Cruising the Thames

The whole time we were in London, I kept staring at the Thames, studying it, trying to decide what it would be like to paddle it in a kayak.

My conclusion: fun but scary.

The busy, bouncy Thames.

The Thames is narrower than the Hudson, where I usually paddle, and in many places the banks are fortified with smooth stone walls. There’s nowhere to get out of the traffic — and there’s TONS OF TRAFFIC, much of it in the form of swift-moving pleasure boats and commuter vessels. They create wakes that bounce off the walls and each other, which makes the water delightfully choppy but a bit chaotic.


At any rate, I wanted to get on the water somehow, so on our last day I treated myself to a ride from the London Eye to the Tower on a cheezy tourist boat.


I was hoping to learn a thing or two from the tour guide’s patter, but the top deck was so crowded I had to squeeze in along the railing, above the engines. Between the roar of machinery and the gusty wind, the narration sounded something like: “London’s oldest rail bridge …. 3,500 years …. Not sure what a carbuncle is but they say there’s a giant one over there … commemorating Lord Nelson’s victory …” and so on.


I can’t complain about the un-Londony blue sky, though …


or the views.

The tightly-wound baby saint

One day early in the trip I dragged the fam down Strand, past King’s College, to an obscure sci-fi shop to get some Dr. Who swag. I made out that this was some great sacrifice in order to bring home a present for Chad but of course it was all about ME. And I found something pretty awesome: a pewter Dalek bottle-stopper, which is threatening to exterminate our bourbon even as I type this.


On our way we noticed the Courtauld Gallery, which looked to be an interesting little museum. So we came back a couple of days later.


The Courtauld belongs to the University of London. Apparently it’s one of the best small galleries in the world, and is famous for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, such as the famous Manet above. It’s pretty cool to stand in front of the Manet and contemplate the angles of the reflections that have sparked so much debate. And also to contemplate her eyes, which are bored, tragic, and a little hard.


My favorite, however, was from a few centuries earlier – The Birth of St. Augustine, circa 1450, by Antonio Vivarini. I love the drapey folds of the bedcover. I love Augustine’s grim little old-man face  — and how sad everyone else is, like they were expecting a piano or a keg of beer instead of a baby. I love how tightly he’s swaddled, as if he’s been put through one of those machines at the airport that wraps your luggage in layers and layers of plastic. I love the rich colors, and the mystery lady in red who’s staring out the window. What is she doing there? She creeps me out a little.

I’ve never heard of you before, Mr. Vivarini, but I salute you.



Borough Market

Southwark, where we were staying, was untouched by the Great Fire of 1666, so old stuff there goes back a few extra centuries. For example, the Borough Market.

The market has its roots in some chaotic 11th-century produce stalls on London Bridge. Apparently city authorities got tired of tripping over moldy parsnips every time they wanted to cross the river, so by 1276 they had moved the grocers to the south shore.

These days the place is booming. It’s a bit upscale, but when you compare eating here vs. the cost of dining out, it’s still a bargain.


They’ve got gorgeous produce, like these curvaceous heirloom tomatoes.


They’ve got London-y things like Scotch Eggs. (Definition of a Scotch egg: boiled egg wrapped in meat and deep-fried or baked. Not a health food, but heavenly if you’re into that sort of thing, and I am into that sort of thing.)


They’ve got food stalls ladling up Indian, Thai and Ethiopian chow.


They’ve got delightful Balkan spinach boureka, which are clearly a cousin to the vaunted Turkish borek — the world’s greatest breakfast pastry.


Speaking of breakfasts, ours were eaten at the rental apartment and were pretty much always from the Borough. This one features bread, yogurt, some Morbier from the French cheese place, wild venison chorizo and other inspired sausages, and lovely fruit.

Did Shakespeare shop at the Borough Market? It’s certainly possible. We know he boozed it up at the nearby George Inn, which I’ll write about later. Did Dickens shop at the Borough Market? (Agh! Dickens again! Will she ever shut up about Dickens!) Well, one of his Pickwick Papers characters is described as “refreshing himself with a slight lunch of two or three pounds of cold beef, and a pot or two of porter, after the fatigues of the Borough market,” so I’d say that’s a yes.


