Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes


As life-changing events go, this week will be hard to beat. 

Yesterday, we – me and my wife – have become British citizens. Today, we become officially unemployed. And as of tomorrow, we are technically homeless.

This is the realization of a careful plan years in the making, but that didn’t stop things from turning hectic right at the end – as you can tell from the tight schedule of these last few days. We’ve managed to run short or cash, time and energy. But there’s only one hurdle left to go over.

Tomorrow we board the campervan and drive south from London. We have the first campsite booked – after that, we improvise in the general Westerly direction.

This is what we plan our life to be for the next few years. There’s more to it, but we’ll see how it goes. One thing’s for certain – we don’t want to go back to an office job, or work for anyone else for as long as possible. For a while, my writing income and rent will suffice, after that we’ll have to come up with other ways to sustain ourselves. Where we’ll end up in six years time? No idea. But then, six years ago I would never have guessed I will be a best-selling Amazon author driving around the UK in a VW campervan, with a British passport in my pocket.

We’ll be keeping a blog of the journey over on A Different Green blog – go there to subscribe right now. I will keep this blog up too, of course, and it will be as unfocused as usual (though updated a bit less frequently).

Let the adventure begin! 🙂

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Spring London Walks #2, part 2: Kensington – Mayfair


The Glory of the Empire, part 2

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Mayfair-10 1. We continue down the Exhibition Road, the canyon set between the massive edifices of Science, Natural History and V&A museums. This is Victorian London at its most grandiose and glorious; the road was built in 1851 for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. Bits and pieces left over the exhibition were enough to make a foundation for the grand museums.

Mayfair-10b 2. Past the Science Museum and before the Imperial College is a small crossroad. To the West runs the tree-lined avenue of Imperial College Road. To the East, the line of the late Victorian and Edwardian grand houses breaks, opening into several rows of picturesque little homes: the Princes Gate Mews. The village-like facades, a stark contrast to the majesty of the surroundings, hide some of the most expensive and luxurious flats in the area.

Mayfair-11 3. Turn left right behind the Imperial College, into the shadows of the Albert Hall Mansions towards the easily recognizable rotunda of the Royal Albert Hall. Built originally as one of two parts of Prince Albert’s Memorial, the other part is the decorative chapel-like monument across the A315, raised magnificently in the gothic revival style by Sir George Gilbert “Gothic Revival” Scott.

Mayfair-11b 4. We have now entered the Hyde Park, the largest of central London’s green spaces. You can cross it any way you like – as long as you head towards its eastern gates. If you pass the Serpentine along the southern bank, you will walk past the Princess Diana’s Memorial Fountain, which has to be one of my favourite monuments in London: a never-ending looped river in which you’re allowed to waddle to your heart’s content. It’s always full of playing kids (and adults), which is always the best way to commemorate somebody.

Mayfair-12 5. Leave Hyde Park by the eastern gate and cross Park Lane (via subway) towards the Hilton hotel. You have now entered Mayfair: the largest concentration of luxury hotels, shops and restaurant in London, with some of the highest rents in the world.
It doesn’t look like much at first. Behind the Park Lane hotel facades and luxury car showrooms is a labyrinth of dark and narrow aisles and mews. This part of London has not changed much over the centuries since the last of the May Fairs which gave it its name – and is all the more charming for it.
Mayfair-136. A few twists and turns later, we come to the Shepherd Market (not to be confused with Shepherds Bush Market, a completely different place). To me this is the highlight of the walk; the place looks like an old village square, with pubs and restaurants on every corner and rows of handicraft and jewellery stores. Despite the affluence of local inhabitants, it retains the atmosphere typical of old London, a mixture of luxury and seediness. Here is the place for the rich and famous to perform their ‘antics’: this is where Keith Moon died and Jeffrey Archer had his illicit fun. The wikipedia entry for Shepherd Market claims “the area is home to an excellent selection of prostitutes.”
Mayfair-147. Under the arch next to Ye Grapes enter the Curzon Street and follow its arc deeper into Mayfair. At this point you may start counting Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked casually on the pavement. Cross the tree-lined, cozy Landsdowne Row and up the Hay Hill, towards Bond Street, where you can play a game of name-that-logo, if you’re good with the luxury jewellers and clothiers.

