Tag Archive | Old Spitalfields Market

More Research at British Library, Lunch Time Piano Recital, National Gallery Highlights and Walk in East End


Today offered another mixed bag. I started it off with the best of intentions–I was going to spend most of it at the British Library reviewing the vast amounts of material I have requested. But I am not waking up at 6.00 am–which always gives me a head start on the day. Instead, I am awaking at 7.15 or thereabouts and then trying to catch up on email and other travel inquiries while still in bed.

Breakfast, Shower and Out the Door:
In that order–breakfast (muesli with yogurt and coffee) while I reviewed some of the accommodation options Chriselle had sent me for Eastern Europe–then a shower, I was on my way, earlier than yesterday (10.00 am to be exact) and at 10. 45, I was entering the British Library to get deep into my reading.
It was good to arrive at the library before most of the other readers. I am getting fond of the Asian and African Reading Room on the third floor with the august oil portraits of erstwhile Indian maharajas staring down, dour-faced, at me. This morning, I was delighted to find a reference and an account of the Ayah’s Home in Hackney that sheltered many a female domestic servant of Indian/Asian origin. There was even a picture! Lots of information about the lodging-houses that were a plenty all over London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries filled in many gaps for me of the kind of habitation available to the very first Anglo-Indians who arrived in the UK. Finally, I poured over the Letters from India of a certain Mrs. Eliza Fay whose missives were edited by none other than E.M. Forster and published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. My interest in the book centered on a Eurasian female maid Mrs. Fay took along with her to England on one of her return voyages only to treat her rather shabbily by abandoning her at St. Helena.  It is Forster who provides interesting details of this encounter in his End Notes. I was about to make my own notes on this discovery when I found that it was nearly 12. 30 pm. I hoped to catch the Lunch time concert at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field church and thought I’d given myself enough time to get there from King;s Cross.

Lunch Time Piano Recital at St. Martin’s-in-The-Field Church:
Needless to say, I did not allocate time for the Tube connection I had to make an Euston where one walks for miles in the tunnels below before one finds the right platform. I was so disheartened.  Still, not willing to give up, I made the effort to race on.  This, despite the fact that I have been plagued ever since my arrival here, with a persistent back pain–sometimes so severe that I have started using a pain-killing ointment for it. Tomorrow, I intend to call a doctor to make an appointment as it is severe and often debilitating.
I arrived at the venue–the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields–five minutes after the concert by Chiyan Wong had begun–this meant we had to decorate the porch of the church with our presence for another five minutes as he finished the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata he was playing. Bummer!  Still, I was not entirely disappointed for, in due course, we, late-comers, were invited in and I caught the entire second Beethoven sonata as well as the one by Chopin that followed.
Chiyan Wong, originally from Hongkong but now a Londoner, was a sheer delight. His talent and his virtuosity were mind-blowing. In the rich confines of the church (where I had once attended an Indo-Western fusion music concert with my cousin’s son, Sudarshan, many years ago), the sound effects were just stunning. I seriously wish I had the time to attend every single one of these concerts–but because they occur in the middle of the day (when I am usually engaged doing other things), it is so difficult to fit them in. The church was packed with tourists–most of them American–and though the concerts are free, I found most people dipped into their pockets to make voluntary contributions when the red buckets were held out at the exit at the very end. What a brilliant mid-day treat!

