(Grand Tour Part 5 of 7)
At Gare du Nord, we took the escalator to the Hall Londres and passed through security and the “board crossing” to the large, utterly packed waiting area. At a little shop, we found tasty sandwiches. As soon as I’d unwrapped mine, it was time to board. Juggling our rolling bags, back packs, my purse, hat, and food proved a bit challenging, but we made it and found a spot to store our bags.
I dozed on the train as I couldn’t see much from the window. A little more than two hours later we were in St. Pancras, a picturesque station with lovely brickwork. We queued to purchase Oyster cards and off we went to Whitechapel. The sight of punky kids warmed my heart; I suddenly felt at home. The realization too that we were in an English-speaking land also set in and slowly, slowly we began to relax more fully, not having realized before that the otherliness of France had been both a thrill and a burden.
As in Paris, we stayed at an AirBnb place. Our host Khurram gave us an excellent orientation to the perfect apartment on Commercial Road. I felt vindicated by his dinner recommendation which was already on the map I’d made of the neighborhood. Resorting to our prehistoric gender roles, I fluffed about the apartment bringing order to my suitcase, while John set out for the local Tesco in search of laundry detergent. I fell in the love with the shower and we made immediate use the washer/dryer combo, which took some experimentation before we got the cycles down.
I charted out a walk around the neighborhood to help us orient ourselves. We explored the market at Spitalfields where John bought a “Lenin hat” from an enthusiastic and helpful man. I couldn’t tell who was more entertained by whom. The haberdasher totally got John’s look (he was wearing a vest and he always has his bald head and beard) and egged him on. Lots of stalls sold airy dresses with cute prints and there were plenty of graphic designers selling thin cotton shirts. It reminded me that I should visit the craft market in my own neighborhood at home more often!
We continued north to admire all the amazing street art before curving east and south down Brick Lane. We stopped in three or four vintage stores with amazing collections of vests, track suits, preppy blazers, military units, and unfortunate castaways of the 80s and 90s waiting to be revived. I’ll never forget the two older women with husky smokers’ voices to match cooing (or should I say gargling) over the large selection of leopard print garments at one shop.
Time for a bathroom break, so we enjoyed the Stella Artois happy hour at a random bar called Exit. The half Canadian-half Kiwi bartender talked with us and gave his perspective on the cocktail scene (the art of mixology is slowly catching).
Our loop almost complete, we ate dinner at Tayyab’s, a Pakistani institution. It was only a little after 6pm and the place was packed (again a cultural shocker from France where the evening meal starts no earlier than 7pm and afternoon snacks are hard to come by). We had a short wait before we could get a table. We sat in the enormous downstairs dining room in a far corner between two young couples, presumably on dates. The place may be “no frills” (as described by Google) and the service a bit lacking, but John’s lamb and my baby pumpkin were super tasty and spicy (and cheap!). John ran back to the apartment to drop off his new hat, while I watched the waitstaff try to keep up with all the dirty dishes that needed to be packed into the dumbwaiter. It took a while for me to get someone’s attention so I could pay. The woman at the next table capitalized on my initiative too. Outside waiting for John I saw people continue to stream in, friends waiting for friends. Clearly, the place is popular.
We got on the Tube back to King’s Cross and St. Pancras. A few months back I heard La Femme on NPR and usually when I take an interest in a group I try to see them live. Though a French electronic dance band, La Femme happened to be playing in London. I bought tickets ahead of time and we went! The club, Scala, possessed a few clues to its past as an art deco movie house, but the music space reminded me of the 9:30 Club in DC. We passed through the stiff security (while in line John spotted a man in a Lenin hat — his sour, angular face just like one of John’s cartoons) and found a spot where we could sit. During the show we were forever stuck behind tall people (and I’m 5’9″!), so we went to the upper balcony where a middle-aged couple stood unmoving in the spray of dancing 20-somethings. John, like the 17-year-old he truly is at heart, broke their resistance down by clapping very loudly near their heads and eventually they moved away. A man who looked remarkably like Edgar Allan Poe — he had the mustache down perfectly — lurked in the corner. Finally, we could see until a frisky couple starting pressing themselves against each other and the railing. I couldn’t look away from their writhing tongues! And then we followed a few enterprising dancers to a secret gallery which offered a fabulous view! On stage: members of the band started out wearing Mexican wrestling masks. Then, the male singer — bleach blond hair, no shirt, and shiny gold pants — went crowdsurfing! We danced for as long as we could and then collapsed back at our Whitechapel apartment.
