For my third foray into London’s world of food, I decided to go back in time and revisit a Chinese restaurant that I last frequented over 20 years ago – Wong Kei’s on Wardour Street.
Wong Kei’s is a legend in Chinatown and many a Londoner will regale you with their tale of eating there. The food was always good and the prices cheap, but what Wong Kei’s was well-known for was its brusque service – actually scrub that, its rude service! The waiters would always bark at you and woe betide the lunchtime diner who couldn’t make up their mind what they wanted to eat.
As I headed towards it through Chinatown and the array of Chinese restaurants and supermarkets that pack the streets in this part of London, I remembered back to my days working in an office near Piccadilly Circus and my regular visits for a quick and cheap lunch. Would the food be as good as I remembered, and would the waiters still be as brusque? Or was it all just a fond memory and would I be disappointed??
It looked the same from the outside and I was quickly reassured as I walked through the door, was pounced on by a waiter and was told “You share tables. Sit there”. Doing exactly as I was told (you don’t argue with the waiters here) I took the end seat on a long table that already had six people seated at it.
Service is quick – I hadn’t even sat down before a pot of green tea was delivered to my place, and as I sat another waiter barked “you know what you want?” Nope, I didn’t, although many of the other diners were clearly regulars and ordered off the top of their heads as they took their seats. I perused the extensive menu and decided to have what I always used to have when I ate here 25 years ago; chicken and sweetcorn soup followed by sweet and sour prawns with egg fried rice.
As I ordered, the waiter reminded me “cash only yeah”. Yep, I remembered that about Wong Kei’s, so had ensured I had cash in my purse.
The place had changed a little from my memories. I remembered it being dark inside and a little run-down and shabby, whereas today it was bright and clean with large mirrors on all the walls to give the illusion of more space. The formica-topped tables were cleaned over between customers with a quick wipe of a damp cloth, and customers were in and out all the time – a mix of regulars, local office staff, and tourists.
My chicken and sweetcorn soup arrived, piping hot. So hot in fact that I burnt my tongue on the first spoonful, but it was delicious with a decent amount of shredded chicken meat in it. Before I’d even got half way through it, the main course arrived – they serve quick here and you certainly don’t wait. The man next to me got his main dish before his soup starter, at least mine came the right way round!
My main was a plate of juicy prawns in crispy batter with a tangy sweet and sour sauce full of chunks of onion, peppers and pineapple. The egg fried rice was light and not too sticky, complementing the sweet and sour perfectly. And, of course, all served on melamine plates with melamine chopsticks – no china and no knives and forks here. You use chopsticks, or you don’t eat!
You don’t come to Wong Kei’s for fining dining and silver service. Nor do you come here for a leisurely meal – I was in and out within 30 minutes!
It’s quick, it’s bustling, it’s reasonably priced, it’s delicious, and 25 years on, it hasn’t lost its touch. I loved it!
What more could you ask for from a Chinatown legend??
#lifeofaguide #LondonFoodieAZ #China #WongKei #chopsticks #Chinatown #sweetandsour #cashonly
Continuing my journey through London’s culinary delights, this week I sampled Brazilian cuisine at Rodizio Preto on Shaftesbury Avenue.
The restaurant is a typical churasscaria, where skewered meat is barbequed or spit-roasted and served by waiters called Passadors at your table. These Passadors learn the skill and art of carving the succulent meats from the skewer directly onto your plate – as much or as little as you want.
Churrascarias are found all over Brazil, but the tradition comes from the Gaucho culture of the south, where cowboys would cook meats skewered on metal spits over hot coals, seasoned simply with rock salt.
The prime cut of meat now associated with this style of cooking is picanha – rump steak, which has a thick layer of fat ensuring the charred, smoky meat just melts in the mouth.
This fun restaurant captures the vibrancy of Brazil with its colourful interior of blues, reds and yellows. Tables are plain wood with painted wooden chairs and the large restaurant is airy and bright. The cocktail bar is well stocked, and the atmosphere is lively (but not too loud).
My friend and I were early for our reserved table, but that was no problem at all for the helpful and friendly staff.
Drinks were ordered – what else but a Caipirinha, a delicious cocktail of cahaca (a hard liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice) and mixed with sugar and lime. Having never had one before, and wanting to remain as authentic as possible with my meal, I went for the traditional Brazilian caipirinha, whereas my friend Edmund went for the slightly more exotic passionfruit flavoured one – then had the traditional lime version followed by a strawberry caipirinha (I just stuck with the original but did match him drink for drink!)
The menu is a set price for the Rodizio meats and includes the salad bar. So, we grabbed our plates and explored the delights on offer. In addition to the usual salad items of sweetcorn, tomatoes, green beans, pasta etc., there are also Brazilian dishes to enjoy, and I piled my plate with helpings of Feijoada (black bean and pork stew), Pao de Queijo (cheese bread – look a little like dough balls) and Banana Frita (fried bananas).
Sitting back down, the Passadors were generous in offering delicious skewered meats at our table and a steady stream of beef, chicken, lamb, pork and sausages were served.
