London: from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden

Hi there! Let me be your guide today. Come with me on a pleasant walk from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden in the wonderful city of London.

The starting point is Charing Cross underground station, not to be confused with the Charing Cross railway station.

Once above ground, we cross the street towards Trafalgar Square. We can walk around and admire its monuments. Nelson’s Column, the most important one, was finished in 1843. It commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson, the naval hero who defeated the Napoleonic navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and died after sustaining wounds during that battle.

Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery in the background. The current sculpture on the Fourth Plinth to the left. You can't miss the blue rooster!
Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery in the background. The current sculpture on the Fourth Plinth to the left. You can’t miss the blue rooster!

Trafalgar Square presents an oddity: the Fourth Plinth. This plinth was originally designed for a statue of King William IV but it was never carried out due to shortage of funds. It stood empty until 1999, when it was decided that modern sculptures would be put in place and rotate every year or so.

If we have the time and energy, we could visit the National Gallery and admire famous works of art of all times. If not, we carry on down The Strand, which starts at the roundabout outside Charing Cross station.

The Strand follows a route used since Roman times. Yep, they were in the British Isles too, which they called Britannia. The aristocracy moved to The Strand area at around the 12th century and built palaces and mansions, most of which were demolished along the centuries.

The Strand
The Strand

On the right hand side, we can see Charing Cross railway station next to the Charing Cross Hotel. In the courtyard outside, an apparently medieval monument attracts our attention. It is Eleanor’s Cross. This is a Victorian loose interpretation of the 1294 original, built by King Edward I in memory of his wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile. The Parliament had it destroyed in 1647 during the Civil War. It is very sad to think that there was a civil war in every country on this planet. Eleanor’s Cross is also used to measure distances within the City of London.

Charing Cross and Eleanor's Cross
Charing Cross and Eleanor’s Cross

The Strand is a busy thoroughfare, with many shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels and offices. I like to take in the atmosphere, watch people come and go and guess who’s a visitor and who’s a local, as well as admire the stately buildings.

One of these grand buildings is the Savoy Hotel, built in 1889. It was built where the Savoy Palace used to be. This palace, owned by John of Gaunt, a medieval smooth political operator known as the King Maker, was destroyed during the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The Savoy Hotel was the first hotel in London to have electric light and elevators as well as private bathrooms.

Now we turn left and walk up Southampton Street as far as Covent Garden. It’s a couple of blocks, if that.

Covent Garden
Covent Garden

There has been a market here since the 17th century. In the late 1960s, traffic was so intense that the authorities decided to relocate the market to Southwest London. After years of neglect, Covent Garden reopened as a shopping center in 1980. In the main hall, we can find anything from jewellery and clothes to antiques and crafts. There are also bars and restaurants.

The first time I visited Covent Garden was a few years ago during the month of August, when half of Europe goes on holiday. It seemed that they all came to London! It was rather uncomfortable to walk and enjoy the market. If you can, avoid August but bear in mind there’s always a crowd.

Delicious pastries at Laduree
Delicious pastries at Laduree

I like to get a box of macaroons from Laduree, a French pastry shop outside the market, overlooking the Piazza. Street performers attract crowds at the piazza. Let’s go see who is performing today. Keep an eye on your belongings, though.

We can finish out walk here, savouring those delightful macarons. Alternatively, we can visit the London Transport Museum or St. Paul’s church, built by Inigo Jones in 1633.

coventgarden5
Covent Garden

 

You may have heard the name Covent Garden in reference to ballet and opera. The Royal Opera House is located here and it’s commonly referred to as Covent Garden too. My mother-in-law is a ballet enthusiast and she used to drag my father-in-law to watch her favourite dancers here.

Me, I’m going home. I hope you enjoyed this walk. See you around!

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Seas of Red Poppies at the Tower of London

November 11th marks the centenary of the First World War. There are many ways in which those who fought are honoured by their countries. In London, for example, there is a commemoration that is both spectacular and poignant: the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation at the Tower of London.

