Thursday, September 30, 2010


Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest, Hour by Lynne Olson

A few months ago I was having dinner and discussing books with friends in Washington, DC.  One of my friends urged me to read Citizens of London, written by Lynne Olson.  I always admire writers who can take a serious, complicated subject and make it a page-turner.  Olson is one of those writers. This book is so well-researched and well-written that it is a joy to read.

John Gilbert Winant, Edward R. Murrow, and Averell Harriman are three Americans who expedited the entrance of the US into helping Great Britain fight Hitler. This despite President Franklin Roosevelt's reluctance to enter the war at all.  These three men understood that we had to come to the aid of Britain and stop Hitler.

Olson paints a vivid picture of life in London.  The relentless air raids, the shortage of basic foods, the terror of hearing the buzzing of an incoming bomb and not knowing where it would land. But even after night after night of attacks, Londoners would still pick themselves up and start the day with their regular routine whether it would be going to work or school.  Sometimes it would take hours to get to work because of streets blocked by crumbled buildings.  But they wouldn't use the war as an excuse to stop being productive.

Of course, Winston Churchill plays a very big role in this book and that's always a treat for me. And there is a bit of fun gossip about the likes of Pamela Harriman and others.

This book was even more interesting as I was in London for a few days while reading this book.  I would notice names of streets as places Murrow had lived or notice a plaque on a church noting the effects of a bombing attack. Touring the Churchill Museum and reviewing news clips or walking through the Churchill War Rooms noting where staff slept became more meaningful.  Reading this book at the same time of my visit was more than educational.  It personalized history for me.

Now I'm interested in reading another book by Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

LONDON 2010 - Part 3

First, let me say that I had no intention of three separate posts of my five days in London.  But after pouring over photos and reviewing my travel journal notes, I was too bleary-eyed to keep it to two.  So forgive me if you think I've been going on too long about London.  But, boy do I love that city.

Our last day in London started with a visit to the British Library.  That's me above reading on my Kindle.  I liked the comparison of reading my ebook in such a stately, traditional library.

It's been a few years since I stopped by the British Library.  It isn't your typical "let's check-out a book from the library" place as it also houses some incredible rare historic works.  Documents such as the Magna Carta, printed Shakespeare texts called quartos which are the closest prints to his time, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, original texts written in Jane Austen's own hand, and much more are housed in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery (entrance seen above on the right side).

After perusing the gallery and visiting old favorites, we took off to see a new sight for both of us, Highgate Cemetery.  Why, you may ask, did Leslie and I visit an old cemetery and how did we hear about it? I had read about it in a few books and blogs. And since at one time it was one of London's most fashionable burial places, well then, we just had to take a peak.

The Highgate Cemetery is located appropriately in the little village of Highgate and we traveled there by train and a brief bus ride.  We then walked through pretty Waterlow Park that leads to the cemetery.

A fun little structure near Highgate Cemetery.  You never know when you are going to see an interesting building tucked away somewhere.

This is the gate to exit the park on the way to the cemetary--fitting, isn't it?

Entrance to Highgate Cemetary.  Nothing here is done half-way.  It is full-on-over-the-top memorials.  The cemetery is divided into two sections, the East cemetery (more notables buried here), and the West cemetery (larger architectural structures). We chose the latter to visit (so now we have an excuse to come back to visit the East side).

Here is our very informative tour guide.  You must take a guided tour if you want to visit the West cemetery. This gentleman is one of the original founders of Friends of Highgate Cemetery.  So thanks to him and other like-minded folks, this cemetery was saved and brought back (really can't say "to life", can I?) from almost ruins.

You can see this is a classic Victorian cemetery.  It reached its heyday in the early 1900's and then started to decline right after World War I until there was no money left to maintain the grounds by 1975.  That is when a group of energetic villagers got together to save and restore the place. It is privately funded and does not receive government funding (yea!).

The walkway above was probably the smoothest but most are uneven and steep. You really can't go off the path given the undergrowth and hidden bits of broken memorial pieces.

