London 2010 – Day 4 (afternoon) – Brick Lane, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe

Liverpool Street, Old Spitalfields Market, Brick Lane

A friend of mine recommended Brick Lane which is not far from Tower of London. It is famous for its curry houses and arty markets. “There’s a lot of energy there,” she said. So I took the tube to Liverpool Street, which, according to my map, should be the closest station.

I emerged into a broad street lined by monolithic glass buildings. Grim-faced people in suits hurried past me. It was an office district, the last place I want to be during vacation. Getting out of there was easier said than done. I got lost. My map was oversimplified and I couldn’t follow the route I plotted. Then I spotted two policemen on bicycle, and they gave me detailed directions.

I wandered into a more secluded area, passing the Old Spitalfields Market and Christ Church, and reached a narrow lane where brightly coloured signs of curry houses decorated the red-brick faςades on the sides. This was probably Brick Lane, but I saw no market, nor much energy. I didn’t know the markets were only open on Sunday. The place had the vibe of Chungking Mansion, for obvious reason. It is as if someone had taken the building apart, and rebuilt it into a street.

I tried to find lunch at a pub. A sign on the door said “Smart dress only, no site gear allowed”. I had no idea what site gear meant, but my casual shirt and jeans weren’t exactly smart. No one reacted to my presence though, but then none asked if I needed anything. I know in a British pub you’re supposed to order drinks at the bar, as there’s no table service. I didn’t realise it also applies to food. I sat at a table and waited, but nothing happened. I couldn’t even find the menu. I should’ve just asked the staff, but I felt so out of place and awkward, and the anxiety took over. I left the pub with an empty stomach, and lots of confusion.

I retraced my steps back to Liverpool Street, and bought a pastry from a stall. I sat down at a nearby table, sharing space with a pigeon scavenging crumbs scattered among cigarette butts. The pastry wasn’t bad – the filling was piping hot – but no substitute for a proper meal. Several office workers came and started blowing smoke. It was a sign to leave.

From Tower Bridge to Shakespeare’s Globe

I returned to Tower Hill and crossed the Tower Bridge to the south side of River Thames. From there I walked a long way to Shakespeare’s Globe, passing the futuristic City Hall and HMS Belfast. The latter was a WW2 warship converted into a museum. Unlike a few years ago, I no longer had any interest in military hardware.

City Hall:

HMS Belfast:

Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, where Shakepeare’s plays were performed in the 16th century. There was still some time for dinner before tonight’s performance of Macbeth. The pre-theatre menu of Swan at the Globe was particularly enticing, but I had something else in mind.

Swan restaurant and Shakespeare’s Globe:

I paid 5 pounds for “Setting the Scene”, a pre-theatre talk in which scholars provide introduction to the evening play. This was helpful as my only knowledge of Macbeth is Akira Kurosawa’s adaption in Throne of Blood. Background aside, the speaker also discussed how elements in the play were transferred to the performance, like the use of trapdoor to symbolise passage to the “underworld”. There was no time for dinner so I grabbed a croque monsieur (which should be called crooked monsieur because it tasted vile).

The theatre had three floors plus a standing area called “the pit”, which is uncomfortable but right in front of the action. I sat on the second floor. Photography is not allowed so this is from wikipedia:

The Macbeth performance was special because the pit was covered by a black canopy, with holes where spectators can poke their heads out. When looked from above, it was like a sea of black with heads floating on it. Like the trapdoor, this was supposed to simulate the underworld. It also allowed some wicked tricks. For examples, “witches” emerged from the canopy with wallets snatched from the audience. “Blood-soaked” man moved into the crowd, causing people to squirm as they had nowhere to run.

I must admit my experience was hampered by my inability to understand the Shakespearean language, but even just visually the performance was highly enjoyable. There were plenty of surprises. For example, one of the characters suddenly appeared next to me, climbed over the ledge, and rappelled down the stage. What a way to make an entrance!

After the show I crossed the Millennium Bridge for the tube station. I discovered my clothes were too thin to withstand the cold wind of River Thames at night. As I shivered, teeth clenching and hungry, I said to myself:

“That’s it. No more takeaways. No more pastries. I’m gonna splurge on decent meals from tomorrow on.”

