SITES IN THE CITY: ALTERNATIVE EXPERIENCESk

PLACES OF INTEREST/RESTAURANT

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If you should ever find yourself yourself marooned in the City Centre suffering a belly insistent with hunger, surrounded with only the sad bellow of franchise enterprise, I am able to recommend a welcome respite-Breakfast & Burger, stood modestly in the shadows of such looming landmarks as the Lloyd’s building, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin and the ever-decorous Leadenhall Market (itself choked now with mostly name-brand restaurants and retail). Speaking on behalf of its breakfast options (I will certainly return for a sampling of the lunch items), surely a less expensive and prodigiously portioned plate will not likely be found anywhere within the square mile. For a lowly £5.99, a diner will receive a fry-up (traditional or veggie, the veggie of which comes accompanied by its own combination of sides) with 2 eggs, 2 hash, sausage, bacon, beans and toast with choice of tea or coffee. A request for any style of egg other than fried will be firmly but politely denied.

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The decor is classic caff with an industrially polished modern brush, the clientele a mix of builders, particularly “woke” corporate suits and dazzled (but thankful) tourists who pleasantly stumble upon this Eden amongst the otherwise cold, impersonal, overly familiar options. Gerry’s, a true mainstay greasy-spoon caff located for years on Ludgate Hill, which I would have categorically advised visiting for its up-front, no frills cooking, has (I’ve just discovered) closed, unfortunately, a long-standing, defiant revolutionary against the gentrified march of the area exhaustedly given up the fight, silenced.

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Spice up the lunch hour by attending an afternoon play at the venerable Bridewell Theatre, just off Blackfriar’s, which tailors performances to the lengths of the traditional meal break. Hosting small, emerging production companies, the ambitious programme incorporates material ranging across the expanse of the medium, from musicals to dramas to comedies, one-person monologue confessionals to spirited full casts.

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The space is remarkably modern, spacious and professionally outfitted. Interesting fact: the venue was built atop the City of London’s first swimming pool, the tiled length of which can still be accessed via a floor hatch.

Bridewell Theatre

 

One of the newest attractions in the City is found in the nether regions of the imposing new Bloomberg European headquarters-the London Mithraeum houses the remains of a Roman temple discovered during the excavation for the new office space, temporarily relocated for the duration of the construction, then returned to its original site upon completion, an astonishingly generous, forward and respectful gesture both culturally and archeologically for a corporate behemoth to make (although Bloomberg has had a storied history with respect to the arts).

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For free (there is a booking policy, but it is possible to wander in and charm the attendants, in quieter hours, for entry without appointment), a viewer may descend into the bowels for a walk around the ruins and be treated to a brief sound and light installation-admittedly a bit naff-meant to bring the space alive, absorbed in the life as it was once lived. Upstairs, a large cabinet displays the hundreds of Roman artefacts that were uncovered during the excavation, a true historical treasure trove of objects.

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https://www.londonmithraeum.com/

So, an alternative day out in the City, then!

 

 

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ON THE GREEN: THE TIDE @ NORTH GREENWICH

