Thursday, September 24, 2009


Here are the cumulative stats from my London trip:
  • 82.25 miles walked (from getting off the plane on the 13th to getting on again on the 21st)
  • ~£160 spent on food, bev, admissions, and Oyster card (tube and buses)
  • 825 photos taken
  • 8 Open House venues seen
  • 6 hand-knitted items distributed
  • 1 more of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries checked off
  • No blisters
  • Countless discoveries and good times had with my mates
Now that I've unpacked and done laundry, I can start putting the photos on Flickr. This is a long process, so be sure to check my photostream regularly.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Goodbye, Blighty

Just a quick post before I finish packing and head to the airport for the long journey home. Spooner was out the door at 6 this morning -- he's taking a dozen teens to Scotland, where it's pouring rain, for four days of hiking and kayaking. We made two more trips to Cotswold (an outdoor outfitter store similar to EMS) yesterday, one in Covent Garden to return socks purchased on Saturday, and one in Piccadilly in search of some nylon pants (that's pants in the American sense of the word; trousers to you in the UK). We also went to a North Face store and one other outfitter; after we split up in the afternoon, Spooner returned to Covent Garden and now has the perfect nylon pants.

After the first trip to Covent Garden, we walked through Trafalgar Square to see another nutter on the plinth. This one was wearing an unattractive rabbit head and making paper airplanes, some of which were launched from the plinth. Below the plinth, a giant game of chess was about to get underway -- something to do with London Design Week -- and across the way, the bells of St Martin's were peeling. All this under a blue and sunny sky. Lovely.

We made our way down Whitehall to see the Foreign Office & India Office, a very popular Open House venue. We walked right in, after having our bags checked by some odd sort of machine, and joined hundreds of other people wandering around in awe of the magnificent building. It's so vast that it didn't even feel crowded, although it was a little difficult getting the good vantage points for photos. In addition to administering the Empire, the Foreign Office provides assistance to British citizens when they are abroad -- passport replacement, assistance in natural disasters, etc. In one of the lovely 19th century conference rooms was an exhibition with video advising Brits to behave when they travel to foreign countries, i.e. no ASBOs abroad. Each room was more splendid than the last, culminating with a dead gorgeous staircase designed by George Gilbert Scott -- gilded bits everywhere, and gigantic murals depicting Britain's domain over the four corners of the globe.

We then walked over to the House of Commons in hopes of seeing Westminster Hall, but the queue was 45 minutes long, so we pressed on, walking through St James's Park where we saw many more unidentified feathered objects and a fairytale view of Whitehall from the bridge in the middle of the park. On our way up to Piccadilly, we passed a mason's hall that was an Open House venue and looked in to see the inner sanctum and to use the loo. After Spooner's unsuccessful shopping in Piccadilly, we wandered into Soho in search of lunch. I wanted to go to Mildred's in Lexington Street (said to be a fab vegetarian restaurant), but it was closed so we went to Red Veg, an old favorite in Dean Street.

After lunch, we went in separate directions. I was headed to Park Road (the west side of Regent's Park, just above Baker Street) to see one more spot on my Open House list -- the Rudolph Steiner House, the only example of expressionist architecture in London. I stopped first at the Photographers Gallery to see a small, but very good, exhibition of photos by Andre Kertesz called "On Reading." Then I tried to get a bus from Regent Street that would have taken me to Baker Street Station, but the bloody bus never came and I had to walk the whole way. I got to the Rudolph Steiner House just in time for the last tour. (More details on this when I add links and photos.)

It's been a wonderful trip -- lovely friends, fun adventures, new discoveries, (virtually) no rain and no blisters. Next post will be from stateside, and photos will appear on Flickr in batches over the next several weeks.

Cheers, mates!

