Walk the Thames Part 1

Kick start the year with a new exercise regime…  Walk London 

Well 2013 is upon us, a time of resolutions, decisions, throwing away the old, and perhaps (if you’re like me)  having no money left after the festivities to do anything.

Fear not all is not lost… London offers plenty to do at a very little cost.

Walk the Thames Part 1

OK, stop complaining, it’s not that cold out there, we are being blessed with a ‘warm’ winter.  So how about a walk (didn’t you have more ‘more exercise’ on your new year’s resolutions list?).

One of my favourite walks is from Westminster to Tower Bridge.  It’s beautiful and covers a lot of classic London tourist attractions en route. 

From the stunning Houses of Parliament you wander under the magnificent London Eye, and the beautiful County Hall.

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I have always loved County Hall, once the home of the Saatchi gallery and now housing among other things a hotel and film museum, and soon to become home to the spectres & spooks of the London Dungeons in 2013.

From this side of the river you can catch some great views of the Houses of Parliament and  the back end of Whtiehall .  You may also spy on e of the boats moored on the side , it’s likely to be the Tattesall  Castle a definite   topsecretlondon secret.  From the outside it looks likes a cranky old boat, but its quirky and quaint and affords priceless views of London town over a pint.

Further along the route you can usually catch the sculptures on the mini central London beach just before South, just opposite Jubilee Gardens.

Then we come by the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre, London’s waterside theatre heart.  This place has been really spruced up in the last few years and now offers a great array of restaurants and eateries, making eating with a river view a perfect scenario… but as tempting as it is don’t stop for food, well ok you can have a coffee but that is all.

As you pass by, cast your eye up to the strange boat like structure on top of the National Theatre. What you see is actually one of the best hotel rooms in London, it’s literally one hotel room, with the best view in town.  Originally only opened for a year it’s now staying for 2013!  So if you’re looking for the perfect romantic London break, this could be a secret she would never expect!

Gaze across the river  for a moment, you’re now looking   out at the impressive Victoria Gardens,  it deserves a leisurely stroll through in the summer time.  These gardens are a tribute to those mighty Victorian engineers, Bazalgette, and Brunel etc,  that most of us have never heard of who transformed London into the dazzeling metropolis we know and love today.  As well as bringing us London Underground, improved sewage systems, they also built this part of the embankment (used be be all river) and provided London’s first electrically lit walk way along the Thames.  At this point you are looking at the backside of some very notable  buildings including the London Savoy  and  the beautiful Somerset House.

Move along now…

Pretty soon you reach The Oxo Tower, probably more impressive from the other side of the river.  Originally a power station for the Post Office  built in the late 1800s.  It was later bought for Oxo, and it’s neat art deco features added.  It’s been renovated a lot in recent years and become a much loved feature on the river landscape (it was almost demolished rather than face the costs of renovation. On the ground floor there are some cute artsie stores, but if you happen to have any money left after Christmas, I give you permission to make a pit stop here for food at the impressive, and famous Oxo Tower Restaurant. Actually part of the Harvey Nichols brand, it offers flash food and a stunning view over the Thames.

Just next door is another building that looks much better from the north side of the river, but its still very impressive.  Sea Containers House should be a reminder of the Thames Sea baring past as docks and the home to the imperial industries, however it is not such an old building, and named after a relativity young company (60’s children are still young right?) that used it for offices.  Unsurprisingly its in the process of being refurbed into a hotel.

Look across to the North side of the river and you will see an other famous  building  which again reminds us of our nation’s great industries, Unilever House

Cross under Blackfriars bridge just to your right is London bridge station and the amazing lovelable Borough Market… ok you have permission to eat now…  Make sure you check the opening times and you can feast on the amazing array of delicacies  it offers… definitely worth a visit.

 

London’s Open House Weekend 2012

Open House Weekend, a history geek’s dream & if you happen to be visiting London that weekend you’ve hit a bargain.

Being able to get inside some of London’s most loved buildings that normally we only can only gaze at from the outside, such as the Gherkin, St Pancras Hotel Lloyds of London, & the Guildhall (to name a few) as well as a whole host of smaller buildings, is a dream. It’s also a fascinating opportunity to see the inner workings of some of London’s greatest systems and landmarks… as I discovered.

So here’s a little review of my Open House Weekend 2012 experiences…

Old, new and a few surprises.

Old

Despite my intense OHW preparations, I missed a few minor details, like when I forced my sister out of bed at an unearthly hour on a Saturday morning to go and see a building that wasn’t even open until the Sunday (whoops). I also failed to read the description of the Roman Baths in too much depth, so my ‘Old’ became my disappointment. I was surprised and curious to  see some Roman baths listed in an area not particularly famous for its Roman remains. So  I was quite eager to see this one. But the Roman Bath hidden underneath a Kings College building just off the Strand turned out instead to be a ‘Tudor Bath’, with a quirky list of famous visitors  including the Dutch Queen and Charles Dickens (well David Copperfield, but I’m going to assume Mr Dickens visited for inspiration). There wasn’t a great deal else to see there admittedly,  but what stood out for me was the beautiful original Dutch tiling in the entrance hall, which I’m sure would have be very much to the Queen’s taste.

