Where the Chartered Thames Does Flow

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Of late I have been enjoying some glorious journeys along the Thames, exploring the stories the buildings on its banks tell about the changing neighbourhoods it passes on its course through London. Just before Christmas, I finally got around to taking the cable car between Royal Victoria Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula, home of the Millennium Dome (or O2 stadium, as it’s now known). It’s a short ride, but a fascinating one. South East London is the most rapidly expanding and gentrifying area of London, and the amount of building going on in areas that were formerly scrubby wastelands is quite overwhelming. The skyline is dotted with the heads of cranes, and the constant emergence of yet more shimmering skyscrapers and executive apartment buildings has invited a distinctly different demographic to the streets. However, when you are up in the air, looking down over the muddy riverbanks that are crowded with warehouses, factories and boats, it is clear to see that South East London is still very much characterised by its industrial roots. Here the Thames remains a working river, exemplified by the silver sails of the Thames Barrier peeking above the surface of the water. All of this industry might be hidden from tourists, but it is vital to the life of the city, and has a certain aesthetic appeal of its own.

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Last weekend, I went to the Tate to catch the Turner exhibition before it closes, and decided to walk along the river from Waterloo rather than catch the tube. I normally walk on the Westminster side of the bridge, but this time I walked along the other side before crossing the river at Lambeth Bridge, and I noticed Lambeth Palace for the first time. This is the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with much of the building dating back to Tudor times. I stopped and stared at it for ages, completely mesmerised by this wonderful time capsule that is now marooned amongst a tangle of traffic lights and ugly 1980s office buildings. Half way across the bridge, I stopped to turn back, and was amazed at what I could see. The buildings in front of me were a physical map of London’s history. To my right, the Victorian obsession with the medieval exemplified in the Gothic Revival masterpiece that is the Houses of Parliament. To my left, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie and the spindly red heads of cranes building more skyscrapers poking above the skyline, symbols of modern capitalism. In front of them, the red brick Tudor gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, witness to the development of a city that has changed beyond recognition since it was built. This is what I love about London; there is always something new to discover, and every building tells such a fascinating story about how this city has evolved and adapted to the world around it. The past is just as alive as the present.

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By the time I was finished in the Tate, darkness had fallen, and the river had changed now it was being viewed under a different light. My mind filled with pictures of Turner’s amazing depictions of light in his work towards the end of his life, I was extra sensitive to the way the artificial lights from the surrounding buildings reflected on the water and contributed to the shifting sense of purpose of the river as night descends. It becomes a place of romance, of mystery, as the light dances across the surface and its depths become unfathomable. Facing Vauxhall, the hyper-modern buildings set against the black waters made London look sleek and futuristic; I could almost have been in Hong Kong. Facing Westminster, however, the soft glow of the Houses of Parliament in the darkling evening light provided such a quintessential vision of England that it would have been impossible for me to imagine I was anywhere else. As I made my way back to the Southbank to meet a friend for dinner, I found myself walking under a haze of fairy lights and the neon glow of the signs attached to the brutalist structures of the National Theatre and Southbank Centre. This section of the river, built solely for the purpose of entertainment and to regenerate a London destroyed by war, is always filled with crowds of people enjoying themselves and the views the promenade offers. It’s amazing how, within the space of a few miles, the Thames transforms from the industrial wasteland I saw on my cable car ride to a cultural metropolis. Walking along its banks is certainly an education, and a way to see London through fresh eyes.

West of the River

 

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I rarely go far into West London, but this weekend I decided a trip to somewhere different was well overdue. Intrepid university friend Emma and I therefore met up at Notting Hill in the unexpectedly tropical heat, and had a pleasant stroll through the market on Portobello Road, stopping to browse at some of the stalls until we had enough of the crowds and branched off onto a side street. We popped into an interesting looking, wonderfully musty smelling church, went into an excellently serviced public toilet (worth remembering if you’re visiting Portobello Road for the day) and thoroughly enjoyed marvelling at the beautiful, colourful architecture that makes up so many of the streets and squares in the area. 

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We then headed off towards Kensal Green, walking through the stately streets of Lancaster Gate, Ladbroke Grove and along the canal that was full of brightly painted narrow boats, until we reached the gate of Kensal Green Cemetery. It is my mission to make it around all of the ‘Seven Sisters’ cemeteries in London, and to date I have only managed three, which isn’t a very good tally. Highgate will always be my favourite, thanks to its romantic air of neglect, but Kensal Green is a very close second. I much preferred it to Brompton, which is rather conventional in its layout and contains few interesting monuments. Kensal Green is actually the oldest cemetery in London, having been founded in the 1830s, and is still very much in use today.

