Coffee and Tea

It’s pretty hard to find out just how much tea the average Briton consumes, but it’s got to be a lot. Tea’s been the drink of choice in the UK since about 1800, when the government reduced taxes making it affordable for everyone and decimating the lucrative smuggling trade in one foul swoop. Genteel tea drinking establishments like Vauxhall Gardens soon opened giving ladies and polite society acceptable places to meet in public for the first time.

Twining’s is synonymous with tea and China, and tea-loving visitors to London should head to their famous old shop and museum on The Strand. It’s still on the site of the original 1706 shop, and is the oldest shop in Westminster, selling the same product under the same trading name as 300 years ago.

Twining's original tea shop in The Strand

Since 1706 this has been Twining's home in London.

While early Pepsyian coffee houses morphed into St James’ gentlemen’s clubs, tea can still be taken in Victorian style at places like Fortnum & Mason, the cafe at the Wallace Collection, and in a more down to earth manner at the lovely Vintage Collection in Columbia Road.

The East India Company had a monopoly on importing tea from China, but the politics behind the opium wars led to experiments with growing tea in India. Seeds were smuggled from China and these replaced the wild tea found growing in Assam. Later, plantations were extended to British colonies in Africa, with stock being supplied via cuttings grown at Edinburgh’s botanic gardens.

Picking tea at a Tanzanian tea plantation

Helping out at a Tanzanian tea plantation

These days, the world’s need for a cuppa is most often met by tea grown in either Sri Lanka or Kenya – but this pic comes from a south  Tanzanian plantation in Mbeya. I discovered that there’s a sound reason the pickers are all wearing heavy plastic aprons as I spent the next half an hour flicking vicious ants out of my trousers, before heading off for a well-earned beer. Good tea is remarkably hard to come by in East Africa, notwithstanding the miles of plantations.

Posted in eating and drinking, history | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Connectedness

One of the joys of being based in London is just how easy it is to get to other places. Two hours in a car, a train or a plane and you can be pretty much anywhere in the UK or continental Europe. 2010 was about getting out and about, taking advantage of London’s proximity and transport links to so many other places.

Hope you enjoy the show!

Posted in itineraries | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What the Dickens! Christmas Day in London

It’s Christmas week and in spite of the general chaos resulting from unseasonal snow, I have great expectations of fun and festivities. But visitors to London, without family or friends to spend the day with, can end up a little bereft. And this is where one of London’s smaller (and frankly, shabbier) museums has stepped up. In the true spirit of Christmas, the Dickens Museum has gone all out over the holiday and is open 24 to 26 December with lots of frills and extras for visitors who can get there without the benefit of public transport (that’s right, there is no public transport in London on Christmas Day!).

Chas Dickens museum London

Open on Christmas Day, London's Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn

I visited this museum some months ago and, while interesting, it was in dire need of a makeover. Happily, it has recently received a £2million grant for some much-needed renovations before the bicentenary of Dicken’s birth in 2012. While Dickens only lived here for three years, it’s the house where he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Wonder about how close his relationship really was with Mary, his sister-in-law who died in the house, while soaking up the dusty vibe from the collection of Dickens and Dickens-related books in the library and enjoying mulled wine and mince pies.

After you’ve done with the museum, stretch your legs and continue your Dickens-themed day by strolling round to the modern-day Foundling Museum in Corams Fields, mentioned in Little Dorrit (sadly not open over Christmas). It will then be time to toast your good fortune at the nearby Lamb, open on Christmas Day from 11am to 9pm.

Posted in eating and drinking, history, museums and galleries | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Royal Touch

A couple of weeks back the nation raised a glass to the long-awaited announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s engagement. But today the smiles have been replaced by a venting fury as the announcement of the host nation for FIFA’s World Cup 2018 sinks in. And rightly so. England, and its premier league, represent football royalty, and Prince William even lent his blue-blooded hand to the bid. But it wasn’t enough to keep out the winning Russians, nor, more surprisingly, the Dutch/Belgian joint effort, let alone los campeones, Spain and their bid-mates Portugal.

England has quite a history of missing out on big events – Manchester and Birmingham both failed to gain the summer Olympics before London’s squeakiest of wins with 2012, and the World Athletic Championships have been turned away in both 2005 and 2015.

Emirates stadium
Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin was part of Russia’s successful bid for the 2018 Football World Cup.

