Breaking the Fast in London

There is no meal quite as excellent as breakfast. It’s the meal that sets you up for the day and be it toast, cereal or something a whole lot heartier, there is nothing quite like that first bite of something in the morning. Over the last few weeks, I’ve stayed in London a few times and so have had the good fortune to be rolling out of whatever sofa or hotel bed I’ve been sleeping on and heading out into the city to find something to eat and get me ready for a day exploring the city. Here are some of my favourite spots.

First up, there’s Bill’s. Originally a single branch in Lewes, a quaint and charming town sixty miles south of London, there are now twenty branches in London alone, and more scattered around the country. You can be in London locations as disparate as Hammersmith, Soho, Greenwich and Covent Garden and find yourself one of their restaurants. Although they serve food all day, it is the breakfast menu to which we turn our attention today.

There are some variations in the menus depending on where you are, but they are mostly the same. Bill’s serves breakfast until noon (1pm on the weekends) and has a great selection, particularly on the many and varied ways they serve up their eggs. If you want them on scrambled with salmon, on toast with avocado or even on a steak, they can provide that for you. Pancakes, porridge and toasted bacon or sausage buns are also on offer. But, of course, this is England, and there is little more fitting than a full English breakfast. The “Bill’s breakfast” provides all you’d expect from such a meal, with a vegetarian option available too at the same price. You can pay for extras as you wish.

Aside from the steak, the full breakfast is the most expensive but at £7.95, doesn’t seem unreasonable for what you get. A bacon roll will set you back £4.25, but is one of the most densely packed I’ve ever seen – the most densely packed is below – but if you’re on more of a budget, there’s toast and Bill’s own jams and marmalades for £2.55. And if you’re really taken with any of the preserves, you can buy them in store too.

Should you find yourself out in Ealing in the morning, there’s one place I wholly recommend over here – Limeyard. Billing itself as an “All Day American Kitchen”, the place is remarkably welcoming and filled with hipster trappings that make you feel that maybe you’re a bit too uncool to be eating here – but you aren’t, I promise.

Their full English is called the “Full Yard” and contains a couple of finer details. The eggs are poached rather than fried (though you can request an inversion), and other ingredients include spiced beans, chili tomatoes, and maple cured bacon. Their vegetarian option, the “Green Yard”, substitutes the meat for grilled halloumi and kale. Like Bill’s, pancakes and toasted bloomers are also on offer here, or an omelette if you so choose. While the toast and pancake options are only served until midday, you can get a Full Yard up until 4.30pm, priced the same as Bill’s, £7.95, although the vegetarian option is £1 cheaper.

Limeyard is actually very probably home to the best breakfast I’ve ever had in London, but if you want something really fancy, then I would suggest Tredwell’s, a Marcus Wareing restaurant.

Situated off Seven Dials somewhere between the theatre showing The Mousetrap and the statue dedicated to its author, Agatha Christie, this restaurant shares a name with a butler from one of her novels, although whether intentional or not, I couldn’t discern. Their full English was heartily stocked with sausage, bacon, fried eggs, toast, potato croquettes and chorizo jam. It’s the most expensive one in this list, coming in at around £12, but it is worth it and definitely feels very fancy.

Unfortunately, however, in researching for this blog post, the menu for Tredwell’s seems to have changed and, on the website at least, there appears to be no option for breakfast. I emailed them to check and, at present, they are not offering brunch. Perhaps they will do again after Easter – they appear to be focusing on Sunday roasts for this time to year at the moment, but all I know for certain is that right now, you’ll have to take my word for it that this was a magnificent breakfast.

But if you’re not in the mood for a sit-down breakfast and you need to hurry along, then Borough Market is your friend. Opposite Southwark Cathedral are a number of food stalls selling sandwiches and rolls with freshly cooked ingredients and more filling than you could imagine. I’ve on a couple of occasions bought myself a bacon roll from here, so stuffed with delicious rashers, that I’ve then walked around London for the rest of the day and not had to eat again until evening was well and truly settled.

So, once you’ve got hold of your breakfast, mop up the egg and ketchup spilt down your shirt, pay the bill, and head off into the city to see what new treats you can discover.