Mayfair-158. We’re heading towards Piccadilly Street now. You can take the Bond Street all the way down, but it’s probably more interesting to turn left into Burlington Gardens, and then right into Burlington Arcade – one of the first covered shopping arcades in the world, and still one of the best.
Let me just say here, I love these old-fashioned pedestrian arcades, and I think there’s not quite enough of those in the world. The Japanese tend to cover entire swathes of their high streets with arches of glass, and I believe it’s the right thing to do, especially in a rainy climate like ours (and theirs). A covered arcade makes for the best shopping experience – the perfect combination of a high street and shopping mall.
Mayfair-169. Turn left on the Piccadilly Street – and head towards the Piccadilly Circus, another of those London landmarks everyone knows about. Follow the southern side (far side from the Burlington Arcade) to pass the legendary Fortnum & Mason department store and Christopher Wren’s subdued red-brick St James’s church.

Mayfair-17

10. We could end the journey on Piccadilly Circus, whence you can take a number of transport options to wherever you want to go next, but I want to direct your attention to one more building just before the famous intersection. It may not look like much at first, but the Waterstone’s flagship bookstore at 200 Piccadilly is one of the finest examples of Bauhaus-inspired architecture in London. Now, I’m a fan of everything Bauhaus, so I love the fact that this building stands smack bang in the middle of the busiest street of the city. It started life as Simpsons department store; there are still original fittings, windows, staircase and lifts preserved, designed by Laszlo Nagy and Joseph Emberton, and it makes for quite a wonderful shopping experience.
Simpsons of Piccadilly has one more claim to fame: it was the place where Jeremy Lloyd worked as junior assistant, before embarking on the career of sitcom writer. Thus, Simpsons became a direct inspiration for the Grace Brothers in the long running “Are You Being Served?” series.

Spring London Walks #2, part 1: Battersea – Chelsea


The Glory of the Empire, part 1

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Mayfair-1 1. This will be a long one, so start early by making your way through Battersea Park towards the Peace Pagoda.

Developed and maintained by a single Buddhist monk, Gyoro Nagase, who still lives nearby and beats the prayer drum daily, the pagoda overlooks Thames like a meditating guardian.

Mayfair-2 2. Return to the main road and enter the Albert Bridge – the infamous “Trembling Lady”, upon which the marching soldiers must break step in order not to destroy it with vibrations. Pause to take in the sight of Thames, with the ridiculously iconic Battersea Power Station on one side, and the leafy avenues of Chelsea on the other. Chelsea is where we’re going – and beyond.

Mayfair-3Chelsea is a name that evokes nouveau riche tattiness these days, but for millions of gardening enthusiasts it’s been synonymous with the Chelsea Flower Show – a hundred years old exhibition of gardens and flowers on the grounds of Royal Chelsea Hospital. The hospital grounds sprawl on your right hand side just off the bridge. Once a year these get covered with pavillions and tents hosting the show, otherwise they are a great expanse of meadow and trees for use of the Chelsea Pensioners – retired war veterans living in the Hospital.

Mayfair-43. Not much further along the embankment there is another botanical curiosity: Chelsea Physic Garden, London’s oldest botanical garden. Famous for specimens such as world’s northernmost grapefruit or Britain’s largest olive tree, this place is also known for growing the seeds of cotton plant sent to the colony of Georgia – thus being responsible for the growth American South’s cotton industry and everything that followed.

Mayfair-54. Turn right twice, and head back towards the Chelsea Hospital. Along the way you will pass a building of exceptional ugliness, with a couple old guns in front of it: the National Army Museum. If you like war museums, you could do worse than one dedicated to one of the world’s largest and oldest armed forces, involved in pretty much all major wars in recent history. Note, however, that this is not the Imperial War Museum, which is south of the river. Confusing, I know.

