A Divine Day of Diverse Delights–Dickens’ House, National Gallery, Meetings with Friends, Pub Dinner with Dean’s Circle

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The cold still rages on–much to my annoyance, these mid-30 degree (Fahrenheit) temperatures are creeping up to mid-40s next week –after I have left London! Just my ill-founded luck! Still, I am dressing in warm cashmere layers to be comfortable outside only to boil when I am in the stores!

Jetlag seems a thing of the past and I was up at 7. 15 am this morning with enough leisurely time to shower, dress, have a muesli and yoghurt breakfast plus coffee and get on the Tube headed for Holborn to keep a doctor’s appointment. For my cold also still rages on. I decided I had better get my throat seen by someone as the pain is intense and this cold won’t quit. From Russel Square Station, I passed by some of London’s most fascinating attractions that I have had the pleasure, on previous occasions, of perusing: The Foundling Museum, Coram Fields (a lovely park into which adults can enter only if they have a child/children with them), the back streets of Holborn that so inspired Dickens. And indeed, that was where I was first headed. To say Hello to Charlie in his own parlour!

Visiting Dickens’ House:

I had first visited Dickens’ House in 1987, i.e. 28 years ago, as a young graduate student who had spent a great part of her life devouring his novels. In intervening years, I have stopped in the gift shop to buy gifts for various lovers of Dickens. But it was time, I decided to return to the rooms that he had inhabited with his wife Catherine and where she had borne two children–their first two daughters Kate and Alice, at a time when they were still happily married. Later, post-partum depression took its toll on her and their marriage crumbled. Dickens got involved with another woman and the couple divorced. It is easy to find the house in a long lane of modest terraced housing at 48 Doughty Street–it used to be literally in my own backyard when I had lived in Holborn; but I had not visited then.

A self-guided tour book is a handy tool as you go through the rooms. How the Victorians lived in such perpetual darkness is always a mystery to me. Still, there were flickering artificial candles in some of the rooms and they added to the authenticity of atmosphere that one seeks in such abodes. Having become prosperous through his writing, Dickens acquired a great many personal treasures and loads of them are exhibited in this house–sets of dining porcelain, a lovely Wedgwood tall cheese tray with lid in blue Jasperware, a silver samovar, a carved marble sculpture of a Turk. But the most significant items are his writing desk and chair that feature in the famous painting, Dickens’ Dream in which he is is seen snoozing in the chair as all the characters from his novels come to life. It is available in the form of a postcard in the shop. There are also letters, first editions of his novels (Nicholas Nickleby was written entirely in this house), much evidence of his great love for Shakespeare (whom he revered and who continually offered  him inspiration), the theater (he saw a play in the West End almost every night and even turned his hand to acting to prove to be rather good at it), long walks (he is reputed to have walked an average of 20 miles a day all over the city).

The visitor goes through the Main Hall of the House, into the Drawing Room and Dining Room, then upstairs into the bedrooms (the one Dickens’ shared with Catherine, the other one in which his beloved sister-in-law Mary died unexpectedly at 21), then up another flight of stairs to the nursery and the servants rooms where a grill from Marshalsea Prison in a grim reminder of the earliest trauma he suffered. His father was imprisoned for debt and Dickens recalls the humiliation he felt on having to go to prison to visit him. This resulted in his earliest employment at age 12 in a shoe-blackening factory where passers-by could peep in and watch the children at work and giggle in amusement–not realizing how horrible it felt to the children hard at work. It was great to re-visit these well-known episodes in his life through the aid of such memorabilia and I lingered in room after room, taking pictures (without a flash), pausing to read a note here, to inspect a Victorian map of London there, to wonder at the prodigious talent and industry of this most British of writers.

Off to the Doctor and Persephone Books:

Thankfully, my doctor did not think anything was seriously wrong with me. Although I might have picked up the chest infection from air pollution in Bombay, he thinks I made it worse by picking up a virus in London where colds and sniffles are raging. All I was recommended was salt water gargles for my aching throat (slightly inflamed, he agreed) and more paracetymol. Relieved, I walked to one of my favorite places in London and my favorite bookstore in the whole wide world–Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street. The cozy warmth of this interior is hard to describe, the unique collections that they reprint (classics for women from the 1930s), the design of their productions (plain grey covered paperbacks with gorgeous end papers featuring contemporary fabric prints that come with matching bookmarks) and the gracious service you receive whenever you are there, make it worthwhile to hunt down this shop and buy something. I came away with a collection of book marks featuring floral prints in bright colors for 50 p each. I intend to give them away as gifts to my Book Club buddies.

An Unexpecdted Souvenir Find:

Then, I was hurrying out to keep my lunch date; but not before I got sidetracked by a foray into a design store–for somewhat inexplicably, Lamb’s Conduit Street has become increasingly gentrified. Rents are now going through this roof in this convenient part of Holborn and the huge thrift store (known as charity shop in Britain) that I used to frequent has, sadly, closed down. It’s been taken over by another upscale interior design establishment, so that it appears it won’t be long before Holborn becomes another Chelsea. In Penthreat and Hall, I chanced upon a huge wooden bowl filled with Christmas baubles being offered as a fraction of their regular price: I picked up two beautiful glass globes engraved and painted with gold and I can just see them catching the light in a corner of our home in Southport all year round.  For under 10 pounds, it made a unique souvenir of my stay in London.