PLACE OF INTEREST/ATTRACTION

Given that this is a project in its first phase of being, I will refrain from too stern a critique of my premiere encounter with this new “linear park” located at the side of the O2 plaza, stretching out to the Thames waterside. Consisting of a series of sweeping elevated walkways with intermittent plantings, tiered steps and viewing platforms, the Tide (as the branding would have it) takes its style cues from such successful urban developments as New York’s High-Line Park and Chicago’s 606 (and countless others globally). Whereas both of these enterprises adapted existing (disused) train lines as the source of their structure and organisation, this is a purpose-built creation that very much wants to emulate the spirit and detail of its forebearers. As there is a velocity of development surrounding this initial stage (a major blossoming of new blocks of flats all around it, contributing quite a dusty atmosphere at the moment), perhaps the builders  have to wait for the housing completion before launching into the second wave of the park project. There are a few curious design elements which I hope will be re-conceptualised at future points, the most paramount of which is the currently dead, bare, shadowed concrete space underneath the walkways that will require quite an investiture of thought and creativity to find ways to brighten and animate it, to open it as a welcoming environment. The top walkway appears to have been built as nothing more than a way by which to reach the primary elevation from the lift, entirely missing an opportunity to create further pleasurable advantages of movement. A clumsy, blunt (level) gradation plagues the platform directly overlooking the Thames, a possible design flaw that had led to the erection of both a sign and rope to prevent spectators from stumbling dangerously from the sudden drop of step (perhaps the idea is to eventually border this with hedge or rail to visually distinguish the height difference). Despite the sense of incompleteness, of matters not quite being anywhere near being finished off, there is much promise in this project (this is the first kilometre of a proposed five-kilometre length)-on my visit, school groups were gathered with sketchbooks drawing the Canary Wharf skyline, workers lounged with their lunches, others strolled excitedly taking in the sights. Artworks have been installed throughout the grounds, a herald, perhaps, for the Line sculpture trail, one side of which launches nearby straight out of the Greenwich Peninsula, continuing on to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Encouraging engagement with the outdoors, enlivening an otherwise rather severe commercial public square, creating a new cultural corridor, and celebrating (and piquing an appreciation for) the natural wonder of the Thames, at heart this is a worthy and necessary project, and the hope is that it will become a major new attraction for both native and tourist alike.

https://www.greenwichpeninsula.co.uk/the-tide/

 

RETREAT:PITZHANGER MANOR AND GALLERY-EALING/ANISH KAPOOR

PLACE OF INTEREST/EXHIBITION

Architect Sir John Soane’s London residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has long been established as a notable city landmark, a museum devoted to its owner’s extensive collection of antiquities and paintings. Unbeknownst to me, he also owned and partially rebuilt (circa 1800-04) a property in then-rural Ealing (yes, Ealing at one time was considered countryside!) for purposes of family retreat and the entertainment of clients and influential friends, ably staging elaborate dinners and garden parties for their delight. Soane sold the house in 1810, and through the rest of the century it changed hands several times, until the council acquired the land at the turn of the 20th century. In 1939, in the space formerly occupied by Soane’s kitchen block, a local lending library was established, operating until the mid 1980’s. Now, following a three-year closure and a £12 investment, the property has been painstakingly restored to  its original design (including a comprehensive rebuild of a conservatory demolished in 1901, and a careful reinstatement of paint and wallpaper schemes), as well as an overhaul of what was the library into a full-service gallery space, which will host three exhibitions per year, a mix of artists, designers and architects who will present work centred around and elaborating upon Soane’s own conceptual philosophies and preoccupations. Its inaugural show is devoted to Anish Kapoor, whose felicitous investigations into the distorted play of concave mirrors, the funhouse upheavals of form and space, comment on Soane’s own use of mirrors within his property to both elongate, enlarge, heighten, deepen and collapse both space and light. Although classical in exterior, Soane’s house is full of modernist touches, reveals a warm use of illumination and natural light, and illustrates a fine sensibility for the properties of wood and its genial effects upon the spirit. Even the grandest rooms of the home retain a human scale, feeling cosy rather than chilly and intimidating-a true civility. Outside the manor are the green sprawling grounds of Walpole Park, a most magnificent back garden indeed. The refurbishment includes both a cafe and proper restaurant.

While in Ealing, I highly recommend a walk about the area, the streets just off the main thoroughfare from Ealing Broadway Station offering a relaxed village feel. A plethora of attractive independent cafes and restaurants could keep you busy for days, more than inspiring a return visit. I had a lovely homemade soup from Tiramisu, a charming corner restaurant run by a friendly Italian couple, and sampled the flavoursome snacks from the tiny (walk-in only) Japanese bakery Tetote Factory, sweet/savoury baked buns bursting with inspired ingredients (I opted for the improbable potato salad). The Acton/Ealing area is home to a sizeable Asian population, thus a preponderance of business and retail devoted to Japanese goods.

