Exploring London

Last week, I visited the World Heritage Site of Greenwich. I particularly wanted to see the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College, built by John Webb, a pupil of Christopher Wren. It was once the Royal Naval Hospital, the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers, the Chelsea Pensioners, and the building I had come to see had been designed as a magnificent communal dining-room for retired sailors.

Old Royal Naval College. The Painted Hall is on the left 

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This year, the Buckingham Palace State Rooms’ summer opening to the public has Royal Gifts as their theme. These are gifts that have been given to The Queen during her reign as part of the State Visits’ formal exchange of gifts. It is an opportunity for both countries to showcase their countries’ craftsmanship as well as to give something which they think the recipient will appreciate.

It is like entering in Aladdin’s cave. One of the most spectacular gifts is the ornate gold presentation tray from Ethiopia. Its inscription reads:

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Last Tuesday, I was invited to the Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Royal Mews. I particularly wanted to see the Gold State Coach, the one used at the Queen’s coronation. I’d seen it a number of times on television, of course, but I’d never seen it for real. My first impression was that it was enormous – which it is at 7.3 metres long, 2.5 meters wide and 3.9 metres high. It lives in the State Coach House and it’s quite a business to get it out when it’s required. First of all, they have to remove a false wall and a window; then everything that can be, must be got out of the way; and only after that can it be turned the necessary 90 degrees and pointed at the now-revealed door – and that alone takes two and a half days.

The Gold State Coach: it’s so big I can’t get it all in the photo

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Visiting the Musical Museum near Kew Bridge last week was huge fun and it’s something I thoroughly recommend. So what’s it about? It comprises a large collection of 19th – early 20th century self-playing musical instruments and (and this is the fun bit) most of them still work. I went on a group tour, guided by the wonderful Roy Huddlestone – now eighty-six and looking twenty years younger – who not only knows the various instruments and their stories inside out but also demonstrates them, to thrilling effect. Until you’ve heard the Popper ‘Clarabella’ Orchestrion, which, in its 1910 heyday thrilled customers in a German Bier Garten, complete with flashing lights and lit up ornamental waterfall, not to mention a bronze statue of the Pied Piper, belting out popular tunes fortissimo with full orchestral piano, xylophone, Glockenspiel, drums, cymbals and triangle, you ain’t lived.

Orchestrion from the front

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No matter how frazzled I’m feeling, a visit to Kew Gardens with a friend always sorts me out. It’s impossible to feel anything but a sort of peaceful joy when faced with trees in their new spring green, the bluebell woods, tree reflections in the lakes, and the variety of colours of the flowers in the Broad Walk. So, if you, too, feel in need of some soothing nature, here is what you can see in Kew Gardens in early May.

The bluebell woods

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Every other Sunday, Leonard’s Shoe Repairs and Dry Cleaners, 22 Chapel Market, Islington, undergoes a transformation. A banner appears over the shop fascia board saying TOM KILGALLON LONDON. Inside, the counter has disappeared, and the shop has turned into a high end Pop Up shoe shop.

Tom Kilgallon’s fortnightly Sunday pop-up shop

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A few days ago, I was leafing through an old scrapbook that belonged to my great-grand-father. He was obviously interested in current affairs and what was going on in the world, and the scrapbook is full of cuttings from periodicals like The Illustrated London News. (There are at least half a dozen cuttings about Brunel’s famous Great Eastern, for example.)

The page from my great-grandfather’s Scrap Book which caught my eye.

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Last week, I had the good fortune to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, founded in 1570, and in Whitechapel Road since 1738. Now, nearly 450 years later, it was to close, and our tour was the very last one. Mr Alan Hughes, the owner, whose family had been there since 1904, and who was born there, was our guide.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry with the ochre shutters

It was the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that cast the 13½ ton hour bell, Big Ben, for the Palace of Westminster in 1858. It also replaced a number of famous church bells lost in the London Blitz, including the ‘great bell at Bow’, as the Nursery Rhyme has it, and the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ bells at St Clement Danes. Whitechapel bells are found in countries as far apart as Australia, South Africa and America.

The foundry’s small back yard. Note the lead water tank, dated 1670, from the original Artichoke Inn, now a planter under the window

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When I first knew the space which is now Culpeper Community Garden in London, it was an unloved bit of waste land, created thanks to the Luftwaffe dropping their left-over bombs on it after raids bombing the Kings’ Cross area. Rosebay willow herb grew there among the remains of bomb craters and bits of brick.

View of Culpeper Community Garden entrance from south. The weeping willow has just come into leaf

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Today, I’m taking a walk along the Regent’s Canal from the Angel, Islington, to the Kingsland Basin, en route to the London Docks.

Backs of Noel Road houses seen from the opposite side of the canal

Looking down on the canal from the bridge above Islington Tunnel, I can see the backs of the houses in Noel Road. In the 1960s the whole area was run down, derelict and renting was cheap. One of the area’s claims to fame – or notoriety – was the playwright, Joe Orton, who lived at 25 Noel Road, was murdered here by his lover, Keith Halliwell in 1965.

Islington Tunnel, opened 1820

I come down onto the towpath by Islington Tunnel and the view instantly opens out onto the City Road Lock. You can see the lockkeeper’s cottage hiding behind a willow. The temperature is barely above freezing but it’s already starting to green up.

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