Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Flyovers, Roundabouts and more

Photo: Austin-Healey at British Auto show Ottawa 2010, wikipedia

British road terms are such fun. Roundabouts and flyovers. In Canada, we have neither -- only overpasses and traffic circles. Perhaps that's what gives these less familiar driving terms such a thrilling feel of speed.

It's easy to imagine myself once again at the wheel of an Austen-Healey 3000, speeding around the roundabout, hair flying, outer wheels off the ground. Those cars were fast. I wouldn't dare drive one round a flyover, lest it take to the air.

Zebra crossings? Vancouver has no "pajama-wearing donkeys." But Canada geese, our local livestock, do cross the Stanley Park Causeway.

In England, each town has a high street, a term I had often wondered about. On a recent visit, I learned that this is a reference to Roman roads, which were cambered in the middle to allow water to wash down the sides.

As for the humped crossing, in some circles, such talk would be considered rude and crude.

Photo: Zebra crossing by jkroadmarkings

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cornish Pasties internationalize

Photo: Cornish culture

A contemporary version of the Cornish pasty contains chicken and chorizo. According to the ads, it's "baked with authentic Spanish spices (no bull)" and advertised as a "limited edition."

On his website, gourmet chef Jamie Oliver showcases a Montana version, the Cornish Cowboy pasty, which involves cornmeal or polenta in the pastry, and butternut squash in the dough.

The West Cornwall Pasty Co. has shops all over the UK, including the big railway stations. More traditional wares include Steak and Ale, Steak and Stilton, Lamb and Mint, Pork and Apple.

In recent years, though, pasties have expanded well beyond these options, and past the predictable Cheese and Mushroom or Cheese and Onion. How about Chicken Balti, with a curry flavour, Vegetable Provencal or Salmon? Hungry yet?

The very best traditional Cornish pasty I ever ate came from a small local stand in Bristol Temple Meads station. If you want the original, go to the source -- or closer to the source, in this case.

I've enjoyed some great variations in London too. A memorable version came from a shop near Victoria Station. While the traffic was stopped, waiting for the Queen to pass (yes, truly), I decided to lunch on a quick asparagus and chicken pastry envelope. It was fresh, hot and delectable. So was the tea.

Recently I was served a pasty baked on site by a native speaker of Russian. I devoured it hot in the vast chilly cavern of St. Pancras Station, with the train platforms behind me, the new glass wall in front, decked with its antique clock, Olympic logo and, near the far wall, the Paul Day sculpture.

Indeed, the Cornish pasty has come a long way, and it's lighter and fluffier than ever. The original pastry was made stodgy on purpose. The miners, who had no way to wash their hands at lunchtime, used one thick corner of the pastry as a handle to grasp their pies. And of course they needed food that would to stick to the ribs and get a man through a long day of labour.

The traditional pasty was hearty; the thick crust held onion, potato, chunks of steak, and swede (yellow turnip).

Photo: Old St. Pancras overlaid by new, with Paul Day statue visible at bottom CT 2012

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Missing Air Street, Bear Street, and Rotten Row

I've been home a few days now, but the street names of London still echo in my mind. Air Street and Bear Street. Druid Street, Fleet Street, Chancery Lane.

Photo: Bear Street, London WC 2. CT 2012

Poultry Street and Bread Street were named for the goods sold there in their early days as part of a market organized by product types. On the other hand, Temple Bar is neither a temple nor a bar. It was once a gate to the walled City of London, also known as The Square Mile. According to the City of London, the word temple was related to the adjacent law courts, and the bar may originally have been a chain barring the gate. It was definitely not somewhere to go for a drink.

But how did Bear Street get its name? Or for that matter, Air Street?

Photo left: Air Street is appropriately labelled in an archway that soars into the air. 

Above right: Illustration with history of the area decorates Hyde Park Underground Station. 

No discussion of strange London street names would be complete without a mention of Rotten Row. This became the first road in London, and indeed in England, to get street lights, when in the late seventeenth century, William III had 300 oil lamps installed to enhance safety through illumination. During the Victorian age, to be seen dressed in one's best and riding a beautiful horse along Rotten Row along the edge of Hyde Park was the height of fashion.