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The large chapel buildings and colonnades are rather dilapidated, and made from a weathered stone that looks rather Southern European, especially in the sunlight. There are a fair few areas of mainly modern graves, but there are also several clusters of fantastic Victorian graves that have a real air of Highgate about them; crumbling angels intertwined with vines, elaborate mausoleums in Egyptian and Gothic style, and a range of urns, broken columns and weeping women, all of which would be familiar to those of us who haunt cemeteries for fun. I was most fascinated by the grave of Wilkie Collins, one of my favourite Victorian authors, and also that of Princess Sophia, daughter of George III, who was not afforded a spot in a traditional Royal burial ground due to having had a child out of wedlock. I couldn’t find the grave of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which was a shame, but it is in there, so if anyone wants to go and find it and send me a picture, I’d be grateful! 

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After a thorough explore, Emma and I parted ways. I headed off to Putney to meet my former flatmate, and as usual, wondered why I have never lived in such a beautiful part of London as I revelled in the gorgeous view across Putney Bridge. We were out partying in Fulham on Saturday night, but on Sunday morning I arose bright and early and caught a bus that took me on a lovely journey through the streets of West London and all the way to Regent Street, from where I walked to the National Portrait Gallery to see the new exhibition on Virginia Woolf. It is absolutely marvellous. I was fascinated by every exhibit and marvelled at the photographs that have been unearthed; they reveal a very different side to the Virginia popularised by the rather romanticised images taken of her when she was in her early twenties. It was very moving to see the final two letters written before she died, where her tiny handwriting expresses her terror of having to face yet another breakdown. The sheer variety of exhibits is wonderful; from copies of the newspapers Virginia and her siblings created as children to first editions and manuscripts of the novels, this is a must see for any Woolf enthusiast. I already can’t wait to go back again; it was the perfect end to a lovely London weekend.

London Strolling

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There is nothing better than London in the sun. Suddenly, everything becomes rather European. Restaurants spill out onto the pavements. Markets and stalls pop up out of nowhere. The streets are thronged with people leisurely strolling along, with no one in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. The Thames sparkles and shimmers and the time-mellowed bricks of the old buildings are softly radiant in the sunshine. To be free to walk and explore at a leisurely pace, without being cowed underneath an umbrella or muffled in a coat, is a rare joy indeed in these parts. As soon as the sun comes out, therefore, I channel Virginia Woolf and become a street walker, eschewing public transport and finding my way on foot. There is no better way to explore a city; you can trace the edges of neighbourhoods, see the subtle architectural distinctions between this street and that, and find no end of previously undiscovered nooks and crannies to delight.

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On Saturday, I met friends for brunch in the beautifully decorated Balthazar, which has just popped up in Covent Garden and is almost an exact replica of its namesake in New York. We had a lovely time chatting inside the French bistro-themed interior while the sun streamed in through the windows. I enjoyed a lovely hazlenut waffle (though it was served with fake maple syrup – big no-no!) and I felt like I had been transported back to the Big Apple. I’m looking forward to trying it for a proper meal; it would be the perfect spot for a pre-theatre dinner. On exiting the restaurant, we briefly popped into Balthazar’s bakery and coffee shop next door; I was sorely tempted by the delicious looking pastries on display, and I’d recommend it for people wanting to grab breakfast on the go while shopping or sight seeing. We then enjoyed wandering round the cobbled market, watching a few of the performers, before we parted ways, with two of us remaining to enjoy the London sun.

IMG_8518 I decided I fancied a trip to the Tate, and I wanted to walk along the river. So, my friend and I set off, strolling along Southbank and across Westminster Bridge, drinking in the beautiful view of a sun dappled Houses of Parliament. I rarely walk into Westminster these days, so I loved being so close to Parliament, Big Ben and the Abbey, looking closely at the decorative details on the buildings and peering down the alleys and side streets that are filled with history and impressive architecture. As we walked along Millbank, the buildings become more Art Deco, and the river is lined with shady trees and gardens with spots to sit and enjoy the view. It was quiet and peaceful; a real contrast to the throngs of people along the Southbank, and if I didn’t have an exhibition to see, I could have sat and whiled away my afternoon watching the boats bob past on the river.

