Monthly Archives: August, 2015

The Unfinished Portrait of Bankside Gallery

Anyone who follows my other blog, the book reviewing Fell From Fiction, will know that I am a sucker for anything Agatha Christie wrote. It came to my attention this week that, in honour of the 125th anniversary celebrations of her life, there was an exhibition called “Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait” on in London so I naturally dropped everything and had to go see it.

st pauls wineAs soon as I arrived at London Bridge though, someone thought it amusing to begin pouring the entire contents of the Pacific over the city and with only a small umbrella as shelter, I became steadily more and more sodden as I walked along Southbank in the direction of Bankside Gallery. Eventually, with only fifty or so metres to go, I succumbed to temptation and disappeared into the Tate Modern for a drink on their top floor bar. Alright, it might have been unnecessary, but the wine was good, it had stopped raining by the time I’d finished, and I got this lovely picture up there.

Bankside Gallery is a small, one-room gallery with a gift shop off to one side stocked with books about art and artists, as well as the usual tourist trappings. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside, but instead whipped out my Moleskine and took notes on what was inside.

The exhibition has been set up with the help of Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, her only living relative, who has delved deep into the family’s personal effects to draw up previously unseen photographs of the Queen of Crime. Displayed all around the walls along with a timeline of her life and works, and quotes from her autobiography, private letters and notebooks, they form a version of the writer that few people ever knew.

Most people, from what I can gather, seem to think of her as an old woman hunched over her typewriter churning out mystery after mystery, but the reality seems very different indeed and the gallery goes a long way to showing that she had a fascinating and varied life, a joyful childhood, a good sense of humour and never actually had any ambitions of being a writer.

Agatha with a mandolin; the first hipster

Agatha with a mandolin; the first hipster

In the gallery, I discover that she actually wanted to be a pianist or a singer, but wasn’t good enough at either. She became a nurse during the First World War, and that is what made her so knowledgeable about poisons and why so many of her characters were killed by them. It details what everyone knows about her, that she once went missing for eleven days, and gives an insight into the breakdown of her first marriage and the beginnings of the second, one that was certainly a lot happier.

It transpires that she didn’t smoke or drink, but not because she didn’t want to. She looked on enviously at those who enjoyed those vices, but was unable to appreciate them herself. It is testament to her success that she is the only female playwright to ever have three shows on in the West End at the same time (The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web and Witness for the Prosecution), and when she died, every theatre in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour. At 85 when she died, she didn’t fear death, but was merely interested in finding out more about it.

At the centre of the gallery sit three things that, for me, were the most incredible items here. First is a painting of Christie by Oskar Kokoschka that normally never leaves Prichard’s house. The second is a rare recording of her voice – Christie never did a television interview and didn’t care for speeches – in which she discusses that she, like every other writer, suffered from writer’s block, and knew the pain of the right words coming when you were miles from anywhere to write them down. And thirdly, next to some first editions of her early books, sits her Remington typewriter, the very machine that produced so many wonderful works of literature.

Christie isn’t for everyone, but if you go to the gallery, your opinion is likely to change regarding her anyway. She enjoyed life, hugely. She liked roller-skating, tennis and is believed to have been the first English person to ever surf standing up, something she brought back from a holiday in Honolulu. The exhibition is only on in Bankside until September 6th, so I urge you to go along this week if you get a chance.

banksideI’m aware that this entry has been more of a potted history of the life of Agatha Christie rather than about London itself, but the point of this blog is to explore all aspects of London and what is London without its people? Agatha Christie may have been born in Torquay and died in Oxfordshire, but in the interim she spent a lot of time in London, lived in Chelsea, produced numerous plays for the West End and set a lot of her books here. I’ll cover these on another day.

Once more, I suggest you hurry along to the Bankside Gallery and explore the life of this amazing woman. And if you can’t make this one, I am sure that another exhibition will be open soon enough that will entice you to one of the most charming galleries in the city.

Speakeasy Made Easy

The British like to drink. It’s been part of our culture for so long that other countries struggle to keep up. We aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world, certainly. It’s been estimated that we drink ten litres per person each year; the outright winners are Estonia who drink 12.3. But nonetheless, with it being such an important part of our heritage, it comes as no surprise that London is full of places to get tanked up.

Let the games begin...

Let the games begin…

How many? Well, that’s something for another day, but estimates range between four and seven thousand, depending on where you draw the borders and what counts as a pub or bar. You could drink in a different one every day for ten or more years. Today I’m just talking about one of them – BYOC.

