Category: All Things London

  • A Tale of Two Bridges

    A Tale of Two Bridges

    London, the bustling heart of the United Kingdom, is home to some of the world’s most iconic landmarks, and among them stand two legendary structures that symbolise the city’s history and engineering prowess: London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Each holds a unique charm, steeped in centuries of history and offering distinct experiences for travellers and locals alike.

    Unraveling the History and Distinct Features

    While often mistaken for its more visually striking counterpart, London Bridge holds a rich historical legacy. The current incarnation of London Bridge is a modern structure, but its roots trace back through time. The Romans recognised the strategic importance of the spot and constructed the original London Bridge around 50 AD, marking a crucial river crossing and playing a pivotal role in London’s growth.

    Over the centuries, multiple versions of London Bridge have been erected and replaced. By far the most lasting one was the medieval stone bridge, commissioned by Henry II and finished in 1209 by his son John. The structure stood the test of time, and in the 15th century, there were as many as 140 houses on it.

    The current iteration is a functional marvel, spanning the Thames with understated elegance. It embodies a contemporary architectural style, showcasing a sleek design optimised for vehicular traffic and pedestrian passage.

    In contrast, Tower Bridge stands as a magnificent testament to Victorian engineering ingenuity. Its iconic twin towers and suspended walkways create a picturesque silhouette against the London skyline. Completed in 1894, Tower Bridge’s primary purpose was to provide a crossing while allowing tall ships to pass beneath, and its mechanism still raises the central span for river traffic today. It also served as a glorified symbol of Britain’s ascendance to the dominant trading and scientific position in the world. Last but not least, it was the setting for the unforgettable closing scene of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock, where Robert Downey Jr.’s incomparable detective vanquished the evil Lord Blackwood (portrayed superbly by Mark Strong).

    The most distinguishing feature of Tower Bridge is its ornate design and the ability to visit the high-level walkways, offering breathtaking views of the city and a glimpse into its mechanical workings. These features have made it one of the most sought-after tourist attractions in the city. Also, if you want to take an iconic picture of riverside London, you can hardly pick a better place!

    Exploring the Bridges: Similarities and Contrasts

    London Bridge and Tower Bridge hold significant historical importance and serve as essential river crossings. While London Bridge accommodates heavy traffic flow, Tower Bridge remains a working bascule bridge, its majestic form opening to allow river traffic to pass.

    Visitors to London Bridge can enjoy a leisurely stroll across the river, taking in the panoramic views of the city’s skyline. The experience is one of modernity and functionality, emphasising the city’s present-day character.

    On the other hand, Tower Bridge offers an immersive journey into the past. Exploring its Victorian engine rooms and walking along the high-level walkways provides visitors with a captivating glimpse into the city’s rich industrial heritage.

    Getting There and Nearby Attractions

    For non-Londoners navigating the city’s bustling streets, reaching these iconic bridges is easily accessible. From main communication hubs like King’s Cross or Paddington Station, travellers can take the Underground to London Bridge or Tower Hill stations.

    Once at London Bridge, nearby dining options beckon. Gastropubs and restaurants along Borough High Street offer a variety of cuisines, from traditional English fare to international delights. For a relaxing respite, the River Thames’ banks provide perfect spots to unwind and take in the view. 

    Our two gastronomical picks are Casa do Frango London Bridge at 32 Southwark St and the nearby Padella at 6 Southwark St. Casa do Frango is a spacious, sunlit Portuguese restaurant that will satisfy even the most demanding gourmet guests. We strongly recommend the Salgadinhos and the restaurant’s signature Casa Rise. Padella is the perfect spot for pasta lovers and fans of Italian cuisine.

    If you are all about Instagram and taking pictures, Sky Garden is a few hundred yards away from the northern entrance of London Bridge. It offers magnificent vistas over the heart of London, including some of its most recognisable attractions. 

    Tower Bridge’s vicinity boasts a blend of history and modernity. After exploring the bridge, visitors can indulge in delectable meals at nearby eateries like Le Pont de la Tour, offering fine dining with panoramic views of the Thames. The Tower of London also stands nearby, inviting travellers to delve into centuries of royal history.

