Tag Archives: Big Ben

London – Historic River Thames

“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”  Anna Quindlen – ‘Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City.’  

Home to a long, varied cultural legacy, London was as well an economic power second to none.  Through many centuries ‘Rule Britannia’ was a supremely nationalistic notion nurtured and believed in without self-doubt or open to criticism; colonialism was self-righteously looked upon as ‘the white man’s burden’. The uncontested seat of power for succeeding generations lay in the Royal Throne and yet with the proclamation of the Magna Carta (1215) was born a progressive, philosophical belief in the creation and safeguard of a democratically elected Parliament of the people. In a purely English expression of good manners, both the monarchy and the will of the people co-exists side by side to this day. A gentility not much in evidence during the French Revolution as I’m quite certain flighty Marie-Antoinette would have sadly agreed.  

Buckingham Palace, a grand home to succeeding royal families.  Throngs of sightseers line the entrance awaiting the colourful Changing of the Guard.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)  

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Pride in national achievements gave the impetus over centuries when much treasure and impressive know-how in the construction of princely palaces, grand public  buildings and splendid houses of worship.   Some of these structures are today well-preserved monuments to a proud past and a vibrant present.  London counts four sites and attractions listed by UNESCO as being of special cultural or physical significance. These are the Tower of London; the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; The Palace of Westminster, including the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, St Margaret’s Westminster and Westminster Abbey; and Maritime Greenwich.  In the following pages along with accompanying photos my personal observations about this fascinating world-class city.

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On a spur of the moment rather than take the usual train to return to Blackheath my temporary home base, I decided to board a tour boat leaving from Westminster Pier (just below Parliament Buildings) to Greenwich Village and what a great idea that turned out to be.  Behind me is the famed tower often referred to as Big Ben whereas in actual fact it’s the name conferred on the huge 14 ton bell in its belfry.  

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On my way to the tour boat, along shady Victoria Embankment I chanced upon a magnificent memorial to the bravery of the Royal Air Force in the defence of the homeland during the epic Battle of Britain in 1940 against bloody bombing attacks by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  The designer was in my opinion truly inspired in quoting Winston Churchill.  Over the years I have seen many monuments and statues dedicated to war heros but this one in particular was particularly moving with several panels on both sides dramatically depicting the various phases of the battle and heroic fighter pilots.  It is well worth seeking out.  

(Note to history buffs: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few … ” quoted from  a wartime speech made by then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20 August 1940 exulting in the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots who were at the time fighting the ‘Battle of Britain’ the pivotal air battle with the Luftwaffe fearing an imminent German invasion.  It is well worth reading the entire text as Churchill was a consummate wordsmith  and his speeches indeed inspired the nation to greater efforts and sacrifice culminating ultimate victory.  Notwithstanding his inspirational leadership, Churchill was turfed out of power at the first post-war election.  I suppose people had had enough of Churchillian ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ and preferred the prospect of a return to improving the lot of the working class.

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The trip along the Thames sailing in an east direction provide a memorable slice from the visual dessert pie that London had turned out to be.  I was like a school boy on his first group outing, not knowing which way to turn to face and photograph immediately recognizable buildings.  For example the ‘Walkie-Talkie’, now there’s an interesting story to be told so read on.  

20 Fenchurch Street is a commercial skyscraper that takes its name from its address on the street of the same name in the historic City of London financial district. The tower was originally proposed at nearly 200 m (656 ft) tall but its design was somewhat scaled down after concerns about its negative visual impact on nearby and much cherished St. Paul’s Cathedral and iconic Tower of London.  The project was consequently the subject of a Public Inquiry forced on the city by heritage groups; in 2007 this ruled in the developers’ favour and the building was granted full planning permission.

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I promised an interesting story, read on. During the building’s construction, it was discovered that for a period of up to two hours each day with the sun shining directly onto the building, it acts as a concave mirror and focuses light onto the streets to the south. Spot temperature readings included up to 91 °C (196 °F) and 117 °C (243 °F) also measured during the summer of 2013, when the reflection of a beam of light up to six times brighter than direct sunlight shining onto the streets beneath damaged vehicles parked on the street nearby, including one whose owner was paid £946 by the developers for repairs to melted bodywork. The media responded by dubbing the building the ‘Walkie-Scorchie’ or ‘Fryscraper’.  Oddly enough the building’s architect, Rafael Viñoly, had previously designed the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas with a similar sunlight reflection problem that some wit christened it, “Vdara death ray”.  The glass there has since been covered with a non-reflective film. You’d think he’d have learned something but apparently he mused the London problem probably had to do with ‘global warming’.  Oy!  