As temperatures in London and around the UK plummet, so does the national mood. A good thing that we do have the wedding, and the 2012 Olympics to look forward to. And don’t forget, England will host football’s poor relation – the Rugby World Cup – in 2015. But it can’t help but seem a little thin for a country with a fine sporting heritage, unsurpassed infrastructure and – till recently – money and talent to throw at marketing, development and broadcasting.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Best iPhone Apps for London Visitors

Visitors to London are faced with a potentially paralysing cornucopia of choices. These iPhone apps will help you navigate your way through the myriad of things to do, places to see and ways to spend your time in London – and get you quickly to the heart of what makes this city such a great destination. With your visitor status in mind, I’ve concentrated on free or low cost apps, that offer real value even for visits of only a few days.

First up – figuring out the best way to get round. London Tube Status is a multi-lingual app that combines familiar underground visuals with text to give you an instant view of how the Tube network is running. Particularly useful for weekend travel, when the underground is often running on reduced services due to “planned engineering works” which now seem likely to drag on into 2012.

Keeping up to date with news and goings on can be a challenge in a new city. For a year or so now Londoners have been able to pick up the Evening Standard free – and the Evening Standard app is similarly priced.

Trafalgar Square

Spoonfed Radar prides itself on having the best listings for exhibitions, theatre, live music and comedy – free and with a very cool radar graphic you’ll soon be having so much fun you might even forget to…eat!.

But in case you do find yourself a little peckish and want to avoid tourist-trap plates of highly-priced mediocrity you need Urban Spoon. An update earlier this month has had a mixed reception, but it’s still the best food-finding app out there. It aggregates comments from foodie blogs and reviews to present users with up-to-date information and you can search by cuisine, location or price range.

Badged as more of a survival guide for natives, than a tool for tourists, Not for Tourists app for London is way cheaper than most online (or printed) guidebooks, and delivers speedy and indepth info on over 5000 locations.

Second hand book stall

No matter what you're looking for, there's an app to help you find it.

Those of us from New Zealand and parts of Australia are used to routinely excellent coffee. Incredibly, this is not the case in London, in spite of the huge continental population of residents and visitors. London’s best coffee app is a beautifully designed solution to the problem of where to find a suitably brewed caffeine hit.

Addicted to being online, as well as coffee? Download Londonista’s Free wifi London map of London’s free wifi spots. This low-cost app is a good start to tracking a notoriously movable feast. Updated too infrequently for my liking, but a cheaper option is London Free WiFi by Apple Mosaic, who also map free wifi at cafes and bars in other European cities.

One app I wish I’d written myself is Helen Ochrya’s Quirky London. A travel writer for Rough Guide and The Guardian, she has impeccable references and contacts and her app reveals a side of London that all visitors yearn to discover, but in reality very few do. No excuses now.

And finally in this short list of iPhone essentials is Kiwi Nic Wise’s lovely interface with the Barclay’s cycle hire scheme. London Bike will tell you how many bikes are available at your closest 20 docking stations and how many docks are free so you can plot your return more easily. Using GPS and information from TFL’s data feed, you won’t find an easier way to use London’s new cycle hire scheme.

Posted in affordable London, cycling, eating and drinking, itineraries, museums and galleries, transport, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How Safe is London for Tourists?

Among the headlines this morning is a statement by NATO’s senior strategist in Afghanistan that Kabul is safer for children than London, Glasgow or New York. The statement’s been condemned by agencies working in Afghanistan, but it got me thinking. How safe is London for visitors?

Regent St festival

Take precautions in crowds at events like the Regent Street festival.

Years ago, as I whiled away a few hours on a Hawaiian beach waiting for my flight back to New Zealand, I read the New Year paper from cover to cover. I can still recall one story about murder statistics for preceding year. There were of course thousands of murders across the US, but an analysis revealed that the vast majority were committed while the perpetrators and/or the victims were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and that perpetrators and victims were on the whole known to each other. So, stay safe by staying sober and don’t get to know anyone!

Random killings were and still are relatively rare, statistically speaking. Random and opportunistic robberies are less so as another smaller story in today’s papers reveals. A bright young lad snapped a photo of a thief making a bicycle getaway after robbing a passerby. He posted the picture on Twitter allowing Darlington police to identify the thief and make an arrest. But, more typically and with a less happy ending, a colleague had an iPhone stolen recently while travelling to work on the Tube. Two young guys bumped her, snatched the phone while she was off balance, and leapt off the train before she had time to even realise what had happened.

