Pin: I met London based interior designer Gavin Houghton at a drinks party on my first night in Tangier. A dear friend had collected me from the 6 o’clock train from Fes as dusk began to fall over Tangier.
‘We’re just going to pop into a drinks party quickly,’ he informed as we whizzed along the boulevard towards the old Medina, ‘I hope you won’t mind – there’ll be loads of fabulous people there,’ he finished.
That was March 2018, and my travel weariness brought on by a day of travel was quickly replaced with a sense of intrigue. I walked into a beautiful Tangier apartment belonging to a couple who have since become great friends, and it was at their wonderful party that I met many of the people who have welcomed me with open arms to Tangier.
‘I’m Gavin Houghton,’ said a handsome, witty, youthful greying man with a twinkle in his eyes, his linen shirt sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows, ‘you’re coming for drinks at mine tomorrow night.’
We’ve reflected on that moment many times since and we have become the firmest of friends. We knew from the moment we met that we’d be friends, and Tangier always feels a little silent whenever Gavin returns to his hometown of London.
Following a career in design which began at magazines such as The World of Interiors and British Vogue, Gavin has recently turned his hand to his true love as a working artist, focusing mainly on paintings and ceramics. When he’s in residence at Ladi Dar, his gorgeous Tangier house which sits just outside the Kasbah walls, Gavin can be found at his easel painting with a glass of wine in hand and endless chatter and homemade snacks on offer.
He prides himself on his canapés.
Some of my favourite Tangier memories have been made in the company of Gavin and his partner Boz; a brilliant photographer with a generous heart and a gorgeous smile.
It’s always great news when I receive a WhatsApp from Gatwick saying they’ll be here in a couple of hours. Drinks are poured on the roof terrace of Ladi Dar as soon as the car pulls in from the airport, and in the days that follow, endless swims in the Atlantic are enjoyed following long lunches by the sea before they return to London with a wave, promising to be back soon.
The ‘Gatwick routine’ has been rather halted since the borders to Morocco closed almost four months ago, and our regular catch ups in Tangier have been replaced with weekly ‘Zoom and Tonics’ on screen. Last week, Gavin suggested he’d love to contribute a piece to my blog.
This one is a long one, so sit down with your drink of choice and make yourself comfortable! I promise, as your eyes dance across the page you too will no doubt fall in love with the wit, grit and sincerity that is Gavin Houghton.
Gavin: Tangier has always intrigued me – ever since I was a young boy visiting my uncle and aunt’s white washed house in a small village south of Granada, Spain.
During our family visits we would make the drive up through the Serra Nevada, weaving along cliff hanging roads which I hated with a passion and still do, shutting my eyes at every turn on the road to Granada to visit the Alhambra Palace.
It’s still my favourite set of buildings in the world. I recall one visit when I was sick with hepatitis – this was a ‘Gavin picked it up from shell fish in Paris’ experience, though I knew it was probably sexually transmitted but I couldn’t mention that. I think people knew, but it was unspoken.
I must have been around 27.
I was on a no fat diet and feeling unwell. I quite enjoyed being thin and yellow- it looked a little like a summer tan.
So this is where I began to admire Moorish Architecture and thus began my passion for Morocco. I’m not sure why a Moorish arched door or window can be so powerfully beautiful to me, but they still are if the proportions are right. Why are our doors and windows rectangular? Such a shame.
Also the social history of Tangier is something I picked up on. Reading juicy stories from biographies of Tangerine ex pats as an art student always sounded so exotic and sexy.
We all know about Paul Bowles in his white roll neck jumper and cigarette holder, and ‘Naked Lunch’ author William Burroughs whose book was edited and compiled by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in Tangier.
The creative gay men who visited or lived here were, and still are, an interesting bunch of ‘drop out’ creatives I admire.
People like Joe Orton, who had a whale of a time according to his diaries, smoking pot and having lots of exciting romps in the bedroom. I loved reading this as a blushing gauche art student, as I imagined the smell of pot and sweat in a dark candle lit, ornate Moroccan room.
Orton invited Kenneth William’s to stay which is hard to imagine, but I think London at the time was so stiff and gay sex was illegal, so to arrive here in more ‘fluid’ times must have been amazing.
Cecil Beaton threw a huge legendary party in the Hercules caves which I need to find out more about.
Yves Saint Laurent had an amazing house here named ‘Villa Mabrouka’ which he lived in with his long time partner, Pierre Berge. It has one of the most impressive gardens in town, enjoying 180 degree views of the Strait of Gibraltar.
