Ten days of re-connecting with friends, of culinary delights, of sightseeing and incongruously, of waiting for a visa to live in Kazakhstan. Of glorious weather, museums and navigating London’s underground until I no longer had to consult whether it was the Piccadilly or the Bakerloo line that I needed to hop onto…I was rather chuffed with myself! With so much that inspired me, where does one begin to write? This trip revealed some fascinating aspects of London; mostly because of a tour, three in fact.
Thanks to my friend Patrick who currently lives in London, he arranging a tour the day after I arrived. It wasn’t surprising this is how we chose to spend time together as we had been colleagues as tour guides in Norway. But now instead of Vikings, we were focusing on more literary matters, on Charles Dickens. The tour was of Dickens’ London. It was fascinating as we wandered the streets that had shaped the authour’s life. One such spot was the wall of Marshalsea Debtors Prison where Dicken’s father had twice been imprisoned. This would greatly impact the young boy and these early experiences would manifest themselves in his classics such as David Copperfield (his thinly disguised autobiography),
Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. During one of his father’s terms in prison, the young Charles laboured in a shoe blackening factory. The harsh conditions would render him rather OCD later in life with regards to cleanliness. He would become an ostentatious dresser as well. All to wipe away the painful childhood memories of wearing rags, of filth, of poverty.
Years later, Dickens would also become a generous philanthropist which was evident when the tour wound its way past the simple Red Cross Hall in Southwark. It pays homage to social reformer, Octavia Hill. Dickens supported her initiative, ‘The Cottage Movement’. Hill endeavoured to instill self respect and responsibility to ‘fallen’ ladies by providing small gardens for them to work in. The gardens were also places where the poor could commune with nature and escape the harsh, everyday life of Victorian England. Octavia Hill is said to have coined the phrase ‘green belt’ as she campaigned to save many green spaces in the London area. This intrepid lady was also a co-founder of the National Trust.
As we made our way through the Borough area, close to the south bank of the River Thames, our guide relayed another interesting, yet this time gruesome scenario for us. Bodies have always washed up ashore along the river; even now as many as fifty a year are recovered.
In Victorian England, muggings were rife with the victim’s bodies often dumped into the murky Thames. But not before their hair had been shaved and sold for wigs, their teeth pulled for dentures and the corpse stripped of clothing. The bodies would become known as…whoppers. These whoppers were prone to clog up in a sharp bend in the river, much to the irritation of the Kings as their flotillas tried to make way. That term for a bend in the river is Charing, as in Charing Cross. A bend that certainly has a colourful past.
Referring back to Charles Dickens and on a lighter note, we have that great novelist to thank for the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’…it was coined in A Christmas Carol in 1843.
On another day I found myself in Kensington on a tour with London Walks. A few minutes into the tour, the guide held up a book and read aloud, his booming voice rich with expression, “…you’ve got a millennium of Kensington in the palm of your hand. You can peel the centuries off like the layers of an onion.” I realized that I had read those words that morning before the tour. The penny dropped. This was the fellow that had written much of the book that was now tucked away in my bag, its pages already dog-earred from my continuous reference to it.
David Tucker’s tour was just as compelling as the book he and fellow guides had compiled. Lively and filled with history, its anecdotes and personal perspectives meld the past and present.
As we traversed through Old Kensington Village, it indeed revealed intriguing periods over the bygone centuries. The name itself? Well, the ington ending means an estate associated with someone and in this case it was a man named Cynesige. Sadly nothing else is known of him. Since then, it has been home to countless artists and writers such as Thackeray, Virginia Wolf and J.M. Barrie. It’s believed Barrie met a young boy here that would inspire his character, Peter Pan. Winston Churchill lived and died in Kensington and of course Princess Diana called the nearby Palace her home. The Palace gate is still adorned with flowers and tributes. The Princess and I share the same birthday and I wasn’t the only visitor to stop and peer solemnly through the stately gate.
One of the oldest squares in London lies here, its tall townhouses commanding some of the most expensive prices in the city. Many are decorated with wrought iron balconies. They billow out, curving slightly at the bottom. In the 19th century, ladies wanted to stroll onto the balcony and the curved iron accommodated their round crinolined skirts. Allowing more room to stand, it makes perfect sense once it’s pointed out to you.
As do the coal hole covers that decorate older, wealthier streets of London, such as Kensington. Some of them survive from the mid 1700’s and they are trod on daily, with all but a few oblivious to their significance. At the time, all heating was fired by coal. The cast iron covers protected the chutes through which the coal was delivered to wealthier homes. Though locked from the inside to prevent theft, apparently the odd lithe child was able to infiltrate them. Yes London was ‘foggy’, not only from the weather, but also from the soot, from all that coal.
Kensington is also known for its mews and David revealed their history. In present day, cottage mews are charming terraced cottages but originally they were not quite as sophisticated. In the 18th and 19th centuries, London’s housing for the wealthy generally consisted of streets of large terraced houses, with stables at the back for horses. Carriages were kept on the ground floor and traditionally a ramp would lead to the second floor where the horses were stabled. As David quipped, “It’s far easier to drag a horse up to the second story than it is a carriage.” The third story was for the stablemen.