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The Tate is my favourite London gallery; there is always an exhibition I actually want to see, and the permanent collection is varied and interesting. Since they reorganised everything by year of painting, I have found it an even more enriching place to visit, as I feel that each time I go, I become more appreciative of and knowledgeable about the development of art over time through being able to compare and contrast groups of paintings. I also love being able to make connections between periods and see clearly how history repeats itself as the fashions of earlier times reappear a few hundred years later. In a normal gallery, with paintings separated by country of origin or by painter, these links are much harder to make, and the Tate is definitely on to something by rehanging its collection in this way. Their new exhibition of British Folk Art was the main draw for me this time, though; I was a keen visitor of the American Museum of Folk Art when I lived in New York, but I know very little about folk art in Britain and I was eager to learn more. The exhibition, while fairly compact in terms of the number of objects, is absolutely fantastic and displays a huge breadth of exhibits, from shop signs to enormous ship figureheads, to paintings and patchwork quilts. I was enthralled by all of them, and was particularly pleased to see many a Kentish artist featured, including someone who painted a lovely picture of Groombridge Place, which, as some readers will know, was the inspiration for Vita Sackville-West’s beautiful novella The Heir. I came away with both a good basic knowledge of folk art in Britain and a keen desire to discover more, which is exactly what an exhibition should deliver, in my opinion. I highly recommend it, and it was the perfect stopping point for my sunny London walk.

More London Touring

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Last week was half term, and a much needed break before the seemingly never ending seven weeks until the summer holidays. I relaxed, I read, I played with my nephews and I also headed to London for some fun and frolics. On Thursday, my sister and I had a mammoth shopping trip to Regent’s Street, during which we indulged in a delicious afternoon tea at Liberty’s before going to see the magnificent Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre. I’ve now seen it twice and I’d still happily see it again; it’s an absolutely hilarious and finely acted play, and if you can manage to squeeze it in before the end of the run, you really should.

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The following day, I met Miranda bright and early at Simpson’s in the Strand, which is a bit of a London institution. It belongs to the Savoy and is well known for its British classics, such as roast beef, but we were there for a leisurely breakfast instead. Not since having lunch at the Ritz for my 16th birthday have I been in such lavish surroundings; I felt like I was in a 1930s novel, eating in the palatial dining car of the Orient Express. The waiters and waitresses move around soundlessly on the deep plush of the carpet and the voices of other guests are muffled by the wooden panelling on the walls. The chandeliers sparkle, the napkins are real linen and the service is second to none. If you want to step back in time and experience a true taste of quintessential Britishness, Simpson’s is a must visit. After breakfast, we headed over to the Courtauld Gallery, which I haven’t visited in a good couple of years. I don’t know why; it might be small, but the selection of paintings is excellent and presented in an uncluttered and very visually pleasing way. The gallery rooms are also stunning pieces of art in themselves, and I enjoyed our visit immensely. The cafe is also excellent; unusually for many museums and galleries, the food is fresh, homemade and reasonably priced, and the seating area is pleasantly uncrowded. It’s the perfect place for a pit stop if you’re in the centre of town.

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After tea and cake, for which we were joined by our lovely friend Claire, Miranda and I went to Marylebone High Street. We had a lovely time exploring the shops, and I made a rare new book purchase in Daunt’s; I couldn’t resist their new publication, Sybille Bedford’s Pleasures and Landscapes, and Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia, one of Penguin’s new Pelican titles. Once we had enjoyed browsing in such elegant and highly tempting places as The Conran Shop, Sandro and Agnes B, we enjoyed a delicious cocktail in the charming rooftop bar of Orrery, where it is so quiet and peaceful that I could hardly believe I was in London at all. Quite the perfect spot. Miranda and I then parted ways; I went off to meet my intrepid university friend Emma, and we had a very tasty dinner in the BFI Cafe on Southbank while watching the buzzing early evening crowds wander up and down looking at the book stalls, heading to the theatre and just enjoying the atmosphere of London’s riverbank on a mild evening. I love nothing better than the Southbank in any season; it always feels vibrant and exciting no matter what the time of year. I would have dearly liked to go to the National Theatre and catch a play, but both Emma and I were exhausted, so once we were fed and watered we went back to hers in Bow and indulged in a hot tub session (she has one in her garden!) and a very enjoyable yet terrible Jennifer Aniston film before retiring to bed. We know how to live!

Keats House

2 Willow Road

The following day, Emma and I were up bright and early to make the most of the sunshine. We set off for Hampstead, where we took a short tour of the main sights, such as Keats’ House and Flask Walk, before picking up a take away lunch from Gail’s to enjoy on the Heath. I love Hampstead Heath; once inside, it really is just like being in the countryside, and at this time of year it is absolutely bursting with colourful, fragrant flowers and birdsong. We wandered up and down the meandering paths until we found the perfect lunch spot by a small pond; it was so quiet and peaceful that London seemed miles away. After a pleasant bask in the sunshine, we managed to motivate ourselves to walk up to the top of Parliament Hill to take in the breathtaking views over the London skyline before heading back into Hampstead to visit the only London National Trust property I was yet to frequent; 2 Willow Road. Designed in the 1930s by architect Erno Goldfinger for his family, it is a striking and incredibly inventive building that really challenged my perceptions of the whole concept of modernism. I loved the clever use of space and the clean lines, and how Goldfinger had pushed the boundaries of what was fashionable during the period, producing a very modern space that is still very different from what was the predominantly white-plastered curved lines that we now mostly associate with the 1930s. I’d actually go as far to say that it is one of my favourite National Trust properties, and it has given me a great deal of inspiration. It’s definitely a must visit, and was the perfect place to end a weekend of fun in sunny London town!