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The Electric Coffee Company is a sophisticated haven in the heave just off the station, and my list is considerable for the future, as I passed by many an appetising spot but no room left in my belly-Burnt Norton, Cafe Zee, Maryam’s Kitchen (cute, cosy Persian), Santa Maria for a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Even the High Street was an intriguing mix of franchise and pop-up alternative (including a chic hippie shop).

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A walk slightly afield brought me to the doorstep of the Pitshanger Bakery, the window of which was offering tantalising freshly baked pastries, and just down the road on Northfield Avenue is home to London’s oldest allotments, dating back to 1832, much reduced from their original twenty acre dimensions, but still quite impressive, now officially recognised as an asset of community value.

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All these “pastoral”sights exist just at the end of the District Line, but you feel truly far from London-a quick and cheap day out. Promenade already. Anish Kapoor runs through 18 August. Please see my Instagram for video footage of the exhibition.

 

https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=pitzhanger+manor&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en-gb&client=safari

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SHAPE OF WATER: WALTHAMSTOW WETLANDS

PLACE OF INTEREST 

For years, Barnes has with unassailable prominence held the mantle of hosting London’s premier wetland centre-now a scrappy, ambitious E17 upstart is gunning for eminence in the city’s popular imagination. After a £10.6 (publicly funded) restoration of existing Victorian reservoirs, Walthamstow may now with great pride assert their claim to housing Europe’s largest urban wetland reserve, a sprawling 500-acre site with a 13-mile network of pathways, a beautifully restored engine house that offers a cafe, children’s centre and gift shop, and a viewing deck at the top of Grade 2-listed Italianate Coppermill Tower that affords a stunning widescreen optic kick of the surrounding grounds and Lea Valley. From its elevated platform, a guest may see a comprehensive cluster of London landmarks in close succession, from City skyscrapers, Canary Wharf, the Olympic Village development, even, most surprisingly, Ally Pally (and, at another vantage, for football fans, a distant-but impressive-view of the new Spurs stadium). The grounds are bisected by the fairly busy Ferry Lane/Forest Road exchange, so the solace and serenity of your visit may be momentarily shattered as you cross between the sections. For avid anglers and birders, opportunities abound, countless berths available from which to practice the passions; small islets provide sanctuary for a variety of birds throughout the year, and the environment is officially recognised as a breeding ground for the grey heron, cormorant, tufted duck and egret. Scattered throughout the space are engineering remnants of its past, including two majestic water gate towers that speak of Victorian solidity and style. In the atrium above the cafe (The Larder, serving hearty fare), the most incongruous element is found: a neon piece from legendary local business God’s Own Junkyard, a blinged-out glitter heart with a written greeting that would not look out of place at Studio 54. The period Ferry Boat Inn (now a pub, formerly a ferry house-there was once a bridge toll to pay), located on the main road, is another option for sating the appetite. Although I very much enjoyed my crisp winter walk amongst the wildlife, I await a return in the  gentler air of spring or summer for a more indulgent, less bracing idyll. The reservoirs are not merely cosmetic-they remain operational, supplying water to 3.5 million Londoners. Officially (and modestly) open since October 2017, this free public space (a parking fee applies should you drive) is a fairly secret gem that needs to be discovered. You needn’t have to travel to Surrey or Kent for a swift commune with the country air.

