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I love London part 3

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I Love London part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

P1230725Having been on my travels to Croatia and Bosnia this summer I had a strange feeling as I entered my second week away. I live in London, the world’s most visited city and I live in the UK, a place many people want to call their home. Indeed, we’re so popular that our Government feels it ought to demonise and spit hate at anyone that wants to come live here. We’re full up, apparently.

The feeling I had was that I wasn’t making the most of my own country and home city, and perhaps my obsession with getting away isn’t the best use of my time off. So, I used the opportunity of having my mum down to be a tourist in London. First stop, the Tower of London to see the poppies planted to commemorate the 888,246 British soliders killed in the war. An astonishing sea of red constrasts sharply with the grey of the building and green of the grass, creating the second spectacle commemorating the war. The other was Ryoji Ikeda‘s ‘spectra’, the beam of light projected into the skies above London for a week. As impressive as the beam is from afar, up close it takes on an almost solid form – flies dancing through the light remind you of its ethereal quality. The light entranced everyone who saw it.

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On top of the many free events that go around the city all summer, there’s the small matter of the museums and galleries of London which together is quite likely the biggest concentration of free art, design and exhibits anywhere on earth.

Let’s take the Tate Modern – we walked past Waterlillies by Monet in a matter of moments, not for a second thinking that some of the paintings in this series sell at auction for over £20 million. We also saw work by Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Pollock and Rothko. I was fascinated to read that Rothko was commissioned to paint a number of pieces for an upscale New York restaurant but upon realising the work was too dark in mood, he donated the works to the Tate.

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We headed over to the Imperial War Museum to see their new layout and what a triumph it is. You walk in to see the spectacle of a Harrier Jump Jet, Spitfire and “doodlebug” suspended above you – above you a boat juts out of the glass windows in the beautiful atrium and above it a Landroveris similarly frozen in motion. Upstairs, the Holocaust exhibition is deeply detailed and disturbing; it’s tragic to see what happened to the Jewish people back then hasn’t been confined to history as the people of Gaza suffer a disgraceful blockade, Putin marches in and out of Ukraine and IS slaughter all who don’t want to convert to Islam. The world is in a dark place and the Imperial War Museum is a depository of our failings.

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If the Imperial War Museum catalogues our war-hungry past, The British Museum highlights our ability to conquer culture and then nick it. It’s still astonishing for me to walk in there and find rooms I’ve never explored. As usual, walking past a totem pole, stuffed birds, ancient texts and incredible Egytpian and Greek statues becomes second nature and a walk through the Great Court always makes me sense just how impressive the museum is. Is there anywhere else that can match the grandeur of The British Museum?

Our cultural lives are so improved by free access to these musems and galleries, it’s hard to think back to the days we had to pay entry fees to them. While this is still free, we should take joy that these artworks and masterpieces are not solely in the hands of the super-rich and that we are free to admire them at our leisure. I may well love going abroad for my holidays but when it comes down to it, there’s no place like home.

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A little trip to…Norwich

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It is a regular occurrence, if not a weekly one, that I will set out grand claims to explore the diverse and wonderful archipelago that is Britain in much more detail. I plan out meandering tours of the 500-odd islands that make up Great Britain, I get excited about going to Northern Ireland and tracing the three years I spent there, before heading to the Giant’s Causeway and pretending I’m on Blockbusters.

Obviously, I am a dreamer by nature and most of my plans end up being binned when my attention is drawn sideways by a cat video or a woman in some god-awful American town screeching about the heat/how her air con has broken down.  So, for me, getting to Norwich at all is really quite an achievement. If you will, it’s the me equivalent of doing what Davina McCall just did for Sports Relief, without nearly as many tears.

