Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Edwardian experience in Edgware Road station, London

The Edgware Road station of the Bakerloo Line takes one back in time to the early 1900s. It has the iconic facade of several of the London underground stations: arched entryways faced in red tiles, designed by Leslie Green. While Londoners and visitors are well acquainted with these outer facades, I was astonished recently to pay my first visit to Edgware Road station and find that the interior of this one is virtually unchanged from its inception in 1907.

Tile-surround ticket windows of the Edgware Road station,
Bakerloo Line
The ticket windows are surrounded by moulded curved green tiles, complementing the red exterior. Since Green was responsible for the outer appearances of the original stations, and since Russell Square station still retains his geometric tile pattern on the platform walls, I assume the Edgware windows are of his conception as well. The overhanging ticket booth lights follow the curvatures of the windows and give the station an elegance unseen in modernized ticket halls.

Edgware Road station wall, Bakerloo Line, London
(colours saturated for effect)
The Edgware Road station used to be buttressed by a series of shops to the south, but these were destroyed to build the Marylebone Flyover. With nothing on its south side now but an empty space, landscape artists have taken a hand in adding value and decoration to a corner of the urban jungle. The station wall now sports a vertical garden of many different climbing plants, softening the racket of the passing traffic.

One of the reasons traffic is so bad in London (despite the Congestion Charge areas) is that more elevated highways are not allowed. When one visits this corner of Edgware Road and the Marylebone Flyover, sympathy flows for this decision. We will continue to drive gratefully along the city streets, taking two hours sometimes to get out of London, as we remember this corner and that decision.

Monday, 26 December 2011

It's Boxing Day in England!

When I first heard of Boxing Day, I thought, gee is it like the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day – a game on the holiday? A boxing match?? Who would want to watch?

But no, apparently it's the day all good little English children would put their new Christmas gifts back in their boxes ready for storage throughout the new year. Maybe this is why antique auctions can bring in so much moola for original boxed toys.

I always feel sorry for my American compatriots who have to go back to work the day after Christmas. At least here in England, we have a day to recover. And this year we have two days! Yes, two holidays on Monday and Tuesday to make up for Christmas being on Sunday. Sadly we don't get an extra day off on January 2nd, except for this year again on Monday because New Year's is on Sunday. I see from my filofax, though, that the Scots get an extra day on Tuesday the 3rd, so it looks like Hogmanay is going to last for at least five days this year.

Well, you can imagine what these holidays do to work patterns. Almost everyone who can get away with it takes off the entire time between Christmas Eve and January 2nd. The worst Christmas I ever had, ever, anywhere, was my first in England. Alone, I was in my first house when the boiler went out about December 23rd. Absolutely no tradesperson was available to come fix it until early January. So I suffered in one room with a gas fire in snowy weather for ten days; and I couldn't even go out because zilch was open: no shops, no cinema, no library.

These days I must admit it has gotten better. The shops are open as much as possible to make a quid, and the cinemas are open if you want to see a kids' movie. But we are conversely happy to hibernate throughout the week. How about you?

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Brussels sprouts tree for Christmas

Without a Christmas tree this year, we thought we'd splurge on a Brussels sprouts tree (£1.00). Yes, that's what Sainsbury's calls it. Not really a tree though, just a very hefty stalk for growing all those little sprouts (stalk more than an inch in diameter according to the ruler, ahem 'straight edge'). You didn't know they grew that way? Neither did we until Christmas in England.

Every Christmas, the supermarkets bring on their sprouts for that special turkey dinner. And of course, they have to be something special themselves, hence the stalks. The Guardian Weekend yesterday featured a UK farm that produces 210 million sprouts a year, and that's just a 250-acre farm. So we can assume a people eat a lot of them.

I like mine steamed with flaked almonds and then seasoned with balsamic vinegar dressing. Someone else suggested cooking them with leeks, or with walnuts. I didn't know you could eat them raw, too; but then, they're just little cabbages. But whatever you do, don't overcook them, says Yasmin.

Yasmin, head of quality control (or "chief sprout taster") on said farm, says they grow twelve different varieties and her favourite is Maximus. This is all well and good, but if the variety name is not on the supermarket package, then how can we choose the small & sweet ones, or the dark & nutty ones?

