Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Postman's Park - get Closer

A hop and a skip from the bustle of St Paul's is a tranquil little park next to the General Post Office, built in 1880 for their staff. Philatelists may be interested in the statue of Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the postage stamp, but of a more general appeal is the intriguing and beautiful glazed tile memorial inside the park. The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice was set up in 1900 by the painter George Frederick Watts to commemorate unsung heroes, often young people or children, who gave their lives to save others.

The loftily dramatic Victorian language may make the stonier-hearted amongst you (and me, to my eternal shame) feel an initial twinge of dark humour: 'Sarah Smith, Pantomime artiste at Price's theatre - died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion.'

Read on, though, and I defy you to remain unmoved. If nothing else, you are transported back to a time when Herberts, Harolds, Ellens and Georges, stationer's clerks, schoolboys and passers-by, unselfishly went to the rescue of those in distress.

The park had a brief moment of celluloid stardom in 2004 when a film was made of the Patrick Marber play Closer; early in the film, Jude Law and Natalie Portman's characters walk in the park and she subsequently assumes the name Alice Ayres.

I like to think that the memorial has achieved its aim; that Watts, who believed so strongly that 'the national prosperity of a Nation is not an abiding possession, the deeds of its people are' that he set the memorial up himself when he was refused support from the government, has given us a reminder of ordinary, everyday heroes and a renewed faith in our fellow man.

No man is an island - even in London.

Yours, optimistically,

Girl About Town xx

Friday, 27 July 2012

Traditional Sunday lunch - with a twist

If you're a frugal foodie feeling like a change, why not go for a traditional Sunday lunch Cantonese-style? Dim sum is a tapas-esque selection of small dishes either chosen from a selection wheeled round on trolleys or ordered from a menu, and is available in most Chinatown restaurants daily until late afternoon. My personal favourite is Lido - just look for the blue awning near the end of Gerrard Street.


Ask for the dim sum menu and don't panic about the Chinese-only tick sheet - the separate menu has corresponding numbers with both pictures and English descriptions. Simply find the number of the dish you like on the tick sheet and write how many you want (usually one) in the brackets. (Don't include the menu in your Facebook check-in pic and everyone will wonder how you managed it!)

 We tend to order seven dishes between two people, but I may well be greedier than you: for dim sum virgins, may I suggest a selection from the following:

Har gau* - called 'dumplings' but actually prawns steamed in a light translucent wrapper a bit like very thin pasta. Served in a steamer, these will be HOT so be careful - but then don't leave them too long, they are best eaten as fresh as possible. I like mine dipped in a dash of chilli oil, but soy sauce or just as they are is fine.

Siu mai - again, steamed 'dumplings' this time wonton wrappers filled with minced pork and prawns, open at the top.

Cha siu bao - steamed savoury buns filled with Chinese barbecued pork. Light, fluffy and delicious, but very filling!

Cheong fun - flat rice noodle wrapped around a filling of your choice, a little like slithery cannelloni. I'm a seafood girl, so I normally go for the prawn ones, but that's me.

Spring rolls - prawn and yam, or Vietnamese for a change.

Steamed glutinous rice in lotus leaves - this looks very exotic! A little package of sticky rice filled with mixed meats and Chinese sausage, all parcelled up in lotus leaves and steamed. Simply unwrap and enjoy (and don't eat the leaves!).

Turnip paste - yes I know it sounds very Baldrick, but it's actually made with daikon, a Chinese radish/turnip, and finely-chopped meat, cut into slabs and fried - kind of like a very mildly-flavoured Cantonese bubble and squeak, with a comforting texture. Do consider it - I am addicted to it dunked in fiery chilli sauce, I know not why.

Noodles - I'm a big fan of the flat, wide Ho Fun rice noodles with beef, stir-fried dry or with sauce, but these are fairly self-explanatory so take your pick. This will be a big portion, a meal in itself!

To finish - I love the little bite-sized custard tarts, but the coconut pudding is also good.

Some words to the wise. Don't wait for everything to arrive before starting; dishes will be brought to your table as and when they are freshly-prepared by the chefs, so just dig in and make room for the next set of plates and bamboo steamers to appear. Given this, remember the staff will be visiting every table at least five or six times so don't expect them to hang around and smile and shoot the breeze - they are lovely people and the service will be very efficient but you're not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Traditionally dim sum is served with Chinese tea; if you plump for this option, refills are free and you will probably pay around £15 a head or less, depending on your dim sum choices. If you've over-ordered, just ask for some take-away boxes and there's your midnight TV snack sorted.

