A Christmas Day in London Town

On Christmas Day public transportation shuts down in London – no tube, no buses. Nearly everything you read about visiting London in December warns about this closure and the difficulty of getting about.

So we had a plan – walk from our flat in Notting Hill to Trafalgar Square, and then to join a Charles Dickens walking tour. Our younger son, the trail boss, figured out the route, covering so much of central London with streets and buildings familiar from history and literature.

We opened stockings and ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs by candlelight (dark lingers late and comes early in winter London). Then we set off, the day chilly but sunny, past the shuttered shops of Notting Hill along busy sidewalks. (Closing the tube means all the below ground life suddenly appears street side.)

In Kensington Gardens fellow walkers, families mostly, chattered in many languages, children rode in buggies or skipped along with the international excitement of children on Christmas Day. People strolled, not the Londoner’s usual purposeful stride, past Diana’s Playground, Kensington Palace, the Round Pond, the Albert Memorial.

After Hyde Park, the trail boss pointed a line through the neighborhoods of Mayfair and Belgravia with deserted streets and no people – residents here might spend their holidays at country estates. An armed guard at the fortress-like American embassy managed a smile in reply to a “Merry Christmas” greeting.

Just before reaching Trafalgar Square, we stopped for a hot drink in an open (and very busy) coffee shop. We weren’t the only people fancying a Victorian Dickens tour on Christmas Day – a crowd filled the square, tourists but locals as well.

A few nights before, we’d been to a performance of “A Christmas Carol,” staged in a small theatre just off Piccadilly. On the tour we learned that the theatre was located close by the notorious and miserable blacking factory where Dickens worked as a child, and that he, too, loved to walk in the countryside and in London.

The walk was cold! Like penguins we huddled around the guide who read bits from Dickens novels, standing on streets where Dickens lived, and outside one of the many pubs named for him.

We had arranged for a car to pick us up, and after a long day in the cold on foot (six miles by the sweet bride’s pedometer), the toasty quick ride back over the route we’d walked gave a taste of a whole other way to be in London.

In the tiny kitchen of our flat, we turned our traditional comfort meal festive – spaghetti, Lady Baby style zucchini, salad – and miniature mince pies from Ottolenghi. We ate by candlelight and the warmth of the little gas fireplace.

Then, feeling like true Brits, we watched the Downton Abbey finale on the telly (never mind we hadn’t seen any previous episodes). A memorable Christmas Day.

And I’m wishing you the same – with all your important elements in place!

London route map

What Does A Festive Season Need?

Last December, when we went to London with our younger son and his sweet bride, I thought about my favorite parts of the holiday, wondering if we’d find what I treasure – joy and laughter and love for sure, the cheerful ghosts of Christmas past, and some specifics in the present.

We brought family with us – a critical component, and made a bare bones flat in Notting Hill home base. It was the sweet bride’s first trip to London, Harry Potter and Harrods’ led her list, but by the 21st the fact of Christmas became more pressing.

Friends – a warming Christmas element – were in short supply. We did eat dinner one night with our English friends at their cheery house (ironically, they left the next day for the States to spend their holiday). They gave us a small, bright red poinsettia for the flat’s fireplace mantel.

London provided wintry weather aplenty – rain and wind or clear, cold days – appropriate for the woolen hats and scarves we bought as small gifts to stuff stockings from home, and hung by the fireplace with care.

Solstice night we joined a walking tour to view Christmas lights – Covent Garden and Oxford Street a-twinkle, and giant white snowflakes glittering between the buildings in the tiny lane leading to St. Martin’s Square. Shoppers gathered in front of store windows with Victorian Christmas scenes – the kind that only huge and old-fashioned department stores can offer.

My family later reported spotting that Christmas tradition, “Love Actually,” playing on a big screen in the outdoor part of a pub. I missed it while talking to a fellow walker or I would have returned!

We played Christmas music on a tiny speaker for the iPhones, and heard the live BBC broadcast of the Festival of Carols. (I associate that with early morning on Christmas Eve in Anchorage). And by Christmas Eve, awash with the memories that color the holidays, I wanted to gather food for a feast – even if small.

Dramatic Christmas trees decorate public London – each year the City of Oslo presents the people of London with a huge tree that dominates Trafalgar Square (given in gratitude since 1947, for assistance during World War II), a red velvet tree designed by artists for the Victoria and Albert Museum filled the foyer there, and in Covent Garden’s Piazza giant red balls and white lights covered an enormous tree that stood in a whiskey barrel of startling size.

