Monday, 5 November 2007

Lunch time landmarks: Circus Tricks

Apparently one in five workers in the UK don't take a full hour for lunch, and the average break is only 27 minutes (, 2004). Experts say that this can affect health and lower productivity, not only that research has shown that visiting art galleries during lunch time can actually lower stress levels (University of Westminster, 2006). And I'm sure what goes for art galleries must, to some extent,
go for all sightseeing.

It's with this in mind that I start what will become a regular(ish) series: Lunch time landmarks. The title's pretty self-explanatory really. I shall go to and write about landmarks that can be visited during lunch time. There are a few stipulations: the landmark must be in an area with a good number of businesses, so nothing too suburban or hidden away in a residential area; it must be easy to get to, with no wasting of time getting to hard-to-reach places; it must be free; and it must doable within an hour or less. Ideally it will also be close to a few cafes where our intrepid lunch-time tourists can grab a bit to eat. First up:

Piccadilly Circus

Or the statue and fountain that grace Piccadilly Circus to be more precise. In the heart of theatreland, Piccadilly Circus was built in 1819 to connect Regent Street (then under construction under the auspices of architect John Nash) with Piccadilly. Circus (from Latin, meaning circle) means a circular space at a road junction, so it seems this is one circus where there has never been animals. The space lost its circular shape in 1886 with the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue, so it's not a proper circus in either meaning of the word anymore.

But that does quite neatly lead us to the statue and fountain. The aforementioned avenue was named for one Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, and the fountain and statue are a memorial to him. The earl was a big-hearted chap and the memorial is to commemorate his philanthropic works. The Shaftesbury Monument
Memorial Fountain, to give it its full name, was erected in 1892-1893, eight years after the earl's death.

Love God: Not Eros, and apparently not Richard Armitage either

The bronze fountain is topped by Alfred Gilbert's aluminium statue. This metal was somewhat rarer than it is today and the statue was the first in the world to be cast in it. This nude, butterfly-winged archer is popularly, though wrongly, called Eros. It was actually intended to be Eros's brother, Anteros, the god of selfless love and
much more appropriate to the charitable, and sober, earl than his more sensuous twin.

The statue was criticised as being in a vulgar part of town - theatres are full of wrong'uns you know. It was also considered too sensual for the famously repectable earl. It's from this that the statues other erroneous name comes from: to allay these objections the statue was renamed the Angel of Christian Charity. The new name didn't stick though, and neither did the correct name and the statue is known the world over as Eros.

Night light: Some of the world's biggest brands up in lights

Piccadilly Circus is one of the most visited sites in London, with scores of people meeting by the memorial. While you're here on your lunch time visit, and maybe pondering the appropriateness of a nude figure in such a public place as no doubt our Victorian predecessors did, take the time to check out the huge neon advertising boards, the Grade II listed Criterion Theatre, the London Pavilion and the huge Virgin Megastores at 1 Piccadilly.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Review: Shrove Friday?

My Old Dutch

Is it okay to have pancakes on any other day than Shrove Tuesday? This was the question that had to be addressed when I and four other lovely ladies met for lunch on a Friday. On my suggestion we went to My Old Dutch in High Holborn, which elicited cries of “Pancakes!” from some and “Pancakes? But it’s the wrong day!” from others.

It’s to the staffs’ credit that they remained remarkably unfazed by the appearance of five excited (and ever so pretty) young ladies on a Friday lunch time with no reservation. We were shown to a table immediately – one right next to the bar; I’m sure that had nothing to do with it not being my first visit. The table was fine, but we could have done without the manager whittering on about ghosts. I’m still not sure what he meant. Don’t worry though, the restaurant isn’t actually haunted.

With 15 savoury pancakes (including five veggie ones) and 10 sweet, plus make-your-own options, there’s enough battery goodness to keep even the most pancake-obsessed diner happy. Although as one of my dining companions pointed out, it is somewhat difficult to believe the toppings are the remnants of what the chef found in his cupboard.

Here’s the thing – the pancakes are huge. I wouldn’t bother with starters or salads. None of the starters particularly grab me anyway; they read much like an afterthought to the main event. But really it’s all about the pancakes. I went for my favourite creamed spinach with ratatouille. SM had the same, S la M had another veggie option, the Greek (feta, halloumi, olives etc), while NM went for smoked duck and DB chose smoked salmon.

The Greek was described as “too cheesy” so maybe one to avoid unless you’re a cheese fiend. The duck prompted NM to declare that she had been converted to the idea of pancakes on a Friday but DB wasn't feeling the salmon. And the spinach went down a treat. We all, literally, bit off more than we could chew though. Despite tactically not eating all our first course (except for NM who proved a real trouper), not one of us attempted a sweet pancake. But the waffles and apple pie are highly recommended. We were all given loyalty cards - get nine stamps and have your 10th pancake free.

I went with a friend to the Chelsea restaurant (there's also one in Ealing) only a week later and did even worse - I couldn't even manage a waffle! My plan for next time is to take someone who'll share a savoury pancake so I can did into a sweet one for afters! I also forgot my loyalty card. But I think the original question was most definitely answered in the affirmative: it really is okay to have pancakes any day of the year; and my American friends all agree.

My Old Dutch

Friday, 12 October 2007

Down on the farm

A cold, rainy day in September might not seem the best day for a visit to a country farm, but I wasn't going to let that deter me. It was my birthday and I wanted to see donkeys and that was the end to it. So equipped with waterproofs, walking boots and warm clothing, my partner and I headed off to Mudchute Farm and Park.

Animal farm: The park was originally a piece of derelict land created during the last century from the spoil from the construction of Millwall Dock

We had planned to walk there, the farm isn't far from our Greenwich abode and had the day been nice it would have been a lovely walk. But the rain gods weren't in an agreeable mood, so we jumped in the car. Luckily, unlike many places in London, the farm is easily accessible by road and there is plenty of parking, albeit the pay-and-display variety. The local Asda has a large carpark with a minimal cost to non-shoppers, there's even a gate into the farm from the grounds. Or you could combine your trip with the weekly shop and get the parking for free.