Having been to Norfolk once before and loving it, I was really looking forward to exploring the city and my first impressions were good ones. Leaving the handsome train station and walking past the forlorn looking “Norwich in Bloom 2009” display, Rokos (he runs this cafe in Hackney, which I suggest you go to now!) and I headed towards food and medieval splendour. Our choice of sustenance, Tatler’s, was closed – things here are closed on Mondays, including the Sainsbury’s centre for the visual arts, which is just annoying – so we wandered round Tomblands, ending up on Elm Hill and at the Briton’s Arms. Without meaning to gush, the Briton’s Arms was just wonderful on every possible count; including a genuinely friendly welcome that made me feel all warm and loved. I chose the pork pie, Rokos chose the Salmon in filo pastry and I won lunchtime. The giant slab of pork pie was accompanied by a salad that defied British tradition by being rammed full of flavour and improved no end by a mustard vinaigrette. Mustard is something I generally can’t bear, so for me to rave about something I hate shows just how good this place is. Despite my best intentions I couldn’t finish the meal as I had to save space for pudding, which was treacle tart and ice cream.  It was probably the best I’ve ever had, with an incredibly soft structure that yielded easily to the fork. The puddings on offer reminded me of something Bill Bryson wrote…it was along the lines that you can serve all your meals with reductions and roulettes, but don’t fuck around with the puddings.

Aww, love.

Feeling very full  and very pleased we headed off down historic Elm Hill, where apparently most of the buildings date from the 16th century, round the river to the Adam and Eve pub, which is said to be the oldest in the city, from around the 13th century. From the taste of it, I think my beer was brewed then. Ho, ho! Whilst a nice pub, neither of us really thought it felt particularly ancient. Meanwhile, a local asks his mate “A week in Switzerland, what on earth would you do there?” Quite.

After my vinegary refreshment, we headed to the cathedral where I very nearly passed on looking inside. Glad to say I did go in, and it’s easily one of the best cathedrals I’ve ever been in. While St Paul’s is…well, St Paul’s, Norwich’s cathedral is enormous and varied enough to induce a slight state of trance to any visitor. In parts, there are still those atmospheric wooden pews and an incredible collection of roof bosses which sadly I know all about now I’m not there to see them in more detail.

The shapes on the roof are all different images that tell a story. Gorgeous.

Upstairs in the treasury is a load of silver trinkets which I reckon the cathedral bosses could sell off on eBay to recoup some of the £4000 a day it costs to run the place. Of more interest were the wall paintings which again date back many hundreds of years. While I’ll never be a believer, I can never help but find admiration for the architects of these buildings which do such a good job of calming down the speed of modern life, if just for a while.

The Cathedral

Hurtling back into the diamond-white lights of Norwich city we headed to the only (apparently) independent bookshop in the city, The Book Hive. Instantly lovable, the bookshop had that feeling that truly loved bookshops have. Instead of books piled high like a Primark sale, everything was sending the message that books are to be treasured and mean something. Pretty remarkable, huh, Amazon? And to top it all, they found a use for the badger that was lying about. 

The shopping streets of Norwich are a real draw for the city, it has to be said. The central streets lack a giant shed of commerce (it does have one, it’s a shed, it’s near the nice forum, but it’s not bang in the middle), opting for a pleasing mish-mash of buildings and streets with the added bonus of the Royal Arcade in all its – so says the internet – Arts and crafts style. Interestingly, the buildings I most admired in Norwich came from George Skipper, who also lays claim to Surrey House, home of Norwich Union and the glorious John Lewis.

I’m in love with this

The centre of Norwich feels bustling and prosperous; perhaps the location of the city makes it more immune to the ranks of empty shop fronts I’ve seen in Bristol and Birmingham? Whatever the case, the macaroons Rokos bought looked delicious. Tragically, I never got to see them again. As we continued our meander, we saw an information point that mentioned Surrey House, so we thought we’d see if we could have a look at the insides, which luckily, we could. I shan’t say much about the inside of Surrey House, but it’s remarkable to say the least and I can’t help but wonder if many visitors realise they can stroll in and see the ground floor where an inspired designer threw up a sumptuous display of marble that magically turned into the nicest office reception I’ve ever seen.

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After over 900 words, there’s still the castle, market and gorgeous art-deco city hall to go on about endlessly. There’s the chip shop, The Grosvenor, that has teamed up with The Birdcage pub so as long as you buy a drink, they will bring your food over to you. I suppose I miss smaller cities that can create a character not based on the needs of millions of people. Yes, Norwich, I liked you more than I expected and now you’ve got me wanting a Norfolk Broads trip. Then again, there is Lavenham in Suffolk, or the Essex countryside where I hear there’s a town filled with art deco buildings. Or…

For my full Norwich set, see my Flickr!

