Pre-Raphaelites, Spies and Vin Diesel – Saturday in London

On Saturday we took a trip into London to visit the Pre-Rhaphealites Victorian Avant-Garde exhibition at the Tate Britain. I find the Pre-Raphaelites a very interesting group of artists, who have to my mind been somewhat sidelined by art historians in favour of what was going on over the channel in France during the 19th century. What the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did was to reject the view that Raphael represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement, they looked back to the bright colours and truth to nature of the Italian art that preceeded him. Mind you the colourful personal lives of Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Lizzie Siddall, William and Janey Morris were in many ways just as interesting as the PRB’s subversion of the Victorian art establishment.

Having studied the Pre-Raphaelites  for my undergraduate degree I really enjoyed seeing so many of their paintings together. I particularly liked William Holman-Hunt’s The Shadow of Death. This was the first time I had seen this work in person and I was surprised its sheer scale. I suppose being more familiar with Hunt’s smaller paintings like The Awakening conscience or The Light of the World I was expecting something a bit smaller. Yet the thing that struck me most forcefully in this study of Christ in his fathers’ carpentry shop was the detail of the wood shavings on the floor. I was also pleased to see that the decorative arts produced by Morris and Co. got a good showing alongside the paintings. I highly recommend this exhibition.

Having arrived in Pimlico (nearest tube to the Tate) about an hour before our show slot we decided to have a wee drink at the Morpeth Arms first.

The Morpeth Arms

This is a nice traditional boozer selling Young’s Ales right on the Thames riverbank. We carried our drinks upstairs to the Spying Room. I don’t know whether Kim Philby or Anthony Blunt used the Morpeth, (there are pictures of famous spies in the stairwell, including Mata Hari who I know didn’t sink pints of Young’s Special here) but from the upstairs window you do get a great view of the MI5 headquarters on the the opposite side of the Thames.

James Bond’s office London

After leaving the Tate we headed up the Thames embankment for Westminster tube only to discover a whole mess of overturned trucks, smoke and fire engines on Lambeth Bridge,

Mayhem on Lambeth Bridge

‘What all this?’ I wondered, it turned out to be a film set for Fast and Furious 6, not a sign of Vin (the unthinking man’s Jason Statham)  Diesel though.

‘Where’s Vin Diesel?’

Moving on we took a walk through Victoria Tower Gardens where we came upon this rather lovely piece of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

Buxton Memorial Fountain, Palace of Westminster in the background

This is the Buxton Memorial Fountain. It was commissioned in 1865 by the MP Charles Buxton to commemorate his father Thomas Fowell Buxton who, along with William Wilberforce and Thomas Babington Macaulay was instrumental in the emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire in 1834. The fountain was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon. I’d never seen the fountain before, it’s finding this sort of unexpected thing when you wander around this great city that makes living in it so interesting.

As Big Ben struck five,

Boing (five times)

We descended into the tube station. Our destination was Butler’s Wharf (nearest tube Tower Hill) on the Southbank where we had a table booked at Brown’s. Our good fortune held and we got a table outside overlooking the river as the day drew to a close. I plumped for the Brown’s Burger (about £12) which came with chips and a small dish with gherkins, fried onions and ketchup accompanied by a proper Vespa Martini made with Lillet vermouth and a twist of lime (£7.25). It was the perfect way to end the day as the Sun set over the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf after dak

As we walked back to Tower Gateway Station and beheld Tower Bridge lit up in all its glory, I could not help but reflect on what a fantastic city London is. Despite living here for 50 odd years I am constantly discovering new things about the place.

Tower Bridge

The French House Soho

The French House (49 Dean Street, W1) is one of my favourite pubs in London.

The French House

This boozer has a tiny bar and gets very crowded. According to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant this is his “favourite bar in the world”. During WWII General de Gaulle and the Free French adopted the York Minster (as it was then known), prompting the acquisition of its present name. Officially renamed in 1985, it’s no surprise that it serves more Ricard than any other British outlet.

Oddly enough it was founded by a German fellow by the name of Schmidt in 1910. However in 1914 it was bought by a Belgian Victor Berlemont, when Schmidt was deported as an enemy alien on the outbreak of World War One.