Distance covered: 22,229 steps (9.08 miles)
£10 to top up Oyster card
60p roll
£4.90 lunch at Red Veg
£2.50 thank you card from the Photographers Gallery
£2.50 apple crumble from Chamomile (to take to Spooner's for our dessert)
90p that I gave to a bloke on Marylebone Road who needed it for his bus ticket

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Sunday, September 20, 2009


My back, legs and energy level had been holding up really well until mid-day yesterday when I hit the wall. My back was sore and I was having trouble putting one foot in front of another, so we cut out 2/3 of the Open House plan, added a mission to the outdoor outfitter store in Covent Garden so that Spooner could get some things he needed for his trip to Scotland with a bunch of teens, and made it a shorter day. Here are the Open House venues we did see:

  • St Martin's Gospel Oak
  • Little Green Street
  • Cecil Sharp House (HQ of the English Folk Dance & Song Society)
  • Jestico & Whiles (an architecture firm)
  • Alexandra Road housing (the last large social housing estate built in London; the queue was long, so we didn't go in the flat but did walk through the estate)
We stopped for a pint at the Washington (Spooner's local), had dinner at the flat and then went to the Comedy Theatre to see Prick Up Your Ears, which was good but wasn't really a comedy.

After a long soak in Spooner's lovely tub, I feel ready to tackle Open House again today.

Distance covered: 22,386 steps (9.18 miles)
60p roll
£2.74 sandwich and bevvie at Fresh and Wild
£2.90 pint of Fuller's London Pride
£1 another beverage

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Immortalized on Walls

Most of yesterday's adventures will be shown in photos (now on Flickr). It was a morning of solitary roaming through Southwark to see more Dickens sites, most notably the one remaining wall of the Marshalsea Prison where his own father was imprisoned as a debtor and where much of Little Dorrit is set. I also saw places where gaols had once been, and saw Dickens immortalized as a primary school and Little Dorrit as a street. Near the beginning of the walk, I stopped into Borough Market to get portable food -- a spinach and goat cheese tart and lovely banana cake.

By early afternoon I had reached Waterloo to begin my walk through Lambeth to see the various projects of Southbank Mosaics. I started by circling St John's churchyard, where there are several mosaic benches and some other sculptural works in progress. I cut down Lower Marsh Street and nipped into I Knit and to Crockatt & Powell Booksellers -- didn't buy anything at either, but was tempted at the bookshop (50% off going out of business sale, which is quite sad as this independent bookseller is a much-loved institution in the neighborhood). On my route, I found about half of the mosaics I was looking for. The ones I didn't find included seating and a mural in Archbishop's Park (I think they are in the kiddie play area, and it's uncomfortable being a lone adult with camera in a playground) and a fountain that I thought was at the junction of Lambeth Palace Road and the Albert Embankment, but I sure didn't see it.

What I did find were the mosaics in four street underpasses (going under the railway tracks that lead into Waterloo Station). The first was Salamanca Street underpass, where the mosaics commemorate the Battle of Salamanca, the Spanish city itself, and the Duke of Wellington. Next was Black Prince Road, where the mosaics have to do with the Black Prince himself and with Doulton ceramics (the former Doulton factory is in this road -- the facade is still decorated with impressive tilework). Working my way back towards Waterloo, I next saw the Blake mosaic murals in the Carlisle Lane underpass. Blake, who lived for 10 years in nearby Hercules Road had written that he wanted his works to be enlarged and hung for the public to see. I think he would have approved of the mosaics.

I knew that I'd see the mosaic I worked on (by putting in a half a dozen glass bits) in the Centaur Street underpass, but I got the best surprise -- at the very end of the row (the west end, as I was coming from Hercules Road) is a plaque that names all the people who worked on the mosaics of Project Blake, including my five mates and me. So, my name is now on a wall in London. I'm chuffed.

The day ended with tea near the Coliseum with a Flickr mate, and then back to Belsize Park for drinks on Greg and Esther's roof terrace and a great dinner at a French restaurant.

Our plan for the weekend includes working in a bunch of Open House locations (all north of the Euston Road for Saturday, south of it on Sunday) and theatre tonight.

