Saturday, July 27, 2013

Making Dreams Come True--Thames Barrier & Greenwich

Friday, July 26, 2013

            Today I went to one of my favorite parts of London—Greenwich. It is an opportunity to cruise on the River Thames, to take in the grand architecture of Sir Christopher Wren (which, in the case of Greenwich, was actually inspired by India’s Taj Mahal) and to stroll through antiques’ stalls to pick up bricabrac. This time, I made a few more dreams come true—small ones, but dreams, nonetheless.
            I worked for about three hours in the morning—awaking early really does help me accomplish substantial work and leaves me guiltless about goofing off for the rest of the day in this distracting city. Brekkie done (walnut bread toast with peanut butter and goat cheese, tea) I showered, got myself organized and set off for Westminster Pier to pick up the ferry to Greenwich. Being a bit early for the 12. 30 ferry, however, I got off one stop later—at Waterloo—and began the South Bank Walk, according to DK Eyewitness Guides.

Strolling on the South Bank:
           Scores of shots of this part of London (from watching too many BBC TV shows—MI5, Sherlock Holmes—made me feel as if I were in a movie. Alighting from the Tube at Waterloo, I had the good sense to jump into a bus that was crossing Waterloo Bridge (as I knew I needed to conserve energy for all the walking I would do during the rest of the day), and alighted at the National Theater—that poor controversial building that Prince Charles described as “a carbuncle on the face of London”.  Others described it as a “war bunker”, yet others as a “power station”. So, no, visually appealing it is not. But it is practical and functional and I have quite grown to like it.
           I crossed the busy dual carriageway street (whoa, careful there!) and reached the other side: the Hayward Gallery has a huge topiary display depicting two people gardening. In the forecourt, I saw a multitude of potted plants and flowers and in the gallery itself it a special exhibition on Nek Chand, an Indian sculptor based in Chandigarh, Punjab, who designed the famous Rock Garden there to blend in with the brilliant architecture of the city by Le Corbusier. Years ago, I had visited Chandigarh with my late mother Edith who was a great admirer of the work of Le Corbusier and had motivated my Dad to arrange a family holiday of North India that would include Chandigarh. Looking at Nek Chand’s work took me back to amazing holidays with my parents during which my Mum had communicated and passed on her zeal for discovering new parts of the world. She was, when I look back now, indeed a ‘studied’ traveler—although, at that time, I was too young to realize it. It is exactly what I have become.
       Resolving to visit the Nek Chand exhibition on another day, I walked towards the BFI (British Film Institute) and browsed in the second-hand book stalls set up under the bridge by makeshift salesmen. Heading forward, I walked past the skate boarding rink that is heavily graffitied and which usually sports a bunch of young chaps flaunting their skills. This morning, it was empty. On I pressed towards Hungerford Bridge past the many riverside restaurants—I have eaten twice at the Wagamama there—before I received a call from Llew that I took sitting quayside. I also spoke to our friend Ira who is visiting Southport from Maine for the annual Pequot Library Sale which is going on this weekend.

Booking a Thames River Cruise:
           It was time for me to get on if I wished to board the 12. 30 pm ferry, so I crossed Hungerford Bridge on foot and arrived at the Embankment Tube station from where I took the train for one stop to Westminster. I easily found my way to the booking offices where there were about 8 people ahead of me buying tickets to board the ferries. Most folks go only as far as Greenwich which is a popular spot for a daytrip. But, as I said, this time round, I was making long-held dreams come true.
             Years ago, I had read a series of books on traveling in the UK and in London by Susan Allen Tott—books that were such pleasurable reading and that rang so many bells in my mind that I actually prescribed them for a Writing course I had taught while living and teaching in London. It was from Tott’s books that I had become aware of the Thames Flood Barrier and ever since then I was determined to go there and see it for myself. Unfortunately, it is only open to visitors for a limited time in the year—three months of summer—and since I have visited the UK usually in the winter, in recent years, I have been deprived of the opportunity to see it. Meanwhile, on more than one landing into Heathrow airport, I have seen the Barrier from the air, and it has only whetted my appetite to be present in person on the ground.
This was my big opportunity. Thames River Services (TRS) operates ferry trips all the way to the Thames Barrier (which is half an hour by boat beyond Greenwich). The return trip is pricey—18 pounds, but I was astute enough to go online and I found a 50% discount coupon which I printed out, presented at the counter and was given a return ticket for just 8. 75 pounds! A true bargain considering that I had paid 8 pounds for just one way on the Regent’s Canal Cruise from Camden Lock to Little Venice which was a much shorter trip!