Lunch with Loulou:

When I finally did get on the Central Line Tube from Holborn, I got off at Holland Park within 12 minutes and easily found the new home of my friends Loulou and Paul–in whose palatial loft in Farringdon I had once passed a few months. They have downsized and, in a two bedroom flat, that overlooks Holland Hill Avenue, we had a lovely reunion. I said a quick hullo to Paul who then disappeared for his own luncheon business meeting, leaving Loulou to give me the grand tour of their charming little home which makes up in location what it has lost in size. Indeed, here I thought is another fine example of the wisdom of downsizing.

Loulou chose a fine Italian restaurant called Edeza on Holland Hill Avenue to treat me to lunch; and it was there, over gnocchi with rabbit ragout for me and breaded lemon sole for her, that we caught up. I realize, thanks to invitations and meetings with fond old friends, that I am eating at far better establishments on this trip than I had envisioned. Three days in a row it has been Italian and this meal did not disappoint. Most importantly, we had the chance to catch up on our lives in a far more meaningful way than email can allow. We made the discovery that, at this stage in our lives, it is our aging parents that are huge concerns and that there are no easy solutions for the provision of care for their well-being.

Haunting Holland Park Locations of As Time Goes By:

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the great loves of my life is the British TV series As Time Goes By starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer and set in Holland Park. The series ran for about 12 years from the late 1980s to the early 2000s and featured the daily lives of an upper middle class couple that had once been engaged to be married, were parted by the war in Korea, go their separate ways, marry, have children, become widowed/divorced and meet up again 35 years later only to fall in love again, get married and live happily ever after. If this sounds corny to you, keep in mind that I am a hopeless romantic and am devoted to the show and have spent hours trying to find the real-life locations in which  the shooting occurred.

So, imagine my delight, when I discovered that Loulou now lives about 2 seconds from the site of the filming of the show–the back gardens of Holland Park. I simply had to revisit them again–to see Lionel and Jean’s House, the church across the street in the park, the store front that had served as location of their office called Type For You–it was once the Clarendon Cross Post Office but became a discount convenience store that was actually closing down (I went in and bought Custard Powder for 50 p!) and the street across Holland Hill Avenue in Addison Street that had served as the location for Lionel’s flat. After having lingered long enough and feeling extremely nostalgic for the show that folded up, several years ago, I took a bus and rode on the top deck all the way along Hyde Park wit the idea of spending a few hours at another favorite place in the world–the National Gallery.

Saying Hello to Maggi Hambling and Other Old Friends at the National:

My bus deposited me at the last stop–Piccadilly Circus–and so off I strode past the Haymarket Theater and into Trafalgar Square. Revisiting the National Gallery is always a bit like coming home and saying Hello to my favorite friends. Only this time, I decided to see the special exhibition on at the moment: Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water. I had first become introduced to the work of this extremely eccentric lady through my friends Loulou and Paul who know her through their connections in Suffolk. For the months that I had lived in their Farringdon loft, her self-portrait had hung right above my bed. It made me feel as if I knew her well. So it made complete sense to look at the work for which she had gained fame: her depictions of waves crashing on the Suffolk beaches around where she lives. 

Indeed her canvasses are quite extraordinary–they are quite Pollock-like in some respects as thick wads of oil paint seem to be stuck randomly on the canvas. There is the sense of the definite movement of waves that burst into random patterns on shore. Black and white is relieved by slashes of occasional color. Interestingly, one of the works is entitled Amy Winehouse–it is Hambling’s tribute to another extraordinary artist–there is the definite depiction of Winehouse’s eccentric bouffants, her vivid red lipstick. Curatorial notes informed me that Hambling was inspired by the Norwegian artist Peter Balke who painted the sea in the 19th century. In many respects, her work is a response to Balke’s. And intriguingly, the National has presented a special exhibition on the work of Balke in the Sunley Room next door. I was thrilled. It was a wonderful opportunity to study the impact of one artist upon another. In Balke’s work, light played a prominent role and the vividness of detail that he is able to capture in his highly realistic canvasses–the very opposite of Hambling’s abstracts–are worth examining. I was enchanted.