The park was established in the 1970s when the Greater London Council earmarked the area, which had previously remained untouched, for development. The resulting public campaign secured the site as a people's park for the area. In 1977 the Mudchute Association was formed to preserve and develop the area. Farm animals and horses were introduced and the area has become a haven of greenery in the city. It's free to get in, but as a registered charity, if you do visit please do keep in mind that they rely on donations.

The park is set in 31 acres of land, tended by a small team of professionals and a large number of dedicated volunteers. Once you get over the strange juxtapostion of this bit of countryside with Canary Wharf looming in the background, it is lovely walking around the park, even on a wet day. Although I would definitely recommend walking boots - by the time we had walked round there was so much mud clinging to our boots that my partner and I could have made our own mini-park. There's also plenty to see. There were a couple of llamas, looking regal and disdainful despite the rain, sheep, donkeys, a very vocal cow (I think she must have been demanding her lunch or maybe complaining loudly about the weather), some goats huddled in their hut, geese, chickens, a turkey and even rabbits and guinea pigs. There's an equestrian centre where the farm offers riding lessons and families should pop into the education centre.

Llondon llamas:
Apparently they're happy to keep you company during picnics, but probably not in the rain

On a warm day, it would be the perfect place for a picnic. For the lazy among us (myself included) and those who don't trust the English weather, there's Mudchute Kitchen, which serves breakfasts, lunches, snacks and afternoon teas. The cafe is ideal for families, with its play area for kids, high chairs and cheap meals. It was a runner-up in this year's Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards, Best Family Restaurant.

In fact, they've thought of everything. Except maybe a petting farm. I would love to stroke a few donkeys' and goats' heads, and it would be fantastic during lambing season. And I'm sure kids would agree.

Heavy petting: It would be great to be able to get our hands on the animals

Mudchute Park and Farm

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A little thank you

I'd like to thank everyone who has kept with this blog in the long weeks that I've not posted. As some of you know, I've been poorly and not up to writing. But I'm on the mend now and I plan to get blogging again. I've got a post almost ready and waiting which will be up in the next day or two.

So thanks again for sticking with it, and sorry for keeping you waiting. I hope I won't be away for so long again.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Down the tubes

The Tube, the Underground – but never the Subway – is almost inseparable from London itself. The oldest underground system in the world – services began in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway, most of which is now part of the Hammersmith & City line – it’s a huge part of Londoners’ lives. Where would we be without the Tube? Waiting at a rained-out bus shelter, that’s where. With 408km (253miles), 12 lines, 275 served stations (there are some ‘ghost’ stations that are no longer in service) and over 3million passengers every day, the London Underground is the third-biggest metro system in the world (behind Tokyo and New York). It would take a lifetime to write about the whole of the Tube, and almost as long to read about it. So instead I shall tell you about three stations that are my favourites for very different reasons.

First up is Gloucester Road. The station, which opened in 1906, is grade II listed and the original station building is still largely intact. The great thing about it, though, is the way it is used as a space to display art. Five-metre-high niches in the wall of the disused platform 4 have been transformed into an underground gallery to exhibit a series of installations commissioned by Platform for Art, London Underground’s public art programme.

What a laugh: Life is a Laugh is a new commission from Brian Griffiths, running from July 2007

London Underground has a long history of promoting art and design, beginning in 1908 when Frank Pick commissioned leading artists of the day, including Man Ray and Graham Sutherland, to work on London Underground poster campaigns. Then there is the distinctive red, white and blue logo, the typography and, of course, Harry Beck’s iconic map. It’s great the London Underground Ltd is carrying on this tradition with Platform for Art. And if you happen to be heading that way, keep an eye out – you might catch sight of a masterpiece.

I like Tottenham Court Road station for the spectacular mosaics that cover the walls; they really are very beautiful. There are more than 1,000 square metres of murals, installed during the early 1980s and designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The murals feature in the ticket hall, the escalators, the rotunda and on the platforms of the Central and Northern lines, the two lines that serve the station, and each is different. The frenetic design on the Central line platforms reflects the station’s position close to Tottenham Court Road’s large concentration of hi-fi and electronics shops, and Paolozzi’s signature appears in several places in the murals. Those millions of little coloured tiles really brighten up the long escalator journey to ground level.

Platform art: Eduardo Paolozzi was a Scottish sculptor and artist, he was knighted in 1989

The station was also used for a scene in An American Werewolf in London.

Westminster is my favourite station. The architecture is amazing – like something from a stark sci-fi movie. The new station was designed by Michael Hopkins & Partners in the 1990s when it was decided to join up the District & Circle line with the much deeper Jubilee, London Underground’s newest line. It’s a futuristic vision of concrete, glass and huge steel beams and buttresses, which are actually the foundations of Portcullis House. Travelling up (or down) the escalators is simply breathtaking, it’s worth travelling from the District & Circle line to Jubilee just for the experience.

Future shock: The Piranesian-style design creates a sci-fi fantasy

In another film-related aside, the station is used the forthcoming adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Art attack

Yesterday marked the beginning the Royal Academy’s 239th Summer Exhibition. Held annually since the RA was founded in 1768 under the patronage of King George III, the exhibition is the largest open contemporary art show in the world. Works from unknown artists are hung alongside those of famous Royal Academicians such as Tracy Emin and German artist Anselm Kiefer. Other eminent artists on show this year include Michael Craig-Martin, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. Any artist may enter work for the show and the majority of pieces are for sale.

Around 13,000 works were submitted this year, and it is the job of the committee, whose annually rotating membership of practising artists curates the show, to whittle this down to a more manageable number. Around 1,200 works are displayed, and one of the selection methods dates back to the RA’s earliest days. Two wands, one marked ‘D’ and one ‘X’ are used. Any work that manages three ‘D’s (for doubtful) make it through to the next round, while any which get the more ominous ‘X’ are returned to the artist.