    Conclusion: Bridging the Past and Present

    Though often conflated in popular culture, London Bridge and Tower Bridge each exude their unique allure and significance. London Bridge is a testament to the city’s continuous evolution, while Tower Bridge embodies the Victorian era’s engineering prowess.

    While connecting the city physically, these bridges also serve as gateways to London’s diverse offerings – from historical landmarks to culinary delights. Exploring both bridges offers travellers a fascinating juxtaposition of London’s past and present, leaving an indelible mark of admiration for the city’s architectural and historical marvels.

  • Tipping in London – Tourist Advice for (mainly) Americans

    Tipping in London – Tourist Advice for (mainly) Americans

    I set off a bit of a firestorm here on The London Traveler recently when I wrote about London pubs. Specifically, it was what I wrote about tipping at London pubs; it’s not necessary.

    That seemed to be quite provocative, and based on the comments, that is certainly not the case across the UK. So I’d like to write a little bit more on the most confusing of topics for a visitor to a new country: tipping.

    Tipping in General

    While tipping still happens in the UK, it is neither quite as common nor as much as it is in the US/North America. Many professions in the US which are paid specifically less than the minimum wage because they earn tips are paid at least a minimum wage in the UK. While tipping is always appreciated, you won’t be chased down the street by someone screaming at you for a cheap (or non-existent) tip.

    At the Pub

    The Pineapple Pub, London

    As I mentioned in a previous post, tipping in London pubs is not required. If you really want to tip the staff, buy them a drink by saying something along the lines of “and one for yourself.” They’ll then add the cost of their drink to your bill.

    However, as the comments to that post noted, tipping in pubs is done elsewhere in the UK. This is probably where you need to do a bit of follow-the-leader. If there’s a jar for tips, and/or other customers are leaving tips, then I would suggest you do the same. Rounding up to the nearest pound or adding 10-15% would be common in these establishments.

    At a Restaurant

    Tipping in restaurants is always done. In many cases, restaurants add an optional 12.5% service charge to the bill, which is the tip. You can choose to pay it or not (though I would certainly suggest paying it!), and if you feel particularly generous, you can add more.

    When tipping at a restaurant, the average is 10-15%. If you use a credit card, the staff may need you to enter information on a tip into their handheld machine. The options are typically 10%, 12.5% and 15%, so choose what you’d like.

    In a taxi

    Tipping a cab driver is, again, not compulsory, but is a nice thing to do. If the driver has helped you with luggage, etc., you should really tip them, generally a pound a bag or so.

    On a standard ride from point A to point B, you can tip if you wish; I generally round the fare to the nearest pound if I do choose to tip. Again, it’s not a problem if you choose not to tip, but it’s certainly appreciated when you do.

    Summary

    John Snow Pub, Broadwick Street, London

    I hope this post has cleared up at least a little bit about tipping in London. (Again, the rest of the UK does vary from region to region.) It will be interesting to read your comments on my thoughts above. I hope you enjoy your visit!

    P.S. Friendly Advice to My US Mates

    Ah, my dear American mates! Now, I understand that across the pond, you lovely folks are quite generous with your tipping, aren’t you? Well, here’s a little cheeky advice from yours truly when you’re on this side of the Atlantic.

    First off, while you lot might be tossing around dollars like confetti at a wedding, over here in Britain, we’re a bit… how shall I put it? Reserved. We Brits have this peculiar tradition where we actually pay our waiters a proper wage. Shocking, I know! So, when you’re in a restaurant, you might find yourself reaching for that wallet after a jolly good meal, but hold your horses! It’s not the done thing to leave a whopping 20% like you do in the States. If you truly feel the service was top-notch, a wee 10% is more than generous.

    Popping into a pub for a pint? Now, I know in America, you tip your bartenders for every drink. But if you start doing that here, you’ll be the talk of the town, and not in a good way! Your bartender might give you a look as if you’ve grown a second head. It’s all on the house. (Well, not the drink – just the service.)

    Last but not least, the cabbies! If you take a black cab and the driver doesn’t go in circles just to give you a grand tour of London, then feel free to round up the fare or toss them an extra quid or two. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll get a lovely British “cheers” for your effort.