Leslie seems to be related to all of the important people in England.  Her ancestor is a Talbot (more about that in my Oxford post soon to come) and that name pops-up everywhere.  She may be entitled to be buried here, although I'm doubtful she wants to join her clan in the above catacomb.

There is something about these elaborate monuments and headstones that let people know, "Hey, pay attention because someone important is buried here!", rather than the flat to the ground grave markers we have back home.  Seeing all these customized memorials made me start to think about what I would like to mark my resting place.  Good news:  I've narrowed it down to two (won't my family be thrilled about spending the money on one of these toppers?).

I am torn between these two beauties to grace my future plot.  One the one hand, I love the figure in repose.  Graceful, elegant even while sleeping.

On the other hand, I would love to have this angel fully on guard and looking out for my benefit.  Hmmm, which one to choose.

This one is so pretty for two people lying side by side.  My Mom and Dad would have appreciated this one.  Believe me, I could post twenty more photos but I think we've had enough.

It occurred to me I hadn't posted a photo of the classic red British telephone booth, so here it is.

And, yes, I know this is random, but it made both of us laugh out loud.  I mean really, the hog is only going to be jolly for so long.

You didn't think we would go to London and not visit Fortnum and Mason, did you?

There is something more formal about Fortnum and Mason that precludes me from pulling out my camera and snapping away.  Isn't that blue gorgeous? I think I actually like the Fortnum and Mason blue better than the Tiffany blue, how about you?

Joy of joys, since I talked about Liberty so much Leslie wanted to pop-in, so I got to pay another visit.

Another pretty display.

The London Eye, we didn't ride it this time, but it's worth doing at least once.

Florence Nightingale--a heroine of mine.  Standing patiently in the middle of a quiet intersection.

A new fun piece in Trafalgar Square, "Nelson's Ship in a Bottle", added earlier this year.

So, tired yet? After traipsing around the cemetery, shopping and such, we were in need of Happy Hour back at our room.  Oddly, this combination of English Toffee Peanuts, Sea Salt and Vinegar Crisps, and these two drinks, hit the spot.  Sweet and salty.  All purchased at a favorite little snack shop, Pret a Manger.

We had a relaxing dinner at Sandy's Corsican Pizza, a brand new restaurant around the corner from our hotel.  Not sure how Corsican pizza is different from Italian pizza, but it was good.

So, cheers to London and onward to Oxford!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

LONDON 2010 - PART 2

We spent most of the day separately.  Leslie and I had planned to spend Friday each doing what we wanted in London and would meet up at the end of the day.  She needed to stop by the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre for a little business and then head to the Kew Gardens.  Of course, the one day we split is the day she meets the British actor, Hugh Bonneville.  Click here to read Leslie's story.

That same day was also the day London introduced its new cycling program (or scheme, as they like to call it).  In partnership with Barclays, London is trying to alleviate the crazy traffic issues by providing bike stations throughout the City.  This is similar to the Velib bikes in Paris.  Basically, you pay an annual membership fee, pick-up a bike at a station located throughout the city, ride it to the station closest  to your destination, and drop off the bike.

During the day, I passed by six bike stations, so it would have worked great for me on my walking route.  However, I would need nerves of steel to ride a bike in London.  There are no designated bike lanes, and I cannot emphasize enough how congested traffic is in London.  But my hat's off to those hardy souls who brave riding a bike in London.

So, follow me as I spend some time wandering around London stopping by new and old favorites. First, we will tube it to Persephone Books which is not far from the British Museum.  Persephone Books is a small publishing company, but wait, let's read their description:

"Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. We sell mainly through mail order, through selected shops and we have our own shop."

For me, this is one of those, "Why didn't I think of that?", businesses.  I love the concept and I love the style in which they execute their business plan.

This is the cute street in which they are housed--Lambs Conduit Street.

And this is cute Miranda (check out her darling blog) who helped me select SIX books (yes, I shipped them home).  One of the books was for Leslie who instructed me to purchase, "a happy, happy book with a happy ending".  Miranda was super helpful in filling that order. Which, by the way, the book selected was Mariana by Monica Dickens (Charles' daughter) and Leslie was very happy. In fact, you can read her review here.

