Friday, October 29, 2010

55 hours in London

I’ve been fortunate to visit London 3 times in the past 12 months so I felt no urgency to do the tourist thing…you know…Tower of London, Museum of Natural History, Buckingham…well, all those places that visitors usually flock to.   They’re all places I enjoy but have only recently visited.  With a mere 55 hours on the ground, I decided to make the most of this great city but try to relax as well and get a little Christmas shopping out of the way.   People either love London or hate it.    I belong to the former group.   There is always something to do, somewhere to go, something to see – the list is endless.

We landed at Heathrow, checked in to our hotel, Grosvenor House on Park Lane, Mayfair and then walked down to Oxford Street – a 10 minute stroll.   Grosvenor House is a rather grand hotel as you’d expect with an address straight out of a game of Monopoly.   (I still remember how expensive those Mayfair hotels were to buy!) Our room was rather large by London standards and tastefully decorated.   Crisp white linen monogrammed sheets and fluffy pillows with décor of yellow, green, burgundy and white.

Our niece, Hannah, had recently taken up a position as Nanny to an English family living in Wimbledon so we’d organised to meet her at TBG’s ‘local’ when he’s in London.   Most London pubs have a certain charm and The Audley was a warm and inviting place on a cold autumn evening to meet with Hannah and catch up on her new life in England.    The Audley boasts “Good British Pub Food” and after a couple of drinks and some good music we decided to stay on for dinner.    So how would I define good British pub food - uncomplicated and reminiscent of childhood – fish & chips, hearty pies, roasts with Yorkshire pudding – nothing too fancy but filling and comforting on a cool evening.   We had a fun night with our beautiful niece – by the time we returned to our hotel a touch of jetlag had hit and those fluffy pillows were much appreciated.  
Come 3.30am, as expected, we were up and had begun our day.   Over the years I’ve learnt not to try to fight my body clock and it’s just as easy to get up, make a cup of tea and catch up on emails, news or read a book until the sun comes up and the city begins to awaken.

We walked down to Oxford Street and had a typical English breakfast which was far more substantial than I’m used to and ruined my appetite for the rest of the day – perhaps that was a good thing!    There are a few rituals we have in London and one of them is visiting Foyles, the famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Foyles is a London institution.  If you’re a lover of books then walk through the doors and you’ll think you’ve gone to book heaven.   Imagine your favourite subject and you’ll often find that there won’t be just one or two shelves devoted to it, but a whole room!   Floor upon floor of books on everything from the latest fiction (many newly signed first-editions), to art, history, design, science, languages – you name it, I’m sure there’ll be something for you.   We spent a couple of hours here, including a coffee in their delightful café.   

I have to admit that I rarely buy books in shops these days, preferring to support Better World Books - an online company devoted to improving literacy in third world countries.   I also love to buy second-hand books, when possible, because they turn up in brown wrap, usually from another part of the world and I find it intriguing to think that they’ve had a previous life and I’ve saved them from becoming landfill. 
Do you ever buy second-hand?  You should think about giving an old book a new home.   Unfortunately I tend to hoard books (amongst other things) and can’t bear to part with one.  I hope when I go to that big library in the sky my own books will be loved by one of my children or grandchildren.  Anyway I digress…a signed first-edition copy of the latest offering from historic novelist Phillipa Gregory, The Red Queen (19 GBP), caught my eye and I couldn’t resist.     There’s something special about walking out of Foyles swinging one of their red bags containing a treasure!

Covent Garden was our next destination and the place was buzzing.   Londoners and tourists alike were out in force enjoying a perfect autumn afternoon watching buskers, eating in the cafes and restaurants, drinking in the bars and visiting the shops and markets filled with antiques, souvenirs, exquisite gifts and art.   Still without hunger, we settled for afternoon tea however I did find the huge pans of paella being cooked in the open very tempting.    It was a pleasant way of spending a relaxing afternoon.   I loved the string quartet busking outside one of the cafes - their music was beautiful.