This year’s theme was light, prompting the introduction of a whole gallery dedicated to photography. The works on display, however, will encompass a wide range of artistic media, including printing, printmaking, sculpture and architecture. Other features will be a gallery of works by invited artists, which will be curated by sculptor and Turner prize winner Tony Cragg RA. As per tradition there will also be a gallery celebrating the works of Royal Academicians who have died over the past year. This year Kyffin Williams RA and Sandra Blow RA will be remembered.

A highlight of the show will be Hockney’s 40ft scenic painting of Yorkshire, which will be the largest piece on display. The creations of the former Turner Prize nominees Tracey Emin and Issac Julien will feature alongside American artists Johns, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close. Edith Devaney, the head of the Summer Exhibition at the RA, said she was delighted by this year’s line-up. "There's nothing quite like it in the world,” she said.

Light fantastic: Jeppe Hein, Neon Mirror Cube. Mirror, stainless steel, neon tubes, transformers, 100 x 100 x 100 cm

The show runs until 19 August and tickets cost £7, including a list of works with details of every exhibit in the show. See for more information.

Monday, 11 June 2007

A feast of festivals

June is a month for festivals south of the river, with three happening along the Docklands Light Railway route.

First is Motorexpo in Canary Wharf. Starting today and running until 17 June, and now in its 12th year, Motorexpo is the UK's biggest motor show. Over 200 vehicles from the world's leading manufacturers will be on show throughout the Canary Wharf estate. Car makers include Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lotus and Maserati. The cars are shown outside, transferring the estate into a giant showroom for the more than 40 manufacturers' latest models. And what's more, it's all free!

Open road: Aston Martin's V8 Vantage Roadster will be on show at Motorexpo

Next is Greenwich Alive, a multi-arts programme of events celebrating contemporary and classical arts, music and architecture in Greenwich. Three are family architecture days at the Queen's House, open gardens, open studios and special film screenings, among others. Some of the highlights include the Blackheath Art Society 60th anniversary exhibition, running from 16-27 June at the Blackheath Library Gallery (Blackheath Art Society) and Handel with Hamper (17 June), a recital of Handel's music in the beautiful chapel of the Old Royal Naval College. During the extended interval you can have a picnic in the lawns and colonnades of the Grand Square.

Then on 21-24 June is the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. This annual series of specially commissioned outdoor performances is absolutely free. The Festival Fanfare, on 21 June, takes place in Beresford Square in Woolwich. Dutch company Close Act, with White Wings, present ethereal stilt apparitions. From France, Fanfare Jo Bithume’s eccentric brass ensemble plays music from Handel to Hendrix in surprising locations.

Australia’s Strange Fruit embark on a sublime journey into memory with Absolute Pearl. Paper Men create Kurosawa inspired performance from huge swathes of paper. Vernisseurs’ Joyeuse Pagille Urbaine wraps public spaces in ribbons and confetti plus dazzling fireworks from UK pyrotechnic virtuosi The World Famous. Over the next three days the Greenwich and Doclands area will be alive with aerial performance, live music, outdoor dance, theatre and street art.

Chaos theory: Grupo Puja take their inspiration from nuclear physics for K@osmos at the Old Royal Naval College

Motor Expo
Greenwich Alive
Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Open for business

The O2 (formerly known as the Dome) opens its doors this month, weeks ahead of schedule (see Wembley? That’s how it’s done). The Dome has been much maligned in its seven-year lifetime. The Millennium Dome was the government’s white elephant. When the exhibition celebrating the year 2000 and the third millennium was open, it was criticised as too expensive, too crowded and not attracting enough customers, the structure was said to be ugly.

I visited the exhibition while it was still open; I took advantage of the little publicised £10 tickets available in the final hour of opening. The exhibition was huge, there were a lot of people there but the size of place meant it didn’t feel crowded. And the enormous icecreams took the edge of any queuing. The Dome was a fun day out. Eventually the Dome attracted 6.5million visitors, well short of the forecasted 12million, but that was a ridiculously inflated estimate. To put this in perspective, the London Eye is described as ‘the most popular paid for UK visitor attraction’ with 3.5million visitors a year (according to their website).

As for the architecture, I like it. It’s not beautiful but it is striking. Huge and imposing, it’s impossible to miss as you take the DLR towards Greenwich. The architecture is known as ‘tensile’ – it’s constructed of elements carrying only tension with no compression or bending.

When the Dome closed there were several proposals for what should be done with it, including a football stadium and a super casino, neither appeared, for which I’m glad. Instead we have The O2: an enormous, multi-faceted entertainment complex with an arena, music hall, exhibition space, shops, bars, cinema and ice rink. This is exactly what London in general, and south-east London in particular, needed.

The centrepiece of The O2 is the 23,000-seat arena. London’s first purpose-built music venue since the Royal Albert Hall in 1837, the arena ‘is designed specifically for music events whilst retaining all the functionality to transform it into an indoor sports facility within hours,’ according to The O2. The acoustics are the most advanced of any venue in Europe, it has been ‘designed to provide a balanced sound, achieved by treating the entire underside of the roof, the upper walls, balcony fronts and seats to absorb sound and reduce the risk of any echoes or unwanted audio reflections’. The arena will be launched on 24 June with a special inaugural concert by Bon Jovi. Other acts include The Scissor Sisters, Snow Patrol, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake and Take That.

Other attractions include a more intimate music hall, the indigO2, which seats 2,300 people and will open in July with a Jools Holland gig. There’s also an 11-screen cinema, a leisure district with over 20 bars, restaurants, cafes and shops, including Gary Rhodes’s newest restaurant and a venture from Roast, the celebrated eatery in Borough Market. The exhibition, known as the Bubble, opens in November with the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, before these celebrated treasures return to Egypt forever. And don’t forget the ice rink, which I have to say I’m very excited about. I’ve been obsessed with ice skating since I saw Torvill and Dean take gold but I’ve never lived near a rink before.