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National Maritime Museum

When you think of Greenwich, there are a couple of things that you think of. It’s an important spot in world geography and history because it is where time begins, as it were, marking the meridian line. Clocks were set here and the Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II to help measure the time. Sailors would set the clocks on their boats from here, which brings us to the second thing that Greenwich is best known for: its naval and maritime history.

the_national_maritime_museum_newEven the earliest records of Greenwich show that it has had long links to the sea. It was a port for the Romans, the navy has its roots on the banks of the Thames, and it was where many cargo ships came to deposit their imports. There are no places in London, then, better suited to hold our National Maritime Museum.

Britain has always been a maritime nation, partly simply due to the fact that we’re an island, meaning that throughout history the navy has had to be strong simply to defend the coasts. With a navy that has rarely been rivaled and that led to a world in which the sun never set on the British Empire, we are justly proud of our seafaring history. The National Maritime Museum celebrates that legacy, combining history, art and science to showcase our finest moments.

Opened in 1937 by George VI, accompanied by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (our future queen), the museum has since become a hugely important building, with a collection of over two million maritime-related artifacts. These include artworks, both British and Dutch, manuscripts, maps, navigational instruments, figureheads, ship models and astronomical tools. The museum also houses many items taken from Germany after the events of World War II, and depending on who you ask, these are described as “looted art” or “war trophies”. The argument is unlikely to be settled soon.

Despite appearing to be a scientific museum, it does however have so many portraits of sailors and explorers that only the National Portrait Gallery boasts more. Its wide range of displays related to Horatio Nelson and James Cook, among others, are bigger than any elsewhere.

national-maritime-museumBut even though it is clearly proud of our navigational history, there is also a strong sense of the present and the future. The museum explores how the British changed themselves and changed the world because of their unhampered exploration of the globe, and allows for a greater understanding of not only maritime history, but also cultural, economical and political history, and how these still have consequences today. There is also an exhibition dedicated to how we use the sea now, revealing just how much waste we throw into the oceans and what we need to do to save them before they are irreparably destroyed.

The Museum is also home to the Caird Library, the “largest maritime historical reference library” in the world, containing over 50,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Books, charts and maps here date back to the 1400s, and family historians in particular can find answers to genetic questions here.

Although perhaps not as well known as either the National History Museum or the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum is nonetheless a wonderful look at Britain’s proud – if somewhat complicated and at times controversial – history riding the seas. Britannia rules the waves, after all, and this museum isn’t going to let you forget that in a hurry.

Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.

The Little Station That Could

When one thinks of stations on the tube network, it is the busiest ones that come to mind first: Victoria, Waterloo, King’s Cross, Paddington, London Bridge, Liverpool Street. We know all of these, and more. We’ve probably used them. But there’s one station that I’m almost certain that you’ve never stopped at. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Roding Valley, the least used station on the entire network.

Found on the Hainault loop of the Central line, the tiny station boasts around 260,000 passengers a year, compared to Waterloo that has 90,000,000 a year. This is mostly due to its location and tiny catchment area, meaning only 700 or so people use it each day. To compare this further, roughly the same number of people pass through Roding Valley in a day than do Victoria in ninety seconds.

The tracks were laid in 1903, but the station wasn’t actually opened until 1936 by the London & North Eastern Railway. Since 2006, it it one of the few stations that is permanently unstaffed and one of twelve stations to have no ticket barriers.

This is a terribly short post this week because there’s so little to say about the station, but I wanted to include it simply because it’s remarkable that it is still there at all. It’s not architecturally special, there’s nothing particularly important nearby that you’d need to use it for, but it must be nice knowing you’re one of the few people who use it regularly.

Long may Roding Valley keep up its vigil and show that the tube network works just as well out on the fringes as it does in the city centre.

Where It All Began

Hello! I’m back! I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and New Year, and are ready for the next year of London exploration. To kick the year off, we’re going right back to the city’s founding.

