A week in London

By Caitlin Kelly

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The last stop! (sob)

So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.

I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)

 

Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:

 

—  It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets

— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring

— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below

— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.

Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:

 

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Museums

 

The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.

The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.

I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.

Their cafe is a delight — huge, airy, filled with natural light. Be sure to make time for a cup of tea or lunch.

I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.

He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.

I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!)  — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.

Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.

Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.

I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.

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While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.

 

Exploring

 

If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.

Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each  ($51 each.)

Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.

I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.

London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.

Look up at the city’s 900 ceramic blue plaques commemorating famous people who’ve lived there. On one busy block of Argyll Street, there are plaques for the American writer Washington Irving and Brian Epstein, who once managed the Beatles; the latter’s is above Five Guys, whose burgers and fries are amazing.

Flea markets

I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.

I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.

Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.

My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)

If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the pricewhen it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.

Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.

We also visited Portobello market, where I got a gorgeous cashmere turtleneck for 10 pounds ($13) and splurged on fabric and ribbon at this amazing shop (who ship to the U.S.)

Here’s a comprehensive list of London’s flea and antiques markets.

I lived in London ages two to five and have been back many, many times since, enjoying everything from tea at the Ritz to shopping at Fortnum & Mason to an amazing show of photos at Tate Modern.

The city really offers something for every taste. Be sure to enjoy a few very British traditions, from a leisurely afternoon tea to a pint at a pub.

Make time to watch the river traffic on the Thames, with everything from small sailboats to coal barges.

 

Have you been there?

What did you enjoy the most?

 

 

The Real Value Of A Rude, Stupid Teacher

Polish primary school and grammar school (gymn...
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Here’s a novel educational theory, espoused by an outgoing high-ranking official in British education:

Ms Atkins argued that poor teachers should not be sacked, as schools “need to reflect society”.

She told The Sunday Times: “It’s about learning how to identify good role models. One really good thing about primary school is that every kid learns how to deal with a really —- teacher.”

She continued: “I would not remove every single useless teacher because every grown-up in a workplace needs to learn to deal with the moron who sits four desks down without lamping them and to deal with authority that’s useless.

“I’d like to keep the number low, but if every primary school has one pretty naff teacher, this helps kids realise that even if you know the quality of authority is not good, you have to learn how to play it.”

I see her point. There are few things more demoralizing, after years of hard working studying and prepping and interning for the glamorous world of work than discovering that the “real world” offers some of the stupidest people you’ve ever met — and some of them are your bosses.

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to learn early of their existence and how to deke around their insanity.

Or — is this woman nuts?

Filling The 'Hungry Gap' With Tamasin Day-Lewis, Cookbook Author And Sister Of You Know Who

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Image by waferboard via Flickr

The month of March — the wind howling today, crocuses and daffodils up here in New York — is called the ‘hungry gap” says Tamasin Day-Lewis, the shaggy-haired, un-Botoxed British cookbook author featured in this month’s U.S. edition of Elle magazine:

England has a trinity of famous food personalities: Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, and Tamasin Day-Lewis. While the first two have become successful U.S. imports, the latter, despite being the sister of actor Daniel Day-Lewis and a close friend of celebs such as Julia Roberts (who you might recall was linked to the There Will Be Blood actor back in the ’90s), is known here mainly to insiders.

This might have something to do with the fact that, although Day-Lewis’ ethos is similar to Lawson and Oliver’s—we ought to mostly eat delicious food using fresh, humanely sourced ingredients—her delivery is not as user-friendly as Nigella’s (you too can be a domestic goddess) or the Naked Chef’s (throw some arugula in, mate—that’s the secret, innit?). The demystification of cooking is not her primary concern; the poetry of the palate is.

But her latest book, Supper for a Song, may be what expands her U.S. reputation. The title alludes both to getting something for nothing and to the always-out-of-pocket bohemian who pays her way by providing good conversation.

