A Little slice of Paris in South Kensington

London is full of surprises; remnants of villages that have been half-devoured by developments, slivers of past eras wedged between modern high-rises; patches of nature, by-passed by roads jammed with speeding traffic and little pieces of other countries, foreign footholds on British soil, like Soho’s China town, Brick Lane’s little Bangldesh and of course, that slice of the wide brown land, Earl’s Kangaroo Court.

South Kensington, London
South Kensington, London

Quite recently, much to my surprise and thanks to a charming Francophile Londoner and her expatriate partner, I discovered, down in South Kensington, a quaint little outpost of France, where the flavour of the neighbourhood is distinctly French and where “Ca Va?” has supplanted “All right?”. It begins in the block just opposite the Natural History Museum, on Brompton Road, where the Tricolor flies and a queue of permit seekers straggles along the pavement outside the French Consulate General. Next door is the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, the French Senior High School, where kids in sneakers and jeans hang out on the steps in a way that strikes a bold contrast with their uniformed English brothers and sisters. Behind it is L’Institut Francais which runs French Language classes for Anglophones, as well as courses for Francophones. Its café is meeting place and above all, a place to speak French. Its library is fantastic, lending not just books but also videos DVDs and CDs. The London French Cinema is also located here.

Behind it is the Primary School, where “Mamans Francaises” gossip in the playground while waiting for their “petits” to finish for the day. Round the corner is the Children’s library, its windows bedecked with stories of Christmas in France.

Over the road is La Cave au Fromage which offers a million wonderful French cheeses in a display that is a work of art.

Along the road is a Boulangerie/Patisserie with all the baguettes, the ficelles, the petits pains, the pains de campagne, the croissants and the tartes that Mamy used to buy from the Boulanger in the village.

Then there are the cafes, the bars and the restaurants….

So, if you’re suffering un peu de mal du pays, if you’re longing for a little je ne sais quoi francais, want to lose yourself in un film francais, or even have a yen to parler un mot de francais, head down to South Kensington, that little patch of London which is always L’Hexagone.

 

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf  on the West India Dock, in the far east of London, was once one of the country’s busiest most important ports. It was also a key link in the chain of London’s early growth and prosperity. It was, however, prosperity, built partly on a shameful trade.

Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf
Concrete, steel and glass at Canary Wharf

It was from West India Dock that ships set sail for Africa where they picked up slaves bound for the plantations of the West Indies.  After delivering their living cargo to its destination, they reloaded with sugar and returned to London. The docks gradually died in the 1960s and 70s and finally closed when all shipping trade moved to the container port down river at Tilsbury.

In 1991, the docklands were re-born as “London’s most ambitious commercial development” with the opening of the magnificent Canada Tower on Canary Wharf. Designed by Argentine Cesar Pelli, who was also the architect of Malaysia’s Petronas Towers, 50 storey Canada Tower is 250 metres high and the tallest office building in Europe. It dominates the city’s eastern skyline and those who are lucky enough to live or work there, enjoy fantastic views.

Twenty three years later, Canary Wharf is a booming twenty-first century urban village. It sounds like a great place to live and work. Trains glide in and out of the spanking clean, light-filled, convenient underground station, on the Jubilee line, regularly and frequently and a ferry service operates from Westminster.

There are 21 gleaming office buildings with stunning views. The complimentary glossy magazine, Canary Wharf City Life lists thousands of beautiful, luxurious, state-of-the-art apartments for rent or sale in complexes catering to every conceivable modern need, wish or whim, including of course the “commanding view”. There are numerous leisure facilities, including cinemas and  a theatre.

The Museum at Docklands is devoted to the history of the docks. The  Sugar and Slavery Gallery  is devoted to exhibitions on the slave trade, the sugar trade and their contribution to London’s prosperity. Also on display is a full, real-life salon from the Queen Mary.

A wide range of cafes and restaurants cater for every palate and ethnicity both above and below ground. Above ground, around the piazzas, diners can enjoy a glimpse of the old docks – the sea, the wharves, the odd boat bobbing at its moorings and seagulls wheeling overhead – a little chilly at this time year perhaps, but beautiful in the summer.

Shopping in Canary Wharf’s splendid underground caverns is similar to shopping in one of Asia’s sumptuous malls, like Kuala Lumpur’s KLCC; no day or night, just neon light time; neither summer heat nor winter chill, just air-conditioned constancy; seductive piped music; shop after shop full of wonderful things interspersed with cafes and eateries exuding exotic smells and a giant Waitrose Supermarket, with shelf after shelf of colourful tempting stock.

Community life appears to be thriving in this fast ultra-modern setting. Citizens’, Residents’ and Neighbourhood  flourish in Canary Wharf’s concrete courtyards and corridors just as they do in the suburbs or the village. Every season and festival sees a community celebration. Soon the Christmas lights will go on and then Santa will come to town.