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I’ve recently been reading a lot about Mr John Nash and his contribution to shaping the London we know and love today. So I was quite keen to get to see inside Carlton Terrace down by Pall Mall. It’s another of those easily missed stunning London buildings (as is Senate House as you will discover if you read to the end 😉 Overlooking St James’s Park and the Mall its most impressive side (the beautiful columned frontage) is hidden well by the trees.  Carlton House (6-9)

Built by Nash as the end of his very long ‘New Street’ (currently Great Portland Street/Regents Street) it was built  for the Prince Regent to rent out to the very best of society, the elite of England.   These days its still owned by the Crown, and  houses among others The Royal Society.

Nash also designed the interior, so I was excited to see this as well. As with pretty much every building in London, the insides have been updated a great deal to meet 20th century tastes and technological criteria  this one still contains some quirky features of it’s original design  as well as that of its more recent inhabitants. 

You get the gist of what it would be like to be an elite tenant from the impressive lay out. There is a nice view of the park (great spot to watch the Olympics, looking out on to Horse Guards Parade – well it would if not for those pesky trees the swamping the view). 

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It has an spectacular library, done in a Italian renaissance style, by a previous Argentinean millionaire tenant, as well  as a stunning stairwell with a glamorous gold and black Tudor style ceiling.

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There’ is not much of Nash’s handiwork left on display, but I was lucky enough to be taken into a ‘staff only’ area on the tour, which was pure unadulterated Nash. It was also another great display of what it would be like to live there, (see the pictures).The Royal Society moved in in 1967 (having previously been housed in both the amazing Somerset house and Burlington House). They bought with them an impressive collection of portrait paintings 
including a young Einstein (his hair was still messy even then) and some quirky artifacts including Isaac Newton’s death mask!

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Another highlight of this visit was a painting over the grand staircase. During the year they moved into Carlton Terrace they had their first Australian President. A relative of Mr Florey gifted them with this impressive painting (about two stories high) which takes pride of place over the staircase. It’s size is impressive but also its content. It depicts the beautiful Burlington House overlooking a stunning London Skyline under (& I love this) an ‘Australian night sky’. Those are three of my favourite things 🙂 

 

London Skyline Painting 

Unfortunately my bag (albeit big) was not quite big enough to smuggle the picture out.

I would recommend a visit to Royal Society, they are open to the public during the week and here’s a shhhtopsecretlondon secret – the impressive library (overlooking St James’ Park) is open to the public during the week … study in style!

Surprise

Next on our tour was a building I’ve always loved from the outside, in fact if you’ve ever watched the news you’ve seen it. The Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, the national court of appeal. Those live news feeds, however, never show it in all it’s glory.  

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This beautiful Victorian Gothic building was built by Mr Edmund Street better known for his many Gothic churches across England. However stunning this is on the outside its also particularly stunning inside, but what I found more interesting were all the little surprises in store for Open House visitors

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When the prison guard asked me if I wanted to be locked in I thought he was joking, until I heard the cell door across the way slam shut. Yes, on this little tour you could run riot through every nook and cranny of the justice system, from being locked in the cells, to trying out the prison van (yes we’ve all seen the Serco vans wooshing by) or trying out the riot gear. 

We also got inside the courts. I’ve never considered the courts before, they are strictly ‘no photo’ zones, and on TV we only ever see the ‘artist impressions’ which focus more on the criminal than the room itself.   But the many court rooms are beautiful pieces or Victorian design, and sort of cosy; lots of wood paneling  book shelves of ancient laws (which the presenter told us they still refer to on a daily basis).  The 10 year old judge on this particular day (dressed in the red judges robe, and wig) seemed to approve of the humourous presentation the retired employee gave us.   Here in the courts they had numerous presentations of what actually went on in the courts. I loved that those running and helping out for the weekend were the ones that actually worked there day in day out. It was a fascinating morning.

Art Deco & Batman

Going forward a few years into the 1930s, was a visit to one of my most favourite buildings in London, one of the unknown landmarks of London, Senate House. I love this building, it’s tall, imposing and very impressive, in its hey day it was the tallest building in London and would have stood out across the London Skyline in the same way the Shard does today. Yet strangely today it’s quite forgotten and lost, most people I know have never even heard about it.