This name is a corruption of the French Route du Roi, the King's road.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

City neighbourhoods: Fraser Street and Commercial Drive

Photo: Frank holds a cup of coffee at the Calabria on Commercial Drive canada.com

My friend who is working overseas is in town for a few days. Yesterday we walked along Fraser Street -- first time in years.

Though the street has changed, Rokko Sarees and Fabrics, the source of silks, is still on the corner. I recognize a bank building that was once important, but little else. We pass a cafe that serves pulled-pork sandwiches, and another on the same block selling Halal meats.

"This is the new Commercial Drive," comments my friend. She always seems to have her finger on Vancouver's pulse, no matter how much time she spends away. Possibly it is that perspective of elsewhere that makes her see our beloved home city so clearly.

Her comment about Commercial Drive takes me back in time. When first I began to frequent this street in the early seventies, it was still an Italian neighbourhood. Settled after the war, it was full of well-established gardens full of tomatoes, peppers and even fig trees. And Italian coffee shops, of course.

Joe's, with its Portuguese proprietor, took the prize for best lattes -- still does, according to my friend. Then the Drive was the only place for Italian ice cream, lemon gelato being the fave.

The cake taker for atmosphere has always been the Calabria. It was smaller then, and located on the north side of First Avenue.  From a high basket chairs at one of the two round marble window tables that flanked the door, I loved to sip cappucinos and watch the world go by. I lived in the neighbourhood then, and would walk or bike over.

Off the main street in summer, neat garden patches groaned with tomatoes and peppers; well-kept trees were weighed down with black and green figs and Italian prune plums.

The area is different now -- more multicultural. And the Calabria, which moved years and years ago to a bigger building on the south side of First, is a different place, though still charming.

Frank's sons carry on the great tradition of playing Italian opera as they grind and make the coffee. A bit retro now, the Calabria is still the definitive set piece of Commercial Drive.

A few blocks away, along Fraser between 41st and 49th, India Town continues to grow and develop. The fabric stores carry every possible kind of material, including a variety of fancy silks in alluring colours.

Photo: Rokko Sarees and Fabrics, Fraser Street, Fair Tax coalition

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Leaving London: a magical departure

Picture: View from Russell Square, CT 2012

She wrestles her luggage out of the hotel, careful not to bump the case of eggs that has been left precariously on the narrow stone step, along with a flat of milk in plastic jugs and a large basket of bread. This food is destined to become the hotel breakfast.

Does she have everything? Before allowing the heavy red door to close behind her, she checks one more time: backpack, long-strapped purse, pouch around her neck with passport, ticket and London wallet with a few pounds still in it. The alarm clock and key have been left on the desk as instructed.

Confident that all is in good order, she maneuvers her dented suitcase past the eggs and flumps it down the stone steps behind her. It's rough on the wheels, but at the moment, it's the best she can do. Once on the sidewalk, she readjusts her burdens and stands for a moment indecisive.

At 4:30 am, there is nobody in the street, and no clear sign of dawn yet either. Across the corner of the green square, she can see the Hotel Russell, its entrance well-lit. Should she go there to seek a taxi? No, she will take the advice of the hotel desk clerk, go directly to the taxi rank in front of the British Museum.

And so she sets off down the street, her suitcase wheels bumping along the uneven stone paving slabs. Now she's the one making that familiar thumpety sound. When she first heard it from her room, she thought it was made by skateboarders.

She rounds the corner into Great Russell Street, but to her dismay, the taxi rank is empty. The only sign of life is a man driving a pedicab -- a bicycle with a little two-seat conveyance behind. She approaches him saying, "I need a taxi."

With a smooth black hand, he gestures in the direction of Oxford Street. His speech is accented by an African language, but she cannot discern which one. "You have to go to the main road." Then, as her face fall, he asks, "Where are you going?"

"Just to St. Pancras Station."

He gives her luggage an appraising glance and says, "I can take you." Smiling with relief, she climbs up, and he wrestles the large case up beside her and fastens the seat belt around it. He hands her the back pack and tells her to hold onto it.

"How much will it cost?'