The O2 is enormous. Just look at these statistics: it has an overall diameter of 365 metres, one metre for every day it was open as the Millennium Dome, and a circumference of one kilometre; at its central point it is 50 metres high and the steel masts are 100 metres high, there are 12 of these masts, representing the hours on a clock face, a reference to Greenwich Mean Time; the ground floor area is more than 80,000 square metres.

If these figures mean as little to you as they do to me, maybe these facts will make it easier to picture:
· If The 02 were ever turned upside down Niagara Falls would take 15 minutes to fill it
· Likewise it would take a million pints of beer to fill it
· Or 1,100 Olympic sized swimming pools
· The O2’s volume equals thirteen Albert Halls
· Or 10 St Paul’s Cathedrals
· Or two Wembley Stadiums
· 18,000 double-decker buses could fit into the 02
· The O2 is as high as Nelson’s Column
· The Eiffel Tower lying on its side would fit into the 02
· The O2 could hold 12 football pitches
· Or 72 tennis courts
· The venue will employ around 1,500 people

The O2

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Time to tango

In the 1920s the Waldorf's tango teas were an essential part of high society - the place to see and be seen. And in June Waldorf Hilton will be reviving this glamorous tradition in the run-up to the hotel's centenary celebrations in January 2008.

On 10 June the world-famous tango tea will make its spectacular return to Palm Court, the Waldorf's magnificent centrepiece ballroom, where socialites have danced, dined and partied with the rich and famous since the hotel opened in 1908. Currently this is a one-off event but the hotel hopes to make it a more regular occasion from the autumn.

Daniel Van Wyk, operations director at the hotel, said, "The Waldorf is a London institution which throughout its history has held close ties with London society."

"We are planning a host of exciting events in the build-up to our main centenary celebration party in January next year, and with tango tea we’re offering people the chance to step back in time to an age of elegance."

The tea runs from 2-5pm, and there will be music from a five-piece percussion band. Guests will be entertained by professional dancers before being invited onto the dancefloor to show off their own moves. For anyone with doubts about their dancing prowess, there are two one-hour lessons from 12-2pm, costing £10 each.

Afternoon tea will also be served. This includes finger sandwiches, Waldorf baked scones and clotted cream, one of Patisserie Chef Colin Bennett’s exquisite cakes accompanied by a selection of fresh leaf teas and a glass of champagne.

The tango tea costs £55 and dance partners are available at £35. See for bookings.

You've been tangoed: 1920s glamour returns to the stunning Palm Court

Waldorf Hilton

Thursday, 17 May 2007

A right royal garden

Blue belle: One of London's finest bluebell woods is kept in its natural state by edict of Queen Victoria, no less

Bluebell season came early at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew this year. May is usually the time for this delicate blue flower but April's unseasonable (thought welcome) sun coaxed the flowers into premature bloom. An email to Kew a couple of weeks ago revealed that the bluebells were at their peak, so with camera in hand and family in tow, I set off to west London.

Kew isn't the easiest place in London to get to. Stuck out near the end of the Richmond branch of the District line, for anyone who doesn't hail from the west it's a bit of a trek. I collected my parents, who came with me on this trip, from Liverpool Street station and we settled in for the 45 minute journey. But a visit to Kew really is worth the effort. At more than 300 acres filled with rare and domestic plants and trees, birds and animals, there is plenty to see. It's the ideal place for a leisurely picnic and on that weekend I visited several people were making the most of the warm April weather, spreading blankets on the ground and relaxing with food and wine.

Rhods around Britain: The rhododendron dell in bloom

The gardens started life as the exotic gardens of Kew Park. They were then enlarged by Princess Augusta, princess of Wales and widow of Prince Frederick, the prince of wales, in the mid to late 18th century. Her eldest son, King George III, further enriched the gardens and his family spent a lot of time at Kew. It was in 1840 that the gardens were adopted as a national botanical garden.

Architect Decimus Burton and iron-maker Richard Turner built the Palm House in 1844-1848. It was the first large-scale structural use of wrought iron. The Temperate House followed later in the 19th century. Twice as bit as the Palm House, the Temperate House is the largest Victorian greenhouse in existence. Kew's third major glasshouse, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, was opened in 1987 by Diana, princess of Wales, in commemoration of her predecessor Augusta.

I predict: A riot of colour in the azalea garden

Spring to early summer really is the best time to visit Kew, but all those conservatories guarentee that there is plenty to see all year round. April's weather had conspired to bring about the flowering of not only the bluebells, but also some stunning rhododendrons and azaleas. The colours were quite spectacular and really the only thing I can do now is leave you to enjoy these photos.

The eyes have it: This peacock was determined to show off his best side - he made Kate Moss look camera shy

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Da do run run

The runners have limped home, the spectators have gone and the many thousands of empty bottles that littered the gutters have been cleared away. Yes, another London Marathon has disappeared across the finish line.

The London Marathon is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Over half a million people line London's streets to cheer on the runners, and many millions more watch the event on TV. On Sunday 22 March, a record 36,396 people started the marathon. By 6pm 35,674 had crossed the finish line - another record, by 400 people.

But how did it all start? The marathon has been run since 1981, when nearly 7,500 althetes took part out of more than 20,000 who applied. It was the brainchild of British althlete and former Olympic champion Chris Brasher, who had just run the New York Marathon. Inspired by the way the runners, spectators and organisers had pulled together to make New York's marathon such a great event, Brasher wrote an article for The Observer wondering if such a thing could ever happen in London.

The feature received such a positive response that Brasher and Donald Trelford, the then editor of The Observer, decided to take the matter further. They met with the Greater London Council, the Metropolitan Police and athletics' governing bodies in 1980 and Brasher made various trips to the US to study the organisation and finance of big city marathons such as those in New York and Boston (the world's oldest city marathon).

Brasher put together a budget, and the authorities gave a cautious green light, with £50,000 sponsorship from Giliette and charitable status helping tip the balance. The inaugural race was run on 29 March 1981 and the runners were led home by American Dick Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen, who crossed the line hand-in-hand, in a deliberate dead heat.

