Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Postage Stamps and Cheese: Eleven Things (+ One) I Like in London

Three people I know are off to London, England, this month.
And I'm not.
To console myself, I've compiled an idiosynratic list of some things I like in central London. The list reflects my travel style, which consists of wandering around, looking for interesting places to sit down, nosh a little something, and write postcards.

1. A Place to Keep Your Cheese
The last couple times I've been in London, I've stayed in Bloomsbury at the Crescent Hotel, a Georgian rowhouse on a little crescent (the green on the map, below)--slightly quieter than some because cars don't drive right under your window. It's walking distance from the new British Library and St Pancras (the stripy Victorian building where you can catch the Eurostar chunnel train to Paris). If you don't mind staying in the maid's room at the top of three steep flights of progressively narrower stairs, and sharing a bath & toilet (I don't mind), it's 50 pounds/nite, including a full breakfast, which is pretty good for London, unless you stay at a hostel or a university dorm.

There are other hotels on the crescent too, but I like this one because the last time I stayed there, I stored my cheese on the window ledge, to keep cool (it was March), and when it fell off and almost beaned a worker repairing the steps below, the landlady thought this was hilarious, and gave me back the cheese.

2. Within a couple blocks is almost everything you need. Buy used and new books at Judd Books. (The "J" on the map above.)(They say they're an academic bookstore, which sounds like they sell textbooks but really just means they don't sell Harlequin Romances.)

3. More Popular Than the Beatles
Around the corner from Judd Books is North Sea Fish. I haven't eaten in the sit-down part, but the takeaway counter serves a fish that is almost the size of a football (American). Unless you're ravenous, I suggest a fish cake, which you can hold in one hand.
The Independent published 150 Facts about Fish and Chips, for the food's 150th anniversary, including:
"#142 Fish and chips came top of two surveys as a national icon, beating the Queen, Princess Diana and the Beatles."

4. Wash It Down
To wash the chip grease down, drink a pint at the local, across the street from Judd's, the Lord John Russell (right).
You could you do your laundry at the laundromat down the street at the same time.
Bring pound coins and, if you're the sort who thinks ahead, your own powdered laundry soap from home--soap's expensive in the 'mat.

5. Cheap Seats
Now you are full of beer and chips, you're ready to walk south a coupla miles to Trafalgar Square, on the search for postcards and cool stamps.
If your feet hurt, you could take the tube, but it's a great walk.
Take Monmouth (on the map, where the arrows point down, which becomes St. Martin's Lane)--it's nicer than the busy Charing Cross Rd.

You'll be passing many theaters as you walk south. For the cheapest deal, you can sometimes buy standing-room tickets at the theatres' ticket windows.

When you're near the square, you'll see the English National Opera on St. Martins Lane. It's in the Coliseum, the building (left) with the globe on top.

Buy a "day-of" supercheap (just a few pounds) ticket there for whatever's showing that evening. Really. Even if you hate opera, it's a trip just to see the inside of the building.
Warning: The operas are sung in English, and the seats are uncomfortable. But you can buy ice-cream at intermission, and the English is just barely easier to understand than the original, and at least you don't have to put up with subtitles.

(I understand many people do research and buy tickets before they leave home, but I like to be surprised. Like when I saw "Madame Butterfly" at the ENO: I had no idea Butterfly kills herself at the end. (Oh sorry, you didn' either?) I didn't leave until everyone else had because I was all choked up.)

6. Postcards That Haven't Been Rained On
As you reach Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery is on your right (east). Their giftshop holds the motherlode of postcards that don't show women's breasts painted to look like cute animals with nipple noses. Much better than the National Gallery itself, next door.
David Bailey's shot of Michael Caine (left) is one of their bestsellers.

And the museum is good too. Start at the top floor to meet the people from the most distant past and work your way forward in history. It's free, so I pop in a few times over my stay and see a few faces at a time, to avoid going into overload.

7. Royalty-Free Postage Stamps
If you don't want to bore your postcards' recipients with the Same Old Queen's Head stamps, there are only a couple post offices that always carry the Royal Mail's wonderful commemorative stamps.

Luckily, one of them, the Trafalgar Square P.O., is only a block or two to the west of the National Portrait Gallery, on a little side street:
24/28 William IV Street.
(The other is the City of London P.O. at 12 Eastcheap.)

Be sure you're at the little section that sells the special sets. Like this Best of British Design set (from last year, but it might still be available).

Stick the Polyproplyene Chair stamp on Michael Caine and send him to me, please.

(Note about stamps--I was confused at first because they're marked by class ("1st"), not face value. So ask the clerk how much they're worth, so you get the right amount for postcards. I often end up sticking on more than necessary because I like the stamps so much.)

8. Custard in the Crypt
Now you need a place to write the cards.
Right across from the NPG is the church of Saint Martin in the Fields, and underneath the church is their Café in the Crypt, a reasonably priced cafeteria where, if you don't mind walking over tombstones, you can get British classics like peas and lamb.. And warm custard! My favorite! (We Americans would call it soupy vanilla pudding.) I'm not sure, but it tastes homemade, not that chemically tasting Bird's mix. It's served over apple crumble, but I've asked for a bowl of it by itself.

The crypt's giftshop's postcards disappoint, but I like to buy a copy of the Church Times there. (By "church," they mean Anglican.) I suppose the paper's modernized now, but it used to read like something out of Barbara Pym.