    In a nutshell, my American friends, when in Britain, keep those dollars (or rather, pounds) close and remember we’re a bit more low-key with the tipping. And if you ever get confused, just think of me and do the opposite of what you’d do in the States. Happy travels! Cheers!

  • The Fabulous Tiny Twinings Tea Shop

    The Fabulous Tiny Twinings Tea Shop

    The Fabulous Tiny Twinings Tea Shop in London

    Greetings, dear tea enthusiasts! As a Londoner with an insatiable passion for tea, it’s no wonder that my heart finds its home in the world’s oldest tea shop – Twinings on the Strand. Nestled within the bustling heart of London, this quaint, unassuming shop stands as a testament to the timelessness of quality tea. Journey with me as I delve deep into the history, intriguing factoids, and undeniable charm of Twinings Tea Shop.

    History in Every Sip

    Founded in 1706 by Thomas Twining, the tea shop has endured for over three centuries. Think about that for a moment. When Twinings first opened its doors, Queen Anne was on the throne, and the United Kingdom itself was in its infancy. Over the years, Twinings not only survived but thrived, witnessing London’s transformation from a historical giant into a modern metropolis.

    And yet, amidst these swirling currents of time, the classic façade of the Twinings shop has remained relatively unchanged. Walking through its doors is akin to stepping back into a world where tea was not just a beverage but an event, an experience, a ritual.

    Factoids and Fascinating Tidbits

    Royal Warrant

    Twinings boasts a Royal Warrant, which is an official endorsement from the British royal family. This endorsement means that Twinings has been supplying tea to the royal households since the days of Queen Victoria!

    Logo Longevity

    The Twinings logo, established in 1787, is believed to be the world’s oldest continually-used company logo. And if that doesn’t signify consistency and longevity, I don’t know what does.

    Innovative Blends

    Twinings introduced Earl Grey tea to the world. Legend has it that the blend was created for Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, to suit the water at his Northumbrian estate, which had a hint of lime to it.

    A Whiff of Celebrities

    Twinings has a long list of famous admirers. Jane Austen, a fellow tea enthusiast, mentioned Twinings in her personal correspondence, praising the quality of their teas. Sir Winston Churchill, another iconic British figure, was also known for his predilection for a robust Twinings brew.

    The Experience

    Inside Twinings Tea Shop in the Strand, London

    Visiting Twinings on the Strand is not just about buying tea; it’s a pilgrimage for any tea lover. The store itself is a sensory delight. The aged wooden floors, the original wooden countertops, the shelves lined with every conceivable type of tea, and the intoxicating aroma that envelops you as soon as you step in – it’s an experience unlike any other.

    Moreover, the staff, with their encyclopedic knowledge of tea, are more than happy to regale you with tales, offer recommendations, or simply chat about the latest blends.

    A Personal Note

    For me, Twinings isn’t just a shop. It’s a testament to London’s resilience, its commitment to quality, and its love for tradition. As the world races forward, there’s a kind of solace in knowing that some things, like a good cup of Twinings tea, remain timeless.

    Every time I hold a Twinings teacup, I don’t just sip a beverage; I partake in a tradition that’s older than most countries. It’s a humbling, magical experience, and I invite every tea lover – be you a Londoner or a visitor – to immerse yourself in this magnificent world.

    Till our next tea journey, raise your cups high and let’s toast to tradition, quality, and the fabulous tiny Twinings Tea Shop in London!

    Cheers

  • Modern London Icon: the Lloyds Building

    Modern London Icon: the Lloyds Building

    London, a city steeped in history, is also a beacon of modern architecture. Among its impressive skyline, the Lloyds Building, often referred to as the ‘Inside-Out Building’, is a standout. It’s not just a building; it’s a declaration of innovation, a symbol of London’s ever-evolving spirit.

    History and Construction

    The Lloyds Building, located at 1 Lime Street, houses the world-renowned insurance institution, Lloyd’s of London. Completed in 1986, this avant-garde construction took eight years in the making. The design genius behind this structure is Richard Rogers, who later became Lord Rogers of Riverside.

    The building stands on a site occupied by Lloyds since 1928, but the current structure is the third to bear the Lloyds name. When conceiving its design, Rogers aimed for a building that was both functional and forward-thinking. The result? A timeless modern marvel.

