20 August 2016

London, London!

I "grew up" in London. Not in the usual sense of being there in my childhood, but in the sense of going from a somewhat protected late developer to a mature adult capable of managing her life on her own. I lived there for over three years from 1969 until 1972. Peter and I have been back since, but only for short periods, and for the longest of these we stayed in the centre of London and didn't stray much further afield. So one of the joys of our most recent trip was rediscovering London, and becoming aware of how much it has changed, and how much it hasn't in the last four or five decades.

The Thames for me is one of the key features of London. In the 1970s I lived in East Molesey, in a house with a view of the Thames from the back window. And I spent many an interval at concerts in the Royal Festival Hall staring out across the river. On this trip we stay on the Isle of Dogs, right in the bend of the Thames, and we have a lot to do with the river, travelling beneath it by tube on multiple occasions, and even by foot through the tunnel from Greenwich, walking along its banks, crossing it on foot by most of the main bridges, including the new Millennium Bridge. Living in the East End we see all the reconstruction of the areas around the old docks, making this area an interesting mixture of new expensive apartments and older housing estates. We become aware of the huge amount of tourist traffic now on the river every day, as well as the commuters using it as an alternative to the tube. The "arts precinct" on Southbank that began with the building of the Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s has now extended to the new Globe and the Tate Modern, but the Southbank Centre itself is now old enough to need redevelopment, so two of the smaller concert halls are closed.

From the splendid vantage point of the top of the Tate Modern you can look over the London skyline. On the north bank are the familiar shapes: the dome of St Pauls, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. But there are also a series of extraordinary modern edifices sticking up from amongst the old: the Eye, the Shard, the Gherkin, and others whose nicknames I don't know but whose architecture is just as challenging. Some, like the Walkie-Talkie, seem to be larger at the top than they are at the bottom, which leaves one wondering how the structural engineers have managed it. These new structures don't really blend into their surroundings at all - quite the reverse - they are very "look at me!". But somehow it makes London look modern and vibrant, rather than just making it look like a hotch-potch. Living on the Isle of Dogs we are of course in the midst of the new high rise: sixteen of London's fifty tallest buildings are here.

Meanwhile, back at ground level, what else is new?
The parks: Hyde Park, Regents Park, are still the same wonderful green oases. There seem to be more people than ever using them, but that may be because we are there in the height of the tourist season. Peter and I are slightly disconcerted on one occasion to see a large group of fully-covered Muslim women coming towards us, then settling on the grass like so many huge black crows. They proceeded to picnic, lifting food up under their niqabs.

Muslim women are also strongly in evidence in the posh department stores in Oxford Street, although fewer of these are fully covered, most are just wearing headscarves. No doubt there are migrants from the Middle East who are not well off, but equally there must be lots of rich shopaholics, as they almost outnumber the uncovered. London's stores once seemed to me to be magical places, but on this trip we find them disappointing. Department stores everywhere now seem to be stocked with the same big brands - rather dull if having designer labels on your gear and goods doesn't turn you on. Places like Fortnum and Mason are now ludicrously expensive - we cannot bring ourselves to buy afternoon tea there (price £26 to £45 per person). And I am totally defeated in my search for a paper napkin holder as a present for friend Laura who has many a garden party. (On return to Australia I find a choice of three in the South Melbourne Market).  The only shopping we really enjoyed was in the Greenwich Market, which had lots of interesting and original stuff. If we return to London I will make a point of visiting more markets.

One of our favourite spaces was a reclaimed dock area on the South Bank, with a fabulous sculpture that did all kinds of interesting things, mostly driven by falling water (see left).
We found lots of good cafes in London, but it's hard to get a decent coffee if you like your coffee black. The long black seems to be a peculiarly Australian invention. Cafes in the UK and many in Europe offer black coffee in two forms: Espresso and Americano. An espresse in France is a short black, but in London and in places like French Autoroute cafes, asking for an Espresso gets you about a half inch of very strong coffee in a very small cup - one is not sure whether to drink it or inject it. The alternative Americano comes in a huge cup, and tastes like a bucket of slops from cleaning out the espresso machine (if that strong). In one very pleasant cafe in Bank, I actually resort to instructing the barista on how to make an Australian long black. Since he is a Dane, he is open to learning something new.

