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London 2013 Archives

February 14, 2013

Julia and Hugh Are Around Here Somewhere...

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Exactly 230 days ago, I managed to snag two frequent-flyer tickets to London. I even took two days off from work to extend our time over the February school vacation week. Larry and I had only been to London once before, and wanted more time to explore the city.

We landed on time, and took the Heathrow Connect to Paddington station. The Connect is considerably cheaper than the Express, and only takes 10 minutes more. Downside is that it only runs every half hour, so some bench time is inevitable. Once we dragged our bags off the train at Paddington, we headed to the entrance to the Underground. With about 100 other people, who formed a long, patient queue. The entrance was blocked, and officials would only let a small group of people on a time. I was astonished by how patiently and resignedly people were waiting--if this were New York, there would have been a riot. We waited, and waited more, drooping with fatigue and travel buzz. Finally we looked at each other, said "cab" and edged our way to the side to escape. Best 6 pounds I ever spent.

Our apartment is near Notting Hill Gate. It's spacious, funky, comfortable, and a bargain. The owners only rent it when they're traveling, but luckily they were headed to Mexico this week.
We headed out for a walk. The area is filled with blocks of white terraced houses, and the occasional ugly 20th-century interloper. We skirted Portabello Road, past a block of used clothing shops. This area will be teeming with stalls on Saturday, I can't wait. We wandered Notting Hill, past many uber-expensive boutiques, trendy cafes, and more-fashionable-than-I women in the uniform of leggings, high heeled boots, cashmere coats, huge cowl, and cellphones. At least I had a chunky cowl so I could almost pass as the country cousin.

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Lunch was at the very nice bistro Cote with a well-priced lunch menu. Lentil salad followed by spinach crepes for me, salmon rilletes then steak frites for Larry. More walking, and we stopped into Ottolenghi's. I've loved his food for the use of vegetables, bright flavors, and unexpected textural contrast, and own two of his cookbooks. We got some takeout, which was gorgeous, tasty, and made Whole Foods look inexpensive.

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On the way back to the apartment we ducked into Jaimie Oliver's cooking school, a fun-looking place where couples were sipping drinks while they prepped Valentine's Day meals together. Oh yeah, it's Valentine's Day! We bought a bottle of champagne and some desserts from the bakery on the corner.

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We then walked in the opposite direction, down Kensington Church St toward Kensington High Road. Lots of antique shops along the road, and more of what I'd already seen several of--an old traditional pub now serving Thai food. Huh? Picked up some essentials at Whole Foods, and walked back up to the apartment.

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Champagne, dinner, some discussion of plans for the week, and to bed.

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February 16, 2013

Borough Market, City, Bus Break, V&A

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Friday morning we took the Tube over toward Borough Market, walking over the Millennium Bridge on the way. Blue skies, mild breeze. The Market was just getting going at 10:30, and we wandered around enjoying the absence of crowds. There are wonderful food producers here, and I so wish I could convey the aromas as we walked by stalls--roasting chorizo and ducks, truffles under glass that when lifted sent wafts of truffle nearby, enormous wheels of aged cheese, meat pies fresh from the oven, huge paellas beginning to simmer in their pans.

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We bought two sandwiches to split for lunch. One was my Borough Mecca--the toasted cheese and leeks sandwich from Kappacasein Cheeses. The other was a lamb sausage on a roll with sautéed vegetables, harissa and a zippy cilantro sauce. The market was beginning to get crowded, so we found a bench along the Embankment and enjoyed lunch while watching the gaggles of kids on school trips parade by on their way to or from the Globe Theatre. We went to the Globe and also nearby Southwark Cathedral on our last trip, so decided to not go today.

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We had discovered that the bank notes we had leftover from our last London trip were no longer accepted, so had to go to the Bank of England to exchange them. Back across the bridge, and wandered past St. Paul's and into The City. From the Bank, we walked around a bit more, found remains of the Roman Wall, before landing at the Museum of London. This is a large museum devoted to the history of the city, with lots of artifacts spanning the Neolithic age to present day. Interesting, though tiring visit. Filled in a lot of gaps in our understanding of London.

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While resting with some tea in the café, we found a few bus routes to get us back to Notting Hill. The V&A was open late on Fridays, so we decided to do a short visit there, knowing from past experiences that it's a place to best break off into smaller portions. We caught a bus heading toward The Strand, then Whitehall, then into Chelsea. Love sitting on the top of a London bus as it winds through the streets at sunset.

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At the V&A we spent the bulk of our time on the third floor, getting immersed in ironwork, silver, and enamelwork. We were dropping and hungry at that point, so headed to the next bus home. Found a nice dinner at Amici's restaurant near Notting Hill Gate, an oasis in the middle of fast food. Family-run, competent food, enjoyable mussels and pastas.