Distance covered: 32,655 (13.40 miles)
Expenses: 50p to use two loos (one in a church -- they shouldn't be charging)
£2 spinach and goat cheese tart
£2 banana cake
£4 Garden Museum
£10 to top up my Oyster card
£20 drinks and dinner

Friday, September 18, 2009

Clerkenwell: London's Little Italy

Yesterday's ramble had two themes: (1) Dickens sites in Clerkenwell and (2) imagining that my grandparents had left Milan for London (Clerkenwell is the old Italian enclave) instead of the wasteland of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Clerkenwell is a fairly discrete area, but despite that I managed to log 10 miles on the pedometer while zigging and zagging down little streets and passages. Plus, I had to backtrack a couple of times after getting turned around -- although this area isn't quite as confusing as the City, it's just as old and a bit of a rabbit warren.

I actually started the day in the City, at the art gallery in the Guildhall where I saw the post-war photos of freelance photographer John Gay. The images of the English countryside, Highgate, London train stations, etc., were striking -- he was brilliant at finding interesting details and angles, at following the light, and at capturing people in wonderful moments. The exhibition itself was a bit of a disappointment, however. John Gay left his thousands of negatives, mostly 2 1/4 or other large format, to English Heritage and they could have made lovely prints on photographic paper from those negatives, but this exhibition is of digitally made blow-ups.

As I wandered through Clerkenwell, I passed former monasteries, a huge plague pit, the Clerk's Well, craft studios, the place where Oliver Twist was nicked, the court where Mr Bumble appeared before a magistrate, old craft works buildings, and Dickens' bank. The Italian community was in evidence everywhere: dozens of Italian caffs, a Vespa dealer, a shop selling high-end Italian men's clothing, and a horse-drawn Victorian hearse outside St Peter's Italian Catholic Church in Clerkenwell Road. I ate lunch at Gazzano's deli in Farringdon Street, one of only two Clerkenwell delis still in the hands of the original family.

Fortified by a tasty panino, I braved the Bloody Barbican. I'd been around it before, but had never ventured INTO it. Gack! It's vast, with a labyrinth of highwalks running around the lake, school, church and housing blocks. It took ages to find the art gallery in the Barbican Centre, where I saw Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet. Think Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes and plants growing sideways. My escape from the Barbican left me needing a sitdown and a snack, so -- after a brief detour through Postman's Park -- I met up with a Flickr mate in another Italian caff in Smithfield. Pushing onward, I made a brief stop at the Holborn Library to see an exhibition called King's Cross Voices (a photography and oral history project about people who had lived and worked around King's X). When I realized that most of what I was looking at and reading is on a website, I cut it short, walked over to Russell Square and caught the 168 bus back to Belsize Park.

The day ended with meeting another Flickr mate for a glass of wine before doing some grocery shopping at Budgens and heading back to the flat to make my dinner. I nearly fell asleep with my head in my plate.

Distance: 24,828 steps (10.17 miles)
£2.50 for the Guildhall art gallery
£6.40 for a panino & limonata (a bit more than I usually spend, but worth it)
£8 for the Barbican art gallery
£7.50 for drinks
£7.94 for groceries

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Lesson in Social History

Wednesday was a day without a set itinerary, although it had a planned beginning (the Geffrye Museum), middle (E Pellicci's Cafe) and an end (the Flickr meetup at the Mitre Pub). I was slowly making my way from Hoxton Square to the Geffrye where I was to meet two of my mates, snapping pix along the way, when I ran into Maggie who was doing the same thing. We continued on and met Malcolm in front of the museum, in plenty of time for the noon tour of the almshouse.

Here's what I've learned in a nutshell: I had long been conflating almshouses and workhouses, not realizing that these were very different facilities for the poor in England. Almshouses were established by benefactors -- a wealthy patron, a parish, or a guild -- to care for the "deserving" poor, particularly those from their own community. The almshouse we saw was established in 1714 by the Ironmongers' Company with a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye, who had been the master of the company and Lord Mayor of London. The purpose was to provide safe, clean, modest housing for elderly members of the company, their widows, or other similarly deserving individuals who were vetted by the review board. You had to be at least 56 years old to live there, and of good character. There were various rules about going to chapel, being in by curfew, and keeping yourself and your room clean. Pensioners received an annual sum to live on, which some supplemented with personal assets, and coal for their grate. Each resident lived in a single room, which was ample size for a bed, table and chairs and a chair or two in front of the grate. Rooms also had a small pantry for storing dishes and food, which the residents purchased from vendors in the area and cooked for themselves. Each entry door led to four such rooms, and the copper boiler for water in the cellar was shared by the four units. Originally there were two privies in the back garden, and toilets were installed in the cellar (one per entry) in the late 19th century. This almshouse provided housing until the early 20th century, by which time the Shoreditch area had become less salubrious and the almshouse was relocated to somewhere in the countryside.

