Saturday, January 24, 2015

Exploring the East End and Dinner in Chelsea with a Judge from the Old Bailey

Friday, January 23, 2015


Today was all about the East End of London--admittedly, it is not a part of the city that I particularly like or feel connected to; so it was partly to see what lies so well concealed in its corners that I set out, at 9. 30 am, after a shower and a big breakfast of toasted walnut bread and peanut butter, hazelnut yoghurt and coffee. The Jubilee Line Tube from St. John's Wood took me, on a lovely sunny but still very cold morning, to Liverpool Street Station from where I hopped into a Number 26 bus to get started.

Columbia Road Flower Market:

First stop was Columbia Road--site, only on Sundays, of a dazzling flower market that has become highly touristic. I had never been there but wanted to stroll through the street--because although there are no flowers to be seen on weekdays, there are some lovely shops selling unique merchandise and I wanted to browse through them. Only, I did not realize that the shops also open only on Saturdays and Sundays! It was a wasted journey but at least I did get to see the general gentrification of the neighborhood, the pretty shop fronts all painted in vivid colors and to stroll through really quiet parts of the city--it is impossible to believe that a bustling city like London still conceals areas like these in which one can scarcely hear a sound. The shops are truly lovely and do offer very unique gift items--the sort of shop for someone who has everything. Do go on a Sunday. It is a treat I shall have to postpone until my next visit--as I will be airborne Stateside, come Sunday.

Whitechapel Art Gallery:

Next stop on my agenda was the Whitechapel Art Gallery which I then reached by a rather convoluted route--10 minute walk to Shoreditch, then 254 bus towards Aldgate.  This is Muslim London and from the top deck of my bus, I took in the stores selling all manner of Islamic garb, halal food, etc. People entered the bus in ethnic outfits--bearded men, veiled women. We passed by the East London Mosque--a lovely pink building with domes and minarets and then we were arriving at my stop.

My friend Murali, an Abstract Art enthusiast, had recommended a special exhibition called The Adventures of the Black Square that features 150 years of abstract art built around the black square of  Malevich that served as inspiration to generations of artists. The website of the gallery and the banners flying outside it proudly announce that  admission is free. When I was last at this gallery--about three years ago--it had been under renovation. So, I was pleased to peruse its collections (nothing permanent, always changing). Imagine my annoyance then on discovering that there was a ticket for the special exhibition--12 pounds! I decided that I was not that crazy about abstract art to begin with and would rather put my money on the Moroni portraits at the Royal Academy of Art.

So, I hiked to the upper floors to look at some of their current exhibitions and very rewarding it was too! There is one on papers from the Henry Moore Archives that document the commissioning of some of London's public sculptures such as the Jacob Epstein ones, Lawrence Bradshaw's famous bust of Karl Marx for Highgate Cemetery, etc. It was very interesting to read the correspondence that went into these commissions and take a look at some marquettes. It was certainly a good place in which to take a call from Llew and to catch him up on my plans for the day.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry:

It was time to move on to yet another Whitechapel attraction that lies right across the street behind an extremely nondescript  shop front: the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This place, at the corner of a street has been making bells continually since 1520. A bell historian has actually established that a bell-making outfit stood on these premises since 1470--so it is rich in history and, as a listed home, its facade cannot be changed or touched. Not that I would want it to be any different.

Inside, there are three small rooms exhibiting items associated with the foundry's history. Most famous for having cast Big Ben (whose template in a cross section is draped over the inside front door) as well as the twin bells of Westminster Abbey, this place has also created some of the most significant bells in the USA--such as the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia and a Bicentenary Bell that was presented by Queen Elizabeth II to America in 1976 to celebrate two centuries of American independence. It certainly is a great place to visit and one I would heartily recommend. Again, tours are given only on Saturdays and Sunday and cost 14 pounds each. These tours take you deep into the foundry (still a working foundry, still casting bells of all kind for the global market) to see the various steps involved in the making of bells--from small hand hell ringers to the giants that acquire names--such as Big Ben or Old Tom (in Tom Tower, Christ Church College, Oxford). In a tiny back room, overlooking the tinier yard, where bells in various unfinished stages repose, you can watch a series of slides that take you through the history of the establishment that has frequently been visited by royalty.

A Stroll through Spitalfields:

It was time to take a stroll--a very long one--all along Commercial Street and towards Spitalfields, another very colorful and ethnically diverse part of London. Along the way I passed by Petticoat Lane, famed for a weekly market held there since Victorian times. Today, it is mainly a market for clothes--rejects from the designer shops are offloaded here for a song. Had I more of a weight allowance, I might have indulged. But I decided to pass on to the next item on my agenda--a visit to Old Spitalfields Market which I reached in another five minutes.