It’s worth noting that the drop in house break ins in the UK has been mirrored by a rise in personal robberies, partly because the value of electronic items in the home has reduced, and the value and desirability of portable items has risen. Some of the highest robbery rates are in those parts of London frequented by tourists: Westminster, the West End and St James, close to the South Kensington museums.

London’s Met Police have published commonsense guidelines to keeping yourself safe in the city. But you’ll find it harder to protect yourself from that other acknowledged crime that’s rife in London – daylight robbery by train companies, cafes and shops! Good luck with that one, you have been warned.

Posted in affordable London | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Why the British Museum should return the Elgin Marbles

After a trip to Albania that culminated in two days in Athens, I got back to London and decided another visit to the British Museum was in order – because so many of the statues, friezes and decorations from the Acropolis have ended up there.

Athens' new Acropolis museum

The Acropolis hill reflected in the windows of Athens' new Acropolis museum

Athens is rightly proud of the new Acropolis Museum. On an upper floor, there is a modernist reconstruction of the Parthenon to scale. It’s designed so that you walk around the outside of stainless steel columns admiring the (available) friezes in situ, in sight of the original on the Acropolis hill. It’s a stunning concept, and displays these treasures in such a way that visitors truly get a sense of how the original Parthenon may have looked. Conceptually and experientially it is so much better than the British Museum’s presentation of its Parthenon treasures.

The Greeks would like nothing better than the return of the Elgin Marbles (except, maybe, the return of economic stability and growth!). The British Museum acknowledges the debate and there are leaflets in its Parthenon Galleries and material on its website explaining the important work the BM does in conservation, research and its unique role in curating and exhibiting collections from all world civilisations to the millions of visitors who are able to see these treasures for free.

Parthenon Galleries, British Museum

The British Museum displays the Elgin Marbles in a special, but unremarkable, gallery.

They make good arguments, learned and rational, however nothing can convince me that such special and magnificent examples of a nation’s heritage belong anywhere else than back home. The world has moved on and notions of paternalistic conservation and care are well and truly outdated. Athens’ new museum, the fabulously chaotic Cairo museum and Istanbul’s archeological museum all nurture their nation’s treasures, and can show up the BM’s rather old-fashioned display techniques.

I’m sure anticipating an avalanche of requests from Egypt, Iran, China and Turkey is probably another more prosaic reason not to countenance the Greek requests. But if the BM were to begin a measured process of returning some of its treasures to their place of origin the positive PR would be immense. Surely scholars gain so much more from studying these items within the cultural, environmental and physical landscapes where they were created. There would be reciprocal benefits for these nations and their institutions in terms of cultural fulfilment, enhancing their own research and conservation facilities and tourism opportunities.

Museums and those who visit them, study in them and curate for them, need items that complement, support and add to the core story of a nation and its heritage. I don’t for a moment think that all the BM’s collection (or that of any museum) should be returned, but there are some key objects whose return to their home country would so outweigh any benefit of them being kept in a European museum. Alongside the Parthenon treasures, the return of the Pergamon alter from Berlin would make this often-ignored site in Turkey as much a must-see as Ephesus, and Nefertiti’s bust, also currently in Berlin, would re-invigorate the Cairo museum like nothing else.

It’s not as if the BM has a paucity of objects – Wikipedia reckons its collection numbers seven million objects. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and among such so many fascinating items even the most stunning, important and unusual can get overlooked. But, if the most special items were returned to their country of origin, curated and displayed in national museums, they would never be overlooked again and would in fact stand tall and tell the story more clearly of humanity’s checkered journey towards “civilisation”.

Posted in history, museums and galleries, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Spending Time in Rainy London

What should you do in London when the weather inevitably turns wet and nasty? Fortunately, because the weather here tends to the “pluvial” (thanks to Geoffrey Palmer, ex PM of New Zealand for this fabulous adjective) the city’s well placed with a ton of things to amuse residents and visitors when it’s wet outdoors.

Don’t worry about venturing outside – with the Tube you can travel all over the city without going outdoors, brilliant for wet and windy days. The underground lines, especially in Zone 1, interconnect and take you close to all the major attractions, and many of the minor ones. If you want to sightsee in comfort, consider a ride on a classic RouteMaster. Rain or no rain, you’ll tour the best parts of the city for a bargain £1.20.

