Category Archives: London

Heathrow Hell

I’m leaving London. I’m heading home. I’m happy, excited…. but first, there’s Heathrow.

The Tower of Big Ben
The Tower of Big Ben

I stumble from the taxi at Heathrow with the giant suitcase, the lap-top, a back-pack, a handbag and my plastic zip lock bag. I zig-zag up and down the concourse, searching for a clue to my check-in counter. It scrolls swiftly out of sight on a screen above. I stand squinting below till it rolls round again, then weave through crowds to the end of the terminal to find it. The queue’s already twenty metres out beyond a maze of channeling ropes and it’s not moving. Surely all these people can’t be on my plane! Claustrophobia sets in. “Aisle seat at the front! Aisle seat at the front!” I repeat like a Rosary.  The minutes mount into quarter hours and then to halves. Claustrophobia gives way to alarm. One hour’s gone and the queue hasn’t moved.

“This queue’s nothing to the one at Departures” bellows a know-all two turns of the ropes ahead.

Alarm gives way to panic. But at last I reach the counter. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I shriek to every question. I’m so frazzled I forget that aisle seat near the front.

I race to the Departures queue. Messages ripple the length of it, losing their meanings, like Chinese Whispers, along the way. “One drag!” spits the woman in front “Yeah, bloody big one at that!” I toss back. She shoots me an odd look but it’s lost in a missive hissed from behind “No knickers!” “No way!” I gasp in disbelief.  I crane desperately forward for the next dispatch.

“One Bag!” shouts a uniformed despot near the door “Hand in all liquids” shrills another “Ahhh”  I sigh in enlightened relief as I bin my water and stuff everything into the pack. It bulges and strains against the zips. My arms won’t fit through the straps. I cuddle it to my chest like a little fat teddy bear. Above, a screen flashes “Now boarding’ next to my flight. The queue inches forward. I’m ready to scream. But finally, I’m through. No, wait – there’s Passport Control. I rip open fat teddy and scrabble for my passport and boarding pass.  A muttering pile-up forms behind. Ahead, an official drums impatiently on his desk. I slap down the passport. With a fleetingly glance from the red bob in the photo to my scraped-back faded blonde twist, he clunks his stamp down wordlessly and I’m out.

Then it’s lap-top, shoes, belt, coat and jewellery into trays at Security. I step through the metal detector, a nervous eye on the belt inching my bulging trays out of sight. A red light flashes, an alarm sounds. Wand-waving guards surround me while my trays collide and spill.  Above, a screen flashes a final call for my flight. A distant, disembodied voice calls my name. I tear away from the wand-wavers, half scramble into the coat, cram the jewellery into the pockets, clench my passport and boarding pass between my teeth, wedge the lap-top into the now exploding fat teddy and, shoes in hand, sprint madly to my gate.

A composed, immaculately groomed girl checks my passport and boarding pass with cool indifference and wild-eyed, I charge up the gangway to the plane.

“Welcome aboard, Madame” says a smirking flight attendant “63F, turn right and straight through to the rear of the aircraft, centre seat, centre row”

Screaming inwardly I battle off down the aisle.

 

Christmas in London

I’ll never forget my first Christmas in London.

Christmas Decorations, Burlington Arcade, London
Christmas Decorations, Burlington Arcade, London

In front of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, the Christmas Village opened in late November. Every afternoon, in the early four o’clock darkness, crowds of kids whizzed in reckless circles on the ice-rink. It was here, in a prefabricated tent café/bar, among the “defeated by, not brave enough or too cool for the ice” crowd, I discovered British hot chocolate. Thick, sticky and sweet it slid across the tongue and ran down the throat like liquid velvet.

Alongside the ice-rink was the Christmas market, a collection of little wooden huts, selling cards and exotic wares made by unknown and forgotten people from faraway places. At its centre were a Christmas tree and a carousel.

