Some Gulls Will

Eat all kind of horrible things out of the mud from the exposed bed of the Thames at low tide.

Juvenile Herring Gulls

Juvenile Herring Gulls

We spotted two species of gull from London’s South Bank on Saturday. I was rather pleased with this picture I took of a juvenile herring gull at the extreme range of my camera lens. curiously there were no adult herring gulls to be seen, just the kids hanging out in the hope of scoring the odd sandwich crust.

Juvenile Herring Gull

Juvenile Herring Gull

The herring gulls were seriously outnumbered by the black headed gulls.

Black Headed Gull

Black Headed Gull

Who are still in their winter plumage so the only trace of the distinctive brown head is the spot behind the eye. The only other birds to be seen down by the river were London’s ever-present feral pigeons and a few carrion crows. We left them to whatever disgusting things they were eating and went to Wahaca.

Old Holborn

We were up in the West End of Old London Town over the weekend. As we exited Chancery Road tube station I spotted this well-known building.

Staple Inn

Staple Inn

This is Staple Inn, which dates back to 1585. It used to be the Wool Staple, where wool brought into London was weighed and taxed, today it is home to the Institute of Actuaries, with some shops on the ground floor.

More people probably have a picture of this building about their house than of any other London landmark, though it won’t be in a photo album or hanging from the wall. No it will be on the lid of that quarter ounce Old Holborn tobacco tin in the kitchen drawer, the garage or the shed, you know the one that is full of old screws, fuses and nails. Even people who have never smoked will probably have one, well either that or a Golden Virginia tin!

Snakes, Soccer and Soho – Mr Wolfe’s Birthday Bash

It was our friend Mr Wolfe’s special birthday on Saturday so we decided to treat him to a meal out in that there London Town.

New Year's Eve Chinatown

New Year’s Eve Chinatown

It was also a special day in London’s Chinatown. The place was rammed with people doing their last minute shopping to welcome in the Year of the Snake, but as we were up there I did a big shop in the New Loon Moon supermarket (9a Gerrard Street) for spices and other Chinese goodies. Aside from getting a few bits you just can’t get in an ordinary supermarket, things like spices, coconut milk and soy sauce are so much cheaper in Chinatown that its worth lumping them back home on the tube.

Chinese lanterns Chinatown London

Chinese lanterns Chinatown London

Next stop was a swift pint for me and the Captain in the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, while Saucy Wench Mab and the Powder Monkey bought some chocolate coffee beans in London’s most aromatic shop, Old Comption Street’s the Algerian Coffee Shop.

The Coach and Horses, Soho

The Coach and Horses, Soho

Now we’d told Mr Wolfe about the Bodean’s at Tower Hill and were keen for him to discover all the meaty goodness of their smokehouse fare, but Bodean’s do not take bookings so we thought if we try the Soho branch in Poland Street and it’s full, there are plenty of other places to eat. When we arrived the waitress said we could have a table in 45 minutes, fair enough we thought and ordered some drinks. Now that was where it all came undone. drinks ordered (and paid for) we were told to go outside and wait on the seating where the cocktails would be brought to us . This turned out to be a couple of benches on the street where the mouth-watering smell of barbecued meat mingled with that of the rancid dumpster and tramp pee. Bodean’s idea of bringing the drinks to us didn’t quite match ours either, fortunately we heard the waitress hollering our order number from inside and we had to force our way back inside past the by now enormous queue to collect them.

By this time we were a bit cheesed off, especially as it had started to rain so when Mr Wolfe turned up we went across to Wahaca in Wardour Street where we got a table immediately and had a fantastic Mexican meal for about two thirds of what we would have spent in Bodean’s

chorizo and potato quesadilla

chorizo and potato quesadilla Wahaca

Like Bodean’s, Wahaca don’t do reservation, but they don’t expect you to wait on the street if they can’t fit you in immediately. Oh no they give you a bleeper and send you downstairs to the tequila bar, which is where we went after the meal and where we were all severely trounced in a game of table soccer by the Powder Monkey.

