Tweedy Cycling, Gingerlining, Garden Freebies and the Awkward Hour
Hi there folks! I can't tell you how great it is to be able to share things with you online, as part of British Heritage’s move to bring you some exciting extras beyond the realms of the print magazine.
I can talk about twice as much now—Around Town will still be in the physical publication of course, but here we can explore different, more timely events and share the odd nudge about extra special things happening in the next couple of weeks or that are just around for a short while. Special one-offs or timely tips you shouldn't miss if you're visiting now!
I'm keen to let you know things YOU want to know so if you have any suggestions for subjects you'd like to read about or questions about visiting the capital, let us know....
The sun's setting behind Westminster Abbey. It’s too late to do much more sightseeing, the museums are closing, the pubs are full of after-work drinkers and the restaurants are getting ready for dinner, but you’re just not ready to eat yet and curtain's not up on your West End show for another couple of hours. You could kick around the Oxford street stores, but even they feel hot and tired. You’ve hit the ‘awkward hour’–that time of day when the afternoon’s done, but the evening hasn’t quite started.
I’ve been building up a little list of places I like to hang out during Awkward Hour and have a little gem to share with you...
Westminster Arts Reference Library is just behind Leicester Square, in a rather grand Regency mansion built on the site of Isaac Newton’s observatory. It’s open to everyone until 8.00pm weekdays and 5.00pm Saturdays, and it welcomes visitors.
Unsurprisingly, given it’s in the heart of theater land, the library holds a superb collection of mainly performing arts-related books and hundreds of magazines, newspapers and journals, both specialist and general reading. There are plenty of cozy places to sit. Go up to the second floor where there's a little wooden gallery and plenty of quiet corners. It’s a secluded gem in a crazy part of town and I like to lose myself there for an hour or so before I go to a show or find somewhere to eat.
I thought of it last Saturday when I took part in the annual Tweed Run, which started in Trafalgar Square this year, just yards from the library. What began in 2009 as a social bicycle ride ‘with a bit of style’ has become a London institution, with people coming from all over the world to join in, both as riders and spectators.
I was struck this year by the number of foreign accents I heard. People of all ages from all over Europe, America and the Far East had managed to secure the hottest cycling ticket in town.
Their suitcases must have been bulging with tweed, serge, tweed, wool, tweed, cotton and more tweed.
It happens every April and if you plan to be in town around then it’s worth watching out for—or even taking part in—the gentlest bike ride you’ll ever see. Prizes are awarded for the most gentlemanly conduct, best moustache and most stylish hat-doffing. It’s worth joining the mailing list to find out when it will take place next year; details are announced early spring.
While we’re in the Covent Garden area, allow me to recommend another London institution, Gaby’s Deli.
Fifty years ago Gaby Elyahou opened a non-kosher Jewish deli on Charing Cross Road, just up by Leicester Square tube and he’s been refuelling the thespian community from surrounding theaters ever since.
Gaby claims to have introduced falafel to London and no one’s disputed him yet. His bagels, houmous, stews and salt-beef sandwiches are also popular, but don’t expect fine dining. Plastic tables, lop-sided pot plants and walls covered in photos of Gaby with famous actors are part of the café’s charm. It says something about the esteem the place enjoys that the walls are also covered in newspaper cuttings from when the place was threatened with redevelopment into a chain restaurant and the entire community got on board to save it. A great place for a cheap meal in London before hitting the town...
Gaby’s remains endangered, so enjoy it while you can. There's no website, but find him at 30 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DE, opposite Wyndham's Theater.
There’s a fashion for ‘immersive’ experiences in town at the moment–events such as Secret Cinema and Punchdrunk, which even made it to the National Theatre. It can be terrible, but when it’s good it’s amazing. After immersive cinema and theatre, it was only a matter of time before immersive dining came along.
When you buy a Gingerline ticket, all you know is the date and the tube line on which the venue will be. My friend Frances and I knew our dinner would be somewhere on the Jubilee Line, so we waited at Waterloo station; it seemed as good as any. At 6.00pm we got a text message to go to London Bridge and follow a series of cryptic directions.