Further up the road, in Harrods snow dusted, icicled window, Versace and Prada-clad  mannequins gazed out over silver ice-buckets stuffed with champagne and Venetian glasses, past silver dishes laden with caviar and pate de foie gras.

Up in Picadilly, at Fortnum and Mason, the windows re-told the story of the Twelve Days of Christmas, while inside floor after floor unfolded tantalizing sights and smells.

Of course, there were the pressing crowds, the decorated streets, the Christmas trees, the jolly old chap in the red suit, the last minute rush through the shops and the queues at the counters which characterise Christmas everywhere. But those ice-rinks, that hot chocolate and those particular shop windows, were something entirely new to me. I’ll always remember them as uniquely London.

 

Winter in London

There’s no doubt about it. London winters are dismal. The temperatures drop to numbers that can be counted on a few fingers. The days are few brief hours of gloomy grey light and night falls halfway through the afternoon. Yet, (at least for those who haven’t suffered through too many of them) winter is one of the city’s brightest and most cheerful seasons.

Christmas Village on Southbank
Christmas Village on Southbank

In late November or early December, borough by borough and with great celebration, the Christmas lights are turned on. So, for winter’s most dismal weeks, when the daylight disappears at 3.30pm, the dark streets are bright with flashing neon.

Shop windows are full of cheery fireside scenes, rich and colourful Christmas fare or warm, bright winter clothes.

Christmas villages spring up; huddles of brightly lit miniature chalets selling hot chocolate, mulled wine, mince pies and sweets, woolly hats and gloves and a thousand and one sparkling, glittering little knick-knacks.

The ice rinks open. Alongside tents are set up with bars selling mulled wine and hot chocolate. The skaters come out – the experts and the amateurs, the school kids and the after-workers – doing or just watching it’s fun and it’s hilarious.

 

 

 

The Royal Albert Hall

Sitting like a giant Wedgewood urn opposite Hyde Park, on the Knightsbridge-Kensington border, the Royal Albert Hall was, until the end of the 20th century ushered in wonders like the Gherkin, one of London’s most arresting pieces of architecture.

Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall
Showtime at the Royal Albert Hall

It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, who after the Great Exhibition of 1851, had proposed that a permanent facility be built to celebrate and promote the Arts and Sciences. When the Prince died in 1861, the project had still not begun. A new proposal was put forward for a complex including a memorial in Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite and on May 20, 1867, the foundation stone was laid.

The Hall was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Colonel H.Y Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers. Inspired by the shape of the ancient Roman and Greek amphitheatres, it was constructed in local brick, with a dome of glass and steel. A mosaic frieze around the outside of the building depicts sixteen subjects including “Various countries of the world bringing their offerings to the great exhibition of 1851” as well as the disciplines of arts and sciences. One foot high terracotta letters spell out biblical quotations as well as a dedication to the Prince Consort and a recognition of his contribution to the building.

The Royal Albert Hall opened on March 29, 1871 and saw its first concert, Arthur Sullivan’s Cantata, on May of the same year. Since then it has hosted innumerable ballets, operas, countless classical concerts, the annual summer Proms and many rock concerts including performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeplin, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones (on the same programme!) as well as Pink Floyd (who were banned for life after firing two cannons during their performance); it has seen sporting events including the first Sumo wrestling contest held outside Japan, conferences, ballroom dancing and yes, even the famous Cirque du Soleil.  2069

Legendary London shops; Liberty

 

Liberty
Liberty

In 1875, Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened his first drapery store on Regent Street.  he called it Liberty. Selling high quality oriental silks, ornaments and objets d’art from the East, it attracted a discerning clientele with a taste for the foreign and the exotic. The artists Ruskin, Rosetti and Whistler were among Liberty’s first customers.

Soon the store began to manufacture and print its own fabrics, with designs by artists like William Morris. With their fine quality silks and satins and their subtle and artistic colours, Liberty prints gained great popularity as dress fabrics, especially during the years from 1890 to 1920. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Liberty’s had a considerable influence on contemporary trends in style and design, such as the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, which was so closely associated with the store that it became known in Italy as “Stile Liberty”.