Highlights Tour at the National Gallery:
Since it was such a beautiful afternoon, there was simply no way I could take myself back to the Library in a hurry. I have to try to balance work with the sheer pleasure of enjoying the day. Summer days in England are fleeting–soon autumn with its shorter days and its bracing breezes will be upon us. There is no time like the present to enjoy the feel of the warm sun on our faces. So, I decided to eat my lunch on the plaza in Trafalgar Square (in the midst of the thousands of tourists that had congregated there). As the clock hands crept to 2. 30, I entered the Sainsbury Wing to join one of the Highlights Tours given in the Museum.
I have to say that it was one of the most disappointing ones I have ever taken–not just in the National Gallery but anywhere in the world. I don’t believe our guide was a museum curator or indeed even a trained docent. He told us he was an artist (not sure what kind–painter? sculptor? ceramist?–who knows?) I don’t know whether it is the policy now of the National Gallery to “dumb down” the commentary offered and to restrict items shown to just a few. But the fact was that we were only shown three paintings–yes, just three in a whole hour!–and there was nothing even vaguely intelligent about what was said. We saw Jacomo di Chioco’s Adoration of Mary by the Saints, Titian’s Bachus and Ariadne and Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment with a Bird. Basically, there was no introduction to the artist or to the genre or to the topic. What we got was a description of the scene in front of us–and that was it. “What is the woman looking at?” he asked “And what color is her robe?” he inquired. He might have been talking to five-year olds. No historical background about artist or era, no attempt to unravel symbols, no interpretation whatsoever. I have never been more disappointed by a highlights tour. I will have to take one more just to see if the entire concept of giving tours has changed (as I recall taking some really superb guided tours over the years at the National) or if it was simply our bad luck in getting a guide that, in my humble opinion–needs a lot more training giving tours.

Back to the Library:
It was time to get back to the library and since I had such a hard time with the Tube, I decided to take the bus instead (believing it would be faster and more direct). There too I was mistaken for the 73 bus was on a diversion route and did not go back to King’s Cross–it was headed to Victoria. I let three buses go before I discovered what was going on! But the time I reached the Library, it was about 4. 30 pm and I then remembered that, given the time difference, it was a good time to call my Dad in Bombay and speak to my brother Russel too.
Dad had a great deal to share with me, not least of which was his take on India’s fate at the Olympics. I gave him all the time in the world he desired because I know just how much these chats mean to him and by the time I got back to my carrel in the library, it was almost 5.00 pm–and guess what? The Reading Room was closing!!! I was under the impression that they were open till 8.00 pm as the Locker Room is open till then!

A Walk in the East End:
Well, there was nothing I could do except get back home, drop off my laptop and then use the evening to discover bits of the East End I have yet to know. I had a quick cup of tea and a cheese scone at home and then I grabbed my Frommer’s Memorable Walks in London and set off.
The East End has always been the poorest part of London and an area that was always swarming with immigrants through the ages. From the Jews to the Huguenots to the Bangladeshis to the Eastern Europeans,  this area has spread its hospitable arms to them all like Lady Liberty in New York. The end result is a hodgepodge of neighborhoods that bear the distinct stamp of varied ethnicities and the aromas of the regional cuisine they brought with them. My walk was supposed to take 2 hours, but I figured I would do it in two parts since it was already 6.00 pm as I was leaving the house and I did want to get back by 8.00 at the latest.
I took Bus 205 heading to the City and got off at Aldgate Tube Station. From there, it was a quick right to the Church of St. Botolphs which is undergoing a major landscaping renovation. The church dates from before the Great Fire of London (1666) and this is evident in its sharp single steeple design and the ancient black and white stones of its wall. Just past it is the Cass Foundation, set up for the education of poor boys and girls. It has a blue-coated figure in a niche at the entrance to denote that it was a Free School. This area was once fully populated by Jews and so the Bevis Marks Synagogue was the next item on the trail. This is the oldest synagogue in England (dating back to Elizabethan times) and it still conducts full services for the local Jewish population–of whom not many remain as there was a massive exodus towards Northwest London (the area of Kilburn and Golder’s Green) in the 1950s. At some point, I do hope to enter the synagogue that was closed by the time I reached it. In the same area, I passed by Frying Pan Alley and Petticoat Lane (so-called because this was once the heart of the Garment Industry and cheaper clothing was sold at street markets each Saturday in this lane. Today, it is on Sunday morning that the clothing car boot sales are held). I had always thought that, like Portobello Road, there were antiques sold on Petticoat Lane. It is only very recently that I have come to realize that it more of a Cloth Fair than anything else (similar to the one held in Medieval Times outside St. Bartholomew Church in Farringdon that gave Ben Jonson’s play its name).
The walk then took me into maze-like lanes to the south of Liverpool Street Station that were once busy with the efforts of trained and skilled craftsmen such as cutlers and clothiers–I know this because the names of the streets bear evidence of the kind of craftsmanship that was carried out here. This area is also the hub of the space that was devoted to gun makers and creators of artillery and many of the street names bear evidence of this (Artillery Lane, Gun Street, etc). Artillery Passage is extremely picturesque and quaint and today filled with bars and fancy restaurants (Ottolenghi, the famed Jewish chef) has a restaurant here that bears his name.
When I crossed the street, I passed by the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent that was run by the Sisters of Mercy. For when you have poverty, can Christian works of mercy be far behind? The good nuns ran a tight ship with separate entrances for homeless men and women that still say so–Men and Women is written in massive letters above those doors. A block away, on Tenter Ground, you understand the origin of the term “to be on tenterhooks”. Tenters were wooden frames used to stretch fabric to make it taut and straight. And on this wide street, tenters were spread out as the trade of weaving was practiced. A block later, you realize that works of mercy were not restricted to Christians alone. You will pass by the Jewish Soup Kitchen on Brune Street that proclaims its usage in equally huge (and rather ornate) letters. Here, in the 19th century, poor Jews found refuge and a hot meal. These are certainly parts of the East side I had never seen before and they enthralled me deeply.
A few steps later, I was on Commercial Street with the great steeple of Christ Church Spitalfields gazing down on me. It is the masterwork of Nicholas Hawksmoor who was a pupil of Christopher Wren. I believe it is Ian Nairn who comments that with this church, Hawksmoor seems to have tried too hard! I have to say I rather like this strange-looking portico that is perched high on tall pillars  with the steeple looming on top. Right behind are very modest terraced houses– an almost incongruous sight when compared with the exterior grandeur of the church.
And right opposite the church is the famous Spitalfields Market that dates from medieval times when everything from livestock to livery were sold here. Its later heyday was the Victorian Age when fruits and vegetables were traded under a towering iron canopy. Today, it is more of a flea and crafts market than anything else–but as a place that is being gentrified rapidly (as so many derelict spaces in London now are) it is filled with upscale eateries at which the corporate types from nearby Liverpool Street’s glass and concrete towers have their daily fill of fancy food and pricey drinks.  In the lanes surrounding this market, shop fronts from the Georgian and Victorian Ages still continue to sport painted signage of the goods once sold within. I am very pleased to say that modern-day owners have not wiped out all vestiges of the commercial life of these charming spaces.