So constant is the offer of freshly cooked meat that is then carved onto your plate that it can spoil the atmosphere of a relaxed meal – until you learn why each diner is given a red and green card. Leave it on the green side and the passadors know, that like Charles Dickens’s Oliver twist, you want ‘More Please’. Turn it to the red side and you indicate ‘I’m Full’, so the waiters know whether or not to keep bringing more meat. That way you can slow the meal down to a more relaxed pace.
The pork ribs just fell off the bone, the lamb melted in the mouth and the beef was cooked to perfection. Between us, we tried a bit of everything until we were full to bursting and turned our cards ‘Red’!
With no room for dessert, although the tray that was offered to a neighbouring table looked amazing with its Brigadeiro (a chocolate concoction), cheesecakes and Quindims (a baked custard pudding), we paid our bill and toddled off to the underground.
Preto is a small chain with a few branches across London and a couple in Essex and Surrey (www.preto.co.uk), and well worth visiting for a good value ‘eat as much as you like’ meal – even better for us as I had downloaded a special 2-for-1 offer from their website.
#lifeofaguide #LondonFoodieAZ #Brazil #RadizioPreto #Passadors #Caipirinha #meatlovers
I love London, it’s a fabulously multi-cultural city, and people come from all over the world to make London their home – and when they do, they bring with them their culture, customs, music and, best of all, their food. London is a foodie heaven; a culinary capital where you can get cuisine from any country on the planet. From A to Z, from Austria to Zambia, and everywhere in between.
At least, as a tour guide, that’s what I’m always telling my overseas visitors!
But then I realised that, when I go out to eat, I tend to stick to the same handful of restaurants and more often than not always order the same dishes. So, I decided to prove my own point and broaden my culinary horizons by setting myself a challenge to work my way through London’s Foodie A-Z.
The only ‘rules’ I have are that each restaurant or cuisine must relate to an actual country, although X is proving difficult as there is no actual country beginning with ‘x’. Friends have suggested historic Chinese states, such as Xu, or that if I were to speak Catalan, then Xile is the word for Chile, but that feels a bit like cheating.
The other rule is that all the restaurants must be in London. So, I can eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, cake, and meals can be taken anywhere – in a restaurant, sandwich bar, fast-food place, café, tea room or even from a street food truck.
This light and airy Austrian / Viennese café and kitchen, tucked away in Camden Passage (it has a sister place in Ladbroke Grove), is reminiscent of Alpine chalets with its rustic wooden tables and décor. The walls are adorned with vintage prints advertising skiing holidays in Austria, and an old film poster of ‘Tarzan and His Mate’ featuring none other 1930s/40s Austro-Hungarian film hunk (and Olympic swimming champion) Johnny Weissmuller. Soft jazz plays discreetly in the background.
The welcome was friendly and, without even asking, a large glass of tap water was delivered to the table (always a good sign). After scanning the extensive menu, which handily explains what each dish is, and trying to decide which traditional dish to have, the waitress suggested ‘Schnitzel Thursday’ – any mains schnitzel with a glass of house wine, pilsner, or soft drink included.
As their sign outside said they served the ‘Best Schnitzel in Town’, well it seemed like a good choice.
Schnitzel is the national dish of Austria and tradition says it was invented in Vienna in 1845, with the term ‘schnitzel’ coming from an old German word for ‘slice’.
Well, my main of Weiner Schnitzel vom Kalbe consisted of two ‘slices’ of succulent veal, pan fried in a crispy coating and served with salad, potatoes and cranberry sauce. Alongside, I enjoyed a glass of the house red, a Zweigelt, which is the most widely grown red grape variety in Austria with the grape having been developed by Fritz Zweigelt in 1922. I love veal, and it’s not something you see on many menus, so it was a treat to enjoy this beautifully cooked schnitzel, perfectly golden brown in colour, and the cranberry sauce on the side added a little something to the juicy meat.
Kipferl’s menu is varied, with breakfast / brunch available at weekends, a full lunch and dinner menu, plus coffee and cakes. You can get traditional dishes such as Austrian sausages served with rye bread, sauerkraut and pickles, or soup with dumplings, and that ski-trip favourite, Kasespatzle (pan fried egg noodles smothered in mountain cheese and fried onions). Or if all you fancy is coffee and cake, well there’s a superb cake menu with Linzer Torte (almond tart with redcurrant jelly, cinnamon and cloves), Apfelstrudel (an 18th century recipe of puff pastry with a filling of apple and raisins), and of course that Austrian favourite, Sachertorte (a rich chocolate cake with layers of apricot jam).
Browsing the cake and dessert menu, I was spoilt for choice, so asked the waitress which she thought I should go for; the Apfelstrudel or something else traditional. After a little debate, she said ‘you know what? You should try that’ and pointed to the menu – Kaiserschmarrn.
The name translates as Emperor’s Medley (or Mess) and takes its name from the 19th century Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who was said to be particularly fond of the dish, with Kaiser meaning emperor and schmarrn meaning scrambled / shredded. This scrumptious dish is a thick pancake with raisins, flambeed in alcohol, and broken up with a fork during cooking, and when mine was presented, oh my! A fat and fluffy shredded pancake with a crispy crust stuffed full of plump and juicy raisins. Dipping each bite in the apple compote, which was served on the side, added a little tang – delicious!
