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Sunday, July 31, 2011

LONDON DAY 8, July 7th

Thursday morning and it's time for our London Pass to kick in. We'll start with a visit to Shakespeare's Globe. It's on the other side of the Thames River, so we take the tube to London Bridge station and walk the Southbank area, barely ahead of the rain. We take a short cut through the Borough market area, where signs still left from the second World War give us inspiration.
The Globe Theatre is a replica of Shakespeare's original theatre, which stood just a few hundred yards from here, and the circular shape of the pale building studded with wood below a thatched roof is a pleasure to see.

We opt for the behind-the-scenes tour and walk through the displays while waiting for the next tour to begin. I pick up an audio guide for a few extra pounds and enjoy hearing about bawdy London at this time period. I had no idea Londoners once lived in huts atop the frozen river. I peer at the glassed-in artifacts such as bowling balls, bottles and ticket boxes found during excavation of the original site to determine what shape and size to build the replica.I stay to watch a quick film about costuming and makeup and how the young actors who depicted women in Shakespeare's plays were literally poisoning themselves to death by applying lead paint to their faces for every performance.

The guides at the Globe are what you might expect from Shakespearean folk-- snooty and easily perturbed; barely tolerating us colloquial speakers of modern English. But they do (only just barely), because tourists help keep the theatre going. Despite the attitude, however, the Globe is certainly a worthwhile visit and I like to think that the Bard himself wasn't at all stuffy. In fact, his plays were considered for the common man and quite bawdy for their time, too. It says so on the displays.
We catch a rehearsal of Anne Boleyn, which is very exciting and we decide to stay on, until we're ushered out by the skittish tour guide.

Make sure to visit the gift shop, too. I'm told it's one of the best in London, filled with great T-shirts, mugs and quirky gifts imprinted with Shakespearean sayings.

When we're ready to leave, it's still pouring out. Luckily, the restaurant I have earmarked for lunch is across the street from the Globe. It's a Turkish restaurant I'd read about, called TAS PIDE and one of several Tas restaurants sprinkled over south London. We're welcomed into the white stucco building and ushered past a wood-fired oven where a man hauls out a loaf of bread with sear marks across it.
Next to us, a group of men are sipping peppermint tea and munching on cookies.

Since we've never had Turkish food before, we decide to go for the fixed menu-- a three course meal for under 10 pounds each. Right off, we're served a hummus dip and a yogurt dip called cacik with cucumber and mint and that delicious warm bread the man hauled out from the oven. Both are really tasty-- I love all the fresh herbs sprinkled on top. For our mains, we order the tavuklu without the cheddar cheese. It's a dish with chicken,red peppers and basil along with a tomato puree, all wrapped in dough then baked in that wood-fired oven.I'm not a big bread person, but the dough has so much flavor and the chicken must have been marinated and simmered in with the red peppers, because it's really moist. I would describe the food as clean, simple and so flavorful because of all the fresh herbs and spices used.
But the best turns out to be the dessert-- an apricot stuffed with homemade cream and an almond, all rolled in pistachios and honey. I love every bite and can't wait to have Turkish food at home.

It's time to go to St. Paul's, which Rich isn't too excited about, but I figure if it's incredibly boring, we'll slip out of the tour early.
We walk over the Millennium Bridge, trying hard not to slip from the rain as the surface is a kind of stainless steel. It's quite a juxtaposition being on this modern bridge with wiring for railings and seeing the dome of St. Paul's looming on the other side of the Thames. But we need to hurry in order to make it to the Cathedral for the super-tour. We arrive a few minutes before it starts and are told it's full, but the guide, Chris, looks at us and smiles, saying he'll take two more.

The tour is an hour and a half and Chris turns out to be an amazing guide. Think of the most inspirational teacher you could possibly have and that would be Chris. He leads us into places not usually explored by visitors like the Bell Tower-- down a cluster of stone steps and tells us not to look up until we get to the bottom, upon which we should close our eyes until he tells us to open them. When we do, we're gazing up to the Dean's staircase-- a spiraling wonder of stone steps jutting out of the walls on one side, suspended in the air on the other.
Chris calls for silence and stabs a finger in the air, then another and the bells start ringing. Hearing them echo is quite magical. Chris tells us that the staircase was filmed for the Harry Potter movies. "When the bells were wrung with human hands by the sweat of one man's brow there was never an issue," Chris says, "but now that its automated, we do get slip ups."

He ushers us into a private chapel and we sit in the ornately carved stalls where knights once worshiped and get drawn into the world of Christopher Wren-- who built this current church-- the fourth church on this property-- after the great fire. Started in 1675, it took 33 years to complete and the project was considered extremely daring-- a dome as grand as the Roman Catholic churches for a Presbyterian church?
It was difficult to raise money for such a project, no matter how much of a favorite Wren was of the King's, but through a coal tax, Londoners raised 750,000 pounds to build it, which is why it is considered England's church.