Old Spitalfields Market is another one of those London Covered Markets that offer different merchandise daily--vintage and antique items one day, arts and crafts on another. Today, there was a melange of all sorts of things from old vinyl records to artisinal bread. I took a quick look through the stalls, found absolutely nothing to strike my fancy and exited right in front of the area's most spectacular building--the edifice of Christ Church, Spitalfields--the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor, pupil of Christopher Wren, it is simply majestic.

Buying a Barbour:

As I continued walking towards Bishopsgate, I passed right by a Barbour shop selling its signature outdoor wear. Now I had always coveted a Barbour jacket and I decided I would pop in to purchase something especially since loud signs on the door proclaimed 50-70% Off Sale!  So imagine my delight when I came upon a lovely quilted jacket on sale in just my size in a lovely satiny burgundy fabric with tweed collar and accents on spacious pockets! It could not have been more Me! Knowing that Barbour usually costs an arm and a leg, I made the impulsive decision to buy it--and at under 100 pounds, I know it is a steal! Armed with my unexpected buy, I strode down the street to the bus stop to catch a bus towards Bishopsgate.

Guildhall Art Gallery:

I was going on another recommendation to the next item on my agenda--one from my friend Barbara: a visit to the newly-reopened Guildhall Art Gallery deep in the heart of commercial London. Surrounded by banks and financial institutions, the Guildhall is a stunning building that dates from medieval times when guilds still controlled all London business. Adjoining it is the Art Gallery that has a huge collection of significant art mostly acquired through one of the Lord Mayors of London called Alfred Temple who wished to acquire a collection for the City of London. I arrived at 2. 00 pm, just in time to take one of the guided tours that began at 2. 15 pm and offered an introduction to the gallery. There was enough time for me to use the very plush loos in the basement before arriving at the main deck for the tour. Admission is free and it is certainly worth a visit.

As the guide explained, the refurbishment that cost millions of pounds, did not add to the collection but was spent on essentials such as heating, lighting, making ceilings leak-proof, etc. Still, her one hour tour was a fine introduction to the history of the Lord Mayors of London (not to be confused with the Boris Johnson type). These are elected by the City (which is a tiny part of London that goes roughly from Holborn Circus to just beyond St. Paul's Cathedral and comprises one square mile. You might spy silvered dragon sculptures occasionally that mark out the boundaries of The City). The really important event surrounding the Lord Mayor who lives in nearby Mansion House is participating in an annual procession called the Lord Mayor's Parade that includes all the pomp and pageantry of a golden coach that is usually housed in the Museum of London.

The guide showed us three paintings--the gigantic one, supposedly the largest painting in the UK--by the American artist John Singleton Copley depicting the Siege of Gibraltar, The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton and William Lockdale's depiction of one of the parades. We then moved to one of the special exhibits--the Magna Carta that is on display as this is the 500th anniversary of its creation. All of us know the famous episode of 1215 when the barons rode to Runnymede to present King John with their list of demands to ensure their autonomy. Well, known as the document that gave the world the concept of jurisprudence, there are only 4 original Magna Cartas--two in the British Libraries, one each in Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. I have seen them before, on many various occasions--in the British Library and in Salisbury Cathedral, but it is always fun to look at it again, to see how small and illegible it is and to think that a hand in the 13th century wrote it. This one is especially important as it contains the entire seal that hangs from the bottom of the document to make it truly official. On display only until the end of the month, I would heartily recommend that if you haven't seen it before, you beat a hasty track to the Guildhall Art Gallery to do so.

Finally, our tour guide took us to the basement to see London's best-kept secret--the Roman Amphitheater that was discovered quite by chance when the art gallery was being built. Now, of course, we all know that Lodinium was an important Roman settlement and that fragments from gladiatorial days are still be found whenever any digging is done. But to see this sort of thing in the heart of London is still pretty awesome. It has been beautifully staged for the modern visitor to give an idea of actually entering the arena. Again, worth seeing.

The tour ended here, but I decided to return upstairs to look more closely at some of the highlights of the collection: Frederick Lord Leighton's Two Musicians is one of my favorite paintings and it is here! I had last seen it in Lord Leighton's House in Holland Park, a few years ago. There are beautiful works by the Pre-Raphaelites too and one I particularly liked from Dorset--Men Quarrying Stone. In the basement, there is a lovely special exhibition on paintings about Tower Bridge through the ages. It is wonderful to see the varied ways in which artists have represented this iconic structure. But with light fading quickly, it was time for me to move to the next item on my list.