I have one of her cookbooks, Tamasin’s Weekend Food, and love it. It’s one of her eight cookbooks, and her tone — breezy, elegant, relaxed, veddy British — is a lovely breath of fresh country air. It assumes — sigh — one has a big old country house and you need to cook for hungry kids and/or multiple weekend guests. (She lives, lucky thing, in a 15th. century house in Somerset, three hours from London, writes for the Daily Telegraph and has a television show.)

I have none of these but still love the book, its photos and its recipes. It even has the classic red ribbon with which to mark your place.

In it, she writes:

“The weekend defines one’s style of cooking and eating more than any other time of the week…You have no time — you are tired. You have invited more people than you meant or or you have nowhere to go and nobody to come — YET. You have more time to cook than at any other time of the week, but you don’t want to feel you’ve got to do it — that stops the pleasure of the planning, the mulling, the weekend being the weekend.”

Who else, in a recipe for leeks vinaigrette (p. 88) commands: “Irrigate the leeks, which you have laid regimental style”? Or, (p. 106) “There has been much written about syllabub”?

From a review of her memoir, from The Independent:

Despite her zeal about healthy, sustainable food, Day-Lewis is pessimistic that attitudes will change. “You have to start with people who care a bit,” she adds with a shrug. The English, she says, are more eager to watch cooking on the telly than to care about what they cook and eat. ” I can’t make people buy the ingredients. I can’t make them sit down together. We want to eat food that takes no time at all and is made of mechanically recovered slurry.”

As for Jamie Oliver’s attempts to force children to eat decent school dinners, the plan is fundamentally flawed. “It will never work. You have to get them into the kitchen as part of the curriculum and make them cook,” she says. It was a lesson she learned in the kitchen of Elizabeth Jane Howard as she chopped vegetables and tried to forget her father’s illness. “No child ever didn’t eat what they cooked for themselves. That is what life is all about.” *

Chocoholic Fun: Filmed Today By The BBC

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Image by renaissancechambara via Flickr

The things a blog post can lead to! Cadbury, as some of you may know, is facing a potential bidding war between Hershey and Kraft soon to take over the venerable British confectionery firm. I blogged about this recently so today was filmed — shriek! — talking about the deal for BBC, to be shown in Bristol, where Cadbury is located. My voice, husky right now with a tenacious cold, is apparently going to be used in BBC radio reports.

It was odd fun. We filmed the piece at Tea & Sympathy, a great candy and tea shop on Greenwich Avenue in Manhattan, with the proprietor, Nikky Perry, a woman my age who’s a hoot. For someone who loves really good chocolate, being surrounded by boxes of Maltesers and Crunchies was heaven, even if I had to be lucid, for multiple takes, about business. Nikky made me a good strong cuppa’ (tea) which I sipped between takes and we shot several angles of me pretending to buy a Crunchie, a bar of infinite deliciousness.

Her British husband dropped by, wearing a wool sweater whose entire front panel, neck to waist, was a huge Union Jack. Loved it.

I lived in England ages 2-5, then moved to Toronto, where British traditions still reigned and some, today, still do. We drink a lot of tea, make it in a large china teapot and put on top of that pot a woolen or cotton object that looks like a hat — a tea cosy — to keep the pot warm. Nikky’s shop had Christmas crackers (the kind with toys inside) and handmade tea cosies and even a mosaic portrait of Queen Elizabeth — who I met in 1984 while covering her visit to Canada.

On a bitterly cold Manhattan morning, what fun!

Two Great Library Stories — Yay Bibliophiles!

Timbuktu’s crumbling manuscripts, validating the notion that Africa had fantastic intellectual resources many centuries before being colonized by Europe,  are getting a new lease on life, reports the BBC:

Across Timbuktu, in cupboards, rusting chests, private collections and libraries, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of manuscripts bear witness to this legendary city’s remarkable intellectual history, and by extension, to Africa’s much overlooked pre-colonial heritage.

“This is the proof,” said Mr Boularaf.

“Africa was not wild before the white man came. In fact, if you will excuse the expression, it was the colonising that was wild.”