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Built for, and still belonging to, the University of London, this building was part of a grand plan to consume Bloomsbury (had it been completed it would have been a mighty impressive, expansive building stretching from the British Museum all the way to Euston Road (massive). The plans represented a world wide prestigious seat of learning, as well providing a hub of London life, grand plans in deed. However, the grand plans proved grandly expensive and in the end only a small section was built.  Fortunately for us it the most impressive section, that of the main Senate Tower.

I’ve always been impressed and in awe of this building (I used to work opposite and walked past it every day) but what is inside in equally impressive as its imposing art deco outside. In fact you might of seen it in one of its many Hollywood appearances, most recently Batman, Dark Knight Rises, which is not surprising as this one would look very at home in Gotham.

 

Art Deco Senate House

As you walk in you’re greeted with a grand marble entrance hall with a equally grand staircase. Our tour took us up to the main Chancellor rooms on the first floor. What impressed me most of all though was the way the original features had been preserved so well, despite being updated for a 21st century techo world – in contrast to Carlton House.  But also the quality of the original features. No pennies were spared on the the quality of this one (perhaps that’s why they ran out of money so quickly, but also perhaps why it is preserved so well).  For example their heating system is still the original, and generators for the building were only replaced a few years ago.

This building also has an extensive library which fills the higher levels of the Tower and offer amazing views of London (which sadly we weren’t able to see on this tour).

The building has always and still operates as the administrative hub of the University of London, however during the war the government took it over and it was used as the headquarters for Ministry of Information. Journalists of the day and those involved would often camp out here for days on end. When it was hit by bombing the quality of the build proved its worth and the building was barely touched, and those inside barely noticed.  It was also during this time that a young George Orwell was inspired by Senate House in writing his famous Nineteen Eighty Four.

Perhaps my favourite story about Senate House (although my tour guide would not verify this one) was that during the blitz, Hilter had his eye on this building as his future UK head quarters and gave specific instructions to his bombers to steer clear of damaging this one. Strangely (& knowing what I know about Hitler and his design plans for Berlin) this one would have looked very at home in his grand building collection.

My advice is to wander over to Bloomsbury and take a look at this Senate House, it’s mighty impressive and sadly forgotten these days.

New

Probably the most interesting of my OHW experiences was this one, and despite having to queue in the pouring rain for over an hour curiosity got the better of me. A nose at the Cross Rail Bond Street site . A future and epic building project in the heart of busy London using some very old technology (Mr Brunel would have been quite impressed by it all). 

Living and working in central London  I go past many of the Cross Rail development sites every day, so I was fascinated to see exactly what’s going on underground while we go about our busy lives. This particular visit centered around the new Bond Street Station (for Cross rail). Currently they’ve built the shell of the two main station areas, which we got to look into. To be honest not much to see, just a big (organised) hole in the ground about 8 stories deep. But what was impressive was the technology of building this big hole, not entirely different to the way the Victorians did it.

The big tunneling machine, works at a slow pace (understandably, you would too if you weighed 1000 tonnes)  and Ada (yes ‘Ada’ – the machines were named by the public in a competition at the start of the project) Ada is due to reach Bond Street at Christmas – no doubt she wants to stop off and do some Christmas shopping. But I find it fascinating that all this is going on under our feet with minimal disruption to the roads and daily London life. We will have to wait until 2018 to see the finished product but I’m told that we will get an opportunity to see an update at OHW 2013.

One of the most interesting/quirky facts I learned at this visit was some of the discoveries they’ve made whilst digging, unearthing among other things a Mamouth’s jaw!! Just a reminder of the rich heritage of thousands and thousands of years that lies beneath our feet.

And Open House Weekend is another reminder of exactly this, and it gives us a great chance to explore that heritage both old and new.   But don’t forget there is ample opportunity to explore it all year round, and I hope through my blogg and tweets that you will find the opportunities and be inspired to go beyond the facades and discover all London has to offer.  

You can find out more about Open House at http://www.londonopenhouse.org/

A Very Christmassy London

I’ve said it before, but I love the film Love Actually! What I love about it (actually) is because it celebrates, and magnifies London at it’s finest; a very Christmassy London. There aren’t many times in Winter when you can fall in love with this cold, grey and misty city, but at Christmas it comes alive, with sparkle, and colour and excitement. I think Queen Victoria was thinking ahead to her beloved London in future years when she brought home the German traditions of Christmas. And now, I for one, am like a kid at Christmas (excuse the pun) when I hear that first Christmas carol, see that first crane putting up the tinsel on the high street, there is nothing like it. And if you’re not a Londoner, or have never been I would recommend the Christmas season, is a good time, to fall in love with this enchanting city.

So out of all the festivities; the Southbank German Markets, the Carols in Trafalgar square alongside the traditional Norwegian giant Christmas tree, to the crazy surreal winter wonderland in Hyde park, I have scanned the many events and complied a list of the top 5, some classic, some topsecret London hidden gems and even some fictional ones for the wish list (?!)