The Old Operating Theater in Southwark:

I am amazed how few Londoners have heard of The Old Operating Theater and Herb Garret that are so easily accessible. Attached to Guy's Hospital and St. George's Hospital on the South Bank of London, this was the place in which Florence Nightingale did most of her work and made her mark upon the nursing world. Now I have seen a really spectacular Operating Theater in Padua in Italy, so I knew, more or less, what to expect. But that one was grand and beautifully carved. This one was far more utilitarian and, therefore, so much more stark.

The concept of an Operating Theater derives from an educational space in which a surgeon performs an operation which observed by student doctors. It is, therefore, always based around the plan of an amphitheater with rows of stands in semi-circular shape to allow for close observation and study of the proceedings. The 'bed' in the center is a primitive wooden bench to which a patient was strapped and operated upon without the aid of anasthesia. Shudder! It was not until Joseph Lister invented anasthesia that such operations became more humane. Patients were brought in from the adjoining hospitals (still working hospitals) but because so little was known about infections, many had successful operations but still died.

Before getting into the Operating Theater, the visitor passes through a large attic filled with all manner of items associated with the practice of Western medicine--some items as weird as powdered snake skins and alligator teeth! There is a plethora of herbs, spices and fruit in various forms (dried, powered, ground to a paste with a pestle in a mortar, etc). Bottles, jars, bowls are part of the museum and, most gruesome, of all, sets of instruments used in surgical practice through the years, from scary looking forceps to saws! Needless to say, I was weak-kneed by the end of it and although I found all of it fascinating, it really is not my cup of tea. Visitors pay 6.50 pounds to enter up a long and very narrow flight of spiral wooden stairs that used to be the original bell tower of St. George's Church and used by the bell ringers. You can spend more than two hours in this space if you wish to read and examine everything closely. I could only stand being there for an hour. But if you are made of sterner stuff, I would certainly recommend a visit.

By this time it was almost 4.00 pm and I had eaten nothing simply because my big breakfast had kept me going. So I stepped into EAT, bought myself a New England Chicken Pot Pie (one of my favorite things in the world world to eat), then disappeared into the Marks and Sparks across the road to look for a specific item that Llew desired. Unfortunately, they had discontinued their manufacture and it is now only available online--so that is how we shall purchase it. It was time to head off to my last appointment of the day--dinner at the home of my friends in Chelsea.

Dinner with a Judge, a Bishop and His Wife:

A long ride on the Circle Line took me from Moorgate to Sloan Square in the heart of ritzy Chelsea where I was invited to dinner at the home of my friends Michael and Cynthia. It was the first time they were entertaining me in their little flat (actually not so little) after their big move from Amen Court on Ludgate Hill. Although I had seen their flat before, it was before they had officially moved in. It was great to see it looking all lived in and cozy.

Michael and Cynthia had also invited a physician (who had to cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected occurrence) and a judge named Tim from the Old Bailey who happened to be hugely personable and very entertaining. We hit it off immediately as we began to discuss British courtroom drama from Rumpole of the Bailey to the more contemporary ones--such as Judge John Deed who, Tim informs me, is not realistic at all for no judge would ever behave the way he does!  Tim is also a great lover of New York in general and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in particular--his favorite bit is the American silver collection (it is endlessly fascinating to me what strikes peoples' fancy). Needless to say, I promised him a private tour the next time he is in the Big Apple. He strongly recommended that I see the Moroni portraits but I am half inclined to believe that they will come to the Met sometime soon. Paucity of time might not make it possible for me to cover it on this trip.

My friend Cynthia's dinner was simply delicious--a single malt whetted my appetite and then we moved to the table for chicken in a white sauce served with brocolli and carrots and boiled potatoes. Cheese and crackers followed and then came pudding: American-style cheesecake served with fresh stewed blueberries and cream. So simple and yet so good! I was so sorry to have missed seeing Cynthia's sons who, being hotshot lawyers, keep horrific hours--but I certainly thought of them all evening long.

As a lovely claret had flowed all evening, I was well and truly sleepy and ready for my bed. Michael dropped me to the bus stop by 9. 30 and at 10. 15, I was putting the key through the door of my place in St. John's Wood.

What a wonderful day I had spent--with art and culture, with shops that lent an unexpected buy, with history and finally with some of the best pals for which a gal can ask! I feel truly blessed every time  I am in London.

As I hit my pillow, I found it hard to believe that my week had almost come to an end--just one day left to make the most of ...and I intend to do just that.

Until tomorrow, cheerio!   

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