Wall space is crammed with former patron’s memorabilia, including original cartoons by the London Evening Standard’s Jak, complete with printer’s marks. Former guests include painter Francis Bacon, Oliver Reed and Guns and Roses. Don’t order a pint though, beer only comes in halves, save for the year’s first pint, traditionally drawn on 1 April by Madness singer Suggs. It’s a family thing; his mother was a barmaid here.


Upstairs there is a restaurant, must try it one day.


Francisco de Miranda and Fitzrovia

One of the things I used to enjoy about working in London’s West End was the opportunity to wander around and explore the local sights at lunchtime. Just north of Oxford Street is the area known as Fitzrovia.

Let’s start with a pint.

Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street W1

This is the Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street, from whence Fitzrovia is said to derive its name. The pub’s name comes from Fitzroy the family name of the Dukes of Grafton who used to own much of what is now Fitzrovia. The first Duke of Grafton was an illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Barbara Villiers, I love a bit of Restoration Royal scandal.

This boozer has a great literary heritage, Dylan Thomas and George Orwell drank there together with the artist Augustus John, comedian Michael Bentine and even the Great Beast himself Aleistair Crowley. Sadly its been taken over by Samuel Smiths who despite doing a great job in preserving the interior only sell their own keg beers. The best bet is the Imperial Stout as the rest of their offering is pretty putrid in my opinion.

Carrying on up Charlotte Street you come to the neo-classical splendour of Fitzroy Square.

Robert Adam designed Fitzroy Square

It’s quite lovely, having being designed by the great Scottish architect Robert Adam in 1792 and completed by his brothers James and William in 1798. Fitzroy Square has been home to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Maddox Brown and the author Ian McEwan, while George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf both lived at no.29 though not at the same time. You can see Woolf’s blue plaque at no 29 below.

29 Fitzroy Square, home of Virginia Woolf

On the corner of the Square is this statue. I had often passed it before and wondered who he was, so I googled him.

Francisco de Miranda

Turns out he is Francisco de Miranda, a liberator of Venezuela. After supporting the French Revolution and traveling round Europe, Miranda lived in London for a number of years before heading back to Venezuela, overthrowing the Spanish governor, then surrendering to Spanish forces after a catastrophic earthquake hit Caracas. He ended his days in a Spanish jail after Simon Bolivar decided he had been a traitor to surrender and handed him over to the Spaniards.

However while he was in London he lived here with his housekeeper and their children between 1803 and 1810 at Grafton Street just off Fitzroy Square, where amongst others he received Simon Bolivar and Andres Bello who persuaded him to head back to Venezuela.

Venezuelan Embassy, Grafton Street W1

Appropriately today it’s now the Venezuelan Embassy.

Soho, John Snow and Cholera

In Soho’s Broadwick Street there is a pub called the John Snow.

The John Snow

So who was John Snow?

Well he’s the chap who worked out that cholera was caused by bacteria from water polluted by human waste. You see back in the early 1800’s most physicians believed that diseases were caused by something called miasma or to put it bluntly bad air. So when in 1854 there was an outbreak of cholera in Soho, no one was surprised as there was not only lots of poo going into the River Thames, but also cesspits dug below most of London’s houses and loads of horse shit on the streets all contributing to what was known as ‘the great stink’.

Snow was puzzled by why outbreaks of the disease were concentrated in certain London areas and by a process of elimination that would have done Sherlock Holmes proud, he discovered that most of the Soho cases were concentrated around Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) and that one group of local people were strangely immune. These were the brewery workers and Snow’s research showed that they only drank beer. Putting these facts together Snow worked out that something was contaminating the water at he local pump. He managed to convince the local council to remove the pump’s handle which forced the locals to use a different well for their drinking water and the cholera epidemic was cleared up

Close to the pub this here pump is a memorial to Snow.

Water pump memorial to John Snow

It’s not the original pump, that used to be just outside the pub, where its position is marked on the pavement. Funny thing is Snow never touched a drop for most of his life, still we have him (amongst others) to thank for helping to provide London with decent sanitation, so I will have a drink for him.