I completed my visit by buying a can of their lemonade / alpine herbal drink from their little shop (where you can get Austrian wines too!) to take home as a souvenir. Kipferl was a fantastic start to my culinary journey through London – lovely décor and ambience, friendly and knowledgeable staff, reasonably priced, and delicious food. Austrian cuisine is hearty, warming and filling – just go with an empty stomach and a big appetite, oh and you may want to book as they are very popular (http://www.kipferl.co.uk/) Enjoy!
#lifeofaguide #LondonFoodieAZ #Austria #Kipferl #schnitzel
As I sit on my sofa snug in my onesie watching the snow fall outside because, let’s be honest who wanted to do a Roman Londinium walk this morning anyway (?!), I’m thinking back to the days of much colder winters when the River Thames would actually freeze over!
We think it’s cold today, but between the 12th and early 19th centuries, the Thames would regularly freeze and, Londoners never being one to pass up an opportunity, held frost fairs on the frozen river.
These were great festivals of entertainment when virtually anything would go – think Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland, but on ice. There would be stalls selling food and drink, people roasting ox or suckling pig, and beer tents. You could visit a tavern booth and drink mulled cider or wine, ale, whiskey, even tea, coffee and hot chocolate. People would ice skate, take a ride in boats on wheels dragged by horses, and watch bear baiting. Musicians and actors would perform, jugglers and fire-eaters strolled around, and it was very popular to buy a pamphlet that had been printed on a press set up on the icy Thames, or a souvenir labelled ‘bought on the Thames’.
Today, it’s hard to imagine how the Thames could freeze solid, but the old medieval London Bridge had 20 arches on the river and these diminished the flow of water, meaning that the water upstream from the bridge flowed more slowly – so it could freeze. At its deepest, the ice could be 11 inches (about 28 cm) and, at the last frost fair in 1814, an elephant walked across the river!
For the watermen, trade declined as they couldn’t ply their normal trade transporting people across or up and down the river, so they took to guarding the slipways and, rather enterprisingly, charged people to enter the frost fairs. The freeze had a major impact on the port of London too, as the ships couldn’t get in or out.
Of course, the fun of the frost fairs occasionally took a different turn as people slipped on the ice and broke bones, and sometimes the ice cracked and they would fall through into the freezing waters below. But on the whole, frost fairs were fun and Londoners loved them, as did royalty who often attended. King Henry VIII was said to have travelled by sleigh on the frozen Thames.
Could the Thames freeze over today? Unlikely, as old London Bridge was replaced in the 1830s and, coupled with the building of the Embankment, the river is now narrower and faster flowing. Believe it or not, it’s also warmer today by a few degrees, so the mini ice-age that we saw between the 14th and 19th centuries is unlikely to be replicated. That said, in the future maybe climate change will see us return to the days of the frozen Thames, and then we can all enjoy frost fairs again!!
Taking a tip from the newspapers as I flop on my sofa on New Year’s Day 2018, I thought I’d take a little look back over 2017 and deliver my own ‘Review of the Year!’
And what a year it’s been! During 2017 I delivered 6 lectures, 23 walks, numerous tours, and a variety of training sessions at The View from The Shard, the London Wetland Centre, Shakespeare’s Globe and Alexandra Palace.
Along the way, I visited Westminster Abbey 8 times, St Paul’s Cathedral 18 times, the Tower of London 20 times, saw the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace 15 times and delivered the commentary on a Thames river cruise 21 times. I also went to Canterbury 3 times, Stratford upon Avon 11 times, Oxford 14 times, Windsor Castle 27 times, Warwick Castle 5 times, Leeds Castle twice, Bath 48 times, Hampton Court Palace only once, and Stonehenge a staggering 50 times – 3 of those to see the sunrise!
I’ve calculated that I’ve enjoyed 16 cream teas (9 in the Cotswolds and 7 at Highclere Castle), but lost count of the number of cups of tea and slices of cake I’ve had at various tearooms.
So, what have been my best bits of 2017??
Well, in amongst all the times I got rained on, froze while queueing to get into somewhere, got stuck behind a hay tractor, and groaned as my alarm went off at 5.00am, I got paid to take a family to the Warner Bros Studios to see the Harry Potter film set. I also got paid to teach some Chinese visitors how to take afternoon tea, which I did twice in the Marriott County Hall Hotel where the staff were just delightful and the cakes divine.
I’ve been on a coach which broke down, left someone behind because they were late back to the coach, and got stuck in traffic on many an occasion which meant I had to readjust the tour.
However, I have also met hundreds of happy, interested visitors from across the world who really make this job a joy. So, the highlights of my year were:
Creating and delivering a series of walks on the construction and archaeology of Crossrail for the Museum of London. Ten walks across London taking in different parts of the tunnelling and stations, from Plumstead in the east to Paddington in the west, which have turned me into a Crossrail nut! I now know tons about, and get very excited about, the tunnel boring machines, the concreting trains, floating track, uphill excavators, and station design.
Getting one of my coach drivers to come up to the stone circle with me at Stonehenge to see the sunset – in all the times he’d driven groups to the ancient monument, he’d never actually been up to the stone circle before. And, although he enjoyed the experience, like most coach drivers, he still thinks it’s just a pile of rocks!!
