London

London Thames Panoramic

LONDON CALLING!

Music and London go hand in hand for me… The Clash, The Squeeze, Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners… yep, that sort of dates me… but I can also go back to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street and Jethro Tull’s Baker Street Muse… or even to Roger Miller…

Big Ben LondonEngland swings like a pendulum do
Bobbies on bicycles two by two
Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben
The rosy red cheeks of the little children

A bit cutesy, a bit simplistic, a lot catchy.  And somehow it still captures London… It is a city that swings, there are Bobbies, the Abbey, Big Ben and all the other magnificent buildings and monuments that have remained unchanged for centuries… and, sitting in easy contrast, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of high-tech exhibits, fabulous theatre, shopping, restaurants and nightlife. And the climate can still bring out children with rosy red cheeks, but I’m not sure if posterior caning in private boys’ schools is yet to be abolished.

Roger Miller, by the way, would have been the first songwriter to rhyme a word with ‘purple’ – “roses are red, violets are purple, sugar is sweet and so’s maple surple…”  But I digress…

Bit of housekeeping – while we will make notes on disabled access to attractions throughout this section, there is an excellent resource in Disabled Go – www.disabledgo.com.

Ahh yes, “When a man tires of London, he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson on September 20, 1777.  When the English keep a diary, they sure do pay attention to detail!  Wonder what time of day he wrote that little gem…

London Regent StreetLondon is one of the world’s great walking cities, which was fine for me a while back, but in late 2010 I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and now use a cane to get about.

And, because of the MS, I have started noticing facilities for gimps.  Oops! I hope that term didn’t offend you – I much prefer terms like ‘cripple’ or ‘gimp’ to ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’. Handicaps are for golfers and ‘disable’ is what you do to the adult channel in the teenager son’s hotel room. Anyhow, there’s not too much I can’t do, it just might take me a bit longer to do it. And that explains why I have noted ‘disabled’ facilities when mentioning some attractions.

Escalator Wheelchair Surfing LondonBefore I became a gimp, I felt sorry for people in wheelchairs, now I see chairs as tickets to freedom and exploration – even though I don’t technically need one – I can borrow one at art galleries and museums free of charge and enjoy the exhibits without a worry of tiring. In general terms, London looks after the handicapped well with good public transport and attention to detail in the larger public buildings, but, sorry, there’s nought to be done by way of renovation in a Heritage Listed two-up/two-down. But enough about me, let’s talk about you, and what might be waiting to delight you in this great city.

Oh! Forgot to mention – you can rent a wheelchair from £25 per week – Go to: http://www.london-wheelchair-rental.com/ – we will be doing this in a couple of months and updating this section with lots more info on exploring London with a disability, and without – it will be just after the Olympics, so it should be all very shiny!!!

For this exercise, I am going to kick off from the handy suburb of Kensington, simply because everything has to kick off from somewhere, and I choose to stay at Rydges in Kensington – more on that later. But isn’t it, architecturally, a great looking pub?

Rydges Kensington Plaza Hotel LondonThe suburbs of Kensington, Chelsea and Knightsbridge have been cool, classy and sometimes alternatively Bohemian since the 16th Century. Even Henry VIII had a little pad for his more discreet indiscretions – but in those days Chelsea was a quaint little fishing village by the Thames. Kensington is arguably a little ‘posher’ than Chelsea, because of the Palace and the Gardens and Chelsea is more a magnet for artists, writers, fashion gurus and rock stars. Although we’ll drop into Sticky Fingers in Kensington in a sec.

The area is well-served by The Tube (High Street Kensington on the District or Circle lines, South Kensington, Knightsbridge, Gloucester Road and Sloan Square).  Gloucester Road is the closest to Rydges – and the hotel is about halfway between High Street and South Kensington.

Kensington MarketLet’s start our tour by alighting from the tube at High Street Ken, as the locals call it.  ‘Alighting’… hmm… I’ve gone all ‘English’ – in Australia we would just be ‘getting off’.