In 1925, after Liberty’s had outgrown its original premises on Regent Street, it moved to the present Tudor revival Arts and Crafts building on Great Marlborough Street. The timbers used in its construction were recycled from two British naval ships, the HMS Impregnable and the HMS Hindustan. The store’s quaint “country-house” exterior continues into the interior which is small, intimate and “old-world” with dark wooden counters and display cases, polished floors, stairs and decorative elevators. It curves around  several wooden balconied, “mock-Tudor” style atrium with glass roofs.

Today Liberty remains dedicated to fine quality and service. It continues to uphold its original style and traditions. It maintains its historic links with arts and crafts, selling original stationery, pottery, jewellery and furniture of the highest quality. On its top floor, it houses the period Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Arts and Crafts furniture which it so greatly influenced. It still sells the hand-blocked silks and other oriental goods for which it was known when it first opened in 1875. And the beautiful liberty prints are an enduring hallmark of the house.

Yet, for all its old world charm, dedication to its arts and crafts foundations and its stile Liberty, Liberty has embraced and fully exploited the possibilities of the digital age. Liberty is out there online, offering its exquisite wares to loyal patrons and through its blogs, inspiring artists and craftspeople around the globe. In-house or online Liberty is a shopping experience like no other.

Now with Liberty, the TV series, Arthur Lasenby Liberty’s store takes on another new life….

 

Legendary London shops; Harrod’s

Like Buckingham Palace, the Eye, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and Tower Bridge, certain legendary shops rank high on the London visitor’s list. Like these monuments they are British institutions and similarly, each stands, in its own way, for something solid and enduring in the culture of the UK.

Harrod’s of Knightsbridge

Harrod’s grand old department store, with its art nouveau windows, baroque tower and dark green awnings, is a Knightsbridge landmark. Its name is synonymous with quality, variety, style, class and excellent service.

Harrod', London, Travelstripe
Harrod’, London, Travelstripe

Harrod’s began life in 1849 when Henry Charles Harrod opened a small grocery business on Brompton Road. As it provided high quality merchandise and superior service, it soon won a large following of discerning customers. Expansion was inevitable. By the end of the 19th century, Harrods was a state of the art department store, complete with one of the world’s first escalators. It had grown to fill an entire Brompton Road block and its range of goods had expanded to cover “everything from a packet of pins to an elephant”, all of the highest quality of course and always delivered with impeccable service.

Now with seven floors, three hundred and thirty three departments, a staff of over four thousand and with the Qatari Royal Family at the helm, Harrod’s of Knightsbridge is a long way from that first little grocery business.

Its goods include things that Henry Charles Harrod could only have dreamed of and services he could never have imagined. There’s a state of the art Technology Department, with a force of techsperts on hand to connect you to the tablet, pod, pad, notebook or smart phone of your dreams. In the Candle Room Spa, specialists will restore your well-being. Pop-up shops display the shoes, the bags or the designer of the month. Then of course there are the infinite possibilities of a Harrod’s on-line, including Issu a glossy catalogue of the latest stock, so you can select before you shop, virtual tours so that you can plan your expedition and of course on-line services which allow to shop from the luxury of your living room

Still, with all this growth and change Harrod’s has remained faithful to its original mission to provide variety quality and excellent service. And it is this timeless, solid, classic Harrod’s shopping experience that takes me back here time and time again. It’s the doormen, who greet you as you swing through the doors, discreetly assessing your security risk and vetting for infringements of the no shorts, no thongs, no backpacks dress code introduced by Mohammed El Fayed in 1986. It’s the ambience of the place, with its dark-panelled stairs, vast halls, mirrors, studios and feature rooms. It’s the sheer range of beautiful things; like the  8 fashion rooms dedicated to designers  from Armani to Zimmerman and the Parfumerie which sprawls across the entire ground floor,  where a force of glamazons wait in the aisles with atomizers always at the ready. It’s the black clad demi-gods and goddesses, who reign over its departments.

