Posts Tagged ‘London’

Well, not so much a mystery actually, but it was a little magical. Last week Sea-Sick Friend and I took the day off and headed for The Smoke to pose as tourists again. You may remember that SSF valiantly accompanied me on a trip last year down the Thames to see the Barrier, dosed up to the eyeballs with tablets to quell her queasiness on the water. This time though we were on dry land lurching along with the wind and the sun on our faces aboard an open-topped bus, taking a tour of our capital city.

All aboard! This is how we whizzed around London for the day …

You might think it odd that a pair of once hardened London commuters would want to voluntarily spend time on public transport – even I find it hard to believe – however, we found out that we’d both harboured a desire to take one of these tours one day, so we did. I maybe should add here that I first met SSF on a broken-down train at Waterloo Station some twenty-six years ago. You must understand that there is a golden rule amongst London bound workers: commuters never speak to one another unless there is a problem with the transport. That evening there was so we struck up a whinging conversation about British Rail and have been friends ever since.

There are several companies running tours – we chose The Original Tour only because they seemed to run a more extensive route around the City of London, and that was the bit that we particularly wanted to see. There are three colour-coded routes to choose from and once you’ve bought your 24 hour day pass (£29 – or slightly cheaper on-line), you are allowed to hop on and off the bus as often as you like and swap between the routes. The buses are frequent – around every ten minutes, so there’s no real hanging around if you do alight. There is a “live” guide on every bus – that is, a real person in a very smart uniform as opposed to a recorded commentary accessed through ear-phones – another reason to avoid other tours as far as I’m concerned: I can’t bear ear-phones.


The London Eye, seen from Westminster Bridge

We picked up our first bus near Waterloo Station, in front of the London Eye, chose the yellow route and headed straight for the City. Now, my memories of the rumbling old Route Master buses I used in my commuting life was that they were full of folk desperate to get to their destination in as little time as possible and being frequently disappointed. We should have all joined a tour bus. Ours set off at a cracking pace which we were to discover would be the default speed of the day. We simply WHIZZED around London. I’ve never seen the streets so traffic-free. There’s something to be said for this Congestion Charge malarkey we all moan about.

Even with the quick pace of the bus, the yellow route would take us around two and a half hours to complete. The calibre of guides differed from bus to bus – they were all pretty knowledgeable given that they were probably working from a script and some were definitely more theatrical than others but we were impressed that they all regularly reminded us passengers that a walking tour would be starting from the next official stop (for instance – The Jack the Ripper Tour would be commencing at Tower Hill) or that to swap routes we’d need to change buses in two stops time. The linking up of all the different sight-seeing opportunities was very well organised.

We decided fairly early on that we’d stick to the one route and that any walking tours would be another excuse to spend the day in London.

Because of the bus’s velocity and bearing in mind that I was on the top deck swaying around, I was not able to snap away taking as many pictures as I’d hoped. Here are a few, taken either from the ground during a hop-off spot or when the bus slowed slightly to allow pedestrians to use a crossing.


A fleeting glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral


View of Tower Bridge with HMS Belfast in the foreground


The Shard – London’s tallest building and Europe’s first ‘vertical city.’


A coffee and hand-made chocolate shop in Borough Market near London Bridge. What’s not to like?


The Tower of London with the Shard in the background. If I was being earnestly pretentious I might use the word juxtaposition somewhere in this caption.

As we left the City and headed for Westminster, we decided to hop off at Big Ben,  walk up Whitehall for some lunch and meet the bus again in Trafalgar Square.


Well, you can’t go to London and not take a picture of this, can you?

I was interested to see the Monument to the Women of World War Two just north of the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Sculpted by John W Mills, it was unveiled in 2005 by Queen Elizabeth, two days after the 7/7 bombings.


I wonder if those young ladies in the background realised the significance of what they were walking past …

Feeling replete after a couple of Panini’s (not each), we re-joined the bus and toured around the city of Westminster. This is familiar territory to me; nevertheless, it was fun to view it from on high. As we hit Piccadilly Circus SSF spied a celebrity being interviewed by a film crew. She’s good at that. See if you can spot who on earth she’s talking about. I was none the wiser.


Spot the celeb in Piccadilly Circus. Answer at the bottom of the post. Clue: It’s not Bruno Mars or Prince Harry.

 We shot along Piccadilly, around Hyde Park Corner, up Park Lane and around Marble Arch, which we sailed around like Ben Ainslie sniffing a gold medal. Back in the day, this circumnavigation alone could take up to half an hour.


Marble Arch – traffic used to crawl around here, nose to tail …

As we looped back past the Houses of Parliament, I couldn’t resist this final snap of a Henry Moore sculpture, ‘Knife Edge Two Piece’ on the lawn opposite the House of Commons and often used as a back drop for interviewing our politicians on the BBC news.


Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece. Good grief – is that Cameron and Clegg in the background? How could we tell – they all look the same.

Our bus swiftly dropped us back at the London Eye and we called it a day, anxious to head for home before the main crush. Was it worth it? Yes, it was – and would have been more so if we had stayed for longer and joined the blue route which takes in all the Kensington Museums or the red route which goes to Regent’s Park.

Watch this space for a possible walking tour at some point – for now I’m content that I’ve crossed the bus tour off my list.

Celebrity Answer: Olly Murs

More Original Tour information here.


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Do you know the worst thing you can say to someone who’s worrying or has something on their mind? Telling them to forget about whatever it is and focus their attention elsewhere. Our brains don’t work like that. What happens is we tend to focus even more acutely on the thing that bothered us in the first place.

Try this little experiment. Shut your eyes. Think very hard about three yellow giraffes. Go on, see them walking serenely around, nibbling leaves from the tops of some yellowing trees. Now replace those giraffes with any other animal in a colour of your choice. Not easy, is it? And I don’t want any smart answers that the animals you chose couldn’t reach the trees anyway. I covered that when I tried it.

Since the discovery I made and revealed last week about my appalling surprise with the bathroom scales I’ve been thinking of food; it has occupied a large portion of my waking hours, and a fair slice of my sleeping ones, come to that. My mind has been consumed by visions of past memorable meals. Memorable meals don’t even have to be enjoyable. Think of school dinners for instance.

 I can remember suffering the most ghastly food at primary school. Plates of mince in runny, watery gravy served with solid peas and barely boiled potatoes; plum suet pudding drowned in lumpy custard – it was the stuff of the Dickensian workhouse. We were made to sit through playtime until we had swallowed every last morsel – our sadistic dinner ladies made sure of that by forcing us to feel grateful that we weren’t like the starving children in Africa.

 So, food is a very good way to evoke memories of places we have been. I’ve been time travelling quite a lot this week, in a gastronomic sense. When I worked just off Oxford Street in Central London, we would often go out for meals to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, or find some other excuse. We were a pretty sociable lot. One of our favourite haunts was Jimmy’s in Frith Street, Soho: a dark basement where the food was cheap, the wine on the rough side – but the kleftikon (slow cooked lamb) was to die for. Sadly, the establishment is no more, but for anyone seeking to reminisce over evenings of typical Greek fare, you can do so here. 

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some pretty high end restaurants; some presided over by one celebrity chef or other: the sort of place that you visit once, for a treat. (Or on expenses). However, as there are now so many of them, I think that the exclusivity of these places has been eroded, and while the experience is always an indulgence, I can’t honestly remember individual dishes or one specific meal with a particular wow factor. We recently tried a Japanese restaurant in town that has received excellent reviews. As suggested, we tried their signature dish, the bento box, which gives the diner a taste of many of their dishes. I loved it and scoffed the lot. Time will tell if this will be an unforgettable outing.

Japanese Bento Box

Japanese Bento Box

Foreign travel provides the opportunity to try different local fare, some of which has become memorable and can be recalled in an instant at the mere sniff of garlic or unmistakeable aroma of Mediterranean tomatoes. I had the most wonderful salad one lunch time in a café in Grau de Roi, Languedoc – thinly sliced and layered Provencal tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and a few anchovies, washed down with a glass or two of chilled dry rose – heaven!

Other experiences are not quite so heavenly. On a short trip to Denmark, we seemed to be followed from meal to meal by Frikadellers – they were on every menu and consist of a hamburger covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. Now I’m sure that the Danes do have a more varied diet – indeed, I believe that one of the most expensive restaurants in the world is in Copenhagen, but to me, whenever anyone mentions Danish cuisine, I think of these unappetising balls of deep fried mince.

On a visit to Reykjavik, we had dried salt cod and avoided the pan roasted puffin on the specials board while trips to Italy have so far been largely disappointing: I’m not big on pizzas, there is only so much pasta one can eat and if I order salad I don’t expect to have to mix up the dressing myself.

 Nothing I’ve eaten in Spain has been particularly memorable one way or the other, and I really don’t understand what all the fuss over Tapas is about. Give me a decent bowl of olives or nuts to have with an aperitif and I’m happy – I can’t be doing with bits of sausage or strips of peppers swimming around in herb scented oil.

Unsurprisingly France has been the venue for many memorable meals. One was in a roadside hostelry in southern Normandy, not far from the industrial outskirts of Evreux. We were on our way further south but had stopped off to take in Monet’s garden and needed somewhere to overnight. We pitched up late, secured a room for the night and went down to the bar for something to eat. Madame bustled around and provided a green salad (dressed), pan fried calves liver with pommes vapeur; a bowl of freshly picked cherries and some Camembert. My sort of food: delicious.