On Thursday morning, we decided to try Spitalfields Market for breakfast. On the way, we found Trade on Commercial Street, the cafe of my dreams. With its groovy soundtrack, back yard garden, design school chic interior, and a host of foodie options (the beautiful muffins took our breath away), we decided to look no further. We both shared a muffin (with a little cornmeal for crunch) and had eggs — gorgeous neon yellow things — with sourdough toast; John’s came with chorizo. We loved it so much we went back the next day.
Then we took the underground toward the city center with a gaggle of adorable elementary schoolers (maybe 1st graders?). We got on at Aldgate East and they at Whitechapel, as we overheard from their teacher, an energetic young man who expertly engaged each of the students by asking them questions or putting them in charge of counting the stops. The other chaperones were women in headscarves and we were struck by the demographics: only one white girl among the 30 or more kids.
At Cannon Street, we exited to see the legendary London Stone. We found the best view by going into the WFSmith convenience store and squeezing behind the magazine rack.
Seven years before we had visited London and while we hit most of the big museums, we missed the Cortauld Institute. For our second visit, we wanted to fill in the gaps, but also to re-experience the city whose skyline and taste for coffee has been utterly transformed. A place like Trade simply couldn’t have existed in 2007 London (I would be interested in either being validated or dissuaded of this unscientific suspicion); back then, John could not find “decent” coffee or really any coffee at all. Yet, over the intervening seven years, a new coffee culture, desire for local and artisanal foods (Borough Market exploded!), and perhaps a growth in the gastropub trend have all resulted in a smart, more foodie-oriented London that John and I are so excited about.
From the London Stone, we walked along the Thames and around the lawyerly Temple to King’s College London and the Cortauld Gallery. The exquisite collection focuses on painting and the medium’s development from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. We loved the small collection; we felt revived by the visit, not overwhelmed, and each piece of the collection seemed carefully chosen. And though we felt so sorry for Van Gogh, it didn’t stop John from asking me to take his picture.
From the museum we walked over Waterloo Bridge and counted the skyscrapers.
The previously unmemorable Southbank now seems a vibrant collection of rehabilitated industrial buildings. The British Film Institute redeveloped its Southbank building and now there’s construction at the National Theater, while spanking new buildings line Southwark Street. Borough Market has a permanent structure and it’s huge and so fabulous! I could stay at an AirBnb inside one of the market stalls next time. At Bread Ahead, we had a killer vanilla cream-filled donut and two festive foccacia. At Taste Croatia, John found a heavenly pepperoni. (I kept the wrapped slices in my pocket for most of the day and when I accidentally put a tissue in that pocket and pulled it out later to blow my nose it smelled of oily meat.) To drink we found fresh fruit juices and at the Veggie Table, I rejoiced at the sight of tattooed, plug-eared, all-black-wearing vegetarians who served up the best burgers we have EVER had. Tons of fresh vegetables bound together with halloumi cheese (there was a vegan version as well) on either a bun (as John had it) or on MORE SALAD (as I had it) — a mix of potato salad, a carrot slaw, some barley was in there too. Like so many other happy people, we ate in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral. Sorry, my beloved France: eating out was so much more fun in London.
To top it all off, we rested our feet a bit longer at the Wine Pantry, featuring only wines from England. Did you know there were vineyards in England? I sure as hell didn’t. We made immediate friends with Anna (I hope I’ve remembered her name correctly), who recommended we try a sparkling Champagne-like wine and a rose. The rose was good, but those Cornwall bubbles rocked our socks off! I must plan a trip around Camel Valley Vineyards in Cornwall.
We took the tube up to Holborn and John confessed that he didn’t want to go with me into the Sir John Soane House, which we had tried visiting seven years earlier. Mildly shocked and perturbed, I went off alone, while he found coffee and a newspaper.
Early 19th century architect John Soane had the collecting bug. Some rooms had normal dimensions and lovely furnishings, while others felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a well of art. His collection features paintings, plaster casts of antiquities, and a few bona fide antiquities, including a mummy in the basement. His house is a three-dimensional scrapbook of architectural fragments and sculptures. The museum is free and no pictures are permitted, so it makes for a short, but fascinating visit. Unfortunately, some restoration work was underway in the house’s central gallery while I was visiting.