There are actually three branches of BYOC in the country, two of them in London, but the following takes place in the Camden branch. I went there in May for a friend’s birthday. We’d been to a couple of other pubs in Camden first (which later turned out to be a mistake) and then turned up for our appointment at BYOC. Trouble is, it’s not exactly the easiest bar to find. When we did eventually find it, it was just a black door sandwiched between two nondescript shops, its name printed in small black letters on a glass panel above.

Why all the secrecy? Because BYOC is not your average bar. For one thing, it doesn’t have a liquor licence. It also doesn’t have any menus. BYOC stands for Bring Your Own Cocktail, which means you supply the alcohol that you want to drink. Then, with whatever you’ve selected, the mixologists add their non-alcoholic ingredients of fruit, syrups, juice and garnishes to produce cocktails specifically tailored for you.

There were nine of us there and we all chipped in to buy a good selection of drink, taking in a mix of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and prosecco. The mixologist assigned to our table said we’d probably get four or five drinks each in the two hours we were allotted (you have to book ahead of time, and that’s just how long you get). As it turned out, we made it through at least seven each.

The mixologists clearly know what they’re doing and have a cornucopia of non-alcoholic ingredients to make up whatever they want. You can specify what you want them to make, as we did a little later, but it’s just as easy to let them get on with it. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they’ll happily whip up some of the tastiest things you’ll ever drink.

A selection of drinks

A selection of drinks

Our first drink was a cool vodka and lychee cocktail with a raspberry floating in it, that worked almost as a palate cleanser, syrupy and sweet. For the second drink, the mixologist poured the whole bottle of rum into a glass bowl and created a rum punch, complete with edible flowers floating in it. (As a side note, if you’ve never eaten them, flowers taste exactly like you’d expect them to.)

While we drank the rum from cute glass teacups, the third drink was whipped up in the form of a gin and prosecco cocktail. These were followed by the strongest passionfruit margaritas in the world that had too much tequila for most of our tastes, but most of the group still managed to get them down, aided along by the previous drinks.

After that, we had very large shots of prosecco, which is an interesting sensation, and then a lurid green concoction of gin and cucumber. The final drink before we stumbled out into the evening was another gin, prosecco and raspberry cocktail. We’d drunk everything we brought in, apart from some dregs in the tequila bottle that no one was much keen on claiming ownership of. All in all, it was a fantastic night, although parts of it are a bit hazy.

The interior of the bar is gorgeous, compared to the unexceptional exterior, decorated entirely like a 1920s speakeasy. The music complements it wonderfully, and everything feels like you probably shouldn’t be there, again, like prohibition-era America and this is all top secret. We were sat at a blackjack table, complete with piles of gambling chips, but it’s all for show. I daresay if you bought some cards you could have a game or two, but the drink is really the priority here.

Alcohol is our friend.

Alcohol is our friend.

It’s not a place I think you could go to regularly, if only because the cost for two hours in there is £25 per person, but it’s good as an experience, and you definitely get your money’s worth. Obviously you have to also account for the cost of the alcohol you’re bringing in, but I would advise anyone going to not feel they have to splash out on the expensive brands. People on the table next to us had Beefeater gin and Grey Goose vodka, but we’d gone down a cheaper route and it definitely didn’t matter. Once everything’s mixed up anyway you can’t tell. I would also advise that you take a wide selection of drinks or you’re going to be limiting yourselves and the bartender. We had seven bottles between nine of us, and that worked out great.

The staff were very pleasant – we had a couple of mixologists over the course of the night – and BYOC prides itself on only hiring very experienced bartenders, all of whom know not only how to mix any cocktail you can name (as well as all having the balls to experiment and try new things all the time), but are knowledgeable on the history of cocktails, the scientific principles behind mixing and how to be a good host.

Get a group together and book yourselves a table at BYOC. It’s a great laugh and a genuinely good night out with a twist. My final piece of advice? There’s no need to go to anywhere else for a pre-drink. You just won’t need it.

The Ghosts of the Underground

The London Underground has existed in some form or another since 1863. London has since sprung up around it and the tracks of the world’s first underground railway have spread throughout the city from the centre, out to its edges. Because of its long-standing history and being present during several great upheavals in British history such as the Industrial Revolution and the Blitz, many people are convinced that parts of it are haunted.

They may be right.

The only way is up.

The only way is up.

We can’t say for sure that people are haunting the platforms, but what we do know is that there are certainly ghost stations. I don’t mean in the sense of a Twilight Zone station that only exists during a full moon (though I wouldn’t be totally surprised if London did have a few of them), but simply stations that used to adorn the network and that familiar map, but have since been closed, demolished, moved or simply cut off.