    Architectural Significance

    At first glance, what grabs attention are the building’s exposed elements: ducts, lifts, staircases, and pipework, all positioned on the exterior. By placing these services outside, Rogers freed up internal space, thus maximising room for the building’s primary purpose – insurance trading.

    This ‘inside-out’ architectural style isn’t just aesthetic. It serves a purpose. Exteriorly placed elements can be easily maintained or replaced without disturbing the building’s core function.

    The Lloyds Building in the City of London

    Design Elements

    • Towers: The Lloyds Building comprises three main towers and three service towers around a central, rectangular space.
    • Materials: Stainless steel, concrete, and glass dominate the structure. The building’s reflective properties ensure it gleams, adjusting its shade depending on London’s often moody sky.
    • Lifts: One of the building’s iconic features is its external glass lifts. They were among the first of their kind in the UK, offering passengers a panoramic view of London as they ascend.

    Inside the Icon

    While the exterior speaks of modernity, inside, the building pays homage to Lloyds’ rich heritage. The Underwriting Room is the beating heart of the building. Its centrepiece is the Lutine Bell, salvaged from the ship Lutine. Traditionally, the bell rang to announce the fate of a ship – once for its loss and twice for its safe return.

    Sustainability

    Even before it became a trend, the Lloyds Building stood for sustainability. Its deep-plan design maximises natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting. The building’s flexibility means that it can adapt to technological advancements and evolving work practices.

    Recognition and Legacy

    In 2011, the Lloyds Building received Grade I listed status, making it the youngest structure ever to achieve this. It’s a testament to its significance in architectural history. The building has paved the way for radical designs worldwide, proving that form and function can coexist harmoniously.

    The Building in Popular Culture

    The Lloyds Building, with its futuristic design, has caught the eye of many filmmakers and artists. It has been featured in films, television shows, and even music videos, often used as a backdrop to depict a modern or dystopian world.

    Here are a few of them.

    Films

    • “Highlander” (1986): The building can be seen as one of the modern structures of 1980s London.
    • “Entrapment” (1999): Featuring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Lloyds Building makes a brief appearance.
    • “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” (2018): In a quick London cityscape shot, the iconic structure can be spotted.

    Television Shows

    • “Sherlock” (BBC series): The Lloyds Building has appeared in some shots of London’s skyline in this modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes.
    • “Spooks” (MI-5 in some regions): Given the show’s contemporary setting in London, the Lloyds Building has made occasional appearances.
    • “Doctor Who”: Given the show’s penchant for iconic London locations, the Lloyds Building has been seen in a few episodes.

    While these are some instances, the building’s use in media is expansive. Its unique architecture ensures that it remains a popular choice for creators wanting to capture a blend of historical and modern London.

    Visiting the Lloyds Building

    Though it’s a functional building, Lloyds occasionally opens its doors to the public, primarily during the annual London Open House weekend. Visitors get a chance to experience the underwriting room, ascend in the glass lifts, and take in the breathtaking views from the Committee Room.

    The Lloyds Building isn’t just an architectural wonder; it’s a representation of London’s spirit. In a city that holds its history dear, the building shows that there’s room for the new. It’s a bridge between past and future, tradition and innovation. Like London itself, the Lloyds Building is timeless, always ready to face the future while nodding to its past.

  • The Biggest Park in London – Richmond Park

    The Biggest Park in London – Richmond Park

    Richmond Park – London’s Sprawling Oasis

    London, with its rich tapestry of history and culture, offers a relentless pace. For those longing for a breath of fresh air away from the urban jungle, Richmond Park stands out as a verdant haven.

    A Historical Overview

    Spanning an impressive 2,500 acres, Richmond Park holds the distinction of being Europe’s largest enclosed park, a legacy left by Charles I. Although enclosed during his reign, its royal roots stretch back another 400 years. Today, the park boasts designations as both a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

    Accessibility and Costs

    The joys of Richmond Park are available without an admission fee. Expenses might only arise from food or optional activities.

    Reaching Richmond Park:

    • Public Transport: Hop onto the District Line Tube or the National Rail to Richmond Station. From there, the 371 or 65 bus routes will ferry you directly to the Petersham gate.
    • By Car: If you’re inclined to drive, Richmond Park provides six parking spaces within its perimeter.