Something Fishy on the South Bank

Okay the glass used to build the tanks must be able to withstand the weight of several tons of water, but somehow the idea that the only thing between you and the nine foot of shark circling below your feet

Look out below

Look out below

is a pane of glass is still pretty disturbing. This is of course once you have negotiated the scrum of families engaged in the post-cold war arms race to see who has the largest SUV sized pushchair at the cashdesk of London’s Sea Life Centre on the south bank. The Shark Reef Encounter tank

Shark Reef Encounter

Shark Reef Encounter

rises through all three floors of the London Sea Life Centre and is home to sixteen rather large sharks. Funny thing is viewed from below, the notion that the huge quantity of water pressing against the enormous tank’s side weighs far more than you do never enters your mind, as you watch the sharks with their beady little eyes,

Brown Shark

Brown Shark

and mouths full of sharp teeth sweeping through the water. The sharks share their environment with a number of other creatures including the guitar fish,

Guitar Fish

Guitar Fish

which with its flattened shape is somewhere betweeen a shark and a ray.

As we explored the Sea Life Centre we encountered the denizens of the Atlantic,

Everybody say hello to Ray

Everybody say hello to Ray

the tropical reefs,

Turtle

Turtle

the rain forest

Crocodile

Crocodile

and the River Thames itself. There is even an Antarctic penguin environment.

Penguins

Penguins

Smaller visitors can meet some of the Sea Life Centre’s denizens in touch pools, but touching is very much out-of-order for others.

Red Bellied Piranha

Red Bellied Piranha

Aside from the hordes of OPKs (Other People’s Kids) who’s only objective seemed to be getting under our feet in their frantic search for Nemo, I enjoyed my visit to the London Sea Life Centre, but at £20.70 to get in it is actually more expensive than a visit to London Zoo, which if you only have limited time in the capital has an excellent aquarium as well of lots of other animals.

Who wanted chips with it

Who wanted chips with this?

The Brunel Museum – London

It’s the London Underground’s 150th birthday today, but one of the oldest bits of tunnel used by Transport for London’s network is even older than that, as you can see from this plaque at Rotherhithe Station.

Plaque Rotherhithe station

Plaque Rotherhithe station

The Thames Tunnel was the very first tunnel to be sunk under a major river anywhere in the world and it was also one of the first major engineering projects undertaken by the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, though as an assistant to his often overlooked father, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. (If you want to find out more about Brunel Jnr see the BBC biography here)

The tunnel had never been intended for trains. Back in the early 19th century this part of the Thames was a very busy shipping lane with ships bringing produce from all over the world to the Port of London. A conventional bridge at Rotherhithe would have needed to allow a clearance of 100 foot for a tall ships mast, so a tunnel was seen as the only practical solution to getting goods from one side of the river to the other. Emigre French engineer Sir Marc Brunel proposed using his revolutionary new invention, the tunnelling shield to bore the tunnel beneath the river bed to the north bank at Wapping.

Pumping the water out from the tunnel was the job of a steam engine which was housed in this engine house which is now the Brunel Museum in Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe.

The Brunel Museum

The Brunel Museum

Inside the museum you can discover how the miners drove the tunnelling shield under the Thames, excavating two inches of soil at a time to be followed by an army of bricklayers who shored the structure up. Conditions were pretty horrible for the miners. In the days before Joseph Bazelgette rebuilt London’s sewers, the water seeping into the tunnel works was little more than raw sewage and the air soon became so feted that men would pass out and need to be taken back outside to recover in the fresh air. Methane gas explosions ignited by the miner’s naked candle flames and flooding were a constant danger. The Young Isambard almost drowned on one such occasion, but eventually in 1843 the tunnel was opened to the public.

Despite its initial success as a tourist attraction it never really took off as a river crossing because the money ran out before access slipways for horse-drawn wagons could be built. Bizarrely it did support an early form of shopping mall even if some of the trading carried out would have required a red lamp!. The tunnel was eventually acquired by the East London Railway company in 1865 and became part of London Transport’s old East London tube line before taking up its latest incarnation as part of the London Overground network.

Train running through bench Brunel Museum

Train running through bench Brunel Museum

It didn’t take us long to look around the museum, so while we were waiting for the guide who was going to take us down the Thames Tunnel’s original access shaft we had a coffee from the very pleasant Turkish cafe on the museum forecourt. I was rather taken by these benches with a  little Victorian train running through them.