As the crow fly’s Villa Mabrouka is just meters away from Ladi Dar, and from my top terrace I can see his palm trees waving in the wind. I can imagine Yves wafting around his garden in a silk djellaba (caftan) with a fag in hand.
Francis Bacon, who I’m a massive fan of, used to come and paint and visit his former lover, an ex fighter pilot named Peter Lacy who had a reputation for being a violent drunk.
I relate to this tribe. Whenever I land in Tangier and become settled into my house, I’m very aware of the ‘settling in’ performance I go through.
I can’t just put the kettle on and calm down, rather, I become incredibly excited on my first night. I check in with my like minded friends who are many, thank god, and find out who’s in town and who’s up for it. A couple of old faces avoid my arrival blow out which I totally understand – it’s never a quiet affair.
I generally ‘over do it’ on arrival, which I think is a reaction to getting away from London and into my, ‘I’m in Tangier, sod it’ mode.
I never experience this feeling anywhere else? Maybe this is just an excuse to let ‘let go,’ but I feel an indescribable sense of freedom in Tangier.
After two days of being back in Tangier I feel a different person; at peace with myself, what ever that means. I hate the mirror in London, but in Tangier something happens and I like what I see a little bit more, very odd. I think it has something to do with no stress and suddenly one’s body and face relaxes. I’m much less self-critical too.
I have always struggled to explain to people why I bought a house in Tangier. It doesn’t have a quick answer and I’ve dug around looking for the simple answer but it’s not that easy, and actually that’s part of the reason I love it.
To start with, I love Moorish architecture as I mentioned earlier, and the foreign nature of Tangier is always alluring – arriving fresh from stiff London on a short two hour and 40 minute flight to balmy North African air, men in djellabas and slippers smoking everywhere and taking their time.
It still amazes me the contrast of a visit to the bank in Tangier compared to London. I had to open an account to wire the house buying money and also now I have to pay my house keeper and cook by standing order.
My branch is on the Grand Socco – a big civic square adjacent to the Medina walls. There is always a man at the door to open it and the people at the front desk always recognise me with a thin smile. You can speak to the ‘big cheese’ in seconds, they ask you to sit down and they deal with whatever needs dealing with. The man at the desk still uses a rubber stamp, something I will never get bored of. It may take ages, but when you leave it feels like you’ve just had coffee with a friend.
My group of friends here have a lot to do with why I love it. They all question the norm. It’s a fascinating group of odd bods, which is growing all the time. I love the single minded women who end up here, almost all of whom have an amazing back story.
During my very first visit to Tangier, I rented a fantastic house in the Marchan – an area just outside the Kasbah walls. The house was owned buy a very amusing and very short lady called, wait for it, Lady Gay Baird. A great friend from London who had moved to Tangier first put me in touch with Gay.
On that first visit, we were a group of five good old friends. An ex of mine, plus a few art school mates, one of whom was the Art Director at The World of Interiors magazine where I was working in those days as a stylist.
Gay picked us up in her red Renault Cleo in a thick below the knee tweed skirt and Hermes scarf. Lady Baird wasn’t into small talk – it was all very gung ho! She would drive from England to Morocco at a drop of a hat in her Renault Cleo accompanied by her terrier named Benji. One day I’m going to drive to Morocco in Gay’s footsteps with my two Jack Russel’s, Jack and Jill.
When we arrived, Gay drove us from the airport through the town which is a drive I still love – the anticipation of getting into the old town and seeing familiar streets.
Her house was down a very steep drive behind a large metal gate. We were so amazed how fantastic a house it was. Sugar almond pink with crittall arched windows overlooking a stepped garden. In the garden there was a shed where Francis Bacon used to paint. There was paint on the back of the door like he had cleaned his brush – let’s hope it was his paint that remained.
Gay moved out for our stay, so I had her bedroom which had a massive terrace overlooking the sea with peacocks strutting about the garden who would peck at the glass on the french doors in the morning.
The bedroom came with a massive bathroom fit for a princess, who I believe used to own the house. There were steps up to the tub, and it was all tiled in a grey marble.
Gay actually wasn’t a great fan of Morocco, she told me she didn’t like Moroccan architecture or chu chu, I think she meant couscous. She was eking out her pennies which is very common in Tangier; it’s very easy to live well and cheap, and also have help in the house. Gay had two men in the house, Hemet and his son Hemet. She would shout for Hemet and the wrong one would appear, so she’d shout “no damn it Hemet, the other Hemet”.
