Friday, 9 November 2012

Straight Out Of A Book

Yesterday, I felt as though I were a character in a book. Perhaps that is a good frame of mind for a writer: I certainly found the creative flame being ignited. It was all to do with the circumstances in which I found myself: I had two meetings to attend in central London, and these events bookended what turned out to be a five-hour gap filled entirely by unrelenting, beautiful daylight (all too scarce at this time of year).

I stepped out of Charing Cross station to find myself at what is considered the true centre of London. My meeting was in Holborn, so I enjoyed a long walk along Strand (if I were speaking, I would say, "The Strand", but I am conscious that it is written simply "Strand"), Aldwych (pausing at the junction with Strand and Lancaster Place to look south-east over the Waterloo Bridge) and then Kingsway, heading north-west towards Holborn. As I walked along Strand, I passed the Vaudeville theatre and saw the posters for Uncle Vanya, the first performance of which Sir Peter Hall interrupted a few nights ago; I also passed the famous Savoy hotel on the opposite side of the street.

First meeting over, it was time for lunch, so I decided to have a walk through Covent Garden to see whether Gaby's Deli was still in business. Much to my delight, it was, so I went into this no-frills place to enjoy probably the finest falafel and houmous I have ever tasted, washed down with a glass of carrot juice. Why did I walk through Covent Garden? Well, all I knew about Gaby's was that it was near the theatres and popular with actors, so I thought it would be a good route to take. I could have retraced my steps, as it turned out, since the deli is situated a short walk up Charing Cross Road from the station. I am sure it will become a regular haunt (provided it stays open).

After lunch, I walked to Somerset House to see the opening of an exhibition, Cartier-Bresson: A Question Of Colour. Other photographers' work is featured, too, and I would highly recommend a viewing. The exhibition is in the south wing, so afterwards, I walked out on to the terrace and looked across the Thames, then sat down for fifteen minutes or so to take in my surroundings.

My five o'clock meeting was just off Fleet Street, so I decided to undertake a reconnaissance mission. Venue located, I found a Starbucks. I try to avoid chains as much as I can, but I needed to avail myself of wi-fi as well as a large mug of tea. From my window table, I could see the fourth or fifth example of what I had seen earlier: a Routemaster bus (not a new one, but an old Routemaster!) being used as normal, everyday public passenger transport rather than chartered travel for wedding or sightseeing parties. This was a Route 15 (Heritage) bus. I had no idea any old Routemasters were in regular use, apart from the previously mentioned sightseeing and wedding ones. My sensible adult brain ruminated on the safety implications of using such old transport but my inner child vowed to experience the thrill of travelling on one as soon as possible.

Before my meeting, I wandered down Middle Temple Lane and stood on Victoria Embankment for a few minutes to have another look across the Thames. I am finding myself drawn to the Thames, which is unusual because I have never been particularly interested in bodies of water. I can manage perfectly well without trips to the seaside, I rarely go swimming and I tend not to view lakes, reservoirs and ponds as objects of beauty. Yet the Thames is something that I consider to possess great beauty, perhaps because it represents an artery supplying the blood of the city to which it gives life.

No day out in London would be complete without a swift pint of ale in one of the many pubs that London offers, and, after the meeting, I needed to slake my thirst after a considerable amount of talking. The nearest was Ye Olde Cock Tavern, so I headed in and ordered a well kept pint of London Pride, one of my current favourites. As I sat at a table towards the back of this surprisingly underpopulated tavern, I reflected on the events of the day. In just a few hours, I had experienced a number of delights that the centre of the city of London had to offer. If it had been snowing, it would have been like walking through a holiday period film, but even without the magic of the white stuff, the experience made me feel aglow. I had also started to join up the disparate bits of the city, from my previous experience. I had been to Leicester Square before, but did not realize exactly where it was in relation to Charing Cross. I had been to Covent Garden numerous times, but never realized its proximity to Fleet Street and Strand; nor had I realized that Trafalgar Square was just past the junction of Strand and Charing Cross Road (which means Whitehall is just along there, leading to the Houses of Parliament! I thought, with great excitement). I also realized, when I walked further east along Fleet Street, that the heart of the City was a very short distance away, because I could see the Gherkin. It was revelatory for me to see all the tiles of London being brought together in a glorious mosaic, something that can only really happen when you dispense with the schematic model of the city upon which you become reliant and with which you become familiar when you use the Tube, and instead walk or take the bus around London so as to immerse yourself in it by viewing its streets, buildings and people, smelling its smell and hearing its noise.

Monday, 29 October 2012

150 Great Things About The Underground

Yesterday, I went to a meeting in Barnet, which gave me the opportunity to travel by train, tube and bus. The tube part of it was the most enjoyable, as it always is for me. I love the London Underground: it is no exaggeration to say that if I were at a loose end on my own for an entire day, I would grab my Oyster card and set off with no particular destination in mind, changing lines and wandering around the concourses of different stations just for the sheer joy of riding on the tube and taking in the surroundings, something that usually only happens for a journey of a few stops. Yesterday's outgoing journey took me on the Jubilee line from London Bridge to West Hampstead, which meant that I saw a bit of the outside world (from Finchley Road onwards). The return journey was from Stanmore; always nice to begin a journey at a terminus, if only to be able to sit down.