The old city (link: http://is.gd/xBboQP)

Londinium, the Roman forerunner to London, was built around 43 AD, meaning that the city is just shy of two thousand years old. But even before this, during the Iron Age, there were settlements up and down the river. Because the English Channel wasn’t fully formed until about 5000 BC, finally cutting Britain off from the mainland, people have travelled freely until that point, and now the British were all but trapped. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it was not Julius Caesar who invaded Britain and founded London. In fact, he didn’t even want the country, being too occupied with taking over France. However, he did visit a couple of times, back in 55 and 54 BC, and it would take almost a hundred years more before the country was finally invaded under instruction of Claudius, with Aulus Plautius leading the army, and Claudius himself later turning up with elephants to help the fight.

The Romans then set about building roads, as they always did, and had to decide where to build their main city. Three major rivers were considered – the Thames, the Severn and the Trent – but the Thames was eventually chosen due to its tidal nature, and because it was the closest to Europe of the three. History would be very different indeed had they picked another river. At the time, the Thames was much shallower and wider, surrounded by marshland framed by two hills, named Ludgate and Cornhill. It was so wide that the crossing that is now London Bridge was once over half a mile across; five times the current width. It’s also interesting to note that because landscapes change so dramatically once humans get involved, that while the river was also a different shape, the Roman streets and buildings would have been around twenty feet below today’s street level.

In around 50 AD, the first settlements had been established for trading purposes, but it would all come to an end just ten years later when the Iceni tribe, led by the fearsome Boudica revolted against the Roman invaders. Angry at the way she had been treated when her husband had died – the Romans had backed out on a deal regarding land, and abused her daughters – she took matters into her own hands and razed the city to the ground. The fire was so disastrous that the entire settlement was burnt and it left a thick layer of burnt clay that was found in later excavations.

So, back to square one. With Boudica soon killed, Julius Alpinus Classicianus stepped in as governor, deciding not to take revenge on the people, but to work up a system of integration. By 70 AD, the first forum had been established, and was soon followed by bath houses and a palace of the governor, which sat below what is now Cannon Street Station. With a fort built in 120 AD, work soon began on a wall to surround the town, a wall that roughly adheres to the boundary of the City of London. The walls were nine feet thick and added to over the centuries, the East wall having been developed in the fourth century in something of a hurry, as it contained tombstones and other items in the construction mix.

The Romans eventually departed from Londinium in 410 AD, deserting the city and leaving it to the elements. Maybe in another timeline that was the end of the city, but thankfully, in this one, it was only the beginning…

Hiatus

This blog is on hiatus until 2016.

We’ve not even moved the fingernail to begin to scratch the surface of what London has to offer, but this is a busy month, so posts shall resume in the new year.

Thank you.

The Ladies’ Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge

The Thames has over two hundred bridges crossing it, which is remarkable given that for much of its history, there was just the one – London Bridge. One of the most interesting of these bridges is perhaps Waterloo Bridge. It may not be the most glamorous looking, but in this week’s quick installment of “Love Letters To London”, I shall explain why I’m particularly fond of it.

The original Waterloo Bridge (known as the Strand Bridge before completion) was built on this stretch of the river, now situated between Blackfriars Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, in 1817, opened as a toll bridge. Its history remains chequered, as during the 1840s, it had become a popular destination for suicide attempts, a reputation that seems to have tragically lingered. In 1878, the toll booth was removed, and people could pass freely across, but in the 1920s, the bridge closed – the structure was becoming increasingly dangerous.

Demolished, plans were afoot to rebuild it, with new technologies to make it safer and longer-lasting. It was also clad in Portland stone, which has the remarkable ability to clean itself when it rains. Despite the start of World War II, the bridge was partly opened in 1942, and completely in 1945, although it holds the dubious distinction of being the only bridge in London damaged by bombs during the Blitz.

It also holds another remarkable distinction – one far less dubious – in that it was built primarily by women. With men all at war, the work force was mostly female and so it has gained the sometimes title of The Ladies’ Bridge in honour of the women who worked on it. My girlfriend likes to acknowledge also the fact that it remains the only London bridge to have been completed on time and under budget.

