I’ve tried hard to like the Walkie Talkie, Rafael Vinoly’s skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. The thing dominates the surrounding streets, blocking out the whole sky from the narrow cobbled alleyways that lead up to Eastcheap, and its solitary position away from the cluster of tall glass and steel buildings that form the new vertical City means it intrudes into views from Waterloo Bridge and along the south bank, as well as seeming to loom over the Tower of London.
It is blessed, though, with a wonderful, free viewing gallery – a couple of floors of space some 150m up – higher than the London Eye – and with a 360 degree view of the capital.
This is the Sky Garden. The architect’s plans (of course) were for a mini-Kew, a verdant ‘public park’ accessible to all; it hasn’t quite worked out like that (of course). The accessibility involves navigating a clunky website to book tickets (which are released every other Monday), queuing to get through ticket barriers, trudging through airport-style security, and then queuing for the lift. Continue reading
A dozen or so years ago my father in law brought back a stick from his land in Sicily. It was about two feet long and the thickness of a bamboo cane and he planted it deep into the soil, drenching it with water.
This vine is now solid and woody. The ‘trunk’ some six feet tall and as thick as my wrist, and the vines growing all around the garden. We prune it back hard each January and every spring it explodes, throwing off new long green arms that now cover most of the back of the house, and which have spread into the neighbours’ gardens on each side of ours. And we get grapes. In the first years these were the size of peas and all pip and skin, which even the birds didn’t bother with. They’re now just about the size of eating grapes, dark, dark red, and the whole growth needs to be netted to stop the pigeons stripping the vines bare.
These are wine grapes; in the past we’ve juiced them, turned that into granita, tried (unsuccessfully) to dry them off as raisins, but this year we finally signed up for the Urban Wine Co.
We’d heard about this outfit about five or six years ago, a local collective who’d got together the produce from their wines and handed it over to a commercial wine maker.
It’s grown somewhat since then, and in early September I took our harvest – 18kg no less – to the collection point off Lavender Hill. According to Paul of Urban Wine there were two and half tonnes of grapes brought in that day from over 120 people, and they turned away some 40 more as they were over capacity. Of course the grapes are all kinds of varieties, both red and white, so the wine – the gloriously named ‘Chateau Tooting’ – is rose. Past vintages are reasonably well regarded (and available at selected outlets in SW17 and online).
Come April next year I’ll be taking delivery of nine bottles of the 2018 vintage, bathing in the smug knowledge that just under 1% of the bottle is my harvest. I’ll report back on whether the stuff is drinkable.
If you’d like me to show you round the British Museum, the National Gallery or even take a stroll through Soho’s music history, then you can come along on one of my ‘public’ walks.
These are done via the AirBnB ‘experiences’ programme, so if you’ve got an AirBnB account you can book with a couple of clicks.
Click on any of the links below to go straight to the relevant page for details, dates and reviews.
Treasures of the British Museum – a dozen or more of the absolute high points of the collection, including the Rosetta Stone, Lewis chess set, Parthenon marbles, Roman silver, Assyrian carvings and a couple of dead bodies.
Discover the National Gallery – two hours or so looking at some of the world’s greatest paintings, including works by Leonardo, Titian, Rembrandt, Holbein, Turner, Constable, Monet and Van Gogh.
Rock and Roll Soho – stroll from Regent Street to Regent Studios to see the places where the stars of the 60s and 70s made music, bought clothes and hung out, and hear stories of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elton John, the Sex Pistols and many others. I even buy you a coffee at the Bar Italia.
Just about everyone knows the legend of the Tower of London ravens; that should they leave the fortress then it and, by extension, the entire kingdom, will fall.
It’s meant to be recorded that when the astronomer John Flamsteed (who had set up his telescope in the White Tower) complained to Charles II that the birds were impeding his work and had to go, that the king insisted the ravens stay and that Flamsteed must relocate. This is why the Royal Observatory ended up in Greenwich. (Another version of the story has it that it was Charles himself who wanted the ravens removed and it was Flamsteed who intervened on their behalf.)
Even earlier, the ravens were said to be present at the execution of Anne Boleyn, falling silent on the battlements of the Tower as if knowing the momentousness of a queen’s execution.
The only small problem is – well, all the legends are nonsense, at best late Victorian inventions, at worst cooked up by some imaginative Yeoman Warders some time after WW2. Continue reading
Oh for just a bit of the civic pride that built bandstands, and a wee bit of the sense of community that put on regular band concerts within them.
The Clapham Common bandstand for example, built in 1889 after the locals petitioned the London County Council. It cost £600 to erect and, twice a week – Wednesday afternoons and Sundays – one could stroll over to the common and hear a concert, presumably for free. Continue reading
Another wee selection of instagram snaps (also on flickr).
Whenever I’m taking Americans around Westminster Abbey, I like to mention that when Columbus stumbled across the Americas, King Edward’s Chair (commonly known as the Coronation Chair) was already nearly 200 years old; when the rebellious colonists laid out their Declaration of Independence, some two dozen monarchs had already sat here to be crowned.
It really is that old – created in 1300/01, used in its first coronation (of Edward II) in 1307. It predates all but one of the objects in the Crown Jewels (the Coronation Spoon), and comes from a time before the concept of ‘Britain’ or a’United Kingdom’ exercised any minds. Elizabeth II sat in it in June 1953, as did Elizabeth I in January 1559. Charles III will be crowned in it, as were Charles I and II; Henry VIII, Richard III, Henry V and most of those other kings you remember from Shakespeare were crowned in it. English history is in its very grain. Continue reading
Dishoom does the ‘Indian Cafe’ experience very well indeed, and if you’re prepared to queue, serves some great tasting food and impressive cocktails. But if you want the echt rather than the ersatz, then head on over to the Somerset House side of the Strand and try and find the India Club Restaurant.
It must be 30 years since I was last here, but climbing the two floors – past the India Club bar and the Strand Continental Hotel reception on the first floor – and stepped into the room again, it was if I’d never been away. The brown Formica tables and the wooden chairs are almost certainly the exact ones I sat in in the 1980s (and probably the originals from the restaurant’s opening in the 1940s). The waiters were too young to be the same, but their white jackets and their welcome was exactly how I remember it. Continue reading
Already a huge hit with visiting Americans, the queues for the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum are only going to get longer with the releases of the Darkest Hour movie.
The film is set in the early days of Churchill’s wartime premiership when debate in the Cabinet was whether to sue for peace with Hitler. It is no understatement to say that the entire course of 20th century history would have been utterly different had such an outcome occurred.
The movie wasn’t filmed in the War Rooms, but meticulously recreated them, even down to the peeling paint on the wooden supports of the map room.
“This is the room from which I shall conduct the war”, Churchill famously said of the basement-level Cabinet Room itself, but only around a quarter of wartime cabinet meetings were actually held in the space, at times when the threat from bombing – and the later ‘V’ weapons – was most acute. But the complex was staffed by hundreds throughout the course of the war, an essential bureaucracy of information-gathering and coordination. Had the Germans landed, this would have been one of the first places to get the news, and the initial response to any invasion would have been organised here. Continue reading
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Apparently they’ve been here since 1877, when this would have been the heart of London’s ‘Little Italy’, the area around Saffron Hill and the Clerkenwell Road. The Italian church of St Peter’s is just round the corner. Each July it still holds the procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a bit of Italian Catholic cultural tradition on the streets of London.