When I returned home, I saw a post on facebook from one of my friends, with the title: '48. the "houses" in Leinster Gardens'. Having stayed in several hotels in Bayswater, I wondered what the post could be about. All kinds of thoughts about why "houses" should be in inverted commas presented themselves: "houses" because it is understatement (they are too grand to be mere "houses")? "Houses" because they are really hotels? Was this a political blog about the mansion tax? Was it someone pointing out that, although these dwellings may be houses, many are divided into flats?

In fact, the post was from a blog called 150 Great Things About The Underground, and is about two facades in Leinster Gardens that were constructed to cover vents for the original steam trains that ran along the line. I don't want to spoil it for you, so have a read of the article. When you've finished that, have a look at the rest of the articles on  the site. There are some beautiful photographs and the stations (or rather, the individual features about which the author has so much passion) are described in a stylish, flowing way. The site is clearly something in which much time and love have been invested. My own particular favourites are the posts about the concourse at Gants Hill, the interior of Arnos Grove, the old platforms at Highgate, and the exterior of Southgate. In fact, there are two entries, so far, about Southgate, and I hope for many more.

150 Great Things About The Underground is one person's "birthday tribute" to the Underground, whose 150th anniversary will be on 10th January 2013. It is a site that I'll be checking every day until then, waiting with great impatience for each new post.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pie, Mash and Liquor

I love going out to restaurants, and the less fussy they are, the better. When we first arrived in London, we came across one great example of a simple, no-nonsense restaurant that serves delicious food: the excellent Diwana Bhel Poori House, on Drummond Street.

In our quest for another such experience, and inspired by a recent episode of the Great British Bake Off and an obsession with all things Cockney (OK, the Cockney obsession is mine alone), we took a trip to Greenwich for pie and mash at Goddards.

The Goddard family have been in the pie and mash business since 1890, and you can tell they know what they're doing. The pies are of superb quality, the mash is fluffy and plentiful, and the service is excellent. My other half went for the cheese and onion pie, whilst I decided to give the eels a try (hot eels - I couldn't quite summon the courage to order the jellied variety). I was glad I did, too - they were delicate and tasty.

Vegetarians, such as my wife, will be pleased to know that the gravy and liquor (a thin parsley sauce) are vegetarian, so whatever your dietary preference, you can enjoy a well-drenched mash.

The desserts were just as good. We had apple pie and rhubarb crumble, both served with ice cream, and we could hardly move afterwards (I had washed mine down with a bottle of London Pride, too, which definitely contributed to this!).

The service was friendly and efficient, and the prices ensure that this a place to be enjoyed many times again.

Eels, mash and liquor

Pie, mash, peas and gravy

Rhubarb crumble, apple pie, and London Pride

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Today's Anti-Austerity March

Seventeen months ago...

26th March, 2011. I was living and working in Manchester at the time, and got up very early to join some colleagues for a minibus ride to London for the March for the Alternative.

Today, I'm not too far away from the march but unfortunately, I don't feel well enough to attend. However, I fully support the marchers and would be there if I could.

Here are some photos of last year's march. I forgot my camera, so I took them on my phone, which explains the terrible quality! The full gallery can be seen here.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Stepping Out Into The Smoke

Unusual, perhaps...

London is my new home. How is this unusual? Well, I'm in my thirties and I've only just moved here. That seems pretty unusual to me. It seems to be the kind of place that attracts people who are in their late teens and early twenties. Some stay, but - judging by the experiences of some of my Facebook contacts and people I've worked with in the past - some leave when they get to my age. 

I lived in Manchester for many years and loved it, but I always had a longing to live in London. When my wife was offered a job down here, I was very excited about moving down south. I wanted us to live as close to the centre as possible, too - not in some distant suburb outside the London boroughs. Throw a dog (and thereby the need for a garden) and the necessity of keeping an eye on the budget into the mix, and you have a fairly difficult task.

After a week of hotel-hopping in late September, during which we undertook a search for a flat whose landlord was dog-friendly, we managed to move into a great place at the beginning of October. It's in an inner London borough and only a few minutes away, by train, from the centre. Not a bad result, since we only viewed one other place, on the other side of the city -- a place that was definitely unsuitable. 

Recording the experience

As soon as we arrived, I wanted to start documenting the experience. Obsessed for years by Flickr galleries of photographs of cities from bygone days, documentary footage from every era, and newspaper articles and  stories, I decided to contribute my own small offering and write a blog about my new home town as often as I could. 

So there you have it. This blog will consist of writing about London, punctuated by photographs here and there. It will, I hope, develop into an interesting story about the everyday life of the city.