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

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.

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.

Ducking and (not) Diving on the Thames

Early Sunday morning saw us waiting at a bus stop near the London Eye on the Thames’ south bank. We weren’t waiting for a familiar London bus though.

Our carriage awaits

No what we were waiting for was a DUKW. So what’s a DUKW? Well it’s an amphibious truck built by General Motors in the 1940s and it would have originally have come with a much more demure khaki paint job. During World War Two thousands of DUKWs ferried supplies and ammunition from ships to soldiers on the beaches in Sicily, the Pacific and Normandy.

So what does DUKW mean?

D stands for the first year of production, 1942.

U for Utility.

K for Front Wheel Drive.

W for two rear driving wheels.

It just so happens to be a happy coincidence for a vehicle that is equally at home on the water that DUKW sounds like duck.

Our London Duck Tours adventure began with a pretty conventional bus tour around central London, taking in the Palace of Westminster, Trafalgar Square, the new Bomber Command Memorial and Buckingham Palace. It was only as we crossed Vauxhall Bridge and turned left after the MI6 building that it got a bit more unusual.

Waiting on the slipway

As we waited on the slipway the driver swapped places with a ship’s master,

Whooooooaaaaagh

and we were off on our way to splash down in the Thames.

London’s finest on patrol

You certainly get a different perspective on the river from a DUKW.

Quack, quack

You are much closer to the water than you are in a conventional boat or a Thames Clipper. However it was a light drizzle that was getting us wet rather than Old Father Thames as we cruised downstream towards the Palace of Westminster. When you consider that these vehicles only had a life expectancy of a few months during World War Two, it’s marvelous that there are still eleven of them plying up and down the Thames 70 years later.

The Palace of Westminster

Our guide kept up a stream of interesting facts and terrible jokes as we turned back upstream to Vauxhall. I was intrigued to discover the rather grim-looking tower block next to the MI6 building, was the very same one that disgraced Tory Party Chairman Jeffrey Archer used to host his infamous Krug and Shepherd’s Pie parties from.

Archerville

Amongst his neighbours were fellow disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton and lap dance club owner Peter Stringfellow – classy neighbourhood!

James Bond’s office from the river.

Our voyage ended at MI6 HQ and it was a brief trip by road back to the bus stop in Chicheley Street to disembark. Our Duck Tour cost £21 per adult, plus a one-off £3 booking fee (yes Ryanair that’s one single £3 fee for all of us). When we booked earlier in the week, I did find that there were very few spaces left at the weekend, so book early at http://www.londonducktours.co.uk.

Thanks to Mab for the onshore photography.

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.

Cheers

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

 

Hats Off to Soho’s Backstreets

Sorry about the pun, unable to resist using it in conjunction with this picture that I snapped in Soho’s Hollen Street, just around the back of Oxford Street.

Hat Factory

The building dates back to 1887, but Henry Heath had been making posh hats in the area since the Regency. Of course it’s not a hat factory anymore, but home to various creative industry offices, where no doubt they appreciate the rather lovely lettering on the exterior.

Anyhow if you take a walk around the corner into Oxford Street you see this ornate pile above the Officer’s Club shop.

This is where Heath’s hat shop was. It was designed by the architects Christopher and White and if you look way up you can just about see three stone beavers. These photos were taken with ny old Sony compact which does not have the Nikon’s magnificatuion.

Cute you may think, until you investigate the beaver’s role in the Victorian hat industry!

If you want to find this building its opposite the 100 Club close to Tottenham Court Road tube station..

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.

London’s Little Italy

Yesterday I passed through Little Italy. No not the one in New York, but the one in central London close to Farringdon underground station.

London’s own Little Italy, Clerkenwell

Back in the 19th Century the area started to attract people from Italy who were fleeing poverty and political unrest. In 1863 the Italian community opened its own church in Clerkenwell Road, St Peter’s seen here next to the Italian food shop. There are naturally plenty of Italian restaurants and cappuccino bars, together with Italian food shops and even an Italian driving school in the area. The blue plaque on the building in the corner is for Hiram Maxim, the inventor of the Maxim gun.

Like of lot of central London the area has had its ups and downs. Until fairly recently it was the centre of the city’s print trade and I remember when I started working in PR (back in the days before every desk had a computer) frequently running artwork to the various printers and typesetters in the area, Whole buildings like the ones below,

would be occupied by different printing companies and none of the buildings ever seemed to have lifts! However new technology and a general decline in the print trade has since freed up plenty of quite funky premises for conversion into loft dwellings, architectural practice offices and design studios.

There are still some curious little shops like International Magic here at 89 Clerkenwell Road,

International Magic

It was founded around 50 years ago by the magician Ron MacMilan and is still run by his son Martin.

St Peter’s Church was designed by the Irish architect Sir John Miller-Bryson and based upon the basilica of San Crisogono in Rome. Unfortunately it was closed when I visited so I could not see the rather splendid interior and had to make do with the mosaic frieze from over the door.

Frieze above the door of st Peter’s

Within the portico are two memorials, one to the local fallen Italian soldiers from World War One and just above it is this one,

Memorial to the Italian internees lost on the Arandora Star

which has a very sad history. When Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940 Churchill had all Italian men in the UK rounded up and interned, even those who had fled Italy to get away from the fascists. One of the government’s bright ideas was to pack some of them off to Canada on the Arandora Star, only a German U-boat torpedoed the liner and about 700 of the Italian internees drowned.