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London 2010 – Day 4 (morning) – Tower of London

I woke up to an overcast sky. Normally this isn’t the kind of weather I want but today was an exception, because I was visiting the Tower of London. A vivid blue sky is incongruous with a fortress notorious for its many atrocities: executions, murders, overcharging tourists etc.

At the main gate a uniformed and rather rotund  man was giving a tour. He was, of course, one of the Yeoman Warders. Historically they are guardians of the tower, but these days their role is largely ceremonial. In practice, they now act as tour guides.

These people are wickedly humorous. Some of their best jokes:

(To American tourists) If you had paid your taxes, all this wonderful history would have been yours!

This (referring to the Traitor’s Gate) was originally named the Water Gate. So, (again, to American tourists) we had one first.

Guy Fawkes… was the only man in British history to enter Parliament with a clear agenda, and the resources to see it through. You don’t see that in government these days do you? (Not funny unless you know he was there to blow up the king!)

The tour ended in a chapel where many historical figures are buried, among which is Queen Anne Boleyn. If you’ve seen the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl, you may remember her. I’m a history buff. It’s hard to describe the sensation when you realize that a historical person whose name you’ve heard so many times is buried right there, before your eyes, six feet under that stone. It gave me goosebumps. It made my head spin.

Then I went to see the crown jewels, the “bling” things. Photography is not allowed in the jewel house so sorry no pictures. Biggest attraction was The Star of Africa, the world’s largest diamond (530.2 carats). As the Yeoman Warder thoughtfully warned, ladies should not compare it with their engagement ring.

This is the White Tower, the main structure in the Tower of London. Built in around 1080, it’s almost a thousand years old. The weather was much better now:

It is now a museum of historical armours and weapons, notably Henry VIII’s armour. It’s difficult to take this picture in auto mode because the camera always focuses on the codpiece:

This is the gravity-operated medieval toilet:

Another armour, this one with intricate engraving:

This is where medieval kings slept:

From the bed chamber the new London City Hall can be seen. I wonder if its location is specially chosen so that the new and old government headquarters face each other, separated not just by a river but also 1000 years of history.

Even though it has become a bit touristy, the Tower of London is still an unmissible attraction, but you need to have some interest and knowledge in English history to make the best of it. Spare at least two hours.

London 2010 – Day 3 – Regent Street, Imperial War Museum, Les Miserables

First thing I did today was to buy a discount ticket at the tkts booth in Leicester Square. There was a line of about 20 people when I got there at 10:20 am. I managed to get a ticket for Les Miserables, 10th row from the stage, for just 39 pounds! Hooray!

I spent the rest of the morning walking the major commercial streets – Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street and Oxford Street. Bought some clothes and shoes. Visited Hamley’s, the world’s largest toy store, and Apple Store, the world’s largest grown-up toy store. Lunch was scones and Victoria sponge cake at Marks & Spencer.

Piccadilly Circus:

In the afternoon, I went to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth North.

 

The museum’s name might give the impression that it glorifies Britain’s military history. It does not.

One exhibition shows the dreadful life on a WW2 submarine:

This is a smell you won’t forget:

The Children’s War exhibition tells the life of children, including those escaping from Europe, during wartime Britain. Poison gas was a constant threat and there were gas masks for children of all ages, including infants:

Some of them died because they picked the wrong toy:

Others didn’t even survive the journey:

An old gentleman was there to answer question about his experience as a child during war. I think that’s a brilliant idea.

This is a recreation of a WW1 trench. Even the stench is simulated:

There’s no better way to condemn war by showing war as it is, which is what I think this museum does.

The museum also sells some very cool gifts including rationing cookbooks. Funniest of all are the “Sod Calm and Get Angry” objects which parody the famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” WW2 poster.  But why is the “Get Angry” poster in the calming colour of blue, and the “Keep Calm” poster in the agitating colour of red?

 

There was still some time before the musical so I had dinner at Mr. Wu in China Town. It was an “all-you-can-eat” Chinese buffet so authenticity was out of the question. It even had chips and curry. Curry must be the true global food; the British have chicken tikka masala, the Japanese have katsu-kare and now even Chinese buffet serves curry.

After dinner, I crossed the street to Queen’s Theatre where I watched Les Miserables:

Much has been said about this famous musical so I won’t bore you with all the superlatives. I just want to say that I’d never watched any musical before and now I know why people are so crazy about them. I won’t hesitate to pay the full price to see other musicals, or even Les Mis again.