History, however, seems to have largely obscured this fact. Despite an announcement being made at its completion that thanked all the men who worked hard on its construction, it seems that generally women’s displacement from history in this area was because the records were lost, and not through malice or sexism, but one does wonder.

Waterloo Bridge 2The most thrilling aspect of the 370 metre bridge to me though lies beneath it, rather than on it. Under its final arch on the Southbank sits a book market, one of the most delightful in the country, if not the world. Because they’re sheltered by the bridge, come rain or shine the outdoor book market is open for business, selling second hand and antique books of every genre imaginable. I’ve picked up so many bargains over the years, as well as discovering some genuine treasures.

So that’s Waterloo Bridge, a quick run down of one of the Thames’s many crossings. I daresay more will be forthcoming – we’ve got a lot of time and plenty to get through.

 

A Rather Blustery Day

The wind’s been getting up a bit lately around the city, and while I was looking up some interesting facts about the history of London, I came across a report of the tornado that hit London in 2006. I had absolutely no memory of this happening – it’s not like central USA here where tornadoes and hurricanes are ten a penny – so I delved a little deeper.

On the 7th December 2006, a tornado measuring T4 on the TORRO scale (which apparently equates to 16 on the Beaufort Scale) hit Kensal Green, passing through a number of streets in just a couple of minutes, ripping roofs off of buildings, upturning cars and injuring six people. The country had been undergoing strange and unstable weather phenomena all morning, having been affected by Ulrike, a strong Atlantic low pressure system, but a tornado was just the oddest of them all. Thunderstorms had been covering Cornwall, but it all came to a head over the capital, with strong winds, sleet and rain preceding a tornado that, according to one witness, looked “amazing […] but then it touched land … [and] went from exciting to terrifying.”

This is far from the first time that the wind has got a bit much in the city. Most of Britain still talks with a certain reverence of the Great Storm of 1987. Although considered by some to be a hurricane, officially it an extratropical cyclone with hurricane force winds, though if you ask me, that amounts to the same thing anyway.

"Aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987" by David Wright. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aftermath_of_the_Great_Storm_of_1987.jpg#/media/File:Aftermath_of_the_Great_Storm_of_1987.jpg

“Aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987” by David Wright.

The afternoon of the 15th October hadn’t had any particularly strong winds. Michael Fish, a meteorologist who has never lived down the experience, gave the weather forecast and stated, rather flippantly, that while it was going to get a bit windy, most of it would pass over France and Spain. He said that a lady had called the BBC asking about a hurricane, but he said there wasn’t one coming. He says now he was quoted out of context, but the incident is so ingrained in the nation’s psyche – the footage even appearing during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony – that it hardly matters.

The strongest winds that night reached 120mph, and most of the south was battered beyond recognition, causing two billion pounds worth of damage in one night. Fifteen million trees were downed across the country, and London wasn’t free from any of that. Specimens of historic importance and great age were felled in such places as Kew Gardens and Hyde Park, and there was barely an avenue that didn’t have some trees knocked down, often crushing cars beneath them. The following morning, with no power across parts of the city and the public transport network down, many people stayed off work.

But let’s go further back in time, to another Great Storm. This time, the Great Storm of 1703. The calendar at the time said 26th November, but with the switch in dates later that century, it would have been equivalent to 7th December, oddly the same day as the 2006 tornado. Queen Anne was on the throne and she was led to shelter in the cellars of St James’s Palace to hide the damage to the roof. Across the city, two thousand chimney stacks were knocked down, the roof was blown off Westminster Abbey, and some seven hundred ships were blown together and destroyed in the Thames.

This being a slightly less scientific time, they did not all trust their barometers that this was something atmospheric. The church said it was because God was angry at all the sinning happening in England, Daniel Defoe said God was punishing the people for “poor performance against Catholic armies in the War of Spanish Succession”. Curiously, however, the storm may have helped the rising industry of journalism, and was the first weather event to become a national news story, with special editions of the paper listing information about the damaged and the dead.

