Hawkes Bay NZ Water trail

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Back to Bermondsey

All the walking is wearing me out again, so I didn't leave Epsom for London until about noon. Arrived at Waterloo, then two changes of Tube, first via the Northern Line south, change at Kennington, then north to Borough. It's only after you've walked miles through the snaking white tiled underground tunnels that you realize things like: "oh, if I'd gotten off in Wimbledon I could have done such-and-such" or "from Vauxhall, I could have taken the Victoria line to Brixton." Duh. Riding the tube is basically a mesmerizing experience, and you get so used to life underground that you forget you can get from Waterloo to Borough faster via the surface streets, if you just put on your glasses and read the map.

Well, after my daily version of "Alice's Adventures Under the Ground" I headed toward Bermondsey Street, via Long Lane. Stopped for a mortadella and salad on ciabatta sandwich at pretty deli called FinefoodsEC1, run by two antic Italians, that had a queue of hungry-looking Europeans spilling into the street. Good sign: Spanish- and/or French-speaking young people + queue usually means good food at reasonable cost. Score!

Next stop: Punk fashion queen Zandra Rhodes' Fashion and Textile Museum, an orange- and pink building that just pops. This neighborhood used to be the heart of the tannery trade, and the streets have great names to prove it: Tanner, Morocco and Leathermarket. Now, it's all trendy shops and cafes. The current show is Very Sanderson 150 Years of English Decoration, and if you are interested in interior decoration and textiles, it's good. Sanderson established itself as a French wallpaper importer in 1860. Known for its chintz (remember the blowsy roses of the 1980s?), the show covers the rise, fall, and rise of Sanderson. In case you don't already know, it's been rediscovered by a new generation of fans. All you need to do is stay in a boutique hotel, like a W, for example, and you'll see who's discovered it.

Next stop, a walk through the Borough Market, which squeezes its Victorian iron and glasswork underneath the railway arches of London Bridge Station. By the time I got there, 4pm, things were starting to slow a bit, but the place was still jammed with stalls selling flowers, fruit, meat, fish, bread, dishes, cheeses and wine. Apparently the market has been here since medieval times, because until 1750, London only had one bridge, and all the farmers from Kent used to set up their stalls here.

Here's the real storefront of Neal's Yard Dairy. Their original shop, in, wait for it, Neal's Yard, near Covent Garden, is only a shadow of its former self. In 1979 I worked at Birkbeck College as a library assistant, and I could walk to Neal's Yard, and back, on my lunchbreak. Little did I know back then that I was entering the source of Britain's local food renaissance, their version of Alice Waters in San Francisco. I used to come here to buy "real" bread and "real" cheese because the stuff in Sainsbury's was crap. As an Australian, coming from a big agricultural nation that, circa 1975, somehow skipped the 1st world's descent into antiseptic, plasticated food, I was homesick for stuff with taste. Little did I know I was walking in the footsteps of the greats. I'm pleased to report that this location of Neal's Yard is wallpapered with pine cheese shelves, and carries blue veined and/or goaty beauties with names like these: Duckett's Caerphilly, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, Ticklemore and Mini Milleens. Ohh, and the smell!!

The guy in white giving out samples was 10 years old when the original Neal's Yard was founded. He didn't seem surprised at all that a middle-aged baby boomer from the USA stopped by to wax lyrical about his cheeses.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Chelsea Flower Show

Before I left Seattle, I bought a ticket to the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show. I could only buy a ticket for the time slot 5:30 to 8pm on Thursday May 27. The Show started on Tuesday, officially opened by the Queen. The first three days of the show are reserved for RHS members, and is held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a very grand army veterans' retirement home. Several of these elderly gents, dressed in their lovely scarlet uniforms, were sitting on Lutyen benches, watching the crowds pass by.

I picked up my ticket (very pretty, with a silver embossed foil label in the top left: a keeper) at the "will call" tent. At 5:20, I joined the queue of generally elderly folks, and we all surged through the turnstiles. The place was totally mobbed, crowds three people deep around the show gardens, reminiscent of NY's Times Square on New Year's Eve, so I went into Grand Pavilion, which hosts the plant vendors, and was somewhat less jammed. Plenty of stands, some totally wierd (check out the balls of flowers in the photo), and staffed by people wearing suits, busily scribbling orders for irises, delphiniums, fuchias, chrysthanthemums,fuchias carnivorous plants, topiaried fruit and vegetables, and roses, roses, roses, and, more roses.