The songs resonated in my head as I walked back to Piccadilly Circus in the chilly drizzle, humming “Do You Hear the People Sing” unconsciously, and trying to ignore the bewildered looks from other passers-by.

London 2010 – Day 2 (afternoon) – Speaker’s Corner, Covent Garden, China Town

Speaker’s Corner

I went to Marble Arch again in the afternoon, this time for the Speaker’s Corner. Every Sunday, people come to this small section of Hyde Park to deliver their views and meet crowds who listen, question and heckle. Issues discussed range “from extraterrestrials to abolition of monarchy”, says one guidebook.

To my disappointment, the topics were much less varied when I was there. All of the speakers were preaching their religions, which I’m not interested in and don’t understand. Still, coming from a city where the people are generally more inhibited, I was impressed by the passion of the speakers. Exchanges between speakers and listeners were heated, but civil.

  

Yet I wonder if the Speaker’s Corner will eventually be replaced by the Internet, which allows individuals to speak to a much bigger audience without a fixed venue. Perhaps the Internet is the NEW Speaker’s Corner, promoting free speech just like that pavement in Hyde Park did in the past, only on a much larger scale.

Covent Garden, Leicester Square, China Town

I then took the tube to Covent Garden. By the time I got there, most of the shops and stalls were already closed. The Whittard shop was still open so I bought loads of tea enough for a whole year (the mango tea is particularly good; I hope they’ll sell it in Hong Kong someday). There were still a few street performers. This man stood like a statue until someone puts money in the box, at which point he would bow and say thank you:

This guy was amazing! He was dancing the whole time!

From Covent Garden I followed Shaftesbury Avenue to Leicester Square. My purpose here was to locate the tkts booth, where I would buy the discount ticket tomorrow. From Leicester Square it was a short walk to China Town. Street names in China Town are bilingual. The Chinese names are quite elegantly translated, and seem to be handwritten on the original nameplates:

First order of business was to get dinner. I quickly located the (in)famous Wong Kei:

Wong Kei used to be known for its rude service, which has been significantly “toned down” in recent years. They even sell T-shirts printed with “Upstairs/Downstairs”, orders that waiters used to shout when seating guests. The service was HK Cha Chaan Teng standard. I had a large plate of Fujian fried price for 6.2 pounds, inexpensive by London standards, and very good. It had dices of roast pork (燒肉) which is not found in HK version of the dish. I was missing HK-style milk tea but they only had soft drinks.

Hearing the waiters speak Cantonese (and especially Cantonese profanity) made me feel at home.

Outside, I saw some locals staring at the roast ducks behind the window. The curiosity on their faces remind me of myself wondering what the Tagalog-named products are in Filipino stores in Hong Kong. Only this time, I was the minority and our things were seen as exotic, if not bizarre.

Beautiful blunder

The Photographer’s Gallery in London has an online gallery called Beautiful Disasters. It displays “photographs that may at first look cataclysmic, but at closer inspection reveal an underlying layer of outsider aesthetics”. Next time, think twice before you press the delete button.

Unfortunately it no longer accepts submission, because I want to send them this picture:

I took this on the train to Oxford. I was trying to photograph the houses in the distance, but accidentally captured the reflection of the gentleman sitting across me, deep in thought.

I wish I’d visited there during my trip. It is just off Oxford Circus!

London 2010 – Day 2 (morning) – Hampton Court Palace

Today I got up early to catch the train to Hampton Court Palace, a historical royal palace in the outskirts of London. The 30-minute train ride departs from Waterloo Station. I had some trouble with the ticket machine, but a young lady gifted with an angelic voice offered help. I foresaw a beautiful day ahead.

The 2005 bombings still haunt today. On the train, there were constant announcements telling passengers not to leave bags unattended and to report “suspicious” behaviour.

From the station it was a 10-minute walk to the palace, crossing this beautiful river. It is possible to reach HCP from central London by boat. The downside to the scenic route is that it takes three hours.

The main gate:

The main gate was closed so I had to use the side gate called Seymour Gate, guarded by this dude who seemed to hate his job. Can’t blame him; it was boring and he had only a toy halberd to fend off hordes of children tugging his cumbersome costume.