London's first tornado

London’s first tornado

But let’s go right back. The earliest disaster we can find. That’s the first recorded tornado of British history; the London tornado of 17th October 1091. As a bonus factoid, it was a Friday. If the one in 2006 was measured as a T4 and was destructive enough, it was nothing compared to this. Modern scientists believe it would have measured T8, which suggests winds of up to 240mph, capable of throwing cars long distances, toppling high-rises with shallow anchors, and twisting skyscrapers in their foundations.

Bear in mind, then, that in 1091 there weren’t any skyscrapers, cars or high-rise buildings, suggesting that the damage done was almost absolute. These are wind speeds that can blow wooden houses apart with ease. Despite the severity, only two people were known to have died in it. The wooden London Bridge was demolished and St Mary-le-Bow church was badly damaged. It’s popularly remarked upon that four rafters from its roof each measuring 26 feet were forced into the ground by the wind with such power that only 4 feet remained visible. The storm did little to help the reputation of William II, who had just raided the resources of the churches. The people felt the storm was a judgment on his wickedness.

But, as ever, London clawed itself back from the brink, and rebuilt itself once more. After all, this is Britain. When did we ever let a bit of bad weather bother us?

Lest We Forget

I wondered what the topic of today’s post could be for a while. It’s been a busy week in London history, as we’ve just had Bonfire Night, which links naturally to the Houses of Parliament. But I’ve decided it makes more sense to link this post to something regarding Remembrance Sunday, since that’s the day, and Armistice Day is not far away.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, on Remembrance Sunday

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, on Remembrance Sunday

A cenotaph, as you may know, is an empty tomb, erected to commemorate a person, group of people, or even empire, whose remains are elsewhere. Although there are many around the world, just one that I know of would be recognised by just about every British subject – The Cenotaph. So important it doesn’t need a name, just a great big “The”.

With the Great War just over and the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28 June 1919, a series of temporary wood-and-plaster structures were built to commemorate the war dead. When the Victory Parade passed, people saluted them, and in the following days, the base of the original Cenotaph was covered in flowers and wreaths. Pressure mounted on the government to keep it and, a month later, they suggested that a more permanent version would be designed, to become “Britain’s official national war monument”. The new version, made of Portland Stone, is an exact replica of its wooden predecessor.

Designed and built between 1919-1920 by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is undecorated for the most part, and if you approached it from the side, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. But the front and back both feature a carved wreath and the the engraving “The Glorious Dead”. Above the wreaths are the dates of the First World War in Roman numerals. At eleven metres high and weighing some 120 tonnes, it is an impressive and staggering piece of architecture. It also has a slightly odd shape; the two sides are not parallel, and would eventually meet if you keep them going up, although it wouldn’t be for about three hundred metres.

On 11th November 1920, it was unveiled by King George V, who laid the first wreath on its stone steps. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister at the time, walked from nearby Downing Street and laid a wreath of his own. In a move that to me now seems remarkably forward, the Cenotaph was not dedicated, because they noted that not everyone who died was a Christian, and it would be disrespectful to those who weren’t to do so.

The flags on the side also were originally met with some debate, as Lutyens wanted them to be carved of stone, but he was overruled, so they’re real cloth flags. As of 2007, the flags include Union Flags, and ones to represent the army, navy, merchant navy, and air force. When the Cenotaph was new, the flags were taken down and washed every six or so weeks, and when this stopped happening, enough people complained to have the process reinstated. This is one of the many signs that people take the Cenotaph seriously. By 1939, the flags were being changed ten times a year, and washed twice before being disposed of. All the old flags are given to the Imperial War Museum.

The Queen bows for no one but those who gave their lives.

The Queen bows for no one but those who gave their lives.

While it could have then stood silent and unchanged since this date, it’s actually continued to adapt. When the Second World War ended, the site became a place of massive celebration, and King George VI unveiled the Cenotaph for a second time in 1946, with the dates of that war engraved on it too. It had originally just been for the First World War, but as more wars have gone on – the “war to end all wars” didn’t – the Cenotaph has come to represent all the fallen. In 1970, it was declared a Grade I listed building, which means it can never be demolished.