I fled out the back and found one of the refreshment areas. Here I could buy some expensive cappuccino, a British banger hot dog on grainy bun, or some exceptionally authentic looking (i.e., greasy battered) fish n chips. I setteled for a strawberry ice cream cone.

I wandered about, trying not to enter any of the sales stalls while licking the ice cream: decks, lawn furniture, reproduction statues of Mercury, fountains, greenhouses, garden spades so beautifully made, they looked like you could use them as salad servers, not get all dirty doing any digging. Lots of stalls showing works by botanical artists or flower photographers, batik silk scarves (flower subjects, naturally), pretty garden gloves, panama hats, wellington boots, including the stall from Dubarry (photo here), an Irish tweeds and leather clothier. I doubt I'd wear their gear when mucking out my barn. The young woman modeling the riding jacket and goretex lined leather boots told me they start around £250. But they did include a water-filled plastic dish on the display floor (yes, that's a carpet), so you could test the waterproofing I suppose. There were razor-sharp bonsai pruning tools sold by well-dressed Japanese folks, vertical garden beds for apartment dwellers, horticultural books and lots of seed sellers. Hmm. I didn't see a John Deere stall or a forklift from Caterpillar, Inc. I must have missed it. Everything else was there.

Finally, I elbowed back to look at the show gardens. They were divided in 4 sections: Show, Urban, Courtyard and Generation. The layout was a bit confusing, and there were still lots of gawkers. Most of the photos in this post are from either the Show or the Courtyard parts. I think I totally missed a whole section due to the crazy layout. Oh well. My favorites included Trailfinders Australian Garden [a gold medal winner] and Kazahana (A light snow flurry from a cloudless sky) which won something called a "silver gilt" medal. They've got to be kidding. If I'd been judge, they'd have won gold. Those two Japanese designers must have placed all the varigated moss up the wall of the display using toothpicks and tweezers. Another really cool one involved a cave, covered in artifical turf, that hosted a waterfall, and had an orchid house hidden in the back where a kitchen would normally be. This is officially called The Easigrass Garden (The Urban Plantaholic's Kitchen Garden). You can't make this stuff up.

I thought the Aussie one was great: lots of hardscaping, and drought hardy and familiar plants (to me), plus, it was actually a low work garden, and totally outside the normal garden aesthetic around here. All those beautiful flower filled courtyard gardens are full of work intensive annuals, and would need love and care every day.

Given how expensive this show is, I was surprised that the vendors weren't giving out much free loot. I think I scored a few packet of sunflower seeds, and several invitations to share my email so I can win a trip somewhere. Many of the gardens had some charitable tie in, but it was all a bit too much to take in during a 2 1/2 hour run through. The show sold out weeks ago, but I did pass two shifty looking touts on the street offering to "sell you's a ticket, guv'ner?". Hey, only in London is there a market for contraband garden show tickets!

The joy that is Chelsea has spilled out into nearby Sloane Square. Various shops are getting into the act. Cartier has a big poppy spilling through its front window. Others are wreathed in rose wreaths or giant urns packed with ferns and flowers.

The BBC is doing daily coverage of the Show all week. You can stream it here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Design Museum & Merchants of Bollywood

Photos: View along Thames Path, the gherkin building, folding bike, bike rack+garden box combo, and show layout in the Brit Insurance show

As you ride the steep Tube escalators up and down (always standing obediently on the right), it's hard to miss all the print or video posters, that step up or down the walls. Around Covent Garden, naturally, all the posters are about the longrunning shows: Dirty Dancing, The Lion King, Love Never Dies, etc. I've noted a short run show, at Sadler's Wells Peacock Theatre, advertised as "Direct from Film City, Mumbai, the hit dance spectacular returns to London!" Who could resist? I picked up a £25 ticket from the box office in the AM. Buying direct saves the booking fee (at least they don't use the ephemism "convenience fee" here, they actually tell the truth). Also, these errands give me the chance to explore another part of London on foot.