The Seymour Gate:

I joined a palace tour which was also some sort of reenactment. This stressed-out man showed us the medieval kitchen and briefed us on our duty and proper palace etiquette as “servants”. We eventually reached the Great Hall where we had the honour of meeting Henry VIII himself. The king, however, was in bad mood over some “inappropriate gift”.

At that point I decided to leave the Tudors to sort out their business, and tour the palace as a free man.

The palace houses many works of art, including portraits of the Tudors. They come with explanations which really give insights into history. For example, in this portrait of Elizabeth I, the fruit-laden trees symbolise fertility, so the picture in fact celebrates her availability for marriage.

There is also antique furniture, like this throne chair of Queen Anne:

A sign next to it says “It’s so tempting to play the queen, but please do not touch this vulnerable throne chair.” I like how they put thought into even simple signs. The tone is friendly yet firm. I wish our museums could write like this, instead of the cold, uncreative “Do not touch”.

This room contains many pieces of Chinese porcelain, including even a statue of Guan Yin (觀音).

Hampton Court displays two distinct architectural styles, Tudor and Baroque, the latter due to 17th-century rebuilding to rival the Versailles. The Fountain Court is part of the rebuilding.

And it looks more refined than the cruder Tudor brickwork that dominates other parts of the palace:

The influence of Versailles is even more apparent in the garden:

My lunch today was a steak and ale pie. I liked the strong ale favour, but the gravy was incredibly salty. I also ordered an espresso. Strangely, it was served in a tall mug, making the coffee seem like leftover.

Stay tuned for the afternoon…

London 2010 – Day 1 (afternoon) – Borough Market, Tate Modern

After watching the Trooping I followed the Mall to Trafalgar Square, passing under the imposing Admiralty Arch. The Chinese name of this building might have originated in the Qing Dynasty, given the archaic terms (水師提督門, or Gate of the Captain General of the Marine Force).

I didn’t stay long at the square as I would return again. I did spend some time admiring the massive Nelson’s Column. Erected in 1843 to commemorate Horatio Nelson’s death in the Battle of Trafalgar, the column is now London’s most popular sports climbing place. Not a minute went by without some tourists struggling to climb onto the massive base to take pictures of themselves riding the lions, despite the obvious risk. Even today, Lord Nelson still inspires courage.

There was also a mounted cop and people were trying to touch the horse. I’d never touched a horse before and it felt like suede.

I then took the tube back to the hotel for check-in. In the station, I saw some used coffee cups on a handrail (and missing a Cafe de Coral cup):

How can one not love a city where even littering is done with such style?

There was also a sign telling people not to urinate in the station. It’s hard to believe there are people who actually do such thing. A man saw me photographing the sign and we exchanged a knowing smile.

Borough Market

Borough Market is a trendy food market south of the Thames, and where I had my lunch.

The market is beneath railroad tracks and provides lots of nice photo opportunities. If only I had more time…

It wasn’t big but there were so many new things to try, including some deep-fried Turkish snacks and a creamy Spanish dessert. I also had an ostrich burger, which was recommended by a tourist’s review. It was dismal. The bun was cold and the meat bland. The sauteed scallops from another stall, however, were very good – juicy and tender:

This man makes wonderful, aromatic mushroom pate. Unfortunately it was also very perishable so I couldn’t bring any home.

I then bought a pint of cider and walked along the Thames to Tate Modern, a museum of modern arts. The cold drink, river view and breeze provided much needed invigoration, because jet lag had begun to set in.

Tate Modern

My stay at Tate Modern was a brief one as I was totally exhausted and couldn’t understand modern arts anyway. The building itself, converted from an old power plant, was more interesting:

The cafe on the top floor has amazing view of St. Paul’s Cathedral:

I then crossed the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral. On the St. Paul side, there was a street painter working on a large picture:

I wonder if he needed official permission to do that, as he was occupying quite a lot of pedestrian space. I’m asking because some years ago, an artist in Hong Kong was told he could not paint on the street because his easel was a “hazard” to passers-by. This caused an outcry and many critisied the Hong Kong government for being unsupportive of arts. It’d be interesting to know and compare the two cities’ policies in this regard.

