Friday, December 18, 2009

Walking around London when there's agreeable weather

It's coming up three weeks since I returned to London & I've been plenty busy exploring London & being strangely domesticated. As Trish (a cousin of Mum's) broke her leg the day after I left for Kenya & is now housebound I've been doing a lot of cooking, cleaning, shopping & running of errands. In amongst that I tend to run in to London for a day when it is fine (usually manage three days a week of suitable weather) & continue with the walking tours - I've now completed nineteen of the thirty in the book. I'm thoroughly enjoying exploring London & discovering, both obscure & well-known bits of, its history. My London geography is slowly improving & I am often surprised at how close many things are to each other. Heading in to the city for the day is also a great excuse to catch up with friends & family for a drink or a meal or both.

The first day of walking since returning, I strung three walks together from Waterloo. The first around Lambeth & Southbank was around an area I was already familiar with, but new sights for me were Lambeth Palace (the palace of the Archbishops of Canterbury) & Archbishop's Park. Since I was last on the Southbank, a German Christmas market had sprung out of somewhere & was selling all sorts of traditional wares & food - a reminder that the festive season was pretty close, something that wasn't all that apparent in Kenya. I was pretty thrilled to pop in to Somerset House & see that a small ice rink had been made in the courtyard - I have since seen quite a few others, including one in the (former) moat at the Tower of London. The second walk had me crossing back over the Thames to Bankside & Southwark on Blackfriars Bridge - next to Blackfriars Bridge you can still see the large piers that formed the foundation for the first railway bridge over the Thames. Soon I was in the area that was previously filled with theatres & bear-baiting pits - the rebuilt Globe Theatre being the only one still around. I was surprised to see the HMS Belfast has had a camouflage painting since I last saw it & pleased to see that Tower Bridge (still one of my favourite London sights) is in the process of getting a fresh lick of paint. My last walk that day was around the City of London & was mercifully short - as there is so much to see in quite a small area - but great fun going through all the little alleyways. Highlights for me were: Lloyd's, the Bank of England, Wren's St Mary-le-Bow Church (you were considered a true Londoner if you were born within earshot of its bells - that were damaged in WWII), and Wren's Monument - a monument to the Great Fire.
As Thursday last week turned out to be a stunner, I took the opportunity to venture a little further out of the city towards Highgate & Hampstead. Despite the cold, it was pretty easy to keep warm as this turned out to be one of the hilliest walks I've done around London. Starting out, it wasn't long before I was walking around Highgate Cemetery - I couldn't believe how sprawling & overgrown it was. The most famous resident here is Karl Marx. At the top of Highgate Hill, was the first of many great views of the city for the day. Steeply descending from Highgate, I was soon rambling across Hampstead Heath - which is over three hundred hectares of quite-wild-in-parts grass, woods & scrub. I stopped & had my lunch in the sun outside Kenwood House & was quite pleased with the art collection inside. Getting my shoes & the cuffs of my jeans nice & wet & dirty & making my way out of the heath & I was in Hampstead. Hampstead all of a sudden found itself a popular spa resort in the early 1700s, so there were many watery names around the village. Famous former-residents include Constable, Keats, & Robert Louis Stevenson. Near the end of the walk there was a delightful little local museum, which was also a welcome escape from the frigid late afternoon. I managed to get my weary legs home somehow.

It's surprising how many times I've been asked in the last few weeks if I am working yet or looking for a job. Somewhere in amongst the walking & sightseeing, I've started to think about looking for one. That basically means that I got around to starting to update my CV, emailed some referees, made a Job Hunting folder on Firefox & filled it with useful sites & then got distracted. I'm in no rush as going away for four weeks in January/February is a whole block I am going to be unavailable. Having said that, I think those four weeks will be quite a drain on my remaining finances & returning to the UK I will have to begin the hunt in earnest.

Friday the eleventh saw me head in to check out the Covent Garden Christmas market - which was disappointing - & then to continue my intermittent gazing at art at the National Gallery. The gallery is quite manageable if you only try to do a little bit at a time - I think I would go mad if I tried to do it all at once. I'm now half way through the collection, but definitely enjoyed the works I saw on my first visit more. I managed to get out to Rayner's Lane to see the Patricks before it got dark (i.e. before half past four) - always great to catch up with Andrew, Shelley & the girls - even if I did get thoroughly confused trying to learn how to play Knights & Cities.

Over the last weekend the weather took a little bit of a turn for the colder. I was getting quite comfortable with high in the mid-high single digits; now I'm getting used to highs of zero to low-single digits. Still, so long as it's not windy or raining & one is well wrapped up the walking has been more than pleasant. On Monday's Islington & Clerkenwell walks I was particularly interested in the New River. It wasn't really a river at all, but for almost four hundred years this man made channel brought London's potable water supply from springs about thirty miles north in Hertfordshire. Now of course, it has been superseded by something a bit more modern &, being the geek that I am, was fascinated by details of the new ring main that is twice as far under London than the most of the Underground & is a little like the M25 - but it's for drinking water. Walking around Highbury Fields was quite nice too - it was here in 1666 after the Great Fire that one diarist saw "200000 people of all ranks and degrees dispersed and and lying along by their heapes of what they could save from the fire, deploring their losses, and though ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one penny for relief". On a less sobering note, I also stumbled across Arsenal's rather large Emirates Stadium. Near the end of the Clerkenwell there was a flurry of interesting sights - the Smithfield Meat Market (on this site William Wallace was hung, drawn & quartered after being dragged behind a horse from the city; also more than two hundred were burned alive under Queen Mary's reign - charm the paint off walls, these guys [sorry, Jason Statham quote]), the oldest church in London - St Bartholomew-the-Great (coincidentally, St Bart's day is the same as my birthday) & where the St John's Ambulance was launched in 1877.