The show didn't start til 7:30pm, so I rode the Tube to Tower Hill, checked out "the gherkin" building by Norman Foster, then walked across Tower Bridge ("London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down" - yes that one), back on the Thames Path, and back into Southwark and Bermondsey. I walked the cobbled street of Shad Thames, past places with evocative names like Ginger Wharf and Spice Quay. When I was last in London, the Docklands regeneration had barely begun. I can remember derelict warehouses and gritty streets, not really that far from the Dickensian slum London where Bill Sykes terrorized Oliver Twist and cholera was rampant. 30 years have passed, and what a different world it is: expensive conversion flats, swanky boutiques and nice restaurants. It's also where you find both Terence Conran's Design Museum and Zandra Rhodes' Fashion and Textile Museum. I bought a £12 joint ticket, and viewed the 3 small and fascinating shows at the Design: Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, Sustainable Futures and Urban Africa. Thirty years ago, product and graphic design really wasn't considered "art" and I remember stumbling into something called the Design Center, to look a bunch of cool (I thought so, anyway) products. I remember one hilarious object then on display: a Toby mug in the shape of Prince Charles' head, with his ears as handles. This was during the Charles and Diana royal wedding era, before everything went off the rails. Now, I read in the museum's catalog about their joint MA degree with Kingston University in curating contemporary design. So, design is finally real art. I'll go to the F&T later, as the ticket is good for 1 month.

And what about the Merchants of Bollywood? How about 2+ hours of high energy music and non-stop full-on choreographed dancing. I didn't know you could dance both rock-n-roll and disco wearing the glittering Indian pant/skirt with midriff top outfits (girls) or harem pants and jewelled vests (boys), but, yes, you can. And you can do it while galloping around in a pantomime horse, or a jewelled elephant mask, clanging cymbals and beating drums. Did I mention the Rajestani slap stick, all jokes about moustaches and cross dressing? "JAY HO!"

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

"All haile Macbeth, all haile to thee, Thane of Glamis!"

Today the 2pm show was an extremely gory, violent, rude, bawdy, and brilliant production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, performed in the totally packed new Globe Theatre, the faithful reconstruction of the round 1599 open-air playhouse that actor Sam Wanamaker built. About the only thing it didn't have was straw and horse dung in the court yard. If you've seen the movie Shakespeare in Love, you have seen a little of what it's like to see a play as it was done back when. I showed up at the box office around 11:30am, and snagged the last ticket. Cost me £35 and worth every penny. I couldn't have faced the prospect of being a "groundling" and paying a mere £5 to buy one of the 700 tickets available daily if you want to stand in the smoky courtyard for 2 1/2 hours. I also rented a seat cushion for £1, so that I could sit in relative comfort on the wooden benches. The groundlings could make use of the black cover, with headholes cut into the fabric, if they really wanted the full-on Elizabethan experience of murder and mayhem on stage. Today wasn't as hot as the past 3 days, but it still got a bit toasty out there in the courtyard as the sun changed its position. Pigeons flapped about on the thatched roof, smoke from the stage braziers drifted about, and musicians playing bleating bagpipes, flutes and skin drums, mixed in the audience, along with the bloodied actors playing dead soldiers with flayed bodies or malevolent spirits writhing in hell. And the three witches were hideously evil. The actor who played MacBeth is Elliot Cowan, and he was terrific, as were all the members of the cast. Everyone seemed to have their hands caked to the elbows in gore, and wielded bloody swords and axes, and as for Lady Macbeth's using her white satin gown as a hand towel, well, just imagine. The guy who played Malcolm spoke with a strong Scottish accent. Later I saw him in the lobby being mobbed by teenage girls. He seems familiar. In fact, I think he's played Doctor Who at some point.

Had I been up for it, besides the very classy selection of posters, woodcut cards and facsimiles of Shakespeare's plays, I could also have bought a couple of original C16th plays in the gift shop. A local antiquarian bookseller was offering them for a mere £2500 or so. I settled for a few postcards.

The show was truly amazing. I'm tempted to go back and see it again.