* PS: the English spelling of these dishes varies, so I have opted for the most common - not necessarily the ones Lido uses.

Have fun and share nicely,

Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Bunhill Fields - honouring literary giants in an oasis of calm

In an uncompromisingly solid and practical City landscape, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground is an unlikely but welcoming oasis of green and tranquility for harried Londoners. It may sound odd to recommend a picnic in a graveyard, but I do; the obvious history of the trees and the tombstones seems to make time pass more slowly, and perhaps make our earthly troubles seem less severe - and where better to contemplate the vagaries of life than lying on soft, sun-dappled grass underneath an ancient oak?

'Bunhill' Fields comes from 'bone hill'; around 1550 this was a marshy stretch of fields outside the old City wall owned by St Paul's and they dumped the contents of an old charnel-house here during a clean-up. Apparently so many bones were bought here that it raised the level of the ground - hence 'bone hill'.

In 1665 it was set up as a burial ground for dissenters - those Protestants opposed to state interference in matters of religion and who as a result were refused the right to hold public office, attend certain universities - or be buried on consecrated ground. Bunhill Fields became a popular resting place for non-conformists including such literary giants as Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) and visionary poet and artist William Blake.

'To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower . . . '

When I visited I was charmed and moved to find Blake's gravestone adorned with small gifts and tokens from visitors: flowers, trinkets, beads, shells and coins. If you go at lunchtime on August 12th (the anniversary of Blake's death) you can join members of the Blake Society and commemorate his life by reading from his work and then repair to the local pub for further discussions. Check their website for details:

Cramped and disorderly, Bunhill Fields is a striking image of what London's graveyards would have looked like in the seventeenth century. Now a carefully maintained Grade 1 listed park, you can download a useful little map from here:

Remembering Blake's words:

'A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent'

Be nice to each other,

Girl About Town xx

Friday, 20 July 2012

Frugal Foodie About Town

Mmmm, food.

I adore good food: shopping for it, cooking it, and having it cooked for me. So lucky me for having on my very doorstep the diverse wealth of London's markets, delis, food emporia, restaurants, cafes, food stalls, pop-ups . . . the opportunities for indulgence are endless.

Food is a passion shoulder-bargingly close to my love of all things London, so I may occasionally border on the evangelical in sharing the joy - or disappointments - of my culinary discoveries. I don't accept payments/bribes/free stuff for any reviews so you can be sure they will always be genuine, honest and from the heart (stomach?) - and as such, you (or indeed, the owners of the establishments) may disagree with them entirely. Or partially. Or you may find your new favourite foodie spot, in which case my work here is done. Feel free to add a comment, send me a recommendation, tell your friends.

I'm also continuously watching my pennies, so places that are both fabulous and reasonably-priced are my holy grail. Top of my list currently has to be Koya, in Frith Street.

To say this is a good Japanese noodle bar is like saying that Stephen Fry is not bad with words: Koya takes the humble Udon to reverential heights. The duck with cold noodles and hot broth is awesomely good, and the tempura is heavenly - perfectly light and crisp. It is simple food, done incredibly well - which means that you can eat in a top 100 listed, Central London restaurant for around £15-£20 per head. Cool or what?

You can't book, but I tend to start queuing about 15-20 minutes before they open and have always got a seat so far. Sit on the benches (or the step) and people-watch while you wait, or check out the blue plaque on the building opposite commemorating Mozart's stay here during his only visit to London, as a child.

Eating noodles in broth always makes me feel inordinately healthy too, so I can gratify my senses, my conscience and my bank manager all at the same time. (Oh, and any restaurant whose web page begins 'Noodle saves planet!' is okay with me.) Sometimes, life is good.

May the Udon be with you,
Yours, Girl About Town xx

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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

St James's Park - photo ops, trivia and feeding the wildlife

We are incredibly lucky in London to have so many beautiful parks to punctuate the hustle and bustle of city life.