Before meeting (NZ) cousin Chris in the City on Tuesday it was another good chance to take advantage of the sun & string a few more walks together. These were a little bit closer to the West End - starting with the Notting Hill walk, I then continued on from Bayswater to Belgravia (through Knightsbridge) & finally Marylebone. There was of course a lot of interesting things for sale on Portobello Rd (even if it was only Tuesday); generally, Notting Hill was a lot of nice houses - although it was interesting to learn that there used to be a racecourse around the top of Notting Hill & the top of the hill was used as a natural grandstand - it didn't last too long as the jockeys refused to ride on it as the ground was so heavy as to be dangerous. I also found one of those delightful book shops near the Holland Park tube - the one where you want to leave with cases of books. From Bayswater it was through Kensington Park (lunch by the Round Pond was quite cold - I resolved to start wearing my Icebreaker leggings, jeans just weren't cutting it) to the museum district & Knightsbridge before trooping around the quite fancy area of Belgravia - a lot of embassies & consulates. Marylebone is just north of Oxford Street (I never really enjoy the crowds of shoppers here) & once was one of the closest villages to central London - it of course, has long since been swallowed up. This a very pleasant walk with lots of nice squares; the biggest find on this walk was the Wallace Collection - the art collection of several successive Marquises of Hertford. As I walked past, I resolved to return & see it - as it turns out after popping out from the cute shopping street of St Christopher's Place (nice lights) on to Oxford St, & scooting around Harley St I had plenty of time to pop in to the collection for an hour or so before heading off to meet Chris. So Hertford House didn't look overly big for a grand old house & wandering around the ground floor confirmed this. I particularly enjoyed of pieces on Venice by Canoletto in the Dining Room & then in the Back State Room the nature & hunt paintings by Oudry were particularly cool - there plenty of pheasants in these ones, & for a change they weren't all dead. As it turns out one of the larger rooms downstairs was closed for refurbishment, so when I went upstairs after admiring many miniatures, paintings & ornaments from the sixteenth century, I was blown away by the size of the place - especially the aptly named Great Gallery. After finishing up & having a cursory glance around the shop, I was surprised to find a huge armoury - mostly European, but a bit from India, Persia, Japan & Arabia. The size of it was staggering & I only had enough time for a quick whizz through - I later found out its one of the, if not the, best armoury in Britain. That ended that very nice hour or so - it's always cool to stumble upon something like that completely unexpected - I had no idea that I would be seeing works by Rubens, Rembrant, Titian & Gainsborough - to name a few. That stumbling across such delights is one of the things I love about wandering around & exploring London. Always great to catch up with Chris & share a few drinks & a meal (even if the city was packed due to the holiday season).

Wednesday was a very domestic day with shopping & various errands - but made much more exciting by the first snow of the winter. It snowed for a good few hours, but was never enough to settle in more than a few small places. Consequently, I was well prepared for the possibility of snow on Thursday's walks - the forecast was favourable for the day. As I had an appointment a little west of the city, I took the opportunity to head out & explore around the Thames & Richmond & then Barnes to Putney & Fulham. The Richmond walk was quite a long one & there was alternating patches of (comparatively) brilliant sunshine & cloudy gloom. I saw what little was left of Richmond Palace - where Edward III, Henry VII & Elizabeth I all died. Climbing up away from the river towards Richmond Park (which has deer roaming free) it was possible to get some nice views of the surrounding area. The best was from King Henry VIII's mound (the highest point in the park & so called because he apparently watched from here for the flare from the Tower of London confirming that Anne Boelyn had got the chop - there is a good Snatch quote that goes with that turn of phrase, but it's probably not appropriate) & was an unobstructed view of St Paul's ten miles away. It's a great view as St Paul's looks as though it is standing alone in the city - most of the view is framed by an avenue of trees that prevents you seeing much else. My little camera doesn't give nearly as good as image as the monocular on the mound, but you get the idea (if you squint). Descending through the park, I was soon back by the river & the sun popped out to give me this picture, for the Oamaru Pheasants, of the Royal Star & Garter (top right, & just like the Oamaru one, I've never been inside). Just as I was getting back in to the centre of Richmond a massive cloud came over & dropped snow on me for ten of fifteen minutes before I caught a bus to Barnes Bridge.

Barnes Bridge is passed during the last stage of the famous University Boat Race & as I made my way down to Putney Bridge (where the race starts) I was to see a lot of boat houses & boats. I was curious to find out what the flashing blue lights were there for as I approached Putney. It turned out that the fire brigade was attempting to winch a VW Golf out of the incoming Thames - some clown had parked a little to close to the edge. So that provided a bit of a distraction for a while - they eventually got it out, but I'm not certain if it was too damaged to be written off. The cabin may be a little wet, but the engine & electrics hardly got flooded (the alarm went off as the tow-rope was connected). Chatting to another bystander, I found that another car was not so lucky - parked a bit further down the Thames at the top of a boat ramp, that BMW had been carried off to the depths of the river. Crossing the river I quickly checked out Fulham Palace (the traditional summer residence of the Bishops of London that has only in the last thirty-five years been given up by the bishops). Another big old house, but it had a nice walled garden that was far removed from the city & had a few neat moving sculptures. After my appointment in Putney it was off to Earl's Court to meet a university classmate for another worthwhile catch up. The snow started again on the train from Charing Cross & was not to let up for the rest of the night.

Consequently, when I eventually got up this morning there was a good two inches of snow everywhere - quite exciting for someone who has spent most of their life living in a decidedly temperate climate. When I made it out to get some bread & post more of Trish's Christmas cards, it was quite pleasant (i.e. above freezing point, just) & these are a few of the photos I snapped around the neighbourhood.