9. Choirboys in Ruffs
Speaking of churches, though not a lot of people attend, many churches are, in fact, still functioning places of worship, and one way to see them--and to be with real people leading their lives--is to attend services, if you are comfortable with Christian worship.
After custard, you could trek all the way through the City (go to the river and turn left, or east) to Saint Paul's Cathedral for evensong at 5 p.m.
(I don't think anyone minds if you fumble and mumble.)
Not only do you get to skip paying the suggested entry fee, because you're not a tourist, but you can sit in the choir stalls (right), which gives you a view of the most amazing mosaics you wouldn't otherwise see. Also, small singing boys wearing ruffs.

St Paul's has good postcards in the basement and a nice café, where I overheard a man discussing his badger problem.

10. Cake in the Nave
Or you could go to the river and turn right (west). Keep walking past Westminster Bridge and Parliament and take the Lambeth Bridge across the Thames to get to the former church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth. The building and grounds is now one of my favorite museums, The Museum of Garden History.

Captain Bligh's tomb is in the old churchyard and garden.
(Bligh, besides inspiring the mutiny on the Bounty, was a plant-hunter of sorts, and brought back the breadfruit.)

Hm. I see the museum is now called the Garden Museum and has been renovated, which is good (it was damp). It also now says it aims to capture "the garden zeitgeist"', which is a bit worrisome.
It used to be the sort of place where I once overheard a church organist complaining loudly about the heinous taste of the modern Anglican, over tea and carrot cake.
At any rate, despite the introduction of gluten-free options, I see they still serve cake:
Chocolate and Guinness, Flourless Orange & Almond, Chocolate and Nut Brownie, Flapjacks, Hummingbird (spiced banana and pineapple), and Carrot and Coconut.

It costs 6 pounds, but go visit and let me know if the swankification has erased its shabby church-lady charm.

11. And Then, the Cheese

If you walked down Monmouth/St Martin's Lane, you passed near Neal's Yard Dairy, which sells "Farm Cheeses from the British Isles". And serious breads to eat with it.

As I've mentioned, I keep my cheese on the windowsill of my hotel room, because I'm usually there in the chilly spring;
but in the heat of summer, maybe the place you are staying has a fridge?

Stop and get a bottle of something and some fruit, and make a night of it, you and your cheese, watching telly and soaking your feet.

(These maps look confusing because the streets are a tangle, but everything's really quite close. If you wander around, you'll bump into it. Or something else.)

+1. I've never been to Verde, the coffeshop veg shop delicatessen owned by author Jeanette Winterson (right), and I'd like to.

Here's an article about it, and her, from last month in The Observer. It's in her restored Georgian townhouse in Spitalfields, 40 Brushfield Street, east London.

(And here's a 2006 interview w/ JW that I must include because of the title: "If I Were a Dog, I'd Be a Terrier".)


Manfred Allseasons said...

Oh dear. I am a Londoner by birth, have lived and worked there as an adult, and been back many, many times since leaving...yet apart from the National Portrait Gallery/Trafalger Square, have never visited any of these places - no, not even St Pauls.

Thank you for telling me about my home town. I am a tiny bit ashamed....

Margaret said...


You might've said to your friends:
"I am unpleasant. I hate it being left."
Oh, the inexhaustible uses of Jen's Janglish capturings.

Wherever Michael Caine is mentioned, I feel compelled to say:


( . . . not while the film's rolling, anyway.)

Your fallen cheese story made me laugh; so fitting that it should happen on British turf.

momo said...

Oh, this is a great London Walk! It belongs in the NYTimes!
love the cheese story. I remember buying a cheese in Paris and carrying it in my purse until it became so ripe it just about knocked us out.

I did stop at Verde's and had a lovely flourless chocolate cake thingie, based on reading that article! There were some tango dancers down the street doing a free outdoor dance exhibition. When I have a chance, i'll be posting some videos and pictures. The whole internet thing on the road has been spotty.

Fresca said...

MANFRED: Well, don't they say home is never honored by a prophet? Or something?

You got me thinking, what sites in my town have I not seen? It took me 30 years before I entered the State Capitol.
Perhaps I'll see if I could write something interesting about my own town.

M'RET: Hey, you're invited to come to London for my 50th birthday tea, mid-March 2011! I'm repeating what I did for my 40th--I went to London and told everyone that if they showed up, I'd buy them tea at the Russell Hotel, a Victorian monstrosity in Bloomsbury. There were 8 of us, and it was great!
Have you seen the Wallace and Grommit animation about cheese?

MOMO: Oh, pain! I wish I could have joined you at Verde. (I know about it from you--and I must've found the same article you did.)
Speaking of tango, did you see Argentina legalized same-sex marriage?!

ArtSparker said...

Wow, I can't wait to go back after reading this. Hope it won't be too long this time.

Margaret said...

Own it on VHS.
Along with their other shorts:
A Close Shave and The Wrong Trousers, and their newer feature length hoot The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

You've probably seen Monty Python's cheese shop sketch?

Dania said...

I've only been to London once, but truly loved it and would move there in a heartbeat, even with all the rain.

I think my best dessert there was that apple crumble in St. Martin in the Field. Amazing hearing concerts there (they're mentioned so much on my local classical radio station) and then following it up with tea and dessert. That's the way to live.