco Hudl, a bargain proudly snatched at £120. In widely wifi-enabled cities like London and Brussels, it provided an almost seamless means of finding my way around, doing last minute research, and keeping on top of emails during a really busy time. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of tablets – if you have a smartphone, what more do you need? – but I actually found myself using the Hudl quite a bit. As well as providing the means to photograph what I ate (an ongoing habit I’ve stopped trying to control), it was also a savior on the four occasions I got pathetically lost in Brussels. I’m a fan.

The final meal of my Brussels stay was something very special. On a Sunday afternoon, a local friend and I visited Restaurant Vincent for lunch – a culinary cave with a decidedly homely vibe. The whole affair, cooking and dining, takes place in one large room. As you walk inside, you pass through the open kitchen which provides just enough time to exchange smiles with the chefs before being seated. We started with a glass of champagne, and then moved onto three magnificent courses accompanied by a bottle of Belgian house red that went down all too easy.

Restaurant Vincent is just off of the tourist track in the centre of Brussels, but it was mainly locals dining with us. The menu focuses on seafood and steaks, two staples it does very well, and with generous portion sizes. The walls are decorated with tiles that make up large murals of sailors and marine adventures, adding to the feel that you could well be enjoying Sunday lunch in somebody’s home. It’s a venue and a culinary experience that is all heart and no fuss. The perfect choice for the farewell feast of a long frosty week.

Inspiration on the streets of London

London night city view skyscrapers
Image: Barnzy via Flickr

There’s something innately inspirational about the feel of a big city. Whether you’re in Kuala Lumpur, New York, Tokyo or Paris, the streets feel full of possibility and opportunity. However lovely your surroundings may be, you just don’t experience that same vibe when you’re wandering the streets of a small town or hiking through fields in the countryside.

As a traveller’s destination, London is definitely a city that delivers on those feelings of possibility and opportunity. There’s always some new event or festival going on, and the number of creative types you come across in any one of the British capital’s pubs or cafes is enough to make you believe in art all over again.

If you’re a tourist exploring with fresh eyes, the feelings the city garners are even more powerful. In the Starwood Preferred Guest video below, traveller Quinn showcases some of London’s best offerings: great architecture, delicious food, street performance and sophisticated fashion. Not to mention the monuments, yoga and nightlife.

Take a glimpse at his London adventures below.

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite for a visit to the capital, there’s still plenty more to tempt you. London is a global city that has something for everyone, whatever your interests may be.