Sunday, 18 February 2018

A London Thoroughfare

James and Amber invited Michael and I to celebrate our birthdays with them in London and we readily agreed.  I flew over alone in the morning with Michael following later that evening.  It was lovely to see them both again, although Amber was looking a little worse for wear with her leg in an enormous moon boot, courtesy of a bad fall when they were in the Dominican Republic.  Amber was working from home so James and I left her to it and we headed into the city to run some errands.  It was great to be back in London and I couldn’t get over how quiet the city seemed, even to the point of being able to travel comfortably on the tube in peak hour.  I know that tourists would avoid staying there in the winter, however it seems that half of the Londoners must head to warmer climes as well.
My arrival coincided with Burns Night and James and Amber had booked a Burns Supper for us at the Duke of Cambridge in Islington.  We had a fabulous night, enjoying a meal of Cullen Skink (mine without the fish), Haggis served with neeps and tatties, fruit pudding and of course, finishing with a wee dram.  A true kilt wearing Scotsman recited poetry with gusto, which was entertaining (even if we didn’t understand a word).  We did understand the poem To a Haggis, as this was accompanied by actions, such as the slashing of the knife.  We all toasted the Haggis at the end of his rendition.  It was such a fun night and it was a shame that Michael missed it.
We were up bright and early the next day as James, Michael and I were off to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich to see the Painted Hall.   Unfortunately, Amber had to work, although she most certainly would not have been able to manage the 70 steps up the scaffold.  I had already visited the restoration project back in August, however I was delighted to visit again to see the progress made.  We had a different tour guide this time, and he was absolutely passionate about the works being undertaken, and he delivered a very enthusiastic and informative tour.  It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I am so lucky to have experienced it twice now and it only makes me more determined to return and see the completed restoration.  James and Michael seemed to enjoy the experience as well, before heading to lunch at the nearby Meantime Brewery where they both enjoyed a tasting paddle of beers.
We took a walk along the Greenwich Tunnel to the other side of the Thames where we caught the DLR to Whitechapel to visit The Blind Beggar pub.  The pub was built in 1894 and was where William Booth, creator of the Salvation Army, gave his first sermon.  I would like to say that was the reason for our visit however we were there to see where Ronnie Kray, one half of the notorious Kray twins, murdered George Cornell in 1966.  The pub itself was a bit of a disappointment, as it has been renovated in generic fashion however there was a bit of memorabilia on the walls of the pub regarding the murder.  I don’t think that James could quite believe that I had dragged him to have a pint in a boozer made infamous by an East End gangster!
We also had a quick look at the Whitechapel Gallery, which showcases contemporary art.  Michael always likes visiting there however this visit took the biscuit as far as I was concerned.  First, we walked through an exhibition of string hanging from the ceiling, which was bad enough.  Then we visited another exhibition room where the main feature was an enormous inflatable sex toy.  I really do not understand modern art.
The next day, Michael and I walked along the canal to the Broadway Market where we met James and Amber.  We sat Amber down on one of the benches with some food and a coffee while we had a look around.  The market was as good as ever and remains one of my favourite London haunts.  We then dropped James and Amber home and Michael and I headed into Angel to enjoy Michael’s new hobby of shopping.  It is really nice seeing the inside of stores instead of just peering through the windows.  Michael purchased a really smart jacket and I didn’t even have to twist his arm to try it on.
Our birthday dinner that evening was at Trullo, an Italian restaurant named after the conical houses we had seen in Puglia. The only downside of an otherwise fabulous evening was discovering on our arrival that we were seated downstairs.  Amber stoically descended the very steep staircase with her crutch and I couldn’t help thinking of Michael’s mother breaking her leg two days before our wedding and confronting a staircase very similar to this at our reception.  We were seated in a very cosy booth in the cellar and enjoyed a fantastic evening of great food and wine. Happy Birthday to us! 