Visiting some of London’s world-ranked museums is probably on your itinerary anyway, and it’s a perfect way to spend half your rainy day. The big name museums will be super-crowded on wet days, so instead try visiting one of the many smaller quirky exhibitions – here’s some suggestions to get you going. Along the same lines, London’s blessed with a bevy of galleries which tend to be less crowded than the museums. The National and Portrait Galleries are centrally located and definitely worth a visit.

Shopping’s always good – and when it’s wet in London the obvious places to head for are the big Oxford Street department stores (Selfridges, John Lewis or Debenhams), Harrods in Kensington, or the city’s newest and biggest shopping mall and outpost from Australia, White City’s Westfield. All are easy to get to, they include cafes and restaurants, and will keep you amused and out of the weather for at least a couple of hours.

Going to a matinee can be a good option on a foul day. Most of the West End shows have a matinee one or two days during the week including Saturday – note though that there are generally no shows at all on a Sunday. Scroll through this list of theatres and shows to see what’s on, when and where, or check out Leicester Square’s half price ticket booths, or the theatre box offices directly for tickets.

The Thames in the rain.

The Thames in the rain.

Of course you could always adopt the view that you’re in London to see and do things “in spite of, not because of, the weather” – and get out there anyway. Get some atmospheric river photos, tramp through deserted Kensington Gardens or enjoy gazing at Buckingham Palace from under your umbrella. At least when it’s wet here, it’s not often windy and the temperatures can be quite mild.

Finally, when all else fails, obviously you should go to the pub. Check out one of my favourite pubs for a hearty lunch and a few ales – the perfect antidote to nasty weather. And you’ll be going with the flow – it’s just what the locals do when it rains.

Posted in eating and drinking, museums and galleries, transport | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Coping with Transport Strikes

Can you hear the people sing? No not another T-Mobile happy airport advertisement, but the rising waves of protest against government cuts, both in the UK and in Europe.

Those of us who were here in the 1980s remember the poll tax riots and the miners’ strikes as major events that eventually signalled the demise of Margaret Thatcher. Today’s student protest in the middle of London that culminated in an occupation of Conservative Party HQ brought it all back.

Travellers should be prepared for strike action that could potentially upset their travel plans over the next few months.

Already British Airways has been affected by staff striking over proposed changes to pension arrangements, and the issue still bubbles away unresolved. French air traffic controllers have been taking sporadic industrial action for weeks now – leaving plane-loads of passengers, including me, stranded at Heathrow last month as we arrived back after the normal curfew time to find no trains or buses. Luckily I don’t live too far away and could take a taxi home, but plenty of arriving passengers were settling in for a four hour wait until 5am when public transport resumed.

acropolis museum athens

Police on alert outside Athens' new Acropolis Museum after the site had been closed for two days because of protests over government budget cuts.

Athens too suffered recently when protestors against budget cuts managed to close the Parthenon to visitors for two days. Closer to home, London’s tube drivers severely disrupted this vital service last week when they took two days of industrial action – and again, their grievances are ongoing.

So what can the unwitting visitor to the UK and Europe do to minimise the effects that random strike action may have on your plans. Absolutely nothing in truth. Make sure you have adequate travel insurance, a Plan B, a flexible attitude, and crossed fingers. Because somehow I don’t get the feeling that European governments are about to cave in to the protestors’ demands, which chillingly sets the scene for a rerun of the winter of discontent.

Posted in transport | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Cracking DNA – a NZer’s contribution

New Zealand doesn’t have many Nobel Prize winners, well only three actually, and most of us can only name Ernest Rutherford, who split the atom early in the 20th century. But Maurice Wilkins, based at London’s King’s College London campus, jointly won it in 1962 for his role in discovering the double helix formation of DNA, along with James Watson and Francis Crick who were based at Cambridge.

The science journal Nature has this week published a set of “lost letters” showing how tense the relationship was between Wilkins and his King’s College collaborator, Rosalind Franklin – much more strained than the relationship between the two institutions. Franklin died before the surviving three male scientists were nominated for the Nobel Prize, and since it’s not awarded posthumously, was never honoured. The correspondence doesn’t reveal Wilkins in a specially good light – he comes across as anxious and tormented, not to mention more than a tad chauvinistic.

Though Wilkins was born in the Wairarapa, he moved to England at the age of six, which may account for his low profile in NZ. But, when I worked at Victoria University in the early 2000s, a fancy helix-shaped memorial was installed along Kelburn Parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of what was then called the Watson Crick model of DNA, coincidentally also in Nature.