She sweetly threw a drinks party in our honour in her ‘Wiltshire furniture and paintings’ drawing room. It felt like she’d just transported everything from her UK house to Tangier, and there were always large arrangements of gladioli.
I’ll never forget the celery stick’s stuffed with cream cheese – somehow old fashioned posh nosh works in Tangier. Many supper parties given in Tangier have the theatre of a cheese soufflé being brought out with a chef in their chef hat, or roast beef and Yorkshire puddings.
I now love to cook more homey dishes when in Tangier; a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives is delicious, but a roast chicken and bread sauce is in my blood and a real treat here.
Buying Ladi Dar.
Lets start by telling you how the name Ladi Dar came about. Its very simple really, opposite my house is a very beautiful large white house built into the Kasbah wall owned by a painter, Francisco. I walk past his house often, and set flush in to the wall next to the front door is a marble plaque with the name ‘Dar Ling’ carved into it.
Dar means ‘house’ in Arabic, so it’s a play on words.
Dar Ling wins in my eyes, but I came up with Ladi Dar. We always giggle at the name Gay could have given her house, Gay Dar.
Another name I like is Dar Lik.
I have been visiting Tangier for nearly 20 years on and off, renting friends places, and one summer I was here with my boyfriend and a few friends, when I decided to have a look at some houses for sale. Not really thinking I would buy, but being nosey.
Rather brilliantly I have a great friend Maggie who’s lived in Tangier for 30 years and is the ‘go to’ for finding houses.
So Maggie, with a handful of keys, picked Boz and I up in a petit Taxi, these are turquoise in colour and cheap. Anyone can jump in. I’m not very good at dealing with them, you stop them with the wave of a hand and tell them which direction you want to go in, and they drop passengers off as they go along.
There is also the Grand Taxi which is my favourite; café au lait coloured old Mercedes’ generally with wide, old leather seats, rattly engines run on diesel with a decrepit interiors held together with tape or hand sticked like Frankenstein’s neck. The window winder never works, nor does the Air Conditioning, but these taxis always make me happy.
Each Moroccan town has different coloured taxis. Fes have ‘Barclays Bank Blue’ taxis, and I think Marrakesh are dark green. (Editors note: Fes has red taxis but I prefer Barclays Bank Blue).
So off we hop to see a huge modern house – three floors, top terrace, very open spaces. Hell to keep warm in the winter we found out after a friend ended up buying it. It had hidden wall rads which cost a fortune to keep heated, and the mini fire place in the ground floor wall looked more like a microwave which didn’t heat a thing.
Heating houses in Tangier in the winter is ‘a thing’ and it comes up in conversations regularly. Does one use a gas bottle moveable heater, have wall mounted electrical rad’s etc?
Maggie has just, after many years without, bought a wood burner for her sitting room and buys olive oil manufacturing waste to burn, or peanuts, in a clever bid to keep the chill and moisture away.
Tangier is well known for its humid climate, something to do with being the most northern part of Africa and having the Atlantic Ocean meeting the Mediterranean Sea.
So things can get mouldy very quickly, fabrics included.
Ladi Dar is quite high up in the town so gets a good air flow through it, hence I don’t have too much of this problem.
This first house we looked at I did love – the views of the sea were amazing- and I enjoyed it’s simple modern architecture.
With a bit of money thrown at it, it could have been great. Over looking a cemetery which I didn’t mind, shepherds would graze their sheep between the stones, but it was a slight concern for re sale as most Moroccans mightn’t like the cemetery.
It was also way out of my budget.
I looked at a few smaller Medina houses which could be fun, a tiny one room per floor, a lot of upping and downing, but also very cheap.
I asked Maggie if she had anything cheap and cheerful outside of the Medina on her books, which she did, and the French vendors wanted to move quickly. This is when I first saw Ladi Dar. It had no name, just a number.
The arrival to the front door of Ladi Dar is legendarily ugly.
You enter a dark alley with a few front doors either side, and there are seedlings dotted along the alleys edge planted in yogurt pots and cut down water bottles.
At the end of the alley is a junkie’s bed where you will often find him curled up with a stray cat on top to keep him warm.
He was chucked out of his family’s house around the corner because of his smack habit.
He’s not a threat and I don’t have a problem with him, but friends and my father can’t bare him being there when they visit. I always believe things turn out ok in the end, he’ll move away one day. (Editors note, he has recently been welcomed back by his family).
So after him, you turn a corner past a wheel chair and endless washing hanging to go up a few steps to Ladi Dar.
