Tag Archives: Changing of the guard

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.)  





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.


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.  


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.

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.


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!  


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. 


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.  


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



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.  


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’. 

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? 
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?



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


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.  


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.  


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.



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.  


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.  




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.  

Korea – ‘Land of the Morning Calm’

“Nothing can be compared to the new life that the discovery of another country provides for a thoughtful person.  Although I am still the same I believe I have changed to the bones.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself in Korea, or to be more poetic, in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’.   I’d not planned on it, rather thinking about returning yet again to France, the land of my birth as well as neighbouring countries but a lucky happenstance pointed in the other direction.  A dear friend who in the past had been subjected to copious praise of Europe, France in particular, judged the time had come for me to open up a new horizon and discover her remarkable country.  She had a few days to spend guiding me and how could I not accept? I’m not one to quibble with Karma and so without equivocation or ado I flew off and now while memories are fresh and vibrant I’ll take you along on a journey of discovery, that for my part was captivating and delightful in every respect.   This rugged and ancient land offered spectacular scenery and vibrant, modern cities; in but a sampling of its long history and cultural achievements proudly preserved in several UNESCO sites I discovered  more to admire unstintingly.

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


Flying over my first view of Korea confirmed what I’d read – it’s a mountainous peninsula, a full 70% covering the land mass with every square metre of the remainder dedicated to farming and living space.   Double click on the images below to see for yourselves.  




An aerial view of Seoul, a sprawling megapolis served by no fewer than twenty bridges spanning the Han River.




As I’ve often claimed, the local people one encounters traveling in a foreign land are really the star attraction and in this case I can’t praise enough the Koreans I encountered, all without fail, kindly disposed and generous.   I can’t think of one instance when meeting either those catering to you in a restaurant or hotel, at the airport or in a taxi, or chancing upon in a casual manner, when a smile and a courteous demeanour wasn’t the sine qua non of interpersonal relations; on a personal level I was always treated with respect and I do believe with a touch of affection for having come to visit their country.  I may be redundant but I have nothing but fulsome praise for the people and the marvellous manner in which they live and behave either as individuals or on a collective basis. 



Perhaps we in Western industrial countries could take notes on how not to treat sidewalks as garbage disposals, to deface public transit with graffiti, and recognize  it is possible to live harmoniously even when population pressure may seem overwhelming.   I remember a rather snide remark made by a visiting friend who viewed with disdain Vancouver’s ill-maintained, scruffy sidewalks, scraps of newspapers, discarded bus and sky-train transfers, fast-food coffee cups scattered and cigaret butts along the curbs in areas that would not be considered as the less affluent of the city, no at all, it’s a visual pollution plaguing the entire town, including the much vaunted sea-wall.   I was prompted to set him straight, “Just you wait, it’s going to rain soon and it’ll clean itself up.”  Well, I suppose that was a little sarcastic but unfortunately on the whole it was telling it as it is.   Take notice, nary a cigaret butt, a chewing gum wrapper on Seoul’s sidewalks, anywhere!



The people, the children even, have a calmness about them and in their behaviour that gives the ring of truth to ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’.  A friendly Buddhist monk allowed me to take his photo; after I’d politely bowed a farewell he responded with a ringing  ‘hello’ as a goodbye.  Nice!  



I spent several busy days in Seoul and just a few of the statistics that accompany this great city would make one wonder about what might be encountered during a visit.   Here are some striking figures: it’s the capital and largest city (by far) in South Korea; with a population of more than 10 million it is the largest such megacity in the developed world.    What is referred to as Seoul Capital Area is the home to nearly 26 million people, over half of the entire South Korean population.  Situated on the Han River, it was first inhabited over 2000 years ago and within its metropolitan no fewer than 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites attest to its illustrious history.   


Given its sheer breath and scope I might have felt overwhelmed and yet, it took no time for me to feel at ease in an environment that was pulsating with energy, with people, young and old, on the go and traffic that would scare the most experienced driver, and I’ve driven in Rome, Paris and Barcelona among other crazed traffic situations.