The race is run over 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195 km), the traditional Olympic length. Originally this was to be 26 miles. London was host to the 1908 Olympics and the marathon was to end in front of the royal box, where Queen Alexandria would be watchimg. Continuing the royal theme, the race started at Windsor Castle. A late request from the queen, asking if the starting line could be moved to where it could be seen from the nursery, added the extra 385 yards, and so the tradition was born.

Some London Marathon facts:
Nine people have died running the marathon, including, sadly, one man who died after running this year.
On 19 April 2003 former boxer Michael Watson, who had been told he would never walk again after a fight with Chris Eubank, made headlines by finishing the marathon in six days.
In 2006 Sir Steve Redgrave (winner of five consecutive Olympic gold medals) set a new Guinness World Record for money raised through a marathon by collecting £1.8 million in sponsorship.
The fastest times are 2:05:38 for men (Khalid Khannouchi, USA) in 2002 and 2:15:25 for women (Paula Radcliffe, UK) in 2003.

The London Marathon

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Off the grid: Go down to the woods today

Welcome to the inaugural posting of what I hope will become a regular, if erratic, feature. With Off the grid I will aim to bring to you word of the many places that lie off the beaten track.

Aye, wood: This ancient woodland is just eight miles from the centre of London

Shooters Hill

The first to qualify is Oxleas Woods in Shooters Hill, southeast London. Shooters Hill is about as far away as you can get from tourist London and still be in London. It's part of the borough of Greenwich but it's closer to Woolwich, Eltham and Plumstead.

The woods are made up of Oxleas Wood, Shepherdleas Wood, Oxleas Meadows, Jackwood and Castle Wood. Eltham Common and Woodlands Farm are also attached. The woods cover 77 hectares and are at least 8,000 years old. Oxleas Woods are are one of the last remaining ancient woodlands in London. They contain oak, silver birch, hornbeam, coppice hazel and several fine examples of the wild service tree, a relatively rare specimem that is generally confined to pockets of ancient woodland.

Watch the birdie: The colourful jay prefers to live in wooded areas where there is plenty of space to hide

The woods are home to a great number of birds, animals and plants. It was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1984 in recognition of the thousands of plant and animal species that have lived there since the last Ice Age. We were lucky enough to see a jay, a colourful but shy bird that often flies away before being spotted.
Mr The London Lowdown and I visited the woodland just last week, on the cusp of spring. The weather was beautiful and a few blossom trees had started to flower. New leaves were growing and the woods were thick with the dark green leaves of bluebells and rhododendrons. In a couple of weeks' time the woods will be spectacular with colour and scents. I'll be going back with a picnic. There is a cafe so you don't have to supply your own snacks.

Man's folly : Severndroog Castle was built to commemorate Sir William James, late of the East India Company

We walked through Jackwood to Castle Wood to satisfy my desire to find Severndroog Castle, a folly built in 1784 with a history that deserves an entry all of its own. We found the castle and wandered back to Jackwood where we found rose gardens, some lovely terraced gardens and the remains of 20th century mansion. Then it was on to Oxleas Wood, where a very vocal blue tit seemed to be warning us away from something. I wonder if she was protecting her eggs.

Shooters Hill Road, the main way to the woodland, follows the route of ancient Watling Street, an important thoroughfare into London for almost 2,000 years. The woods here were once a notorious haunt of highwaymen, one possible origin of the name Shooters Hill. The bodies of convicted highwaymen were left hanging in roadside gibbets as a deterrent to others.

In ancient times these woods would been essential to the community, providing fuel, building materials for homes and ships and bark for tanning leather (as well as a hiding place for those highwaymen). Wild animals, fruits and herbs would have been food and medicine, while woodland clearings would have been used for grazing stock - hence the names Oxleas and Shepherdleas, pastures for oxen and sheep, respectively.

Oxleas Woods

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The saga of the slides - Part 2

It was a cold, gloomy Monday afternoon in February and I was sure I would get to go on the slides this time. No school holidays, people in work and a couple of months to go before the tourist season would begin in earnest, plus the intallation had been in place for a few months so surely, I thought, the interest had waned somewhat.

As you've no doubt guessed, I couldn't have been more wrong. I arrived to almost exactly the same scene as my previous trip to Tate Modern - queues to the door and families milling around waiting for their turn on these magnificent slides. People had come well prepared too; newspapers, books, drinks and snacks were all being consumed. These were no novice queue-ers, they knew exactly what they were doing and I felt quite the innocent abroad. I had no idea that queing could be such serious business.

There was no way I would get on the installation this time either - I simply hadn't put in the preparation. So I treated myself to some books from Tate Modern's wonderful shop and took some photos, and then went on my not so merry way. Heading back to London Bridge, however, I came across two attractions I'd never heard of before - the Kirkaldy Testing Museum and the Ring, London's first boxing ring, both of which are likely to appear in future postings here. So all wasn't lost, and I was reminded once more just how full of surprises London really is.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Alternative Fashion Week

This week is Alternative Fashion Week, London Fashion Week's younger, funkier sibling. Organised by Alternative Arts, the event takes place in Spitalfields Traders Market, E1.

This year over 60 young designers will be showcasing their work at daily fashion shows (start 1.15pm) to contemporary live jazz from The Size Zero Band. Twelve designers are on show each day. There is also the Fashion Market, which runs from 12.00pm to 3.00pm.

I decided to check it out yesterday. Those people that were in London will know that it was freezing yesterday. But that didn't stop the assorted designers, fashionistas and design students bagging their seats for the show early. I don't know how they stuck it out till the end. I slunk of early for a warming hot chocolate when my hands got too cold to hold my camera.

The fashion show was certainly worth the wait in the cold though. You won't find Stella MacCartney here, or spot Posh Spice in the front row, but you will see up-and-coming youngsters who have recently graduated or are about to. I saw clothes that were fun and funky, and some were even wearable. Names found here are names to watch out for in the future.

The Fashion Market features stalls from various designer-makers. The goods on offer are all handmade and originals. I picked up a bracelet and was told, "You're my first sale!"