"A tenner?" She detects a slight rising tone in his voice -- tentativeness, or an expectation of bargaining.

"Fantastic." She nods her agreement and he climbs onto the cycle.

"What time is your train?"

"I'm hoping to make the 5:30," she says, "but the 5:12 would be even better."

"We'll be there in about 6 or 7 minutes," he says, pressing hard on the pedals to force the heavily laden vehicle into motion. From behind, his head looks smooth and round, with tight even curls.

She sits back to enjoy the feeling of the fresh morning air on her face. The sky is clear; apparently the weather will be fine on the day of her departure. She watches the familiar buildings, brick and stone, pass by as they trundle along the nearly empty road.

When they pull up to the door of the shiny glass-fronted entrance of the newly refurbished St. Pancras International, it is only 4:40.

He unloads her luggage and she gives him two tenners, so pleased is she to have found him at the moment she needed the ride. Upon receiving the money, he half bows, politely thanking her, and then lifts her large case up the three stone steps to the station and wishes her a good day.

The station is nearly empty. Platform A is just a few yards ahead of her. From here she will take the Brighton Train, which calls at Gatwick Airport. She finds her ticket and heads for the barrier.

Once on the platform, she looks at her watch. She will make the 4:54. The young man has put her two trains ahead; she will have extra time at the airport. From first to last, this London trip has been magic.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

War Horse and the willing supsension of disbelief

Image of horse puppet from The Daily Mail

It's amazing how willing the mind is to suspend disbelief. The horses in the show are transparent hand-made puppets,  operated by teams of three men each, who are perfectly visible, though not obvious. Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town relates the story of how the astonishing Joey puppet was brought to life.

Equine star Joey is seen walking in this clip taken at Sandown Park. Like the little girl in the video who wants to feed Joey, the adult audience of War Horse believes in the puppet horses, especially when witnessing the astonishing feats of horse-like behaviour and sound produced by the puppeteers.

Along with four other Tonys, War Horse has just won a Tony for Best Play. Besides London, it is currently showing in New York, Toronto, Berlin and Melbourne.

Back home in Surrey, we had intended to see the movie War Horse, but it left our suburban theatre, and we didn't get around to tracking it down at another location. Now here I am at the New London Theatre, watching it live on stage.

I almost didn't manage to see it here. Then, on my last day in London, I made the decision to go, knowing that the regrets of life are for what we leave undone. I approached the theatre box office about 15 minutes before the matinee and asked if there were still  tickets available.

"I can do you one for ten pounds, with a restricted view" came the reply, "or I can do you one for forty."

I considered briefly. The ten pound ticket for The Master Class had been far back and high up.

"I'll go for forty."

The ticket seller spoke to a colleague and picked up a ticket that lay between them, then turned back and slid it across. "You can have this for forty," he said. Row D in the stalls: fifty-five pounds.

Ten minutes later, I was watching the World War I drama of horse and man from the the centre section, right in front of the stage. First the wager, then the domestic scenes, the colt, the shift to the comic relief of a quacking goose puppet that looked and behaved like a real goose. The grown horse then, and the horrors of the war, with its gas attacks and tanks feeling real and terrifying. And the young man separated from his beloved horse.

By the time it was over I was in tears. Relief, release, catharsis. Walked out into Drury Lane in the cool dry evening, heading for High Holborn. A stellar way to end my London stay.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Digging London

In World War II, Londoners and people across England dug Victory Gardens to raise food for immediate consumption. These fruit and vegetable plots cropped up in available places both small and large. Even the moat at the Tower of London and St. James' Park were placed under cultivation.

Londoners have a long history of excavation, but where do they put the dirt? When the Piccadilly Line was dug out, it was dumped at Stamford Bridge. When the Chelsea Football Club arrived there in 1905, this soil was used to elevate the level of the stands.

More recently, soil dug out for new construction works was used in a creative way. It was piled up into four mounds, reminiscent of the ancient defensive earthworks or castle mounds seen all over England, and thus fitting nicely into the landscape. These four modern dirt piles are clearly visible from the A40 when entering and leaving London.

