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

We Have a River Thames Adventure

The best things are often unexpected. Making the best of a rainy Saturday evening we took the tube into London. Our destination was Bodeans at Tower Hill. This American smoke house restaurant had been recommended by one of Mab’s pals for huge piles of meat, cocktails and beer.

KC Brisket sandwich at Bodeans

After a quick drink in the bar we were shown downstairs to our booth and it wasn’t long before we were tucking in to our starters. I had the buffalo wings in BBQ sauce. For £5.95 I got six wings in a smokey hickory sauce which would have been a meal in itself. Very tasty and very messy, but fortunately Bodeans provide towelettes to clean the sticky sauce from fingers (and whiskers). My main was the KC Brisket sandwich (£7.95), basically a small mountain of beef in a bun with chips and coleslaw. Even though I had difficulty fitting this I could not resist finishing off the Burnt end beef from Mab’s Soho Special (same sort of thing as the KC Brisket only with flame roasted beef).

The cocktails were pretty good too. I had a 007 Vesper (£7.45) while Mab had a Passion Cosmo (£6.95). The 007 Vesper is basically a blend of vodka and gin and Kina Lillet, (a French apertif) invented by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale and named after the novel’s doomed love interest. Bodean’s version eschews the Lillet, but still tastes pretty good. The Passion Cosmo substitutes passion fruit vodka for the standard vodka. From the beer menu I chose the Samuel Adams draft (£3.85) , a rare flavoursome exception to most American draft beers

I thoroughly enjoyed Bodeans, the food and drink were great and despite its reputation for showing sport, it was relatively unobtrusive. The music was mostly 80s American AOR, fine by me, I’d much rather hear Blue Oyster Cult‘s Burnin for You than any Simon Cowel endorsed manufactured pop anyday.

Absolutely stuffed we emerged from Bodeans and discovered that the Sun had come out, so we waddled down to the embankment by the Tower of London. As we got to the river we heard sirens sounding on Tower Bridge and witnessed pedestrians legging it over the bascules before the bridge was raised to allow the steamer Balmoral to pass through.

Tower Bridge opens

Despite having lived in or around London for over 50 years this was the first time I had ever seen the bridge open to let a ship through, in person and was a completely unexpected treat.

Inspired we decided to make going home an adventure and booked a ticket from Tower Pier on the Thames Clipper riverboat. It was a bit expensive at £5.40 (we got a whole 60p off the standard fare with our Oyster Cards), but much more fun than the tube. Just before maritime Greenwich we passed the Royal Navy helicopter carrier HMS Ocean that will be berthed in the Thames for the duration of the Olympics.

However our destination was the new cable car crossing over the Thames, the Emirates Air Line, at North Greenwich. So disembarking by the O2 it was only a short walk to Greenwich Peninsula Station.

Cable car gondolas at Greenwich Peninsula

It wasn’t too busy, so there was no queue and we could even use our Oyster Card to touch in for a discount fare (£3.20 instead of the £4.30 for cash). I always find the ascent in a cable car pretty terrifying and the Emirates Air Line rises to 300 foot above the Thames as we left the O2 Dome behind.

Say goodbye to the O2

The crossing takes only a few minutes to cover the 1,100 metres over the river.

300 foot above the Thames

Apparently the cable car can ferry 2500 people over the Thames in an hour, it’s also a pretty impressive piece of engineering with some spectacular views over east London and the Thames Barrier.

Coming in to land, the DLR looks like a train set

For just over three quid it was a totally exhilarating trip and I think we may well be returning after the Olympics to try it again. So landing at Royal Docks we just made it to Royal Victoria Docks Docklands Light Rail Station for our journey home, before this brief window of the British summer closed and the rain started pummeling down again.

A trip to Greenwich – Noodles and a Clipper to the Tower

Greenwich is one of our favourite parts of London and not just because of its world-renowned maritime heritage and architecture. It also has some great little restaurants and a number of eccentric shops that are well worth exploring.

Since the extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) from Stratford, south of the Thames to Lewisham, we don’t even have to go through central London to get there anymore. So yesterday we decided to drop down there for lunch. Now there is something about the DLR that brings out my inner child especially if we can get one of the seats at the front of the driverless carriages.

Coming into Canary Wharf Station on the Docklands Light Railway

You also get some splendid views of London’s Olympic Park and the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

Just around the corner from Cutty Sark DLR Station was the object of our expedition, Tai Won Mein.

Tai Won Mein Noodle House

Dining at Tai Won Mein is a pretty basic affair. A laminated menu does for your place setting at the plain wooden tables and if they are very busy expect to make some new friends as benches fill up. While the menu won’t win any prizes for innovation, once your order is taken, the food is plentiful, cheap and comes freshly cooked from the kitchen, even if this does mean that your planned starter arrives during your main course!

Deep Fried Squid

We kicked off with the deep-fried squid. Now I have eaten squid in a lot of restaurants around the world and I can happily say that Tai Won Mein’s squid is some of the best I have ever had. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper the lightly battered squid just melts in your mouth, no old rubber bands here.

My main course was a bit less exotic, but I really love sweet and sour chicken so I wasn’t disappointed with this massive plate load for £4.95.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

When the time of reckoning finally came around, what with beer, soft drinks, chips and curry sauce the bill only came to about £45 for the four of us. Don’t expect to pay with plastic at Tai Won Mein, they only take cash.

So stuffed with noodles we decided to have a look at how work was progressing on the Cutty Sark after 2007’s devastating fire nearly destroyed the venerable old tea clipper.

The Cutty Sark

From what we could see, through the barriers, it looked like she would soon be ready to receive visitors once again, however we had an appointment to keep with another kind of clipper at Greenwich Pier.

Skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the north bank of the Thames

Despite having lived in or close to London for most of my life I had never set foot aboard a Thames Clipper before yesterday. These catamarans ply the Thames between Woolwich and  Central London and they are surprisingly nippy (28 knots). It seemed like only a few minutes before we were disembarking at Tower Bridge (fare £4.95 with an Oyster Card £5.50 without).

Tower Bridge