My Tale Between Two Cities

by Rachel Ashwell

For those of you who followed my summer blog you will know I spent several months in London and the English countryside, visiting friends and family while searching for cooler temperatures rather than long hot days in Los Angeles.  As it happens, it was the longest and hottest summer on record.  Regardless, even though I hadn’t lived in England for 40 years and so much had changed from my childhood memories, I found myself feeling inspired and connected in a way that was refreshing for me.  I think this happens when you take yourself out of your familiar routines.

Los Angeles is where my children, Lily and Jake were born.  It’s where 30 years ago I planted the seed and grew Shabby Chic in to what it is I today.  It's where I have many dear friends who have been on my journey of life. I have lived there for longer than anywhere else.  However, after returning from England to California in the fall, I found myself wanting to travel back to my roots once again, soon.  I’ve never been one attracted to resorts or touristy things.  But I wanted to have a new landscape, to be out of my comfort zone.  In Los Angeles I have spent years driving alone in my car. I welcomed the interaction of traveling on double decker buses, and the Great Western Railway. 

I wanted to submerge myself into the culture of my homeland. To become a local at the corner grocery store, to become familiar with walks through the countryside, to have time for tea with my family and friends (new and old).  To journey to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top Farm, pop by Downtown Abbey, wander through Kensington Palace and just let my creativity be recharged and inspired, so, I planned my next visit.  This time over Christmas and a couple of months beyond, to be sure of a wintry winter.

Next, I rented a big house, a couple of hundred years old on a National Trust property in Somerset near Bath (the English countryside).  I wanted a large house so friends and family could come and stay over the holiday period. I imagined our Christmas to be like the movie Little Women, with snow and fires burning, singing around a piano. Cooking large feasts and snuggling on overstuffed English velvet sofas. I was organized with sending luggage ahead so to make the journey with my daughter Lily and her dog Sadie as easy as possible. I sent stocking stuffers and our beloved SC pink Santa.  I thought of all the big and little details.

The plan was to spend the first week enjoying the twinkly lights of Regent Street, and store windows of Fortnum & Mason & Liberty’s while staying at the Covent Garden Hotel, always my favorite, and a place that welcomes dogs.  Then we would go onto the big country house where friends and family would be trickling in and out.

But alas, a back issue that I had been trying to manage in Los Angeles by way of osteopaths, physiotherapy and an epidural flared up on the plane over.  When I arrived in Heathrow, I found myself in pain I didn’t know was possible to endure. Lily traveled alone with Sadie in a beloved English black Taxi with the luggage we did have to the hotel and I made my way to London by way of standing on a train and walking for several miles.  This was preferable to me sitting.

What endured was 5 weeks of a derailed Christmas. The big beautiful storybook house I had rented went unused. Family and friends made last minute cancellations. And for several weeks I pondered in agony what I should and could do.

Jake had just moved into a new home and offered to host our derailed Christmas. But his kitchen was not yet set up, not even a tea spoon. So, I hobbled to a kitchen store and gathered everything needed to make Christmas dinner which then became his Christmas gifts. I tried to pull together some gifts for Lily, but I was in a haze of pain, so I didn’t choose well so at a later date they were returned, other than ones I had had monogramed).

Hobbling around London taking Sadie for walks was my effort to grasp onto a routine. I won’t bore you with the details, but in the end in early January it was clear back surgery in the UK was my only option. I had the most amazing support from nearby friends, and those far away, including a beautiful bouquet of faux flowers from my soul sister Laurence Amelie, which I dragged around with me from hotel to hotel and the hospital. But still what lay ahead was scary with all the possibilities of what could go wrong presented to me by my chosen surgeon.

But like with anyone, when pain is overwhelming there is little choice but to be brave and pray.

I watched A Star in Born several times, of which the poetic songs from the soundtrack inspired my thoughts during the many hours I had time to reflect during my recovery “Maybe it’s time” being one. My beloved Enya music bought peace and calm to my body, Epsom salt baths with a shot of whisky followed by endless ice packs were my moments of relief.  After a few weeks of taking “one step at a time”, sometimes 2 or 3, for which I paid a price, I can say I am now on the mend.  I have such gratitude that my body is returning to normal.

