Let’s not forget to remember

The more I get to know London, the less I realise I know of this city heaving and overcrowded with history. And the more I get to know the city, the more I love living here for now.

My New York blogging buddy, jacquelin, told me about Postman’s Park, just behind St Paul’s. I met up with my husband one sunshine-filled lunch time last week, and we walked across the London Millennium Footbridge over the Thames, towards St Paul’s Cathedral – a sight that still takes my breath away – and we walked around the massive and awe-inspiring church to this little spot:

Postman's Park, in the City of London

This little spot is interestingly one of the biggest parks in the City of London. It was built in 1880 on the site of a churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldergate. Named as it is because it stands on the former site of the General Post Office where postmen often sat to eat their lunch, Postmans Park is also home to a sheltered wall commemorating, as something of a protest against the upper class, ordinary people who lost their lives heroically trying to save others. G F Watts, the painter (1817 – 1904), came up with the idea and he commissioned Doulton to create the hand-lettered tiles to honour the otherwise unheralded and unnamed heroes.

So quaint and so special

In a similar vein, one of my colleagues showed me this little site just down the road from our office. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial site, going back to medieval times, for “single women” and paupers. (“Single women” was a euphemism for prostitutes, known in the area as “Winchester Geese” because they were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Southwark area known as the Liberty of the Clink.)

According to Wikipedia, the Liberty of the Clink lay outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, and as a result became known for its brothels and theatres, bull and bear-baiting. The age of the graveyard is not known: John Stow (1525 – 1605) wrote about it in A Survey of London in 1598, and by 1769 it had become a paupers’ cemetery for the poor of St Saviour’s parish. It is believed that about 15,000 people are buried there.

Cross Bones, with the Shard - Europe's tallest building-to-be - in the background

When the London Underground planned the construction of its Jubilee Line through the area, between 1991 and 1998, archaeologists found this overcrowded graveyard with bodies piled on top of one another. Test showed the deaths to have been caused by anything from smallpox to TB, Paget’s disease, osteoarthritis and Vitamin D deficiency.

The find captured the attention of local community members who created an informal group – Friends of Cross Bones – to campaign for a permanent memorial garden on the site, which has also become the site of annual Halloween festivals – held every year since 1998 – marked by processions, songs and candles.

A permanent, living memorial marked by ribbons and flowers and poems

My, how the times have changed. Or have they?

Sunshine signing off for today!

Damp squids and veekend viewing

We ventured into the heart of London on Saturday to witness the Lord Mayor’s Fireworks display. Public transport woes and an unsatisfactory ten-minute display left us feeling a little disappointed. A damp squid indeed.

(Before any of you boffins jump to tell me that saying is incorrect – I know. It’s intentional. Keep reading.)

Rugged up good and proper (as my Aussie friends say), we headed off with some friends into central London, to watch the fireworks display. I asked one of our friends what the Lord Mayor’s Show was all about (it took place all day on Saturday) and he said it was to mark the inauguration of the new Lord Mayor of London.  The show has been taking place at the same time each year for 785 years! Read more about it here – such a heritage astonishes me!

First up, our local tube was not operating at all over the weekend. Ideally, we could have jumped in a tube, travelled for about ten minutes and then walked up the road from the tube station to have a good view of the fireworks. Instead, we caught a bus and, as we approached London Bridge, discovered that the bus wasn’t going any further. Because of the Lord Mayor’s Show. This meant a repeat of our walk of last weekend, but in reverse. Not actually walking backwards (although that would have been fun!), but walking from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge.

It took us about 45 minutes, with the added challenge of three gorgeous, energetic, small boys running this way and that, fascinated by everything that caught their eye, not least of which were the mounds of autumn leaves which got kicked and thrown and tucked into other people’s jackets!

We got to Blackfriars Bridge, along with the rest of the world and his wife, and found a good spot in the middle of the bridge. The fireworks were due to start at 5pm (at which time it’s been dark for about half an hour). The fireworks are set off from a boat on the Thames, somewhere between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriar’s Bridge, so you can view from either.

The display began at 4.55pm (just as well we had got there a little early) and were over by about 5.05pm. What we saw was spectacular, but it certainly left us expecting more. Apparently the show is usually much longer and more spectacular, but I guess no-one has escaped the austerity of the budget cuts that the bosom buddies have introduced since taking office.

As teenagers, my siblings and I used to talk about things being “too much effort and not much fun”, and I think that described our venture to Blackfriars Bridge on Saturday. As a teenager I met someone who described a disappointing event as “a damp squid” … I rest my case.

And on to the veekend viewing. I have mentioned before that we are enjoying the current series of X Factor, the reality TV show for aspiring singers. Saturday’s show began with the final nine, which includes fabulous young soloists, a gorgeous and infectiously enthusiastic boy band, a delightful 50-year old Irish woman who describes herself as a belter and who left her day job as a cashier at Tesco to enter the show. And then there’s Wagner.

Hmm, how to describe Wagner? He’s Brazilian. He’s 54. He has long hair, which he usually wears in a half-moon. He can’t sing. And he can’t dance. Apparently he’s in the show for the sheer entertainment of having a former lion tamer in the line-up. (He was actually a PE teacher, but they keep showing a photo of him in his bare-chested youth, holding the tail of a lion.)

