London – a city of so many faces

August 4, 2016   ·   0 Comments

Picture this: a large, sumptuous room, pillared with columns topped by carved palm leaves.

White linen on the tables, with fine bone china cups and plates, crystal glasses and silver service of cutlery and tea things. Waiters in morning coats drift smoothly amongst the patrons, carrying stacked trays of delicate sandwiches, scones, tiny silver tubs  of clotted cream and succulent preserves; others hand around incredible pastries, some filled with whipped cream, delicate fruits and chocolate or thick custard.

The room is festooned with gilded trellis and statues, gilded too, enhance a stone fountain. It is, quite simply, fabulous. On the air, the music of a harp or string quartet embellish the ambiance of the whole.

The meal one enjoys in this exulted place of luxury is afternoon tea, a tradition going back many centuries in Britain and reaching a pinnacle of excellence in the famous Palm Court at the Ritz on Piccadilly in London.

As might be expected, there is a dress code. Leave your sweats and runners in your baggage and come dressed to fit the situation, jacket and tie for the gentlemen and ladies – feel free to overdress. Such fun.

Outside this oasis of calm and elegance is Piccadilly the name of one of the main roads that runs into Piccadilly Circus , where, so it said, if one were to stand long enough, one meet every person one ever knew. Perhaps, not so much now but, still a hub of international status, busy all the time with an eternal ebb and flow of very mixed humanity. To perhaps paraphrase the old saying: stand but a little while in Piccadilly Circus and you will see someone from everywhere.

It is a complete blend of all that a city is right in this small corner of the world, with five very famous streets running off like a tremendous spiral. No matter how you wander, revelations abound – the theatres – this is the West End of London, the most central part of it – where every actor longs to perform and aficionados of the theatre long to attend the productions starring those great performers.

Off on another direction is the Berwick Street Market, with every type of fruit and vegetable you could wish for – but don’t touch them! These are not self serve stalls: make your request  to the vendor who will be (more or less) happy to serve you – listen to the music of their voices and their calls to buy : in the rain: “Don’t worry about the weath-ah, so long as we’re all togeth-ah!”

From Piccadilly Circus, you can stroll down to Leister Square, shops, cinema, night clubs. Take your time; London is very much a walking city in which getting lost is more than half the fun. You have a language in common with most of the people who live there. Some will not have time ot speak to you – like any city – others will surprise you with how friendly they can be.

While the “underground” or the “Tube” is probably a quicker way to get around, the buses are more fun and much more interesting, with the fabulous views of this great city out every window. Climb the steps of any double decker bus and enjoy the real joy of the front seats looming over the traffic ahead of the bus.

What about the other side of London, the east end – east to The Angel, Islington and Camden Passage, world famous antique market. Busy but not the same furore as in Piccadilly, filled with charming cafes and antiques shops, often an opportunity to buy something quite different and for a reasonable price.

Now, to a whole new neighbourhood and a whole new eating experience.

Picture this: stand in a cafe (pronounced caf in Britain), a Pie and Mash shop, where you are going to purchase meat pie, mashed potatoes and jellied eel with the “liquor” produced by the cooking of the jellied eel. This is a cockney dish dating back centuries and the M. Menze family have been in the business since 1902, established by the grandfather of the present owner.

Using the original recipes (updating to comply with modern standards), the dish is cheap and very nourishing.

In a brief conversation with our Cockney pal in London, earlier today, he assured us that the “eels are live at the shop before cooking and everything is prepared as ordered.” Naturally, most cultures eat eels cooked one way or another and this is the traditional British version.

There is a Mense Pie and Mash Shop on Tower Bridge Road but also in Peckham, at 105 Peckham High Street, an older neighbourhood. Bit of a trip but worth it for an encounter with the real London.

London is a city of villages, each with its own distinct character. People who live in London for a long time tend to stay in the same neighbourhood, even if they change accommodation. It is an endlessly fascinating place which deserves your time and your curiosity,  your thirst for adventure.

Stay longer than you intended and give yourself the luxury of travelling some of its breadth and width. There is a great deal more to London than what is in the tour books.

Indulge yourself.

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