Biking by ferry and Story Telling + Cycling

In last Saturday's The Guardian [May 22, 2010], there was a Travel special headlined: Driving force/How strikes and the ash cloud are getting us back on Europe's roads. This summer, everyone is dealing with (literally) a perfect storm of air travel nightmares: the on-again/off-again rolling slowdowns caused by Iceland's burping volcano, plus a British Airways cabin crew strike. One article Roll On, Roll Off is about avoiding planes, and taking the ferry to Europe. Hey, that's what I'm doing in about 2 weeks! Wow! I planned right?! I'm going via Calais, but if I'd wanted to ride through SE England and leave from Plymouth, likely I could have taken the Brittany Ferries to Roscoff. It's possible to load the bike on National Rail in London and get off in Plymouth if I'd wanted.

Another article Pedaller of myths covers an interesting entrepreneur who offers organized bike rides led by a storyteller. I don't have time to go to Scotland on this trip, but next time, I might check out Andy Hunter's Storybikes

A very good idea.

Monday, May 24, 2010

V & A

Various shots from the V&A: interior courtyard, the Rodin gallery, Rodin's Cupid & Psyche, "Scandal", lunch in the Gamble Room, detail of a food quote window, Dale Chihuly's glass, the guide describing a C18th wall hanging in the splendid British Galleries (1500 to 1900), showing a formal garden, complete with beds of tulips and a slave servant, which were both signs of great wealth. The grand Michelin House (1911) with faience tiles showing the Paris-Brest bike race and the smoking, bike riding Michelin Man stained glass window.

Today's another scorcher, so I headed to South Kensington, aiming for the Victoria & Albert Museum. I'd hoped it would be nice and cool inside. Well, it is very nice and very cool, but I'm not talking about their a/c, which wasn't really coping well with the heat. It's the collection that's cool. Such a collection of unexpected objects, everything from wallpaper pattern books, cotton textiles, carved wooden panels, embroideries, formal paintings of the craziest subjects, all the way through furniture with lion's feet, a lifesize ceramic St Bernard, to full sets of china plates and Charles II's wedding frock coat and breeches. Heck, even the gift shop was photo-worthy.

Lunch in the museum cafe was an experience all of its own. These are the Morris (1868), Gamble (1878) & Poynter (1881) Rooms. Apparently these 3 rooms were designed to be the first museum cafe. The one on the left is dark and green, all gilded Pre-Raphaelite panels and Burne-Jones stained glass. On the right is Poynter, decorated with blue tiles that show the seasons and the months of the year. Gamble is the knock-out yellow and cream room in the middle. The tiles are cream-colored Minton and cover the walls and the pillars. There is a ceiling frieze of cherubs and a quote from the Bible, and all the stained glass windows have rectangular panels containing quotations about food from authors like Dante and Spenser. An example: "hunger makes the best sauce."

The place was totally packed, hot and stuffy. All the formica tables, which looked so odd placed against the C19th grandeur of walls and ceilings, were in constant use, and the staff were very slow about table clearing. Plus they were serving hot food, things like pastry-topped pies and roast chicken. It must have been over 90 degrees inside. The British are obviously a tough crowd. Doesn't matter if it's 1pm on a blazing hot day in Africa somewhere. If it's Monday, we must eat our roast beef and pudding, etc.

I joined the 2:30pm free tour of the British Gallery, 1500 to 1900, and the docent gave a quirky and educational walk through of some of the treasures, like the Great Bed of Ware, which appears in Twelfth Night, and a marble statue of Handel. The composer, without his wig and wearing a cloth cap sits in torn breeches on a pile of books (you can see "Pope" and "Homer" on the spines of a few). One slipper dangles off his foot, while he strums a harp and composes, with a handy cherub at his feet to transcribe his music with a quill.

Other galleries or works that just stand out are the Raphael cartoons, a collection of Rodins, and my all-time current favorite, two art deco pieces by Charles Sargeant Jagger that the V&A acquired just a few years ago, made for someone called Henry Mond. One is a wall relief called "Scandal", the other a fireplace panel that tartly expresses Mr Mond's contempt for the gossip that surrounded his unusual personal life during the 1930s.

That's what so great about the V&A. You just never know what will grab your attention. There's a chandelier by Seattle artist Dale Chihuly hanging over the information desk on the ground floor, for example. I'll have to go back if I want to see Tippoo's Tiger, a wooden automaton of a tiger attacking someone from the East India Company, or the special show on Grace Kelly.

