It was a fine sunny day as we left the Amsterdamsters behind after a taste of what is possibly the world’s most progressive city.
Again we were on a fast and comfortable train, watching fields, and cows, and cities go by just outside our window.
We changed to the EuroStar in Brussels for our trip through the Channel Tunnel. The entrance to the ‘Chunnel’ is well-fenced and guarded, maybe to avoid another case similar to the fellow who walked through the tunnel all the way to England a few years back.
The almost-black picture is the view we had for about 20 minutes as we slipped beneath the cold waters of the English Channel (called La Manche by the French), and into the Kentish countryside. And soon we were in London’s St Pancras station, buying Oyster Cards in the Underground for several days in London. They’re very easy to use, like Clipper cards in the Bay Area.
We were headed to Ilford. On our last trip to London we also stayed in Ilford, located in the working class east end of London. We mentioned it to a Brit friend of ours and he said, “You mean Guilford, right?” We said, “No, Ilford.” “Why do you stay in Ilford?” he asked, incredulously.
Well, it seems to be the only part of London with reasonably priced lodging these days, and there’s easy access to The City by train and Underground.
On emerging from the station, one of our first sights is The Punjab National Bank. There’s a Romanian food market nearby, plus Greek, East Indian, Polish, Asian, and other restaurants. Groups of Hassidic Jews walk by wearing black clothes and hats, and white shirts. Sikh turbans and Muslim hijabs and taqiyahs are common.
We’re staying in a small hotel-converted-house called the Rosalee, run by Romanians and Hungarians. And nearby is a good pub called “The Great Spoon of Ilford,” part of the Wetherspoon chain. Ilford is easily the most ethnically diverse place I’ve ever been. One might ask, “Why visit the world? Just visit Ilford.”
On our first night back we went Full British, and shared a plate of fish and chips with two hoppy pints at The Great Spoon of Ilford. We recalled my encounter with a barmaid there on an earlier trip. At pubs you pick a table first, and then place your order and pay at the bar. On my earlier visit I made several futile attempts at communication with the barmaid who spoke in an indecipherable East London accent; I finally had to grab a menu and point at our selection. Then I held out my hand with money in it for her to choose from. Reminded me of fifty years ago in Mexico, when my Spanish was lacking. But the food and ale were great!
There’s so much to do in London – even if you avoid the big tourist attractions. We took the Underground to the Baker St station for a walk around. Crowds were lined up on Baker St for the Beatles Museum and the Sherlock Holmes Museum; they’re on the same block.
We’d been to them before (and I almost bought a ‘Bowler Hat!’), but we were looking for some outside time. Regent’s Park is a large grassy and woodsy open space with a big lake and sports fields in the middle. Plenty of space for a nice walk. We passed an odd little monument given by a group of Parsees in 1869 to their colonial masters. Sometimes a bit of boot-licking can be helpful; who am I to judge? Notable members of this ancient group of Persian religious refugees in India have included the wealthy Tata industrial family, and the rock star, Freddie Mercury.
Then it was back into the streets for more curious sights reflecting the long history of this place, plus a nutritious snack of lemonades and chips at The Smugglers Tavern. And have you ever seen an odd little thing called a Nissan Figaro before? Yeah, me neither.
Our wanderings soon brought us to bouquets placed by a fence at Russell Square – including one from the American Women’s Club of London. Just around the corner, a gentleman with a collection of protest signs told us the flowers were at the site of that recent attack on an American tourist by a deranged knife-wielding man. It was a sobering moment to stand there and consider how quickly a thing like that can happen – anywhere in the world. Her killer injured several others, but Britain’s rational gun laws prevented him from killing scores of people.
The streets of London offer a magnificent wander through deep history. We press onward past so many fine buildings, and numerous crowded pubs with after-work clients spilling onto the sidewalk in front. We were actually heading to the Covent Garden area, looking for the legendary blues club known as Ronnie Scott’s, but as night fell upon the city it was time for a meat pie and a pint of ale before the show. We found an interesting pub called the Dog & Duck and settled in for a hearty dinner at a table overlooking the street below.