Becoming a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Educators. A long-held aim of mine became a reality in 2017, when I was formally initiated into this livery company. As someone whose formal schooling ended at the age of 16, and who firmly believes that education is more than sitting in a schoolroom or university lecture theatre, I am looking forward to getting more involved in their charitable work and the promotion of life-long learning.
Dressing up as a Roman to lead some family friendly walks through the City of London for their Roman Londinium Festival. Having always shied away from doing walks for kids, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of keeping a group of children entertained whilst teaching them about life as a Roman in London in the 2nd century. We talked shopping for ingredients to make milk-fed snails, being a soldier in the Roman fort, relaxing in a Roman bathhouse, and fighting in the amphitheatre. What amazed me more than the kids’ enthusiasm, was that none of the office workers bustling around us as we walked the streets batted an eyelid at this Roman lady greeting them with calls of ‘Salve’ as we passed!
Spending three days with the Edmond Santa Fe High School Choir showing them London’s famous landmarks (even though Big Ben is completely under scaffolding?!), Windsor Castle and Oxford. What a fabulous bunch they were – cheerful in the cold and wet, full of questions and curiosity, and unfailingly polite (not sure I’ll ever get used to teenage boys calling me ‘Ma’am’). They were just a joy to be with and will return home after the New Year’s Day Parade with fond memories of their first visit to London.
Who knows what 2018 will bring, although the indications are that we are set for another bumper year for tourism. I have a number of interesting projects in their early stages (training at a military fort, walks on Roman cemeteries and funerary practices, some specialist tours at The Charterhouse to do with Crossrail), and will no doubt be seeing the rocks at Stonehenge once or twice too!
Happy New Year!!!
I often take visitors to Westminster Abbey, and one of the most poignant moments of any tour is when we stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It’s visited by thousands of tourists every year, but who was he and how did his grave come to be the most important burial in the Abbey despite all the monarchs buried there?
His story starts with the Reverend David Railton, a padre serving on the Western Front in World War One. In 1916 he saw a simple wooden cross in a garden marked ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this, David Railton thought about what he could do to ‘ease the pain of father, mother, brother, sister, sweetheart, wife and friend’ and suggested the idea for an Unknown Warrior grave to represent all the dead. His letter to Sir Douglas Haig went unanswered.
The idea continued to nag at him and in 1920, he wrote to the Dean of Westminster, as he considered the Abbey to be the only suitable place for the burial. The idea floundered for some weeks, until the Dean managed to get the Prime Minister on his side, and then ultimately King George V. On 18th October 1920, with just three weeks to go, it was decided that the burial should take place on Armistice Day.
On 7th November, Brigadier General L J Wyatt chose the Unknown Warrior from four bodies that had been exhumed from the battlefields at the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. Transported by ambulance to Boulogne, the road outside the town was lined with French and British troops. After resting overnight in a chapel, the remains of the Unknown Warrior were placed in a special coffin sent over to receive it and came back to Britain on HMS Verdun. Loaded carefully onto a train, it made its way from Dover to Victoria Station. Thousands of people turned out along the route to watch the train pass and pay their respects, and the roof of the carriage containing the coffin was painted white so people on bridges along the route knew which carriage he lay in.
At 8.32pm on 10th November 1920, the body of the Unknown Warrior, sealed in a coffin, was brought to Platform 8 at Victoria Station.
Following an overnight vigil at the station by the Kings Company Grenadier Guards, the coffin was placed on a gun carriage to be taken to Westminster Abbey. As the funeral cortege set off, a field marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park. The procession was accompanied by the nation’s highest ranking officers and ex-servicemen. Stopping in Whitehall, King George V unveiled the permanent stone Cenotaph at 11.00am, laid a wreath and then joined the cortege with members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and Government ministers.
At Westminster Abbey, the nave was lined with 100 Victoria Cross recipients and in the congregation were 1,000 widows and mothers as guests of honour, including 100 women who had each lost their husband and all of their sons.
The Unknown Warrior was laid to rest in the western end of the nave in a coffin made of English oak, from a tree at Hampton Court Palace. On top lay a Crusader’s sword from the Tower of London. The coffin was placed in a grave filled with soil brought from Ypres and France, covered with a slab of Belgian marble with an inscription made from shell cases.
It was to become a focal point for all the unknown dead, giving every relative the hope that this was their son, brother, husband or father. In 1923, when Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the Duke of York (the future King George VI), she spontaneously stopped when entering Abbey and laid her bouquet on the Tomb of Unknown Warrior in memory of two of her brothers who had lost their lives in the Great War. An act followed by royal brides ever since, although their bouquets are usually laid on the tomb when leaving the Abbey or the next day.
Tonight, as we enter our weekend of Remembrance, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station will be commemorated by The Western Front Association, in a little known ceremony that takes place every year. At 8.00pm on 10th November at Platform 8 a parade assembles, the last post is played and a one minute silence is observed. Then wreaths are laid at the memorial plaque by members of the armed forces, the Royal British Legion, the Metropolitan Police and London Transport among others.
It is a small, but significant and incredibly moving tribute, in honour of that Unknown Warrior who has no name but will always be remembered.