All the stained glass windows were destroyed during the blitz of the second World War,(there's a wonderful chapel called the U.S Memorial chapel dedicated to America as a thank-you for liberating Britain), but Chris points out that while the stained glass was never replaced, we are seeing the church exactly as Wren built it, also thanks to a decades-long renovation removing much grit, grime and painting restoration. The project was completed this spring.

"Just in time for the Royal Wedding" Chris smiles. "We would have given them a wonderful day, but of course, the Abbey is the church of the monarchy. We are the church of all of England."

We descend below the cathedral to the Crypt, and stop to hear about who is buried on this floor, or beneath it. Rich gasps when he looks down and realizes where he's standing. "There's your guy!" I tell him when I read the inscription:

SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN
Born May 13 1842
Died Nov 22 1900

So Rich has gotten as close as he possibly could to Gilbert & Sullivan, just a foot away from Arthur himself. If we do nothing else on this trip, it will have been worthwhile.

Being in the Crypt is quite a surreal experience. The ceilings are high, the walkways arched, the walls are stone and the whole thing gives off a pale yellow light. Weirdly enough, it's kind of like being in an ancient wine cellar. Walking around the massive-sized stone replicas of famous Brits lying above their tombs or looking down at the ground at the stones where the bones of so many famous people lay, is humbling. You really do see how important it is to enjoy every moment, how in the end, you might just end up next to a church restaurant where they serve scones--but how horrible would that be?(Especially is you love scones the way I do.)

Along the corridor to Wellington's tomb are the ceremonial flags used during his burial in 1858.They're tattered and frayed at the ends, but it's incredible that they are left as they were, for us to witness. The mosaics on the floor were layed-out by women prisoners and you can see how over time, the work gets more intricate and beautiful.
Lord Nelson's tomb is right under the Dome. His tomb was meant for Henry the 8ths Chancellor who died on the way to the gallows at the Tower of London. So Nelson is in the granite block instead, inside three coffins as his body was pickled in a barrel of brandy on the sea voyage home for his funeral.

We end our tour at the most fitting of epitaphs; Christopher Wren's. It says:

"Reader if you seek a monument-look around you." Christopher Wren,who died at age 91, came to worship at St. Paul's weekly, and saw it as his true home.

"Are you ready to venture back into the outside world?" Chris asks us. We all pause, not wanting to. Then he tells us, "Evensong is at 5 o'clock and you can sit in the stalls along with the choir if you're there a few minutes before five."

"Let's do it" Rich whispers to me. We're a bit early. There's just enough time to get scones and tea at the restaurant outside the crypt.

So here we are, amongst the choir of cherubic faces and angelic voices at St. Paul's cathedral, just beyond the dome, under Creation, the ornate fresco depicting the Earth. To the left of it is the Sea and then the Heavens, where light is streaming through the newly refurbished windows. "Give us peace in our time, O God," we all recite along with the choir, "for you are the only one looking over us."

The woman beside me is crying as she recites the lines. "So sorry," she whispers,"but it's good to be back in St. Paul's. It's a long way from Istanbul."

Then Evensong is over, but we linger. We're not in much of hurry to join the outside world. "Another place I'd love to get locked into," I whisper to Rich. After I'd climb the hundreds of steps up to the Dome past the whispering gallery, I'd head for the Dean's staircase, up to his library with a gorgeous cup of tea, and sniff all the books from the past centuries as the light streams through the window, onto the stone floor.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

LONDON DAY 7, July 6

We wake up to a hazy Wednesday morning in London, but I'm too excited to care about the weather. We hear laughter and footsteps above our window apartment as commuters head to work. Today is our "explore the area' day, since our 6-day London Pass won't kick in until tomorrow, and it includes unlimited transportation and entry to more venues than we could possibly visit.

We decide to hoof it to the Victoria and Albert Museum (which is about half an hour from our townhome). Along the way, the sun appears. We see that our Westminster neighbourhood is less than a 10 minute walk from the West End theatre district, where WICKED and BILLY ELLIOT are playing.
While we've chosen not to see any shows on this trip, it's still exciting to pass the huge marquees as we make our way to the V & A. (www.vam.ac.uk)
I'm amazed that London's major museums and galleries belong to the people and are therefore, free of charge. And when we get to the museum, the building itself is so beautiful, I want to cry. The museum is really made up of several Victorian structures, all connected and dedicated to art and design.

I was reading a blog about the V & A recently, and it said how the museum is like one gargantuan attic filled with eclectic and massively-scaled artifacts collected by the coolest, quirkiest grandmother you could ever have. Splash in a dose of royalty and I would certainly agree, as it was the brain-child of Prince Albert and soon became a passionate joint-venture he shared with his wife, Queen Victoria.