We eventually descended into a disused warehouse where we stumbled into a secret, overgrown Edwardian paradise; the Lost Gardens of Gingerline. Among the ivy-strewn trellis work and butterfly-filled greenery, crumbling fountains and broken statues, we discovered the ‘history’ of the gardens, their owners and staff. Intricate storylines and quirky settings meant everyone got to sit in a different part of this Alice in Wonderland world, and experience the specially-prepared food in their own way.
I was particularly impressed that Frances, who’s vegetarian, was given different but still-exciting food. So often restaurants just give vegetarians the standard dish minus the meat. Here people with dietary requirements were properly catered for. That said, it’s probably not a place for anyone with serious allergies, and you are expected to be reasonably adventurous–though don't worry, I’m not aware anyone’s been served bugs yet...
I can’t tell you what’s next–it’s a secret, of course, none of us know. But whatever it is, it will be extraordinary, exciting and worth making an effort to attend. You heard it here first, folks…
If you’re visiting in the next few weeks, try:
London Open Squares Weekend
The horticultural answer to the extraordinary Open City Architectural weekend held in September each year, Open Squares started out as just that–the opening up of those mysterious, mainly Georgian squares in the middle of London's streets (think of the private park Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb over the railings to get inside in Notting Hill) but it was so successful that now hundreds of secret gardens throughout the capital open up for one crazy weekend in June.
Private gardens round the back of people's houses, green spaces on the roofs of multinational companies in the City, universities, Livery Companies, schools, woodlands you wouldn't know were hidden behind that apartment block, allotments (sorry, mine isn't open, though I'm lobbying the council to let me...), gardens made in skips, on canal boats, in museums– even one in a working prison–all are open for the ridiculously cheap price of £10 for as many as you can squeeze into two days of exploring, stretched across every borough in the capital.
I block out Open Squares weekend in my diary every year, but I'll never manage to see them all, not least because many of the people showing off their pride-and-joys also hijack you with home made teas and cakes, which it would be rude not to sample–and besides–who wants to rush a garden visit?
Book online in advance to get weekend passes for a tenner, otherwise it's £12–just pay at the first garden you rock up to...
Madness at London Bridge Station
You may well have read horror stories about the crazy work going on at London Bridge Station messing up the whole of the train network. And I have to admit–it's not a pretty picture, but it's not as bad as the papers would have you think.
London Bridge is one of the capital's busiest stations. It serves much of the South Coast and links up lots of other lines. It was London's first-ever railway station, way back in the 1830s, a cute little chuffa-train taking Victorian tourists to Greenwich on a giant raised archway, which is still there.
And that's the trouble–it's all Victorian, and as the station grew, it turned into a mess of crossed lines, awkward platforms and confused signals all squeezed in a tiny area between Southwark Cathedral, Dickens' historic Clink Prison and Borough Market.
To sort it all out is going to take until 2018 and no matter how carefully the works have been planned, it is pretty nutty just now. But as a Greenwich resident, I do the trip several times a week and really–it's fine. Just remember a few simple things and traveling via London Bridge is a breeze.
- None of the underground stations are affected, tubes are running normally.
- You probably won't need to use the railway part of the station anyway, it mostly serves commuter towns.
- If you're planning a visit to Greenwich, get on at Cannon Street–or, better still, take a Thames Clipper boat. It's a glorious way to travel.
- If you are planning a trip to Brighton, the trains now go from Blackfriars, which is lovely, new and bright.
- Don't travel in obvious peak-hours, which is when most of the 'nightmare' headlines are made
And don't forget: the area around London Bridge is absolutely wonderful. From the extraordinary glass Shard to Georgian lanes, the foodie heaven of Borough Market to fabulous, ancient pubs, the cool chic of the Fashion Museum to the tranquil Edwardian charm of the cathedral, it's well worth a visit. Do it soon, while it's still a melting pot. You won't regret it...
STOP THE PRESSES!
Next weekend, the 30th and 31st May, the Pope's private choir sing in Westminster Abbey–for free. It's an extremely rare event; the Sistine Chapel Choir has only visited the UK once before in its entire history. Hear some more history being made at 5.00pm on Saturday 30th and 6.30pm on Sunday 31st. Entry by the West Door, tickets not required–do say hello if you see me there!