 

London Touring

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Over the past few weekends, I’ve been taking great pleasure in rediscovering London and its myriad of charms. The problem with growing up somewhere is that it becomes too familiar; everyday, humdrum. I’ve never marvelled at the sights I see tourists gaping at, cameras clicking and fingers pointing. I’m too busy trying to push through the crowds to get to where I’m going. I have my favourite museums, shops, restaurants and so on, and I rarely venture far outside of what I know; I use London as a meeting point rather than as a destination to be properly explored.

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Well, all that is going to change. My eyes have been opened. I took a walk around Regent’s Park, finding beautiful gardens and vistas I had never come across before. Who knew there was a gorgeous riverside oasis? Who knew there were amazing iron flowerpots that date back to the 1700s? Who knew there were so many multicoloured tulips and lavish fountains and lovely historic buildings?  I certainly didn’t. It was like stepping outside of London altogether and resurfacing in a countryside idyll filled with the scent of wildflowers and the sound of birdsong. On a sunny afternoon, its charms can’t be beat. How could I have never explored its depths before?

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I then walked from Regent’s Park to Marylebone, discovering the marvellous 221b Baker Street on my way, whose shop is a veritable treasure trove of Sherlock Holmes related items you never knew you wanted. Wandering down the stately Portland Place, I spotted a blue plaque memorialising the former London home of Frances Hodgson Burnett and found out that the impressive art deco RIBA headquarters has free public exhibitions, which is something I am definitely going to take advantage of on a regular basis. I then met the lovely Miranda at this excellent pub that serves delicious wine and tapas just off of Marylebone High Street, and was reminded that there are plenty of wonderful, low-key restaurants in interesting locations that are definitely worth leaving my usual stomping ground to visit. On our walk back to the tube, Miranda showed me Marylebone High Street in the twilight; I have never been before, despite it being where my granddad and his family used to live before they were bombed out in the war. It was hard to imagine my working class urchin of a grandfather strolling down such a grand parade of shops; the beautiful Daunt Books is the crown amongst many upmarket jewels, along with some very tempting restaurants, such as Orrery, above the Conran Shop, which has a beautiful rooftop view and will definitely be frequented by Miranda and I at some point.

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The following weekend, I took a dear friend who is shortly returning to her native New Zealand for a final tour around London. She wanted to see the City, so we walked from Charing Cross through Victoria Embankment Gardens – which has a ridiculous amount of very interesting statues – past Two Temple Place and up to the Twinings Tea Shop, which is just on the corner of the Strand and Fleet Street. Twinings Tea has been in the same spot forever, and it’s a tiny, narrow little galley of a building where you can not only buy tea, but also learn about the history of tea. After a browse, we walked up to St Paul’s, passing a series of beautiful and impressive historic buildings on the way. I was disappointed to find Temple Church, home of the Knights Templar, closed, but I will go back to see it again. We stopped to take in the pretty garden inside the atmospheric ruins of the bombed out Christ Church Greyfriars before popping to see the poignant plaques dedicated to those who died saving the lives of others at Postman’s Park. We then hopped on the tube to Baker Street and headed back to Marylebone High Street, as my friend wanted to visit Daunt Books, and I had never been either (I know! Can you believe it?!). I gasped out loud when we walked inside; never have I seen such a gorgeous space for selling books. The huge galleried back room with its floor to ceiling stained glass window is like a church, and a more fitting place for the worship of the written word could not possibly exist elsewhere.

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We wandered, ate, then headed back to the West End to catch a musical, followed by dinner at the always atmospheric Polpo and a romantic, twilight walk from Southbank to London Bridge, marvelling at the beautiful views along the river and enjoying the buzz of the crowds taking advantage of the mild evening. As we passed the Globe and saw the hundreds of audience members enjoying their interval drinks, talking and laughing about the performance they were in the midst of watching, saw  boats making their stately journeys up and down the river, and the softly glowing dome of St Paul’s in the distance, we were struck by how timeless the scene was, and how many people for centuries must have seen and experienced what we were experiencing just at that moment. There really is nothing like London. As the saying goes; tired of London, tired of life!

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