Monday, January 19, 2015

Pigging Out on First Full Day in London

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less than 24 hours in London and nothing could have been fuller. Not my day, nor my tummy. Spent most of it pigging out in quite the most delicious fashion. Details to follow.

Awake from 2.30 am (thanks to Bombay body clock), I found deeply creative ways to pass time without waking up my host household. Tweeting, surfing, reading the unique guidebooks I am carrying, kept me creatively and excitedly occupied until dawn announced its quiet presence. It was time for a shower, a decaff coffee in the company of my sweet young friend Jonas whose parents had a Sunday morning lie-in. He put me through the paces of the Nespresso coffee machine in the kitchen and munching on a chocolate rice crispie, I made my way to the bus stop at 8. 15 am for my Mass date with my former neighbor and friend, Barbara.

Re-Discovering London from the Top Deck of a Red Bus:
     A bus trundled along in five, I found my favorite seat in the house (upper deck, front and center) and marveled, as I always do, at London's essentially Victorian architecture in this pricey northern corner. Streaky bacon buildings abound (red brick with white horizontal granite stripes that wrap the buildings as in a traditional terrine--forgive the British foodie association) until one hits Baker Street when Sherlock's fictional home comes into view on the intersection with Marylebon Road when things become a mélange of old versus modern. My bus was terminating at Oxford Circus which, from the upper deck, allowed me to take in the white globe lighting that had adorned the street this past Christmas. London lay calm, quiet, gleaming after a recent shower, fresh on this Sunday morning when the rest of the world pretended, for just a few minutes longer, that it did not have a life to get on with.

At Oxford Circus, I disappeared down the Tube stairwell, found the Central Line going east, hopped on for three stops, got off (out of force of habit at Chancery Lane that in my mind is forever linked with Dickens' Bleak House) and started the brisk walk to Ely Place at Holborn Circus--all the while taking in changes that have occurred in the last 16 months: equestrian Prince Albert has been moved further up the road but his recently-polished pedestal is gleaming afresh; Wren's Church of St. Andrew's Holborn is under copious scaffolding, but I did catch a quick glimpse of the dome of his greatest masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral; and the blind golden Goddess of Justice with her scales stands still on the top of Old Bailey. Then, I was making a smart left to get to St. Etheldreda's Church (remembering, all the time, my first ever venture at finding London's oldest Catholic church, many moons ago, when I had skirted around Holborn Circus visiting every sacred site in sight--and finally found it, concealed in Ely Place behind impressive private gates).

Some things do not change--thankfully. There was Barbara, my friend, in her habitual seat; and Jane, the plaited lawyer with the posh accent who has been a lector at the church forever; Win, who was much abler in days gone by when I was a regular parishioner; and, of course, dear old Fr. Tom who had welcomed me to the parish community personally, once upon a time, but had no recollection of it whatsoever! Mass was a much noisier affair than I remembered with several children part of the livelier congregation. How marvelous it is to return to an ancient church and feel at home instantly! In an hour, when it was all over, Barbara introduced me to Esther who accompanied us as far as Sainsbury's before Barbara went full speed ahead on to High Holborn to lead me on a mini-walking tour that took us right across the eerie bandstand at Lincoln's Inn Field, across from Sir John Soanes Museum and onto the other side where the Royal College of Surgeons conceals the Hunterian Museum with its endless jars of formaldahyde.

In a thrice, we were at a brand-new building of the famed London School of Economics which came close to winning the Sterling Prize for Architecture. It is a many-pronged red brick building with a pointed section that juts out high above as if reaching out to kiss its much older neighbor, Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop (now a shoe shop). Hidden behind scaffolding forever, its revelation produced true Ta-Da moments and it has now become an architectural show piece. On to Kingsway we swung to accomplish another one of Barbara's charming Sunday morning rituals: buying the paper from the newsmonger on the corner of High Holborn and Kingsway--a habit I had picked up from her when we were next-door neighbors. Suddenly, London seemed to have sprung to life as early-bird visitors thronged out of the Tube station and spilled on to Kingsway.    

Store-fronts seem to change along High Holborn every two seconds but thankfully all the scaffolding has disappeared and the charming curve of the road from the comfortingly solid Rosewood Hotel on one side of it to the multiple-turreted Prudential Assurance Building on the other side is now clearly in evidence--not quite different really from two hundred years ago. Soon we were entering the lobby of my beloved former building at "7HH" and taking the elevator up to the second floor, striding through those beloved familiar corridors with their swinging fire doors and opening the flat next door to the one in which I had passed such unforgettable times. It was the perfect reunion with a perfect city!

Tim was putting the finishing touches to the knot of his tie and looking suitably dapper for our formal lunch date later in the afternoon before disappearing into the kitchen to produce toasted croissants, butter, apricot jam, fruit and coffee. Our discussion over brekkie had focused on Tim's most unusual cuff links that turned out to be bean-shaped chunks of polished lapis lazuli from Afghanistan which led to the spontaneous gifting to me of a book entitled Color--on how paints have been procured through the ages by artists: a somewhat unexpected book exchange as I had gifted these lovers of stuffed bears a book about stuffed bears!