Some of these were closed due to a lack of use. Anyone who knows the edges of London well will know that the District Line stops at Ealing Broadway in the west and Upminster in the east. But between 1883 and 1885, the line went as far out west as Windsor. On the other side, the line carried on out until Shoeburyness, closing in 1939. There simply wasn’t the demand at the time and the lines have now been reused by the overground network, meaning that it’s unlikely the two extremities will ever be reconnected to the tube network.

The south of the network has remained largely unchanged and, actually, there are no ghost stations south of the Thames, but to the north it’s a different matter entirely. The Central line reached up to Ongar until 1994, and the Metropolitan line has had fourteen stations lopped off its western end. Where it now terminates at Amersham, it used to carry on though Stoke Mandeville and out as far as the village of Brill. The Brill station was opened in 1872 and the travelling time to get into the City of London was two hours, meaning that it was closed, and then demolished, in 1935. Amersham became the terminus in 1961 with the closure of Great Missenden, which is still in use by Chiltern Railways. Great Missenden is notable for being the stop usually used by Prime Ministers if travelling to Chequers by train.

While most of the ghost stations have since been commandeered by National Rail or demolished, leaving no trace of their former selves, a few have found themselves develop new purposes. York Road still sits empty on the Piccadilly line between King’s Cross and Caledonian Road, and while it saw little use during its lifetime and closed in 1932, it now serves as an emergency exit from the tunnels, with one passageway lit at all times, just in case. The Central line’s Blake Hall still exists but now as a private residence, and when the new Osterley station was built on the Piccadilly line, the old one became a retail unit.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The above ground remains of Aldwych.

The most notable of these closed stations though is Aldwych. Once a weird little offshoot of Holborn, it was opened in 1907 but by 1962 was only open during peak hours. In 1994 it closed altogether – the lifts needed replacing and it wasn’t worth it, given its lack of use – but no one was in a hurry to demolish it. In fact, while you might not know the name, you’ve almost certainly seen inside Aldwych station. It is the one that is most often used in television and films to substitute every other station. It has stood in as a backdrop for such films as V for Vendetta, Creep, Atonement, 28 Weeks Later, Battle of Britain, and last year turned up on an episode of Sherlock. It even appears in the game Tomb Raider III, and the video for The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” was filmed here. A train is kept on the track permanently for filming purposes.

Like several other stations, Aldwych is notable because during both world wars, disused parts of the station were used to store art from the city’s galleries. It’s well known, of course, that during the Blitz, scared Londoners would use the tunnels and tube network as ready-made bomb shelters, but it wasn’t just the everyday citizens. This brings us to Down Street, situated between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. It was closed in 1932, and in 1939 the platform faces were bricked up and the place was divided into meeting rooms, offices and bedrooms. This became the bunker for Winston Churchill and his cabinet during the height of the Second World War. Safe below ground, he could control the war in absolute safety.

One final station that is no longer with us is one that I like simply because it’s named after one of the best buildings in London: British Museum. Originally on the Central line, and opened in 1900, it was threatened fairly quickly by the introduction of Holborn station, just one hundred yards away. At the time the two lines (Holborn was originally just on the Piccadilly line, but now also is connected to the Central line) were owned by different companies. A foot tunnel to connect the two was proposed originally, but in the end it was decided that Holborn was better located and so it was expanded and in 1933, British Museum closed. The surface building was demolished and, below ground, it’s only used for storage. Next time you’re passing between Tottenham Court Road and Chancery Lane, take a peek out the window and you might spot stacks of railway sleepers.

The ghost stations of London are a reminder that while the city is always growing and always improving, it isn’t afraid to make a few errors now and again. Sometimes the past has to be removed to make way for the future.

London’s Wild Heart

I’m not a native Londoner. I live in the heart of Sussex, in a small town crowded on all sides by farmland, open countryside and expansive forests. As such, one would believe that there is a lot more wildlife to be seen in my neck of the woods than in London. One wouldn’t necessarily be right.

While I’ve always noticed that there seems to be a distinct lack of dogs and cats in London, there is wildlife in abundance. Before London was there, of course, it was just wild land and forest, so we’ve encroached on the natives who haven’t all been so keen to leave. Some of them even perhaps seem to prefer the city. Oh sure, the majority of these animals are squirrels, mice, rats and pigeons, and even the most eager of tourists would have to be hard-pushed to find any of those particularly exciting to see.