The pub got itself a bad reputation when the landlord threw a strop about same-sex couple kissing (c’mon its in mega gay-friendly Soho of all places). From choice I don’t use it because it’s one of those Sam Smith’s boozers that has no real ale and I can’t stand their fizzy keg beers and lagers.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks and some Ducks

The summer came and briefly visited the UK on Sunday, so we decided it was time for a pub lunch. Not in any old pub, mind you, oh no, because according to The Guinness Book of Records,

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans  is the oldest pub in the UK. The original building close to St Albans Abbey dates back to the 11th century and owes its basic octagonal shape to its first use as a dovecote.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

In 1539, when Henry VIII fell out with the Pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and decided to start his own church, the Abbey was dissolved and the building moved to its present location close to the cathedral. It is rumoured that underground tunnels link the beer cellar with the cathedral, which I suppose is handy if the Bishop ever runs out of communion wine. First known as the Round House, it became Ye Olde Fighting Cocks when the Cock Pit from the Abbey was installed after the dissolution. When cock-fighting was banned in 1849 the pub was briefly called The Fisherman before reverting to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in 1872.

This is a great little boozer which fortunately still has many of its original features like the bread oven by the main fireplace.  It also has a deserved reputation for its food

The only chicken you will meet in Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

As it was Sunday there was a selection of roasts on offer. I went for the chicken which had been roasted with tarragon and lime (£11.95). It was fantastic. The chocolate brownie (£4.50) that Mab couldn’t finish was pretty good too.

So having eaten a pretty delicious bird we went to feed the birds in nearby Verulam Park.

Mallard duckling

There are a lot of baby birds around at this time of year including a host of Aylesbury/Mallard hybrids, Canada Geese and coots.

Coot and chick, ‘now you see us

The coot parents were busy teaching their chicks to dive.

Now you don’t’

I was charmed by this little moorhen chick being fed by its mother, that I photographed from a bridge.

Mother and baby moorhen

Incidentally St Albans has a lot of history having been settled by the Romans, conquered by the British Queen Boudicca and fought over by the forces of Lancaster and York in the Wars of the Roses. I did spend three years working there in the 90s, but the nearest thing to a historic event in that time was Timmy Mallett turning on the Christmas Lights. Must see stuff in the city are the Cathedral, the Roman Theatre and the Hypocaust (Roman central heating system) in Verulam Park.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery and a pint at The Conan Doyle

When we went to see the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo the other week the bus passed this incredible piece of Gothic Revival architecture.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

This is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh’s  Queen Street. The photograph doesn’t really do it justice, but short of standing in the traffic I wasn’t going to get much better. The building was designed by the Scottish architect Robert Rowland Anderson, who was trained by the great George Gilbert Scott and built between 1885 and 1890. It was built specifically to house the collection of portraits founded by David Erskine the 11th Earl of Buchan and as such was the first custom-built national museum of portraiture. London’s National Portrait Gallery was founded earlier (I worked on Royal Mail’s 150th anniversary stamp products back in 2006), but didn’t move into its current location until 1896.

It is a bit of a wow moment when you step into the atrium.

William Hole frieze – Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

The processional frieze below the balcony is by the English painter William Hole and depicts important Scots from Saint Ninian to Robert Burns and David Livingstone. The collection has lots of portraits of famous Jacobites like Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald as well as Kings, Queens and other worthies. Notable portraits include Raeburn’s Walter Scott and Nasmyth’s Robert Burns. Unfortunately the contemporary gallery is presently being rehung, so the only modern Scot on view John Bellany’s portrait of Billy Connolly.

We found the portrait of another famous Scot at the bottom of Queen Street.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Conan Doyle, Edinburgh

Hanging over the entrance to The Conan Doyle pub. The Conan Doyle has had a bit of a facelift since I last visited and the exterior is now a smart black rather than green. Inside it’s still packed with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. The pub is just of Picardy Place, where in 1859, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born at number 55. Number 55 is no longer there , but I had a lovely pint of Belhaven stout, drawn from a hand-pump. It was better than Guinness, with no CO2 artificial fizz.