The bay windows of London townhouses seem designed for Christmas trees, and in our neighborhood one stood out. I opened the gate, snuck inside the tiny front yard, and took a photo. A book tree! Books artfully piled and strung with white lights, broad at the bottom and tapering to a skinny top where an artist’s wooden figure stood with arm raised in good cheer.

We had noticed trees for sale in lots tucked into spaces beside churches and in the entrance areas of big stores. I longed for one in spite of impracticality.

Finally the sweet bride and I cobbled together a tiny tree – evergreen boughs fresh with fragrance from a florist shop tied together with red ribbon, decked with a miniature string of colored lights, and topped by a star cut from shiny paper.

The basics of Christmas magic in place – off to bed!

Workroom Book tree

 

Totally Tudor

Thomas Cromwell grew rich while he ruthlessly tortured and beheaded countless people, and manipulated a king of England. Thomas Cromwell adored his wife and children, took in orphans, fed the poor at his gate, and encouraged the Protestant Reformation. Thomas Cromwell, a large, orange-striped cat, lives peacefully with Wolsey and two canines at Downtown Abbey.

So many Cromwells to fill the mind!

While I painted “Friends for Frances,” I listened to my husband’s Great Courses class: “The History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts” – entertaining lectures presented by Robert Bucholz, a modern historian with a sense of humor, passion and curiosity about the lives of common people, as well as royals.

And then we succumbed to evenings with “The Tudors,” long-form television complete with historical inaccuracies and startling accuracies – brutality (blanket-over-my-eyes scenes), bad medicine, and head lice, buffered by fine costumes of velvet and ermine, jewels and poufy hats.

My Tudor immersion worsened. Having watched “The White Queen” (gateway drug) before “The Tudors”, I grew curious about Philippa Gregory’s many historical novels. Soon in the car a plummy English voice narrated the (romantic) story of “The Other Boleyn Girl.” And I returned to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (so appealing he is), and read again “Wolf Hall.”

We have a lot of fun here talking about the characters and events in this period of history, so drenched in both significance and soap opera, as we ponder which Tudor version might be right (assuming there is a right).

What were Anne and Mary Boleyn really like? How annoying was Thomas More? Did Henry inspire love in his queens, or were they solely pawns manipulated by families and nations for power? Some characters transcend all the iterations – Queen Catherine, unfailingly gracious and devout (sometimes attractive and other times not), Henry, petulant, childish, and corpulent (history), but studly (television). Not to mention the elusive Cromwell.

The television “Tudors” engages the imagination and skill of so many people – actors and the creator Michael Hirst, of course, and people to manage the horses and the digital effects, to keep the bosoms heaving, and the king’s behavior in line. People to check the historical settings – getting the curtseys and the miladys and the food and the dances correct. Cameramen and sound guys, stylists with hair extensions – a zillion people making video magic.

And then there is Mantel, (described in Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent 2012 New Yorker profile ) alone, and thoughtful in her workspace: “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, what if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper — you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

And still she does it, page after page.

Now I’m rereading “Bring Up the Bodies,” second in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy (much pleasure resides in revisiting excellent things in this age of constant new). But eagerly await the third book (“The Mirror and The Light”), though I will be sad to see the end of Mantel’s Cromwell.

Aah, but also – another version of the whole story will appear in 2015, when the BBC presents “Wolf Hall” in a six episode series!

a Tudor rose-1

 

London Days with Lady Baby

Lady Baby - with QB drawing

Two missions shaped our time in London, the first, to support Mrs. Hughes in her exciting endeavor (a five-day course at The Interior Design School), and then to see this favorite city through Lady Baby’s eyes.

Each morning we set out with destination in mind: the London Zoo, the Museum of Childhood (dolls to play with and dress-up clothes), the Princess Diana Memorial Playground (a truly memorable, neverland wonderland of a play space), or a visit to a less familiar part of London and the brand-new House of Illustration with an exhibition about the illustrator Quentin Blake (where the favorite thing was a wheelchair ramp and set of stairs that provided 20 minutes of real aerobic joy with races up steps and down ramp).

Lady Baby - nap with babies

I realize I have used the word favorite several times. As does Lady Baby. She shows you two things, like Baby Boy and Pink Baby, and asks which is your favorite? So I’ve been thinking about our London days in terms of favorites – I’m guessing some of these for her:

Paddingtons – both the station where we arrived from the countryside (announcements on the train brought glee, “She’s saying Paddington!”), and a new, small bear (named Baby Paddington, “because his mama lives at KayTee’s house”).

