On a day out and about with my sister, our motto was “half pint at every pub,” meaning not a WHOLE pint, mind you. That motto was coined many years ago on my first trip to London, when it was me with both sisters out and about, painting the town — particularly Old Compton Street in Soho — red. This time we were a bit more reserved, with only a couple of pubs in between tube and double decker bus rides, with a quick stop into St Martin-in-the-Fields, a beautiful Anglican church in Trafalgar Square that also happens to be used for lunchtime concerts and such. They have what I hear is quite a lovely crypt, including the charmingly named “Cafe in the Crypt.” Worth a visit, I should say.
In that neighborhood, somewhere between Trafalgar and Leicester Squares we made our first stop of the afternoon — and had our first half pint — at a nice little pub called The Bear and Staff. That was the home of this little nibble of fried brie and strawberry jam, the deep fried aspect of which I think of being very pub-like. The second stop, on our way to the Italian Christmas Bazaar at Chelsea Center, was at the Sydney Arms in Chelsea, a French-themed pub where we had a lovely little platter of foccacia and spreads, and a (half pint) of cider along with. The bazaar itself was chock full of handmade knits, leather goods, jewelry, and my favorite, a fantastic selection of meats, cheeses, crackers, and spreads. Also a number of vendors selling whole truffles and truffle-heavy products. What’s with truffles and the Italians?
One of my favorite things about travel is getting to see how the locals live, and I’m certainly getting a bit of that here in London. Just one example… On the way home we stopped at Waitrose for groceries, eggs among the items needed that evening. As seems to be the practice seemingly everywhere else but the U.S., the eggs are on a shelf and not in a refrigerated case. My sister picked up a dozen of the West Country Free Range variety and opened the carton to check that all were whole, and what should we see but a chicken feather clinging to one of the shells. Yep, these are fresh all right. The real question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this instance, I’d say they appeared simultaneously.
The next day we set off for the Tate Modern by way of the St Paul’s tube stop in the City of London, the square mile that was the whole of London in the medieval period. A stunning example of the area was our first stop upon exiting, St Paul’s Cathedral. Though the iteration you see here (the fourth) was completed as recently as 1710, a cathedral dedicated to St Paul has stood on this spot since 604AD. Seeing this sort of architecture certainly reinforces the feeling that American history is just a drop in the proverbial bucket in the history of humankind. You’ll note in the photo the stunningly blue sky, such a reversal of weather after the previous day’s rain and bluster though not at all surprising a change for Londoners, I’m told.
Post-St Paul’s and pre-Tate we stopped off at The Centre Page for a bite and a half pint of Blackthorn cider. It was my first fish and chips of the trip, along with this rather tasty posh pie and mash, for which we chose the steak and ale version. The fish and chips came with a choice of sides, either salad or mushy peas. I’m hoping that the latter was more a proper name than a description of the state of the peas, though having chosen the salad I’m not certain that was the case. The most interesting thing about this particular pub was the enormous autographed photo of one Mr. David Hasselhoff, which didn’t make too much sense until we noted that the address of the pub was 29-33 Knightrider Street. Awesome. It was then that I noticed the music: Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, J Geils band. One wonders if the 80’s theme followed or preceded the photo of The Hoff.
From The Centre Page it was a hop, skip, and a jump across the Thames via the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for the big Gaugin exhibit, but certainly no shortage of other fantastic things to see. A few of my favorites: etchings by Picasso from late in his life; the screenprints of Victor Pasmore; and the photographs by Alexander Apostol, in which he alters images of modernist buildings in Caracas in the 50’s, removing all windows and doors transforming them into “enigmatic monuments.” Fabulous! The only glitch was that we didn’t get to experience the Rothko Room because after something like ten years everything was out for restoration. Though we DID see — up close and personal — the enormous sculptural installation by Ai Weiwei, a football field-sized carpet of one hundred million, quite individual, porcelain sunflower seeds.
This day ended with culture of another sort, a pub crawl through Covent Garden: four hours, four pubs, four (almost) half pints. Something about the carpet of The Salisbury made it seem very “English pub” to me, though the Lamb and Flag definitely had one of the best names of the evening. The Maple Leaf is, as you might expect, a Canadian pub and had an extraordinary number of televisions. The only good thing about that was my first experience of 3D sport, when a nice bloke (clearly English and not at all Canadian) handed me his glasses so that I might see how fabulous football could be in 3D. Fabulous, indeed. The Nell Gwynne was in a teeny tiny alley off a slightly larger side street and was so small we huddled outside on the cobblestones. The last of the evening, The Coal Hole, on The Strand, was probably the most upscale of them all but with its own checkered past lurking in the basement pub. Apparently its river-side location and proximity to the Globe Theatre made it a handy location for, shall we say, ladies of the night. Such interesting history to be found at every turn! Ah, London…