Formal Luncheon at Morden College, Blackheath:
         And then it was time to get out of the house and stride down more streets towards Blackfriars to take the train to Blackheath as we were all invited to lunch at a very special place: Morden College, what we in America would call an assisted living community. This one is very special having been around since the 1600s when Lord Morden established it for river traders who had fallen on hard times. Our mutual friends, Bishop Michael and his wife Cynthia had invited the three of us to lunch with them and the inmates in a formal sit-down, three-course meal for which we were all appropriately attired.
       Our half hour train ride from Blackfriars station was itself an interesting and unusual experience as it is not every day that one catches a train from a station that is actually a historic bridge across a river (Barnes Bridge Station over the Thames at Kew comes to mind but it is much less busy). Skimming above the rooftops of London, we spied the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the distance and then before we knew it, we were arriving at Lewisham and then Blackheath, a very pretty village with a vast heath. Following Michael's directions, we arrived at the duck pond (charmingly filled with mallard life and excited squealing children) and the lovely crescent of old merchants' houses for Blackheath adjoins Greenwich on the river Thames where trade was vigorously carried out through the ages.
     Soon, the gates of Morden College came into view and we were making our way to the Main Building that is very similar to Charterhouse in Clerkenwell with its red brick Tudor buildings, manicured lawns, cupolas, domes, clock towers and stairs leading to secret quadrangles made green by Elizabethan knot gardens and conical topiaries. It was all quite lovely.
     Then, our friend Cynthia was welcoming us (how good it felt to be back with her) and leading us to the bar where so many inmates, reminiscent of the folk in the film Quartet were enjoying a glass of wine before lunch. Our friend the Bishop made his appearance so that more greeting and warm hugs followed and another mini-tour of the premises took us on a walk along curving pathways, hedges brimming over with red berries and into the chapel. There was time only for a quick powder of the nose before we entered the lovely formal dining room (reminiscent of one of London's more exclusive clubs with its painted oil portraits, damask wall paper and heavy drapers) ready for Michael to say Grace and start our meal.
     A bread basket and butter flirted around as red wine and water were poured and then the courses kept coming. Cream of Mushroom Soup followed by our table's unanimous choice of Roast Lamb with Mint Sauce and all the trimmings: roast potatoes, boiled new potatoes or mashed potatoes, new peas, mashed suede (read squash), gravy, mint sauce, redcurrant jelly, mustard. Yum, yum and then yum. And let's hear it for this most civilized of British eating traditions: the Sunday Roast Dinner! Dessert followed: Bread and Butter Pudding studded with raisins and swimming in custard! When in doubt, believe British chefs, drown your pudding in more pudding! And I will drink to that! It was as British as any first meal could be and my tummy was cheering.
     Coffee was served in the adjoining library filled with leather-bound volumes and more current periodicals. I could get used to this lifestyle, I thought. Like being on a cruise, only staying stationary! I am also convinced that whoever invented the British Sunday Roast Dinner, also invented the siesta! While the graceful residents adjourned discreetly to their room to sleep off their gastronomic indulgence, Michael amused himself by watching me mount a rocking horse and indulge in some general clowning duly noted for posterity in a collection of corny pictures.

Afternoon Tea at The Montague On The Gardens:
     While Barbara and Tim elected to cross the Heath on foot and get to Greenwich (a good 40 minute trek), I, who was sorely tempted to join them, decided to do the sensible thing: take the train back from Blackheath to make it in time for my next appointment in Bloomsbury. This time I arrived in Victoria station which permitted easy Tube connections to Russel Square which I crossed on  foot to arrive at The Montague On The Gardens Hotel for that other most civilized of British eating traditions--Afternoon Tea! More nose-powdering went on in discreet powder rooms heavy with wooden paneling before I joined our Dean's Circle: a bunch of 25 gifted students and several staff chaperones seated around three spacious tables.
     I had barely gotten over my own over-indulgence at lunch time and it was time to face that three-course sea of carb overload they call a traditional British Tea: assorted finger sandwiches filled with smoked salmon, chicken salad, egg mayonnaise and, of course, that star of the tea table, the cucumber sandwich. Debate duly followed on whether scones ought to be slathered with lashings of clotted cream and then strawberry jam or vice versa. Someone, please let me know when that dispute is settled! And for the sweet finishing touch, there were fruit tarts, lemon syllabub, coffee profiteroles, lime macarons and staging an intrusive appearance a table, that most American of gastronomic inventions, the brownie! We sighed and we grumbled--how could anyone put so many delights before us all at once? It was impossible to choose! But choose we did and as the Earl Grey flowed and the English Breakfast was downed, we sipped and chatted and the decibels grew louder. I am convinced that it is a crime to visit the UK and not partake of  Afternoon Tea (NOT be to confused with High Tea, please) in a fancy hotel while being spoiled rotten by liveried waiters who join in the cream first versus jam first discourse).
     Jetlag got the better of me towards the end of my second cup--for, lest you forget, I had been up since 2. 30 am! I had plans to meet my friend Bina in Harrow but, being on her way back from Cardiff in Wales where she had dropped her son off to "Uni", she postponed our meeting by a good hour and a half. I felt certain I could simply not last that long and decided to get back to St. John's Wood for a nap before keeping our late evening date.
    I got sidetracked for one last errand: a quick nip into the Waitrose at Brunswick Square to pick up some of my favorite English goodies and then I was on the bus taking the longest route ever to arrive at Abbey Road where I was quite thoroughly wiped out. Raquel and I indulged in some conversations but I am certain I had lost my wits by then and it was gratefully that I crept into bed, relieving my hosts of the generous doggie bag we had been gifted by the hotel folks while contenting myself with just one mug of lemony tea before dropping into bed after a long phone conversation with Bina whom I hope to see later in the week.
     Was my first full day eventful enough for you! It was for me!!!!
     Until tomorrow, Cheerio All!


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