Kensington Market, a labyrinth of clothing shops, is a mere trilby’s toss from the station.

So is Kensington Square – it’s just a stroll down Derry Street.  There you’ll find the unique architecture of the former Derry and Tom’s department store and, next door, Frasers London Flagship Store is a stunning example of art deco.  You will be surprised at how much ‘greenery’ there is in this part of one of the world’s biggest and busiest cities.

Kensington SquareKensington Square is a tranquil and leafy place to wander and contemplate. You will find blue plaques aplenty on the houses, denoting famous residents like Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Makepeace Thackeray who bashed out Vanity Fair at Number 16.  “It is impossible, in our condition of Society, not to be sometimes a Snob,” said Thackeray in his Book of Snobs.

Back on High Street Ken, the London’s tallest Gothic steeple (250-ft) of St Mary Abbots soars high above the traffic. The church stands on the corner of the aptly named Kensington Church Street, a thoroughfare lined with browse-worthy antique shops. Drayson Mews, nearby, is a charming row of neat little houses that were once used to stable horses but are now used to stable millionaires.

Kenneth Graham's House Kensington LondonKenneth Grahame, the author of that inimitably English children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, lived at No. 16 Phillimore Place nearby. “Believe me, my young friend, there is NOTHING – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats…”  And who could argue with that… apart from guests on the Titanic. That’s Ken’s Ken abode right, and an example of the blue plaques that pop up everywhere.

Walk along Phillimore Gardens (it is a street, not a garden) back to the corner of Kensington High Street and you’ll find the aforementioned cafe called Sticky Fingers. If the name reminds you more of The Rolling Stones than a cream bun, it’s no coincidence.

Sticky Fingers restaurantThe restaurant is owned by Bill Wyman, the group’s former guitarist. After tiring of a Stone’s life and hanging wif Keef an’ Mick, Wyman decided to enter the restaurant trade. Wyman looks amazingly good for someone aged 75, even if parts of him are a bit older, having been exposed to rather more sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll than most of us. He once revealed in an interview that the secret of his physical well-being was to take note of all the nutritional and health advice currently popular… and do the exact opposite. A quiet man of many talents, he votes conservative, is a keen photographer, an inventor and he likes to hang with artists (as in real life, not on walls) – he was a close friend of surrealist painter, Marc Chagall.

Bill Wyman & Mandy SmithThey say that Wyman bedded over 1000 young ladies in his prime and he made headlines for marrying 18yo Mandy Smith in 1989, after they had been ‘dating’ since she was 13!  Brings to mind a quote from the dashing Tony Curtis, ‘I would be seen dead marrying someone old enough to be my wife!”  If you want a bit of genealogically entwined spaghetti, Wyman’s son, Stephen, at age 30, married Mandy’s Mum, Patsy, who was 46 at the time…

A couple of blocks further down High Street Ken heading west you reach the Commonwealth Experience (formerly the Commonwealth Institute). This modern building became a bit tired and run down (rather like the Commonwealth itself) and was totally overhauled (unlike the Commonwealth itself). Now known as the ‘Commonwealth Resource Centre’ it is a centre that offers a range of resources on the Commonwealth. The English are good at stating the bleedin’ obvious.  There are displays on the Commonwealth’s 50 nations.

Leighton HouseYou can continue along Kensington High Street to Ilchester Park Road, which leads to Holland Park Road and Leighton House, preserved exactly as it was when Victorian artist Lord Leighton lived there.

Leighton (I believe the only artist ever to be made a lord) had a passion for Moorish architecture and pre-Raphaelite painting.  He was officially made a ‘Baron’ on January 24, 1896 – and he died the next day.

His house is an absolute opulent delight – you’ll almost wish you lived in the 19th century!  Except that you’d be dead by now, too.

Opera Holland Park LondonHolland Park itself used to be the formal gardens of Holland House, a Jacobean mansion. Only one wing survived the bombings in WW2, (the old Garden Ballroom is now an excellent restaurant) but the grounds have turned into a lovely, intimate park, a favourite of nannies strutting their stuff with their wee charges.