Cruising the River Thames:
            No matter how often I do this, a cruise on the River Thames is an exciting adventure for me. It offers views of the city of the London from a unique perspective and you get to see bits of it that you could never see from any other angle. I have cruised to Greenwich on innumerable occasions and each time, I have discovered something more about this fabulous city.
            The cruise leaves from Westminster Pier which offers incomparable views of St. Steven’s Tower which is commonly known as “Big Ben” (which is really the name of the bell that is concealed in the uppermost compartment—not the clock, as many believe). The ferry turns around to bring the London Eye and the Aquarium into focus. And then we were off: the sights from the river that stay with me are Shakespeare’s Globe Theater—this is exactly the perspective Queen Elizabeth I would have received when she came theater-visiting by boat from Hampton Court Palace or Richmond Palace. The Tate Modern, St. Paul’s Cathedral with its imposing dome and twin spires, colorful Blackfriars Bridge, The Gerkin and now the Shard and further on, the magnificent Tower Bridge flanked on one side by the historic Tower of London (you can see the ominous entrance to Traitor’s Gate from the water) and on the other by Sir Norman Foster’s “collapsed pudding” of a building that is City Hall. St. Katherine’s Dock comes next with Dickens’ Pub close by. More pubs dot the bank: The Mayflower (denoting the spot from which the Pilgrims set out in a boat of the same name to colonize the New World), The Prospect of Whitby which has a noose hanging over the river (from which gangsters/pirates were once hung) and closer to Greenwich, the Trafalgar Tavern (about which more later). The shabby warehouses of Wapping and the wharfs (West India Wharf, Butler’s Wharf, etc.) that once lined the riverfront (and did brisk trade at a time, for centuries really, when the Thames was the commercial lifeblood of the country)  have all been converted into luxury flats whose prices present sticker shock or into fancy malls (gallerias) before the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf come into view—the major newspaper/press offices and all the big banks moved here from The City to create a small financial township on what is called The Isle of Dogs. The domes of Wren’s National Maritime College then come into view as do the dome-like structures that mark the entrance to the amazing Greenwich Foot Tunnel that offers a footpath under the river in another brilliant feat of Victorian engineering—and which I had once crossed—to denote that most people had reached their destination. They disembarked and our boat sailed on.

Approaching the Thames Flood Barrier:
            Once the bulk of the boat’s human cargo was released at Greenwich, the boat rounded the prominent hairpin bend in the river that is marked by the great white dome of the O2, known as the Millennium Dome. It resembles a gigantic white tent with gold prongs sticking out of it. Used for concerts and being full of restaurants and amusement arcades, there is a lot to keep one occupied inside. I had once attended an exhibition there on the Treasures of Tutankhamun that had traveled from Cairo to London. A new contraption in a walkway along the circumference which, for a hefty price, allows visitors to climb over the outside of the dome—the bottom is very steep and most challenging.
            Once we left the Millemmium Dome behind, I knew it would not be long before I could catch my first glimpse of the Thames Flood Barrier. And indeed, in a few minutes, there it was. Now I am no engineer so I am afraid I cannot comprehend the complicated design and the operation of this incredible device. But this much I know: From time to time, the Thames has flooded her banks so badly that water has rushed into the Houses of Parliament and destroyed significant parts of the city. When this last happened (in the mid-1960s, I believe), it was decided to do something permanent to effectively prevent any such disaster from occurring, The result is the Thames Flood Barrier which consists of about 8 or 9 structures that were constructed across the width of the river. They look like giant stainless steel domes but they open out and close like the petals of a flower. Underneath each of them are massive flood gates. These are opened or closed to regulate the amount of water in the river. If there are heavy rains or too much melting snow entering the river to threaten floods, the gates are closed. If there is too little (which can threaten to stall river craft at the banks), they are opened. As a result of this manipulation of the volume of water, London has never been flooded and the device has been hailed as revolutionary.
            Visitors to the Thames Barrier by boat can merely encircle it in their craft. I do not believe there is a landing pier for if there was, we’d have disembarked to visit the Information Center. I believe that one can get to the center by land through Woolwich—but I am not certain.
At any rate, by boat, you get really up close and personal to the barrier and you are dwarfed by it. I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to be there and you had to pinch me to get me to believe that, after all these years, I was actually at the spot. The boat made a slow loop around one of the pillar-posts and started its return journey towards London. As for me, one of my dreams came true and I was simply beside myself.