The house originally had four bedrooms, each had cheap pine free standing shelves, mattresses on basic pine bases, hideous bunches of twig wall lights. The wall colours were a mixture of mauve? Turquoise? And I think a vanilla yellow?
It couldn’t have been uglier, but good size rooms and each door has an original coloured glass fan light above it which I love. The floor tiles are great too, all the same design but in different colours in each room.
Then you go up the stairs to the main floor to the salon. This is a u shaped room with a terrace in the centre.
The kitchen is at one end and the dining area at the other, and in the corner is an open fire place which I was told was purely decorative. Bollocks, I light it all the time in the winter and it throws out a lot of heat. I had it tiled recently in red and white stripes and green circles. It’s my nod to Bloomsbury in a Moorish way.
In the salon all the walls were a milk chocolate brown with orange upholstery – I mean, what can I say? This room was finished with thin metal curtain rods and purple and gold metallic sheer curtains. It’s actually making me feel a little bit sick writing this.
I had everything painted white. I love white walls in Morocco, yet in my design work in England I never use white, rather, I have a reputation for using quite strong colour combinations, so in Ladi Dar I struggled. I had a light bulb moment when I decided to paint the ceiling in red and white stripes.
It was so well painted by a perfectionist painter, Mohammed, and I totally love it – it’s become my signature. I’ve had clients in the UK asking for the same design.
To get to the terrace from the kitchen there were revolting white plastic sliding patio doors – these had to go, pronto!
I replaced them with Moorish designed arched metal double doors, glassed with coloured glass. This was so exciting when they went in.
In London I would have had to sell my mother to afford them. Tangier is on average, a quarter of the price.
To one side of the terrace floor was another beauty- a white plastic lantern to let light into the ground floor below. This took up too much space and was ugly, so I had a tough glass sheet put down which the builder, Aziz, told me nine men could jump on. I wouldn’t try it.
It’s taken me years not to walk around it and it’s quite hairy when you first attempt it. It’s also great for seeing who’s arriving at parties, or if my house guests are up in the morning, or who they’re dragging back? (Editors note: I still can’t walk over the glass floor, but it’s beautiful!).
Over time I have shipped various bits of furniture, paintings, china etc, from London, and I decided to have my four poster bed sent too, to jazz up a guest bedroom.
Another fun thing to do in Tange is have upholstered furniture made.
I did a sketch for a chaise longue to go by the fire so we can read and watch the fire – its deep buttoned, and upholstered in fabric from London that I love. I was so impressed when it arrived – it’s a perfect copy of the sketch I did, and whilst I don’t think it’s an antique of the future, I’m thrilled with it. And, it was as cheap as chips.
I’ve hung a few my paintings in the salon. A portrait of Boz which is one of my favourites, and a still life of oranges on a Willow pattern platter on a Moroccan painted table, and a few portraits of Moroccan subjects I’ve had sit for me.
There is a small loo off the kitchen now complete with a charming old Moroccan wooden door I found in the Medina. It was the shop’s loo door, I made an offer and it was delivered in minutes. It looks like it’s always been there.
At Ladi Dar I added a new floor for Boz and I, our private ‘lock up and go’ bedroom and painting studio – so when we rent the house, our room’s are un touched. There is also space to paint, which I grandly call my studio.
Since this virus lock down, this has been the longest time away from Tangier, my second home. I’m missing my friends and also my house. Not long now…see you soon!
Pin: The night after that drinks party in Tangier where I first met Gavin, I arrived for drinks at Ladi Dar – weaving through the alleyway off the cobblestoned square just outside the Kasbah walls. It was enchanting – and his red and white striped ceiling (the most instagrammed ceiling in the world), immediately caught my eye. It’s genius.
More recently, the alleyway has been whitewashed and cleaned up. The wheelchair is still there, as is the endless washing hanging on the neighbours clothesline along with the dear little yogurt pots filled with budding seedlings. A huge new door has been installed at the front of Ladi Dar, making it like Fort Knox, complete with a huge knocker that I delight in banging when I arrive.
During his lockdown in London, Gavin has been busy making a collection of beautiful ceramics which you can view on his website. For more of his work, and to enquire about renting Ladi Dar once the world opens up again head to https://www.gavinhoughton.co.uk
For more of Boz’s photography head to https://www.bozgagovski.com or Instagram @boz_gagovski
In the meantime, and until we can travel again, I will continue to enjoy or weekly ‘Zoom and Tonics’ as we wait for news that travel is again an option.