It is also the home of Opera Holland Park – open air opera in the summer is a delightful experience.

Gosh, now I’m sounding all, well, Stephen Fry! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Kensington GardensAt the other end of Kensington High Street, more or less diagonally opposite High Street Ken station, you’ll find Kensington Gardens.

What a wonderful place this is! How do the Brits manage to bottle atmosphere?!

There is something about Kensington Gardens that encapsulates London’s soul, especially on a fine spring day. Boys splash about with their boats at the Round Pond, dogs on leashes yap and prance, nannies and au pairs push their ‘baby buggies’ and puppet shows attract kids of all ages (including a few my age).

Peter Pan Statue Kensington GardensOh! And don’t miss the Peter Pan Statue. One of the most loved statues in London, Peter Pan is standing on a tree trunk watched by animals of the English countryside and delicate winged fairies. It was organised a century ago by author J.M. Barrie. There was no pre-publicity or formal unveiling. The statue was erected secretly during the night and Barrie simply placed this announcement in The Times:

“There is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning. Down by the little bay on the south-western side of the tail of the Serpentine they will find a May-day gift by Mr J.M. Barrie, a figure of Peter Pan blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree, with fairies and mice and squirrels all around. It is the work of Sir George Frampton, and the bronze figure of the boy who would never grow up is delightfully conceived.”

Kensington PalaceOf course, affluent Kensington was the home of Princess Diana until her death in 1997. And while part of the Royal throng, she lived in Kensington Palace with Prince Charles until he had the urge to become a monthly accessory in Camilla’s bathroom cabinet.

Kensington Palace (known as KP to the gentry and those who wannabe) stands on the park’s western edge. The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection has its home here.  Outside Kensington Palace Gardens is a private road of opulent mansions, many of them now serving as embassies.  It is a refreshing place to amble.  And I think these scribblings are a fine example of how something ‘British’ just etches its way into your soul and subconscious.  Back home in Australia I wouldn’t amble in a fit!  And not just because I don’t have fits.

Kensington Palace has recently undertaken major building works as part of an ambitious project to increase accessibility for all, ensuring that the new extension, the new entrance and the new East Front Garden are accessible, and including the construction of a lift serving all floors – rendering all the palace levels open to visitors accessible to all for the first time. ‘Kensington – a palace for everyone’ opened in March 2012.

For those wheelchair users with some mobility, there are two small stone steps up into the main Enchanted Palace entrance, and there is a temporary ramp which staff are trained to use to assist visitors.

Manual wheelchairs are available for use within Enchanted Palace. Chairs are provided on a first come, first served basis and cannot be booked in advance. For health and safety reasons, staff are unable to assist in carrying wheelchairs or pushchairs.

The rest of Kensington Gardens offers something for most. Surroundings range from leafy, sylvan glades to the formal elegance of the Italian Garden adjoining Hyde Park (northern end of the Serpentine). This is a lovely spot for a picnic. “Pass the cucumber sandwiches darling..” Good Lord, someone DID invite Stephen Fry!

Albert Memorial LondonAt the southern edge of Kensington Gardens, the newly refurbished Albert Memorial looks pretty schmick these days, all freshly gilded and gleaming. It hasn’t looked better since it was erected in 1876. Albert’s gilding was stripped off during the First World War out of fear that German airship crews might use the sparkling statue as a navigational aid to drop hand-held bombs on Kensington Palace. That kind of dastardly, indeed beastly, deed was considered within the beastly Hun’s repertoire. Thank goodness it never happened. Phew!  And you try saying ‘beastly’ without an upper class twittish English accent – that’s not going to happen either… “Beastly, I say… just plain, well… beastly!”  Kinda fitting this year – a bit of Olympic Gold.