The less deserving poor were relegated to workhouses -- large institutions in which they received extremely minimal shelter and food in return for their labor in the workhouse laundry or whatever else it was that they did. After touring the almshouse, we walked a little bit up Kingsland Road and walked through the ground floor of a workhouse, which is now a large outpatient facility run by the NHS. While the idea of the almshouse was that the elderly residents would live out their days in modest comfort, the purpose of the workhouse was to get the poor off the streets and reform them through labor. Once someone entered a workhouse, I'm not sure what they had to do to get out. Nor do I know what happened to people who became unable to do the labor assigned to them. I'll try to find out more about this.

Our lunch destination was E Pellicci's, a Grade II listed cafe established in 1900 and still managed by the same Italian family. It's a tiny place on Bethnal Green Road with art deco marquetry paneling and Formica-topped tables. We all ordered the food of our own people. Maggie and Malcolm opted for traditional English fare (steak and kidney pie), and I got a mozzarella and tomato panino on ciabatta and a limonata.

The afternoon saw us continuing our ramble through the East End. We must have looked like we were doing a strangely-choreographed dance -- sometimes turning in three different directions to point cameras at different things, and other times turning in unison to zoom in on the same thing. Our photos will show graffiti, galleries, churches, bells and street name signs. No birds today.

An easy bus ride took us to Holborn for the Guess Where London meetup. As always it was great to see people from the group, to greet old friends and put new names with faces.

Distance: 24,848 steps (10.19 miles)
60p for another raisin and hazelnut roll
£2 admission to the almshouse
£6 for sandwich, beverage and tip
£1.20 (all the change I had) donation at the Whitechapel Gallery

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Our Feathered Friends

Birds have never figured much on my radar screen. Occasionally over the years, I've gone on walks with my pal ST, who is an avid birdwatcher, but it never took hold with me. I thought there were four types of birds: black, brown, white and pink. For whatever reason, I'm suddenly more aware of the varieties and differences, and on this trip I've been seeing birds all around me that I've never noticed before.

In Hyde Park, I saw strange birds hopping on the ground. They were the size of a large pigeon, white on front, black on their heads, and blue on the back. Spooner says they are magpies, which I'd heard of but I had never seen (I thought magpie was another name for crow). Also in Hyde Park, as I sat at the tea house munching a snack, little speckled brown birds kept pestering my by getting right up on the table next to me. I now know that these are European starlings.

The most exciting bird sighting came on my day trip Tuesday with my mates Helen and Judy to Henley-on-Thames. Weeks ago, when I read in the guidebook that we might see red kites flying over the fields along this walk, I pictured children flying kites like on Parliament Hill, all of them red per some local custom. That was incorrect. Red kites are birds, some kind of raptor I think, that once were nearly wiped out in this area but have been reintroduced in the Chiltern Hills and are coming back nicely.