Most people recognise the Cenotaph now from its appearances on television every November. The closest Sunday to 11th November is Remembrance Sunday, and service personnel, politicians and the Royal family gather to remember the fallen. When Big Ben strikes eleven o’clock, the nation falls silent for two minutes, to represent the moment when, in 1918, the guns fell silent across Europe.

Those with particular power lay wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph, and it must be a person with a stone heart who doesn’t feel a chill when our Queen, the one woman who doesn’t need to bow for anyone else, steps up and does her duty. She always lays the first wreath, followed by her children and grandchildren. The Prime Minister follows next, and then other leaders of major political parties, and representatives from the navy, army and air force. Once, survivors of the First World War would have been present too, but with the last solider, Harry Patch, dying two years ago, the trenches have disappeared from living memory.

The Cenotaph is used at other times of the year too. It becomes a focal point for the country when we mark anniversaries of the D-Day landings, the first day of the Somme Offensive, the Falklands War, and campaigns marked by Anzac Day, which are the battles involving those of Australia and New Zealand. Of all the monuments in London, this is perhaps the one most ready and primed to move you and send a chill through your spine.

Other cities around the world have their own cenotaphs, some of which are replicas of this one, but once again, London led the way. I think it’s important that we remember the horrors of war, because maybe one day we’ll wake up to what this monument represents, and stop entering battles that result in pointless loss of life.

Lest we forget.

The Play That Goes Wrong Is So Right

London is a city of culture, both high and low, but the hub of that culture is, of course, in the West End, an area drowned in theatres showing some of the finest performances of anywhere in the world. I love the theatre and visit as often as I can, and last week my nan and I were fortunate enough to attend The Play That Goes Wrong, which, I’m grateful to say, turned out to be one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen.

wrong play 2Amateur theatre can be a mixed bag, that’s certainly true. Some are as highly polished as anything on the West End, and some really have an emphasis on the “amateur” portion of the concept. The Play That Goes Wrong is a completely professional performance that gently mocks what happens when a small play by inexperienced actors starts going awry. It’s actually a play within a play, as we’re watching the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society put on their play The Murder at Haversham Manor, the aforementioned play that goes wrong.

Haversham Manor is your typical murder mystery a la Agatha Christie and the greats. A man is found dead in a large house, there are only a few other people present, and one of them is the murderer. It might even be quite a good play if it had been given to a competent set of actors. As it stands, in this play, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Before the show has even started, the backstage crew (actually just more actors) are sneaking across the stage, putting the final touches to the set, trying to locate the dog they need that’s gone missing, and generally preparing the actors for curtain up. It all goes downhill from there.

So begins two hours of missing props, fluffed lines, jammed doors, dodgy scenery, wrong cues, wardrobe malfunctions, overacting, injured actors and whiskey replaced with white spirit. The leading lady clearly thinks very highly of herself, the dead man is not terribly convincing, the lighting and sound guy is too busy wondering where his Duran Duran CD has gone, and the butler has had to write down difficult words on his hands, but is unable to pronounce them. The play is hysterically funny. The only other show I’ve seen that made me laugh this much was One Man, Two Guvnors.

wrong play 1Some of the things you completely expect to go wrong. After all, anything pinned to the wall is naturally going to fall off it, and the lift that gives access to the higher level of the stage is primed to fail, but among it there are a number of surprises, which I’ll try not to spoil now. Suffice to say, the whole thing is insane, becoming more and more deranged as the show goes on. Just when you think there’s nothing left that could possible befall the cast, something else does.

It even leaks off the stage, with an incident during the interval, and the director introducing both acts, starting the second with surprise that so many of the audience have stayed.

They always said with Les Dawson that he had to be a truly excellent pianist to be able to play so badly. Likewise Tommy Cooper was such a bad magician only because he was such a good magician. And the same is true here: these actors have to be phenomenally good to be this terrible. It’s a masterfully choreographed piece of work that requires expert timing and precision to pull off such hilarious actions.

I can do nothing but urge you to see this show. I get the feeling that, providing nothing goes wrong, it will retain its place in the West End for a very long time. Sharp, fast and wonderfully insane, it’s a brilliant concept pulled off with amazing aplomb.