Another was inland from Biarritz. We’d driven all day to get to the coast then could find nowhere to stay so we back-tracked and found an ordinary looking little hotel on a crossroads to nowhere. Exhausted with the heat and frustration of looking for a room, we settled for their typical old French bedroom – mildewed floral wallpaper, red lino and a power shower in the corner of the room screened off by a plastic curtain. We accepted the meal that night might be a disaster but at that point, we were beyond caring.  With the tables laid outside under a large canopy and the smell of rosemary and thyme in the evening air we ate a fabulous banquet of seafood, drank rather a lot of local wine and made friends with a table of elderly French men and women who talked about the Resistance all evening and were very entertaining. The entente had never been so cordiale and we ended up sharing brandies with them until midnight so consequently didn’t notice how uncomfortable our bed really was.

So do I have a favourite food? No, not really. I invariably choose fish when we’re out because I don’t often cook it at home. I prefer salad to cooked vegetables unless they are really al dente and I don’t favour stodgy puddings. I like unpretentious food, in ambient surroundings, preferably on some shady terrace where there are no mosquitoes. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

I must leave you with a little food related anecdote. Several years ago I was working with a new eleven-year-old pupil, helping him identify meanings of some science words we would be covering during his first half term.  Mindful that this little chap was on the autistic spectrum and hoping to help him increase his social skills, I was doing my best to engage him in conversation while we tackled this task, so when the word ‘nutrition’ came up, I asked him what his favourite food was.

He put down his pen, turned to me and said scathingly, “Well, how would I know. I haven’t tried everything yet.”

Food for thought? I love my job.

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I don’t have an official bucket list, do you? I have a few items that would be on such a list, should I choose to write one, but the trouble with lists is:

a) They get lost.

b) There is pressure to tick things off.

c) You feel obliged to keep adding to them.

There was something I’d wanted to do for ages, and had never got around to organising which, I’m pleased to report, is now mentally ticked off that imaginary list: a trip, by boat down the river Thames, as far as the Thames Flood Barrier.

I mentioned this to a friend who was keen to join me in spite of having to dose herself with sea-sickness pills beforehand.

So it was that recently one morning, we were standing on a bracing Festival Pier, waiting for our launch and feeling like tourists. We even had our cameras. Festival Pier is adjacent to the South Bank Centre  which includes the Hayward Gallery and Festival Hall, opened in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. The whole complex has been tagged the ugliest set of buildings in London, which I think is a bit harsh. Over time they have become part of our capital’s ever changing landscape and represent a particular style of post war modern architecture.

Once on the water, the boat’s captain kept up an entertaining and opinionated running commentary of the sites as we sailed by.

The first thing I learned was that there is no advertising of any description allowed along the Thames. I’d never thought about this before, but imagine how awful the riverside would look if it was covered with advertising hoardings. However, one ingenious company managed to get around this law. (There’s always one, isn’t there?).  Around 1928, the Oxo Company took over a building originally built as a power station for the Post Office and rebuilt it in art deco style, for use as a cold store. A tower was constructed with four sets of three vertically-aligned windows, in the shapes of a circle, a cross and a circle. Co-incidence? I don’t think so.

London skyline , Oxo Tower  to the right

London skyline , Oxo Tower to the right

Now called the Oxo Tower, the building houses galleries, shops and a restaurant (which does have fabulous views if you manage to book well ahead and get a window or balcony table but don’t expect fabulous food – admittedly it was a few years ago that we had lunch there but found it disappointingly underwhelming).

As we sailed eastwards down the Thames we passed places that I’d never viewed from the water; Somerset House, Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe. This reconstruction of the original theatre was founded by film director Sam Wanamaker. The guided tours on offer there are well worth taking, as are the plays which are performed during the summertime only, due to the open roof. You need stamina for these, too – seats are as the originals (hard), or you may stand (for up to four hours) in the audience pit, where you’ll get an authentic Shakespearean experience.

Just beyond the Tower of London, (London’s busiest tourist attraction),

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge with The Shard, London’s newest landmark in the distance

we had to change boats at St Katharine’s Dock which gave us time to admire Tower Bridge.

These boats do have a schedule, but like all transport in London, timetables are open to interpretation. As we stood on the swaying pontoon for longer than necessary I was conscious that my friend’s seasickness pills might be wearing off but she remained stoic as we boarded our next craft which took us past all the old docks (now renovated into expensive apartments), down to Greenwich where we were able to get back on land, walk past the newly restored Cutty Sark and refuel with caffeine (me) and mineral water (friend).

Equilibrium restored, we boarded the next boat eastwards which took us past the shimmering skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, London’s new business centre and the O2 Arena (formerly the Millennium Dome). There was no commentary on this boat and our journey was eerily quiet. On both banks are vast areas of old dockland in various stages of redevelopment although no sign of life is apparent.