Althernative Fashion Week runs until 23 March.

Alternative Fashion Week

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Getting to know you part III - All aboard

Fish supper: After years of absence, wildlife is returning to the Thames

I've been up and down the river both ways - from Hampton Court Palace to Waterloo, from Waterloo to Kew Gardens, from Greenwich to Waterloo and Waterloo to Greenwich. And it's always been a pleasure.

My first trip was to Kew Gardens, it was a press trip so perhaps the free champagne somewhat coloured my rosy view of the day. Or maybe it was the two very funny watermen who told me all about their profession. The Company of Watermen and Lightermen was established by an Act of Parliament in 1555 to regulate the watermen and wherrymen responsible for carrying goods and passengers on the river - Watermen look after passengers. In days gone by only licensed watermen and lightermen could work on the river. There was a five-year apprenticeship to qualify, learning the trade from a Master. In addition to this, hopefuls took courses covering water survival, firefighting and first aid. Then followed another three years of work experience. All this has changed recently though, with the apprenticeship cut to two years.

Cruise control:
The river is great place to see some of London's famous landmarks

Boats must attract a certain sort of person because the skipper of one on the Waterloo-Greenwich route, run by City Cruises, is just as entertaining. He delighted in telling us that the Thames is the cleanest ex-working river in the world: "You can drink it. It'll kill you, but you can drink it!" Last time I took that journey City Cruises were in the process of replacing the live commentary with a recording, which is a shame because the live one added real character. The recording wasn't working that day though, so they'd had to go back to good old talking.

A trip on the river gives a whole new perspective on London. It really is a slower way to see the city. You come across all kinds of wildlife. I've seen kingfishers, herons and many varieties of ducks. Apparently there are also seals and salmon. And once a whale, but that story has a sad ending. Many of London's most well-known sights are visible from the river - St Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament. Some boats go all the way to the Thames Barrier, which is definitely worth seeing.

In the middle of the 19th century, the river, which at the time was known as the Big Stink, was so polluted that all the fish died, and so did the birds that relied on them for food. A clean up operation that has taken more than 150 years has returned all kinds of fish and animal life to the river, and today it is home to more than 120 varieties of fish.


The Company of Watermen and Lighermen

City Cruises

Monday, 5 March 2007

In praise of London

I apologise, but this is going to be an unashamed devotion. The sun is shining and I'm full of the joys of spring. And I love London. I've loved it ever since I first started coming here when I was young and my parents would bring me and my brother for the day. My dad would drive us down, either parking at Redbridge underground station and catching the Central Line to Oxford Circus or leaving the car in The Regent's Park and walking along Regent's Street. At the time it amazed me that a park could be big enough to park a car in. I lived in Cambridge and the biggest park I knew of was Midsummer Common, which was more suited to cows than cars. You can imagine my astonishment when I found out The Regent's Park was also big enough to house London Zoo.

When I first moved to London I lived near Richmond Park, and it didn't even faze me that here was a park even bigger than The Regent's. How worldly wise I'd become. But it did, and still does at times, amaze me that I now lived in this sprawling metropolis. I am still moved by the view coming out of Charing Cross, especially in the evening: The Oxo Tower and the Haywood Gallery all lit up, Tate Modern outlined against a purple and red sky and, further to the left, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. It's really quite breathtaking.

London's West End is renowned across the world, attracting the biggest names of stage and screen, while fringe theatre is a hotbed of new writing and acting talent. The galleries and museums are both grand eclectic - from the wonderful British Museum to the tiny but always interesting photography exhibitions at Proud Galleries.

We have huge, beautiful Royal Parks. We have some of the world's most stunning architecture, from just about every period of history. From the 1,000-year-old White Tower to Norman Foster's strangely beautiful Gherkin.

Culture, history, art, beauty, green spaces - London has it all.

And so ends my eulogy.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Saga of the slides - one woman's battle to ride the tubes

Art attack: Tate Modern
is the site of a new
sliding installation

Tate Modern's Unilever series has been phenomenally successful. This is a series of annual commissions sponsored by Unilever for Tate Modern's cavernous Turbine Hall. Unilever has been sponsoring these commissions since 2000, when the gallery opened, and they have generated a huge amount of interest. Olafur Eliasson, for example, had people sunbathing and picnicing in the glare of a huge 'sun' for his Weather Project installation from October 2003 to April 2004.

The latest artwork in the series is Carston Holler's Test Site: huge, tubular slides wriggle their way down from the upper floors of the gallery. Metal and clear perspex, the slides are pretty impressive simply as sculptures, but they're also interactive. According to Tate Modern's website, Holler is interested in both the 'visual aspect of watching people sliding and the inner spectacle experienced by the sliders themselves, the state of simultaneous delight and anxiety that you enter as you descend'. But more importantly, it's fun!

So, purely in the interests of research, I made my way to the gallery one Saturday a couple of weeks ago. It's free to go on the slides, but for the ones on the top floors you need a ticket. The queue to the ticket desk was huge, so I had a wander around the gallery, thinking it might quieten down. After a rather trippy hour in the newly hung Poetry and Dream room and a good few minutes walking up and down interactive installation Sliding Doors, a new acquisition for Tate Modern and also by Holler, I returned to the ticket desk. The queue was the length of the Turbine Hall. I gave up and went to Wagamama for lunch.

Watch this space for more adventures with Tate Modern slides...

Read more about Holler's commission here:
The Unilever Series: Carston Holler

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Business as usual

A few weeks ago I received an email warning me that ‘they’ want to demolish Borough Market and urging me to sign a petition. I was understandably astonished and outraged at the idea of this historic market being destroyed; and I clicked the link to take me to the petition.

To come: An artist's impression of the new bridge (l) and new Borough High Street entrance into London Bridge (r)

The petition is protesting the building of a viaduct by Thameslink to extend and improve train services out of London Bridge station. The new bridge and entrance into London Bridge from Borough High Street is one of the most spectacular developments. A bit of digging, however, turned up no evidence to back up the claim that Borough Market is under any real threat. The expansion will involve knocking down some buildings, 20 of which are listed.