I Goat

After climbing the marvelous Great Fire Monument we wandered up the Thames river path to the Tower of London, where we watched some people in period costume playing with a large trebuchet. Yep, just another day in London.


We wolfed down some fried fish – without chips – from a stall, which was as hot as the surface of Venus but much more delicious, and then we set off toward the Tube. But the station we wanted was closed so we kept walking. We saw a sign for a public market so we figured we’d stop by there first. And then we turned a corner and walked into a riot of colors.


It was lined with African fabric shops. Every store window erupted with textures and patterns.


And then there was the graffiti. It was a feast for the eyes, and there were some hole-in-the-wall African restaurants that looked like a feast for the mouth. But we were full of fish so we walked on until we came across the market.


The Spitalfields Market has been around since the 1600s. This makes it a mere passing fancy in comparison to the Borough Market, which I’ll write about soon. But for us crass Americans, it’s old. The market has clearly enjoyed a revival in recent years and was crammed with clothes, jewelry, bric-a-brac and  shoppers.


I bought a Kashmiri scarf from the Kashmiri scarf guy.


Cathy bought a pastry and then she bought a Kashmiri scarf too.


On our way out we stopped to admire a goat.

The design for this statue was chosen in a public contest. It’s called I Goat and seems to have a lot of meaning attached to it, at least according to this description by the artist:

The goat stands as a symbol for the various waves of migration that have found sanctuary in Spitalfields and helped to shape it. The goat, as an image of persecution and sacrifice, reflects how each successive group of immigrants have faced their own combination of conflict, oppression and poverty, all eventually finding a new home in London. The crates on which it stands reference the market as well as the ongoing history of transience and human flux.

Well, OK. But also? It’s a  statue of a really cute goat.

One for the millennium

Every great city needs a river – if only to have something to build bridges over.


I loved London’s new-ish Millennium pedestrian bridge. For one thing, I love infrastructure that elevates walkers to the same level of importance as drivers. For another thing, it’s gorgeous, with curvy tubes that swoop like birds in flight.

Photo: Wikipedia


I think it’s time New York had a pedestrian bridge this nice. Perhaps from my apartment directly over the Hudson to the giant Korean spa in Jersey. How about it, Mr. Mayor? I’ll be expecting your call.



Not your average fire tower

London sprang back quickly from the Great Fire of 1666, and in 1677 it unveiled an impressive monument to the fire. It was designed by the great architect Christopher Wren – who, it must be said, made out like a bandit after the fire, building more than 50 churches to replace those that had burned.


Centuries later it’s still breathtaking to turn down the little alley off King William Street, right at the foot of the London Bridge, and catch sight of the monument holding its own among all the newer buildings.

It’s 202 feet tall, and stands 202 feet from the bakery where the fire started. There are 311 stairs leading to the top and of course we climbed them.

The stairs start out narrow and get narrower as you go up.

The views from the top are ample reward.



Especially this one.


It’s fun to get a close look at the golden flame on top of the monument, too.


Proving that humans are really kind of terrible (as if we needed more proof), the inscriptions on the sides of the monument became a political football in a decades-long battle of religious prejudice. When the fire swept through London, some residents concluded that Catholics were trying to burn the city down. They began grabbing and beating anyone suspected of being Catholic.

Early inscriptions on the monument blamed a “Popish frenzy” for the fires. The words were removed when James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne in 1685. They were restored when William III and Mary II succeeded him in 1689, and stayed until they were chiseled out for good in 1830.

Please sir, I want some more

It turned out that the neighborhood we were staying in, Southwark (pronounced like “mother” with a k on the end) is rich in Dickens history. The old Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where his father was jailed, was located there. So was the factory where 12-year-old Charles was sent to work off his old man’s debt, and the boardinghouse where he roomed. So on our last day in London I downloaded an excellent walking tour of Dickens’ Southwark and set out to see the sites.