Over the last seven months, to accompany the Museum of London Docklands’ exhibition ‘Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail’, I’ve led a series of 10 walks along the Crossrail route in London. We started at Plumstead in the east back in February, and finished at Royal Oak in west London a couple of weeks ago.
Along the way the walks took in new stations, building sites, and ventilation shafts as we followed the line of the new tunnels through Woolwich, Canning Town, Royal Victoria Docks, Stepney Green, Whitechapel, Canary Wharf, Liverpool Street, Moorgate, Barbican, Farringdon, Charterhouse Square, Tottenham Court Road, Bond Street, and Paddington.
It’s been an interesting and rewarding journey – mostly dry, often sunny and full of people who, like me, have been sucked into the story of the creation of this amazing new railway. I’ve learnt loads (particularly about tunnelling, ground movement and sprayed concrete lining), become incredibly geeky about Crossrail and have even been ‘checked out’ by some of the contractors as I delivered the tours – a few have stopped to listen as they’ve walked past me and my group. I must have been saying something right, as they appeared to give a seal of approval as they nodded, smiled and, in one case at Custom House, winked at me.
My ‘man at Crossrail’, Events Coordinator Adam, has been incredibly helpful and generous with both his time and the sharing of his knowledge and insider information, and I really could not have done it without him. Likewise, Jackie Kiely, curator of the Tunnel exhibition, has been a great support and fountain of knowledge on the archaeology discovered during the building of Crossrail.
As the walks have now finished (although who knows, maybe I’ll get to repeat some of them), I’ve taken a look back and come up with my Top 10 favourite Crossrail facts.
10) Muck Away. During construction, over 7 million tonnes of spoil were mined from beneath London, 98% of which was recycled. It was used for all sorts of projects; some went to turn landfill sites into reusable land, some went to farmers who wanted to create new grazing areas for livestock, and some even went to create a golf course. However, the largest amount of excavated material, over 3 million tonnes, was taken out to Wallasea island in Essex to help the RSPB create a nature reserve that is twice the size of the City of London. Oh, and did I mention that about 80% of all that spoil was transported by rail and water, thereby avoiding large numbers of lorry journeys across London. So the new purple Elizabeth line is green too!
9) Tunnelling came close (very close) to Underground passengers going about their daily commutes. At Tottenham Court Road, Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) Ada came within 90cm of the live Northern line platforms, and within 60cm of the passenger escalators. If you listened carefully at the time, you could have heard the hum of the cutterhead!
8) Marmalade jars – in among the 10,000 artefacts, covering a timespan of 55 million years, the archaeologists found marmalade jars! Thousands of ceramic jars discovered at the old Crosse and Blackwell factory in Soho Square. Yes, I loved that archaeologists finally managed to prove death by Y Pestis (plague / Black Death) in the 14th century through DNA analysis, and that the jawbone of a mammoth was found at Canary Wharf, and that Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engine sheds were discovered at Westbourne Park, but I really really love that the archaeologists got just as excited by….marmalade jars!
7) The recruitment consultant who quit her job to become a crane operator. The extended Crossrail family of staff and contractors is an incredibly diverse body of people, with at one time 30% of the integrated workforce being female (against a construction industry average of 11%). One of those is former recruitment consultant, Katie Kelleher, who got hooked on Crossrail when she was recruiting many of their staff. So interested did she become that, without telling anyone, she went for an interview and became an apprentice crane operator with Laing O’Rourke. Katie then spent months sitting in the cab of her 60-tonne crawler crane at the western end of the new Tottenham Court Road station. Now that’s geeky!
6) An uphill excavator was used for the first time in the UK. Because of difficulties accessing the station to dig downwards to build the inclined barrel-shaped tunnel for the escalators at Whitechapel Station, an uphill excavator was used. Starting at platform level, the excavator worked its way upwards some 30m to street level. Traditionally used in coal mines, the excavator was designed to do two jobs in one. Working its way up using the digger at the front, it also installed concrete lining using a spray nozzle attached to the top of the machine while the entire excavator hung on chains from bolts drilled in the ceiling of the tunnel.
5) No fish were hurt in building of this railway! At both Royal Victoria Dock and Canary Wharf, the project needed the docks to be drained of water to facilitate some of the construction work. Some 98 million litres of water were drained from inside a cofferdam for enabling works for the new Canary Wharf station and 13 million litres were drained from Connaught Passage in Royal Victoria Docks to allow access from above into Connaught Tunnel. In both cases, all the fish were caught and relocated before the docks were drained – 332 fish to be exact at Royal Victoria Docks (can you believe someone actually counted them?!)
4) A pre-fab station at Custom House. Architects Allies and Morrison designed a freestanding building with an elevated concourse above, using thousands of pre-cast concrete segments. As the construction site was very compact, 887 pre-cast concrete sections were manufactured in Nottinghamshire and delivered to site for assembly – a bit like building out of LEGO, although I’m pretty sure it was much more complex than that. What I love about this though is that, during their tender bid for the contract, they turned up at the interview and presented the station to the panel in model form in a mocked-up Hornby train set box. They then tipped it out on the desk and asked the interviewing panel to put it together!