So after a spending time browsing through this darling shop, I bid adieu and walked toward the British Museum. But of course, since this is London, there are lots of fun sights along the way.

I wonder if anyone has stopped to count or to take pictures of all the pretty fountains in London (hmmm, maybe I should do that?).  This is one of a woman pouring water from an urn.  Her face is blackened so it was hard to capture a good picture but the look on her face matched my mood--to be content in the moment.

Don't know if this building is filled with office space, residential apartments, or a mix.  But the color of the stone is stunning.

Isn't it great that there is such a thing as the UK Tea Council?

Because it is such a pretty day, we are going to keep walking right past the tube station and revel in our surroundings. We will be rewarded.

See, it didn't take long to come upon something beautiful and mysterious.  Where do these gates lead?

Just look at this gate. If we were in a tube we would have missed it!  I asked someone if this was some type of royal residence but was told no, just the gate to an apartment building.  My word, it is beautiful. Just entering those gates would reduce the stress of the day.

It's time for a break and with all of the steps and half-walls surrounding the British Museum, this is a perfect place to relax and do some people-watching (and to drink a luke-warm Diet Coke, me: Is it cold? vendor: of course, Miss).

Just around the corner from the British Museum is my favorite art gallery, Abbott and Holder. Several years ago I purchased from them two faded 18th Century water colors drawn by a French furniture shop.  My sister, Lori, purchased a few more, and since then I've regretted not purchasing the remainder of the lot.

So, of course, a stop at this little gem was a must.

I plowed through three floors of lots and lots of stacked water colors, prints, etc.  Nothing.  But then Phillip, the manager, said he thought he had a few tucked away.  I came.  I looked.  I bought.  Five.  Happy, happy.

After leaving Abbott and Holder I noticed the Robert Kime shop down the road.  Notice the Royal Warrant logo on the upper left side of his sign. That means he has supplied goods and services to the Queen for at least five years.  His fabrics would suit my home beautifully. Alas, I couldn't afford a pillow in his shop. But it's always fun to take a peak.

Interesting statue.  Wouldn't work well in my home.

I love this ottoman.  It would be perfect in my family room, don't you think?  Sitting on top of that same rug, of course. The ottoman was over 2,000 GBP meaning around $3,000 USD.  In other words, not in my home nor on its way to me.

After walking a few more blocks, I succumbed and took the tube to Oxford Circus (the absolute craziest tube station in London).  But we are greatly rewarded as we exit the station, turn the corner, and there in all her glory is Liberty (not the statue, the famous London department store). Let's have a moment of silence.

Greeting us as we enter are bunches and bunches of the most romantic, welcoming, and heart-lifting flowers.  In fact, the word "flower" does not do these pretties any justice.

I explored each one of the floors thoroughly taking my time and enjoying my surroundings.

Pillows galore.

Lamp shades galore.

Fabrics galore.

And this good looking bunch. 

By now it is 2:30 and we're ready for a little sustenance. How considerate to have a tea room and a cafe all under one roof.  I opted for Liberty Cafe since i needed more than tea and scones.  Wish I had a photo of that room with me seated upon a  cushion surrounded by down-filled pillows, sipping my soup and drinking a cold soda with ice cubes (more than three floating on the top).  Heaven.

Well, it's now time to start making our way back to the hotel to meet up with Leslie. But first, a walk through the park.

London has so many pretty parks that dot the city.  Look on any London map and you will see roads laid out like cooked noodles but you will also see lots of green space tucked through out.  What a treat to find something gorgeous to look at just when you need a little time out after walking, shopping, walking, and shopping.

Leslie and I met up for a quick dinner at Wagamama and then hightailed it over to the National Gallery of Art for its Talk and Draw class.  We missed the first few minutes of the lecture but spent 30 minutes quickly sketching the painting we observed.  Thankfully, neither of us took any pictures of our artwork so there is no proof of our skill level.

Next up:  London Part 3 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

LONDON 2010, Part 1

Rules Restaurant--welcome to London! I booked dinner reservations at Rules Restaurant for our first night in London. It feels so veddy, veddy, British that it was really the only choice for our first night in London.