It was still hot when the museum kicked us out at 5:30pm, so I walked along Brompton Road, looking for the art deco Michelin Tyre Company building. It's now a swanky restaurant and it wasn't hard to spot. Whoever designed it must have been inhaling gasoline fumes while drafting the architectural plans. It has a stained glass window featuring the Michelin Man, ceramic wall medallions shaped like tires, and tile panels showing bucolic scenes of the French countryside, replete with turn-of-the-century roadsters (and one bike!) speeding along. The building is topped with matching pyramids of stacked tires which illuminate with a soft glow at night. Perfect! This building definitely deserves to be added to the collection of the V&A sometime in the future.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ice Cream Weather!

This is what the British call warm summer weather, and this weekend, we've been handed a double dose. On Saturday, my friend and I went grocery shopping in Epsom's high street, where vendors set up their stalls and offer an entertaining alternative to the local Waitrose and Marks & Spencer's shops. The market was very lively, with a butcher, baker, 3 fruit and vegetable stalls, and 2 stalls selling plants. There was also a barker selling English flags. Today is a big football game [what I would call soccer] final, between B Munich and Inter Milan. Strangely, England isn't in the final, but that didn't seem to matter, as the stall was doing a brisk trade in the white flags emblazoned with a red cross.

Later on Saturday my friend hosted a dinner party, and I got to meet several friends and neighbors. My friend lives in a semi-detached house. This is the sort of house that shares a wall with another house, each side is a mirror image of the other. I met the folks who lived on both sides. Everyone is very well traveled. One neighbor's daughter is going to Germany in a week's time for a school break trip. As the UK is part of the EU, travel seems much easier and must be a bit more more affordable.

After the great night of conversation, we all slept in. Today has been extraordinarily hot. We spent most of the day in back garden, drinking tea and reading the ever-so-high class The Guardian and The Sunday Times. I love newspapers, and London still seems to have a viable newpaper culture, which I really appreciate. I've been picking up and reading the papers where-ever I go: the free copy of the Evening Standard that gets handed out at rush hour in all the London train stations. On Friday I bought a copy of The Times for £1, because it had a free copy of Joan Didion's book: The Year of Magical Thinking, bound with the issue. I mean, what's not to like about a city that has enough newspaper readers they can give away free books by real authors? Wow. And because I have eclectic taste, I've been reading the infamous tabloid Daily Mail. Well, things have changed a bit, and there's no photo of the naked lady on Page 2 anymore, but the tone of the journalism is still as sensationalist as ever. The headlines really rock, and are gloriously misleading.

At 3pm I pulled away from newspapers, got my bike together and took off to ride to Kingston-Upon-Thames. Navigating again was a big challenge. There are lots of little blue signs with white lettering on lamp posts, that direct you to various towns, e.g., "Surbiton 1 3/4" or "New Malden 2". Unfortunately, these signs seem to disappear as easily as they show up. I was using Tfl's maps 9 and 12, which shows Epsom, even though it's officially outside the London official boundary. The riding, again, was crazy-making. You follow a bike path that just ends suddenly, or, you come to a traffic circle and ride around and around until you figure out exactly which arm of the circle the sign is pointing up. Then, when I got Kingston, the green asphalt bike lane runs against the traffic flow. I've seen this before, but it still stops me in my tracks. Yes, if it's signed it's OK to do this, but I find it counterintuitive. Having a London cab barreling up the narrow street, apparently right at you, is freaky. After dozens of wrong turns, I did make it to Kingston, and rode a short distance towards Hampton Court Palace, along the multiuse speed-bumped towpath, the Thames Path, which is part of the NCN route 4 bikeway. I'd seen it last week when I'd visited the palace and wanted to know how to get to it. Eventually I suppose if I were here a long time I'd figure out London's ball of wool bike lane system. I turned around, and made it back safely, clocking 28km on my bike computer, for a ride which is probably only about one third that. I stopped for a beer at The Green Man, a pub in Ewell, a town close to Epsom. It's so hot today, all the pubs are doing a roaring trade.