End of the Day Rituals:
It was time to call the walk to a halt and Spitalfields Market was a good place to do so. Walking towards Bishopsgate, I caught  the 205 bus to Bow Church that brought me almost to my doorstep. It was about 8. 30 pm when I got home just in time for dinner–chicken risotto, sausage and soup–its a good thing I do not get fed up eating the same meal daily! I Facetimed with Llew and got ready for bed but just before I called it a night, I did a spot of blogging.
It was a very fruitful day and one that makes me feel gratified to be back in this brilliant city again.
Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Exploring the East End–and Dinner in Chelsea with an Old Bailey Judge

Friday, January 23, 2015


Today was all about the East End of London–admittedly, it is not a part of the city that I particularly like or feel connected to; so it was partly to see what lies so well concealed in its corners that I set out, at 9. 30 am, after a shower and a big breakfast of toasted walnut bread and peanut butter, hazelnut yoghurt and coffee. The Jubilee Line Tube from St. John’s Wood took me, on a lovely sunny but still very cold morning, to Liverpool Street Station from where I hopped into a Number 26 bus to get started.

Columbia Road Flower Market:

First stop was Columbia Road–site, only on Sundays, of a dazzling flower market that has become highly touristic. I had never been there but wanted to stroll through the street–because although there are no flowers to be seen on weekdays, there are some lovely shops selling unique merchandise and I wanted to browse through them. Only, I did not realize that the shops also open only on Saturdays and Sundays! It was a wasted journey but at least I did get to see the general gentrification of the neighborhood, the pretty shop fronts all painted in vivid colors and to stroll through really quiet parts of the city–it is impossible to believe that a bustling city like London still conceals areas like these in which one can scarcely hear a sound. The shops are truly lovely and do offer very unique gift items–the sort of shop for someone who has everything. Do go on a Sunday. It is a treat I shall have to postpone until my next visit–as I will be airborne Stateside, come Sunday.