3) Floating track – there’s 57km of track installed in London….and some of it floats! Sounding very Harry Potterish, I know but floating track slabs have been installed to minimise noise and vibration in sensitive areas. Underneath the nightclubs and recording studios of Soho, light floating track has gone in, with heavy floating track being installed beneath the Barbican’s concert hall. A very clever but complex method cushions the track with use of springs and rubber bearings. Because of the extra depth of the floating track, shallower sleepers made of denser concrete also had to be used in these areas.
2) They buried a time capsule. Not content with uncovering 55 million years of archaeology, the Crossrail team buried some future archaeology of its own. In honour of the final breakthrough and completion of the tunnels, the cutterhead of TBM Phyllis was buried at Farringdon. Alongside, Crossrail used a small drum from the TBM to create a time capsule and filled it with objects suggested and donated by key stakeholders, local people and Crossrail workers, including a 2013 edition of the London A to Z (originally created by TBM namesake Phyllis Pearsall), a tunnel phone that was used to communicate without a standard telephone signal, a Crossrail mug, model train, newspapers from the week it was sealed, a copy of Private Eye, Crossrail PPE, and a copy of the Crossrail monthly ‘On Site’ newspaper. I wonder if archaeologists in a couple of hundred years will be as excited as those who discovered the marmalade jars?
1) But my favourite all-time Crossrail fact has to be that the average mole tunnels at rate of 800m an hour, whereas the average TBM tunnels at rate of 0.6m an hour. Seriously, they should have just bred giant moles!
A quieter week, which started with a lovely tour to Highclere Castle, better known to its legions of television fans as Downton Abbey.
Before we got there though, I wetted my group’s appetite with a visit to the village of Bampton. A beautiful village, with stone cottages and thatched roofs, that stood in as the fictional village of Downton.
In the village, you will find the cottages that stood in for Downton’s two pubs; The Grantham Arms and The Dog and Duck, the cottage that became the village post office and the old King Edward VI Grammar School, which today is the village library but, in the series, was the cottage hospital. We also found Isobel Crawley’s house.
The 12th century church of St Mary the Virgin is, of course, where all the main action happened. The weddings of Lady Mary….twice (first to Matthew Crawley and then Henry Talbot), Carson the butler to Mrs Hughes the housekeeper, Anna the ladies maid to Mr Bates the valet, and Lady Edith to Bertie Pelham. The funeral of Matthew Crawley, killed returning from seeing his wife, Lady Mary, and new born son in hospital. The christening of baby Sybil, the child of the youngest of the Grantham daughters Lady Sybil and her husband Tom Branson, the chauffeur. And of course, the jilting at the altar of Lady Edith by the much older Sir Anthony Strallen!
From there, we ventured on to Highclere Castle and, while my group enjoyed a visit to the house, my driver and I enjoyed a very nice cream
tea. There is no guiding allowed inside Highclere as it is ultimately a private family home for the Earl of Carnavon and his wife, Fiona, the Countess. So I always have a cream tea when there and then take a stroll through the beautiful gardens, which were designed by the 17th century landscape artist Capability Brown.
I occasionally give lectures to a variety of groups and so it was that I had a lovely day close to home when I was invited to speak to the Surbiton Probus Group on the City of London Livery Companies. What made this one really special id it was the first time my lecture was preceded by a 3 course lunch.
The venue was a wonderful Victorian building, and lunch was a delicious spinach and mushroom stuffed pancake, followed by salmon fillet with new potatoes and asparagus, and finished off with strawberries and cream. After that, I could have done with a siesta rather than giving a lecture…..and clearly so could some of my audience as one or two of the gentlemen nodded off in the middle of my talk! Mind you, some of them were in their 90s so I wasn’t surprised.
On a rare day off, I joined some of my City of London guide colleagues one evening for a walk around Theatreland. Over the summer months the City Class of 2009 meets up once a month, with one of us leading a walk before we all head to a pub for a drink and a catch up. My colleague Andrew delivered a great walk around the Covent Garden area and, believe me, taking a group of guides on a walk requires some nerve as we make terrible tourists!
Andrew’s walk featured some great tales of theatres and theatre folk as we visited St Paul’s Church (also known as the Actors’ Church), the Vaudeville Theatre, Adelphi, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Duchess and the Novello Theatres.
As a guide, it’s always interesting to hear other guides and see what they include and their style because you always learn something new. For me, it was that the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has not one, but two royal boxes. Apparently because both George III and the Prince Regent (future George IV) would visit – once to see the same play, and when they met in the foyer George III slapped his son round the face and boxed his ears!
My week finished with one of my favourite tours – a trip to Stonehenge to see the sunrise. Well, in reality we didn’t see the sunrise because we would have had to be there around 5.00am, but we did have an early morning private visit with, always the best bit, access into the stone circle.
However, it was a very early start. Up at 2.30am, a drive to the very unglamorous coach yard on the Old Kent Road to meet my coach and driver, then to pick up the passengers from a hotel before heading down to Wiltshire to see the prehistoric stone circle.