Ready to depart, I looked out the door and saw the pouring rain. Poor John, I had both umbrellas. He was huddled under a tree with two other men in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He wasn’t too wet, but there was no point trying to go far. He’d spotted a bar on the corner, so we popped in to stay out of the rain. All Bar One turned out to be a chain we saw throughout London, but it couldn’t be any better placed at that moment. Their drafts focused on the big European varietals: Stella, Heineken, Amstel, Peroni.
The rain stopped and we thought why not visit the British Museum, since we’re right around the corner. We strolled in, said hello to the Anglo-Saxon collections, looked at the clock collection (very hypnotic), and breezed through the few Pre-Columbian rooms. I was a bit giggly from my one beer on an empty stomach, but that particular state of mind made the museum all the more fun.
From the BM, we walked the short distance to the British Library. With a little more than 1 hour before it closed, we went through the exhibit, “Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.” The BL curators must have been so excited that they got the OK to do a comic exhibition that they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm. What could have been a focused look at comics, politics, censorship, and social commentary turned into a celebration of British comics and boundary pushing in all senses (it wasn’t a bad thing, just an interesting choice on the part of the designers). The last part of the exhibit provided example of artists breaking out of the usual conventions of storytelling with various sized and shaped panels. Somehow notebooks of Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer and Aleister Crowley made it into the exhibit — there was a rationale, but it hasn’t stuck with me. John had a fabulous time and even I made note of two items to seek out later, including Sally Heathcote Suffragette. We found ourselves entranced by The Graphic, which illustrated the gruesome news of the late 19th century. After going through the exhibit, I spent the remaining 15 minutes in the BL’s main exhibit space and oggled all the fun things they had on display: some items I remembered seeing before and many different things, such as a large collection of bibles from Eastern Europe.
At this point, my notes say “———————————UG”. I initially understood this to mean “nap”, but now I believe it simply stands for a ride on the underground. The late afternoon provided an opportunity to rest and to do more laundry.
For dinner we walked to Wapping, an old neighborhood with at least one cobblestone street right on the river. On the way, we passed a voting center with jovial Muslim men handing out flyers and asking us if we would be voting. As we got closer to the Thames, the buildings became nicer and newer with unfriendly gates. We passed a canal — soberingly quiet compared to Canal St Martin. We ate on the patio of the Town of Ramsgate, a serviceable pub most notable for its view directly onto the Thames. Two couples sat together in the corner and talked about the easiest way to get into boating: “You buy a shitty boat” for about £10,000 and fix it up, but really it has to be a “shitty boat.” Bob has a “shitty boat” and so on it went. John had bangers and mash and I a satisfying cauliflower and cheese pie. To commemorate the first Hoegaarden I ever had — it turned out to be the beer that got me drinking beer — seven years ago in London, I had one that night. “Shitty boat.” They never stopped.
We walked along the river to marvel at the impressive clouds and the swanky residential buildings. East London was getting more interesting by the minute from the Islamic Center to the vintage store punks and street artists to the well-heeled river dwellers.
We started back north toward our apartment and paused for a drink at Wilton’s Music Hall, a stable ruin with two bars and a 19th century performance space, the foundation stone having been laid 127 years — to the day — before I was born. John had an Icelandic beer and I drank tasty sangria before we asked the man at the welcome desk for more information about the building. Though no performances were happening that night and he was in the middle of eating his “dinner” (a granola bar!), he showed us the music hall! An incredibly narrow, but long space with the stage 5’7″ off the ground. What I would give to stand on that stage! At the man’s recommendation, we bought the historical pamphlet by Carole Zeidman which goes into fascinating detail not only about the building, but about some of its legendary performers including George Leybourne:
Under contract for a year . . . he was obliged to live the life of a swell on and off stage, appearing each day in a carriage with postilions and grooms . . . He also agreed to consume large quantities of champagne, given free by wine shippers to gain publicity. An exceptionally highly-paid music hall performer, sometimes earning over £100 per week, he worked relentlessly, often appearing at six halls a night, gave generously to charity, but died penniless of liver disease and exhaustion at the age of 42.
Eager not to go the way of George Leybourne, we relaxed back at the apartment. John ran out to Tesco’s to get himself wine to go with the Balkan pepperoni. Then we watched the I.T. Crowd, not on Netflix, but actually on the telly, while I ate a Tesco cupcake!