The grey and overcast day started at Ladbroke Grove station, where I met Judy and Helen, who had gotten a car from her car club for the day. We headed northwest out of London on the A40, past the Hoover Building, which I recognized from my bus trip down from Oxford for a day in London in 1998. Henley-on-Thames is about an hour out of London, going through rolling hills, fields and woods to get there. We found it quite easily, parked the car, used the loo, and started on our walk, first going across the Thames and then heading north into a strong, chilly headwind as we walked along the Thames Path. This stretch is not particularly interesting -- some big, posh houses and some boats, but not much else. To get out of the wind and in hopes of seeing something more interesting, we turned right onto a footpath just before Temple Island. And not two minutes later, we saw the first red kite, swooping around the trees over a farm. After the wee village of Remenham, with an interesting old stone and flint church (St Nicholas Remenham) and churchyard containing some creepy statuary fit for the Dr. Who episode "Blink," we turned north along a narrow road. This put us a bit higher than the farms and fields below us, and we were able to see the back sides of some red kites -- kind of pink and white, much lighter than they look when you see their bellies as they fly over your head. It was exciting to watch them, first below us, then above. At some point on this road, we saw a stile over a fence, and even though we didn't have to cross it, my mates encouraged me to climb over it so I could say that I had done, seeing as it was my first encounter with an English stile. We plodded onward until we reached another small village (Aston) and stopped at the Flower Pot pub for a nice lunch.

Fortified by our lunch, we headed back to the Thames Path, passing by a couple of farmyards with chickens, ducks and a very large sow. Not quite Cold Comfort Farm, but similar. Turning left at the Thames Path, the wind was now at our backs, pushing us along, first to Hambleden Lock and then back to Henley. We saw more feathered friends along the way -- coots, ducks, swans, Canada geese and cormorants. Helen saw a kingfisher, but I missed it. The rain that had been threatening all day held off until we were a half mile from the end of our walk (it was torrential by the time we drove back into London).

Much thanks to Helen and Judy for my day in the English countryside, for showing me my first footpath, stile and red kite, and for listening to my endless prattle of "Wow! Look at that!"

Distance: 21,110 steps (8.66 miles)
Expenses: £5.15 for an egg & mayo sandwich and half pint of bitter
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Monday, September 14, 2009

The Dead, the Gasometer, and the Line of Beauty

After a great night sleep on the inflate-o-bed that I bought for Spooner from (because he doesn't do online shopping -- what's up with that?), and waking up sans jet lag, I set out for what I thought was going to be a relatively easy first day on the pavement. Crikey, was I wrong about that. I've just walked back into Spooner's flat, poured a glass of his Scotch, and looked at my pedometer. I walked 28,688 steps today (that's 11.76 miles), so it's no wonder that I could hardly drag myself up the 50 steep, windy, treacherous stair steps to the flat. My feet are sore, but I don't have any blisters and my back held up really well. (I must remember to do my stretches at least once a day while I'm here.)

My day started with a short, brisk walk up to the Hampstead Heath overground station. Rosenbeans will remember that station -- the network used to be called the Thameslink, and you couldn't use your pre-Oyster travel card on the line, so Rosenbeans and I would get the train between Finchley and Frognal where we were staying and Hampstead Heath near Spooner's first flat, trying to avoid having to pay the fare to the ticket collector on the train. Now you just use your Oyster card. I got off at Kensal Rise station and realized that I hadn't a clue how to get from there to Kensal Green Cemetery, but I did know it was on the Harrow Road. Seeing that I was literally on a rise, I walked downhill and got to the Harrow Road soon enough. The gates were open and I walked into the cemetery. Not 5 minutes later I ran into a woman who started chatting. She clearly knew her way around, and I did not. I said that I did know that Charles Dickens' beloved sister-in-law was buried somewhere near the entrance, and she showed me right to her grave, not 20 feet from where we were standing. Dickens really wanted to be buried next to Mary Hogarth, his wife's sister, but the family prevailed and buried Mary in the Hogarth family plot, sans Charles. He did pay for a nice marker for her.

At the suggestion of the woman I met in the cemetery, I went back to the office and bought the £2 guide to who is buried where. I could easily have spent half a day in the cemetery, but I cut it short after finding Marc Brunel's tomb, on which someone had just recently laid a bouquet of lilies, and not finding Wilkie Collins or Anthony Trollope. I can now check off #3 on the list of the Magnificent Seven.