February 18, 2013

Portobello Market, British Library; Liverpool Relatives

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Saturday morning we headed out early, walking down Portobello Road into the market. First blocks of cute pastel-colored houses then an explosion into antique shops and stands. From card tables on the street holding old telephones, to what looks at first like a one-room shop which gives on to a warren of tiny one-desk antique dealers each specializing in something--jewelry, furs, tools, chandeliers, ceramics, buttons, watches, lace...I was in heaven. After a few block of that is a street with food vendors, produce, baker's carts, and then past the flyover used clothes, then some really wacky things.

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I violated my first rule of markets--"If something appeals to you, strike a deal then because you'll never find it later." So much for a filigree pin I liked, when turning back up the street I couldn't find that vendor again. I did thumb through antique laces for a while, so much more variety and better priced that what I've seen at Brimfield and our antique markets. I settled on a silk maltese lace collar, which I'll sew onto a sweater.

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By 11:30 the crowds were horrible, swarms of Italian-French, and Japanese tourists pouring down the street. I was very glad we began at 9:30. We fought through the crowds in the opposite direction back to the flat, and had lunch of the vegetable tarts and tomatoes we had bought.

We were taking a late afternoon train to Liverpool to see Larry's relatives, so a visit to the British Library a few blocks down from Euston Station seemed logical. We took the bus through the throngs of shoppers on Oxford Street.

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There's a "Treasures of the British Library" exhibit which we loved. The display is divided into types of printed material--literature, music, religious, science, maps. I especially loved the Literature section, with Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Shakespeare's First Folio, Jane Austen's notebooks. Lots of beautifully illuminated manuscripts, including the Catalonia Hagaddah. Understandably, no photos allowed. There was also a fun special exhibit on the crime novel.

We caught our train, after some amusing last-minute racing to the new track five minutes before departure. In Liverpool we were picked up my Larry's cousins, and had a fun time in a large Chinese restaurant renewing acquaintances. Larry's father and his siblings had been sent from Germany by their parents in the late 30's on the Kindertransport, which rescued Jewish children from Germany. Of the 5 children, only one, Kaye, remained in England. In 1948 she boarded an illegal ship for Palestine, spent a few months in a resettlement camp, and then lived on an early kibbutz. She and her husband Norman raised their children in Israel, and later returned to Liverpool.

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The next day we had a whirlwind tour of Liverpool, which has the largest number of Eduardian and Victorian buildings out of London, and some very charming residential areas. The city is climbing out of it's gritty past, with a new riverfront development and renewed commercial enterprises. And of course, we had to see the Beatles sites--John McCartney's childhood home, Abby Road, where John met Paul, the Cavern club where they played.

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February 24, 2013

Monday--Chelsea, V&A, Theater

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We decided to have a lazy morning, and took the bus over to Chelsea. Just walked around, enjoying the peeks at the lives of the investment bankers and trust-fund babies in the neighborhood. Beautifully manicured homes from different building eras, private gardens you can glimpse through wrought iron gates, ridiculously priced shops.

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Shared a meze platter for lunch at a crowded Middle-Eastern cafe, quite good. Al-Dar, 74 Kings Road.

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We popped back into the V&A, enjoyed the new Furniture Galleries.

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We had tickets to see Helen Mirren in her new play The Audience. The Leicester Square area was buzzing at twilight.

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After picking up our tickets, we wandered up through SoHo to a swanky dim sum restaurant, Yuancha, for dinner. Amusingly, we walked up what seemed to be the main street for SoHo's strip clubs--whose entrances looked somehow classier than their counterparts in New York or Boston. The restaurant was very sleek, with a menu of contemporary dim sum. The prices were high, but they have a good value early dinner set menu, which is what we went for. Lots of great little tastes that expanded on our usual chinatown tea house repertoire. Very good, and we'd definitely return. http://www.yauatcha.com/

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The play was unexpectedly humorous, filled with light and sharp barbs as Queen Elizabeth met through the years with her Prime Ministers. Some of the references were beyond our knowledge of British politics and current events. And sadly, the gentleman who played Churchill needed occasional prompting off-stage for his lines. But Mirren was wonderful, the other actors as well, and we enjoyed the evening in the small theater.

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Tuesday--Hidden London Walk

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Tuesday morning we joined one of the London Walks, this one called "Secret London." http://www.walks.com/

We were met by the tour guide Rex, who led us and about 15 other bundled-up people in and out of the Holburn area. We began in Staple Inn, which in the 16th century was where wool was weighed and taxed. It is one of the few buildings that survived the Great Fire, although has been extensively rebuilt, especially after being bombed in WW2. The timbered facade leads into a brick courtyard, the buildings of which has been used as one of the Inns of Chancery, and are now an actuary's institute.