Mayfair-65. Circumnavigate the gardens of Burtons Court – also part of the Chelsea Hospital grounds – and you will reach a lovely tree-lined avenue: the Royal Avenue, devised by William III as a link from the Hospital to Kensington Palace (not quite finished, as you can tell from looking at the map).

Mayfair-6bJames Bond “lived” at Royal Avenue, although as he was not often at home the address is not as well known as, say, 221B Baker Street.

Upon reaching King’s Road take a look at the McDonald’s on the corner. It’s not often that a local McD’s is an interesting landmark, but this one is: as it’s set in the building of the Chelsea Drugstore, London’s first “US-style” drugstore, which oddly enough had become a part of the Swinging Sixties culture. Rolling Stones sang about it, and Stanley Kubrick filmed Clockwork Orange beside it.

Mayfair-76. Follow the narrow Tryon Street until it joins Sloane Avenue. The buildings along this thoroughfare grow enormous, by London’s standards: immense towering condominiums forming a valley of red and white brick.

Mayfair-8

At the farther end of the avenue stands an imposing edifice decorated with mosaics of motorists, stained glass and art nouveau stone ornaments: the Bibendum Building, once Michelin’s headquarters and showroom, now a posh restaurant and oyster bar, designed by Sir Terence Conran.

 

Mayfair-97. Follow the Pelham Street until you reach the place where the Underground emerges onto the surface. Turn right here, along the Thurloe Square Garden, then left. You will reach the Exhibition Road.

Until recently, there was very little of interest here. The Exhibition Road is the street running towards and along London’s Museum District. But a short time ago a decision was made to experiment on it: mix the car traffic with pedestrian traffic on equal footing, without pavements or street signs. The result is stunning, especially in good weather: a strip of Mediterranean in the middle of London. Good, inexpensive restaurants and cafes line the street, with big windows facing the passing crowds. I found it one of the best places in the city to do people watching.

Snapseed_1We’ll make a brief stop here, for some sherry and olives at Fernandez & Wells – or whatever else tickles your fancy – before continuing on to Kensington and Mayfair.

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Spring London Walks #1: Hoxton – London Bridge


Snapseed_0 East End Slums, Markets and Hipster Cafes.

(all pictures courtesy of Google Maps)

Hoxton-21. We start off with a brunch at Fabrique, a branch of Swedish bakery and cafe, just off Hoxton Railway Station. A hot brew in a tin mug and a sourdough cinnamon bun will put the necessary spring in your step!

Across the street you can see the gardens of the Geffrye Museum of the House, set in the 18th century almshouses of the Ironmongers Society. This juxtaposition of an ancient slum almshouse and a posh cafe should set the mood for the journey ahead: the contrasting history of the East End, its glory, downfall and phoenix-like rise.

Hoxton-3Hoxton started out as an affluent out-of-town location for Tudor-era manors and gardens; by 17th century, the estates began to break down, and be used increasingly as madhouses and almshouses. By Victorian era, as all of East End, it was covered with working class slum, albeit not as notorious as the areas south of it. There was still thriving industry and culture here, and Hoxton survived the worst of the slum era relatively unscathed, ready to enter the 21st century of gentrification; in 2002, Jamie Oliver opens the first of his Fifteen restaurants here, marking the rise of posh Hoxton once again.

Hoxton-42. Turn right into Cremer Street, past an organic cafe, and then left, onto the high street. This stretch of A10 is called the “Pho Mile”, and rightly so: dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, shops and cafes line the street. If you want Vietnamese in London, this is the place, although the choice may be overwhelming at first.

Nearer the railway bridge the Vietnamese diners make place for bars, clubs and pubs; we are in Shoreditch now, after all. The Grocery serves the local discerning foodie community with organic produce, but it’s not the only good shop in the area. We’ll get to the other one soon.