Now I have lost count of how many times I’ve been to Stonehenge, and Ricardo my driver has been there even more times than me. But he has never been up to the stone circle – he’s always either going to fill the coach up with fuel, grabbing a coffee and a break or sitting in the coach park chatting to other drivers. So today he decided he would like to come with me. Trust me getting a driver to go up to ‘the rocks’ is incredibly rare because most of them really don’t appreciate the enormity of the construction and don’t get why so many people want to see it.
However, we had a fun time in the stone circle and I ensured we got a couple of photos to prove that Ricardo actually went up to the stones. He won’t admit it but he secretly enjoyed himself (he was taking loads of selfies with the stones), and I was feeling very pleased with myself. Then, as we walked back to the coach, he spoilt the moment as he said “That was great, but it was definitely built by aliens!”
Well, it has been over a year since I wrote my last blog as events, well work, just overtook me. The life of a guide is a busy and varied one, but it is high time I restarted my blog, so here goes.
Peak season is upon us, London is having another bumper year for tourism, and I’ve just finished working seven days on the trot!
My week started with a visit to Stonehenge at 7.30 in the morning, which meant the alarm going off at 2.45am, leaving home at 3.30am to meet the coach on Old Kent Road and then picking up the passengers from their hotel at 5.00am. As the coach driver and I both wondered what on earth had possessed us to do this trip, I was also silently praising the person who invented travel mugs – as I at least could take a cup of tea with me!
However, the early start was worth it as a private access visit to Stonehenge early in the morning with just me, my group and a security guard is very special.
Built around 4,500 years ago by Neolithic man, and perfectly aligned with the solar and lunar calendars, we are talking precision engineering long before we’d even invented engineering!
Large Sarsen stones, each weighing approximately 30 tons, form the outer stone circle, with about two thirds of each stone above ground and one third below. Coming from the Marlborough Downs, roughly 19 miles away, archaeologists estimate that it took about 100 men to drag each stone across the landscape.
The inner stone circle of Bluestones, still pretty heavy at about 5-7 tins each, come from the Preseli Hills in Wales, roughly 150 miles away. But it is the trilithons in the centre that really dwarf you. Huge sarsen stones, grouped in threes (trili is Greek for three) with two upright stones and a horizontal stone on top, there were originally five trilithons forming a horseshoe in the centre.
Stonehenge is an amazing place whenever you see it but, when you get to stand inside the stone circle in the peace and quiet with just the birds chirping, it is truly spectacular and my group were suitably overawed, with many of them confessing it had been on their bucket lists to do.
Tuesday saw me in the 1920s, as I took a group to Highclere Castle on a Downton Abbey tour. Now I love Downton Abbey, never missed an episode, so to be paid to go to ‘Downton’ and relive the television series is lovely.
The family home of the Earl of Carnavon stood in for the fictional Downton Abbey and many of its famous scenes were filmed there, from the opening of the first episode when the tel.egram boy cycled up the drive to deliver the news that the heir to the title and estate had gone down with the RMS Titanic, to the final episode when Lady Edith finally got married and lady’s maid Anna gave birth to a son on New Year’s Eve 1925.
Highclere Castle itself is a fabulous place with its elegant rooms, portraits of Carnavon ancestors, family photos of the current earl and his family (it is first and foremost a family home), and Tutankhamen objects – the 5th Earl discovered King Tut’s tomb with archaeologist Howard carter back in 1922. My group loved their visit, even if they didn’t get to see the beautiful gardens landscaped by Capability Brown in the 18th century, as the rain was torrential the whole time we were there.
As usual, I got to enjoy a nice cream tea with my driver while my group explored the house and raided the gift shop for souvenirs. The highlight though is, of course, as we motor up the drive to the house and I play the Downton Abbey theme tune over the microphone as my group laugh, cheer and clap!
Wednesday was another full day trip, this time to Stonehenge and Bath. I had a nice cup of tea while my group went up to the stone circle – I had told them all about it on the way there, so a self-directed visit was in order. Then at Bath, once I had got my group inside the Roman bathhouse and sorted their audio guides, I took the opportunity to grab a sandwich before I met them as they exited the Roman baths and pointed them all in the right direction for the various other visitor attractions and refreshment places fot hem to enjoy in their free time.
On returning to the coach pick up point to meet my group, I had a chat with the coach marshal about upcoming road closures for the annual Bath Carnival. Visiting places regularly, you get to know the coach marshals and staff at heritage sites and Steve is no exception. We always have a nice chat, I just wish I could get him to stop calling me ‘Prozac’ in front of my groups – he has nicknames for all the regular guides!
The following day was spent in London with a lovely American family. Their first time in London, so we did all the main sites; a full guided tour of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, plus a walk past No 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, Horse Guards, and St Paul’s, before finishing the day outside Buckingham Palace.
A great day, only marred by the confusion when I arrived at their Air BNB flat in Pimlico and discovered multiple doorbells and their mobile phone was switched off! Luckily, they had the sense to come outside
and look for me at the agreed meeting time – phew!
Friday was an easier day (thank goodness) as I had a panoramic tour of London on a minibus with a group of American gardeners. A late start, meeting them at their hotel at 11.30am, and an early finish as I dropped them at Kensington Palace for their visit there, made for a nice change. I had done a similar tour last year, so it was like meeting up with old friends as I had the same tour leader, lead client and coach driver from 2016.