During the summer, before my body got wonky committed to art directing my friend, Pearl Lowes book, “Faded Glamour”.  This would entail me traveling in February to country homes and London townhouses which was ‘Music to my eyes’, another song from of A Star is Born. However, days and then weeks after my surgery I wondered if I would be mobile enough to direct magic.  In the end, it proved to be a good focus and goal, and it was a magical experience. 

Most houses had lots of stairs, and low beamed ceilings which I navigated carefully. One house has train tracks that ran right up within feet of the windows and gave us a shock as it came barreling towards us.  

But, having a creative project to absorb my mind was the best medicine possible and a beautiful book was created with my lovely photographer Amy at the helm.  It was interesting for me to art direct another person’s book. While Pearl and I have the same love of romance and pretty, vintage things, her palette is more diverse than mine, so I worked with colors out of my comfort zone which exposed me to a whole new world.

There was much laughter at challenges that come with the territory of having access to people’s homes and working out what to shoot, especially with the short days of February. Although it was the warmest and driest winter on record (no wintry winter for me, that took place back unseasonably so in Los Angeles).

Sadie was a constant and a trouper though this adventure. A true comfort dogs. She has taken well to having to wear her brown knit coat.

My daughter rented a fairy tale apartment in Hampstead which is a part of London my parents lived. In certain ways time has stood still there. With Hampstead Heath being the core of the village where so many poets, writes and artist lived where to this day there is an overall energy of classic English culture. Most days when I visit I take Sadie for a walk by Keats House (the famous tragic English poet).

The skyline from Lily’s window is the world of Peter Pan and Mary Poppins with the clock tower being her way of telling time. the perfect setting for to work on her upcoming project.

I rented a small cottage in the countryside on a horse farm. A one and a half hour train ride from Paddington Station. Only the sound of horses and sheep awake me. I’ve had a few nights of falling asleep to rain pattering on my roof, but most of the rain seems to have redirected to California. Because of the mild English winter, already yellow daffodils are popping up, which always reminds me of my yellow gingham school uniform that my mum made for me every spring as flowers started to bloom.

I’m rummaging through antique stores and flea markets decorating my little cottage and sending inspirational treasures back to the US.

So, while Christmas was not as planned, I am now feeling like a local. I am ensconced in the culture and being inspired by little moments in time, and some bigger moments. I went to the Christina Dior exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum. Such a legacy with so many different leaders at the helm over the years, all bringing their own individuality to the collections while staying true to the original values and qualities of Christian Dior himself. With SC 30-year anniversary coming up this exhibit gave me much food for thought of how to exhibit our story.  I was impacted greatly by another exhibit of Edward Jones Burns, from the 1700s. He worked in so many mediums, from sketching, water color, to oil, tapestry and even stain glass.  His romantic collection of The Sleeping Beauty captivated me, complete brilliance. It was a privilege to be able to take in all the wonderment. Hard to believe one artist could create so much extraordinary pieces of art.  I was humbled and I have been inspired to study and learn like I have never done before. My design work has always flowed through me somewhat effortlessly. Sometimes I feel I am just a funnel  of expression for the beauty of Shabby Chic. I now want to tackle work that is a process to study and practice. I feel every part of my soul tingling with being alive.

I will return to the US in a few days to search for treasures at the Round Top Antique shows, and then onto LA to work in my design studio with my team, I am excited to download all that I have absorbed and see how to bring it into the world of Shabby Chic, and then I will return to my English country cottage to continue my adventures.

Movies I got swept away by during my recovery. (not all for the first time)

Flying Solo

A Star is Born (and the sound track !!!!)

Out of Africa

Eat Prey Love

I Feel Pretty

Mama Mia Here we go again.

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Holiday

The Wife

Colette

Andre Bocelli & Ed Sheeran Perfect is on repeat on my music list.


3 comments


  • I fell in love with London & the English countryside when there in 2016. Must be in my raspberry blood lol. Thankyou for sharing, sending beautiful vibes for your healing 💌

    Dianne Ball on

  • What a remarkable story in so many ways….I enjoy reading about your travels, experiences and hearing about other parts of the world that I have never been to. It seems like a fairy tale to me….I admire you for all that you do and your wonderful charm. Thank you for sharing with us!

    Kathy on

  • Feel better beautiful lady…love everything u do!!

    Danielle Drazen on

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