Leaving the dead in the shadow of the gasometer, I crossed the Grand Union Canal and started my walk through Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill. I saw nearly everything on the walk that I had mapped out, and I'm so glad that I did this on a Monday, i.e. non-market day. I found two decent, though very different, loos along the way -- one just inside the main door of Sainsbury's at the start of my walk, and the other a Victorian subterranean public loo. So many of the public loos in London have been closed, and the ones that remain open are usually Gents', so I felt that I really HAD to use the Ladies' under Bevington Road, just off Golborne. It was clean, safe, cost 20p to get into a stall, and had a lingering wiff of Victorian bog pong that seemed right.

Along my route I saw many things recommended to me by my Flickr mate Malcolm, and found the places referred to in The Line of Beauty -- the pub where Nick and Leo meet, the house in Kensington Park Gardens where the Feddens live, the private garden itself (which is most likely Ladbroke Square Gardens and not Kensington Park Gardens), the cinemas at Notting Hill Gate, and ended my walk on Rotten Row in Hyde Park, which Nick walks along after leaving Lowndes Square (which I skipped seeing) near the end of the book. In between these noted places, I saw photos on a wall, mosaics, a tiki bar, bootscrapers, some interesting doorbells, a reflective pavilion, and picked up a few conkers. When I reached the point where I could walk no more, I exited Hyde Park, hopped the tube at Knightsbridge, and called it a day.

Pedometer reading: 28,668 steps (11.76 miles)
60p for a raisin and hazelnut roll to munch through the morning
£2 for the cemetery guide
£3 for a tuna and salad sandwich on brown bread and a bottle of water
£1.60 for a chocolate croissant at the tea house in Kensington Gardens

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In England's Green and Pleasant Land

I can't believe that I'm still standing, let alone writing this post, given that I slept all of an hour and a half on the plane and didn't nap when I reached Spooner's. It took me over an hour to get through immigration at Heathrow -- it's usually about 20 minutes, but this is a particularly busy time because international students are all arriving for the fall term and, let's face it, this is a great time of year to be in London.

We actually worked in a lot of stuff for a half day of exploring, with one person only semi-coherent and semi-oriented. We took the tube to Moorgate and then headed over to Liverpool Station so I could use the loo (note to self: the loo costs 30p). I'd heard about the Raven Row Gallery on the Robert Elms Show on BBC London, so I wanted to stop briefly there. It is in an absolutely wonderful Georgian house that once had shops on the ground floor, behind beautiful bowed windows. The gallery is the inspiration of Alex Sainsbury (Son of Sainsbury's) and features new contemporary artists. But the building itself is the real work of art, and worth seeing no matter what is on in the gallery. Everything has been painted the same ivory color, which might sound a bit monotonous and boring, but it really serves to highlight the lovely bones and bows of the house and the rooms.

From there, we went to Dennis Severs House, a totally different type of back-in-time experience. The house is in Folgate Street near Spitalfields Market, and was once the home of Huguenot silk weavers. Dennis Severs purchased the house in the 1970s, saving it from the wrecking ball. He lovingly filled the rooms with what, in his imagination, depicted the lives of the (imaginary) Jarvis family during different times in the 17th - 19th centuries. The rooms are absolutely chock-a-block with stuff -- half-nibbled biscuits, clothing, furnishing, pets, chamber pots, etc., etc. But that's not all. Dennis Severs actually lived in this house for 20 years. A house without electricity, central heating, plumbing (there is one cold water tap in the basement kitchen), or a bathtub. Since his death, friends of Dennis Severs have maintained the house as he would have wanted it. The idea is that visitors will walk around from room to room, silently experiencing the house and its inhabitants. You sense that someone has just left a room or that you are intruding on a private moment. The whole thing is meant to be a multi-sensory, time transport experience that can be yours for £8.

We did a little more rambling in the East End: Spooner shopped for spices in Brick Lane, I looked for street name signs and street art, and we stopped for snacks at the Albion Cafe (corner of Redchurch and Boundary Rd). Quite a lot, really, for an arrival day on little sleep.

Tomorrow: Kensal Green Cemetery and Notting Hill (weather permitting)

Distance covered: 16579 steps (6.8 miles)
£20 to top up my Oyster card
£8 for Dennis Severs House
£4.10 for snacks at the Albion Cafe