Saturday saw me back at Stonehenge and Bath with a stop at Windsor Castle along the way and with a double decker coach and 72 passengers – eek! Even though Bath Carnival was on, the day went smoothly and on the return my driver and I settled an argument about the quickest return into London via the toss of a coin. I called heads, so we came off the M3 onto the M25 and then into central London via the M4 / A4 rather than via Twickenham and Richmond – the guide is always right lol!
My incredibly busy week saw me finish with another full day London tour for a group of 32 that included the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and a private cruise down the Thames. Unfortunately, it also included a run in with a traffic warden whilst I was picking up after the guard change. Despite the fact that other coaches were picking up their groups near the palace, he decided that we weren’t supposed to stop where the coach had (strictly speaking that’s true, but everyone does it because there is nowhere else to stop), and refused to let me board my group. I pleaded, I begged, and even fluttered my eyelashes, all to no avail. In the end, my driver moved off and I walked the group much further away to board in Victoria.
Hopefully all the other guides and coach drivers, who were happily boarding their groups, appreciated my sacrifice!
A mixed bag this week of coach tours, a lecture and a visit to the National Gallery.
This afternoon I was off on the train to Luton to give a talk to Luton U3A (University of the Third Age) History Group on the City of London Livery Companies.
As a City of London Guide, I often give lectures on ‘City’ topics and love talking about the livery companies; their origins, history and function – both hundreds of years ago and today.
Luton U3A are a great group to give a talk to; always interested and they always ask lots of questions afterwards. I started giving lectures to them about 18 months ago when I was booked to give a talk to Dunstable U3A and then they passed me on to Luton U3A, who passed me on to another local U3A group, who also passed me on to another local history group. It’s a bit like Pass the Parcel in this game – once you give a talk, and they like you, they pass your details onto others they know and you go and give talks to them too.
So now I go up to the Luton area about six times a year. One of the members meets me at the station, I give my talk, have a nice cup of tea, and then I get dropped back at the station. Just lovely.
A full day’s tour today. I was due to take a coach load to Stonehenge and Bath, but added on a stop at Windsor on the way following a call from the tour operator yesterday.
Once I’d got my group into Windsor Castle, given them a short tour of the castle precincts and left them to visit the State Apartments on their own, I met up with a fellow Blue Badge Guide who I hadn’t seen for a few months for a coffee and a catch up. One of the nice things about this job is that you occasionally end up in the same place at the same time as a friend. Lucy and I trained together on the Blue Badge course and during the main season it’s hard to meet up properly, so we grab time when we can to share stories and swap tips.
Back in the coach park, two of my visitors were late back and in the end I had to head off to Bath without them – there’s only so long you can make 50 other people wait! However, the tour operator was able to contact the missing couple and another coach gave them a lift from Windsor to Bath, where we were reunited just in time to go into the Roman Baths. The couple were terribly apologetic and admitted it was all their fault as they had just lost track of time in the castle.
Our final stop of the day was Stonehenge – it was beautifully sunny and, as my group left the coach, one man asked if he’d need his umbrella. I laughed and said: “Nah, it’s not going to rain today”. Famous last words! Once the group were up by the stones, which are 1½ miles from the visitor centre, guess what? It rained! Luckily not too much and not for long, but it did rain. Boy, did I get some stick back on the coach.
Today was a day off, but I’d offered to take a couple of Blue Badge students on a walkthrough of the National Gallery so headed out reasonably early to meet them. They have their exam (a tour of the gallery) in September and it’s hard – there are 21 paintings on the tour and you have to be able to deliver a 5 minute presentation on all of them. I remember my training and exam well. I felt like I would never be able to find my way through the gallery from one painting to the next, let alone be able to talk about each one.
Art was never really my ‘thing’, but once I realised that I could talk about the stories in the paintings and not just the history of the art, the paint techniques and the artists, it became much easier. It was still a tough exam, but I actually started to enjoy the art. I love that Caravaggio was the bad boy of the art world in the early 1600s (arrogant, he would swagger around town with his mates, and he killed a man in a duel), that Constable’s The Haywain is like a chocolate box cover, and that a suffragette slashed The Rokeby Venus with an axe to highlight the struggle for women’s votes in 1914 (well, not that she damaged the painting but the passion it inspired in her). On her arrest, Mary Richardson said: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.”
I hadn’t been to the National Gallery for a while, so today’s walkthrough with some students was a good chance to refresh myself on the art while giving them some guidance on how to talk about each painting. We only managed to talk through 12 paintings in the time we had, plus after 12 we were all feeling a little brain dead, so we called it a day and agreed to finish off another time.
Back to the Cotswolds today on a lovely sunny Sunday, with a trainee coach driver who hadn’t done this route before. Occasionally with new drivers you have to direct them as well as provide the commentary, which is pretty hard work but, luckily for me, the tour company sent along another driver to act as his mentor and make sure he knew what he was doing and where he was going.
The day went well, no wrong turns, no one left behind anywhere, the sun shone all day and the passengers enjoyed their trip out into the countryside.
However, I was very jealous when we got to Bourton-on-the Water and saw another tour in the most gorgeous vintage bus.
Now why don’t I get those kind of tours?!