My family was somewhat nonplussed to get photos of pigs‘ heads, orange staircases, embroidered fabric, squirrel on tombstone, strange architecture, packaged sculptures and King Henry’s instructions for using the garderobe, „since to retain urine is hurtful to health“.1
I have to admit that I did not expect the way this London visit went off either.
I had fled the German Karneval with two friends – not for the first time – because in the Rhineland you either jump right into the insanity, or you shut yourself away in your house, or you take a mini vacation.
We opted for the mini vacation.
If you have been to a city several times, and „checked off“ the obvious attractions and „must-sees“, you feel a freedom to explore, to drift, to just see where your feet will take you, that is extremely satisfying, and can also lead to unexpected experiences!
I will share our Saturday itinerary with you, because it’s the most eclectic, but also because Sunday was spent at Hampton Court, and I have written about this and my art project elsewhere, and Monday was ‚interrupted‘ by meeting friends. Friday and Tuesday were only half days.
If you’d like to experience something a bit ‚different‘ the next time you’re in London, then I recommend trying one or two of the places we’ve seen on this day – there are some alternative ideas for every occasion: alternative churches, markets, architecture…
We started the day at Brixton Market, which is one of the biggest markets for Carribean and African food in Europe – hence the pigs‘ heads 😉 It’s also the origin of Franco Manca’s awesome pizza, so it will automatically have a special place in my heart.
As far as we could see (though we were there rather too early), the market has not yet been overrun by tourists. There is quite an interesting mix of household appliances, romance movies, phones, false nails, herbs, toffees, and vintage postcards. You will be able to find anything to eat or drink that your heart desires, but expect the venue to be unconventional. In past decades the market was more or less in the hands of immigrants, but now you will see an impressive cooperation of all classes, religious or cultural backgrounds, and age groups. Apparently a local initiative managed to prevent the market’s demolition. It’s even heritage-protected if I understood the literature correctly.
This market is definitely different, the smells may not suit everybody (it was a bit sketchy for me at times, as I don’t eat meat), and it still has a certain charm that Camden or Portobello haven’t had for many years. But if you look at some of the people who come here, you have to wonder how long this will last. Rents are already rising.
We went to the Borough Market next, because we knew we would find great street food for all three of us. I had a delicious vegan burger from Veggie Table, and my friends chose Roast Hog to Go – You can’t get such a mix *and* quality elsewhere. Not that I know of.
We wanted to do a flying visit to Southwark Cathedral (which has been a place of worship for at least a 1000 years, and is a truly beautiful church, very worth visiting – oh, and if the Borough Market isn’t your thing, because you wish to sit down and have a cup of tea, then go to their Refectory!), but services were underway, so it was closed for tourists. Since we had explored the church very thoroughly the year before, we weren’t too sad, but had a look at their small archaeological excavation (a section through the centuries as far back as a Roman road), then went around the corner to look at the ruins of Winchester Palace and then the Golden Hinde II.
On our way to London we had talked about the possibility of doing the Yeoman Warder guided tour of the Tower, and decided then to cross the London Bridge, walk along the Thames and do this.
However, we didn’t expect the weekend crowds to be *that* bad, so we immediately changed our plans and went to All Hallows-by-the-Tower instead, a church right next to the Tower, which was a very good idea! (But it means that I *still* haven’t been *inside* the Tower – I’m curious when that will finally happen…)
All Hallows-by-the-Tower is an ancient church and we spent quite a long time there exploring its history (I lost half an hour looking for Thomas More’s tomb because I had misunderstood the brochure and thought he was buried there – but that was only a temporary arrangement after his beheading next door…). The church contains a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon arch among other things, and the crypt museum is a small trove of unexpected treasures. Famous people associated with the church include John Quincy Adams, William Penn, Reverend Philip Thomas Byard ‚Tubby‘ Clayton, or Albert Schweitzer. You will not see this church in the usual tourist tours, and I had gone past it before without an idea of what’s inside, which is a shame. On the other hand, it was quite empty, so we had lots of space to explore, to read epigraphs and to take photos without people in it.
Afterwards we decided to head in the direction of the City and check out Leadenhall Market and its surroundings – Again, we didn’t count on it being Saturday, but this time the opposite happened: there was *nobody*, and all the shops were closed! Which I couldn’t believe, but apparently the City empties on the weekends.
So we did a little architectural excursion instead.
Notice a theme?
We looked at the Walkie Talkie, and the Gherkin, but spent most of our time in the City at the Lloyd’s Building, also known as the „Inside-Out-Building“ – it is related to the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I think they even share a father. It is not really my style, but nevertheless an interesting concept, creating open spaces by attaching all the ’stuff‘ to the outside walls, and was quite innovative and trend-setting at the time. Without my friends I probably wouldn’t have explored the building as much, but I’m glad I followed them.