Hoxton-53. We’ve reached the lively crossing of Old Street/Hackney Road and Kingsland Road. On one side is the ancient parish of St Leonard’s of Shoreditch, known simply as Shoreditch Church. “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,” as the song goes. The Theatre once stood nearby, London’s first successful theatre, and many of its actors are buried in the St Leonard’s crypts.

Hoxton-6Opposite the church stands the massive former location of Wells & Co. Ironworks foundry and showroom: now a location of fashion shops and bars.

Beyond the church, on Calvert Avenue, stands an inconspicuous wooden box: Shoreditch’s first cafe, established in 1913.

Hoxton-74. Follow Calvert Avenue, entering the Boundary Estate: London’s first Council Estate. A far cry from the tower blocks of the 70s, these buildings were actually completed in 1900 in place of Old Nichol, East End’s most notorious slum. You can quickly see how far the area went from its humble origins, as you pass (and, hopefully, enter) Leila’s Shop and Cafe. If you haven’t bought your biodynamic veg, Norwegian smoked salmon and Neil’s Yard cheese on one of the street markets over the weekend, you can get most of that stuff at Leila’s.

Hoxton-9Round the Boundary Gardens bandstand, turn into Club Row, by the Rochelle School, cross the Old Nichol street. The Allpress Espresso on the corner serves good coffee and avocado-based brunches. Turn left here: the street leads to a large intersection of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane.

Hoxton-105. If it’s market day on Brick Lane, you may as well end your tour here. Getting through will take a few hours, if you want to visit everywhere and eat and drink everything.

Once you’ve decided you’ve had enough, move on towards what looks like a cross between a stainless steel chimney and an old space rocket. It’s the minaret-like marker of the Brick Lane Mosque, or Great London Mosque.

The building served all religious minorities in the area throughout the centuries: established as the Huguenot temple in 18th century, then a Methodist chapel, then a Great Synagogue, finally, as the Jews moved out and Muslims moved in, it became a mosque.

Hoxton-116. Follow the Fournier Street, once the center of the Huguenot weaving trade; pretty soon you will reach yet another historic market: the Old Spitalfields.

There have always been markets in this area, just outside the London Wall. You didn’t have to pay the toll for entering the City, and many trade routes from East England ended before the gates. Old Spitalfields was first licensed in 1638. It is now an amalgam of uber-modern office blocks of steel and glass, and late-Victorian market halls. You can buy pretty much anything here, from “vintage” (ie. used) t-shirts to expensive single estate olive oil.

Hoxton-127. There are several routes you can take from here, all leading South towards Aldgate. Along the Wentworth and Middlesex Streets you’ll find yet another market. This is the Petticoat Lane market, and it’s probably the last one that still retains its authentic character: serving local community with cheap, robust goods. Its latest claim to fame is the fact that Lord Alan Sugar started his business with a stall here.

Walk around the St Botolph Without Aldgate roundabout, to find yourself at the busy intersection, adorned recently with a wooden sculpture. The sculpture marks the spot of the Aldgate: one of London’s seven gates, and the flat above it where Chaucer had lived as customs officer.

The Aldgate was the oldest and most important of London’s gates: it connected old Roman capital of Colchester with the new city of London.

St Botolph was a patron saint of travelers, and as such, several churches just before the city gates have been dedicated in his name.

Hoxton-138. The narrow, winding street south of Aldgate is the Jewry: it runs along the old London wall, hence the curving shape. The Jews were first invited to London by Normans; their first abode was at the Old Jewry, near Bank. Exiled by Edward I, they returned under Cromwell and settled first around Aldgate. The importance of this “new” Jewry is indicated by the Bevis Marks synagogue nearby, United Kingdom’s oldest existing synagogue.

Hoxton-14After passing under the tracks of Fenchurch Street station (trains to Essex set off from here), pay attention to the left-hand side. Beyond the pillared facade of Grange City Hotel, in the courtyard, you will find one of the best-preserved fragments of London Wall.