King's College alumni

Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin feature in King's Strand display of famous alumni

These days, both Wilkins and Franklin feature in a massive display of notable alumni of King’s College that brightens up the Strand in London.

Posted in history, new zealand connections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Ancient forest and Art Deco sophistication

This outing combines a two-hour stroll, with a visit to Eltham Palace – an English Heritage property with links to Henry VIII and the very well-to-do Courtauld Family. You’ll pass through an ancient wood, visit a mysterious ruin of a castle and enjoy the wide open spaces of Eltham Common.

Starting at any one of a number of London stations (check out National Rail’s website for times; use your Oyster card for the best fares) head to Eltham station. (Note for visitors – it’s pronounced with a “t” in the middle, as we say Chatham.) The trip’s round 30 minutes, and once you arrive head across the car park to an underpass, turn right and then left into Grangehill Road. Follow this for some way up the hill, before turning right into Grangehill Place, crossing Westmount Road and taking Crookstone Road. After 150 metres or so you’ll see a wide walkway entrance into the common, and you might even spot the top of Severndroog Castle, an eighteenth century folly named after a Madagascan battle.

Severndroog Castle

Awaiting restoration funds, Severndroog Castle sits among old trees, at the top of the hill

Walk, following the path ways, looking out for the Oxleas Wood signpost. This is an ancient woodland, with a name derived from the Saxon for “pasture for oxen”. No cows in this site of special scientific interest these days, just old trees and the slightly spooky Severndroog Castle emerging at the top of Shooter’s Hill. Unfortunately, because of the trees, there’s no view. One day, hopefully, the castle will be reopened and we’ll be able to climb the tower as you could as recently as the mid-1970s, and again have a cup of tea in the cafe in the ground floor room. There’s an ambitious campaign underway to raise the funds needed to restore this special building.

At this stage, from the back of Severndroog, take the path to the left, and now follow the Capital Ring trail, firstly down the hill, and across the meadow and onto the 17th century Stoney Alley footpath. You’ll pass an ornamental garden at the back of Jackwood House, and after walking some lovely forest trails come across a cafe, that looks out across the common.

Eltham Common

Eltham Common, as seen from the cafe

Walk diagonally across the common, to Rochester Way. Cross the road, and head back into the Shepherdleas Woods on the other side. Follow the trail past Long Pond, walking parallel with Rochester Way Relief Road (aka the A2) until the motorway overpass. Take this, skirting the edges of Eltham Park until Glenesk Road. Cross Bexley Road, and continue down Butterfly Lane, turning right at the end and following the road round to Southend Crescent. Turn left here, right into Footscray Road and then left into North Park Road. Eltham Palace is at the end of this road, and is clearly signposted.

Eltham Palace

A glimpse of Eltham Palace's lovely grounds

After you’ve paid your fee and collected your leaflet and audio guide, you get your first gasping look at this property from the old driveway, where you can appreciate the impact of this 1930s mansion, attached to the medieval great hall, would have had on visitors. With one of the largest hammerbeam ceilings in England, the original palace dates from the 1300s. Henry VIII spent much of his childhood here and Stephen and Virginia Courtauld renovated it when building their own home.

Virginia's sitting room

Virginia Courtauld's sitting room with inbuilt furniture and spot lighting

The house is a masterpiece of modernity, boasts all the mod-cons of the day, and will give you an insight into the immensely privileged lives the Courtaulds and their circle lived. Give yourself half an hour at least to stroll round the lovely garden. I recommend the cream teas at the on-site cafe.

It’s a short signposted walk back to Eltham station from the property.

Posted in buildings, history, itineraries, walking | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

St John’s to St Pancras

This half-day walk could easily be turned into a whole day out if you add some of the side trips, but even without them you’ll have a lovely 3 or 4 hours strolling along some of London’s priciest real estate, past unparalleled water views and peeking into its gritty urban heart.