One comment on the name, too. Is it Brussels or Brussel? Google gives 1.64 million returns for Brussels plural, 1.47 million for Brussel singular (but this includes a lot of plural references). Both Wikipedia and the BBC have mixed entries, the BBC calling them singular in one place but plural in another, while Wikipedia entitles their entry sprout singular. Since Belgium was the hub of production for Europe in premodern times, the name Brussels is most likely correct, but I usually say Brusselsprouts (one word) myself.

Thirty years ago sprouts and winter greens were the only non-root vegetables you could get in England in the winter. How the world has changed since then...but the English still like their sprouts! Happy Christmas!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Hyde Park Christmas Fair and Market

A huge facade for a pirates' den, complete with Jaws
suspended outside at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, London
Going under the title "Winter Wonderland", this is apparently the fifth year the fair and market have been held in Hyde Park. I must admit that the South Bank Christmas Market, which I wrote on last week, can't hold a candle to this one. But it depends on what you want out of your visit.

We went again in late afternoon, hoping to miss the major daytime and nighttime crowds. Successful in this and able to view the lights coming on through the waning light, it was fun to see the place grow alive. The advertising for tickets to Winter Wonderland, is misleading. The rides and horror houses for kids, ice rink and cirque need ticketing, but you can walk freely around the food stalls and market. I wonder how many people have been put off thinking they had to buy tickets to the Wonderland.

Roller Coaster in Hyde Park for Winter Wonderland
The scale dwarfs that of South Bank, mainly because of the large rides such as ferris wheel and roller coaster installed. But the architecture for the stalls is impressive, too! Compared to the tiny 'beach changing hut' nature of the South Bank stalls, these are full store size in many cases and even a two-storey Bavarian beer hall. Some effort has gone to erecting these, but since the fair lasts from November 18 to January 3rd, I guess they earn their keep.

Bavarian beer hall built just for Winter Wonderland
in Hyde Park, London
The food stalls are almost exclusively Alps products: German sausages by the metre and lots of Bavarian specialties, including buffalo and ostrich burgers (!). We were able to find my favourite: Hog Roast (pulled pork in a bap, or a bun in America speak, with sage stuffing and applesauce – the usual sweet stuff, not homemade). While eating our pork sandwich, we listened to a superb rock duo on a tiny stage playing amplified acoustic guitar and electric bass with drum foot pedal. They had a great, full sound for two people and even got the audience singing with them. Wonder who they were???

The market is an extension of the fair and goes under the name Angels Christmas Market. Again the stalls are all unified wooden structures, indicating central planning and control. But the contents were not impressive: some Christmas decorations, lots of eared animal hats and jewelry shops. I think here the South Bank had better offerings.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Steeleye Span at the Barbican!

The announcer said it was the wish of a lifetime: to see Steeleye Span at the Barbican. And we did it. Great stuff – Maddy Prior can still belt it out! And prance around the stage!

Steeleye Span playing at the Barbican, London
We first encountered the rock-folk band Steeleye Span in the early '80s – used to play their songs all the time while we were redecorating our first house. And now when I hear the songs, I smell paint!

The songs on December 19th, however, were mostly unfamiliar to me (so no paint), but they did sing their "signature songs" for a double encore. I yelled for "King Henry" ("more meat, more meat...") but to no avail; we got only "All Around My Hat" and "Gaudete".

Maddy was joined by Peter Knight (incredible fiddle) and Rick Kemp (incredible bass) from the nearly-original group from around 1970, with two other long-standing on&off members, Liam Genocky on drums and Pete Zorn on most everything. Julian Litman, the youngster in the ensemble, was on electric guitar. All of them sang at times. Between "halves", the Acoustic Strawbs provided a weirder set.

In the second half, SS were joined for a few pieces by Martin Carthy (possibly the single greatest name in British folk, and a founder-ish member of SS) on voice, guitar and five-string banjo, and Jon Spiers (of Bellowhead and Spiers & Boden, a famous name in current British Nu-Folk) on voice and melodeon - but they could hardly be heard and might as well not have been there. Pity. (They're in the photo, though.)

This was the end concert but one in a month-long tour of performances. Maddy is also holding a special weekend of "Stepping Stones Festival", billed as "Maddy's House Party" on May 5th and 6th, 2012.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

London's South Bank Christmas Market

South Bank's Festival Hall and Christmas Market in London
Towns around Britain are holding Christmas Markets, as I previously reported for Durham. London now has two! These are the traditional Christmas Market along the South Bank outside Festival Hall and the Angels Christmas Market in Hyde Park.