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Since this is my blog I’ll graciously allow myself a mild ‘rant’. I wondered when learning the developer ‘won’ the public enquiry into the building being too massive with its attendant risk to the integrity of St. Paul’s dominant place in the London skyline as well as to historic Tower of London. My question is as follows: when do developers with deep pocket ever lose? In London or elsewhere? Vancouver for example, a prime example of uncontested disasters that England’s Prince Charles considering his well known aversion to modern architecture would surely gag upon laying his princely eyes on the tawdry skyline of a city otherwise blessed with a great physical location.  It is my firm opinion that every single ‘planning department’ in every major city in the world should as a matter of course be investigated every couple of years for dereliction of duty or worse.  Too often permits to build are issued as a matter of routine without real analysis of what is proposed or even worse without consequent supervision by city inspectors. Vancouver’s infamous ‘leaking condo’ episode costing billions (that’s right) to repair and of course paid for by the unlucky buyers is a case in point. And it persists to this day! If there was any real justice for the powerful rich and the politically well-connected, more than a few greedy miscreants ought to be spending a few years in a leaky cell in a very damp jail.  There, isn’t it wonderful to have your own blog? I highly recommend it as it allows for such cathartic benefits.  

St. Paul’s dome is second only to St. Peter’s in the Vatican and dominates from atop the highest ground in London proper.  I fervently hope its position will be protected in the future and not find itself in the shadows of yet another monster skyscraper.   Londoners must always remain vigilant as no doubt more attempts will be made, count on it. 

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Possibly the most recognizable sight in London, the bridge I’m told is spectacular at night, something time didn’t permit for me to enjoy but next time, for sure.  

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Busy above and below, to say the least it took navigating skill at all times to get around without mishap.

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Beautifully preserved, the venerable Tower of London the epicentre for much past English history, often glorious (at times wicked) and now a much visited UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

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This less than admired building in London is nicknamed ‘The Cheese Grater’ and the odd shaped building to the right the name is known as the Swiss Re building or more aptly perhaps as ‘The Gherkin’. 

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Canary Wharf was built on mostly derelict wharfs and  vacant lots adjacent to the river with a vision to become the epicentre of European financial activity and for the most part it is now uncontested as such. However, the building designs doesn’t meet with everyone’s aesthetic standards judging from the wittily acerbic remarks made by the tour guide. I had to concur as other than a couple of the smaller buildings much appeared to have been conceived with a view to maximize space and office rental returns rather than architectural value.  Should I blame the lack of artistic conviction on the Canadian developer?  Do we deserve our Canadian reputation as nice but dull, bland and colourless. On the face of this dull, bland and colourless hodgepodge who can deny it – eh? 
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Maritime Greenwich was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1997 for the concentration and quality of buildings of historic and architectural interest in the area. These can be divided into the group of buildings along the riverfront, Greenwich Park, and the Georgian and  Victorian town centre.   The Rolls Royce adds a certain cachet to the neighbourhood, do you agree?

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A spectacular panorama of the city from the Royal Observatory viewpoint, with the financial power house ‘Canary Wharf’ in background to the right.

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A world-class monument to man’s ingenuity and the never ending search for knowledge, this small but vital community has been the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) since 1884. Sometimes called Greenwich Meridian Line because it is measured from the Greenwich Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory and the universally agreed place from where all time zones are measured.   The clock below indicates Standard Measurements and I’d not quibble with its accuracy.  

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There a traced line indicates the exact location of the Prime Meridian, the theoretical demarcation between the Western and Eastern hemisphere of the globe.  Since the earth rotation is not absolutely perfect, with measurable wobbles, if one wishes to split hairs, the line in the old observatory’s courtyard today differs no more than a few metres from that imaginary line which is now the prime meridian of the world.  I had no one to take my photo standing astride both hemispheres – too bad.  

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The Observatory is located amid a vast parkland that spreads above Greenwich Village.   Visitor’s pavilions display the history and uses of the installation as well as  coffee shops in a bucolic setting – featured are flower gardens, tree-lined lanes and these magnificent centuries old chestnut trees.

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From there it was a ten minute walk to Blackheath Village, my home base.   The park is just beyond the wall in mid-photo and the ever-present Shard Building lording it in the middle background.  

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All Saints, a century old Roman Catholic church in Blackheath and a view from the train station’s quay of the numerous chimneys still dominating rooftops and as evidenced in the former college remodelled as a Senior’s Home in the village.  

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So much to see and share that in the interest of keeping each photo essay manageable in length I’ll stop here but I promise another one in the not too distant future.   Hope to see you then and enjoy reading your comments too. Incidentally, I’ve actually been told by some who have checked my various posts they don’t write comments out of shyness.  No kidding!   Come on, it takes no time and I like feedback good or bad, whatever kind so I can improve my future output.  Okay? I’ll respond to each and every one, promise.  

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London – City on the Go!

You are now / In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow / At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore / Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more / Yet in its depth what treasures! 

