Thursday, May 01, 2008

London on Five Pints a Day

On April 22, I ventured back across the Pond to visit Steven, Amy, Godwin, and Bella in London. The trip out was uneventful and, dare I say, fairly pleasant (cue Andrew Bird’s “Fiery Crash”). I do rather like British Airways; being able to check in online and print my own boarding pass saves a ton of time at the airport.

Stupidly, a month or so ago while waiting at the Albany airport for my mother’s delayed flight from Newark, I signed up for a Clear card which prescreens people so they can whiz through special lanes at airport security. Their raison d’ĂȘtre is to “add predictability” to your flight. Something in the back of my mind suspected it was a bad idea, but I tend not to listen to my own brain sometimes. I specifically asked if they had a Clear lane at Newark’s Terminal B (the international terminal) and they said “Yes,” and their literature even mentioned it. Imagine my surprise when I got to Newark airport’s Terminal B and found no Clear lane. So much for predictability. Oh, well. Another lesson learned: never believe anyone who is selling me something.

Anyway, we arrived at Heathrow (happily not Terminal 5, which brings to mind the Monty Python song “I’m So Worried,” which includes the lyrics, “I’m so worried about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow”) on time, although it took some time for the airport to send out a stairway (memories of Arrested Development). I heard on the car radio that it was St. George’s Day, which could explain all the English flags I saw fluttering from windows (not the Union Jack, but rather a red cross on a field of white), although dorky me initially wondered what the deal was with all the Swiss flags. Ahem.

I spent Wednesday hanging about the house and recovering from jet lag (as was Amy, who had just returned from China an hour before I got in). Played with the kids, and Godwin and I bonded in a special way when he threw up on me.

Thursday I had an appointment with the head of the St. Bride Printing Library for some preliminary research I am doing for a potential book on the history of English printing. They had a very fast WiFi network, which let me keep up on e-mail, as I was unable to access any other WiFi network in London (except at the Apple Store on Regent Street). And despite what the woman in the AT&T store in Wilton Mall said, I was not able to use my iPhone in London to make calls. Another lesson learned: never believe anyone who has already sold me something. Still I have to admit that it was extremely peaceful to be completely disconnected. We do become slaves to these damn devices, don’t we?

Anyway, Version 1.0, fresh off the boat from his world cruise, happened to be in town at the same time, so we wandered about London, Covent Garden Market, and got vaguely lost in Mayfair, although I did hear tales from the high seas.

On Friday, S, A, G, B, and I took the bus into the City and had dim sum at a very good restaurant in Chinatown, then wandered down toward Parliament Square. I was hoping to get to tour Westminster Abbey, which I had missed last time, but we arrived too late. We were all rather tired, so we grabbed a cab and headed back to Hackney. (Gotta love London cabs...they don’t reek, they’re clean, and the driver knows where he is going, unlike almost every cab I have ever taken in an American city.) And another mystery solved: there is a sign in the back of the cabs that reads “Red light indicates doors are secured,” which explains the title of an Arctic Monkeys song.

On Saturday, Amy had to work and Steven had to look after the kiddies, so I set out to explore by myself. I had an idea of checking out a presentation at the Royal Observatory’s planetarium on black holes, but I didn’t get there in time, which was just as well, because the weather was perfect, so I was not inclined to sit inside. I had lunch at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, overlooking the Thames, and had a respectable cheeseburger and a pint of bitter. tells us that The Trafalgar Tavern was built in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. In the 19th-century, it was a hangout for senior members of Parliament. The pub was refurbished and re-opened in 1965.

I then decided to walk along the Thames Walk, which veers away from the river and then disappears into a park. It was at that point that I got lost in Lewisham, which seemed like the kind of place one really shouldn’t be lost in. (Then again, this wasn’t the States, so the chances of being randomly stabbed and shot were slim to none; drive-by sarcasm was likely to be the worst I could expect.) Fortunately, I had bought a pocket map of London in Greenwich so it was easy to figure out where I needed to go.

In my wanderings, I came across this road sign. I have no idea what it means, but I think we could all use it at some point:
I ended up at the Surrey Quays, which is a big shopping center just south of the river. Wandering quayside, I came across an inviting pub called the Moby Dick and had a pint of Fuller’s London Pride ale.

My energy cells recharged, I checked my map and found a nearby Tube station on the Jubilee Line. My goal was to take it to Waterloo Station (“Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo Underground” –The Kinks). However, the Jubilee Line was not running, so I had to take a bus instead. There was a stop at the Tower Bridge Road, so I got off and walked over the Tower Bridge.

The Tower Bridge—often confused with London Bridge (which is thoroughly unremarkable)—was opened in 1894. It is called the Tower Bridge as it is located adjacent to the Tower of London. It spans 800 feet across the Thames, and is a hydraulic drawbridge, and was open as I was crossing it.
Once across, I walked past the Tower of London, then turned west and stopped at a wonderful little pub called the Hung, Drawn, and Quartered and had another pint of Pride.
I continued on, seeing another odd street sign:
“Weak subway”? For a minute, I thought I was in Los Angeles. But I digress...