But overall, I love London, and would go back in a heartbeat. Peter says he couldn't live there, but I think I could probably last as long as I did first time round - after three winters I couldn't face a fourth.

19 August 2016

London - the inside story

There are so many historic and cultural places to visit in London that it's hard to know where to start. Somewhat to our surprise and disappointment, the range of events is more limited. There isn't much theatre happening apart from musicals and kids shows. And apart from the Proms, not many concerts either - nothing in Festival Hall or the Wigmore Hall. It is school holidays, of course. Fortunately the museums are all open.
Our favourite of these is probably the Docklands Museum, walking distance from where we are staying. It occupies one of the few warehouses left standing after the Blitz, at the end of Canary Wharf. It presents a fascinating history from the time when all the docks in the area were created, to the present day when the land is being reclaimed for sky-high office buildings and trendy flats. In between there are all the wartime stories, and a wonderful, if wrenching story of slavery. We spend the best part of a day there.
Peter loves all the science and technology museums. He makes two visits to the Science Museum in South Kensington, one to the Royal Institute where Faraday did his experiments, and goes to Bletchley Park for the day. Helen joins him at the Royal Institute (where we are the only two visitors) and on one of the Science Museum visits.
Arvo Tea at the Wallace Collection
On the artier side, we go to the Wallace collection twice, and the National Gallery once. We go to the British Museum, but it's hot and crammed with tourists, so we make our visit a short one.
Helen manages to get a single return to see Macbeth at the Globe Theatre, the only serious theatre going. Her enjoyment of the performance is slightly marred when the mobile phone of the person beside her buzzes just as Macbeth begins "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...". She feels the need after the show to explain to the young girl that turning your phone off means turning it OFF, not just putting it on silent. And that even if you don't actually answer it, it's just as distracting for the person beside you if you pull it out of your bag and start texting.

Music-wise, we go to an organ recital that just happened to be on at St Paul's Cathedral when we walked there on our first evening, and a lovely concert of baroque music in St Martin-in-the-Fields on our last evening. This gives us the opportunity to sit and take in these two lovely churches, quite apart from the pleasure of hearing the music. In between we go to the Proms in the Albert Hall three times, and Helen takes in a "Proms at..." concert at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in the Globe - vocal music inspired by Shakespeare played by the Arcangelo early music group.
We discover Polish cuisine in London, eating out at two restaurants that serve excellent food at reasonable prices, with impeccable service. One is near the Albert Hall, the other near Southwark tube station, convenient for our return to Canary Wharf. We have good meals at the local Indian restaurant two minutes walk from the door of the flat. After a hard days walking we quite often return to the flat, cook a meal and veg out, but discover that free-to-air television in the UK has less to offer than television in Melbourne (for example, very old episodes of the Doctor Blake Mysteries!) So we read books and I try to keep the diary up to date instead.
Another significant amount of indoor time was spent at Howarth's of London, purveyors of wind instruments. After four separate visits Helen finally settled on a pair of Buffet Festival clarinets (an A and a B flat). Then there was the fifth visit to collect them the day after the purchase, and one more visit to get assistance in taking the A clarinet apart (new joints are very stiff). This sixth visit was also an opportunity to buy a zip up case cover with backpack type straps, without which she would never have got the instruments safely home to Melbourne (along with her older clarinet, which had gone with her on the entire trip).