Vehicles to identify – black London Taxis, red double-decker buses, red mail trucks – and the very favorite – speedy motorcycles passing close by on narrow streets. “That’s a noisy motorcycle!”

Watching people while riding the tube with an endless variety of faces. Learning the litany of tube stops on the Central line: Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park, White City (meaning we were near home).

Lady Baby - Central Line

Pushing the button to signal our bus stop.

Our Bracewell Road flat – “our London house,” a comfortable, multi-leveled North Kensington home with a “playroom” (also known as dining room and living room).

Farm animals and play mat we brought from home that provided much quiet playtime and story telling for Lady Baby and Poppa.

The loaner pink baby doll stroller, and pushing it full of babies in the house or to a playground in a nearby park named Wormwood Scrubs.

The pirate ship and sand and watercourse at Princess Diana’s playground, where Lady Baby followed (and maybe coveted) an empty, blue baby doll buggy pushed through the water stream by a French toddler boy.

Egg salad sandwiches and crisps to share at Pret-a-Manger (the fresh food stops making London quick and easy eating such a pleasure).

Carrot cake as a lunch first course. Combined with big mouthfuls of scrambled egg.

Chips and fish fingers at our local pub in the evening.

An eleven o’clock in the morning performance with music (for three to five-year olds) of Judith Kerr’s book, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” at a real Covent Garden theatre. Lady Baby joined in the audience call: “It’s a tiger!” and stood up to stretch her “tiger paws” when the time came mid-performance.

All the stunning dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum where Lady Baby’s delight and awe proved she is indeed the daughter of Mr. Carson (a longtime dinosaur connoisseur). Excitement built as we rounded a corner to encounter the enormous moving, roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lady Baby: “That’s a big dinosaur!”

Gearing up with child-size purple headphones and Mr. Carson’s iPhone to listen to the “Tiger” soundtrack while we made long tube rides or walks to the bus and tube stops.

But the greatest delight in all of London Lady Baby found in Trafalgar Square, a high-five from a life-size Mickey Mouse whom she’d never encountered before.

And my favorite memory? Perhaps “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” – such a dear book, brought magically to life. Maybe that memory will last for Lady Baby as well, and we can “stretch our tiger paws,” and speak of London days.

Lady Baby - stretch tiger paws

 

 

Longitude

London offers such a concentration of museums, brimming with objects “collected” from all over the world. And all the museums in London are free – sometimes special exhibitions have entry fees, but day in, day out, you can travel the globe with an Oyster Pass (the amazingly convenient plastic card you swipe on a pad at Underground or on a bus to ride).

Much as I love revisiting favorites in London, we discovered someplace new to us but very old, on our Greenwich day. After visiting the Royal Maritime Museum, we climbed a hill rising from green parkland to the Royal Observatory. It’s a beautiful spot, capped by Flamsteed House where a reddish-orange ball on a mast still rises and falls to mark 1 p.m. – as it has every day since 1833, so mariners on ships in the nearby Thames could set their clocks. Modern timekeeping methods make the orange ball obsolete, it rises and falls now for tradition.

The museum inside Flamsteed House is much about time, longitude, and the competition to solve the navigational problem plaguing mariners of old – without accurate charts, ships foundered and many seamen lost their lives, countries lost their ships.

Our younger son and his sweet bride studied an enormous globe, finding Thailand (such a long way and across the International Date Line), and trying to really understand geography and time. Latitude is easier to get, as it was in the past, but figuring longitude, the invisible lines running up and down on our globe is trickier – and vital.

In her book, “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” Dava Sobel says: “The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma – one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.”

To know longitude at sea, one must know the time aboard ship, and the time at a known longitude. Sobel writes: “Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks.”

Sobel’s fascinating book traces the competition and surprisingly underhanded maneuvers involved in finding a method to determine time at sea. She writes about early attempts at solutions, involving the stars, the moon, even the yelps of wounded dogs.

At the museum we saw the work of the creative scientist John Harrison, a “mechanical genius,” who, after devoting his life to the quest, invented “portable precision timekeeping devices” – clocks unaffected by the a ship’s rocking motion. Sobel tells the story of the stubborn, almost malevolent, scientific elite who distrusted his invention – men who refused to accept a new way.