You can't possibly see the entire museum in one day or even a week, and things do change--new exhibits are interwoven between longstanding ones, in our case, Yohji Yamamoto frocks displayed next to Italian Renaissance sculptures. So we choose the Theatre & Performance Galleries Tour and get a glimpse of the contemporary kookiness found in the displays here, from 19th century carnival performers, to costumes worn by the Beatles.
"Feel free to take photographs," is what our guide tells us, "the museum is meant to be enjoyed." And I somehow feel that the spirits of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria are being channeled through the curators here, delighted in our delight and that they have the chance to surround themselves with such interesting pieces of art and design from all ages and civilizations, in every shape and size imaginable.

"This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives..."Queen Victoria wrote in her journal upon opening the Great Exhibition in 1851."It is a day which makes my heart swell with thankfulness... The Green Park and Hyde Park were one mass of densely crowded human beings, in the highest good humour... the sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying... The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decoration and exhibits, the sound of the organ... all this was indeed moving."

As we round the corner in the Theatre exhibit,(which is just past the stunning Jewellery display room on the third floor,) we're face-to-face with a collage of Gilbert & Sullivan posters. The brightly-colored posters take up the entire wall.

Rich is absolutely thrilled.

He loves the wit and silliness of their plays and we've seen several productions performed in both professional and amateur theatre.
With so many pieces as big as buildings at the V & A, you really don't need reading glasses, which is wonderful, as I'm just getting used to them, and would much rather be transported to the time in which theses life-sized objects once stood, without them.
We head downstairs and go into the Cast Courts, craning our necks to see replicas of David and ancient Roman pillars, some of which are now the only remaining images of the history they only intended to replicate.
We catch the curators deep in thought amongst the casts wrapped up in styrofoam bandages while part of the room gets re-done. They're discussing how to restore the tile flooring in the courts to their original form, the way Prince Albert chose to have it look.
I want to keep staring at the plasters, but we decide to take the glass elevator up to the 6th floor where the ceramics are held, and find vessels from 100 AD, a ceramics workshop in progress, and a blue willow display that makes me want to start collecting again and Rich very hungry.
He's eager to see the dining hall for the food, but I'm just as anxious to see it for it's beauty. Since we love anything from the arts and craft movement, being in the dining Hall designed by William Morris himself is pretty special,
but it's too busy to find a seat, so we pick a table in another room that's just as grand and go hunting for sweets, Here, even the meringnes are larger-than-life and as big as strong fists.

But we go for the cakes-- a chocolate walnut cake for Rich and me with a lemon cake, knowing I've still got a cherry scone from Henderson's Bistro I'd brought back from Edinburgh. We sip green lemon tea in the dining hall wondering if we could ever be so lucky as to get locked into this place and spend the night in the cast courts, where we'd bring pockets full of meringnes to tide us over.
"Can we go see them one more time?" I ask Rich. We decide to view them from the mezzanine, Rich sitting quietly on a bench, me peering over the railing and knocking the steel boot plate every time I move until Rich joins me and clanks at them, too.
"You'd be surprised how the energy changes once the visitors leave," Jon tells us. He's one of the protectors of the plasters. "It's rather eerie."

Before we leave, we discover the gardens in an outside courtyard. There are hundred of bushes sprouting my favorite flower. Why am I not surprised? Hydrangeas are lining the entire brick exterior. Now I really want to be locked in here.
We take the tube on the way back, since I want to see Victoria station and thank her for marrying Albert, who created such a magical place.
On the way home, we spot a corner pub with pink petunias overflowing from the flower boxes and an image of a person perched on a wooden sign on top of the building.
"It says The Albert," Rich tells me.

"Are you kidding?"

"Nope."
We've managed to find the only pub in England named after my new favorite Prince and we go up to the dining room and dig into the carving station.
I load my plate with slices of turkey, pork and Yorkshire pudding--red cabbage, courgette, roast potatoes and horseradish. Then I gaze at
all the pictures of Prince Albert and his Queen lining the walls of the room.
"To Albert," I say to Rich, lifting up my heaping forkful of turkey as Prince Albert looks over me from out the window of his pub.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

LONDON DAY 6

On Tuesday, we pack up and say goodbye to Edinburgh, boarding a train for London, Charing Cross station.

Ben, our nephew, says it must be time to leave since it's starting to drizzle and looking like his skipping stone luck along Loch Lomond has run out on the weather front. But we're actually sad to leave Edinburgh having fallen in love with the city. But the four hour scenic journey is the perfect tonic to ease the transition from magical Edinburgh into bustling London.

We splurge and go first class, which turns out to be only 30 dollars more and something I would highly recommend doing. We're treated to a non-stop food trolley throughout the journey and room seats, as we pass castle ruins, green hills and the North Sea.