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A little trip to…Brighton

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As you walk down Brighton’s pier, you enter a realm that time forgot – or pretended it forgot but actually loves ‘cos it’s secretly ace – The Dome! Inside this dome are games for the stingy (me) and the nostalgic. Alongside the Air Hockey which I lost 7-0 to the 2p and 10p slots, I found myself loving the sheer memories these arcades brought back to me; only, as a kid we never went anywhere like Brighton. I do remember being utterly miserable somewhere like Clacton pier as my parents pushed me onto a swing ride of death that seemed to jut out into the grey murky sea on a tremendously foggy day. As a kid, my seaside memories evoke terror and dread. As an adult, my seaside resort memories are a mixture of sadness for the loss of the glory days and an enjoyment of these innocent arcades, scalding cups of tea and constant fearful glances at vengeful Seagulls.

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In the Pier’s dome, the 10p slots only took old 10p pieces, as the new ones are too thick. It’s almost a metaphor for Brighton in 2013.  The city might like to think it’s the coolest of the seaside resorts, but it’s still steeped in the past and it’s all the better for it. In fact, as soon as we arrived at the train station and bagged our M&S mojitos – hello you sweet, strong beauty – there was a city of two tales on display, from the football fans and ever-ready coppers to the dual protest outside a shop about Israeli’s making soda stream on Palestinian territory, accompanied by pro-Israeli’s and their own leaflets. Whatever is going on with soda-stream, I don’t think anyone in Britain is going to be cracking open the bottle of 99% fizz and 1% disappointment anytime soon.

As we headed towards the beach we went for Fish and Chips at Bankers, which did a cracking cod and chips for a fiver. The chips were moreish and the fish was a delight…but why should this be anything out of the ordinary? Sadly, Brighton seems to have a fair few chippies that rely on their location rather than their ability to cook. Bankers might be a little out of the way of the town centre, but it’s worth the extra 10 minutes walk.

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As we headed towards the beach, it seemed remarkably quiet for a glorious late summer’s day, but a look on the map shows we were just outside the main beach area, around the lawns near the Kingsway, itself just a stroll away from the first of the many restaurants along the beach front leading past the hulk of the old pier. As you head towards the remaining pier, everything gets busier with throngs outside the usual chain bars and clubs pumping out questionable music even in the afternoon. Happily it’s not all hen do’s and staggering stags; the Artists Quarter offers arches full of local art and the quality I saw as I passed seemed high though I was rushing to see watery creatures at the Sealife Centre.

I do like to be beside the seaside

I don’t make a habit of visiting aquariums, but as teachers had a free entry in August, I was all up for it and the visit reminded me of how bizarre nature is. One fishy thing was just a block of muscle that presumably spends its life opening its mouth and hoping for some food to just appear, there were the cute little worms that pop up from the sand to stare and then the starfish. They may look cute but they eat their food by popping one of their many legs into the shell of their prey, prying it open and inserting their stomach into the hole in the shell. Then they liquidate the poor creature and suck it all up. I used to have a colleague who ate like this and it’s not a pretty sight.

At the Sealife centre I saw lots of Sharks not biting the heads off anything and it just reminded me that the whole world is a fraud. I wanted to see tanks of blood and maybe a giant squid attack. The sharks seemed pretty amiable but the Octopus’ were the coolest thing in the whole aquarium. In a quirky twist, the Sealife people decided to hurl a bunch of kids toys in the Octopus tank, perhaps to remind us how clever they are. That, or a mother really wanted rid of her kid’s toys.

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Post-aquarium we headed back to the sea, ran about in the sea until the pebbles hurt too much and retired to a pub in Kemp Town. After falling in love with a Pug and drinking some average wine, we emerged to darkness and into a takeaway Pizza paradise called Pizzaface. We had the Alberto, with Salami and Pancetta and fell into a bliss known only by crack addicts and people who just found an amazing pizza place. It was so damn fine, it requires a trip back to Brighton – no hard thing as Brighton’s charms grow on me every time I visit. It’s maybe not as cool as it thinks, a local quoted Nick Cave’s assertion that it was a culture desert, hen do’s were terrifying all in their wake, but it’s still a great place to visit.