Customised pump badge at The Conan Doyle

Edinburgh – Bring on the Jubilee with Hawkwind, Curry and Beer

While most of the UK seemed to be drowning over the Jubilee weekend we were enjoying the sunshine in Edinburgh. After checking in to Dr Jekyll’s Travelodge (Dr Caligari’s was booked out) it was off to the Mosque Kitchen for their amazing £10 all you can eat buffet before the evening’s main event.

I first saw Hawkwind at the Reading Festival in 1975, when they played to 50,000 people. Queen’s Hall Edinburgh on Saturday night was a bit more intimate, in fact it must be the smallest venue I have ever seen the band play in. It was built as Hope Park Chapel in 1823, but converted to a music venue in 1979. We nabbed a position on the raised seating area to the left of the stage and settled in for the night.

Syren, a predominantly female band that had its origins in Rockbitch opened the evening. They held their own, but it was Hawkwind’s primal trance inducing beat the audience was waiting for. I honestly can’t remember how many times I have seen this band and while they did have a bit of an off moment in the mid to late 70s, they have seldom failed to to provide anything less than a great night out with their lightshow and dancers. Saturday was no exception.

Opening with You’d Better Believe It, it was almost as if they had read my mind as to what I’d like to hear them perform, Assault and Battery/the Golden Void, Sonic Attack and a ripping Assassins of Allah were all trotted out before closing the set with Damnation Alley

An encore of Psychedelic Warlords and Silver Machine finished things off nicely.

Now despite it being 10.30, it still wasn’t completely dark out on Edinburgh’s streets as we headed for the Auld Hoose in St Leonard’s Street, for a few beers over a discussion on the most pressing item of the day. Namely what instrument should a T.Rex play? Given his stubby little arms’ it was agreed that a trombone would be out of the question and that he could never emulate Lemmy on bass. Perhaps a ukulele? I like the Auld Hoose, it has a Goth, Rock and Metal jukebox and Staropramen on draft.

I liked the Queen’s Hall too. It’s a nice venue, the people who work there are very friendly and the bar is very reasonable, in fact with lager at £3 a pint it’s cheaper than most local pubs. The videos of Hawkwind are not the present line up.

More Curry and Beer – A Return to Theydon Bois

We had originally intended to go into London this weekend, but good old London Transport had decided to close most of the Central Line into town down. However we were not going to let a little thing like that get in the way of a bit of fun, so we took the tube outward to the Essex town of Theydon Bois again.

The Bull as seen from the Green, Theydon Bois

Arriving in the daylight we went for a walk on the Green where we met some very chatty ducks by the pond, before decamping to the Victoria for a pint of AK Bitter and then to the Bull where to my delight Young’s Special was the guest ale.

Theydon Bois has three Indian restaurants and we had already tried the Indian Ocean, which was a bit variable on the quality of the food and a bit flashy of decor. The Theydon Bois Balti House (Station Approach) on the other hand from the outside looks as if it has been caught in time warp. Black glass windows behind twisted columns, very old school curry palace, but it had been given a glowing recommendation by my physio who has her practice in the town.

Stepping inside we found a light green interior, fresh white table linen and a very well-kept tropical fish tank. The staff were very welcoming and there was that really great Indian food smell wafting from the kitchen. It was also rammed solid with other diners, so it was just as well we had booked a table.

For starters Mab had the Mulligatawny soup,

Mulligatawny Soup

Mab slipped me a taste and it was very good, obviously homemade with a fresh coriander garnish, I had the Seekh kebab,

Seekh kebab

while Nick had the Shammi kebab, both of which were delightfully spiced.

Shammi kebab

The main courses consisted of a Chicken Jalfrezi Balti for me, Mab’s Chicken Vindaloo and Nick’s Lamb Jalfrezi, along with Tadka Dahl (lentils), Motor Panir (cheesy peas), Sag Aloo (potatoes with spinach), onion rice and a Keema (spicy lamb mince) stuffed Naan.