But before I bring you the top 5, I just have to bring you my most miserable (sadly) Christmassy bit of London (interestingly Love Actually also omitted this one actually). Disappointingly my Christmassy London low is Regent Street. Every year, someone (usually Disney) decide to trash this beautiful royal promenade by sticking up the latest Hollywood animation tacky light show. I’m sure it’s lovely for the kids, but a little disappointing if you ask me. Let us move on quickly.

So top 5 Christmassy London!!!

NUMBER 5…

 Covent Garden…Actually this almost made a low, I remember in previous years it’s been impressively decorated, larger than life; remember the gigantic Christmas tree that contained a Santa’s grotto, the edible ‘Ferrero Tree’ or last year’s Kissmas Tree . So this year, it felt a little lost and a empty I was just about to walk away when I noticed something out the corner of my eye… the LARGEST baubles in the universe. Yes, it clawed its way back into the top 5 with these novelty gigantic Xmas tree decos hanging in the market place. So big they wouldn’t have even made it on to Trafalgar’s Norwegian tree. I love it, worth a visit for those alone.

NUMBER 4…

Number 4 is a classic! Oxford Street! If you accept there will be crowds and chaos, Oxford street after dark (i.e. after 4pm) is simply magical (and much more classic than it’s Regents Street neighbour). Head down to the Bond Street end, and you have the major department stores battling out for X factor of Sparkle (this year a close battle between Selfridge’s (no surprises) and M&S (who also battled it out on the opening night with fireworks and sparkles from both). Then just around the corner, you have arty, classy St Christopher’s place (you know it’s my favourite). All of these were worthy enough for their place in Love Actually!

…And a big shout out for Westminster Council for the quick tidy up of Crossrail clutter (fellow Londoners, you know what I’m talking about!)

NUMBER 3… is the fictional entry (I know you were wondering weren’t you?) Fictional because every time I see it I think “You would make such a lovely Christmas Tree”. As I gaze out my window after dark I see it’s twinkling red and green lights, all it needs is some giant tinsel and and massive star on top (maybe Covent Garden could help). So I’ve already written to Santa asking for it to come true, I’m hoping to wake up Christmas morning….

Yes Number 3 is THE SHARD, and as one tweeter put it perfectly ‘The Shard is like a giant Christmas Tree for all of London’ ..Beat that for size Trafalgar Square.

NUMBER 2…

Top end of my list at No 2 is a secret gem, tucked away a short walk from the Christmas chaos of Oxford street is Store Street, and the delightful South Crescent. There is something about this building that is completely enchanting and mysterious, it looks modern yet old. And at this time of year it comes alive as they dress it up like a Christmas gift, like the secret it is. Known as ‘The Imagination Galley’ this is a gorgeous building inside and out, fashioned into an exclusive gallery/conference venue. But if you’re not privileged enough to get inside, but still hungry for for a bit of culture/architecture check out The Building Centre next door. No this is not the place to buy Uncle Ted his DIY pressies, but rather, it’s a great venue/gallery celebrating architecture (and not so exclusive as it’s imaginative neighbour) they host regular events and seminars for those interested in all things building. And if you peer through the window, by the entrance they have a Fab scale model of London City – and just for the Christmas season they’ve sprinkled it with icing sugar (ok so I made that up, but it’s a another great idea?!)

If all that sounds a bit too cultural and you just want to escape the Christmas crowds, then do stop off anyway. Because right opposite South Crescent is the yummy Busaba Thai (best Thai chain in London Guaranteed!!); you can sit and gaze at the pretty lights from the comfort of your dinner plate!

NUMBER 1….

Top of my list, straight from Love Actually, I am totally in love with …. drum roll…. Somerset House Tiffany Ice Skating. …Well all Christmassy ice skating in London, actually. Somehow they just know how to pick the most beautiful locations, Somerset house being one of them. In the beautiful square court yard with the Tiffany (..hear all the girls sigh) Christmas Tree, I’m sure this historic building on the Thames was made for this moment. It’s like walking, gliding into a romantic Jane Austen picture book… But if Tiffany’s doesn’t do it for you, how about historical Tower of London rink? Or the beautiful Victorian Natural History Museum, or for something more modern there’s the Canary Wharf rink – keep an eye on your shares, on the ice . Or if you want to escape the London madness altogether head over to the stunning Hampton Court.

Just be warned though, ice-skating is the top of most people’s lists, and you will most likely need to book ahead. But the good news is most rinks run through beyond the Christmas period until January.

So there you have it my Christmassy London top 5. It only happens once a year, enjoy every moment, every sparkle. But if that’s really not enough Christmassy London for you, I recommend you buy a copy of Love Actually, it will last a lot longer (that’s what I do, actually, and I love it … actually!)