Hoxton-159. The narrow street emerges straight onto the A100 thoroughfare, beyond which stands that most obvious of London’s landmarks, the Tower. It’s now up to you to decide where to go next: visit the Tower, or cross the Thames. The nearer crossing is the London Bridge, but the Tower Bridge is also just a stone’s throw away.

The monumental art deco building on your right is the 10 Trinity Square: the Headquarters of London Port, and for a brief moment, the headquarters of United Nations General Assembly.

Hoxton-1610. We are now across the Thames and it’s time to end the walk. There are far too many attractions here to continue: all must wait for another time. The London Bridge Station is a good place to ride off to wherever you came from, but if you can spare a while to have one last pint, direct yourself towards The Old Thameside, beside the replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, sit on the terrace and watch the river traffic pass you by, just as it had been for the last two thousand years.

Thames Festival – London at its best!


This was (still is) a great summer for the best city in the world. The Jubilee, the Olympics, the Paralympics… and this weekend, to mark the end of it, a brilliant Thames Festival.
I’m not quite sure how I’ve missed it all these years. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t lived close enough to the Thames before, or perhaps this year the events were more relevant to my interests.

That, and the weather was such that the only place to be was by the cool breeze of the river 🙂

The Festival lasts all weekend, with many of the events running through the evening, but, a busy man that I am, I only spared a couple of hours of the Saturday to see the things I found most exciting.

  

Starting from Maltby Street Market, as every Saturday (I have to write a proper blog post about that place one day), I had to cross the Thames to reach St Katharine’s Docks. Continue reading “Thames Festival – London at its best!”

Essential Olympic Guide to…


…using ticket gates.

There is nothing more aggravating to a London commuter than a person before them having no knowledge of how to use the tube/railway ticket gates. While it may seem straightforward at first – insert ticket or touch card and pass – it is, in fact, far from it. See, there are some basic rules to the ritual which it takes a while to discover. Some people still failed to grasp these basics.

Tube ticket gate. Green arrow for go, Red cross for error. Railway gates have green and red lights.

The Olympics will be a tough time for everybody, especially on the public transport. So if you or anyone you know is planning to visit London this summer, here are a few important things to remember:

  1. WAIT until the person before you crosses the gate and the flaps fully close.
  2. DO NOT hurry through, try to squeeze, or touch the reader too early. This will cause the bad red light to appear and evoke tut-tuts from the people behind you.
  3. DO NOT enter the gate area (just before the flaps) until you get a green light.
  4. IF THE LIGHT TURNS RED, take a step back (don’t mind the people behind you. Those who know, will avoid you) wait a moment and try again.
  5. IF THE LIGHT IS STILL RED, seek assistance from staff. Most of the time they will just let you pass through the disabled gate.

And there you go. This knowledge should make your travel much smoother. Have fun in London during the Olympics – I know I won’t 😉

The Treasures of Thames


A medieval clothes pin, or a piece of bent wire?

London: a 2000-year-old thriving port in a tidal range of a major river. As far as I know, that’s a unique combination in Europe. The waters of the English Channel had been flowing into and out of the city day after day for countless millennia and, with every wave, they had been bringing more debris and flotsam to the river shores, creating beaches formed of detritus of London’s entire history.

When the tide ebbs, these beaches become a playground for amateur archaeologists, scavengers of shards and old nails. They are called by an ancient moniker of Mudlarks – a name once reserved for poor urchins diving into mud to recover lost coal lumps or coins.

We – me and my wife – have discovered mudlarking by pure chance, a few weeks ago on a trip to Greenwich. The tide was out and we were sitting among gravel, old bricks and roof tiles, enjoying the rare sun, when one of us found a bit of china, painted in what seemed like tiny blue flowers. Moments later we had a handful of such unidentified potsherds. It was obvious these were not just bits of crockery thrown out of a nearby Starbucks, but something much older and much more interesting.

Continue reading “The Treasures of Thames”

Maltby Street Christmas


As every week, we went to do some weekend shopping at Maltby Street. Today we bought some more provisions, due to it being Christmas holiday period.

