Tuesday 30 June 2015

Heading west

Temperatures are  rising today, with 33 degrees forecast for tomorrow, so it was clearly time to leave London. There have already been regular announcements on the Tube that people feeling unwell should seek attention before getting on the train “because we can look after you better in the station” – and, incidentally, of course, save the possibility of delays dealing with slumps and collapses inside the carriages.

There’s also the matter of English men feeling empowered to wear shorts, which is dazzling, and not in a good way. So today we headed out of London into the Home Counties, escaping via Waterloo where it was already so stifling that pigeons flapping overhead provided a welcome breeze.

Have you ever considered exploring Guildford? You should. It’s such a pretty town, with a pedestrian-only cobbled High Street leading up the hill from the river, lined with brick and half-timbered buildings, an ornate gilded clock hanging over the roadway. There are inviting side alleys, nice shops, lots of historic edifices, good pubs and plenty of local civic pride.

And out in the country, along narrow country roads between hayfields and wooded hills, there are little villages with neat greens, herringbone-brick half-timbered pubs, manor houses with elaborate brick chimneys, and individual features like the clock at Abinger Hammer where a clockwork blacksmith strikes the hour on a bell, across the road from the green where today children were playing in the River Tillingbourne (more of a stream, really) to cool off after school.

Monday 29 June 2015

Old and new

When a horse is 16.1 hands high, you say ‘Sixteen one’, not ‘Sixteen point one’. It’s not a decimal measurement – in fact, it’s a quarter, since there are four inches to the hand. That’s the only criticism I have of the guides at the Royal Mews, and it’s a pretty mild one. For the rest, they’re terrific: knowledgeable, friendly, approachable and quite remarkably polite and respectful. I guess that’s standard for Buckingham Palace employees.
The horses, though, looked entitled. Clean, shiny-coated, ripping into the sweetly-smelling hay in the nets hanging in their gleaming-tiled loose boxes. They know they’re onto a good thing, those Cleveland Bays and Windsor Greys: undemanding public duties (apart from all those waving flags) and two holidays a year at Hampton Court, shoes off and their hair down.
The coaches – or carriages, same thing, I established from Ian who admitted to long staff discussions on the subject – are fabulous things of gold and gleaming paintwork, ornate and elegant. They're not just conveyances, as we learned when looking at the Australian State Coach, which though it looks super-traditional has car-type suspension, air con and electric windows, and the crown on top, made from wood from the wreck of HMS Victory, conceals a camera for those roof-top shots essential to any parade coverage. It's the coach of preference for the royals, who hate the Cinderella-type 1762 Coronation Coach, which makes them all sea-sick, even the naval types. Pretty, though.
That’s old – what’s newest is The Shard, which costs £30 to go up to Level 72. While that’s not as high as the fox got when it was still being built – or even approaching many signature buildings around the world – it’s plenty high enough to enjoy the iconic sprawl of London all around. Also birdsong and a picnic on the grass. True: neither of them real, but fun, along with deck chairs, picnic rugs and cushions, and the chance to enjoy a cream tea and champers while sprawled on them beside the geraniums and chrysanthemums nodding in the breeze.

The Book of Mormon is a new take on an old idea, rude and funny and bursting with energy and talent – but there’s just as much delight to be gained from a wander around the night-time streets of London afterwards on a warm summer night, everyone in a good mood, the buildings lit up, the moon almost full and all those classic sights looking perhaps even better than by daylight.

Sunday 28 June 2015

Go Jason!

On a long trip, which this one is on my personal scale, you have to have the odd day off, so since it was dull and grey this morning, we opted for a low-key cruise on a converted barge along the Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock. I couldn’t resist though taking notes and photos just in case I might want to write a story – but as it turned out, the London Waterbus operation is one to which I wouldn’t want to give anything but bad publicity.
It started well, the boat moored in the still reflecting pool at Little Venice, geese gliding past, Browning Island (of Robert fame) in the middle, other barges passing picturesquely. And the route is pleasant, past Regency buildings with neat gardens behind iron railings, then wild bits with buddleia and brambles growing over the towpath, and under bridges and through tunnels, one nearly 250 metres long. There was an informative commentary, though it was a bit brief and too quiet to hear well over the other passengers’ conversation. We even went past London Zoo, where birds seemed to be trying to get inside Snowdon’s spiky modern aviary.
But then it began to rain – nowhere near hard, nor even continuously – and the young woman hosting the cruise officiously leaned over people clutching cameras and closed all their windows. I opened mine again, of course, but then she did another round and, when I protested, informed me that “Water damages the boat”. Resolute against the arguments that water is a fact of life for boats, and that people had paid to see the scenery and not rain-streaked glass, she was offended that I had the temerity to disobey her by opening my window yet again, and told me so.
I’m afraid I was rude to her as I left the boat at Camden, to her noisy astonishment. I regret that, but not as much as I regret choosing to cruise with London Waterbus in the first place, and not with their competitor, Jason’s.