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Rex led us into the courtyard of an ornate red brick late Victorian Gothic building, Holburn Bars, where Dickens had lived on the site of an earlier building. The present structure was built by Prudential Insurance in a time when women were beginning to work in offices--it had extra stairways so women wouldn't need to go up with a man behind her! We followed Rex through a tiny passageway to Ye Olde Mitre in Ely Place, built in 1546 when it was still the bishop of Ely's land. Then on to the oldest Catholic church in London, St. Etheldreda's (which of course was turned into a Church of England church during Henry VIII's reign) and St. Andrew's reconstructed by Christopher Wren. Love the statues of children who were educated by a school for poor children nearby. (and according to Rex, the material used is still trying to be replicated today)


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We also found Dr. Johnson's house, St. Bride's church, a 19th century bathhouse, more early buildings among the modern glass and steel. All along the walk we were treated to stories about the people who lived in the area through the centuries, a lot of history, a bit of historical illustration, and a lot of fun. We enjoyed the walk, and would recommend it.

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Rex suggested the Cheshire Cheese Pub nearby for lunch. It' was rebuilt in 1667, and full of atmosphere. There's a little pub area down a twisty staircase, or the small upstairs dining room. We opted for a booth in the dining room, and had an excellent lunch--fish and chips for me, sausages and mash for Larry. And a pint. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ye_Olde_Cheshire_Cheese

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Afterward, we visited Dr. Johnson's house, which has been restored to its 18th century detail. The rooms have documents and artwork related to Dr. Johnson's life, the dictionary he's chiefly famous for, and his friend Boswell who chronicled his wit and life. http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/


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My feet gave out at that point, so returned to the flat for a lazy evening and some disappointing Indian take-away. Avoid Malabar in Notting Hill (Larry says it wasn't bad, but I thought it greasy and bland)

February 25, 2013

Wednesday in th Cotswolds

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Early Wednesday morning we took the train to Swindon (which I can never say without hearing Eric Idle's voice in my head), then changed trains to arrive in Stroud. And a word about buying tickets on Britain's trains--the pricing, it's wonky as Hell. You go on the official site for whichever train system you're riding , and the prices are all over the place, depending not only on what time of day you're traveling, but when you're buying the ticket. It feels like buying airline tickets, trying to judge when the prices will fall or rise. And you can also go through independent sites like Seat61 or Thetrainonline, which sometimes offer cheaper rates, and sometimes bounce you back to the Virgin site. Crazymaking.

Anyway, we headed out to spend the day with old friends Pauline and Steve, and see Jonathan and Phillipa for lunch. Pauline picked us up from the station, and mercifully the mists of the morning were starting to clear. We first visited the adorable cottage they're renting, in an old renovated mill besides a stream outside the village of Painswick. The village is tiny and beautiful, with mellow stone buildings, a "New" street from 1426, the oldest building in England to have a post office, an evocative old church and graveyard, and even 17th century stocks. http://painswick.co.uk/

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We took a lovely walk through the 18th century Rococo Gardens, which is famous for its snowdrops, which were conveniently in bloom. Pretty views over the hills, long sweeps of snowdrops, cute old fanciful mini buildings, a hedgemaze where we got lost. http://www.rococogarden.org.uk/Home/tabid/103/Default.aspx

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I'd noticed when we were being driven around Liverpool earlier in the week that I found the motion of cars on the left side of the road a bit unsettling. Even when walking in London the "wrongness" of traffic coming from the opposite side was hard to get used to--Larry had to constantly caution me to "Look Right" when crossing streets.And in the back of a car, hurtling on the left side of narrow country lanes, when it seemed as if we'd smash into an oncoming car that had to edge over..ugh. Definitely something for me to adjust to.

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Anyway, we drove over to the pub where we met Jonathan and Phillippa, and all had a wonderful lunch together. The Woolpack is a cozy, informal place with good cooking. http://www.thewoolpackinn-slad.com/ I kept meaning to hand my camera to the waitress so she could take our photo together, but forgot.

After saying goodbye to J&P, we drove through some of the towns in the area, and across the Commons, traditional large grassy areas where cattle are still let out to roam during the Summer. The area is also marked by the remains of iron age forts and embankments. Pauline and Steven enjoy the many walking paths, which crisscross the area and go through private land as well as public. We walked through a tiny village, exchanging pleasantries with a woman out tending her gorgeous garden.

We stopped at Selsley All Saints Church, with an interior and windows designed by William Morris. http://allsaintsselsley.org.uk/

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Then a cream tea in the adorable old wool village of Minchinhampton, at the Kitchen. http://www.cotswolds.info/places/minchinhampton.shtml

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Train back to London, and to bed. We enjoyed our brief visit, and would love to further explore the area another time.

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