The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier

The Thames Barrier looms out of the water like a pod of majestic synchronised whales. Finished in 1982 as London’s principal defence against flood tides it has only been needed once so far (in 1983 – so that was well timed). The boat trip turns around here, giving all passengers a good opportunity to view the Barrier. There is a visitor’s centre but strangely, this has to be accessed from terra firma. I can’t help thinking that their marketing strategy needs an overhaul.

We returned to Greenwich where there are two other places which should be on my bucket list: The aforementioned Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory: but they will have to wait. With the weather closing in on us, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway back to Waterloo. This was another first for me, the route taking in Canary Wharf. This is the hub of London’s banking empires where deals are won and lost, where people spend all their working days in boardroom meetings or, by the looks of it, enjoying corporate lunches. The place oozes perceived wealth; it is pristine with avenues of perfectly trimmed trees in pots; restaurants, cafes and bistros shelter beneath towering structures of steel and glass alongside man-made canals.

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf

Here we had to change trains, and as we walked to the underground station my friend said, “Can you smell that?”

“What?” I asked.

“Money,” she replied.

The whole place is like a scene from a computer game; the people there are the players. I’m glad I’ve seen it but it’s not my London. My London is a mish-mash of old and new buildings, a little worn around the edges, a little grubby, if I’m honest. There’s a smell to my London and I was relieved to sniff its reassuring aroma when we emerged from the tube station at Waterloo.

What would be on your bucket list?

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After reading my last post, about never having a suitable retort at the right time, Mum sent me a message in which was a story about my Dad. Although in lots of ways I have been told I am a chip off the old block, never in a million years could I hope to come up with something as brilliant as this.

My parents spent many happy holidays touring the British Isles, but Dad hated staying more than a couple of nights anywhere because of having to make polite conversation with other hotel guests where the inevitable question would come up:

“What do you do for a living?”

Apparently Dad’s stock reply was:

“I mind my own business.”

This of course can be taken one of two ways and used to embarrass Mum no end. Nowadays she thinks it was quite a clever response, and I tend to agree with her.

Dad at Pearl Cross

Dad, standing outside the shop where he minded his own business

The photo above was taken in 1993 when I took Son to visit Grandpa’s shop.

Pearl Cross Ltd was in the heart of London’s west end, just off Charing Cross Road.

Dad commuted there, by driving himself from his North Downs village, until he was seventy-eight.

I wrote about the shop in a blog post  which you can read here:

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The Royal Academy in London recently housed a retrospective of Edouard Manet’s portraits; apparently this particular permutation has never been shown before, despite pictures of his literary, artistic and political peers, together with his friends and family accounting for half his total output.

So, as the exhibition was nearing the end of its run, a few friends and I fought our way along Piccadilly to see for ourselves this belle époque spectacle. Clutching our soon-to-be irrelevant timed tickets, my heart plummeted when we were faced with the prospect of viewing these fabulous paintings in a shuffling queue of at least five deep.

While it’s great that so many people want to view these treasures, I wish that there was some way of diluting the crowds. Timed ticketing doesn’t work because there is no shepherding out of the gallery at the other end. If only a certain amount of people were allowed in at any one time, they could ring a bell at the end of a designated timed session: viewers could then leave for the gift shop or restaurant and let the next batch of eager art lovers in. It’s at times like this my commuter elbows come into their own and  my height is a bonus  – in other circumstances, such as buying jeans, it’s something of a nightmare – but that’s another story entirely.

However, despite the gallery resembling Piccadilly Circus in the rush hour, the exhibition was delightful – some of the paintings were familiar, some had never been previously exhibited – some are unfinished. I wondered if Manet would have approved the selection. There were scenes of the artist’s friend Monet with his family in their Normandy garden; a picture of Emile Zola at his desk; we had fun spotting Manet himself among his contemporaries in an early work, Music in the Tuileries Gardens.

music in the tuileries gardens

music in the tuileries gardens

I never understand why curators choose the paintings they do – or, more importantly, choose which ones to leave out, and why? Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, was smaller and less colourful than I had imagined, but The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the painting which I think is instantly recognisable as a Manet, and depicts beautifully Parisian cafe society, was conspicuously absent. Odd, when Le déjeuner had to come from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Folies resides at the Courtauld Institute, less than a mile away.

le dejeuner sur l'herbe

le dejeuner sur l’herbe

Later in the week I popped into the Courtauld for the Becoming Picasso exhibition, which concentrated on the year he had his first exhibition at the precocious age of nineteen. No queues, no crowds, no timed tickets – the best way to view paintings. On top of this I was able to pick up, free of charge, a very informative teaching pack complete with CD – and – I was able to view, at my leisure, The Bar at the Folies-Bergère.

the bar at the Folies-Bergere

the bar at the Folies-Bergere

Double Whammy – marvellous!

All pictures borrowed from Wikipedia!

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