Monmouth Mistletoe
First stop – Monmouth Coffee, of course 🙂
Smooth Nicaraguan brew today, with tiny mince pies!
Nice surprise! Fern Verrow was supposed to not have any veg today, but still they came in force.
Lots of biodynamic beetroot for traditional borscht 🙂
Mons Cheese. Alps and Pyrenees cheeses from individual mountain farms. Fantastic Jura cheese, as strong as Gruyere, as soft as butter.
Poilane bread – the usual 🙂
Long queue for Christmas Stilton at Neil’s Yard
Neal’s Yard Christmas Lights
Bea’s cakes
The fantastic, awesome, terrific, best in the world, cold-smoked salmon from Hansen&Lydersen. We bought half of one for 20 quid.
Live shrimps from Dorset – jumping out of the basket
This had been the best oyster I have ever tasted. Plump, fresh, briny, the taste of the Brownsea Island
Lots of Panettones
Lovely miss La Grotta (Kitty) came after a long break, bringing Choc Ices with hazelnut chunks.
The Shard looming over the Arches

Random London is random


Things like this only happen in London: you go out to buy some organic veg, you end up in the first ever tube tunnel.

There was a Christmas Market at the Finnish church in Rotherhithe last Saturday. I’m not big on Christmassy stuff, but the Finns always sell the best stuff during the market – rye breads, Fazer sweets, frozen bilberries – so we decided to make a short walk from our usual Maltby St shopping (and coffeeing 🙂

(by the way: recession? what recession? judging by the way all of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are being built up with new developments, one would be excused to think we’re in the middle of the greatest real estate boom in history)

As I have a recent obsession with the Brunels, we’ve decided to drop by the Brunel Museum nearby. It’s a very tiny place, in an old pump house for the Thames Tunnel – a few photos, a souvenir stall, a tv with Brunel’s bio and some artefacts from the digging of the tunnel. And they don’t charge much, just £2 for a walkaround.

But this time was different. The man selling tickets asked us – ‘are you here for the Christmas Special?’
Eh?
Three pounds extra. It starts at 2.
Okay, why not.

Five minutes before 2pm, a crowd of some 50 people gathered outside the museum. Obviously, something big was going to happen. We were led down a tiny, tiny entrance (had to crawl for a few feet) down a rickety, scaffolding stairway, into a vast, empty, circular underground chamber.

The grand entrance hall to the Thames Tunnel.

Looking rather less grand now. The railway company tore down the wooden staircase and all the decorations for fear of fire.

‘You are among the first people to have entered this place – after 145 years!’ announced our host, and began to tell us the story of the tunnel. Its many firsts. The first ever to be born under water. The first ever use of a tunnelling shield. The first ever underwater shopping arcade – after it turned out the tunnel entrance was too  narrow to carry cargo, the only way for the passageway to pay for itself was to sell souvenirs. The first ever underwater dining hall, ballroom, amusement fair. The story went on. All the while we heard trains running under our feet – if the floor was glass, we would see them, speeding between Rotherhithe and Wapping through the still used part of the tunnel. The pumps still pumping water out.

It was, for all purposes, just a big brick tank with some trains running through. But it was the basis for all underground railway systems in the world. Paris, Tokyo, Channel Tunnel – all built based on the same purposes.

And we found it on a random walk.
This is why London is the best.

(because this was such a random occurence, I had no camera with me – just managed these two snaps with my phone. it has a rubbish camera, and it was rather dark inside.)

This site has much better photos of the tunnel itself – still in use, after all these years.

#OccupyLSX Tent City


I made some photos of OccupyLSX tent city yesterday. I have no idea how anyone with clear conscience can be disturbed by this group. People are going in and out of St Paul’s unhindered, the place is clean, very well organized and fun. 

The recycling facilities and access to public library made it a better place to live than some parts of London!

There was a multi-faith ceremony taking place on the steps of the cathedral at the time.

The tent city accepts donations and is in need of some supplies – here’s their wishlist.