Royal Albert HallThe imposing Albert Hall (officially known as the Royal Albert Hall, coz Albert woz a Royal) stands opposite the statue, just outside the park. This is home of the famed Proms and all sorts of other musical and theatrical events.  The Albert Hall is as an impressive auditorium as any built to celebrate the British Empire. As you inspect it, perhaps hum that musical question from a Day in the Life (Beatles) off the Sgt Peppers album…

I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

Yeah, yeah – so how many holes, then?  Couldn’t possibly be 4,000 holes transported from Blackburn because everyone knows when you are carrying holes you’re bound to drop one!

Rebecca Warren Cube 2003The Royal College of Music in Prince Consort Road and the Royal College of Art in Kensington Gore add to the area’s arty feel. And don’t miss the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens (10am – 6pm daily) – it is certainly worth a look. The exhibitions are usually avant-garde, often controversial and always free! This little number is titled Cube 2003 and the artist is Rebecca Warren. Don’t call us, darlin’, we’ll call you…

It’s not far from Kensington to Portobello Road, the world’s most famous market. Portobello is a long road running from Notting Hill to North Kensington. It’s really several markets, one after the other, and you can buy just about anything.

Portobello RoadMore than 2000 traders sell antiques, jewellery, coins, paintings medals and the like in the southernmost section. Portobello’s Antiques Market is open from pre-dawn to 6pm on Saturdays.

Most of the stallholders are canny dealers who know their stuff and exactly what it’s worth. So if you think you may come across a little old chap offering up a Regency cane as a window prop for 50 pence, sorry! Even so, there are good deals to be had. Little shops in the streets off Portobello are worth browsing – like art galleries and ceramic studios in the area around Elgin Crescent.

Let’s head to the West End area…

London West EndLondon’s West End is a vibrant, tourist hub with great history in its monuments and museums, with lively nightlife and arguably the best theatre in the world. You’ll find high teas and low bars and great shopping on the side. If you only have a few days, spend one of them here. If you have longer, you’ll come back for more.

There are lots of underground Tube options – Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden. For our wander we’ll hop out at Charing Cross station and you can head up St Martin’s Place or down Duncannon Street towards Charing Cross Road and Soho.

 St Martins in the Field LondonTourists and pigeons flock to Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column. The imposing Nelson’s column commemorates the defeat of Napoleon in 1805. If there’s a break in the traffic you can see down The Mall to Buckingham Palace where you will see the changing of the guard, the changing of the guard… (everybody sing!).

To the northeast of the square is the church of St Martin’s in the Fields, a charming and stunning piece of 18th century architecture with a wedding-cake spire. Nell Gwynn was buried in the crypt and during WWII Londoners used it as an air-raid shelter. Today the crypt houses a pleasant café and shop.

The National Gallery LondonOff the square to the north is the National Gallery (linked to St Martin’s by white stone). It’s one of the world’s finest art galleries with a time line from 1290 to 1920 – da Vinci, Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Vermeer, Seurat, Cézanne – they’re all hanging about in there and it’s free admission which means you can keep dropping in whenever you pass rather trying to take it all in at once.  Open 10:00am to 6:00pm daily and till 9:00pm Fridays.

Opposite St Martin’s is the National Portrait Gallery, which is a collection of famous heads that thought their way through 500 years of British history. It’s one of the few galleries where the subjects are more important than the artists. Admission is free here, too.

Duke of MonmouthThe portrait of the Duke of Monmouth has a strange, rather morbid, tale behind it. The Duke (aka James Scott) was the illegitimate son of Charles II and one of his mistresses, Lucy Walter. When Charles died, the Duke decided to have a tilt at the throne but was defeated by James II and beheaded on July 15 1685 (it took five chops to sever the head from the body – sheesh, you can’t get good help!) When they were about to bury the two parts of the Duke someone remembered that, as a royal personage, he was deserving of a portrait. Quickly they sewed the head back on, dressed him in princely attire and did the official portrait, which now hangs quietly in the National Portrait Gallery. Worth the price of admission alone (yes, yes, it is free!)

Wheelchairs are available and best to book in advance by calling 02073060055.