But did you know that there are pelicans in London? Deer? Parrots? Flamingos? Well, there are. But how did all of this come about?

deerLet’s start with the deer, since that’s probably the one I mentioned that most people do know about. The current herds of red deer and fallow deer are likely descended from those installed by Charles I in the 17th century. When a plague was threatening London, he moved his court out to Richmond and decided that he wanted to do some hunting. Today there are over six hundred deer living in the park, all of them completely wild and free to roam. They came to the public eye a few years ago when, in a viral video, a dog walker was left helpless when his Labrador decided to give chase. (I’ve included the link for the three people who haven’t seen the video.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in Richmond Park and the deer are astonishingly beautiful. I’d advise you don’t try and get too close. The fallow deer are more likely to flee, but the red deer are prone to standing their ground. And if it’s the breeding season then anything goes and I’d stay away altogether.

The deer are culled twice a year, simply because they have no predators and if left to breed indefinitely, there would be too many for the park to sustain. If you really want to see deer but Richmond Park is too difficult to get to for you, there are deer in Bushy Park too, again both red and fallow deer.

Speaking of Richmond Park though, this is where you’ll find parrots. Granted, the maritime climate of Britain doesn’t seem appropriate for these birds better suited to tropical forests, but nonetheless a population lives here, known to some as the Kingston, or Twickenham, parakeets. They are rose-ringed parakeets to be specific and they’ve been here since – well, that’s just it. No one can really agree on when or how they arrived, because they’re definitely not native.

The first recorded sighting of a parakeet was in 1855, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that their population exploded and they became a common sight in south London, although their territory seems to be spreading ever more northwards. How they got there is a mystery. Some say that they escaped from the film set in the 1950s. Others prefer the theory that they escaped from an aviary during the 1987 hurricane. Another theory posits that Jimi Hendrix released a pair in Carnaby Street in the sixties. Not only can we not agree on how they got there, but no one knows how many there are either. Estimates range from 6,000 to 50,000.

PelicanMoving to a different park, St James’s Park specifically, we find another strange bird that looks out of place in the city of London, but has now become so accepted that most Londoners simply don’t question it anymore. Yes, these are the pelicans of Duck Island. Their population has grown and dipped over the years, ever since they arrived in 1664, as a present from the Russian ambassador. They’re hugely sociable, but that doesn’t mean they’re always pleasant, and some of them have a nasty habit of eating the pigeons. Again, there’s a video, but watch at your own risk.

The pelicans seem to live a semi-wild state, as while they hunt for their own fish and, apparently, pigeon, they are also fed every day by the park’s wildlife officer, who also deals with the other exotic birds of the lake.

If you’re of a certain age, you will remember that Trafalgar Square used to be absolutely heaving with pigeons. Less so these days, mostly because it was becoming a health hazard, but there are still some about and the rest seem to have scattered to elsewhere in the city. But another reason that the population dropped was that birds of prey were introduced to scare the smaller birds away. Because of this, even the densely packed city of London is home to several hawks and falcons. Peregrine falcons have been known to nest here, and are often seen around the Tate Modern, St Paul’s and the Barbican, so keep your eyes peeled to the skies and you may catch the sight of one.

I knew about all of these before I started my research but I had no idea that the city also hosts flamingos, right there in Kensington. While people are at ground level shopping their way through the department stores, one hundred feet above them are the Kensington Roof Gardens, a peaceful spot that’s been there for eighty years and seems to be one of London’s best kept secrets. In one of its three themed gardens you’ll find flamingos, which just seems a tad insane. But, then again, I didn’t know that a building in Kensington has seventy full-sized trees on its roof, so I guess it’s all relative.

mozzieTo finish off, let’s descend below the surface and find an animal that’s far less beautiful or cute and turn our attention to the London Underground mosquito. Although mosquitos are probably not massively associated with Britain, much like the other animals we’ve discussed here, they have been living in the tube network for long enough that they have become their own species, resistant to the cold and not fussy about what they bite. They pestered Londoners sleeping down here during the Blitz and spread disease. Even more interesting is that different tube lines have different subspecies of the critter. They’re not unique to London though – pretty much any underground network you can name has them, although how they’ve spread from one to the other is a little unclear. However it’s done, they are one of the most recently evolved species on the planet.

So next time you’re in London and want to see something a little more exotic, hunt down one of these curious creatures (though maybe not the mosquito), and be reminded again that this is a city that always has another surprise tucked up its sleeve.