South Bank looked absolutely spectacular at dusk the other day as a canopy of lights draped over the market stalls. The stalls themselves have changed from years past: from DIY tented stalls to wooden huts there for year-round use. The huts have oodles of goods and munchies for sale, but sadly, the crowds at 4.30 in the afternoon were sparse – all the better for actually doing some shopping, and viewing the Thames at night is always a fantastic treat.

Good shopping densities at South Bank
I'm not sure whether the lack of people at the South Bank was because I visited between the daytime crowds and the nighttime crowds. But it is also possible that the Angels Christmas Market in Hyde Park is drawing off custom. We'll see when we visit on a weekday next week!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Tinned pumpkin at Waitrose!!!

Look what I have found at Waitrose in London: tinned (canned) pumpkin for pie filling! I bought both existing cans off the shelf, and their "best before" date is October 2014, which means I can make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving for the next two years!

Libby's is a Nestlé brand, sold throughout the United States and imported and distributed to England by GFT Retail (UK) Ltd. Their address is PO Box 477, Walton on Thames, KT12 5XE, but if you want to "correspond", they guide you to Nestlé's Consumer Services at PO Box 207, York YO91 1XY. Perhaps if the tinned pumpkin isn't sold in your area, you could convince one of these companies to send you a care package.

Since the English traditionally eat turkey at Christmas (not having anything to be thankful for in November), perhaps pumpkin pie could be instituted as a third choice dessert alongside the cloying Christmas pudding and Christmas cake (heavy with dried fruit, icing or sauce and liquor). For those who don't like fruitcake, the pie might be a light option.

The can label has the pie recipe modified for English measures and oven temperatures. Inside the label are three more recipes: for pecan pumpkin sauce, good morning pumpkin pancakes, and pumpkin apple streusel muffins. Perhaps worth experimenting...but only if you have a good supply of pumpkin! See

Monday, 12 December 2011

Hammam experience at Casa Spa, London

Casa Spa reception

My friend and I have just completed a Groupon introduction to a hammam in London. Located at a small shopfront on Edgware Road, the Casa Spa is unexpectedly small, taking up one of the old terraced houses along the street. But enter into Moroccan luxury: textiles and ornaments bedeck the place, while candles provide the ambient light and aromas and soft music are pleasantly unobtrusive.

Reviews of Casa Spa are polarized: people either love it or hate it. I suspect those in the latter category are among the urban young who have never been exposed to camping, a public swimming pool, or a third world country. The former are more easy-going sorts who have either no expectations or understand how to place the experience in world terms. Having enjoyed other hammams in London, Paris, Istanbul and Taroudannt (Morocco), we were quite pleased with the experience.

Entering the reception, we stored our coats and visited the loo. Then down the candlelit stairway to the basement, which was entirely tiled over, floors and walls. The area was open-plan with a large room having two American king-size beds facing each other, and a massage table in the other half of the space through an archway. This second room was a wet room with floor drainage; off it was the steam room and two others we didn't see but might have been a pool and sauna as shown in the website pictures.

Yes, the changing area was small and insufficient, but the curtain did its duty and we finally found a locker with a working key (don't count on this if you go; leave valuables at home). We hadn't been warned to bring swimsuit and towel, so they were provided (a bikini one or two sizes too small on loan, and a big, fluffy, clean towel for £2.50).

First stop was the steam room, where we were left to acclimatize for awhile; then a hard-working woman who was taking care of several people at once, came in and threw cold water from a bucket on us. Left again to acclimatize, with steam enough not to be able to see well but not so much as to obstruct breathing, we waited for the next round: lathering with olive soap – an oily black mixture. After a spell, the woman came again and scrubbed us down with a rough (but not as rough as the Taroudannt version) loofah. Once rinsed, mud was applied and we were left to absorb the minerals.

A shower followed (bar of soap provided), then, wrapped in towels, we were invited to lie on one of the beds which eventually held four of us in a row. We were given time to cool down and relax before being offered fresh fruit cocktail. Then our feet were wrapped up to keep us warm until the Polish lady came to give us a foot reflexology massage (with a course certificate enabling her to work in Britain). It was strong but not intolerable – unlike one reflexology massage I had in Japan once that nearly put me through the roof. After more relaxing, a Turkish sweet cake and mint tea arrived.