Local people have put the faux hill forts to good use. Three of these grassy mounds have footpaths worn straight up the the side by those who climb them for exercise; the fourth has a paved spiral pathway much used by joggers, who, in addition to the virtues of exercise, enjoy the additional reward of the wonderful view from the top.

Photo: Cambridge Castle Mound, Wikipedia images

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Layered London II

A qualified London tour guide told me that 40% of the city is green space, much of it occupied, of course, by the Royal Parks, large tracts of which are regularly used by the general public.

In Kensington Park, there were walkers, joggers and families a-plenty, enjoying the quiet beauty of the area overlooked by the palace where Queen Victoria was born and Lady Diana lived. In fact, a memorial fountain nearby commemorates her too-short life. When told it was about half an hour's walk away in adjacent Hyde Park, I reluctantly decided to save my foot power for later.

Travelling the Underground requires physical stamina. Going up and down so many stairs and escalators, and walking through the maze of tunnelled halls that connect the lines is definitely good exercise, as well as being an exhilarating trip into history.

The London Tube, or Underground is the world's oldest transit system. The Baker Street Station is older than Canada; it opened in 1863. Some of the tunnels, like those on the District Line, are shallow cut and cover style, while others lie very deep below ground. Hampstead station on the Northern Line is almost one hundred ninety-two feet deep, according to David Long (The Little Book of the London Underground, The History Press, 2009).

As below, so above. Yesterday I walked all over the elevated world of the Barbican Centre and surroundings, climbing up to the platforms somewhere near St. Paul's Station on the Central Line and descending finally, at Moorgate Station, located on along the Hammersmith and City, Circle and Metropolitan Lines.

Also above ground, the overground trains connect to the subterranean ones, mainly serving the areas outside of the central city.

The buses of London are layered, like the city itself, and a ride on the top of a double decker, especially an open top one, is de rigeur for any tourist who wants to see the city. From the front seat of a big red London bus, the visitor can enjoy not only great views of the streets, but many astonishing architectural flourishes that are invisible from street level.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Finally found out about the pump room at Bath

Photo: More like a samovar than a pump, this is the source of the waters taken at Bath. CT

It was one of those questions that you entertain forever and never get around to researching. Though if I had grown up during the Google era, I probably would have looked up The Pump Room at Bath, I never did. In the years since I first read Jane Austen, I've tried to picture it in different ways.

At one time I speculated that it might be a place where only pumps could be worn. Since in the past men's shoes as well as women's were described as pumps, this seemed logical.

But since most visitors to Bath were taking the waters, I suspected that the pump room involved water pumps, and this proved to be the case. The Pump Room today is a restaurant with white napery and sparkling tableware. In an alcove on the side, a uniformed young man presides over the pump, and dispenses the healing waters that pour out of the earth at Bath.

If a picture is word a thousand words, a visit multiplies that many times over. I have seen the pump, and tasted its waters. This natural spring water from deep under the earth is tepid and rather nasty tasting, but supposed to be full of useful minerals. According to Queen Anne's  physician, taking the waters, which meant drinking three glassfuls a day, as well as bathing in the waters (in those days fully clothed in many layers), would cure the royal lady of many ills. Apparently it did. Bath's fame spread, and it became a destination spa.

The buildings are works of art in the local honey coloured Cotswold limestone, but the town is rather hilly and some of its slopes are quite steep. Too steep for horses, in fact, and thus the wheeled Bath Chair was invented, in which the invalid sat while others pushed. These conveyances were for hire, and in order to catch one, instead of saying "Taxi," the passenger would call out "Chair, Ho!" Over time this became corrupted to the common British greeting, "Cheerio." This and much other rich lore came from our wonderful guide Ruth, whose Golden Tours I happened to take twice, albeit to different destinations and five years apart.

Photo: Green pool at Roman Baths reflects a blue spring sky, CT 2012

The Romans were the ones who built the gorgeous baths here. Considering the place a sacred spring, they devoted it to one of those hybrid deities that come into being when a new religion meets with an older one. The Roman Minerva joined with the local deity and became Sulis Minerva.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Layered London I: Underground in war time

Holborn Underground as a WWII shelter from britishsky.com 

It is well-known that during the heavy bombardment of World War II, Londoners took to the Underground in droves, using the stations to shelter from German blitz attacks. Beneath the ground, people ate and slept in relative safety. Also, early in the war, the underground was used to transport 200,000 children from the city centre to the safer suburbs.