I then took the bus to Marble Arch, where I bought some supplies at Marks & Spencer. M&S Simply Food would become my favorite place to hang out because standing between two rows of refrigerators was the closest form of air-conditioning I could get, in a city where air-conditioning is woefully absent.

I was too tired at that point and had absolutely no appetite for dinner. Soon after returning to the hotel I collapsed in bed and drifted to sleep, ending my first day in London.

London 2010 – Day 1 (morning) – Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace

Hyde Park

My original plan for the morning was to take the tube to Hyde Park Corner station, then walk to Buckingham Palace to watch Trooping of Colour. With one extra hour I thought I could just walk all the way to the palace. Big mistake, as I underestimated the size of Hyde Park.

After breakfast I entered the park from the Broad Walk, which led me to the massive Round Pond. Immediately noticeable was the lack of barrier around the pond. In Hong Kong such a large water body would likely have been fenced up to prevent drowning of children. Some say Hong Kong is being over-protective. What do you think?

The Round Pond:

As I said, the park was VAST. Inside, one feels totally isolated from the city. Only the tallest buildings were visible beyond the tree line. To give you an idea, it is 13 times the size of Victoria Park, the largest park on Hong Kong Island; and this is just one of many parks in London!

After more walking (and getting bumped into by dogs playing fetch) I reached the Italian Garden and Lancaster Gate. It was clear I hadn’t covered even half of the park. Time was running out so I headed for the Lancaster Gate tube station.

The Serpentine, viewed from the Italian Garden:

Sculpture at the Italian Garden:

Trooping the Colour at Buckingham Palace

The official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II is celebrated each year by a military parade known as Trooping the Colour. Her actual birthday is in April but the celebration is held in June, when the weather is supposed to be more desirable.

On my way to the palace I had my first “tube closure surprise”. Trying to change to the Jubilee Line, I found a whole section of the line closed, although it didn’t take me long to find an alternate route. Lesson learned: check before you travel. I also made the mistake of standing too close to the doors, not noticing they were curved at the top, and had my head sandwiched by the closing doors.

When I got there, it was already packed with tourists:

It was an impressive display of pageantry. I particularly like the shining helmet and cuirass of the cavalry.

In an amusing contrast with the immaculately drilled performance, the horses just relieved themselves on the road, smearing the ground with what used to be their breakfast.

Stay tuned for the afternoon, and more…

Clean toilet, not-so-clean sentence

Seen in a toilet of an upscale shopping mall:

Sanitized every 2 hours for better hygiene.

Assuming the cleaners aren’t doing a particularly bad job, is it possible to sanitize for worse hygiene?

Call me a pedant, but such redundancy is more than a language issue. It reflects a lack of clarity of thought.

London 2010 – Day 0 – from HK to London

I’m sorry about the delayed trip report.

My London trip started well. The plane was half-empty so I moved to a seat with more leg-room. Soon after take-off my entertainment system stopped functioning. “Well look at the bright side”, I said to myself, “that’s one less distraction from sleeping”. And I had a good sleep, which I direly needed. I didn’t want to spend the first day recovering from jet lag in a hotel room.

After a 12-hour flight, I arrived at Heathrow T5 refreshed, invigorated by the morning sun:

I’d heard many bad things about the other terminals, none of which was true about the new T5. It was modern and sparkling clean. Border control and customs were very efficient.

From Heathrow to hotel: 

To get to my B&B I had to take the Heathrow Connect train to Paddington station. While waiting, I heard a man screaming. He was on the platform and one of his arms was caught between the train doors. The doors did detect his arm but would only open a little – not enough for him to withdraw. I watched in horror fearing the train would suddenly pull out and tear his arm off. Eventually the platform staff intervened (took quite a while, though) and freed the poor man.

From Paddington it was a 5-10 minute walk to my hotel. I’d already rehearsed the walk on Google Map Street View, so I immediately recognized the way upon exiting the station. Streets in this area were lined with white, stucco-fronted Victorian houses. They were very stylish and classy, and gave me a good first impression of London, despite the incident at the platform.

It was still 7:00 am, too early to check in, so I deposited my luggage at the hotel. Although the hotel’s website says luggage storage costs 2 pounds/day, they charged me nothing. I was one hour ahead of schedule so I had additional time to explore the city. Great! I couldn’t wait to start.