It’s the iconic departments, themselves, like the Refinery (for gentlemen’s grooming) the Cigar Room and the Wine Room. It’s the Feature Halls, which, at festivals like Christmas, brim with the latest in gifts in decorations and in dressings and fare for the yuletide table. It’s the Harrod’s collection of special, souvenirs; London buses, bags and bears, tins of tea, biscuits and sweets, pot mitts and tea towels and especially, the House of Harrod’s China collection, with its exquisite Coat of Arms and Queen Victoria pieces.

It’s those special services, offering bespoke tailoring, jewellery and perfume, the monogram service, the personalized shopping service that will preselect, advise and allow you privacy, time and space to decide on your purchases or the personalized gift service which will guide you to the perfect present, the wrap it gorgeously and deliver it the next day.

It’s the Harrod’s food hall, which endearingly and reassuringly to its grocery store roots, remains at the heart of the building, in the centre of its ground floor. Nothing says indulgence, luxury and quality like fine food and Harrod’s Food Hall says it with great eloquence. There’s a seductive aroma – a blend of coffee, chocolate and nuts and pastry. White, hand-painted Edwardian tiles line the walls and form a backdrop to a visual feast of gourmet chocolates, patisserie, charcuterie and sumptuous arrangements of fish, cheese, fruit and vegetables that make you want to whip out the easel and oils and translate them all into a still life.

It’s the small, simple things, like those little green shopping bags with elegant gold Harrod’s signature.

In none of my Harrod’s shopping expeditions have I ever uncovered an elephant, or even a packet of pins for that matter. I’m sure, though, that they were there in some fabulous guise or other. I’m certain too, that if I had really wanted to find them, a Harrod’s glamazon, demi-god or goddess would have dedicated themselves to the task in true gracious Harrod’s style and I that I would have carried them off, perfectly packaged, in one of those signature Harrod’s bags.

 

 

 

 

 

Brick Lane, Part 6, the Jamme Masjid

Today, Brick Lane still meanders along in the path of old Whitechapel Lane, linking Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green.

Jamme Masjid
Jamme Masjid

Brick Lane’s Huguenot past reflects in street names like Fournier and Weaver and in the last few Georgian town houses. Fashion Street and Petticoat Lane recall Jewish tailors and seamstresses. Their sweatshops and factories live again as million dollar apartments. The first Bangladeshi piece workers who toiled in those sweatshops and factories  have left their legacy in Banglatown.

Nothing, however,  tells Brick Lane’s story more eloquently than the austere brick building on the corner of Fournier Street. In 1976 it became the Jamme Masjid, the Great London Mosque. Under the sun dial on its plain façade a Latin inscription reads “Umbra Sumus”, “We are shadows”. Chase the shadows back across the centuries – to 1898 when this was the Machzikei HaDath, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, to1819 when it was a Methodist Chapel, to 1809 it when was the Jews Christian Chapel, to its beginning, in 1742, as the Protestant Huguenots’ Neuve Eglise.

On the pavement in front of the Mosque is a postscript, or perhaps a final chapter, to the tale, a roundel, inset with a globe. There is the world of races, cultures and religions which, over the years, have built today’s fascinating, multi-cultural, creative Brick Lane.

 

Brick Lane, Part 5, Brick Lane Market and Brick Lane Festival

If curry and creativity break Brick Lane into territories, the Sunday market knits it together.

Muliticultural Mosaic in Brick Lane
Multicultural Mosaic in Brick Lane

In the 17th century the Brick Lane Market sold fruit and vegetables. In the 19th century it was a Jewish market, with a special dispensation to trade on Sunday.