After that, Camden Lock Market, even with rain pouring off the canvas roofing, was better fun. Good food there, interesting market stalls of all sorts, good-humoured crowds and colourful, if tacky shops. It’s worth a visit – just make sure you go with Jason and not with you-know-who.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Various sorts of hot and sweaty

Is it reassuring, or not, to see soldiers in camo gear toting submachine guns when you roll up to the Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to London? Specifically, it was the bomb squad, there to investigate an unattended bag that led to the evacuation of the entire London Hall. By the time I arrived, there were passengers for three separate delayed Eurostar departures trying to squeeze into the station, where things had become distinctly snug. This was to become a theme for the day.

At the other end of the line, London was heaving too, the Tube trains packed so tightly that cliché sardines were the only accurate comparison – on a hot day, particularly trying. Emerging onto Oxford Street at Marble Arch, the crowds were, if anything, even worse. It was London’s Gay Pride march today, and hundreds of thousands of people lined the route, cheering and whistling as more than 250 groups marched past suitably attired in eye-catching costumes. Last year apparently 750,000 people attended the event and today must have been at least the same. Living in a small country, it’s quite shocking to experience crowds like this, even good-humoured and patient ones.
The parade went on for over 3 hours, not that I watched it all: flags were waved, stickers stuck, bags of sweets flung at the crowd, there was music, marching, dancing, cavorting, there were extravagant costumes and confetti, and everyone seemed to want to get in on the act. Definitely a feel-good occasion. Then, as soon as the last group passed, dancing in unfeasibly high heels, the street sweeping machines came buzzing along, the barriers were stacked up and carried away, and soon Oxford Street looked pretty much the same as ever. Nice work.

After succumbing to the temptation of one last French meal at the authentic Café Rouge in Tottenham Court, the prize for the most impressive performance of the day, though, has to go to the cast of ‘Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games’ whose technical skill and sheer tap speed was mind-blowing, and irresistibly exciting. It was, naturally, a self-selecting audience that was cheering from the first number – but it’s impossible for me to imagine even the most curmudgeonly anti-Irish dancing freak not getting caught up in the noisy enthusiasm for such amazingly fast and precise dancing. And when Michael Flatley himself appeared in the second half, feet as blurred as ever? Sheer magic.

Wednesday 24 June 2015


Or maybe nineteen? Part of the reason for today’s reaction against Normandy’s half-timbered buildings is that I’m unable to look at them without seeing Roman numerals. The colours vary, and the arrangement of diagonals, horizontals and verticals, but it seems to be a constant that the lower level will be a series of Xs and Is. It gets a bit wearing, mathematically.

Also, there are just so many of them. Towns, villages, farmhouses – they’re all variations on tile and plaster, stone and brick, fitted into an oak framework. I’ve still not been able to resist taking masses of photos of rows of buildings, though, hung with flower baskets and framed by leafy plane trees. We’re in Rouen today, and there’s no escape from these medieval beauties: the town is crammed with them, despite considerable war damage.
Our local guide was Élodie, a charming young woman in a black and white gingham dress with red accessories including the flowers in her hair. She took us around the cobbled streets, through alleyways so narrow I feared for the Americans in the group, past leaning buildings and into the cathedral with its unusual see-through iron spire. Joan of Arc was a feature of the tour, as well as Vikings, the wool industry, Flaubert, Monet and Julia Child.
Afterwards I had my obligatory galette, a complète with egg, chips and salad – very nice, too, eaten under a sunshade in the square beside the cathedral with a glass of cider, surrounded by French people taking very much longer to have their meal.

The day disintegrated somewhat then: there were three glasses of champagne, a ship tour including the bridge where the captain showed us his tiny joystick, a long peaceful session on the sundeck as the Tapestry II glided peacefully through the green countryside, with a soundtrack of nothing but birdsong and the lapping of the wake on the banks. Then a degustation dinner in the lounge was followed by the crew concert, which was awfully funny. Emphasis on the ‘awfully’. (Though Tiago's energetic dance turn made him the star).


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