The Observatory is also the site of the Prime Meridian, longitude’s starting point, and the line from which we measure Coordinated Universal Time – sometimes called Greenwich time.

As the wordsmith predicted, it would have been a tourist thrill to stand on the Prime Meridian itself, but we just hovered in the vicinity watching a long line of tourists waiting for their moment to straddle east and west.

Visiting Greenwich provided a day out of time to consider the time before people weren’t so cavalier about being at the same moment, if not the hour, as the rest of the world.

not a chronometer, but-1

“About Time”

I love England (you might have noticed) – the buildings and vistas, the old days and nowadays, the British sense of humor and the British sense of design, the way they use the words of our (sort of) shared common language with so much variety of accent, speed, and colorful expression. (And they write so well.)

Having devoured Downton Abbey in an undisciplined, delighted week (on DVD, a premium from the PBS station here), we then spent a dismal and dark time in crime drama land. I hadn’t realized how such watching affects my everyday outlook until watching “About Time” the other night.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis (who also made “Love Actually”), there is much familiar dithering of male and female leads, the charming and ever wonderful Bill Nighy, beautiful Cornwall scenery with stunning cliff top house, a so cheerful soundtrack. And London – lots and lots of London – a Tube station on the Bakerloo line surely painted anew to be such beautiful shades of green, the girl and boy pass through the station as the buskars play and sing “How Long will I love you.” Time passes and their relationship grows.

It’s a comedy, and it’s sad. The men in the hero’s family can time travel (suspend disbelief here), providing opportunity and complications – plot twists aplenty – romantic love, family love, fathers and sons. A functional, happy and loving, but not boring family.

It’s about how an ordinary life is happy or not – about not wasting the days we have, and posits that it’s not the big things or achievements mattering in the end, but the little everyday happenings we can really influence. Whether we smile or not, take joy or not, whether we value as the hero says at the end about his life, “my ordinary, extraordinary life.”

Happy Heart Day tomorrow – an ordinary, extraordinary day!

Valentine - England (cropped)

Yotam Ottolenghi Dresses My Fridge

The great strength of our London flat was location. From a bus stop at the top of our street, we could ride for five minutes, hop off at Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and be transported to royal London, business London, theatre London.

And just a short walk from our flat, making it easy to bring home boxes of delicious food, we found the famous chef Yotem Ottolenghi’s Notting Hill establishment, on Ledbury Aveue. It’s a tiny skinny place with just one big communal table at the back for eating there, but in the front space, which can’t be more than 10 feet across, huge platters of salads and meats are on offer each day. In a display window on the street, delicious desserts vie for attention.

Thanks to Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, you can do it all at home with your own fresh, seasonal ingredients. I have his book “Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi,” and, most cherished in a recipe book, it’s full of inspiration. (The links here are from his Guardian newspaper recipe column.) Ottolenghi’s meal-making salads combine unexpected ingredients and dressings. The wordsmith recently made “Sweet Winter Slaw”( http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jan/12/recipe.foodanddrink) using green cabbage and substituting kale for savoy cabbage – so good!

I read his recipe “Roasted parsnips and Sweet Potatoes with Caper Vinaigrette” (http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2008/jan/19/weekend7.weekend4) before tackling the motley, approaching antique, vegetables I found in my fridge when we got home. An investigation of the crisper drawer revealed parsnips, turnips, some of which turned out to be very large radishes, and some mature beets. I also had a big sweet potato, several shallots, a garlic bulb, sprigs of rosemary from the garden and thyme from a pot on the porch. Ottolenghi magic transformed this bunch into an amazing winter meal!

His hints about the order and time for roasting make this work. To begin he mixes olive oil, parsnips, red onions in a bowl (I used the shallots and the other vegetables I had). He roasts these (at 350°) for about 20 minutes. Then adds the sweet potato, chopped into wedges to the mixture, and stirs to coat.

After another 40 or 50 minutes, he adds halved cherry tomatoes. (I didn’t have those.)

I had to make substitutions in the dressing – I didn’t have the called for lemon, so squeezed a little tangerine juice into two tablespoons of olive oil, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, capers, and salt. Ottolenghi also calls for roasted sesame seeds.

Lately watching “Downton Abbey,” I think how we certainly don’t dress for dinner. But we should dress the vegetables, giving then a new life out of the drawer, a dressier life. Delicious.

Parsnips with Hats - cropped