There are four accessible unisex toilets (Ground Floor, Orange St entrance) Lower Ground (next to Ondaatje Wing Theatre), Basement Bookshop Gallery and Top Floor next to the Portrait Restaurant (via Orange St lifts).

Lifts provide access to all floors.

Piccadilly CircusLeft, along Irving Street, takes you to Leicester Square. It’s not worth visiting for the sight alone (it’s a bit tacky, surrounded by cinemas and nightclubs) but it’s placed between Piccadilly and Covent Garden so it’s hard to avoid.  It’s also where the half-price ticket booth is located and no visit to London would be complete without a night at the theatre.

Head down Coventry Street to Piccadilly Circus. There’s the statue of Eros (the Greek god of Love) but, these days it’s more Circus than Piccadilly, which was once a meeting place where flower girls sold their wares.  The sculptor of Eros, Sir Alfred Gilbert, intended it to be an angel of Christian charity in honour of Lord Shaftsbury who fought to prevent women and children working in the coalmines in the 18th century.

St James PiccadillySt James Church is a small, Wren designed church, which was badly damaged by WWII bombings. The interior is attractive, and it’s a nice spot to sit and take a breather… or a sandwich… or a photo.

A little further down Piccadilly, just past Sackville Street is the Royal Academy of Arts and Burlington Arcade. The Royal Academy gallery is housed in a magnificent 18th century mansion, one of London’s remaining few and it’s worth the visit for that alone. The Burlington and Royal Arcades are fascinating places to wander and window shop or, if you have that Gold Amex card at the ready, go inside, especially for stylish and typically English clothes.

Shaftesbury Avenue signOr, from Piccadilly, head up busy Shaftsbury Avenue. If you go left from Shaftsbury Avenue when you get to Frith Street and you will end up at Soho Square. Soho was once the seedy part of London with strip shows and sex shops. Today it’s better known for its restaurants although it’s still the spot if strip shows and sex shops are what you’re looking for. Soho is also the known as the ‘gay village’ (especially Old Compton Street). While there are gay and lesbian bars and clubs across the city, here’s a good place to get the word-of-mouth on the best spots. (This was once a rural area and ‘so-ho!’ was a hunting cry, similar to ‘tally-ho’)

22 Frith StreetBaird’s House, the humble abode where Scottish inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated the television for the first time, is upstairs at 22 Frith Street. There’s a plaque pointing out the building’s significance but it’s not open to the public so you might as well wait for it to come on TV. There are however some great restaurants here, especially Chinese and Italian.

Go right a bit further along Shaftsbury at Cambridge Circus and you can wend your way to Covent Garden. Originally the vegetable garden for Westminster Abbey, it was converted in the 1600’s into an elegant piazza. The stallholders that once sold fruit, vegetables and flowers (like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) have been replaced by purveyors of antiques, clothes and jewellery.

London Transport MuseumIn a corner of Covent Garden (the Flower Market Building) is the London Transport Museum, which is nowhere as boring as it sounds (200 years of all types of vehicles).  Ahhh I’d love a quid for every time someone has done an impression of Blakey from On the Buses.

For Lost Property trivia lovers, there’s no place like London buses, taxis and trains for throwing up curiosities. Items handed in at the Lost Property Office include three dead bats, a vasectomy kit, a jar of bill’s sperm, a theatrical coffin, a 14ft boat and, for some strange reason, heaps of false teeth. And forget the phone chargers, thousands of people leave their actual phone on London transport every single day.

Lamb & FlagThe façade of St Paul’s Church was actually the backdrop for scenes from My Fair Lady.

In the square out front, buskers perform on the site of the first Punch and Judy show in 1662.

Nearby is the famous Covent Garden Opera House with the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court opposite.

The Lamb and Flag (33 Rose Garden) is one of London’s oldest pubs, tucked away in a narrow alley, and is a great spot for a counter lunch or an ale to reward a day’s sightseeing.

More to come shortly on The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen and other reminscing from the 2012 trip.