Full Steam ahead

Full Steam ahead

There’s even a little Brunel in his stovepipe hat driving it, although I don’t think Brunel ever designed railway locomotives.

We’d paid a little bit extra on top of the £3 admission fee to tag along on the final part of a guided tour that took us down the original tunnel access shaft that Marc Brunel had ingeniously sunk into the soft waterlogged ground using its own weight as more bricks were piled on the top. It was a bit of an adventure getting in.

I descend into the depths

I descend into the depths

A short set of steps led to a tiny door that I had to crawl through on my hands and knees to reveal the smoke blackened walls of the shaft.

Inside the shaft

Inside the shaft

The original access steps had been removed when the railway arrived and the shaft became a huge chimney for the smoke from the locomotives. We had to descend through the scaffolding to reach the floor. OK I know visiting a bloody great hole in the ground may not be at the top of everyone’s list of things to do in London, but this is one almighty important hole where you will feel touched by the history of this great city and the people who shaped it.

The nearest station to the Brunel Museum is Rotherhithe on the London Overground

More Deer, Beer and Tapas – Richmond-upon-Thames

On Saturday a friend suggested going for tapas and there really are not many restaurants that can beat Don Fernandos’s in Richmond. Naturally no visit to Richmond is complete without visiting Richmond Park to see the deer, even if you do find yourself trapped in the midst of  three testosterone charged red deer stags at the height of the rut, like we did last October (more about that trip and Don Fernando’s here). By this time of year things have calmed down a lot and it wasn’t long before we got a sight of some of Britain’s largest land mammals happily noshing away at the grass.

Red Deer Richmond Park

Red Deer Richmond Park, you can just about make out the tower of Canary Wharf far to the east in the background

The deer appeared fairly nervous, which I put down to a number of large dogs being walked in the area, let’s face it they are not that far removed from the wolf. As the light was starting to fade and the park gates are closed at dusk we decided to bid the deer farewell and head back into Richmond for a few beers at The Roebuck as the Sun set. I was feeling a little disappointed that we hadn’t really got very close to the deer when as we approached the gates, a movement to the left caught my eye.

Fallow Deer stags

Fallow Deer bucks

It was a pair of fallow deer bucks, their dappled coats almost perfectly camouflaging them from sight. Fallow deer are smaller than the UK’s indigenous red deer and were probably introduced to Britain by the Romans. I was delighted to get a few shots of these beautiful animals before the light faded. It was the perfect end to our visit to the park.

Light and dark varients of fallow deer bucks, Richmond Park

Light and dark variants of fallow deer bucks, Richmond Park

Soho – Coffee, a Shot of Garlic and some Pastis

Having a child free weekend it was off to Soho on Saturday night for a bit of adult time.

After a bit of booze shopping at Gerry’s we had a mooch in the Algerian Coffee Stores (52 Old Comption Street). Established in 1887 this has to be one of the best smelling shops in London with 80 fragrant coffees and 120 different teas on sale. You can even get a coffee to go at a bargain £1 for an espresso, beats Starbucks into a cocked hat in my opinion.

Best Little Coffee Shop in London, the Algerian Coffee Stores

Shopping done it was time for a drink so we went to the French House in search of some pastis. It’s not a big boozer and the downstairs was absolutely rammed, but one of London’s best kept secrets is the new upstairs bar where the restaurant used to be.

View from the top, upstairs at the French House

Just like downstairs you can only have beer in halfs, but you can generally get somewhere to sit down. There are some pretty groovy prints on the purple painted walls, featuring some of the French’s illustrious former patrons, like Aleister Crowley, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, which are available to purchase. We settled down at the bar and spent an hour or so chatting with the barmaid over a couple of Henri Bardouins, while waiting for Mr Wolfe to turn up. The French has an interesting history which you can read here

Our dinner date for the evening was at Garlic and Shots (14 Frith Street).

Garlic and Shots

We hadn’t eaten in Garlic and Shots for ages and some of the reviews I had seen on-line recently were pretty rough, but I suspect they must have been by people who hate heavy rock music and just don’t get the Swedish restaurant’s point. There are 50 shots on the menu and garlic comes with everything! It’s in the beer, the starters, main course and desert (garlic and honey ice cream is surprisingly good) . A round of garlic beers ordered we hit the menu. I ordered a crayfish starter which was delicious followed by the enormous garlic burger.