https://www.walthamstowwetlands.com/

MORDEN HALL PARK

DAY OUT/EXCURSION 

If you should fancy an uncomplicated expedition well within London city limits (no prebooking train tickets needed, or any advance prep of any kind), the National Trust-run grounds of this 125-acre parklands and estate once owned by the Hatfield family is to be found a few minutes walk from the Morden tube stop at the very end of the Northern line. A quick jaunt along the high street, and a dash across a busy roadway, brings you to a passageway by which you may slip into the park (the main entrance is further up the road). Once inside, the sound and fury of the unabating traffic almost immediately recedes, and it is possible to believe yourself far removed from the city. In addition to the grand hall itself (now mainly used as a wedding venue) with its fronted lattice of ornamental bridges and congress of decoratively fashionable trees (yews, lime and chestnut, all carefully structured and considered as involves status), the grounds include the stables (and yards), mills, a cottage at one time a hunting lodge (eventually the residence of Hatfield’s bachelor son) and the buildings once devoted to tool and potting sheds and day stables (now repurposed as a garden centre and the park’s posh cafe named, appropriately, the Potting Shed), as well as sprawling meadows and wetlands. The river Wandle very lazily and haphazardly wanders its way through the landscape, and, although I visited a bit late in the season, in the spring and summer months the rose garden is a much-celebrated effusion of colour and scent, now being restored to the aesthetics of its 1920s origins. For the adventurous, a wander over the tram tracks in one direction leads to Merton Abbey Mills, a former textile factory abutting the Wandle (William Morris once housed his design and printing company on the site, hence the pub named in his honour), and originally the location of an Augustinian Priory built in the  early 12th century. On the property is the only waterwheel still in full operational order (which can be viewed on the weekend). The rest of the space is given over to crafts businesses and independent restaurants and boutiques, a mixed-use performance space and a bandstand which hosts musicians and a weekly open-air market. The ethos is alternative and quirky. In the other direction, and a heartily ambitious walk away (about three miles) is the pretty village of Carshalton, with its scenic high street and broad main square, encompassing Grove Park and the gorgeous broad Ponds, flanked on one side by the picturesque Greyhound hotel, once an 18th century coaching inn, and, although now extensively restored throughout the years, one of the only examples of its kind still in existence. Certainly an entire day’s worth of activity is to be had even if you shouldn’t stray too far from Morden Park itself, but you will emerge rich in experience and memory no matter how near or far you step, and you will feel refreshed and moored, ready again for the flash of London proper. 

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/morden-hall-park

https://www.mertonabbeymills.org.uk/

 

 

ALL ABOARD: POSTAL MUSEUM & MAIL RAIL

EXHIBITION (MUSEUM) 

Opened on 28 July, 2017 (but around in some form and structure from the early part of the 20th century, overseen by the Postal Heritage Trust), this museum devoted to the rich archival history of the Royal Mail and British postal system offers full immersion in the seismic and pioneering social experiment that led to the first revolutionary shifts in the scale and reach of communication. From its origins as a delivery scheme exclusive to the King and the Royal Court to the first public charters to inaugural days of transport (first by foot, then crude carriage vulnerable to atrocious road conditions and highwaymen) to its peak as a business through worlds wars (ferrying letters of love and grief), tremendous social upheaval and cultural shifts from the native to global, through to its evolutionary decline in the age of ever-more immediate technologies, all eras are covered. To the generation suckled on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat, the stodginess of this once-dominant format must seem awfully quaint. The museum is rampant with interactive displays (many of which, curiously, had already broken on my visit), and is housed with intriguing historic examples of transport vessels, various designs of post boxes through the ages, poster art (and issues of an in-house trade periodical), and a philatelic archive of particular interest to stamp collectors. There are also a surprising amount of wildly dramatic incidents and accounts to be read on display boards, more than you would imagine possible for such a seemingly conventional and straightforward business. The real draw for most will be the opportunity to experience a ride on the Mail Rail (for an additional price), located just across the road from the museum in the bowels of the Mount Pleasant sorting office, offering a 20-minute journey through the labyrinth of subterranean tunnels used by the Royal Mail between the years of 1927-2003. A relatively obscure bit of London lore, the tunnels encompass a 6.5 mile wide track running from Paddington Station to Whitechapel, criss-crossing tube lines, once an efficient way to carry loads of mail (somewhere in the vicinity of four million letters per day, operating on a 22-hour schedule!) between sorting stations without having to navigate congested London streets. Visitors board either of two recreations of original trains for a fairly truncated journey (the ride covers just over half a mile of track, solely within the parameters of the Mount Pleasant depot), stopping occasionally at platforms to hear personal accounts of former employees or to watch timeline videos and, unfortunately, have to endure for the length of the journey a fairly pedestrian and infantile commentary (try your best to shut it out of consciousness and simply enjoy the movement through the tunnel). I also caution those who may suffer claustrophobia, as the cars are of very snug dimensions-you feel keenly the cramp of every limb. Otherwise, you are free to amble around the space and try your hand at being the engineer or traffic controller or sorting employee for the line through the collection of artefacts on display. 