Poppy installation10

This installation consists of gradually filling the Tower’s moat with handmade ceramic poppies, a certain number per day until November 11th, when the last of the 888,246 poppies will be installed. Each poppy represents a dead British soldier. The poppy became the symbol of dead soldiers in the UK and Canada thanks to the poem In Flanders Fields by Lt. Col. John McCrae.

People were able to buy a poppy for £25, thought they are sold out. The proceeds will go to six service charities in the UK: Cobseo, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and SSAFA. The installation will be progressively dismantled after Armistice Day and the poppies will be shipped to their new homes all around the world. A friend of mine from Dallas bought one, for example.

Poppy installation11

Every day at sunset, the Last Post is played and names from the Roll of Honour are read during a ceremony. These are Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died in World War I.

Since sunny days are a rare commodity in the English autumn, I decided to go to London to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. The trouble was that thousands of people had the same idea. It was sunny, it was lunchtime and it was half-term, an explosive combination of factors. The Tower Hill underground station was closed, they only let passengers out. A human tide waxed and waned along the moat walk. I didn’t realize I could have walked down the street until I was in the thick of it.

Poppy installation12

I eventually reached the ticket office. The lines were very long. Once inside the Tower, the queues were still very long: for the toilets, the café, and each attraction (an hour and a half’s wait to see the Crown Jewels!) I really am a glutton for punishment. As it turned out, the best place to see the poppies was along the moat walk. I didn’t need to fork out 20 pounds to get into the Tower of London.

Poppy installation8

To me, the poppies were a poignantly beautiful art installation. The afternoon sun cast its golden rays on the stone walls of the Tower and the blood red of the poppies really stood out. The effect was mesmerizing. But it all got a new meaning when I overheard a young dad explain to this son what this all meant. He added “your great great-grandfather died in this war.” That brought home to me that many of these people had a relative who fought in the war and were here to pay their respects. Their connection was deeply personal.

Poppy installation13

If you’d like to share a family story about World War I, please share it in the comments below. I’d love to read it!

London’s Little Venice

When I think of canals, I think of Venice or Amsterdam. But I recently discovered that these aren’t the only cities crisscrossed by canals. Good old London has them too!

View of the canal towards Edgware Road
View of the canal towards Edgware Road

London’s (and Britain’s) canal system was a child of the Industrial Revolution and its demand for cheap transport for goods and commodities. It may sound odd to modern ears but the boats were horse-drawn and the horses walked along the tow paths. One horse could carry thirty tonnes at a time. Nowadays, water buses transport passengers to and from Camden Town.

The horse-drawn boats are long gone but the canals still remain and became part of a lifestyle. The area known as Little Venice consists of a pool of water where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals meet. It is sought after as it provides a posh postcode on the (relatively) cheap, as this is where houseboats can be moored. It is a lovely, quiet area surrounded by mainly elegant Georgian houses along tree-lined streets.

Tow path chock-a-block with plants
Tow path chock-a-block with plants

Regent’s Canal lies just north of Central London. It is 8.6 miles (13.8 km) long and was built in the early 1800’s as an alternative way to transport goods to Paddington Station. Some sections of the tow path are open to the public and some are for residents only. I walked along Regent’s Canal for a while on a sunny spring day. It was a very pleasant stroll and it provided a glimpse into houseboat life.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

There isn’t much space so every nook and cranny is filled with stuff. The small kitchens -or should I call them galleys? –  were very functional and luminous. Many boats had a table and one or two chairs on deck to take advantage of the fine weather, as well as potted plants and even gardening implements. As far as I know, some moorings (hopefully all) offer full facilities: showers, washers and dryers and the like, as well as connection to water, electricity and phone services. There were well-tended patches of garden along the tow path brimming with spring blooms.

Sit down for a cuppa
Sit down for a cuppa

It seems to me that living on a houseboat fulfills both the desire to own a house and the freedom to take it with you, as some British narrow boats are capable of navigating the European canal systems.

I’m not sure I could live on one permanently. Could you?

To visit Little Venice, take the Bakerloo Line to Warwick Avenue station and then walk down Bloomfield Road.