Lamb Jalfrezi, Sag Aloo and Motor Panir, Keema Naan and chapati in the background

The food was really excellent and really well presented. The curries were garnished with fresh chili and coriander, the meat tender and well-flavoured. The Vindaloo was particularly good with a subtle heat, that gradually increased in intensity rather than blowing your head off. All in all top quality traditional Indian restaurant cuisine

Tadka Dahl, Chicken Jalfrezi Balti and Chicken Vindaloo

Needless to say that there was far more than we could eat, but we made a valiant effort. Over some very welcome complementary digestifs the manager came over to talk to us. We mentioned how much we had enjoyed our meal and he explained how he had chosen to stick with the original menu of basic Indian favourites like Vindaloo, Balti, Persian and Madras curries with either chicken, lamb or prawns, since opening the restaurant in the early 90s. No fancy new dishes with duck or fish for example. It’s obviously paid off for him, as the place was stuffed with happy eaters and we shall certainly be visiting again.

So what’s the damage? For three with papadoms, starters, mains, three vegetable dishes, two portions of rice, Naan bread, chapati, one bottle of Chilean white, two pints of Cobra, and water £76. Pretty good for three stuffed and happy diners.

The Hell Hunt – Tallinn

As soon as we’d settled down at our table, I remembered why we’d liked this boozer so much the last time we had visited Tallinn. Delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, reasonably priced beer and King Crimson’s Moonchild on the stereo. It was a home from home,

Best pub in town, the Hell Hunt (Friendly Wolf)

and given that it is a bit off the established tourist hangouts (Pikk39), the prices aree a lot more reasonable than the joints around the town square, where a pint can cost up to €5. Hell Hunt homebrewed ales come as Hele (lager) and Tume (dark ale) and at €2.90 a pint are pretty good value, there is also quite an awesome assortmant of foreign draughts, but we hadn’t come all this way to sup Newcastle Brown or Belhaven St Andrews Ale.

The bar at the Hell Hunt

The other great advantage of its location is that although it is often busy, it’s rarely visited by the stag parties that plague the centre of Tallinn at the weekend, so it’s a nice relaxed place to enjoy lunch or a few drinks on a night out. The choice of music is pretty cool too: the Beatles, Who, Paul Weller, Oasis, a bit of punk, metal and prog, but never so loud that you could not enjoy a conversation.

The menu is full of interesting dishes like;


Basturma, a kind of air cured beef served with tartare sauce, salted herring or smelt, deep fried cheese, meatballs, pig’s tongue with horseradish, pickled cucumber,

Russian dumplings

fried Russian dumplings with sour cream and spicy tomato sauce and even pickled lampreys. There are filling soups, salads, pasta dishes, spicy sausages and a very decent hamburger, but the star dish for me is the crispy potatoes with mince and cheese. It’s tasty and filling, just the thing for the sub-zero temperatures outside and at under €5 you can’t knock it for a good value lunch. In fact you would be hard pressed to spend over €10 on a lunch at the Hell Hunt without some industrial scale boozing.

I particularly liked the lampshades fashioned from barbed wire.

How do you change a light bulb in the Hell Hunt? With great care!


Shock Horror – The Coach and Horses Goes Veggie

Regular readers will know my favourite Soho boozer is the Coach and Horses in Greek Street.

The Coach and Horses, Soho

The Coach and Horses, Soho

Well strange things are afoot at Private Eye’s local, the kitchen has gone veggie. On Friday I met some pals there for lunch, well more a graze while we chewed the literal fat, but the bar snacks we sampled, courgette chips (£3.50), chips (£3) and Welsh Rarebit £5.20) were excellent. In fact the Welsh Rarebit was the best I have ever had.

The very tasty veggie sausage roll

On Saturday we popped in for a livener, as we were in town before meeting Mr Wolfe for dinner in Fitzrovia. I had just intended to have a swift pint, but down from the kitchen came the chef with a platter of veggie sausage rolls. I just had to have one, and so did Mab and Old Nick. Despite the thermo-nuclear temperature of the filling (aubergine, courgette, peppers,onion etc) they were so good, we devoured them in record time, leaving a small mountain of flaky pastry crumbs on the bar top.

Whether the new menu will find favour with regulars is another thing, and I for one will miss the Scotch eggs,

The late lamented bar snacks of The Coach and Horses

and especially the jumbo pork scratchings.

Pork scratchings

At least the decor hasn’t changed since Jeffrey Barnard propped up the bar and the only banging music is when Betty pounds the ivories for a sing-song.

The magnificent Betty at the Coach and Horses