Sunday, September 15, 2013

London: Where the pulse of Europe erupts

Travel blog Part 1

I arrived to a cold Heathrow afternoon. Not sure if one must call it pure indolence or plain carelessness, which has become my hallmark now, I forgot to pack anything warm for my British sojourn. Not surprisingly the hair on my arm stood up as soon as I exited the airport’s air-conditioning environs into a chilly day in London. In the parking lot, while my notoriously carefree cousin revved up the engine of his subcompact Volkswagen Golf, the English poet laureate Betjeman’s words swirled in my head: And marbled clouds go scudding by/The many-steepled London sky. And here I was: Poorly clad but eyes wide open in the city of dreams.

                                         Welcome to London

I stayed in the London Borough of Southwark, very close to River Thames. It forms part of Inner London and falls under zone 1, which is the central zone where travel on an Underground is typically more expensive than journey of similar length in other parts of the city. The aesthetically beautiful historic core of London and several major attractions like the Westminster, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, British Museum etc fall in this zone. I, however, had a completely different reason to feel elated. My stay was close to a treasure trove: Bankside, London. Running from east of the Blackfriars Bridge to just a little distance before the London Bridge, it is a cultural minefield.

                                          Blackfriars Bridge

Although a well-to-do friend who lives in the posh St John’s Wood – nearest Underground stations are St John's Wood and Swiss Cottage --- calls Borough ‘a rough neighbourhood’, I must say that I feel quite at home near the Thames. I like it in the bustle. How does it matter to me if Sir Richard Branson and Imran Khan have quiet homes in St John’s Wood? Southwark is vibrant. It has a rich literary tradition with many novelists like Charles Dickens making it a setting for their works. The site of The Tabard inn (featured in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), The White Hart inn and The George Inn (which still survives) are all located in Southwark.

                                          The George Inn, London, UK

Borough’s market is a gourmet’s heaven. As one of the oldest food markets in London, the wholesale market opens at 2am in the morning and closes at 8am. The retail market then opens at 11am and closes at 5pm. I got chatty with some local shopkeepers and gleaned a few interesting details. The present day market, an avuncular gentleman told me, was originally located near the London Bridge before it moved to the Southwark Street and Borough High Street just south of Southwark Cathedral. The market has been in existence since 1014. A thousand years later hawkers still sell fresh fruit, organic vegetables, artisan cheese, meat, game, freshly baked bread and pastries. I think Northfield Farm is the best for rare-breed meat, Furness for fish and game, Elsey & Bent for fruit and veg, and Flour Power City Bakery for organic loaves.  Curiously a magic scene in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was shot near a fruit shop in the market some years ago. I bought two real pears and ate them by the Thames.

                                                     A shoppe in Borough market

A few streets from my cousin’s home in Isaac Way is the Red Cross Way. From a distance it appears like a Kashmiri astaan with a million threads and ribbons in multiple colours tied to its gate but as you go closer and peek inside you are met with the strangest of sights. The Cross Bones is an ancient burial ground that was once used as a graveyard for prostitutes. During those days sex workers were called Winchester Geese locally because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. By 1769, the homeless, paupers and those on the margins of the society began to be buried at the site. The practice was stopped in 1853. Cross Bones graveyard has now assumed a mystical importance and when it is evening tide -- on the 23rd of each month -- a small group of people come and hold a vigil. It is London’s tribute to its outcast dead.

                                            Cross Bones graveyard, Borough, London 

David Bailey, one of England’s best photographers, once remarked, if you're curious, London's an amazing place. Watch this space.