Percy Bysshe Shelley                               

Treasures, no doubt, everywhere one looks, hugging the banks of the River Thames, round every street corner another surprise and yet one more delightful encounter with history.  I’ll confess to having made it around the world before stepping foot in Great Britain.   One might wonder why not and then why now?  Simply because I never had a real desire other than vaguely thinking I’d eventually like to meander through the Romantic poet’s Lake District and perhaps rugged, stoic Scotland.   Unexpectedly, very recently I received an invitation to visit London and although somewhat hesitant by the late autumn timing and the British Isles reputation for dismal rain and fog, I agreed and a very good thing too.   As it turned out I was blessed (it’s the appropriate word) with sumptuous weather, daily sunshine and temperatures in the high teens (Celsius, of course) and encountered a hitherto unsuspected English ‘charm’, is that too much to say? The city core itself is a vast repository of historic buildings, great cathedrals and churches, world class museums and art galleries, wide avenues with lively squares and of course loud, friendly pubs.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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The storied River Thames provides a watery highway through a cultural landscape of scope and splendour where the modern cohabits with ancient pride. 

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My friend was a delightful companion on some forays but by unavoidable circumstances I was left to fend on my own for the most part and found the transportation system efficient, clean and thanks to the clever ‘Oyster Pass’, easy on the pocket (take note Vancouver).  In the centre background, the unmistakeable Horatio Nelson statue dominates Trafalgar Square

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From Blackheath Village (neighbouring Greenwich Village) where I was graciously hosted, Charring Cross Station became my daily destination, once there I could decide on where I might transfer to take the ‘tube’ (subway) or stroll to one of the numerous great sites within an eye-pleasing stroll.  A look at the front entrance facing The Strand and one from the bridge side over The Thames, quite a contrast in architectural style over the years of wartime bomb damage and modern needs. 

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Let me take you on a visual tour of what London has to offer and what I can offer is by no means exhaustive.  As a matter of fact, I’ll admit to already planning a second visit perhaps next spring just so I can see and experience what time constraints this time around made impossible.  In fact, my first good look at London came five minutes from the station when I discovered double-deck buses were the norm in London and not a tourist conveyance.  Notice too I’m still wearing the same clothes as on the airplane; I long ago discovered that dressing up just a touch always, but always gets you better service when you need it from airline staff. Naturally, that was the last time I was so sartorial until the return flight.  Sure, it’s not as comfortable as wearing a t-shirt and loose jeans but the small discomfort is worth a lot more including once being up-graded to business class when the economy class seats had been over-booked only because I looked like I might belong.  When I explained, with a glint in her eyes my hostess (a voracious book consumer) piped up it was proof the cover didn’t make the book.  Cynical but true.  

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As my first full day in town was bright and sunny we decided, rather my guide did, that we’d visit an authentic area in East London, specifically the  Columbia Road Flower Market and in the same vicinity amble on to Brick Lane Road where we could lunch on fast but tasty international foods.  

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A word to the wise; here as elsewhere extreme caution must be exercised in crowded urban venues as pickpockets prey on wide-eyed tourists and relaxed locals.  Unfortunately, the pleasure of the flower market was marred by the realization my companion had had her smart phone expertly filched out of her coat pocket.  Upon discovering this, perhaps within five minutes, we managed to make a phone call to her phone but already it had been ‘disabled’, thus proving it had not been inadvertently dropped but stolen and a new chip already inserted.  Of course, the next twenty minutes were frantic as Ara had to cancel several sites, including email address and bank account from her device.  To date, a month later, nothing untoward has happened other than the cost of replacement and the sour taste left behind to having been literally ripped-off directly from her pocket.

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I’ll hasten to say that London is not any worse than other large cities.  I’ve been targeted just outside the Vatican, up a famed mosque minaret in  India (the low-lifes do not respect sacred places), at the Hong Kong airport and the Paris ‘métro’ station to the famed ‘Marché aux Puces’ (Flea Market) and each time was spared the loss of money and my pride too since I was well prepared for the eventuality of such contemptible encounters. A pox on those who ruin people’s holidays by stealing rather than earning an honest living in one fashion or other.

Let me offer a bit of advice here.  First of all I was warned in Rome and in Paris about the very real threat I might encounter around these places, so take seriously a local’s word of caution; and in Asia I was clever enough to wear a thin belly belt my mother had made and insisted I wear, and thank God I did too.  I’ll further admit that I now always wear one on any foreign trip and feel much better for knowing my passport, my wallet with vital documents and money as well are basically stored in an unassailable fortress.  If a reprobate was bold enough to try  to forage in there I’d rip his hands off!  So now you’ve been advised – don’t leave home and behave like a ‘never-been-anywhere cluck’, it really is easy to avoid such misery even if in the case of a man it’s a little less than macho.  As for women, you all know about the perils of a handbag being ripped off your shoulders or the insecurity of shallow pockets in fashionable coats – I need not belabour the point anymore, right?  