On my Instagram account, for those interested, I have posted two videos from my experience of the Mail Rail, one witness to a train arriving back from a run, the other a quick sensation of moving along the tunnel.

https://www.postalmuseum.org/

 

FROM THE ROAD:CITY MUSEUM ST. LOUIS

ATTRACTION 

Even if a visit to St. Louis in the U.S. State of Missouri has never risen in your consciousness, this singular, mad and visionary creative mecca (like a rather curious and unsettling coupling between Gaudi and a Disney theme park) should automatically thrust the city into the forefront of destination travel-I can honestly say I have never seen the likes of it (there indeed may be as daring and imaginative a sibling somewhere in the wide world, but I have no knowledge of it). The fever dream of artist Bob Casilly, who bought (in 1997) the 600,00 sq foot, 10-storey building that once housed a shoe factory, work began in earnest to convert the space into a hybrid of playground, museum and, curiously enough, repository of architectural and cultural history (Art Deco and Beaux Art mouldings, doorways, and other various features from lost historic buildings now reside throughout the rooms) . The centrepiece of an already monumentally stupefying environment is the exterior MonstroCity, a dizzying network of slides, metal climbing shafts, bridges and objects (including the fuselage of a Sabreliner 40 aircraft and a castle turret, all materials repurposed), some perilously suspended high overground, through which overjoyed children (and more than a few adults) scuttle and creep. You can only stand and wonder at the enormity of the health and safety sanctions in place. Inside, in addition to a series of restaurants and rest areas for parents, as well as activity rooms for kids, is found the Shoe Shafts, a series of spiral conveyances once used to shift product from floor to floor, now recast as slightly intimidating, elongated slides, from which a visitor may choose between a 10-storey or 5-storey plunge, periodically soundtracked to the fateful intonations of a Wurlitzer pipe organ. Beneath this space lies the dimly-lit, fascinating Enchanted Caves, a disorientingly narrow system of constructed pathways and portals and corridors, some of which only uncomfortably loop back on themselves. The ground floor offers the single largest continuous piece of tiling in the U.S., extending from the floor up along the supporting  columns and along the stairway, beautifully patterned and coloured. The eye is repeatedly engaged, as there is a constant surrounding flux of activity, bodies climbing, crawling, ceaseless motion. A rooftop area, which includes a pond, a working Ferris wheel, and a school bus precariously perched over the side of the building, is open only on weekends, so I wasn’t able to access it. A truly astonishing day may end with a walk and visit to the nearby iconic Arch (which I would not recommend to those who suffer the least bit of claustrophobia, as the dimension of the car that transports the curious to the top is no bigger than the interior of a washing machine, is absent of windows, and crowds five people at a time!). From there, it’s easy to retire to the City Garden, a verdant stretch of urban land and space devoted to sculpture, hosting 30 pieces by an international set of artists. On indecently hot days, the newly opened Kaldi’s cafe offers respite and sanctuary in the form of cold drinks-from a perch on the terrace, you may take in more than a few of the garden’s features. In a city still visually struggling to emerge from the recent economic collapse, these are perfect examples of positive and ambitious development and investment projects (City Museum continues to add new layers, and the immediate area around the arch is currently undergoing a large-scale cosmetic upgrade).

http://www.citymuseum.org/

http://www.citygardenstl.org/