These days the Brick Lane market defies shape, territory and definition. From daybreak to 2.p.m. it sprawls along Brick Lane in a riot of colour and noise. It spills up Petticoat Lane to Spittalfields. Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Jewish, Polish, Russians, Chinese, and Cockney traders compete for custom. Food stalls, clothing, and fabric of every kind and ethnicity jostle for space with electrical appliances, household goods and nick-knacks, old and new. Garden supplies nudge works of art, flowers, crafts, trash and treasure, bargains and rip-offs.

The Brick Lane Festival, held every September also binds all the people and the cultures of Brick Lane. Established in 1996 as part of the East London city-side regeneration project, it now attracts more than 60,000 people. Every September Truman’s Dray walk becomes the Festival Food Village. Stalls and concerts showcase the diversity of community cultures. Fashion shows feature traditional Indian fabrics and clothing as well the latest British designs and textiles.

The Banglatown International Curry Festival takes place at the same time. New menus are launched and celebrity chefs fly in from all over the sub-continent to show off their skills.

To see Brck Lane in all its colours, drop by the Sunday Market and definitely, don’t miss the Brick Lane Festival in September.

 

Brick Lane, Part 4, Art, Fashion and Furniture

Luna and Curious, Brick Lane
Luna and Curious, Brick Lane

The north end of Brick Lane, from the Truman Brewery, all the way up to Bethnall Green, is the frontier of edgy art, fashion and retail.

Artists, including the Britpack’s Tracey Emin, have worked in the area since the 1980s. Galleries have grown around them. In this stretch of the street, establishments like Brick Lane Gallery, Luna and Curious and NOG, champion contemporary and street art by newcomers.  Walls and underpasses feature Graffiti by masters like Banksy, D*Face and Jet Aerosol.

Up here, the old Rag Trade, first founded by the Huguenots centuries ago,  forges a bold path forward. The Laden Showroom, which supports innovative young designers and dresses celebrities like Pete Doherty and Victoria Beckham, is London’s leading fashion showroom. Vintage stores have new twists. Alongside Rokit’s racks of military regalia, cowboy boots and ball gowns, are original t shirts and crafted jewellery. Tatty Devine’s quirky accessories marry retro dreams to modern possibilities. Furniture stores and cafes take wood and coffee breaks in new directions. At Unto This Last, planks morph into unbelievable shapes as shelves, CD racks and fruit bowls, while at LCD Surf shop punters can surf the net, buy a t shirt, take a board for a dry run, watch surf videos and drink fair-trade, organic coffee.

Brick Lane's North End
Brick Lane’s North End

Also out here, on the cutting edge, at glaring odds with their avant garde neighbours, are two of Brick Lane’s oldest businesses, survivors of its Jewish past. The Beigel Shop, “London’s first and best beigel shop” was founded in 1855 and the Beigel Bake was one of the city’s first all night eateries. Customers still come from all over London to queue for their traditional, crisp beigels.

So, if retro, graffitti and innovation are your thing, head north on Brick Lane you won’t be disappointed!

Brick Lane, Part 3, The Truman Brewery

Half way down Brick Lane, the Truman brewery’s towering brick chimney, on the corner of Hanbury Street, is both symbol of born again Brick Lane and a marker of the beginning of new territory.

The Truman Brewery Chimney
The Truman Brewery Chimney

Since 1998, when it stopped producing beer, the Truman Brewery building has been a creative centre for designers, architects, artists, musicians and artisans. New couturiers present their creations at weekly fashion markets. The annual Free Range Art Exhibition of Youth Art and Creativity, “the world’s largest art happening”, shows the work of young art and design graduates. In the old Truman Brewery, days are easily lost among the 11 acres of galleries, showrooms, shops, cafes and restaurants.

Nights are easily lost too in Truman’s clubs. Shabbily chic Vibe Bar has a DJ, corners with tatty couches to collapse on and a cool courtyard to retreat to. At 93 Feet East, fantastic live music, which includes debutants along with big names like White Stripes and Radiohead, entirely eclipses the décor.

It’s worthwhile losing days and nights in the Truman Brewery!