Whitechapel Art Gallery:

Next stop on my agenda was the Whitechapel Art Gallery which I then reached by a rather convoluted route–10 minute walk to Shoreditch, then 254 bus towards Aldgate.  This is Muslim London and from the top deck of my bus, I took in the stores selling all manner of Islamic garb, halal food, etc. People entered the bus in ethnic outfits–bearded men, veiled women. We passed by the East London Mosque–a lovely pink building with domes and minarets and then we were arriving at my stop.

My friend Murali, an Abstract Art enthusiast, had recommended a special exhibition called The Adventures of the Black Square that features 150 years of abstract art built around the black square of  Malevich that served as inspiration to generations of artists. The website of the gallery and the banners flying outside it proudly announce that  admission is free. When I was last at this gallery–about three years ago–it had been under renovation. So, I was pleased to peruse its collections (nothing permanent, always changing). Imagine my annoyance then on discovering that there was a ticket for the special exhibition–12 pounds! I decided that I was not that crazy about abstract art to begin with and would rather put my money on the Moroni portraits at the Royal Academy of Art.

So, I hiked to the upper floors to look at some of their current exhibitions and very rewarding it was too! There is one on papers from the Henry Moore Archives that document the commissioning of some of London’s public sculptures such as the Jacob Epstein ones, Lawrence Bradshaw’s famous bust of Karl Marx for Highgate Cemetery, etc. It was very interesting to read the correspondence that went into these commissions and take a look at some marquettes. It was certainly a good place in which to take a call from Llew and to catch him up on my plans for the day.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry:

It was time to move on to yet another Whitechapel attraction that lies right across the street behind an extremely nondescript  shop front: the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This place, at the corner of a street has been making bells continually since 1520. A bell historian has actually established that a bell-making outfit stood on these premises since 1470–so it is rich in history and, as a listed home, its facade cannot be changed or touched. Not that I would want it to be any different.

Inside, there are three small rooms exhibiting items associated with the foundry’s history. Most famous for having cast Big Ben (whose template in a cross section is draped over the inside front door) as well as the twin bells of Westminster Abbey, this place has also created some of the most significant bells in the USA–such as the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia and a Bicentenary Bell that was presented by Queen Elizabeth II to America in 1976 to celebrate two centuries of American independence. It certainly is a great place to visit and one I would heartily recommend. Again, tours are given only on Saturdays and Sunday and cost 14 pounds each. These tours take you deep into the foundry (still a working foundry, still casting bells of all kind for the global market) to see the various steps involved in the making of bells–from small hand hell ringers to the giants that acquire names–such as Big Ben or Old Tom (in Tom Tower, Christ Church College, Oxford). In a tiny back room, overlooking the tinier yard, where bells in various unfinished stages repose, you can watch a series of slides that take you through the history of the establishment that has frequently been visited by royalty.

A Stroll through Spitalfields:

It was time to take a stroll–a very long one–all along Commercial Street and towards Spitalfields, another very colorful and ethnically diverse part of London. Along the way I passed by Petticoat Lane, famed for a weekly market held there since Victorian times. Today, it is mainly a market for clothes–rejects from the designer shops are offloaded here for a song. Had I more of a weight allowance, I might have indulged. But I decided to pass on to the next item on my agenda–a visit to Old Spitalfields Market which I reached in another five minutes.

Old Spitalfields Market is another one of those London Covered Markets that offer different merchandise daily–vintage and antique items one day, arts and crafts on another. Today, there was a melange of all sorts of things from old vinyl records to artisinal bread. I took a quick look through the stalls, found absolutely nothing to strike my fancy and exited right in front of the area’s most spectacular building–the edifice of Christ Church, Spitalfields–the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor, pupil of Christopher Wren, it is simply majestic.

Buying a Barbour:

As I continued walking towards Bishopsgate, I passed right by a Barbour shop selling its signature outdoor wear. Now I had always coveted a Barbour jacket and I decided I would pop in to purchase something especially since loud signs on the door proclaimed 50-70% Off Sale!  So imagine my delight when I came upon a lovely quilted jacket on sale in just my size in a lovely satiny burgundy fabric with tweed collar and accents on spacious pockets! It could not have been more Me! Knowing that Barbour usually costs an arm and a leg, I made the impulsive decision to buy it–and at under 100 pounds, I know it is a steal! Armed with my unexpected buy, I strode down the street to the bus stop to catch a bus towards Bishopsgate.