From Covent Garden we made our way to Kensington and Harrod’s. I like to pretend that I can afford to shop there but the truth is I only ever buy their food. Walking through their food hall is an experience.  Nobody does food like Harrods.   The displays are works of art.   Here you can buy amazing produce from every corner of the globe.  In the photo below ‘wild prawns’ from Africa at $69 GBP per kilo sit next to ‘wild octopus’ from Cornwall at a more reasonable $13.95 GBP per kilo.   The one treat I always buy there is fudge which is creamy and heavenly.  My girls and I are addicted.     In summer, choosing one of their filled baguettes and taking  it down to the banks of the Thames or Serpentine is a also a treat.   

Like the food hall, Harrods source quality goods from every part of the world however gone are the days when you can purchase a live tiger (thank goodness).  Floor upon floor of every conceivable item from rugs & furniture to designer clothes & bags are on offer to those who can afford them! I remember years ago I took my daughters there for their Santa photo and whilst the queue was long the girls were kept entertained by the beautiful fairies and pixies that fed them treats and danced and sang.    Ah Harrods, I can pretend but back home I’ll still shop in DJs where the prices are more affordable – after all, ‘There’s no other store…’  
By this time the sun was beginning to set and we dashed to High Street Kensington to do a bit of shopping for our son.  We called in to a quaint little pub called ‘The Greyhound’ to rest our feet and quench our thirst and whilst there it became apparent that we were both beginning to ‘fade’ after our 3.30am start.  Did I want to go out for dinner?   Pass.   So it was off to ‘Whole Foods Market’ to pick up some hot food and take back to our hotel.  Whole Foods sells delicious organic, natural food and they have a wonderful selection of self-serve, take home dishes.
I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Looking out my window this morning showed a vastly different London to the previous day – cold, grey, wet and windy but hey, I mustn’t forget that this IS autumn in Great Britain!   After a baguette & coffee at Pret in Oxford Street we once again braved the rain and wind and made our way to Tate Modern.  

Have you ever noticed other people looking at art?   If you asked 100 people to give their interpretation of a work you would get 100 different answers.   Many artists refuse to explain the meaning behind their work as this defines the piece and leaves no room for the individual’s imagination – no mystery.   I love to watch people’s expressions as they stand and contemplate or sometimes eavesdrop on a conversation (quite by accident of course).   As for me, I like to make my own mind up but then I always cheat and read what’s written next to the work or listen to the audio tour …and that’s what I did today.     Whilst flash photography is forbidden in the gallery for obvious reasons, you can still take images.   Today I wanted to capture not just a shot of the artist’s work - a nice momento of the visit - but I also wanted to capture people contemplating the work.    
I love watching kids as they stand before art.  The piece below was quite dark and confronting with the bodies of two birds pinned to the wall with arrows.   The little girl stood for quite a while before declaring, “Yuk! Dead birds. That’s sad!”  I think that was probably a simplistic view of what most people would have first thought but didn’t audibly express. 

Next time you’re in a gallery, try watching people watching art.   It’s both interesting and amusing – I’m sure the artists would love to have the opportunity to be ‘a fly on the wall’ and watch them too.

After leaving Tate we once again braved the bad weather and made our way across the Millennium Bridge and the choppy waters of the Thames below.   A good old British pie with mushy peas and mash was TBG’s comforting late lunch – mine was an edible veggie roll that filled the spot and then it was back to the hotel to pack and make our way to the airport.

So here I write, 33,000 feet above northern Afghanistan – 6 hours since take-off, another 4 hours until we reach Bangkok.   Below the scenery is spectacular.   As far as the eye can see there is nothing but rugged mountain ranges that appear devoid of vegetation and human life.   The land looks inhospitable and uninhabitable – the word ‘barren’ comes to mind.  Forces deep inside the earth millions of years ago pushed the land together like a giant concertina and the result is breathtaking.  As winter approaches I have no doubt that the brown ranges will turn white with snow.   The further south we fly, evidence of human life begins to appear.   I can see rectangular shapes that look like animal enclosures as well as roads and small villages with huts the same colour as the landscape.  I wonder what their lives are like?  I have no doubt that existing in this landscape would be difficult and so very different from my own life in a little seaside town in Australia.

I might try to catch a little sleep before we land in Bangkok.

More images at

Bye for now…


Annie  x

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