But the market itself isn’t one of those buildings. In fact the Trustees of Borough Market have moved to distance themselves from the petitions. In response to the current slew of websites, the Trustees have said that they aren’t supporting or promoting the petitions and that they haven’t been consulted over their wording or accuracy.

Philip Peart of Borough Market has been working with Network Rail to negotiate the best possible deal for the market. As he says, the management, traders and many customers of Borough Market will ensure that it remains safe, and he is somewhat upset about the petitions. He is bullish about the future of the market.

The developments will be disruptive, the traders will have to vacate the area for around 18 months and they are losing some of the buildings. The Trustees were served with a compulsory purchase order. These buildings will be knocked down and then rebuilt; they will be rented back to Borough Market. The market would prefer to own the buildings.

But the market will reap some benefits. Network Rail and Southwark Council will help with the temporary move. And Network Rail has agreed to give the market a makeover, with a new roof and new glass entrance. The market has two roofs, one of which is listed. Network Rail will remove this, restore it to its former glory and then replace it. The company will also replace the second roof. Even without the new viaduct, the traders would have to vacate the area to save the roof, and that would be at the market’s expense.

Preliminary works will begin July 2008, with the building starting January 2009. It’s a fairly straightforward project, and Philip Peart will be working with Network Rail to overcome any problems, according to him ‘the idea that the market is under threat is rubbish’. As much a possible, it will be business as usual for both traders and customers!

Monday, 12 February 2007

Getting to know you part 2 - A walk on the wild side

If bus tours are a great way of seeing London without any effort, walking tours are a way of getting to know something very specific with slightly more effort. Whatever your interest there’s probably a walk for it. Jack the Ripper, pubs along the River Thames, Victorian London, the British Museum, ghosts, even the Beatles are all covered in one walk or another.

Jack the lad: A victim is found (Source: London Walks)

The most well-known company is London Walks. They run hundreds of walks every year, whatever the weather and whatever the date. There are even walks on Christmas Day. Their most famous is the Jack the Ripper walk, one of the guides for which is Donald Rumbelow. Internationally renowned as the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald was the man Johnny Depp turned to when researching the Ripper for his film, From Hell. Too bad he didn’t pay as much attention to the accent. Think about it though, by shaking this man’s hand, you’ve almost touched Jack Sparrow.

Time please: The George Inn is London's last remaining galleried inn

I haven’t done the Ripper walk, but I have done several others and I’ve never been disappointed. I met an American couple on the Along the Thames Pub Walk. They were on their third trip to London and they told me they made a point of doing at least one walk every time. I saw them the next day in Greenwich, small world. London Walks’ guides are knowledgeable and entertaining. These are people that clearly enjoy what they’re doing. Graham of the Ghosts of the Old City Walk really warmed to his subject on a darkening winter’s night. It wasn’t just a walk, it was performance.

And for the less lively of you out there, don’t let the word ‘walk’ put you off. Leisurely stroll with plenty of breaks would be more accurate, just not as punchy.

London Walks

Thursday, 1 February 2007

The market place

Borough Market has been a part of South London for centuries. It recently celebrated 250 years on the same site, but has been in the area since Roman times, when no doubt the invading armies were delighted to find this ready source of Saxon snacks. Today, Borough is famed across London for its organic produce. It’s also surrounded by restaurants and cafes serving dishes made from Borough-bought produce; it truly is a foodie heaven. It’s beloved of Jamie Oliver, who is a regular at Cranberry, which sells nuts and dried fruits, and wild boar specialists Sillfield Farm. But don’t let that put you off.

Pollen count: The scent of flowers permeates the market

Farmers trade alongside specialist stalls, such as Spanish Brindisa and L’artisan du Chocolat and you'll find fruit and vegetables, fresh-cut flowers, breads, cheeses, cakes and all kinds of meat Not a farmers’ market as such (because of the presence of the more exotic produce), much of the food is still locally produced and the farmers’ stalls in particular will be able to tell you exactly where that bunch of carrots came from. Because the fresh produce is organic, it’s seasonal; at the moment you’ll find lots of root veg, apples and pears.

When I visited recently the place was packed, it’s probably best to arrive early if crowds drive you to distraction. And bring cash with you – there are ATMs close by but the queues are really quite depressing. The market itself is wonderful; it’s the kind of place that the word ‘bustling’ was invented for. It’s awash with a cornucopia of smells – those flowers, freshly baked bread, the aroma of cooking meat, all blend into one surprisingly mouth-watering scent.

It would be easy to spend a fortune. The stalls are all piled high with goodies, and some of it is quite expensive, especially some of the rarer cuts of meat. I managed to buy nothing more than some bread, olives and a chocolate brownie. And it was all delicious. Proper bread is a world away from supermarket-bought stuff, so who cares that it costs twice as much? Besides, this way the money goes to the producers, not supermarket shareholders.

But back to that brownie. Oh, the brownie! Soft, sticky, moist and more chocolaty than a visit to Cadbury World. The stall was so laden down with them I'm surprised it didn't buckle under the weight. I’m going back on Saturday just to get another one. Or two. If only to relieve that stall...

Borough Market

Friday, 26 January 2007

Getting to know you part 1- On the buses

History tour:
Bus tours are a great introduction to the city

At 1,570 square kilometres, London is one of the world’s biggest cities. And it packs a lot of history into those square kilometres. The Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, even Harrods. It’s hard to know where to start. Which is where the many guided tours you can take come in. There are several out there. Bus tours, walking tours, river boat tours, even ‘duck’ tours (a trip in an amphibious Second World War DUKW).

Bus tours are, quite obviously, tours on open-top buses (usually, some might be closed top). There are two main companies – The Big Bus Company and The Original London Sightseeing Tour. They appear to be very similar according to my investigations, although I’ve only been on the Big Bus tour. Both include river tours, both offer online discounts, both have a choice of routes and tickets are ‘hop on, hop off’ and last for 24 hours (Original’s last for 48 hours until 28 February). However, Big Bus offers a free walking tour (which is definitely worth taking) and costs slightly more.