This wall is the only piece of the Marshalsea that survives. It’s pretty powerful to stand here and imagine Charles visiting his family on Sundays, as he did. Or, since Little Dorrit is my favorite of his novels, to imagine Amy Dorrit growing up behind these bricks, and Arthur Clennam thrown in here after losing all his money to the Bernard Madoff of his day.


The block on Lant Street where Dickens boarded is now occupied, appropriately, by the Charles Dickens School.


There’s no trace left of the boot-blacking factory where Dickens worked on Mint Street. This area remained a slum into the 19th century, and then was heavily damaged in air raids during World War II. Now Mint Street is pretty and leafy.


But there’s a glorious treat for Little Dorrit fans that is still very much standing: the Church of St. George the Martyr, where the pivotal wedding takes place. Be still my heart!

Foundlings and faux orphans, part II

The Dickens Museum is located in the only house where Dickens lived in London that’s still standing.

Charles Dickens Museum - interior and exterior photography
Photo: Dickens Museum

Dickens stayed here early in his career, but he was already successful, having rocketed to fame at age 24 with the publication of the Pickwick Papers. He was happily married – at least in those days – and often had gangs of friends over. He had a parlor and a wine cellar and a dining table that comfortably seated eight.

All the while, he was cranking out the pages. It’s amazing to look at his writing desk and ponder the sheer physical effort involved in writing a honking big tome like David Copperfield in longhand.

Photo: IBTimes .com

So, the downstairs rooms of the house reflect success and satisfaction. But there are secrets in the attic – secrets Dickens hid from almost everyone during his lifetime.

When Charles Dickens was twelve, his father was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. His mother and younger siblings were clapped in with him, but Charles, being old enough to work, was sent to a factory to paste labels onto bottles of boot blacking. He lived on his own in boarding houses.

I can’t imagine the trauma of being orphaned by the state, tossed out of school and sent to work at age 12. But it becomes a little more real when you see a set of bars from the Marshalsea on display in the attic.

Photo: Dickens Museum

It’s easy to see how this experience shaped Dickens’ writing: all the neglected waifs, poorhouses and debtors’ prisons; the thick vein of social justice that powers the novels. But it raises a tricky question: if you could go back in time, would you pay off the elder Dickens’ debt and rescue Charles from faux orphanhood? Would his brilliant novels then vanish in a puff of smoke? I suspect they would.

If you had the choice, what would you do?

For more Dickens-y stuff, check out the next post about the Marshalsea wall, St. George the Martyr church, and other key Dickens locations.


Foundlings and faux orphans, part I

It was grey and rainy and I guess we were all in the mood for some Sad Tourism, because we set our sights on the Foundling Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from each other in Holborn.

Wisely, we fortified our spirits beforehand at the spectacular Indian YMCA canteen, which I’ve already written about.

The Foundling Museum commemorates London’s first orphanage. Two things stood out to me: one was the remarkable determination of its founder, sea captain and merchant Thomas Coram. In the 1720s, Coram was horrified to learn that upwards of a thousand newborns per year were left to die in the streets of London. He spent 17 years campaigning to establish an institution to take in unwanted children.

Thomas Coram as painted by William Hogarth in 1740.

The second thing that stays with me – that haunts me – is the tokens that parents left with their children when dropping them off at the Foundling Hospital. The tokens allowed them to retrieve the child if their fortunes changed. Many parents wrote wistful messages on the rubbed coins or bits of fabric they pinned to their child’s clothing.

Photo: Foundling Museum

This one has a rebus that spells out “I want relief,” with a little sketch of a baby in a cradle. Sob!


This is a fancy little fabric heart. Bawl!

There was definitely an air of Dickens about the place, too. Cathy remembered that there’s a token involved in Oliver Twist. I remembered that Little Dorrit has a orphaned character named Tattycoram. Sure enough, she’s named after Thomas Coram. So we were in a suitably Dickensian mood as we set off to our next stop.