Getting to Know Greenwich Again:
            Half an hour later, we were at Greenwich. I disembarked and began my walk using the DK Eyewitness Guide. It was 2. 30 pm and I had until 6.00 pm to catch the last ferry back to London. I had no intention of entering any of the historic buildings or museums for which the city is known as I had seen all the major ones. Still, it is a joy to wander around Wren’s great creations and I never miss the opportunity to do so.
            I fist passed by the Cutty Sark—this was a Victorian tea clipper (sailing ship) that was commissioned in 1868. For almost the next 100 years, during the golden years of the Raj, it had carried tea back from China and India to England to make it the world’s greatest nation of tea drinkers. It fell out of commission after World War II and lay in dry dock at Greenwich for decades until a recent fire on board destroyed most of it. It was closed for years while refurbishment and reconstruction went on and was only very recently reopened to the public (sometime after January 2012 which is when I was last in Greenwich).
            I had visited the Cutty Sark (after which the famous Scotch Whiskey is named) in 1989 on my first visit to the UK and had been fascinated by everything I had seen in the museum down below: the tea chests that held the merchandise, the smaller tea caddies, the collection of wonderful figureheads from various ships, etc. Hence, I did not visit it again this time round. It looks spanking new and gorgeous and if you are a kid, I would imagine, it would be a great thing to do.                 
            I should add, as an aside, that when I was in Greenwich in 1989, I had also seen the Gypsy Moth II which has been moved to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.
            My walk took me quite suddenly into Greenwich Market which offers a combination of things: arts and crafts, clothing, food and bricabrac. And here’s where my next dream came true. In these stalls set up in a giant indoor market, I came upon something I have been hunting for years—a ceramic Dundee Marmalade jar from the 1900s. These have become ever so rare and so sell for very heavy prices. The last one I saw was in a small antiques’ shop in Windsor, a few years ago, but when I had inquired, I was informed by the salesman that it was not for sale—he used it to stash his pens (which is what I plan to do with it). The grumpy old saleswoman had priced it at 8 pounds—a real steal, believe me—but embarrassingly, I had forgotten to replenish my stock of British cash and since I rely mainly on my credit card, I am often caught short. When this happened, I asked the lady if she could do better on the price. She firmly refused and informed me that such objects are now really hard to come by (as if I did not know this!). I literally counted out the last pennies in my purse and found that I was short of 10p! I asked her if she would give me a 10p discount and she said, “Well, I suppose so”. I was just thrilled (small pleasures, right?).
Lunch in a Traditional Eel House:
Yes, you read right—eel house! My walk led me to Godard’s of Greenwich, an old-fashioned eel house dating from the late 1880s where traditional British food has been served for well over a hundred years. Jellied eels were sold mainly to the Cockney population for whom it was a staple food. Today, few shops sell this delicacy and Godard’s is still one of them. I have to admit that I did not have the courage to try them but the shop does sell other traditional food such as Pie and Mash which is what I ordered: the counter is equally ancient as was the saleswoman (who refused to give me a taste of the eels as she said they are very expensive!) My Beef Pie was tasty but it needed a lot of salt and pepper sprinkled on it. The Mash was served with what she called “liquor”—she told me it is traditional—it was a whiteish gravy flecked with parsley (and it needed a lot of more salt too). It was a good meal, very filling and very welcome as I was starving by 3. 00 pm, when I was eating it and I felt well fuelled to continue my exploration of the area.