Start at St John’s Wood underground station. Leaving the station turn right down Grove End Road. At the end, turn right again, and within a few metres you’ll see people walking oddly across a pedestrian crossing, outside Abbey Road studios. Snap your photos, and retrace your steps to the station. Now turn down Wellington Road, left into Circus Road (consider picking up picnic supplies from Panzer’s deli and grocery), and then right into Cochrane Street, to St John’s Wood burial ground, consecrated at a ceremony organised by Thomas Lord, a name synonymous with the neighbourhood and with cricket. The church grounds are a pleasant, leafy spot, and you can see the lights and grandstand of Lord’s Cricket Ground from the Park Road end. Lord’s run tours at scheduled times during the day, except when matches are scheduled.

weather vane

Father Time watches over matches at Lord's

Negotiate the unfriendly Park Road roundabout, admiring the uncompromising statue of St George in its centre, before turning right off Park Road a few metres from the intersection (look out for the plaque about the original site of Lord’s cricket ground) and dropping onto the Regent’s Canal towpath. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in a different world – a world of elegance, affluence and the definite tinge of royalty. Admire the villas and their beautiful sweeping lawns down to the canal, and enjoy the placid water, the birds, the pretty bridges – while watching out for cyclists and joggers.

The canal is a thread through London, around which cluster leisure activities these days. But the canal’s rather more workmanlike origins are still to be seen – specially on the columns re-used when “Blow up Bridge” was rebuilt. A sign tells the story of the explosion that brought down the bridge, and how the columns were turned to the smooth side when used in the reconstruction. Because canal barges had to be physically pulled through tunnels and under bridges, using ropes and plenty of manpower, the columns now have grooves on both sides.

Before too long you’ll come across Regent’s Park Zoo, one of the world’s best zoological gardens. The canal runs between the famous Snowden aviary and various other enclosures – you won’t see too much from the water, but I have spotted plenty of birdlife and the African wild dogs from the towpath.

Regent's canal

Narrow boats still ply the canal which cuts the zoo in two

The next landmark is a distinctive Chinese restaurant – at this stage I recommend a brief detour from the canal into the celebrity-sprinkled streets of Primrose Hill. Head past pretty St Mark’s church and the sparkling Albert Pub, and straight to Melrose and Morgan grocery and kitchen at the canal end of Gloucester Avenue for a restorative coffee. You can easily get back on the towpath from here, and soon you’ll find yourself heading over a bridge and into the heart of Camden Lock market. It’s absolutely heaving at weekends, but much quieter during the week. If you haven’t been before, take some time to poke around the stalls, have some lunch and check out the bookstores.

Camden market

Foodies heaven at Camden Lock market

Back onto the relative calm of the canal, you’ll probably detect a change of atmosphere. Gone is the quiet and assured elegance, replaced by something more edgy and urban. Camden’s home to funky townhouses, mixed with council and social housing and small business premises. Signs for the Jubilee Greenway start appearing on the towpath. This is one of London’s many walkways, linking Buckingham Palace with the east end. You may feel you’ve earned a pint by about now. Take the stairs at St Pancras Way and cross the road to The Constitution. It’s a low-key neighbourhood pub, with a brilliant beer garden and a good selection of ales.

Thomas Hardy tree

The Thomas Hardy tree in St Pancras gardens

Refreshed, head back to the towpath for the final stint. Going as far as bridge number 19, head up the stairs, turn right following the signs to Camley Road reserve. Down the hill, just before the underpass on your right is a large gate, and inside are the St Pancras gardens. St Pancras Old Church, sits in a park of old trees and scattered tombstones, designed by Thomas Hardy while he worked as an architect. The Soane family mausoleum is here, with its design from which telephone kiosks are supposed to derive. The church is built over Roman remains, has a Norman wall and Victorian additions, but for me it’s most attractive for being in synch with the local community and contemporary times.

After you’ve explored the gardens and the church, head back through the gate you came in by, and continue down the hill, through the underpass, and cross the road into the Camley Street Nature Park. This is a piece of wild green, masquerading as a classroom. It’s a lovely place, ramshackly and natural. Spend a few minutes savouring the disconnect between eye and ear (the noise from road and rail is constant), and then stroll past the planter boxes, the ponds and through the woodland enjoying this untamed wild space.

Camley street park

A green oasis within earshot of the Eurostar

Back out onto Camley Street, turn left at Goodshed Road, crossing over when you see 90 York Place – the award-winning building housing The Guardian. The building follows the canal, so take the steps, turn to face the water and walk past the Rotunda (great for a glass of wine). You’ll soon look across the canal arm to our final destination on this walk, the London Canal Museum.