At first, the London Transit authority tried to discourage people from sheltering in the stations, in order to keep trains clear for evacuating the dead. However, when notices were posted that stations were not to be used as air raid shelters and that only passengers would be permitted, people bought tickets and went down anyway.

Soon London Transit had matters organized and being underground became a way of life. LT issued tickets to regular users, added bunk beds and toilets and ran special trains to deliver tons of food and thousands of gallons of tea and cocoa. The London County Council got involved and established libraries in most of the 79 station shelters. There were even musical evenings, movies and dances underground. Naturally there were medical personnel stationed below -- 36 doctors and 200 nurses by then end of the war. (Long, 2009)

Overall, the Tube proved to be a good bomb shelter. Amazingly few were killed, though there were some casualties. A bomb at Bank in 1941 killed 56 people and wounded 69 when the station collapsed, leaving a crater so large that a Bailey bridge was  temporarily constructed over the opening. Marble Arch was also hit, killing twenty, and so was Bounds Green, where ironically, most of the victims were refugees who had escaped Dunkirk. In 1943, someone tripped on the stairs at Bethnal Green, causing others to fall. This resulted in 173 deaths of men, women and children, who are commemorated by a plaque at the station.

In 1940, a decision was taken to bore a new system of tunnels, linked to the Tube, and a plan was made to construct a system of deep level shelters under 7 stations. Four were designed for civilians, but the others were for government use. As the Allies prepared for D-Day, General Eisenhower had his London headquarters deep under Goodge Street Station. This facility was directly linked by pneumatic tube (for message delivery) to Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms under Whitehall.

Photo left: Contemporary buskers entertain commuters underground, CT 2012

The deep underground system was never completed due to postwar austerity measures. However, good use was made of the spaces below the city. In 1948 Clapham Common was used to temporarily shelter several hundred Commonwealth citizens who arrived on the SS Empire Windrush, and beneath Chancery Lane, the Public Record Office stashed tons of top secret documents.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Clear channels of music and Cromwell's head

Image of The Chapel Court at Sidney Sussex from the Daily Mail.

On Sidney Street in Cambridge, I pause before the front gate. An ancient wooden door stands ajar and I peer into the courtyard. This place feels familiar. Sidney Sussex College? A woman in a neat blue coat comes out, rolling a suitcase behind her. "Go inside," she advises. "The chapel is beautiful."

"But is it allowed?" I ask. These colleges are private. One does not go in without an invitation.

"Oh yes," she says. "They're having an open day. And the choir is practicing, so you'll hear some lovely music too."

I step into the green front courtyard of this building of warm medieval stone, past the empty porter's lodge, and enter silence. The street noises fade behind the stone wall that is draped with wisteria just coming into bloom. The only sound is the quiet conversation that engages a small knot of students.

They direct me to the chapel, and I pull the old knob to open the heavy wooden door. Yes, I have been here before, and I go straight to the plaque on the wall and read its strange inscription.

"Near this place was buried on 25 March 1960 the head of Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, fellow commoner of this college 1616-7."

As I step back, the sterling voices of young men rise in harmony and then the women's higher tones blend in to swell the chorus.

The day is cold for May, but this evening is magical. With some reluctance, I step out of range of the music and leave this green and quiet place to return to the street.

There, I hear a different kind of music. A thin girl with a nose ring is playing a penny whistle, a familiar Irish tune. I begin to walk away, but as the tones swell on the chilly evening air, I fumble in my pocket for a pound coin and turn back to add to her basket of offerings.

I climb aboard the bus to return to the station, ascend the narrow, steep and winding stair and take the front corner seat, hungry to see what else I can before I go.

When we stop I am level with the roof of the bus shelter, which carries an advertising slogan that seems to be a special reminder for me: "Clear channel," it says, and I recall the words of Jean Houston so many years ago, and her exhortation to become a clear channel for abundant life.