Thursday, March 21, 2013: London
Although I will be in London tomorrow, I really do consider today my last one in the city as I will be in Kent tomorrow with scarcely any time to do very much.
So I suppose I used today to do the things I always do when I am in London. My day flew as I flew from one venue to the next on a day when the rain abated but only slightly to enable me to get around. Here’s how I spent my last whole day in London:
1. 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral
2. Twinnings Tea Company for a Tea Tasting:
This was a very unique experience conducted by a tea specialist who brewed three different teas for me (including a white tea). She explained the quality and compositional differences of the different leaves and their brews and then treated me to a cup of any favorite tea of my choice. I chose Darjeeling which was very soothing on another grey and chilly morning.
3. Cornish Artists Exhibition at Two Temple Place:
It was my friend Barbara who told me about this unique exhibition. I entered an extraordinary private home that was constructed for the Astors, the American millionaire family with British business interests, right off the Embankment. The exhibition featured the work of artists based in Cornwall in small seaside towns that have become synonymous with painters and their work. On a past visit to Cornwall, I had visited the Tate St. Ives (Art Gallery) as well as the sculptor Barbara Hepworth's House and Museum and had passed through the fishing town of Newlyn where the quality of the light is so special that many artists congregated there. Well, this exhibition featured all of their work in styles that were comfortingly realistic, representative of the fishing, sailing and mining lifestyles of this seafaring folk and reminiscent of their simple country pleasures. Indeed it made a charming collection and I was very pleased to have seen it.
But, most of it, I was absolutely thrilled by the house—Two Temple Place—in which the exhibition was held. It was the last word in splendor, especially designed and constructed for a man who wished to have a grand London city home filled with reminders of the books and the music that he loved. So, one ascends to the higher floor on a fabulous wooden staircase punctuated with finely-carved figures representing characters from Astor’s favorite novel of all time, Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. Gigantc stained glass windows, embellished marble fireplaces, stunning mantelpieces, gloriously decorated pendant ceilings, intricate parquet flooring contribute to making this house an absolute wonder and one every visitor to London should see. Guided tours are available if one becomes a member but an art exhibition such as the one I attended is the perfect excuse to wander around these grand enivrons.
4. Bus No. 11 Ride to Victoria from Fleet Street.
I have told every visitor to London what a great deal the No. 11 bus route is. If you can find a seat on the upper deck at the very front, the picture windows will provide a sightseeing jaunt that no tour bus can beat for the red buses glide slowly through the streets, stopping frequently and providing unending opportunities for photography. I caught the bus on Fleet Street, passed by The Strand, got to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, entered Whitehall where I spotted the Banqueting Hall, saw the Horse Guards at the Horse Guards Parade, The Cenotaph commemorating the Glorious Dead, glimpsed No. 10 Downing Street, Home of Britain’s Prime Minister, arrived at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, saw Westminster Abbey, St. Margaret’s Church and Dean’s Yard, then sailed down Victoria Road passing Scotland Yard to arrive at Victoria Station.
I then got off and rode the bus in the opposite direction to return to Fitzrovia where I had a lunch date with my friend and colleague Mahnaz.
5. Lunch with Mahnaz at Brasserie Blanc:
Although my NYU colleague Mahnaz and I had decided to meet at the Fitzroy Tavern which is a landmark in Fitzrovia (it was the haunt of a number of literary lights in the early to mid-20th century), once she arrived there, we decided to find someplace more lively to eat as the bar was half-closed when we got there.
Having spotted Brasserie Blanc, one of the restaurants owned by Raymond Blanc, a legendary French chef who has made the UK his home (his star creation is Le Manoir Des Quatre Saisons in Oxfordshire which I have yet to visit), I suggested we try out his offerings. Mahnaz was game and we settled down to non-stop chatter as we went for the Selection Varies—a platter of assorted nibbles for two people served with crusty bread and butter. Everything was delicious from the Celery Remoulade to the Carrot Salad, from the wedge of lightly sautéed salmon to the peppery cold cuts, from the chunky potato salad with its note of Dijon mustard to the smoked fish relish. It was the perfect choice and we ate well. Mahnaz, however, had just over an hour before she rushed off for her next appointment, so I said goodbye and moved on.
6. A Visit to Pollock’s Toy Museum:
I had read about Pollock’s Toy Museum in the English Home magazine and expected it to be a prominent structure. It turned out to be a small shop in Bloomsbury, just off Charlotte Street, which sold old-fashioned toys. To actually see the museum which contained antique toys one had to enter a cordoned area by paying 6 pounds. I have to say that I contented myself merely looking at the toys in the shop and left.
7. Visit to Mary Portas’ Living and Giving Shop in Parsons Green:
From Bloomsbury, I took a bus and rode all the way through Chelsea and into Parsons Green. Indeed Chelsea is one of my favorite parts of London. I love its chic stores and the Sloan Ranger look of its inhabitants. I hopped off at the Oxfam charity stores that stud the area where I always end up finding interesting vintage jewelry or old silk scarves. No such luck this time round. However, I caught the 22 bus and sailed all the way to Parsons Green, an area unknown to me, to see the charity shop of Mary Portas, a woman labelled Mary, Queen of Shops. She had a brilliant TV show when I lived in London that taught women how to shop the charity shops and create million dollar looks for pennies. The success of her show led her to create her own chain of Mary Portas shops, the flagship of which was in Parsons Green. I have to admit that the contents of her shop were really exciting. Although very well priced, it was still more expensive than rates in US thrift shops and I did not really find any jewelry worth having. Still, a really fine sheepskin coat caught my eye and I wondered how I would possibly haul such a great coat back to the States. Best to sleep on it, I thought.
8. Bus to Harrods at Knightsbridge:
Of course, I cannot leave London without visiting Harrods, so there I was, hopping a bus to get to Knightsbridge and then charging through the Food Halls and the souvenir stands looking for bargains. Sadly, there were none to be had, so I made a right about turn and walked out.
9. Bus to Piccadilly to Fortnum and Mason:
Since my other favorite food shopping venue is Fortnum and Mason, off I went on the next bus to Piccadilly to browse around the offerings there. Once again, I found that lack of sales made shopping expensive and after having a poke around and finding nothing new, I left.
10. Back home to Amen Court for my last meal:
I returned to Amen Court with the idea of sharing a meal with my friends when they included me in another dinner invitation issued by another one of their house guests from New York, John. We debated many possibilities and finally settled on The Hare and the Tortoise, a pan-Oriental chain of restaurant that offers a gigantic soup known as a Curry Laksa which I had enjoyed in Singapore and which I always order from this chain. John ate Sashimi (Fresh raw fish) while Cynthia went for Beef in Black Bean Sauce. The entire meal was superb but I left my friends to linger over dessert and coffee as I rushed off once again.
11. Tea with Tim and Barbara in Holborn:
For old times’ old, I wanted to visit my former building in Holborn and since I needed to deliver a bottle of Port wine that I had carried from Portugal to Tim and Barbara, I was offered the perfect excuse to get to there after dinner to enjoy a nice cup of lemon-ginger tea. I spent about an hour with my friends just gabbing until it was clear we were all ready to hit the sack. So I took my leave, left and got on to a bus back to Amen Court.
And thus ended another lovely day in London