08 August 2016


Love London. Would happily have stayed longer, although Peter was ready to leave after our 17 night stay.
Journey to London is wearing. A long drive with various motorway holdups, then longer holdups getting into Luton, finding the hire car drop-off, going off again to get petrol, finding the drop-off again, finding out where to go to get the car checked out, waiting for the shuttle to London, crawling through London peak hour traffic in the bus, and finally a hot and crowded tube journey from Baker Street to Canary Wharf. We sink our pride and get a taxi from the station to our lodgings, even though it is only about a 10 minute walk. Final piece of the disaster becomes apparent later when Peter realises he has left his wallet in the taxi. Despite considerable effort (visits to police stations, multiple visits to Transport for London Lost Property), we never see it again.
Our accommodation in Canary Wharf is great - a cleverly designed open plan apartment where the bed pulls out like a huge drawer from under a raised living area. It has all mod cons - washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, good kitchen where we cook quite a few meals. We occasionally patronise the local Indian restaurant which is two minutes walk from the door, or eat in London proper while we are out and about.
Weather in London is amazingly good. It doesn't rain until our very last day, and the temperature is generally in the low twenties. As a result we spend a lot more time outdoors than we anticipated. We walk and walk and walk, and get our money's worth out of our weekly Oyster cards. We go to Bush Road in the Surrey Quays area to see the house where Peter spent his first months, in the middle of the Blitz. Contrary to family myth, the terrace that the house is in wasn't destroyed by bombing, only damaged when the houses across the road and further down the road were destroyed. Their place has been taken by rather ugly 50s utilitarian buildings, but the Victorian terrace containing Peter's family house is intact. Peter manages to find some people who've been in the area for years to confirm this.
I re-visit some of my old haunts. After one of our fruitless trips to TFL Lost Property, near Baker Street, we walk through Regents Park and up to Chalk Farm, where I manage to locate the bedsit that my brother and sister-in-law were renting when I first arrived in London in 1969, and where I lived until I found a place of my own. On another excursion I explore Paddington, finding that the office where I worked is no longer in existence, but the pub where I drank is. After a chat with the barman I walk to Inverness Terrace in Bayswater where I lived next in 1969, and from there walk across Hyde Park to join Peter who is enjoying a day in the Science Museum.
We love being near the Thames. On our first Saturday we go via the tube to Greenwich, explore Greenwich market, visit the Naval College. We return to the north bank via the foot tunnel under the Thames, then walk all the way up the east side of the Isle of Dogs and back to the flat in Canary Wharf. On another excursion we go via the Docklands Light Railway to Tower Bridge.Starting with Tower Bridge, we cross the river, walk along the bank, cross at the next bridge, walk along the bank... we get as far as Southwark Bridge before we run out of steam, stopping along the way to visit a wharf that's now a shopping mall, and to have a cup of tea in the Tate Modern, and to admire the view from the top of that building.

03 August 2016


Recycled birthday cake (lots of baby boomers here)
We arrive in Goldsborough on Wednesday evening, and stay for a week with Laura Lindsay, who has been a friend since we were in Grade 6. She has insisted that we arrive in time for my 70th birthday, so that she can throw a party. Festivities begin the previous evening with dinner and my first present - a picture from my step-daughter from my first marriage which she has posted to Yorkshire to await my arrival. More cards and presents the next day, a cardigan and some bling, the latter is immediately worn for the afternoon party. The weather starts fine, but by about 11am it is clearly not going to stay that way, so we relocate drinks and nibbles to the garage, and have lunch indoors. Last guests leave at about 9:30pm, by which time I've over-indulged in both food and wine. But a good time was had by all.
Peter meets Blind Jack in York
We spend the next five days participating in English village life. P is disappointed because there is not one murder. We attend a wedding in the local ancient church, because Laura and partner David are singing in the choir (they are paid to do so). We thoroughly enjoy an amateur performance of "Quartet" in Harrowgate, help Laura entertain again when her choir has its end-of-season garden party before the summer break after their usual performance in church on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday we venture further afield  to the Yorkshire Dales to admire the views, eat a splendid pub lunch, and go to York to visit the Railway Museum, and walk around that very historic city. The weather is an improvement on Glasgow, but still showery.
On Wednesday we pack up and say farewell to Goldsborough, which has been lovely, and head south.
More pictures.