Throughout, we were never rushed and were given plenty of time to relax and enjoy ourselves. Despite being very busy, the staff let us make up our own minds as to when we were ready to leave. All in all, it was very relaxing experience and we enjoyed it. Would I go again? Yes, if I felt like spending my cash that way – but I probably don't, without a major discount as this time.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Roots & Branches with Boys of the Lough

Alistair Anderson and Annie Whitehead
on the cover programme for "Roots & Branches"
Alistair Anderson, former head of Folkworks in Newcastle and Gateshead, created a weekend of folk music at the outstanding newish music venue in London, King's Place. We had already been to see The Shee and Monster Ceilidh Band during the Foot-Stompin' Folk night on September 10th at King's Place, so we were ready for their predecessors, the Boys of the Lough – playing together for 40 years now. It was a great night, attended mostly by diehard fans from the '70s.

As Alistair explained, the Boys of the Lough represented the "roots" of the folk tradition, and they were billed as playing "straight from the shoulder – no frills, no modern additions" (though the acoustic guitar was amplified). The "roots" then produced "branches": younger singer-songwriters such as Emily Smith and Christi Andropolis or story-tellers such as Emily Portman. Alistair himself played with jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead to explore the "jazz/folk interface." He told us that since we liked his piece "Dog Leap Stairs" (named after a steep stone stairway in Newcastle) – which we do like – the tunes of the interface would appeal.

The Boys of the Lough (Irish 'lough' pronounced like Scottish 'loch') were five: four old-timers and one youngster. Fiddler Kevin Henderson, from the Shetland Islands, takes the place of Aly Bain, the original fiddler from the Shetlands; the butt of many ageist jokes (being the youngest), Kevin brought great playing to the group. On the other hand, Brendan Begley from County Kerry, playing the button accordion, got all the size jokes, being the biggest member of the band. The Irish flute and whistle-player par excellence, Cathal McConnell, was his usual garrulous self, having to be restrained by the other members (a recurring theme during their 40 years together). He played a mean solo two-whistle set at the request of Rose in the audience; it's a mystery how one whistle could play in the high octave and one in the low octave with the same breath! Dave Richardson, from Northumbria, was main narrator and played the mandolin and concertina, while Garry O'Brian was on the guitar and piano and the only member who did not speak.

This concert was slated as a "rare UK appearance" for the Boys of the Lough, and we are sure glad not to have missed it, especially since Dave Richardson says this is his last month with the band. More changes of personnel in future for this seminal English-Scottish-Irish band as we all get older...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Revisiting City of London bollards

My very first post was on the bollards of the City of London. Since then, I have found even more varieties that do not mark curbs but direct traffic! Specialist bollards that have cast-in places for road signs. These include one-way signs, and signs marking lanes for motorcycle and bicycle use. But don't you think the number used here is a bit overkill?

Traffic-directing bollards in the City of London

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Christmas Lights and Dinner at Hotel Russell

Hotel Russell with Christmas Lights

Hotel Russell is a grand old Victorian building at the northeast corner of Russell Square in London. Every year they put on a good show of Christmas lights on the frontage. I always like the bows especially. But this year, instead of each floor having its repeated strip of decoration, only the lowest floor is so ornamented. Must be a sign of austerity.

The Russell is a 4-star hotel, but to stay in its rooms was previously a Victorian experience. Small, with paint, wallpaper and plumbing problems, it was not the lap of luxury but the lap of history that provided the ambience. After a £20 million refurbishment programme, however, it competes with the nearby 5-star St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where all the rooms have also been completely refurbished and modernised. But then, who has £200-£350 to spend on a hotel room per night at either of these places?

To experience these grand hotels, it is fun instead to visit their public facilities. Dinner in Hotel Russell's ballroom, where we ate last night at the Japan Society Annual Dinner was a formal affair with delicious food not always achievable with 170 guests to serve. The sea bass was exquisitely flavoured; I'd like to know the recipe! And the three-chocolate dessert was heaven.

At the annual dinner, the Japan Society presents awards to one Japanese and one Brit who have made extraordinary contributions to Anglo-Japanese relations in the UK. This year, both awardees were musicians: Dr. David Hughes and Dr. Ayako Hotta-Lister. Both have worked tirelessly to promote Japanese music within Britain: Hughes, an ethnomusicologist, promoting folk music particularly of Okinawa and Tohoku but also traditional classical musics of Japan, while Hotta-Lister, a historian, is a koto player and teacher. Each was given a footed crystal bowl inscribed with their award by the Queen's engraver. Great times had by all.