    Activities and Experiences

    • Leisure: The vastness of Richmond Park allows for tranquil spots to simply relax and soak in nature.
    • Cycling: Pedal your way through dedicated paths. For those without their own bicycles, rentals are available near the Roehampton Gate.
    • Jogging: The park’s picturesque trails offer a refreshing backdrop for your runs.
    • Horseback Riding: Experience the park through dedicated equestrian routes.
    • Golf: Golf enthusiasts can take a swing at one of the park’s two 18-hole courses.
    • Fishing: For a calm day out, fishing is an option. Do remember to get a permit, available on-site.
    • Power Kiting: Experience the thrill of kite-surfing but on terra firma. Enrol for lessons and feel the adrenaline rush on the park’s vast grasslands.
    Richmond Park Run
    Photo credit Ruth Gledhill

    Landmarks and Spectacles

    • Henry VIII’s Hill: As you near Richmond Gate, ascend to the park’s highest point. The panoramic views of the City of London, notably featuring St. Paul’s Cathedral, are nothing short of breathtaking. Remarkably, these vistas are so esteemed that they enjoy legal protection.
    • Pembroke Lodge: This Georgian mansion has transitioned from a historic marvel to a sought-after restaurant and event venue. The estate offers captivating views, serving as a reminder of the park’s beauty.
    • The Deer: A signature of Richmond Park is its resident deer herd. While they’ve grown accustomed to human presence, a respectful distance ensures safety. Yet, they are photogenic subjects, offering ample opportunities for captivating snapshots.

    Richmond Park isn’t just another park; it’s an experience, an escape, a breath of fresh countryside air in the heart of London. Dive into its beauty and history, and find your corner of calm in the city’s sprawling expanse.

    Featured photo credit @MarkAshleyG

  • St. Christopher’s Place – a Hidden Gem in the Heart of London

    St. Christopher’s Place – a Hidden Gem in the Heart of London

    The Lay of the Land

    Tucked away from the hustle of London’s main thoroughfares are its charming secrets: narrow lanes and cosy streets that paint a different portrait of the city. Not far from Oxford Street, you’ll stumble upon one such gem: St. Christopher’s Place.

    You won’t find St. Christopher’s Place sprawling across a map with prominent markings. No, it’s discreet — almost whispering for you to find it. Shaped like an ‘H’, it comprises two elongated lanes running perpendicular to Oxford Street, with a shorter one bridging the two.

    A Gastronomic Delight

    The area thrives as a gastronomic haven. It’s a delightful parade of restaurants, each with its own slice of the world’s culinary offerings. Whether you fancy a rich Italian pasta, a French delicacy, a juicy burger, a Turkish feast, or just a hearty pizza, you’re in for a treat. And the experience is elevated, thanks to the outdoor seating that almost every restaurant there boasts. As you sip your wine or enjoy your meal, the world continues in a blur around you, yet you’re comfortably ensconced in this enclave of serenity.

    Shopping Extravaganza

    But it’s not all about food. St. Christopher’s Place is also a treasure trove for those with a penchant for shopping. As you saunter through, you’ll discover boutique stores offering clothing that stands out, glittering jewellery shops, and places where you can find chic accessories. A word to the wise, though — it leans towards the high-end, so your wallet might feel a bit lighter after a spree.

    Festive Magic in the Air

    Time your visit around Christmas, and you’re in for an even grander spectacle. The area transforms into a winter wonderland, with twinkling lights creating a canopy overhead. The radiant glow of Christmas decorations adds to the magic, casting a warm hue over everything. There’s a special allure to London during the festive season, and St. Christopher’s Place captures that essence brilliantly.

    Finding the Hidden Jewel

    Now, you might wonder: how does one find this hidden gem? Here’s a hint. As you walk down Oxford Street, let your eyes wander to the north side. Between the O2 and H&M stores, there’s an alleyway. At first glance, it seems like it’s just wide enough for a single person. Venture in, and it soon broadens out, revealing the wonders of St. Christopher’s Place. A hallmark of this entrance is a clock, accompanied by a sign — both of which can be seen if you look closely enough.