Based on recommendations of a theater-going friend (Thanks Bob Hughes), I got tickets to attend Warhorse. Based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, it's a play about, [among many other things], the relationship between Albert, a 16-y-o Devon farm boy, and his horse, Joey. Joey gets sold into the cavalry, experiences trench warfare in France during WW1. Albert runs away from the farm, joins the infantry, survives the ghastly life as a foot soldier, and eventually reunites with his horse. The stagecraft is just about perfect: mechanical more-than-lifesize horses manipulated by 3 puppeteers, live music and minimalist bird puppets that first express the pastoral bliss of Devon in 1912, then the corpse-tearing crows on the 1915 battlefield. An immensely touching story of loyalty. The lighting and soundwork really express that war: machine guns, bayonet fighting, trenchdigging, mustard gas bombs, barbed wire, tanks, the lot. The story really resonates with me. My grandfather, Alexander Donaldson, was a "digger", having lied about his age and signed up to serve in the AIF [Australian Infantry Forces], first at Gallipoli, and later in France, where he was gassed. I never met him, as he'd died of pneumonia, like hundreds of other Australian WW1 veterans, many years before I was born. Fictional Albert could easily have been my grand dad. It was very meaningful personally.

The show will be coming to NY's Broadway soon, and apparently Steven Spielberg has optioned the movie rights. There's a short clip from the show on the National Theater website.

My ticket cost £37.50 from the box office. When the show ended and we poured out into Covent Garden, the place had a real party atmosphere. Friday's weather was superbly sunny and 23 degrees C. Everyone seems to be spilling out of the pubs enjoying the start of the first real sunny weekend this summer. The photo in this post is The Lamb, a typical London pub in Bloomsbury. The pub signs around the city are very distinctive and often very charming. I seem to be taking quite a few photographs of these shingles.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Art, social networking and political change

Heady title. But it's time to come back to the "bike" aspect of my blog. It's odd how things fall into place. I haven't made it yet, but the National Gallery is on my "places-to-visit" list. Trafalgar Square is out front, and in the top left hand corner of Trafalgar Square is an empty plinth. My friend told me it's called "The 4th Plinth" and it hosts changing art displays.

Earlier this week I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Where-ever I go, I pick up flyers, and in their Dulwich Festival 2010 program, they'd scheduled something called Antony Gormley and the 4th Plinth. One of the participants in this 100- person 2009 performance art event was a Dulwich resident Neil Ellis. He did a 60-minute performance piece on the 4th Plinth, and the Festival showed a short film, Pedal to the Sky, with Neil as guest, last week. I missed the festival, so I googled Neil and the project.

Check out Pedal Power: In conversation with Neil Ellis (mobile podcast #014A) podcast interview by a London blogger Yang-May Doi. Neil talks about the performance art project and how he's trying to turn it into a pressure group, using Facebook, to get London politicians to improve cyclist safety. Now, as a visitor, I have been wondering how the heck cyclists in London deal with the extemely dangerous conditions on the roads in the City. No way in hell do I plan to ride in town M-F that's for sure, as the traffic is basically deadly. Back in Seattle I am a year-round bike commuter, so I've had to learn all about survival on the street. Lord Mayor Boris' campaign is great, as are the tfl bike maps, but all the slick mapping and online promotion in the world doesn't replace commonsense on busy roads. Oh, yeah, and there's the other little problem that I usually ride on the right in the US, but here, it's on the left, so I'm still trying to figure out which way I need to look.

Every day I go into London, I am figuring out what I can [and can't] do by bike. On June 8, I have a reservation with European Bike Express to carry me and my loaded bike to France to start touring. I am still figuring out how to get from my friend's house in Epsom to the pick up point at something called Thurrocks Services in East London, at the junction of two roads: the A13 and the M25. These sound like freeways to me, and my friend doesn't ride bikes, so her car is too small to carry my bike, and of course there is no bike rack around. Paying £££ to hire a cab to get there is out of the question, as my bike is now unboxed, so it won't fit in any typical British owned car. So the conundrum is this: how do you ride to a place that's across basically unrideable terrain?