Sunday started with a hearty café breakfast and then, after depositing Amber back at their apartment to rest, James, Michael and I walked to the Barbican Centre Conservatory.  I had walked past the Barbican on just about every visit to London without knowing that such a garden existed.  The huge conservatory is only open on selected Sundays and is home to exotic fish and over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees.  We thoroughly enjoyed walking about and admiring the view from the top of the centre. 
We took a short walk from the Barbican to the Museum of London, stopping along the way to see a piece of street art recently completed by Banksy.  We checked out a couple of exhibitions at the museum.  The first one was about the London 2012 Cauldron of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  We were able to see the cauldron pieces up close and viewed displays explaining how the individual copper pieces were shaped and made.  The other exhibition was London Visions, which imagines what London will look like in the future.  James and Michael really enjoyed this one however I found it all a bit too dystopian and bleak. 
A brisk walk took us back home where we picked up Amber and headed out to the Smokehouse for lunch.  We were very lucky to secure a table as they had a late cancellation.  We enjoyed our roast dinner with all the trimmings and then it was time to say goodbye to Michael, as he had to fly home and return to work the next morning.  I remained behind to spend a few extra days with James before he takes up his new position.
James and Amber are members of the Natural History Museum so James was able to take me to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 exhibition.  I was lucky enough to attend last year’s exhibition, which I really enjoyed, so I was particularly looking forward to this year’s viewing.  All of the photographs were stunning and it must be enormously difficult to choose a winner.  My favourite photograph was off a mother brown bear with a caught fish, and her two young cubs eying it hungrily.  James and I then lunched at Ceru, a restaurant serving Levant cuisine.  The food was delicious and I even tried a glass of Macedonian wine.  We finished with a quick walk to show James my favourite building in London – Michelin House.  I love the stained glass windows and decorative tiles on the building depicting famous racing cars. 
The next day was one of those perfect winter days, cool but with clear blue skies and virtually no wind.  James couldn’t have chosen a better day to take me to Hampstead Heath.  I have been there a few times before but never tire of the walk through the beautiful expanse of grass and trees.  We enjoyed the sunshine, eventually arriving at our destination of Kenwood House.  James and Amber had been there previously and thought that I might enjoy the house and gardens.  They were right!  The house dates from the early 17th century and has been subsequently remodelled and extended.  Lord Iveagh (of the Guinness family) bequeathed it to the nation in 1927.  The paintings, which adorn the walls are from Lord Iveagh’s collection and are remarkable.  They include The Guitar Player by Vermeer, Self Portrait with Two Circles by Rembrandt and Portrait of Pieter van den Broeke by Hals as well as works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Dyck, Turner and Weenix among others.  It really is an extraordinary collection.  The house itself is very grand and we spent some time chatting to the knowledgeable volunteers positioned in each room.  We also strolled around the gardens where I was delighted to find the statue Two Piece Reclining Figure, No 5 by Henry Moore, Michael’s favourite sculptor.  I will have to take Michael to Kenwood House next time we visit London, as I just know that he would love it.  James and I finished with a pub lunch at The Garden Gate, which was a perfect end to a perfect day.

On my last day in London, I met James for lunch at The Quality Chop House in Clerkenwell.  The restaurant is beautiful having been built in 1869 and the Victorian décor is stunning.  The food was simply delicious and I have earmarked this restaurant for Michael for his next visit.  We then headed over to the main event for the day – The Postal Museum.  I had read about this newly opened museum and was very happy when James suggested a visit. 

The main thing that I wanted to do was to ride the Mail Rail.  This one hundred year old railway, in tunnels deep below the streets, was used to transport mail all over London.  A specially made miniature train now takes visitors through some of the network, stopping along the way at the station platforms to see audio-visual displays of what it was like to work there.  It was absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t help thinking that Michael’s dad would love it.  When the train journey finished, we crossed the road to the main postal museum, and there spent considerable time viewing the various exhibits.  James made me feel terribly old when I pointed out aerograms to him and he had no idea what they were!  It was a really interesting afternoon and a lovely way to end my trip to London.

It was sad saying goodbye to James and Amber this time, as I don’t know when I will see them again.  Hopefully it won’t be too long and by then Amber will be back on her feet.