    A Cinematic Touch

    For those who regard cinema as a mirror to reality, you might recognise this place from the film “Love Actually” Remember the tender scene where Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson cross paths before they embark on their Christmas shopping spree? Yes, that was right in the heart of St. Christopher’s Place.

    So the next time you’re on Oxford Street, perhaps overwhelmed by the crowd and the ceaseless energy, and yearn for a more tranquil spot to dine or simply to gather your thoughts, let St. Christopher’s Place be your refuge. It’s a reminder that even in the heart of a sprawling city, there are pockets of calm and charm, just waiting to be discovered.

  • Understanding Football (Soccer) in London

    Understanding Football (Soccer) in London

    Football is a Tribal Thing

    Football in London is a tribal thing. I remember speaking to a local supermarket owner in Stoke Newington. He supported Trabzon Spor because he came from Trabzon; Fenerbahce, because it was a great team; and Arsenal, ‘of course’.

    Now if you live in Stoke Newington, you have two local teams you can choose – Arsenal (’the gooners’) or Tottenham Hotspur (’spurs’). London is a very big place when it comes to football, with five Premiership teams and many more in other leagues, but loyalty is often very parochial.

    Well, this article, being a snapshot in time from 2009, describes with plenty of nostalgia the glory days of one particular London football club, I am going to start my list with.

    Photo credit Ronnie Macdonald

    So, imagine you just found a time machine and teleported yourself back into 2009, right in the middle of the first part of the season of the top league of British football. Here is what you are most likely to find.

    The Premiership Teams

    • Arsenal. This used to be Woolwich Arsenal, named after the dockyard, but the team moved to north London in 1913.  Managed by suave Frenchman Mr Arsene Wenger, it’s one of the top British teams and, on its day, plays probably the most beautiful football in the world. Unless you support Spurs. It plays at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal’s home colours are red, and you can see the origins of its name in the cannon that figures on its coat of arms.
    • Spurs. The other north London team, the inveterate enemy of Arsenal. This team plays at White Hart Lane; when they play against Arsenal, it’s called ‘the North London Derby’. The home colours are white, and the crest is a cockerel standing on a football.
    • Chelsea. This team plays at Stamford Bridge. (Don’t do the same as that poor chap who put ‘Stamford Bridge’ in his satnav and ended up in Yorkshire; make sure you use the London postcode, which is SW6 1HS.) Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has spent millions on the club, buying expensive players, hiring and firing managers (Mourinho, Scolari, and now Guus Hiddink), and turning it into the club everybody loves to hate. (Except for Chelsea supporters, of course.) Considering Manchester United had filled that spot for the last, what, thirty years, that’s quite some achievement. Home colours are royal blue, and the crest shows a lion holding a staff.
    • Fulham, playing at Craven Cottage, is Chelsea’s local rival in the ‘West London Derby’. Fulham only just survived in the Premiership last year but has managed to stay mid-table this year.  This club is owned by Harrods boss Mohammed al-Fayed. The home colours are black and white, and the shield simply shows the letters FFC for Fulham Football Club.  Official mascot Billy the Badger (picking up on the black and white colours of the club) was sent off last year during a match for breakdancing on the pitch while the game was in progress.
    • The last of the five premiership clubs is West Ham, based at Upton Park, which plays in claret and blue. Famous for its team anthem, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’. West Ham was at one time noted for its hooligans, the ‘Inter City Firm’, and had particular trouble with old rival Millwall FC: Milwall no longer plays in the Premier League (it’s in League One, below the Championship and so two leagues below West Ham) so there’s no occasion for trouble now.

    Below these clubs, though, London has many more. In the Championship, the league below the Premiership, there are three; Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, and Queens Park Rangers (QPR).

    The Weird One

    The strangest of the ‘London’ clubs is Wimbledon. Yes, Wimbledon is in London – but the club isn’t. It moved to Milton Keynes in 2004 and is now known as the MK Dons.

    You’ll find many people, even if they support one of the major clubs, have a soft spot for Leyton Orient, which plays at the Matchroom Stadium in Brisbane Road, Leyton, east London. Leyton Orient’s team are often known simply as ‘the O’s’. Famously, it was bought for five quid in 1995 – a far cry from the multi-million-pound deals being done in the Premiership!