Interestingly however, mews derives from the word for mewing or moulting as in feathers. From 1377 onwards, the king’s falconry birds were kept in the King’s Mews at Charing Cross. The name remained when it became the royal stables in 1537 during the reign of King Henry VII, I though it was later demolished to make way for Trafalgar Square. The present Royal Mews was then built in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
As is typical in London, Kensington is not without its fair share of pubs. I was curious why they are so prevalent, often with intriquing names. During the Middle Ages, a large proportion of the population was illiterate and so illustrations on a sign were more practical than words. One could distinguish a duck and dog, or a dragon being slain, for example. There was often no need to write the establishment’s name on the sign and pubs sometimes opened without a formal written identity. That ‘minor detail’ was often derived later from the picture on the pub’s original sign.
As for the vast number of London pubs; we partly have the great fire of 1666 to blame, or thank for that. After the devastation, the city was rebuilt and the workers that did so needed food and ale, even better if they were situated on corners for convenience. Traditionally ale was much safer to drink than the water; this also applied to children who drank ale at a young age.
The last tour I enjoyed in London is a must. My dear friend Kristen had joined me from Norway and it transpired that the London Food Lovers tour is how we spent our final day together. She’d return to Stavanger that night and I’d depart to Frankfurt, Istanbul and finally Aktau, Kazakhstan. Needless to say, a lot of emotions were surfacing and I was thankful for a good friend by my side…and some wonderful food.
Sarah is the founder of London Food Lovers and a knowledgeable guide who led us through the streets of Soho. Oh the culinary delights we encountered!
The Golden Square in Soho, where the walk originates, encapsulates the spirit of the tour. This square, tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus, was farmland until Henry VIII tacked it onto the Palace of Whitehall as a Royal park in 1536. The origin of the name? It was a hunting call before the hunt, SOHO, and off they galloped.
Fast forward and it became an area that immigrants gravitated to for cheap housing, especially the French Hugenots which is why it became know as London’s French quarter.
Many of those immigrants shared their culture and unique food. Today this is still what Soho is known for, as well as entertainment and business. In the early 20th century, cheap eating-houses were established and the neighbourhood became a fashionable place for intellectuals, writers and artists. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Soho folklore holds that the pubs were packed every night with creative minds. Many of whom, legend has it, never stayed sober long enough to become successful.
Today the area is a culinary delight as the wonderfully detailed tour would reveal to us. From the divine Italian chocolate shop, SAID, to Lina Stores where the freshly made ravioli was displayed as perfectly as it tasted. To Govind’s, a vegetarian spot where we sampled scrumptious samosas on the street. All preparations in the restaurant are first offered to Lord Krishna before being served; indeed they were heavenly. Another stop was at the Mexican restaurant La Bodega Negra (a favourite haunt of the A list), the margaritas and food were excellent.
On we went to the Dog and Duck (yes, the afore mentioned) where we not only sampled three different ales, but discussed the importance of ale in society as noted previously. As someone who enjoys wine over ale, I can admit I actually enjoyed a ‘wee jar’ in the setting of an old, classic British pub. Two very enticing stops were yet to come.
Kristen and myself had intended to include a traditional British tea into one of our afternoons, but had run out of time. Wonderfully this was taken care of with the unexpected visit to the Corinthia Hotel for tea and cakes. The breathtaking setting caught us all off-guard and our small group of ladies was captivated by the perfection of it all. The lobby is an oasis of beauty, as is the tea service, as were the delectable cakes. We pictured ourselves in a movie set perhaps, or even Downton Abbey when we heard the hotel was once the Metropole and referred to in the series. We would have been delighted if this had been the final stop, yet there was one last quintessential London sight to experience.
Each stop had been carefully chosen by Sarah, an American that had left home early and headed to Italy to discover her roots. Along the way she trained as a sommelier, gave food tours in Italy and later decided that London was calling. This tour is a unique (and delicious) experience in London. Try to book the tour at the start of your trip however, so you can actually return to some of the spots.
And so our last location was Gordon’s Wine Bar, reputed to be the oldest in London and just a stone’s throw from the Embankment tube station. We entered the cavern-like atmosphere; redolent with centuries of conversation prevading the musty air. As the candles illuminated the dark recesses, we toasted each other with wines from around the world. Four hours previous we had chosen to come together because of our love of food and we unanimously agreed that we had experienced a side of London we pleased to have seen and tasted. Uncharacteristically, I actually had to tear myself away and leave a wine bar early. My flight was only hours away.
With hugs all around, I dashed onto the nearby tube station, fetched my luggage. On to Heathrow where flights awaited to journey me to Kazakhstan, yet another country to add to our list of countries of residence. The distraction of the tours had been crucial for someone venturing to an ‘unknown’ country.
It had been a great sojourn and wonderful to see friends and spend time in lovely England. And to London, that grand city to which I can’t wait to return and peel away more intriguing facts, more layers of that onion. I certainly know where I’ll be dining next time as well!
*London Stories by David Tucker and The Guides, Virgin Books 2009