What traffic: The congestion charge has made bus tours a much more pleasant journey

The tours have pre-recorded commentaries in a variety of languages, as well as live English-language commentaries. The English one is best, if you get the right guide. But that’s where the ‘hop on, hop off’ facility comes in useful. If your guide isn’t entertaining enough, you can always get the next bus. I got off at least two buses before happening across the perfect guide – a very funny Northern chap who had us waving at the billionaires in Knightsbridge and drolly pointed out that Westminster, at “only 1,000 years old,” was the new part of London (compared to the City, which dates back around 2,000 years).

Big Bus doesn’t seem to offer the walking tour I did any more, but it does still have a selection of three. The Ghosts by Gaslight one looks interesting. The one I chose was a Da Vinci Code tour. It maybe wasn’t the best if you hadn’t yet read the book and planned to, because it gave the end away. But for those who had read it, or didn’t mind too much, it was great. Basically a history lesson dressed up as a walk through a popular book/film, the guide (a lovely man with a big umbrella so we could recognise him) was incredibly knowledgeable. His familiarity with both the book and London’s past was impeccable – though he was at his most gleeful when pointing out one of the book’s many ‘adaptations’ to London’s geography and history. Alexander Pope, for example, didn’t preside at Isaac Newton’s funeral – he wasn’t even invited.

The bus tours are a great way of scratching London’s surface. They take visitors around all the best-known landmarks, while teaching you about some the lesser-known history. A wonderful introduction to the city. And say what you like about the Congestion Charge, at least it’s thinned out the traffic enough to keep these tours on the move.

Useful links:

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

What’s for dinner?

First things first, it’s time to dispel a very persistent myth – the unfounded belief that English cooking is terrible. It really isn’t. A look at the TV listings reveals a nation obsessed with food, healthy or otherwise. Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and countless others are fast becoming household names. And then there are the breadbin load of chefs who are celebrated for other reasons, namely their cooking – Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett and Ian Pengelly, to name just a few.

But don’t take my word for it. There are plenty of people, much more qualified than me, who agree. The good people at Michelin, for instance. There are 39 Michelin-starred restaurants in
London, including Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous establishment, a three-starred affair in Chelsea. Other notable eateries include Alan Yau’s Hakkasan, the only Michelin-starred Chinese in the country. Then, of course, there are the young guns – Ramsay protégé Angela Hartnett, Tom Aikens and Vineet Bhatia come to mind. There is a grand total of 45 Michelin stars in the capital, that’s more than you can see in London’s skies on an average evening.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, as voted for by more than 500 notaries from the world of fine dining. The UK has six entries; only France and the US manage more, and with a much bigger landmass. Just one of the six is outside London – and quite frankly Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray is in a gastronomic world of its own.

I don’t know if these restaurants live up to the hype. My budget doesn’t stretch that far. And neither, I suspect, do those of most visitors to London. Although if you do have your heart set on star-rated dining, the lunch menus are usually much more affordable.

But eating out doesn’t have to break the bank, here’s my rundown of some great places that will please your bank manager as well as your taste buds. First up is the Chelsea Kitchen (King’s Road). You’d be hard pressed to spend more than £30 on a meal for two, and that’s including wine. What’s more, it’s pretty good. A mozzarella salad brings a large plateful of freshly prepared lettuce, tomato, cucumber, beetroot, carrot and loads of juicy cheese. Hot dishes are just as good and you can get a decent bottle of wine for about £5.

Now we head east, and across the river, to Greenwich and our next restaurant – La Cucina di Soteri (Nelson Road). It’s a friendly, family Italian with great food at reasonable prices.

Benares (Berkeley Square) must be good – it’s been on Masterchef. I ate the best Indian food I’ve ever had here (and I’ve been to Brick Lane) and in some of the most stylish surroundings. Benares is one of the more expensive restaurants on my list, but it’s worth it. Staying in the Asian continent, next is Katana (Trafalgar Square). This is described as ‘pan-Asian’, meaning it borrows flavours from all across the region. The food is wonderful and the staff deserve a special mention for being fabulous.

From the elegance of Benares to the decadence of Blue Elephant (Fulham Broadway). The wooden floor of this Thai restaurant is a series of bridges and landings, beneath which flows a koi-filled lily pond. The bar is a gold-leafed reproduction of the Royal Barge. The food is equally splendid. Levant (Jason Court) is another exotic location, complete with rose petals, incense and belly dancers. Hidden in a courtyard close to Regent Street, you’d never find it unless you were looking, and it’s worth a look. The Lebanese cuisine is amazing, the set menus offer great value.

Pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes (with some waffles for good measure), that’s what you’ll find at My Old Dutch (High Holborn). Sweet or savoury, there are pancakes here to suit every palate. They’re huge, and much too good to save till Shrove Tuesday. Navajo Joe (King Street) is a Mexican restaurant that convinced me I don’t hate Mexican food. There’s a club downstairs for some post-dinner dancing, and an enormous selection of tequila to get you going.

But what about British food? I hear you cry. Well, I’ve saved that to last. Patterson’s (Mill Street) is a chic, minimalist, family-run restaurant just off the bustle of Oxford Circus. Its contemporary take on British cuisine is excellent, and in complete contrast to Simpsons in the Strand (Strand). Simpsons is traditional through and through – from its wood-panelled 19th century dining room to its roast beef and horseradish sauce. An old haunt of Winston Churchill, it was also where Holmes and Watson would treat themselves to a post-crime-solving congratulatory meal. And you can’t argue with Sherlock Holmes!

This, of course, is just a fraction of London’s restaurants. I hope you get the chance to visit one or two. If you can’t decide where to eat, or you want to find one of these (or any other restaurant you’ve been recommended) try logging on to, or These are all great sites where you can locate restaurants and read diner reviews.