This fellow’s shirt was in keeping with the general ambiance, you’ll agree.  

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At any rate it had been a pleasure to check out the fragrant array of potted flowers and varieties of tropical plants; perhaps more fun was the incessant sales patter of the ruddy-faced hawkers.  I’m always on the look-out for interesting faces and I had a field day here.  This jolly chap was happy to oblige when I politely asked to take his pic.  See for yourself.  Wouldn’t you like to  hoist a mug or two with this friendly fellow? I would.  

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And this clever fellow while selling tons of flowers kept a large audience laughing loudly at his non-stop witty chatter.  It was almost an obligation to buy after being entertained so well.  

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Okay, I admit to being tickled pink to encounter an English ‘Bobby’ wearing the classic, authentic  Custodian helmet with his elegant partner, notice the spiffy hat and tie.  I had to have my pic taken with the obliging duo at the entrance to cheery Brick Lane Road who I’m sure must pose countless times throughout the day.   True enough as soon as they indulged me several others lined up for the same and they submitted with a smile every time.  Lovely! 

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Hot Malay dishes for a really skinny price.  I could spend every day there for a week and not run out of appetizing choices.  

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I must comment on the double-decker bus – while the vehicle was moving getting on and climbing to the top deck was problematic while the vehicle was moving and once sitting down I still felt as if aboard a small boat riding atop rough waves.  Still, from above you get a great view, as good as taking one of the multitude of tour buses for a fraction the cos;  moreover I liked the idea of spending time with Londoners doing their thing, more often than not texting on  smart-phones and not gawking out the window.    

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Riding a bus in London and simply looking out the window is a great way to see what there is to see, fast, easy and cheaply!  Numerous cranes are a sure indication of how vibrant and thriving a city is while building and renewing itself.

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If you can get yourself seated at the front of the bus its much like being in the front seat of a balcony in the theatre.  

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The London Eye is a giant observation Ferris Wheel centrally erected on the South Bank of the Thames to celebrate the second Millenium.  The structure is 135 metres (443 ft) tall and the wheel has a diameter of 120 metres (394 ft).  The project was a complex undertaking with components built in six European countries and then assembled in a most unusual fashion, section by section barged in, set flat on pontoons in the river and when complete then raised standing by degrees.  (It’s a fascinating story, check it out on the web.)  Dominating from almost every angle it is very much like the Tour Eiffel in Paris.  The idea is simple enough; provide a spectacular view of the city from the vantage point of a spacious gondola that accommodates 25 people, either sitting or walking around.  Each revolution takes 30 minutes and I’m told the view is a spectacular 360 degree panorama as far as the eye can see or weather permits, sometimes a challenge in ‘foggy old London’.  I didn’t see for myself as impatient (as always) the three times I checked  there was at the very least an hour-long waiting queue.  Oh well, next time.  It took me about 2 dozen semi-serious attempts to go up the Eiffel Tower and finally some years ago on a clear day surprisingly there was no line-up; the opportunity was too good to miss.  I admired the unrestricted view of the great sites, near and far, but contrary to my enthusiasm my companion wasn’t impressed: “I’m not thrilled,” Hélène stated.  When I foolishly asked why she seriously answered: “I can’t see the Eiffel Tower!”  That was good for a laugh but since she always associated Paris with the tower’s omnipresence it also strangely made sense, maybe.  

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When I say it’s seen from every angle of London, I’m not exaggerating.  Here it’s seen from as far away as near Buckingham Palace, (taken with a 12x zoom lens) but still it’s there, the appropriately named ‘Eye’; as well as beyond Trafalgar Square.  

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Two different angles depicts the immense wheel’s ‘Mécano-like’ construction. 

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Let me introduce you to self-styled ‘Mister England’.  A friendly sort who danced, mimed and chatted up tourists to entice them inside the indoor shopping emporium.  I rather fancied his patter and general bonhomie and asked how he liked his job, “Luvvv it mate! Best job in the world.”  I wish I could reproduce the priceless accent but how in writing? 

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I told you he was genuinely friendly and I had no doubt he indeed luvved his job.  I’d like to recall the name of the street somewhere near Piccadilly Circus (or perhaps not) so that you too could wish him well.  

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What is more symbolic of London than Big Ben?  Other than one’s favourite pub, I can’t think of anything else.  I’ll take my leave for now but there’s so much more to share with you that I’ll return with another post in a week or two.  I don’t want to overburden you with too much and London certainly has a lot of that quality.  In many respects it really is, “Too, too much!”  OY! I’ll leave you for now.  See you soon – Ta Ta and Tallyho!

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