Hotel Russell in the gloaming. Imagine every floor decorated
with bows and wreaths in times past.
So if you want to experience some of the grand buildings of London without staying in them, join a club or society or attend lectures that makes use of these facilities. The IoD (Institute of Directors), the Oriental Club and the Royal Society are just some of the venues where such activities are held.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

British Museum Members' Christmas Party

For Friends of the British Museum, several "parties" and "member's evenings" are scheduled throughout the year. We have now been to one each, having activated membership only this year to take advantage of these offerings. I took a friend who works at a different museum to see what the "party" would offer.

First off, free coat check (saved £3); the dress code seemed to be whatever people were wearing from work. Then, a cash bar (£2 for softs, £4 for wine) and tapas (£3 per plate).  The tapas were good: olives, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, capers on a stem and roasted bell peppers – all straight out of (the oil in) the jar. You could get this vegetarian dish alone or with shrimp with lemon or thinly sliced prosciutto. Delicious: you can make up one for yourself at home.

The party was held in the Egyptian gallery off the Great Court. High pedestal tables were scattered around for drinkers to rest their glasses on while eating. A foursome could fit around one. So we took our drinks and tapas to a table and stood there the rest of the evening engrossed in our conversation. One other person at our "table" offered comments on the National Gallery Leonardo da Vinci exhibition we were talking about, and we kept our eyes out for people we knew. My friend, in the museum business, did not see a single known face, and although I did, I soon lost them in the crowd.

Actually it was not too crowded and later a jazz trio provided nice background music. So my friend and I passed good time together at what turned out to be a cocktail party without a host/hostess to make introductions. The English – like the Japanese – don't mix well without being introduced. So the lesson for the future is: be sure to go with someone you know and will enjoy talking with together for the evening (usually not your partner!). A member can take in a guest for £5.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Durham Christmas Fair

You used to have to go to the continent to enjoy Christmas Markets, but now many towns across Britain have one. Durham's has the ambience of a craft fair in a huge double marquee, though with none of the fun food stalls common to the continent (I remember eating a Hungarian cheesed sausage in a crepe cone at the Viennese fair – out of this world). This year Durham's double marquee had a café set up inside by the University caterer YUM (or not so yum).

Steve as the original Green Man, owner of the Green Man
Pottery, Brancepeth Castle, Durham
People who save their Christmas shopping for the fair must be in seventh heaven. Most anything you can think of is on sale, such as these Medieval Green Man ceramic creations. Steve, the potter, paid £250 for the privilege of marketing his wares here. That's an awfully lot of Green Man plaques and mugs needing selling just to break even with the stall fee.

Did I buy anything? You bet I did: four bars of exotic chocolates with flavours such as Aztec Spice, Hot Chilli, Lavender...not something you can find in the shops. And I sent them off immediately from the Post Office to relatives in the States for Christmas.

Hurry, you have two days left to visit Durham's Christmas fair! Mind, this year they have instituted entrance fees on the weekend for crowd control. Mark next year's Friday free opening on your calendar now!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Bulbs already sprouting in December!

Bulbs* sprouting in December
My spring bulbs are pushing up through the ground! Most are only an inch high, but two daffodil bulbs have leaves 7 and 5 inches high. What will happen to them through the hard winter we are supposed to have?

Caught out by deep snow in the past two years, we finally bought a snow shovel (less back-breaking than using a short coal shovel to do the walks). But we noticed here that few people ever do shovel their walks. Maybe because snow has been so uncommon in the past? Maybe because this is not as a litigious society as America? Maybe because with the NHS, people don't have to worry about Health Insurance paying for broken legs?

The growing bulbs go along with the idea that the global temperature is in a warming trend. Scientifically, this in indisputable, and I'm glad to see that one of the foremost Climate Change skeptics – Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at University of California Berkeley – has redone the analyses of temperature and found that they are indeed correct. So he is not a skeptic anymore but a convert. How many others do we need to follow suit before some action is taken?

Meanwhile, enjoy our see-saw weather!

*The patch of grass in the photo is stuff from the bird feeders strung above: probably rye grass and sunflowers, needing clearing out periodically.