I'll be blogging about them all at some point, but if you can't wait then the Royal Parks website is easy to navigate and a great place to start - check it out:  http://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks

I quite often find myself in St James's Park, which is pretty much the Queen's front garden. In the wake of the Diamond Jubilee, there are some fun photo opportunities for tourists and/or the patriotically-stirred; St James's Park has a suitably majestic five-tonne floral crown, and if you take your photo carefully you can even get Buck House in the background.
The creation is a copy of the actual crown used in the Queen's coronation in 1953, St Edward's Crown; if you are feeling inspired the original, made of gold and precious/semi-precious stones and weighing in at a hefty two and a quarter kilograms, can be seen in the Crown Jewels collection at the Tower of London.

You can also find some wonderfully vibrant 'Union Jack' flowerbeds - and here's another bit of random trivia: technically the correct name of the UK's national flag is actually the Union Flag; a 'jack' is the term for a flag flown from a ship that indicates the nationality of the vessel. (Not a lot of people know that.)

St James's Park stretches itself either side of a long and fairly narrow lake, home to a host of ducks, geese - and pelicans! The latter get fed every day around 2.30pm, which is fun to watch, but the former will be very happy to get up close and personal with you in exchange for the crusts from your lunchtime sandwiches (although apparently birdseed or halved grapes are better for them).

Feeding the ducks is fine and dandy, but for me, the real fun is in feeding the squirrels. These little guys are pretty tame, and if you crouch down and keep reasonably still, they'll take food (unsalted nuts are ideal - Boots sell them in perfectly-sized little snack packs) straight from your hand. (Boots sell hand sanitiser too, if you're worried.)

The most squirrel-friendly area seems to be about half way along the path walking from Buckingham Palace down towards the bridge - which is also a great photo op, as from the middle of the bridge there are great views in both directions.

Happy squirrel-whispering,

Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Coffee in all weathers and secret gems

Greetings, fellow about-towners!

My two favourite places to stop for coffee (or a glass of something chilled and bubbly) on the Southbank; the question is - sunshine or rain?

Sunshine? It has to be the rooftop garden, landscaped by the Eden Project and perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The dismal 'summer' has at least meant that this garden is wild and fabulous, with lawns, rampaging flowers and even a scarecrow; sit at one of the tiny herb-bedecked tables facing the greenery for a ten-minute escape from the bustle, or grab a bench for an impressive view across the river.


Rain? Avoid the homicidal umbrella-wielding throng and scurry into the BFI. Wend your way through to the cafe/bar/lounge area and you'll find a welcoming boho mismatch of sofas, armchairs and long low tables; slouching is pretty much compulsory. Excellent coffee, free wi-fi, and it's great in the evenings too - behind the bookcase is a hidden entrance to their new cocktail bar, the Drawing Room. All bookshelves, leather Chesterfields and dim lighting, it's a little like suddenly finding yourself on a film set; appropriate, no?



Girl About Town xx


Welcome to London - Girl About Town!

London is one of the most amazing, exciting and fascinating cities in the world. This blog is part guide, part journal and part love song; I am unashamedly passionate about London and these are my travels, my discoveries and my stories.

Perhaps you're a tourist, visiting London for the first time. Maybe you live outside London and head into town now and then for shows, or to try out a new restaurant. You might even be a Londoner, shuttling along a well-worn path between work and home, drinking in the same bars with the same friends at the weekends.

Every week, hundreds of people from all over the world raid their bank accounts, spend hours travelling and pay scary hotel bills just to be in this city. If this is you - or if you are lucky enough to live in or near London already - then shouldn't you make the most of it?

I was going past Trafalgar Square on the top deck of a bus one evening, idly looking out over the fountain, when I suddenly realised that if I was in any other city in the world that I would be taking pictures like mad. It's absolutely beautiful - and an everyday sight on the way to the station. So my mission is to open my eyes, to make the most of this fabulous, vibrant city, and to do it all without a second mortgage.

Girl About Town is about discovering, or rediscovering, London. Cool things to do for free, new exhibitions, great markets, the best coffee or Sunday roast, random historical snippets, where to grab a bite, quirky traditions and where to find a loo. I can't promise there will be much method in my madness; I have decidedly eclectic taste and can segue from opera to air hockey without missing a beat - but isn't that half the fun?

Buckle up and join me.


Girl About Town xx