Greenwich Walk Continued:
My next stop was St. Alfrege’s Church which was built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, Wren’s pupil, in the late 18th century but a church has stood on this spot for nearly a thousand years and is very historic. Henry VIII who was born at Greenwich Palace (no longer standing) was baptized here and poor Thomas Tallis, a musician and composer in Henry VIII’s reign who was falsely accused of adultery with Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was executed and buried in this churchyard. Unfortunately, it was closed but I managed to walk around the burial stones before I emerged out on the street again.
            I crossed Stockwell Road and at the corner of Nevada Road, I spied the Spread Eagle Pub which was once the watering post for tage coach horses of a past era. Opposite is the Tudor Rose Pub that was established in the reign of Elizabeth I. I walked towards King William Road which is full of enticing shops offering souvenirs and historical memorabilia. And then I was at the gates of the National Maritime Museum which I have visited on a past occasion. I then walked towards the exquisite Queen’s House designed by Inigo Jones— which I have also visited before--a simple cube of a building in front of the famous Royal Observatory where one can stand astride the prime Meridian—it involves climbing up a steep hill which was not part of my walk but which I have straddled on a past visit as well. Across the Queen’s House are the gates of the National Maritime College and I could see that a graduation ceremony was in progress as varied cloaked young folks were walking all over the place. Right enough, it turned but to be Graduation Day at the University of Greenwich which now occupies these majestic buildings. This meant that, irritatingly, I was not able to go beyond the entrance of the amazing Chapel with its glorious altarpiece by Benjamin West and its elaborate Neo-Classical plasterwork ceiling, walls and balcony (location of one of the most memorable scenes in MI5). I crossed the yard to get to the Painted Hall, one of the masterpieces of British architecture, painted by James Thornhill, who also painted the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It shows George III in great glory, but here too, I was unable to get too far inside as it was closed except for graduation ticket holders. However, having seen it in years gone by, on many occasions, I was not too disappointed.           
            Getting out of the area of Wren’s handiwork, I walked to the riverfront to the Trafalgar Tavern which has stood on this site since the time of Nelson who was a frequent visitor—as were Wren and Charles Dickens. Inside, it is a collection of lovely rooms filled with painting, photographs, engravings, etc. that depict Greenwich in various guises. There is a great deal of history in this area and I am constantly fascinated by the allusions to the great names from the past.
I walked along the Thames Path then by the river and took in the sights of a number of water fowl—including a family of ducks swimming all in a row! It was only 4. 30 pm and I felt I had the time to go out and see one place that I had never seen before—the Fan Museum on Croom’s Hill.   

A Fan of the Fan Museum:
            By the time I climbed Croom’s Hill and arrived at the unusual Fan Museum, it was already 4. 45 pm. Although it costs 4 pounds to get into the museum, they let me get in for free since it was closing in 15 minutes. I made a beeline for the top floor to see the collection of fans of Helene Alexander that numbered 2,000. Over the years, the museum has added to its collection and today there are really unusual fans in the cases. There are traditional ladies hand held fans that are painted elaborately. I saw the use of ivory, tortoiseshell and wood in the creation of fan frames and all of it was wonderful. There was a short film that features the museum’s highlights—from fans that concealed pistols and hearing aids and mirrors to touch up make up. Everything was amazing and I loved it.
            On the walk back, I spied the home of Cecil Day-Lewis, Britain’s Poet Laureate at one time and the father of the famous actor Daniel Day-Lewis. This was where Daniel grew up and it tickled me to think that the riches of Greenwich were in his backyard. Croom’s Hill is filled with very well maintained old homes that are much sought-after real estate today.   
            It was time to get back to the Landing Pier and at 5. 30pm, I was on a boat, really fatigued, as I sailed back to London.

Dining a Deux with Michelle:
            At Westminster Pier, I took the Tube to get to the next place—Regent’s Street to the Ten Café at Café Royal, a very snazzy, very upscale space, where I had been invited to have dinner with my Bombay college classmate Michelle who is a lawyer specializing in European Law with the British government. We have remained close friends over the years and I always make sure I meet her when I am in London. Seeing her again was a real pleasure and, as always, we spent the next two hours just talking nineteen to the dozen as we caught up.
            As for the meal, it was wondrous. We both started with a cocktail—a Picador—that was reminiscent of a margarita. For starters, we had a Tomato Salad full of heirloom tomatoes, a marinara sauce and a garnish of parmesan flakes. For a main, Michelle chose the Salmon while I went with a Rump of Veal with a Bordelaise Sauce served with parmesan crisp on a bed of spinach. It was really very good and we enjoyed it thoroughly before we perused the desserts menu and decided to share the Cherry and Chocolate (a deconstructed Black Forest Cake) and a composition of puddings with Apricot—sorbet, soufflés, cream, candied. They were all fab. We had excellent service from our French waiter named Emericque and were just charmed by the lovely flower arrangements everywhere in the hotel which was truly gracious. He even took us to the Caviar and Champagne Tasting Bar which was a revelation—a room more reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles or Fontainbleu rather than a room on Regent’s.
            It was about 10.15 pm when we decided to leave after what had been an excellent dining experience. As someone who lives mainly on sandwiches when I am occupying the homes of other folks, to have both the company and the opportunity to enjoy a meal with a good friend was a special treat and I felt deeply grateful for it.
            I got back home at 11.00 pm and skyped with Chriselle for half an hour. It was great to see her again and to catch up on everything that has happened to us since our Baltic Sea cruise—so I had a lot of news to share with her.
About midnight, I fell asleep ready to take on the weekend.
Until tomorrow, cheerio!                   

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