It was time to go out in search of my old friends–beloved paintings that I get to see only occasionally but which I most love about re-visiting London. I began with the Carravaggios–Boy Bitten By A Lizard, Christ at Emmaus, then moved on to the classics that Marina Vaisey numbers among her 100 Masterpieces of Art: Canaletto’s scenes of Venice (more realistic than any photograph), Lucus Cranach’s Cupid Complaining to Venus, Holbien’s The Ambassadors, Pieter de Hooch’s Courtyard of a House in Delft (my very favorite painting in the whole world and one I could sit and gaze upon for hours), George Stubb’s Whistlejacket (was ever a horse depicted in more animated a guise?), Constable’s Haywain and Stafford Mill, Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, Mr and Mrs. Thomas Hallet by Gainsborough and poor Lady Jane Grey. There are the lovely studies by Joaquim Buechler that have a whole corridor-gallery devoted to them–I could also gaze on these forever. So many treasures, so little time. I did not get the chance to enter the Sainsbury Wing, for instance, to look at the work of Carlo Crivelli (whom I discovered at the National many years ago and whose work I have seen no where else); but I hope to return for another peep again before I leave.

Outside, in Trafalgar Square, darkness had fallen and there was a lively lights show that was projecting rainbows over the fountains and Edward Landseer’s lions. It made for wonderful photo ops and all the world was taking selfies. It was at this time that I received a call from another friend: Murali, a banker who was just getting off work in Liverpool Street and wondered if I could meet him for a drink.

I could, actually, as I had nixed my plans to return to St. John’s Wood to change before dinner. I was exhausted and could not face the thought of making double journeys. Thankfully, I had not worn jeans or sneakers; so my clothing would pass as ‘semi-formal’, I figured. I was tired and flagging by this time and badly needed a sit down. Yes, I told Murali, I would meet him at Bank, presuming that my dinner appointment was there as the address I had been given said Old Bank of England.

About 45 minutes later, I found Murali awaiting my arrival by the Jubilee Monument just behind the equestrian statue of the Duke of York. It was fabulous to see him again and although I would have preferred a hot chocolate at that point, it seemed that most coffee shops close by 6 pm in London! So we settled for a pint instead at the Pavillion’s End pub somewhere in the labyrinth of little lanes that comprise The City in the area of Wren’s St. Stephen Woolnoth Church. Luckily, we did find seats and with half-pints of cider in our possession, we were off and away discussing all the things we talk about when we get together: travels in India, books, poetry, paintings and art history (my friend has a passion for Russian Abstract artists), discovering and re-discovering London…the list is endless. Murali is great company for his mind is vital, current, art-humanities-commerce-science wired (if that is possible)–indeed a true Renaissance Man who became known to me through his reading of my blog, when I lived in London. We have remained friends ever since and it is always a pleasure to catch up with him.

Making a Big Gaff Over a Dinner Venue:

Then, I was ready for the next item on my agenda: A Farewell Dinner for the Dean’s Circle of NYU at what I presumed was the actual Bank of England on Threadneedle Street. I am sure Murali had his doubts when I told him where I was headed for dinner–but then, I had presumed that august banks as as this one, rent out space for corporate dos as so many historic buildings seem to survive on such stunts.  

Well, I was mighty mistaken. The dinner was not in the bank at all as the amused security assistant informed me…but, get this, in a pub named Bank of England on Fleet Street! I felt both mortified at my gaff and terribly anxious–I would be terribly late. Still, some quick thinking on Murali’s part sent me in the direction of the Chancery Lane Tube Station. I walked through the lane and onto Fleet Street and found myself facing Number 17. Well, since my address said 194 Fleet Street, I expected it to be in the direction of Ludgate Hill and, instinctively, I hailed a passing cab and jumped in. He sailed up and down the street a couple of times and then told me that the pub was probably exactly where I had hopped on! I was made to feel stupid for the second time in half an hour–this was simply not working! He U-turned and dropped me back exactly where I had hopped in, relieved me of 5 pounds and left me feeling sheepish as I entered the vast hall. I recognized it immediately as the venue that became notorious for the demon Barber of Fleet Street who apparently slit the throats of his customers and had his mistress then cut them up and bake them into pies in the sale of which she did roaring business! Well, who knows how much truth there is in this story, but I sure as hell wasn’t ordering pie!

We had the special room and thankfully too–for 30 Americans can get very noisy indeed. A three-course meal was served consisting of Tomato Soup, Fish and Chips (delightfully crisp cod fillets) with cheesecake for dessert. A slash of raspberry coulis appeared like a smear of blood on the plate and brought conversation inevitable around to the barber!

It was fun. It was lively. It was noisy. I was pleased to have been invited to bid goodbye to our students whose grand London adventure will end tomorrow morning when they board that flight back Stateside. I was seriously exhausted and could not wait to get public transport to reach home. I walked all the way up Kingsway to Holborn Tube station, got off at Marble Arch from where I took a bus home to St. John’s Wood getting there in under half an hour. 

And while our students are dreaming of their return home, I fell asleep thinking of dreaming spires, for I will be in Oxford tomorrow with friends on a day trip that promises to be a blast.

Until tomorrow, cheerio!

One thought on “A Divine Day of Diverse Delights–Dickens’ House, National Gallery, Meetings with Friends, Pub Dinner with Dean’s Circle

  1. It's like coming home to me…London .Rochelle you bring the city alive..sharing all your visits to museums, shops, pubs and more.So joyful to experience the amazing city thru your eyes.
    Laughed a lot at the Dinner Bank adventure..!

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