Guildhall Art Gallery:

I was going on another recommendation to the next item on my agenda–one from my friend Barbara: a visit to the newly-reopened Guildhall Art Gallery deep in the heart of commercial London. Surrounded by banks and financial institutions, the Guildhall is a stunning building that dates from medieval times when guilds still controlled all London business. Adjoining it is the Art Gallery that has a huge collection of significant art mostly acquired through one of the Lord Mayors of London called Alfred Temple who wished to acquire a collection for the City of London. I arrived at 2. 00 pm, just in time to take one of the guided tours that began at 2. 15 pm and offered an introduction to the gallery. There was enough time for me to use the very plush loos in the basement before arriving at the main deck for the tour. Admission is free and it is certainly worth a visit.

As the guide explained, the refurbishment that cost millions of pounds, did not add to the collection but was spent on essentials such as heating, lighting, making ceilings leak-proof, etc. Still, her one hour tour was a fine introduction to the history of the Lord Mayors of London (not to be confused with the Boris Johnson type). These are elected by the City (which is a tiny part of London that goes roughly from Holborn Circus to just beyond St. Paul’s Cathedral and comprises one square mile. You might spy silvered dragon sculptures occasionally that mark out the boundaries of The City). The really important event surrounding the Lord Mayor who lives in nearby Mansion House is participating in an annual procession called the Lord Mayor’s Parade that includes all the pomp and pageantry of a golden coach that is usually housed in the Museum of London.

The guide showed us three paintings–the gigantic one, supposedly the largest painting in the UK–by the American artist John Singleton Copley depicting the Siege of Gibraltar, The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton and William Lockdale’s depiction of one of the parades. We then moved to one of the special exhibits–the Magna Carta that is on display as this is the 500th anniversary of its creation. All of us know the famous episode of 1215 when the barons rode to Runnymede to present King John with their list of demands to ensure their autonomy. Well, known as the document that gave the world the concept of jurisprudence, there are only 4 original Magna Cartas–two in the British Libraries, one each in Salisbury and Lincoln Cathedrals. I have seen them before, on many various occasions–in the British Library and in Salisbury Cathedral, but it is always fun to look at it again, to see how small and illegible it is and to think that a hand in the 13th century wrote it. This one is especially important as it contains the entire seal that hangs from the bottom of the document to make it truly official. On display only until the end of the month, I would heartily recommend that if you haven’t seen it before, you beat a hasty track to the Guildhall Art Gallery to do so.

Finally, our tour guide took us to the basement to see London’s best-kept secret–the Roman Amphitheater that was discovered quite by chance when the art gallery was being built. Now, of course, we all know that Lodinium was an important Roman settlement and that fragments from gladiatorial days are still be found whenever any digging is done. But to see this sort of thing in the heart of London is still pretty awesome. It has been beautifully staged for the modern visitor to give an idea of actually entering the arena. Again, worth seeing.

The tour ended here, but I decided to return upstairs to look more closely at some of the highlights of the collection: Frederick Lord Leighton’s Two Musicians is one of my favorite paintings and it is here! I had last seen it in Lord Leighton’s House in Holland Park, a few years ago. There are beautiful works by the Pre-Raphaelites too and one I particularly liked from Dorset–Men Quarrying Stone. In the basement, there is a lovely special exhibition on paintings about Tower Bridge through the ages. It is wonderful to see the varied ways in which artists have represented this iconic structure. But with light fading quickly, it was time for me to move to the next item on my list.

The Old Operating Theater in Southwark:

I am amazed how few Londoners have heard of The Old Operating Theater and Herb Garret that are so easily accessible. Attached to Guy’s Hospital and St. George’s Hospital on the South Bank of London, this was the place in which Florence Nightingale did most of her work and made her mark upon the nursing world. Now I have seen a really spectacular Operating Theater in Padua in Italy, so I knew, more or less, what to expect. But that one was grand and beautifully carved. This one was far more utilitarian and, therefore, so much more stark.