His mentor, Louis Walsh, can’t pronounce his name. No matter how much he’s reminded that Wagner is pronounced Vagner, Louise continues to correct everyone by air writing “W” and saying, “No, it’s spelt with a W. So it’s Wagner.”

However, things seem to have backfired for the show. Last year, a bunch of people started a Facebook group to try and stop the X Factor’s winning single from becoming the Christmas number one (which it usually does). They pushed for support to buy Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name and they succeeded; it outsold the X Factor single. X Factor Haters 1. Simon Cowell 0.

This year, the same group – I understand – have mobilised to vote to keep Wagner in the show. And so he survives week after week. His rendition – or shall I say rending – of Elton John’s I’m Still Standing rang false but true, if you know what I mean, on Saturday night. He dances like he’s running downhill in heels. And he sings like he just stepped down a steep staircase and can’t stop himself. Like he’s trying to keep up with the music. The music always wins. He smiles. And his numbers (and outfits) are always over-stuffed into productions reminiscent of Gary Glitter at his tottery-heeled peak.

Each week when Dermot announces that Wagner is safe (he hasn’t yet been in the bottom two), the X Factor-watching public sighs. No doubt the X Factor haters punch the air. And Louis grimaces – like he doesn’t know what to do next. And week after week talented youngsters slink off the stage, into a future that I hope will bring them more meaning and success than the X Factor drama. And Wagner prevails.

And ve continue to vatch. Vy, I ask you, vy?

Sunshine signing off for today!

Stop with me a while, enjoy Italy in London

I love it when we have friends staying with us. I realised this past weekend that we’ve had more people stay with us in London than anywhere else we’ve lived. London’s like that.

We had a friend staying with us over the weekend and planned a full weekend for him. While not everything went according to plan, it was just how it was meant to be. Life’s like that.

Our plan for Friday night was to go to one of our favourite restaurants next to Tower Bridge. It is right next to London’s City Hall, a modern and interesting-looking building that was added to London’s skyline in 2002.

London's City Hall designed by architect, Norman Foster

So our destination was London Bridge. We stood at the bus stop where the buses all head off in the same general direction. We discovered (actually we knew, but weren’t thinking) that the bus we jumped on gave London Bridge a wide berth. We decided to stay on board and travel to Waterloo and walk back along the South Bank to our final destination. The walk took us about an hour.

We walked the route I described in my blog post last week – Come and walk along the South Bank with me – but without the buskers, the book market and daylight. It was dark and cold, but still a wonderful walk, always with so much to see and soak in. The view of St Paul’s on the far side of the river, lit brightly against a dark, autumn sky, is always breathtaking. We walked past the working replica of the Golden Hinde, the small flagship that unbelievably took Sir Francis Drake around the world in 1577. We walked through, past, alongside and underneath amazing culture and history – I always wonder what the walls have seen and what they could tell us.

When we saw Tower Bridge in the distance, and the Tower of London on the far side of the river, we knew we were nearly there. We got a table upstairs at our favourite Italian restaurant, with the brightly lit Tower Bridge as the backdrop to our meal.

The view from the restaurant

Our delightful young Italian waiter, two months new to London and here to learn English, smiled awkwardly at us as he tried to make sense of our strange accents. English must be bad enough to understand. Saffa English? Heaven help the boy.

We ordered our meals from the menu bursting with Italian delights. Our friend wanted to impress the waiter, so he squeezed in a “Paolo Nutini” with his order, just to sound Italian. That was really funny!

Saturday morning and we headed east to Bethnal Green, to our favourite breakfast spot: ePellicci. Not only is the restaurant itself Grade II listed for its wooden art-deco interior, but it is an experience I would recommend to anyone visiting London. A true East End caff, ePellicci combines the wonderful, witty banter of the East End with the food, hospitality and kind community-mindedness that is typically Italian.

The best caff in London

The restaurant was started in around 1900 by the Pellicci family when they moved to London from Tuscany, and has been run by the family ever since. Mamma works in the kitchen (she is the daughter-in-law of the original couple and was sadly widowed two years ago; a framed photograph of her late husband hangs proudly on the wall), and her son, daughter and nephew run the show, with help of a few young waiters.

It is a tiny restaurant and I would imagine, at capacity (at which it operates constantly) seats about 35 people. The first time we went there, we walked in and were greeted warmly by the daughter who said to me, “Are you stoppin’, young lady?” I was sold.

They fill chairs, not tables, so you will always be seated with other people. The breakfast is a jolly good, greasy, fry-up for a fiver and if you leave anything on your plate, the staff feels bad because you could have substituted what you didn’t like for something else. They don’t want you to lose out – I loved that. Service is good and personal, they introduce people to each other, they have regulars who eat there daily or weekly, and plenty of people who travel from afar to experience Cockney Italian hospitality at its finest. On Saturday they showed us their photo album, which is filled with photos of celebrities – local and international – who have eaten there.

On our first visit, Nevio Jnr insisted on giving us – “guv, and the young lady” – a taste of the bread pudding his mamma made. He wrapped two slices of it in tinfoil for us, told us it was a taste of heaven and asked us to let him know, next time, what we thought of it. Generosity, community-mindedness, good service, personal touch and good, old-fashioned, tasty nosh – I thought you didn’t get any of that, anywhere, any more. ePellicci gives it to you in spades.

I’ll save the rest of our weekend for another post. I wanted you to enjoy a little Italian with us. Music and markets for another day.

Sunshine signing off for today.