Garlic Burger

It was heavenly. We shared sides of baked whole heads of garlic and the most gigantic slabs of tasty garlic bread ever. I even forced down some of that legendary garlic ice cream. considering that there were four of us and we had three rounds of garlic beer, starters, mains, sides, water and desert I thought the final reckoning of £200 including service wasn’t bad.

Alfred Hitchcock – Leytonstone’s East End Boy Made Good

He may have been a big noise in Hollywood, but Psycho director Sir Alfred Hitchcock was born in east London’s Leytonstone in 1899. The town has a few memorials to Hitch, including a pub, the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel (147 Whipps Cross Road) where I met up with my old mate Fran last night for a couple of pints of Fuller’s London Pride. Short of the name I don’t think the pub bears much relation to the director, although it’s my kind of boozer with comfy sofas, a discreet and silent TV for sports fans, no music (don’t get me wrong I love a pub with a stonking great live band too) and well cared for real ale. It was just the place for two middle-aged geezers to catch up on old times, but that’s another story.

Psycho mosaic Leytonstone Tube Station

Back in 2001 a selection of mosaics celebrating Hitchcock and his works wer unveiled at Leytonstone’s tube station and I could not resist taking some snaps with my old Sony compact last night. Not an easy job given the highly reflective nature of the little tiles and the poor light in the tunnel.

Hitchcock in the director’s chair

The works by Steve and Nathan Lobb, Carol Kenna, Claire Notley and Julie Norburn at the Greenwich Mural Workshop were commissioned by Waltham Forest Council, after asking local people to choose the pictures.

Tippi Hedron in The Birds

Hitchcock’s father, William was a greengrocer and poulterer who once sent the young Alfred to the local police station with a note requesting he be locked up for being a naughty boy. no doubt this was a formative moment in his upbringing for the Master of Suspense.

Young Alfred outside his dad’s shop

My favourite of the murals is this one of Cary Grant being chased by cropduster the from North by Northwest.

Cary Grant in North by Northwest

It’s also probably one of my favourite Hitchcock movies, partly because I like Cary Grant anyway, but it also has some great set pieces like the cropduster

and the finale on Mount Rushmore, not to mention a brilliant musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

If you fancy taking a look at the mosaics or raising a glass to England’s greatest film maker at the Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Leytonstone is on the Central Line.

London’s Brick Lane Market

It won’t come as any surprise to learn that Brick Lane was once a centre of brick manufacture in London’s east-end, thanks to the local deposits of brick clay. During the 17th century Huguenot weavers seeking refuge from Catholic persecution in France settled in the area. Then successive waves of Irish, Jewish and later Bengali immigrants followed the Huguenots, attracted by cheap rents and unskilled jobs in the ‘rag trade’. Today the area around Brick Lane is known as Banglatown and famed for its street market and many curry houses.

Brick Lane the heart of London’s Banglatown

With the benefit of hindsight I think we may have planned our visit the wrong way around when we arrived at Aldgate East Tube Station (District and Hammersmith and City Line).

Handsome London Transport roundel – Aldgate East Tube station

Taking a left up the Whitechapel High Street we passed the Whitechapel Art Gallery (handy hint its free to get in with nice clean free to pee loos) and these jolly Vampire carrots,

Vampire carrots – London street art

before making another left into Osborn Street. On 4 April 1888 the prostitute Emma Elizabeth Smith was killed in Osborn Street. Some people believe that she was the first victim of Jack the Ripper, although there is no hard evidence to link her death with the Ripper murders. Osborn Street leads into Brick Lane itself and you are soon surrounded by the tempting smells of fragrant spices and Bengali sweets wafting from the many Asian shops and restaurants. It was all too much, and after stocking up on bargain bags of spices (so much cheaper than our local supermarket), a bag of freshly cooked samosas from Madhubon (42 Brick Lane) were being devoured.

Freshly cooked samosas, too delicious to resist.

Almost every restaurant we passed seemed to be the proud owner of a ‘Best Curry in London’ award. Menus were perused, but it was a bit early in the day and the delightfully spiced and quite substantial samosas had taken the edge off our hunger.