    But its great claim to fame is the Leyton Orient Supporters’ Club, which is celebrated for its commitment to real ale, and hosts regular beer festivals which, odd to relate, usually coincide with at least one football match.

    I used to work with someone who told me Leyton Orient used to be a great club. (This is true.) He also told me that in the old days, when it was called Clapton Orient, it won the FA Cup. That was a fib. The furthest they ever got was the semi-final (in 1978). Probably just as well; it’s a lovely club, and too much success might have spoiled it…

    Photo credit Ben Sutherland.

  • Trooping the Colour: The Majesty and Tradition Behind the Queen’s Dual Celebrations

    Trooping the Colour: The Majesty and Tradition Behind the Queen’s Dual Celebrations

    Ever since I can remember, the Queen’s unique way of celebrating her birthday has been a source of envy for me. Can you imagine having not one, but two birthdays in a single year? One is her natural day of birth, akin to the way we all mark our yearly milestones. The other, an official birthday, is set for a more predictable time when the unpredictable British weather is less likely to dampen the spirits of grand outdoor celebrations like those at garden parties. Oh, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she unwraps two sets of gifts, each time. The cherry on top? Her official birthday is invariably fixed for a Saturday, ensuring a weekend of merriment. Now, that’s the royal treatment!

    The splendid Trooping the Colour, a tradition spanning many generations, marks her official birthday. This year, it is scheduled for June 14th and promises to be an extraordinary affair. The Household Division, an elite unit that serves as the Queen’s personal guard, is set to lead the parade. Picture this: 200 majestic horses, over a thousand gallant soldiers in full regalia, all lining up in ceremonial precision, waiting for the monarch’s inspection. After the detailed review, the procession moves towards Buckingham Palace. Here, from its historic balconies, the Queen and her entourage enjoy a breathtaking fly-past by the RAF.

    So, what exactly is “Trooping the Colour?” This tradition has its origins in military strategy. Historically, “trooping” the regimental colours ensured that soldiers could easily identify and rally around their unit’s standard during the chaos of battle. Fast forward to our technologically advanced times, and our soldiers are equipped with GPS, radios, and other gadgets, rendering this practice obsolete from a tactical standpoint. However, some rituals are too cherished to fade away. Today, Trooping the Colour stands as a proud testament to Britain’s rich heritage and is a spectacular ceremonial display—a domain where the English unquestionably excel.

    Kettle Drummer from the Household Cavalry During Trooping the Colour

    Now, if you’re hoping to be amidst the esteemed gathering at Horse Guards Parade, and haven’t secured a ticket yet, it might be a tad late. Those tickets are as sought after as golden Willy Wonka tickets! But not to fret. An equally impressive vantage point is The Mall. It provides a fantastic view of the ceremony, and you can absorb the atmosphere and the reverberations of history being enacted.

    If you’re a real enthusiast and keen on behind-the-scenes experiences, consider attending the rehearsals. They’re nothing short of spectacular themselves. A week prior to the Trooping, on June 7th, there’s the Colonel’s Review. Delve a bit further back, on May 31st, and you can witness the Major General’s Review. Both are mesmerizing spectacles that give you a glimpse into the rigorous preparations and the unmatched precision of the ceremonies.

    In essence, these ceremonies and traditions underscore the essence of British regality, history, and the nation’s penchant for upholding customs. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, witnessing these events is a rendezvous with history, pageantry, and an undying legacy. The Queen’s two birthdays are not just dates on a calendar; they represent the continuity of traditions, the pride of a nation, and indeed, a reason for many, like me, to look on with a touch of envy and a whole lot of admiration.

  • Great London Pubs – the Sherlock Holmes and Ship & Shovell

    Great London Pubs – the Sherlock Holmes and Ship & Shovell

    The Sherlock Holmes pub is conveniently located not far from the National Gallery, the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square. It’s on Northumberland Street, just off the main drag.  If you’re looking for a cooling pint after your touristic endeavours, it’s an atmospheric place to relax. It’s recreated Sherlock Holmes’s digs in 221B Baker Street – though I do wonder why this was done here, and not anywhere nearer to Baker Street itself!

    It serves real ale – Greene King Abbot Ale, for instance, or Speckled Hen. (Don’t be fooled by the Sherlock Holmes ale – a bit of detective work shows that it’s rebadged Morlands, apparently.)