From the Dog & Duck it was a short walk to Ronnie Scott’s to hear a good jazz combo at the upstairs bar. This club has seen almost every major jazz player for the past 50 years, and tickets can be pricey. But we arrived on an off-night and admission was free. We were early so we got decent seats, but the stand-up crowd on the floor soon blocked our view.
It was a fine evening anyway, the music was excellent, and we stayed as late as we could without missing the train back to Ilford.
And so another day brings another wander – but this time with a purpose. When I was young, my grandfather said we had a somewhat notorious ancestor who had actually been Lord Mayor of London long ago. That got a skeptical “Yeah, right.” from me and my siblings. Much later I looked the guy up, and grandpa was right!
His name was John Wilkes (nothing to do with John Wilkes Booth), and he was well-known in London in the late 1700s. He was a thorn in the side of King George III, who was trying to deal with some rebellious colonies, and he was tossed out of Parliament a few times. We had to go find this guy.
We headed for The City, as they call the old core area of modern London, passing plenty of charming oddities along the way. And finally we reached the Mansion House, where Lord Mayors hang out. I mentioned our quest to a guard who told me we’d arrived after closing time, and there wasn’t any ‘wall of portraits’ or anything like that here. But maybe they could help us at the nearby Archives building.
The Lord Mayor is a symbolic post – not to be confused with the actual Mayor of London. And each appointment only lasts one year. So there have been lots of them over the past few centuries. Wilkes was Lord Mayor in 1774.
And the deeper I dig for references to Wilkes, the more of an amusing scoundrel he becomes. He was ugly and cross-eyed, and champion of a free press, among other things. He was known for his swiftness of tongue: when the Earl of Sandwich said he’d someday either die of the pox or on the gallows, Wilkes quickly replied: “That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.”
The writer Hogarth even drew an ugly caricature of Wilkes with his wig formed into horns, and described him as, “Capable of a degree of abuse for which licentious seems too mild a term.”
Here’s an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
A profligate by nature, Wilkes became a member of the congenial society of the “Medmenham Monks,” members of the so-called Hell-Fire Club who met occasionally in the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire, to indulge in debauchery and the performance of Black Masses. In 1754, at the suggestion of Earl Temple, Wilkes stood for election to Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed—unsuccessfully, despite his bribing a captain to land a shipload of opposition voters from London in Norway instead of at Berwick. In 1757, after an election campaign said to have cost him £7,000, much of it in bribes to voters, he was returned to Parliament for Aylesbury. Recklessly overspending, and ever deeper in debt, he hoped to retrieve his fortunes by political advancement.
Today a statue of Wilkes stands at a quiet corner on Fetter Lane, where it intersects New Fetter Lane. It’s near Fleet Street, just around the corner from Dr Johnson’s House.
For more on this happy scoundrel: John-Wilkes.
We make a trip to the National Portrait Gallery for a fascinated tour by art through British history. Greeting us at the stairway is a huge portrait entitled “Mike’s Brother” by Sam Walsh. The subject is recognizable.
We read the labels on the others to figure out who they are and why they’re in this place. And a very rough understanding of Britain’s long and complex history seems to emerge from the chaos. But we’re just as impressed by the quality of the work rendered by such a large number of talented artists. It’s easy to spend a day in this building.
Carolyn even looks up Wilkes in the online archives and there he is, cross-eyed and all.
A night in the Theatre District near Covent Garden seems a good way to end our time in London before moving onward. London is known world-wide for its theatre performances; and there are plenty to choose from, depending on your budget and your interests. We’re intrigued by posters for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” and manage to buy some affordable seats.
The beautiful Gielgud Theatre, starting with drinks, is a fine way to spend the evening. And the play, about a young man with Aspergers, is compelling. The story and the acting dragged us quickly into the world of this young man and its impact on those around him. It’s a condition that dominates the lives of family members, teachers, councilors and anyone else who’s involved.
It’s been an interesting week in London, but it’s time to move on again. This time, to a quaint little place filled with scholars and Nobel Prize laureates, and even a few pubs. We’re heading to Cambridge. — PRW