The concept of an Operating Theater derives from an educational space in which a surgeon performs an operation which observed by student doctors. It is, therefore, always based around the plan of an amphitheater with rows of stands in semi-circular shape to allow for close observation and study of the proceedings. The ‘bed’ in the center is a primitive wooden bench to which a patient was strapped and operated upon without the aid of anasthesia. Shudder! It was not until Joseph Lister invented anasthesia that such operations became more humane. Patients were brought in from the adjoining hospitals (still working hospitals) but because so little was known about infections, many had successful operations but still died.

Before getting into the Operating Theater, the visitor passes through a large attic filled with all manner of items associated with the practice of Western medicine–some items as weird as powdered snake skins and alligator teeth! There is a plethora of herbs, spices and fruit in various forms (dried, powered, ground to a paste with a pestle in a mortar, etc). Bottles, jars, bowls are part of the museum and, most gruesome, of all, sets of instruments used in surgical practice through the years, from scary looking forceps to saws! Needless to say, I was weak-kneed by the end of it and although I found all of it fascinating, it really is not my cup of tea. Visitors pay 6.50 pounds to enter up a long and very narrow flight of spiral wooden stairs that used to be the original bell tower of St. George’s Church and used by the bell ringers. You can spend more than two hours in this space if you wish to read and examine everything closely. I could only stand being there for an hour. But if you are made of sterner stuff, I would certainly recommend a visit.

By this time it was almost 4.00 pm and I had eaten nothing simply because my big breakfast had kept me going. So I stepped into EAT, bought myself a New England Chicken Pot Pie (one of my favorite things in the world world to eat), then disappeared into the Marks and Sparks across the road to look for a specific item that Llew desired. Unfortunately, they had discontinued their manufacture and it is now only available online–so that is how we shall purchase it. It was time to head off to my last appointment of the day–dinner at the home of my friends in Chelsea.

Dinner with a Judge, a Bishop and His Wife:

A long ride on the Circle Line took me from Moorgate to Sloan Square in the heart of ritzy Chelsea where I was invited to dinner at the home of my friends Michael and Cynthia. It was the first time they were entertaining me in their little flat (actually not so little) after their big move from Amen Court on Ludgate Hill. Although I had seen their flat before, it was before they had officially moved in. It was great to see it looking all lived in and cozy.

Michael and Cynthia had also invited a physician (who had to cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected occurrence) and a judge named Tim from the Old Bailey who happened to be hugely personable and very entertaining. We hit it off immediately as we began to discuss British courtroom drama from Rumpole of the Bailey to the more contemporary ones–such as Judge John Deed who, Tim informs me, is not realistic at all for no judge would ever behave the way he does!  Tim is also a great lover of New York in general and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in particular–his favorite bit is the American silver collection (it is endlessly fascinating to me what strikes peoples’ fancy). Needless to say, I promised him a private tour the next time he is in the Big Apple. He strongly recommended that I see the Moroni portraits but I am half inclined to believe that they will come to the Met sometime soon. Paucity of time might not make it possible for me to cover it on this trip.

My friend Cynthia’s dinner was simply delicious–a single malt whetted my appetite and then we moved to the table for chicken in a white sauce served with brocolli and carrots and boiled potatoes. Cheese and crackers followed and then came pudding: American-style cheesecake served with fresh stewed blueberries and cream. So simple and yet so good! I was so sorry to have missed seeing Cynthia’s sons who, being hotshot lawyers, keep horrific hours–but I certainly thought of them all evening long.

As a lovely claret had flowed all evening, I was well and truly sleepy and ready for my bed. Michael dropped me to the bus stop by 9. 30 and at 10. 15, I was putting the key through the door of my place in St. John’s Wood.

What a wonderful day I had spent–with art and culture, with shops that lent an unexpected buy, with history and finally with some of the best pals for which a gal can ask! I feel truly blessed every time  I am in London.

As I hit my pillow, I found it hard to believe that my week had almost come to an end–just one day left to make the most of …and I intend to do just that.

Until tomorrow, cheerio!