    The Sherlock Holmes Pub, London

    However, if the rather touristy feel of Sherlock Holmes puts you off, just take a little walk up to the Strand, where the Ship & Shovell in Craven Passage has a ramshackle charm. And serves beers you won’t find everywhere – Badger beer, to be precise, including the famed Tanglefoot.

    Even better, you have a choice of two tiny bars, one on each side of the alleyway. One is snug, with wooden benches and fine mirrors, and the other is even snugger – practically just a bar with a tiny allotment of space for you to stand in. Difficult to choose between the two. I suppose if you wanted to be entirely free of bias, you could always drink in the alleyway itself…

    Now, there’s a little bit of history here because you’ll probably have noticed the odd spelling of Shovell. That’s because it doesn’t refer to a digging implement, but to Sir Cloudesley Shovell – the admiral who got his fleet lost in the English Channel. Having refused to listen to a sailor who was a rather better navigator than he was, the admiral ended his life on the rocks of the Isles of Scilly. It’s said that he struggled ashore alive, but a local woman killed him and cut off his finger in order to get at his expensive ring.

    All in all, just as interesting a story as anything in the casebook of Sherlock Holmes!

    Photo courtesy of Ewan Munro.

  • Oxford vs. Cambridge University Boat Race

    Oxford vs. Cambridge University Boat Race

    This Sunday, 29th March, sees the University Boat Race – Oxford and Cambridge competing again, as they have for over 150 years, to win this annual event.

    The Boat Race, like the Derby, the Grand National or the FA Cup Final, is one of those sporting events that has become part of popular culture. You don’t have to be an alumnus of either university or interested in rowing, to know about the Boat Race – or to have fun going to see it.

    Although the Boat Race itself won’t start till 1540 in the afternoon, turn up early, and you’ll be able to see the reserve boats, Isis (Oxford) and Goldie (Cambridge), race.

    Cambridge colours are light blue; Oxford, dark blue. (Those who have represented either University in a sports team are known as ‘blues’, for this reason.) Depending on where you are on the course, it may not be obvious which team is which – on one famous occasion, a poor BBC commentator said, “I can’t see who’s in front, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.”  Er, yes, precisely.

    This race will be the 155th. Currently, the tally stands with Cambridge ahead, having won 79 races to Oxford’s 74; each team has been sunk once (Cambridge in 1859 and Oxford in 1925), and there has been a dead heat once (in 1877).

    The race is rowed over a distance of just over four miles – 4 miles, 374 yards to be precise – in the Thames tideway. The fact that the river is still tidal here makes for extra interest; the race is rowed upstream but on an incoming flood tide (an hour before high water). The coxes of the two boats aim to use tidal currents to assist their boats’ performance; at the same time, they have to steer around three huge bends. Clashes of blades (oars) are common as they jockey for position.

    This is a long race – the record time is 16 minutes, 19 seconds, rowed by the Cambridge crew in 1998, and last year’s race took over 20 minutes in very rough weather. Wherever you stand, you’ll only see part of the race – though three big screens are being put up this year, so you can watch the rest of the race via TV coverage.  One screen will be at Bishops Park, Fulham (Putney Bridge tube station), and the other at Furnival Gardens, Hammersmith, about halfway along the course.

    There are numerous good places to watch on either bank of the river. The riverbanks are liberally dotted with pubs, so you can get a pint or two once you’ve watched the boats go by. My favourite place during the rest of the year is the Hammersmith riverbank, with its lovely alleyways and old pubs – but for the Boat Race, I have to say the atmosphere at the end of the course is probably unbeatable. And there’s a good pub there, too – the Ship, by Chiswick Bridge.

    The only disappointing thing about the end is that apparently, only two teams that were behind at the Barnes railway bridge have ever managed to come back and win. So you’re probably not going to see that exciting a finish. Then, on the other hand, you might always see one of the boats sink…

    If you can’t get down to the Thames, you can watch the race live on ITV1. And you can have a bet on the race in most bookies if the fancy takes you.

    I shall, as ever, be supporting Cambridge. And drinking Fullers – because the Fullers brewery is actually on the Boat Race course!