London Canal Museum

London Canal Museum is built over a Victorian ice house and an Italian gelateria

You get there by turning left into Crinan Street, left into Wharfedale, and finally left into New Wharf Road. The museum is in an old ice house and tells the story of the development of the canal network across the country. It’s a fascinating story, and a fascinating place. You will have earned a break after your efforts, so head back into Wharfedale, turn right at the end of it into Caledonia Street where there are loads of restaurants, cafes and bars in which to relax and reflect on your excellent day out. King’s Cross station is just a few minutes’ walk away.

Posted in itineraries, walking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ale and hearty

One of London’s many interesting sub-cultures is that of the real ale drinker. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) is the organisation that has led to a revival in drinking and brewing individual ales, which are produced without being filtered or pasteurised. After all, England is a country where only a couple of hundred years ago it was safer to drink the beer than the water, so the revival of the traditional craft of brewing is to be applauded and supported – even if you can only manage a couple of halfs in an evening.

You may have heard of the challenges faced by Britain’s local pubs – cheap supermarket alcohol, changes to driving behaviour and the ban on smoking have all been tarred as villains as over 40 pubs permanently call time every week. Local pubs are the heartblood of countryside village life, are harbingers of history in all corners of London, and add colour and warmth to neighbourhoods everywhere. More and more of them are choosing to differentiate themselves, not just with fabulous “gastropub” food, but with specialty ales, brewed nearby or even by the publicans themselves.

decorative pub window

Isleworth, on the Thames, boasts a booming pub industry

Fullers, based in Chiswick, and Meantime based in Greenwich are two London-based independent breweries still churning out product. Truman’s, an old east end brewer, has been revived and expects to start brewing again from its Whitechapel site within a couple of years.

Alongside real ale, goes real cider (or its pear equivalent, perry). This industry is also experiencing a renaissance and you’ll often find it on tap alongside the ales.

So when looking for a “real” drink in London, take the plunge and sample a mild, a porter, an Indian pale ale or a scrumpy, and raise your glass to the revival of an honourable craft. Check out my favourite pubs – you’ll get a real ale at most of these.

Posted in eating and drinking | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Kiwi hero who saved London

It’s taken 70 years or so, but finally New Zealander Sir Keith Park is getting the kudos he deserves for his role in masterminding the successful defence of Britain in the Battle of Britain. A few months ago an enormous statue of him took its place on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. This has now been replaced by a permanent statue in Waterloo Place, near New Zealand House in Haymarket.

Statue of Sir Keith Park

I heard an interview with Sir Keith from the 1980s, in which he opined that Britain had about a week left before Hitler’s Luftwaffe succeeded in its aim of rendering the RAF unable to defend the south-eastern coast of England. And what saved the situation? According to Sir Keith it was the German’s decision to stop bombing airfields and instead concentrate on flattening London and industrial centres that allowed the RAF time to rebuild runways, restock fuel and repair planes, and therefore continue flying and fighting. Hitler’s demand that Goering change tack and focus on London was provoked by a mistaken bombing raid on Berlin.

A low-key and unflappable leader, who hosted Churchill at air force command a couple of times a week “when he was fed up with his Cabinet colleagues”, it’s great to see a previously unsung New Zealand hero given such recognition.

Posted in history, new zealand connections | Tagged | Leave a comment

New London

Think you know your way round London? As someone with (allegedly) severe directional impairment – code for frequently being/getting lost – I’m constantly surprised to see the Gherkin pop up when least expected. But soon, we can expect this landmark to be dwarfed by buildings either under construction now, or proposed for the City square mile.

the Gherkin

Construction visible around London's iconic Gherkin

Changes are constant in London – the city’s been rebuilt over the old Roman remains several times – but the amount of construction underway both in the City and as a result of Olympic developments is unprecedented since the post-war building boom in the 1950s. London’s skyline will be irrevocably changed, and the NLA Gallery (New London Architecture) has commissioned a scale model which shows new and proposed structures, alongside existing buildings, from Paddington to the Docks, Battersea to Kings Cross. The model will be updated as new building proposals are approved, and others are demolished or altered.

One of the best places to get a sense of the scale of London is from Hampstead Heath’s Primrose Hill; I’m always amazed at the proximity of incongruous elements of London’s skyline this perspective offers. But the NLA model steps us into the future and shows us a view of London that won’t be visible from Primrose Hill for another few years.

Entry to the gallery is free, and the model is on permanent display.

Posted in buildings, museums and galleries | Tagged , | Leave a comment