Ahmed Saloum Boularaf

Ahmed Saloum Boularaf has been caring for documents for years

But this unique literary evidence is under threat, as time, the elements, and a simple lack of resources take their toll in northern Mali.

“We are losing manuscripts every day. We lack the financial means to catalogue and protect them,” said Mr Boularaf, who recently rescued his collection from the rubble of a mud building next door that collapsed after a rainstorm.

Now a giant, new, state of the art library has landed – rather like a spaceship – in the dilapidated centre of Timbuktu, offering the best hope of preserving and analysing the town’s literary treasures.

After several years of building and delays, the doors are finally about to open at the Ahmed Baba Institute’s new home – a 200 million rand (£16,428,265) project paid for by the South African government.

“It’s a dream come true,” said South African curator Alexio Motsi, exploring the underground, climate-controlled storage rooms that will soon house some 30,000 manuscripts.

And, in Westbury-sub-Mendip, in Somerset, England, a new library — probably the world’s smallest — has opened in a re-purposed red telephone booth. It was bought for one pound and now has four shelves and a red plastic crate with kids’ books in it.

Take one, leave one: no cards, no teeny tiny librarian. No fines!

What Rhymes With 'Fill 'Er Up?' Britain's First Service Station Gets Its Own Musical

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JUNE 01:  (UK TABLOID  Kei...
He stopped by, too....Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Fifty years ago, Watford Gap became Britain’s first 24-hour service station. It sits on the M1, a 193-mile highway now seen as the dividing line between north and south England. It became a popular late-night spot for touring musicians like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who ate there.

Now, there’s a musical celebrating it, involving local amateur singers and local BBC Radio.

Toby Friedner, Assistant Editor, BBC Northampton, says: “Who needs Carousel when you’ve got Watford Gap – The Musical! This is the biggest and most exciting project that BBC Northampton has been involved in for years.

“We hope thousands of local people will join us in supporting it with their memories of Watford Gap and their involvement in the musical itself. This unique project will celebrate what has become an iconic place in the county, in a creative and exciting way.”

Kind of makes you appreciate Cinnabon in a whole new way…

Oast Houses, Orangeries, Ha-Ha's, Bubble and Squeak

A horse in a field of buttercups in the Cotswolds
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For someone who lives in a 60-year-old red-brick apartment building in a New York suburb, I spend a lot of time reading about — aka swooning for — the rough walls and whitewashed wood and wide plank floors and 500-year-old cottages featured in British shelter magazines. I can practically smell the old stone and the hear the horses whinnying from the paddock. Few things slow my pulse as effectively as sipping from a bone china mug filled with steaming Earl Grey tea, and leafing through $8 worth of fantasies.

Partly it’s my British heritage, with an aunt and uncle, cousins and dear friends living in England, a country I lived in for three years as a little girl. Partly it’s missing the British-isms I took for granted in conversation growing up in Canada — bubble and squeak (food) or a dog’s breakfast (not food, a mess) or tea towel (dishcloth). Canadians use British spelling and say “zed” for “zee”, so reading British magazines (Canadian ones are almost impossible to find here) offers a taste of familiar comfort. One columnist in Country Homes & Interiors describes a day spent “pottering with mum” — which, translated, means hanging out with Mom. British recipes call for caster sugar or courgettes or piccalilli, all words I find oddly soothing.

It’s a quick, lovely escape.  British interiors use softer colors, weathered even further by the accumulated wear and tear of large, hairy dogs and kids — an outdoorsy, active family life is central. British colors and scale, the light, the sizes and shapes of the homes are all quite different from those in the U.S. or Canada, a refreshing change from what I see here every day. I studied interior design, planning to leave journalism, and have long been passionate about visual beauty and the thoughtful, considered use of materials and space. I like things that are weathered, worn, elegantly chosen, whether a flower in a vase or the placement of a chair. If it’s got patina and provenance, I’m there.

I love learning things like what an oast house is — with its distinctive conical roofs — a place for roasting hops. In my next life, poppets, I’m ordering an orangerie — and a ha-ha.