We did a detour to St Paul’s Cathedral, but stayed at the entrance. All three of us had been inside before and didn’t really feel like shelling out the admission fee, and it was too early for ‚choral evensong‘ -> This is a custom I have encountered only in Britain so far (I guess it is typical Anglican – let me know, if you know of other places where this is the norm). And for those of you not familiar with it: it is a perfect way to experience a church / cathedral without paying £18-20. Of course, you cannot wander around during the service, but are expected to join. However, a choral evensong accompanied by the church’s choir, singing a capella counterpoint, is a thing of beauty, and you have half an hour to sit and look around and soak up the atmosphere.
We had afternoon tea near the cathedral – sadly, because it was Saturday, the Salvation Army’s „Café 101“ was closed. It’s on the lower ground floor at International Headquarters, which you cannot miss, when you walk from the cathedral to Millennium Bridge. They say about themselves that they’re „one of London’s hidden treasures where great food is served at affordable prices in a relaxed environment“, and I have to agree! (But not this year)
From St Paul’s we decided to go to the Barbican Estate. Or I should probably say: I followed my friends to the Barbican. I would never, ever have had the idea to go there on my own. It is entirely the wrong period to interest me from an architectural or artistic standpoint. And I wouldn’t have known that the Barbican is an example where Brutalistic urban planning and building has actually worked! In Germany this kind of architecture is usually a big fat sign to turn around, don’t enter the ghetto, this is a no go zone… The buildings from those decades haven’t been maintained, and the quality of the materials has never been especially good to begin with, so I was very surprised to hear about the Barbican, its history, authenticity and cohesion.
I’ve read more about it since then, but on the day of our visit one of my friends told me a lot of interesting facts while we walked along the skywalks, and he opened my eyes to many details I wouldn’t have noticed or known how to interpret otherwise. I still think it’s ugly, but it’s also extremely well planned and cared for, and the scale is just overwhelming. (And keeping to one of the themes of the day: one of the terrace blocks is called the ‚Thomas More House‘).
ETA: I found a book at Hatchard’s which I ordered as a birthday gift for my friends: „The Barbican Estate“ by Stefi Orazi (Author) and Christoffer Rudquist (Photographer). It is a hardcover book to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Barbican Estate. It is really beautifully made!
Next we went into the Barbican Centre. Let me tell you how much this was NOT my style… Worst of all: orange! Everywhere. I have a… problem with this colour. I really don’t know why, but I think it’s absolutely ugly. The only exception are sunsets. Anyway, the interior of the Barbican Centre was difficult for me. It was an effort to look beyond the style and appreciate the cohesion, the qualitiy, the level of maintenance. But you really have to admire what they did here! I’ve never seen a building of this size, where everything, *every* little part seemed to be still the original. The light switches, the dustbins, the banisters, everything!
And there were so many people *using* this space! Families seemed to have brought their picnics, students with their notebooks populating the many seating areas, people went to the movies, there’s a library, gallery, restaurants etc.
I had no idea that this is the ‚home‘ of the Royal Shakespeare Company, or the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It says on their website „The Barbican is Europe’s largest multi-arts and conference venue presenting a diverse range of art, music, theatre, dance, film and creative learning events“ – Why did I not know that? Looking at the programme right now, I swear to you, I’m going to see a concert or play there the next time I’m in London! I don’t care about the orange. Maybe I can wear tinted glasses…
And best of all: There is a shop where I found the MOST PERFECT birthday gift for my oldest brother that I have EVER gotten for him!!! I cannot tell you what, because I’m still ’sitting on it‘ – his birthday is in July, and I can hardly wait… For this gift alone, I’ll bear all the orange in the world 😉
Again, sticking to the point, I bought an issue of Thomas More’s ‚Utopia‘. Suddenly, there it lay in front of me, so it seemed sort of a sign – I also bought ‚Wolf Hall‘ and ‚The Life of Thomas More‘ at Skoob two days later, which tied in nicely with our visit to Hampton Court.
Utopia by Thomas More (Penguin Great Ideas)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Life of Thomas More by Peter Ackroyd
For some reason we still hadn’t had enough, so we took the tube to Piccadilly and went to Hatchard’s. For me, there’s really no London trip without a visit to Hatchard’s. I *love* this bookshop. One of these days I will spend a whole day there! I wonder if they offer camp beds…
Afterwards a fleeting visit to Fortnum & Mason, which is always a good idea, if you’re looking for a certain kind of gift.
And that’s a wrap. We took the tube back to Earls Court, had excellent dinner at a Lebanese retaurant, and capped off the evening with a pint at a pub, where we had a funny conversation with a group of Southampton football fans who were anticipating the League Cup final against ManU. One of them had even come all the way from Australia!
1) Embroidered fabric = Victoria and Albert Museum. Squirrel on tombstone = Brompton Cemetery. Packaged sculptures = Hampton Court Gardens.