Yet, I can tell you the traffic moves along (ushered along by traffic cops at almost every intersection of main streets), that there is an amazing number of transit buses for the local citizenry, numerous cabs (the fare a third of what I’d pay in Vancouver, I kid you not), and passenger cars, and yet, I do believe I heard but one warning honk to a fellow who was jaywalking (me), a rare occurrence as I observed.  Heck, even in staid Vancouver it’s an all too common annoyance, honking for the sake of making oneself heard.  The monk patiently waited for the green light to cross: henceforth I wisely decided to ‘when in Korea, do as the Koreans’.  


Jongno Tower is a 33 story tall office building with a restaurant and bar atop that’s famous for its view of the Jongno area.  It’s located near Jonggak Station of Seoul Subway Line 1.   My hotel was some five minutes walk from this interesting building and I used is as my location beacon.  If you’re not familiar with Seoul it’s easy to lose one’s way compounded by the fact that street addresses as we know in the West are not commonly used in Korea.  It’s also a good idea for the traveler to take a digital pic of an outstanding building or a salient physical feature to find your way back.   You can always show it to a local who will point you in the right direction.



Awaiting a subway train people line up and wait without undue haste.  Interestingly, for safety’s sake (it does get crowded during rush hours) a glass and metal security barrier prevents any accidental fall over the edge and onto the tracks.  The train stops exactly in front and then and only then does the system open up for an orderly in and out of passengers.  I think this could surely be emulated in other cities – take note Montreal and Toronto. 





Ancient customs and modern architecture blend seamlessly in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea.  My impression everywhere was that of a carefully planned modus vivendi that allows for the preservation and celebration of its past history along with living in a fast paced and constructive new society.   Respect for elders and customs is evident along with the enthusiasm of the younger generation for fashionable styles (young women are the best dressed, bar none, I’ve seen anywhere, Paris included) and technology.   


I was surprised to find dozens of men squatting or sitting on grassy stretches bent over boards.  Thinking they might be playing chess (maybe I could get a game?) I soon discovered they were intent on playing a much more complex and ancient game of ‘Go’.



As usual I did a lot of walking and soon made an interesting discovery – the main streets and avenues are busy with office workers, shops and restaurants and skyscrapers.  However, take a couple steps inside one of the side streets, some not much more than paved lanes and a whole new world opens up.





A mere fifteen minutes stroll from my hotel (The Designers), daily I was drawn to Kwang Jang Market, a sprawling indoor emporium.  Inside hundreds (yes, that many) outlets offer a myriad variety of  household goods, clothing and  food at affordable prices.  For my delight several alleys feature a panoply of what is often referred to as ‘street food’ but that in reality has no kinship with the hot dog stand on the sidewalks of North American cities.




And deciding on what to eat was a daily conundrum – which of the inviting stalls should I sit at? I’ll admit to even doubling up, yes a little meat here and a little seafood there.  Oh, and should I reveal a full meal would set me back maybe the equivalent of six or seven Canadian dollars? By way of information, another welcome relief for the pocket book – no tax of any kind or tips! NONE!


For the foreigner, other than the visual advantage of seeing what one might fancy to eat, the eyes and the nose is a reliable guide and surely beats ordering from an unknown menu.  All steamed, deep fried or boiled in front of the eager client, the warmth and aroma are a powerful inducement to a hearty appetite and ultimate satisfaction.





What’s more, the friendliness is palpable; perhaps a foreigner who obviously is enjoying himself is made to feel even more welcome with generous samples to taste.   The truth is had I so desired I could have simply sampled my way through to a full stomach without ever actually buying a meal.  




My guiding companion displayed a wry sense of humour that might have been funny, if I wasn’t the target.  In all seriousness she asked if the pig’s snout reminded me of someone? “Had I seen it reflected in a mirror,” she mused, innocently.  Okay, it was mildly amusing after all.


I’ve decided to indulge my taste buds with Korean food this evening; I wonder what induced that sudden urge? As it happens good quality Korean restaurants are not hard to find in Vancouver.   So there you have but a very small sampling of what you might discover for yourself in splendid, spectacular Seoul.  More to come in following posts, stay tuned.