The Painted Hall, Greenwich

painted hall

Knowing where to begin my journey through London was perhaps one of the more difficult questions in setting up this blog. Do I go somewhere world famous and obvious, like Buckingham Palace, or to one of my favourite locations like the Natural History Museum, or to somewhere completely obscure and off the beaten track like … well, it’s so obscure I don’t know it. But then one location seemed to make more sense than any other. If you’re going to start something, you have to start at the beginning, and that can only mean Greenwich, the place where time itself begins.

Greenwich isn’t an area I know terribly well, but I like it when I do turn up. My friend Claire accompanied me on this journey and, determined to show me something blog-worthy, announced that she wanted to show me one of her favourite places in London.

It turns out that her favourite place in London is among the hallowed halls of the Old Royal Naval College, sandwiched between the Thames and Greenwich Park, most notably the Painted Hall, which I’ll get onto in a moment, as it’s the main reason I’m writing today.

Where the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) now stands was once the location of Greenwich Palace, which was built by Henry VII, and later saw the birth of his two granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. After it was demolished in the 1690s, Mary II saw a hospital was built there for seamen, which was when the famous Chapel and the Painted Hall were introduced. The hospital was closed in the 1800s and was then converted into a training base for the Royal Navy. They abandoned the site in 1998, when it was turned over to the Greenwich Foundation, who restored it and ensured that it would all be opened up for visitors.

If you aren’t sure what building I’m talking about, then I suggest you google it, and you’ll find very quickly that you’ve probably seen its exteriors somewhere before. It makes an appearance in many films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tomb Raider, Thor: The Dark World, The King’s Speech, The Golden Compass and Les Miserables.

michael up 1While the outside is a deeply impressive looking building, it is inside where the truly beautiful sights exist. The Chapel is wonderful, gilded and ornate to within an inch of its life. The ceiling was designed by John Papworth, a master plasterer and uses squares and octagons in a neo-classical design. In keeping with the naval theme, there is an anchor and rope incorporated in the floor design, although there are hints of its naval history throughout.

Despite being non-religious, I’ve always found a certain calmness and delight in chapels, cathedrals and the like. They’re peaceful places, and always have an eerie sort of quiet that you don’t find anywhere else. It still serves its original purpose and a service is held every Sunday with supposedly some of the best acoustics anywhere. The organ is still in use, too, and cost £1000 to install in 1798.

Opposite this, across the courtyard, you have the Painted Hall, one of Claire’s favourite London spots and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Before you even get to the paintings, as you step into the door you can look right up into the dome, ninety feet above you, and then the famous ceiling, all 5683 square feet of it, comes into view. I realised almost immediately that I’d seen it before in a documentary about the Stuarts, but nothing comes close to seeing it for real.

Seated in the middle of a grand oval are King William III and Queen Mary II, the only monarchs to have co-ruled. They are surrounded by their family, and then beyond that symbols that represent the monarchy as a whole, as well as religion and then all the things that one would expect from a place so intrinsically linked to the navy – signs of our maritime power, navigation and trade.

The walls, too, are covered in intricate paintings showing more people and events than it’s possible to even take in. The painter was one Sir John Thornhill, who worked on it in two major phases between 1708 and 1727. For all his work, he became the first artist to receive a knighthood, and quite rightly so. The Painted Hall is known to some as “the finest dining hall in Europe”, and others still call it “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”. Both are completely fair assessments. Thornhill has included himself in the work; he can be found on the west wall, surrounded by paintbrushes, looking down upon his work.

claire upTo save your neck, in the middle of the room there is a mirror on a table, so you can peek up while looking down, making for a very curious experience. The rest of the room feels a little like Hogwarts; long wooden tables lined with candlesticks and awaiting a new class of wizards to come in and enjoy a conjured up feast. Like so many places in London, there is a sense of magic about the place, and very definitely a sense of history. The paintings are currently being restored at great cost to bring back the original vibrancy, but even now they are remarkable things to look at. Claire has since discovered that it’s even possible to get married there, and I do wonder how she’s going to broach that subject with her boyfriend when the time comes.

Finally, just off the main hall is a smaller room dedicated to Lord Nelson. His coffin was stored here prior to his being laid-in-state, and now it holds examples of his coat of arms and a replica statue of the one that stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. This one is much smaller, however, being perhaps a couple of metres tall – the real one is five metres tall, although you’d never know it from the foot of the column.

There’s a reason this is a World Heritage Site, and I for one encourage you all to stop by if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not, to gaze upon the incredible artwork in here. Greenwich is great for a day out in general, with the expansive and beautiful park nearby, as well as the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market and more besides. But let’s not hurry ourselves. We’ve got plenty to time to get around to discussing those.