Joseph Truman started brewing ale in Brick Lane in 1663, of course at the time beer was safer to drink than water. Truman’s Black Eagle Brewery was swallowed up by the brewing giant Grand Metropolitan in 1971 and ceased brewing in 1988 as the brewing giant attempted to force beer lovers to drink nasty keg beers like Watney’s (AKA Grotney’s) Red Barel. Recently the old brewery has undergone a bit of a renaissance,  as the buildings have been redeveloped into indoor market spaces to rival those of trendy Camden Lock.

Just some of the food on offer at the Old Brewery

Certainly the selection of food stalls offered an even wider choice than Camden, with Bengali, Chinese, Caribbean, Cuban, Ethiopian, Japanese, Mexican, Moroccan, Spanish, Thai,Tibetan, Turkish fast food joints all doing brisk trade. Thankfully I was still full of samosa so avoided having to make a choice. Aside from the food there were stalls selling new and vintage clothing, jewelry, antiques, prints and other craft items to the shabby-chic students, Guardianistas, tourists and sharp dressed young media darlings that make Brick Lane such a trendy place to hang out today.

Passing on through the bustling street market we came to Brick Lane’s legendary bagel bakeries, Although most of Brick Lane’s Jewish immigrants have moved on, Biegal Bake (59 Brick Lane) is still going strong. Open 24 hours a day, it’s London’s oldest bagel bakery and produces over 7000 bagels every day. Biegal Bake is famed for its hot salt beef bagels, they must be pretty good since people were queuing two deep inside the shop and out on to the pavement. We looked at the queue and decided that no matter how good they may be life was too short for standing in line.

By the time we’d reached the Shoreditch end of the market, we were starting to get hungry, however we were now at the wrong end of Brick Lane for the curry houses and my ankle was starting to hurt. Fortunately we were close to a part of London colonised by some later immigrants, the Vietnamese Boat People and it was a short walk,

Spiny Norman perhaps

passing some more great street art, including this imaginative locksmith’s door,

Locksmiths – Shoreditch

to Kingsland Road (AKA Pho Mile). I’d eaten in the Viet Hoa Cafe (70-72 Kingsland Road) before, so I was keen to share the experience with my fiends. They weren’t disappointed. I tried the chicken with pickled vegetables . The chicken was delightfully spicy while the crunchy pickles had just about the right amount of sourness. I also polished off Mab’s tasty Singapore noodles. With beer, tea and egg fried rice the damage only came to £57 for the three of us. A perfect end to a pleasant day out.

I think the next time we visit Brick Lane we might try navigating from the overground station at Shoreditch High Street and walk down Brick Lane to the tube at Aldgate East. Hopefully if we get there early we can have a salt beef bagel and a curry.

Gants Hill Tube Station – A Bit of Essex Buried Treasure

Many moons ago we lived somewhere between Gants Hill and Barkingside in London’s Essex overspill. Rapidly urbanised between the 20th century’s two World Wars it was ideally situated for London’s commuters and an aspirational destination for East-end boys made good. Still aspirations being what they are. about seventeen years ago we moved on to a part of Essex with access to Epping Forest. Curiously, in the way of people saying ‘Small world isn’t it’ I had to return to our old neighbourhood this week to collect a bathroom fitting from a shop just around he corner from where we used to live. The shop used to be an off-licence where I frequently stopped to chew the fat with manager Bernard, but that’s another story.

One of the things that fuelled the eastward expansion of London was the London Underground’s Central Line and considering what an architectural wasteland Gants Hill is, the tube station below is a little piece of buried Art Deco treasure.

The vaulted ceiling of Gants Hill Tube Station

London Underground began work on the station during the 1930s. The architect was one Charles Holden who aside from his work for London Transport also designed the University of London’s Senate house. Holden had also advised upon the construction of the Moscow Metro , hence the rather marvelous barrel vaulted ceiling of the concourse between the platforms. Hitler disrupted building for a few years when the excavations were used as an air raid shelter and a munitions factory and the station eventually opened up in 1947.

The Art Deco uplighters cast a distinctive halo on the vaulted ceiling

Unlike many of Holden’s very distinctive London Underground stations, like say Arnos Grove or  Southgate, nearly all of the station is beneath the ground including the ticket office, but I think the beauty of the platform concourse makes up for the lack of any external features