My absolute favorite dessert on earth, Sticky Toffee Pudding. What you're looking at is dense spice cake, smothered in toffee sauce, with a bit of custard and, as if needed, a scoop of clotted cream.  Hmmm, now you know why it's my favorite dessert and why I only have it once in a blue moon.

After dinner, we cabbed it to the Tower of London for the 10:00 pm Ceremony of the Keys.  Leslie (always thinking waaaay ahead,) had secured tickets months in advance. This is the traditional locking up of the Tower and has been done every night for 700 years.  Instead of, "Halt, who goes there", they actually say, "Halt, who comes here".  It is all very dramatic and the guests (us) are very quiet and almost reverent. It's all over by 10:15 (and that includes questions with the guards).  It is great fun and worth doing.

We stayed at a new hotel (new to me) in a neighborhood I wasn't that familiar with.  The Sumner Hotel in the Marble Arch area was just right for us.  It is a 5 minute walk from the Marble Arch tube station which is a convenient line to be home-based.

It was refreshing to see a more modern approach to a typical London row house--not a cabbage rose in sight.

The sitting room was filled with the usual travel guides (all current) and local magazines. Soothing sage greens and silver with a pop of red made this room sing.

This was a pretty pass-through area between the sitting room and front desk.  Love the silvers and blues.

Good sized room for London--we had plenty of space. I always request a room away from the street so our room was very quiet.

Love the Oyster card! This card provided us with unlimited tube rides for 5 days. Leslie figured this would pay for itself pretty quick and she was right.  We bought the 5 day card for around 25 pounds and probably broke even by the third day.  That even included the times (at the end of the day) when we were spent and turned our noses up at the tube and hopped in a lovely London cab.

Sometimes there are two depths of escalators to take you out of the underground.  Believe me, I try not to think too much about just how deep below the street we are.

First stop Thursday morning--Grace Kelly. The wonderful V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum) has some of the most interesting exhibits.  I've been to an exhibit of tiaras, beds, and wood carvings (Grinling Gibbons), and now the Grace Kelly exhibit.  Her clothes, handbags (even the famous Hermes Kelly bag), shoes, gloves and hats were all displayed with a few news reels running on screens. My Mom would have loved it.

The only thing missing (from my point of view) was her wedding dress. Apparently that is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

I may be the only person who has been to London almost a dozen times without having stepped foot into the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, but not anymore.  Leslie had hoped to have her photo taken with her favorite Bollywood actor, however, said actor had been shipped off to the Hollywood branch of Madame Tussauds.  Rotten luck (I'm guessing she will be sneaking off to LA any day now).   But, happily I had my picture taken with one of my favorite world leaders, Lady Margaret Thatcher.  Although I've met her in person I didn't have a photo taken with her so this was great fun.

The Royal Mews
 The nicest horse stables I've ever seen.  The Queen takes the care and feeding of her horses seriously.  And since she was on holiday, so were they.

The Churchill War Rooms

This is one of my favorite places to visit--formerly known as the Cabinet War Rooms, the Churchill War Rooms take you underground (there seems to be a lot of underground action in London) to view Churchill's secret headquarters during World War II.  The Cabinet War Rooms, offices, and minuscule sleeping rooms are all on view.  The war staff were provided rooms to overnight that were further below ground than the command center (reached by a narrow and steep gray metal ladder).   Those sleeping areas were shared with rats and rotten smells leaving some staff to say, "I'll take my chances with the air raids and head home for the night."  Just looking down the ladder made me think the same thing.

New for me was the Churchill Museum which included an interactive exhibit of daily news and photos from every year of Churchill's life.  This museum is top rated and should be on your list of must-sees when you cross the pond.

Continuing with the World Ward II theme, this is St. Jame's Church, one of 9 Christopher Wren churches bombed during the Blitz. Famed architect, Christopher Wren, had designed and built over 50 churches after the Great Fire of London in 1666 (including St. Paul's Cathedral). I'm looking for a good biography on Wren so if you know of one, do tell.

This, my darlings, is just two days of our time in London.  Next up: London, Part 2