OK, I've mapped the route online using tfl's route finder, and it's about 20 miles, but the estimated time to ride it is over 3 hours. Now I understand why. I will not ride these 20 miles through London traffic to make an 11:45am pick up. I'm planning to take the earliest train I can from Epsom, so that I arrive at Waterloo before the 8am "no bikes on trains during rush hour" rule. Then I plan to roll the bike over to another part of Waterloo and join an outbound train to Greenwich. There is no rush-hour restrictions if you're leaving London. From there, I will ride (or likely walk) the bike. I'm still figuring out which stations are handicap-accessible, so that I don't have to bounce my heavy and loaded bike up or down flights of stairs. Many of London's train stations date from the C19th, and they didn't care about this sort of things back then. I have to confirm I can get across the Thames, either by foot tunnel or by ferry, as the pick up point is basically on the way to Essex on the coast.

When you do bike touring, you have to learn to think on your feet, you ask anyone and everyone for directions, and you'd better be ready to read maps. And nothing beats local knowledge. Yesterday the information desk man at Waterloo East confirmed that it's possible to get close to the destination by a combo of train and bike, and most importantly, that the "rush hour" rule doesn't apply on outbound trips. Up til now, I'd thought it applied both ways, so my window of opportunity was pretty tight. He also suggested another possible route across the Thames, which would mean less riding on traffic infested roads. I'm all for that, so I'm pouring over the maps again. Hey, learn by doing, right?

Back in Bloomsbury

Photos: Old St Pancras churchyard. The stones piled around the tree were put there when the graveyard was moved to build St Pancras railway station. Apparently Thomas Hardy [the author] was working as an engineer at that time, and likely he had the undesirable task of doing this. Perhaps the experience had an influence, as he wrote so many tragic novels.

Weather fabulously warm today, so a great day to do a variety of bookish things. First, a visit to St Pancras Old Church, built 1820 for a free 1:15pm lunchtime concert of Schumann. It was lovely to study the Victorian stained glass, the Ionic colonnade in the altar, and the two-tier half balconies on both sides, while listening to an accomplished pianist. I had to duck out early to make it back to the British Library, check my coat and bag, and get a free ticket for their Thursday tour of the Conservation Centre. The Centre is on the first floor, in a building designed to maximize the use of indirect sunlight. This hour-long tour was hosted by two of the conservators, and walked the group through the Centre to see folks at work. First a demo by a man tipping C18th maps into a new manuscript binding. Then a look at a variety of letters and other mixed documents from Sir Richard Burton [The traveler, not the actor] being cleaned and bound, and a chat with another craftsman who was fixing a C19th leather binding, and finally a demo of gold leaf work on a leather book binding, done by a man who used a bunch of exquisitely specialized brass tools and made it look easy. As if. These people are very very skilled.

Further up Midland Rd, which runs between the BL and St Pancras Station is Old St Pancras Church, which started in Norman time. It is surrounded by a green and extravagantly leafy churchyard, and peaceful, despite the fact that the Eurostar trains whip by basically every hour. It's quite easy to pick out the one where poet Shelley first spotted his future wife, then 16-y-o Mary, [who later wrote Frankenstein!], who was visiting her mom's Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's grave. The tomb is topped with a weathered broken urn, and it's exactly the sort of place where you'd expect a romantic poet to fall in love at first sight. Right out of central casting.

Despite stupidly twisting my left ankle on the cobblestones in the churchyard of Old St P, I hobbled off to visit two great bookstores: Judd Books, at 82 Marchmont St, which stocks remainders, and has loads of books on art and design, and later Persephone Books, at 59 Lamb's Conduit St, which specializes in reprints of novels, diaries and cookbooks from early to mid-C2oth by mainly women writers. Their books have plain grey covers with gorgeous patterned endpapers. If I wasn't planning a 7-week bike ride around France next month, I might have loaded up on more than a few of these beauties.

While at Judd's I picked up a pamphlet 'West Central': Antiquarian, Secondhand & Specialists Booksellers & Galleries 2011-2011 Bloomsbury & Charing Cross Road. Of the 19 stores listed, I've highlighted 5 more to visit: Jarndyce Antiquarian, Waterstone's[academic], Gosh! [graphic novels], The London Review Bookshop and Collinge & Clark [private press books].