Whenever there's a stop, out comes the food trolley. Like when we pass the charming beach at Berwick-on-Tweed, a tray of cakes are passed about that must be taken with a cup of tea and milk. The cakes served are inspired by the castles we see along the way, and now owned by the National Trust. Many have their own special cake recipes served in their restaurants which the train kitchen now incorporates into their menu. For this trip, we have the marmalade cake from Beningbrough Hall & Gardens in the York region. While I'm not a huge fan of cakes with fruit in them (I usually grimace while eating mincemeat pies at home in Toronto, as it's also a holiday tradition there), but when I taste these with a cup of really hot and strong English tea nursed with milk, after a few bites, I find myself devouring the whole thing.

"You want mine?" Rich asks, picking out the currants. But that would be pushing it. I want to save room for the bigger meals; chicken caesar salad with what looks like very good bacon and Ben confirms that it is. He trades me the tomatoes on his egg and bacon bahji sandwich for them. In fact, the kids try every meal you can have on the all day service and sometimes more than once including: beetroot risotto with mixed leaf salad, 6 packages of crisps, the chicken caesar salad after Ben discovers how delicious the bacon is, plus a round of marmalade cake which they down with fizzy lemonade instead of tea. They're saving the tea experience for London. So we say goodbye to the Scottish fields of heather spotting the skyline with pink and purple hues and greet the English countryside and all the sheep with their black faces, until we get to London.

We make our way to Pimlico station and the townhouse my sister-in-law, Lynda, rented in Westminster borough

(home of the Monarchy, so I'm very excited and know this is going to be big!)
As soon as we see it, we all gasp-- except for Lynda, who is smiling really hugely.

It looks just like Hugh Grant's house in the film, Notting Hill. You know the one where he falls in love with Julia Roberts? I don't know about you, but I spent quite a bit of time watching that movie checking out the house and Hugh Grant's bookstore as much as I followed the love story. And the townhouse we'll be staying at, with its sunny kitchen, black and white tile floors
and ten foot high windows is just as magnificent as the one Hugh and Julia had tea and toast in.

And the whole thing overlooks a courtyard furnished with cast-iron Victorian garden furniture.


Everyone insists Rich and I take the little apartment downstairs,

but really, every room in the house is stunning and with its distinct personality.

Besides the kitchen, weirdly enough, my favorite places are all the loos in the townhouse.
They're decorated with ocean themes, and the towels are thick and gigantic.

Our little apartment has its own kitchen filled with blue willow dishes and a mini fridge to store our fruit juices, oatmeal, and the scones I keep buying to ensure I'll get an afternoon tea break.


I really like the fact that European kitchens have two small fridges no higher that your waist-- one a freezer, the other a fridge. They go "to market" or shopping for their produce several times in a week instead of bulking up. It really lends itself to eating fresh and making grocery shopping more of a social event and a priority, where you graze and chat to vendors instead of rushing to shop in bulk and getting the whole thing over with.

In fact, when we make our way to the neighbourhood gastro pub I'd read about on squaremeal.uk, there are street vendors in the cobbled area which is closed to vehicles. Alongside a hog on a spit,

a woman is cooking up a curry dish in a pan the size of a small coffee table and there's a fish monger throwing ice on his catch. Next door, under a blue and white tent, a man hands us pieces of smoked gouda cheese he's just sliced off of a gigantic wheel, and tells us to visit GASTRONOMICA, his cafe across the street.But we're determined to go to the QUEENS ARMS and get our fill of fish and chips.

As soon as we walk into the pub, it has a such a good feel to it with its blackboard menu and gilded mirrors. Kid-friendly and more like a pub that has been cleaned up and gentrified, but not enough so that you can't see the oak wood and the tavern tables amongst the soft green walls.

Since we're a table of seven, a cheery server named Flo takes us up to the second floor dining area, opens up a massive window to let in fresh air (I can't get over the heft of the windows in London).

Flo gathers a few tavern tables together and brings us pitchers of water to fill our cobalt blue glasses with, and hands us menus, which change weekly,

but the beer battered haddock with chips and peas is a staple and most of us order that.
Rich and I try the London lager which happily, isn't bitter at all,
and all seven of us nibble from the house made bread selection-- a mix of sour cherry and malted grain breads.
Lynda has the chilled beetroot cucumber yogurt soup that we all try because it's just so flavorful.

The fish and chips are outstanding-- the batter not greasy at all-- they must get their oil super hot or something for it taste so light-- and the chips are just soft enough and hot,too. I know we'll be back for another round before the week is over. And even though we're pretty stuffed, we order dessert. It's house-made sticky toffee pudding with salted caramel ice cream, which I've never had before. The combination of the warm pudding and the salted caramel ice cream is pretty amazing.

We head back to the townhouse as excited about London as we were for Edinburgh. Even though its drizzling, I'm ten minutes away from Buckingham Palace,

in an apartment surrounded by velvet curtains in royal blue.