I continued toward the Monument, which was designed by Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. It is 60.6 meters high, said to be the exact distance from its base to where the fire started in Pudding Lane. The monument plays a role in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and you are allowed to climb to the top. However, it is in the midst of a refurbishment when I got there, and was thus closed, although boasted creative use of large-format graphics.

It was then on toward Blackfriars (where David Copperfield worked for Murdstone and Grinby) but also one of my favorite London pubs, The Blackfriar, which has one of the greatest interiors of any building, let alone a pub.

Blackfriars refers to a region of central London, and the name was first used in 1317, deriving from the black outfit worn by Dominican Friars who moved their priory from Holborn in 1276. The priory was eventually closed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. Later, one of the buildings became the Blackfriars Theatre (which was almost directly opposite Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre across the river). The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The area is now the location of Blackfriars Underground station and the bridge-head for Blackfriars Bridge. And, of course, the Blackfriar pub. tells us:
This narrow wedge-shaped pub is jammed against the railway line at Blackfriars. It was built in 1875 near the site of a thirteenth century Dominican Priory, which gives the area its name and was the inspiration for the pubs design.

The exterior of the building has jutting wrought iron signs for each bar and the pub's name is proudly displayed in mosaic tiles. A more recent addition is a statue of a large laughing friar above the main door.

Though unusual and pleasing, the exterior does not prepare you for the extraordinary interior. The immediate impression is that of an extravagantly ornate church, or scaled down cathedral, every inch decorated in marble, mosaic or bas-relief sculpture.

The walls, clad in green, red and cream marble, are covered with illustrations of merry monks. Above the fireplace, a large bas-relief bronze depicts frolicking friars singing carols and playing instruments. Another called 'Saturday Afternoon' shows them gathering grapes and harvesting apples.

Three low arches lead into a smaller bar which is like a chapel, this was added after the First World War. Below a beautiful arched mosaic ceiling, are mottos of wisdom, such as, 'finery is foolery' and 'don't advertise, tell a gossip'. The detail here is amazing, even the light fittings are carved wooden monks carrying yokes on their shoulders, from which the lights hang.

The Black Friar’s interior is literally a work of art. It was begun in 1904, with sculptors Nathaniel Hitch, Frederick T. Callcott and Henry Poole contributing to its splendour. This pub is a lasting testament to their skill and craftsmanship. In the 1960's Sir John Betjeman, who later became the Poet Laureate, led a campaign to save the Black Friar from demolition. Thanks to him and his supporters we can still enjoy this delightful pub.
I had a pint of Fox’s Knob, a lovely Highgate brew, and continued down the Victoria Embankment. Across the river, I spied the London Aquarium—bearing the sign “Robot World.”
Oh, no! They’re coming for the fish now!

My next mission was to find—at Vince N.’s instigation—the London home of Number 6 from The Prisoner: Number 1 Buckingham Place (and that’s a hint for all you would-be Prisoner fans).

On the way through St. James Park, I came across someone who was feeding the wildlife and had made quite a lot of little woodland friends. This is a Gary Larson cartoon in the making...

Thanks to my handy pocket map, I found Buckingham Place, which is a very short street near Buckingham Palace. I tried to recall the opening titles of The Prisoner and frame my pictures as best I could. They painted the door...
One block over, directly behind Number 1 Buckingham Place is a small comfortable pub called The Cask and the Glass. Well, I was there...

It was getting on to dinner time and I thought I would a) get to the Apple Store in Regent Street to check e-mail and see if there was anything urgent going on that I should know about and b) try to call Steven and Amy and let them know that I was not going to be home for dinner. No wonder everyone is on mobile phones; I could not find a phone box that a) wasn’t disgusting and b) worked. Either they accepted my coins and then did nothing (meaning I was out 40p), or it accepted my coins and did nothing but complain about not being able to dial the number I had entered, even before I had entered anything, or it just spit my coins right back out at me. Well!

By this time, I needed to visit a crypt (a euphemism for the gents’), so I found another pub called the Glassblower and availed myself of their facilities. And, well, while I was there...

I ended up on Carnaby Street, home of The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and had dinner in a pub called Shakespeare’s Head. I was near Regent Street so I popped into the Apple Store and checked e-mail (as I suspected, nothing urgent). By then it was getting late and starting to rain, so I headed toward the Tube and back to Hackney...

To be continued....


Elaine Saunders said...

I'd just like to add a little something to your Black Friar info. In 1528 Cardinal Wolsey and the Papal Legate met in the priory that once occupied the pub's site. There they discussed whether Henry VIII could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. No wonder the priory disappeared when Henry eventually married Anne Boleyn!

Elaine Saunders
Author, A Book About Pub Names

Richard Romano said...

Yes, the reign of Henry VIII was a bad time to be a high-ranking Catholic official! Thanks for the comment.