Big fun.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In the City of London

The "City of London" was once the only London there was. This is where the bankers and lawyers work, and where Cockneys are born within earshot of the bells of the many Wren churches shoehorned into the area. It's also the place where you can still see remnants that survived the 1666 Great Fire, and the streets have names like Cloth Fair, Cheapside and Pageantmaster St. It's not only banker types in pin-striped suits either. The Smithfield meat market, in all its Victorian ironmongered glory, operates every morning, right up the street from the Central Criminal Court. It is a reconstuction, though, as it was heavily bombed during WWII. Looks like if I want a beer at 6am, there are lots of local pubs around to oblige. Despite its current clean white sandstone and marble look of the City these days, the bloodiness of the area is unmistakeable. The court, known as "Old Bailey" is built on the site of Newgate Prison, which was burned down during rioting in 1777. Condemned people were hung at Tyburn after passing by the Church of St Sepulchre [stained glass window from its musicians' chapel shown here]. These public executions were packed with nearly uncontrollable crowds who treated the hangings as recreational events. The area also has a very gruesome history of bodysnatching. There was money to be made through the sale of corpses to surgeons at nearby St Bartholomew's Hospital. Smithfield itself was also a site of executions. Scottish patriot Wm Wallace [think of the Mel Gibson "men in skirts" movie] was killed here in the dreadfully cruel method of the C14th, and lots of catholics and protestants were burned during the religious battles of the C16th.

After this overload of gore, I decided I needed a break in a familiar place, so I chose the Starbucks on Ludgate Hill. During my wanderings around London, I've noted several Starbucks, invariably located in prime retail spots. The one in St Pancras, the Eurostar international train station, for example, is a glass and steel doozie. Some things have been localized, like the choice of desserts, and serving coffee in ceramic mugs if you drink in-house. Also the condiments packaged in thicker, definitely more high quality paper. Still, the prices are the same as back home, just replace $ with £! Sheesh! The local chain coffee houses here are Caffe Nero, Pret-a-Manger and EAT, and they're equally good. Nero's coffee is as good and strong as its name. Coffee shops of course have a long history in the City. Think of Samuel Pepys and Dr Johnson. They would understand the value of cooling one's heels while sipping an espresso.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dulwich Picture Gallery

1. Gainsborough's Mrs Elizabeth Moody and her Two Sons. The kids were painted in some time after the subject had died.
2. Dulwich Picture Gallery lit by skylights
3. Mausoleum, showing Soane's yellow glass windows
4. Compare the "lid" on the mausoleum with the red phone booth in the distance

After a day at the British Library, I've come down with a case of "culture overload" so I slashed my crazy "gotta-see-it-ALL!" schedule [or as they say around here, my "shed-u-all". I took National Rail to London around noon, and after a bit of confusion in the Tube, walking for miles it seemed through a bunch of winding white ceramic-tiled tunnels to get from the Jubilee to the Circle to the Waterloo & City lines. My goal was London Bridge station, to connect with a National Rail out to East Dulwich. I wanted to visit this gallery as much for the building by Sir John Soane as for the collection of Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, Rembrandts and Rubens inside. Like everything else around here, there is a long and curious history associated with how the collection came to be. I was interested in the mausoleum which is inside the museum. It's suffused with golden-yellow light and is quite lovely, as is the museum itself. It also serves as the inspiration for the red British telephone box. No kidding. Check out the roof of the mausoleum, then compare it to the nearby phonebox.

The gallery's use of greenhouse skylights in 1817 has a really contemporary harness-the-natural-light feel, and such a contrast to the dungeon at the BL yesterday. The guards watched me with interest as I attempted to take photographs of basically everything hanging inside, and told me the collection is organized as into "beer and wine wings." All the Germans, Dutch and English painters are on one side, all the French and Italians are on the other. The special exhibit has just finished, and the next show, covering the Wyeths [NC and Andrew], doesn't start til June. The gallery is right next door to the College of God's Gift [where do they get these names?] which started out as a school for poor boys in 1619, but is now a prep school called Dulwich College. The college chapel was open, and someone was playing the wheezing organ. It was priceless to study the flamboyant altar paintings and murals of saints lit by sunlight, accompanied by a live soundtrack.