I worked in London in the seventies, visited again in the mid 2000s, but over the last five days, London has shown itself to be a more confident, vibrant city than I remembered. Ten years ago the Eye dominated the skyline. Now it is the Shard and the high rises office towers of Canary Wharf, the new financial district. Food has improved – partly thanks to Jamie Oliver, there are new tube lines and businessmen have, on the whole, discarded their ties.
We were fortunate to stay with relatives in Chorleywood, in the north-west commuter belt. This gave us great opportunities to master the intricacies of the tube system, although we did spend a significant amount of time each day travelling, and walking underground changing from one line to another.
The weather did not disappoint. After an apparently glorious summer, the weather turned the day we arrived. The planned dinner in the garden was eaten around the kitchen table. The walk along the Thames path the following day had us looking and feeling like the proverbial drowned rat at one stage, but we soon dried out, and were able to see the amazing Thames barrier, the naval college buildings, old Cutty Sark pub (where we stopped for a welcome drink) and ancient narrow streets, with the drain in the middle still evident.
We saw the musical “The Book of Mormon” , which lived up to its hype, and discovered the Handel museum near Hanover Square. This is where the great composer lived much of his life, and eventually died, and contains furniture and paintings that were either his, or represent aspects of his life and times. Coincidentally Jimmy Hendrix and his girlfriend lived in the adjoining terrace for a while, so from the world of harpsichords and baroque elegance you move to a display case containing 45s of Purple Haze and other Hendrix memorabilia. Apparently it is the only Hendrix memorial in the world. The outside of the buildings bear plaques recognising two great yet greatly contrasting musicians. We picnicked in Hanover Square, along with a group who appeared homeless, office types and construction workers. There are food outlets such as Pret and Eat on almost every corner, so grabbing a coffee and sandwich and a piece of fruit is easy.
We also visited St George’s Hanover square, the eighteenth century church where Handel worshipped and played the organ, and enjoyed listening to the organist rehearsing. Theodore Roosevelt, future president of the US, and Edith were married here, as was architect John Nash and the Earl of Shaftesbury was a church warden.
The View from the Shard, provides a 68th floor, 360 degree view of London. Here the bends in the Thames were evident, red buses below looked like toys, and the vast network of railway lines form Waterloo, stretched northwards.
Form there it was a short walk to Borough Market, reputedly the best fresh food market in London. The old market has been given a lift, with emphasis on good food, organics, and recycling. The were stalls offering dishes from many cultures, making choice incredibly difficult. We settled for Indian, and while looking for dessert, we were thrilled to see one of the patisseries offering lamingtons.
The fresh produce was amazing in both variety and quality. Many of the vegetable stalls had samphire ( at least one from Israel) , along with more common fruits and vegetables. We bought apples that were the first crop from a farm in the south west, one of the best apples I have ever eaten. Many of the cakes that we had seen on “The Great British Bake-Off” were available both at the market and at more traditional cafés.
Another short walk brought us to Southwark Cathedral, a site of Christian worship for over a millennium. The peace was palpable as I wandered the aisles looking at tombs of ancient knights, a chapel dedicated to those with AIDS and HIV, and the chapel where the founder of Harvard University was baptised.
Our final day was spent in the Westminster area, starting with a tour of the Buckingham Palace state rooms and gardens. In between we partook of tea in the cafe, choosing from the same menu that is offered to those who attend garden parties. I settled for strawberries, while David had a cup of tea – both in disposable containers. I assume the garden party guests don’t have to settle for such indignities. The state rooms were take-your-breath-away opulent, and the gardens lovely, although very wet, as were we. We did get a view of the royal compost.
After a quick trip to M&S for essential clothing top up, we wandered the streets, past Westmister Cathedral, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, delighting again in this wonderful city. Despite the many tourist destinations that London offers, it is by wandering the streets that you really see what an amazingly varied city it is , with its varied architecture, parks, pubs, shops and people. It is as true now as it was in 1777, when Samuel Johnson said “he who is tired of London is tired of life.”