At the snaillike pace that I am going (one post per week; one day per post), it will be December by the time that I am done documenting this three-week trip. On one hand, I think it is worth it: the more I write, the more I realize how much happened each day. On the other hand, I hope I won’t forget about the finer details as time goes by.
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Justin and I kick-started our first full day in London with a trip to the celebrated Borough Market, which was situated conveniently across the street from our hostel. The two of us had heard plenty about the market and were looking forward to sampling what it had to offer. Although the physical size of the market was smaller than what I had anticipated, it housed a large array of produce, meats, and artisanal delicacies like chocolates, cheeses, and oils. What I especially liked was looking at seasonal vegetables (white asparagus was a big hit) and others that were rarely seen in the conventional North American supermarket. One item that stood out was ping-pong-sized baby white radishes, bizarre enough to prompt an elderly passerby to comment:
They were kind of cute, really.
After a quick survey of the market’s stalls and the tasting booths, Justin opted for an oatmeal shake, precisely because it sounded very healthy to him. In fact, it lived up to our expectations and tasted very “healthy.” I settled with a roast pork sandwich from a roast meat shop named Hobbs. It was simply Thanksgiving-to-go: a baguette packed with generous servings of pork loin, stuffing, thick cranberry sauce, and chunky apple sauce. Other sandwich options available were turkey breast with stuffing, scotch beef with horseradish sauce, and salt beef with dill pickle… Exactly the type of thing that I wanted to have first thing in the morning, even before my coffee.
Having satiated our stomachs, we continued our journey eastwards along the riverbank. The City Hall and the Design Museum, located a short walk away from the market, were next on our itinerary. Actually, maybe I should have titled this post “Of Architecture” instead. From our departure from Borough Market at about 11 a.m. until our arrival at the theatre at 8 p.m., visits to various architectural landmarks and exhibitions occupied much of the day. Unfortunately for Justin, there seemed to have been a special guest at the City Hall that day (a red carpet affair), and access to the building was restricted. Instead of admiring the building’s spiral structure from within, we entertained ourselves by photographing its exterior.
(If you flip through my trip album, you will notice that the majority of the photos of food and tiny things that I saw and liked, rather than of monuments and buildings… Meh.)
We then proceeded to the Design Museum to see its exhibition on Richard Rogers. For those of us who are not acquainted with the history of architecture, let’s just say he is the guy who designed the Centre Pompidou. Does that ring a bell now? I found both his work and the thematic organization of the exhibition itself impressive. Of the various projects that the museum showcased, the Bordeaux Law Courts and the National Assembly for Wales most captivated my imagination. Personally, I felt that these two works were exceptionally successful in their physical and poetic embodiment of the civic values of the societies that they served and represented.
Departing from museum after a short rest at its cafe, we travelled to the financial district to examine London’s other architectural marvels: Lloyd’s Building and 30 St Mary Axe. The former is a project by Richard Rogers, and it felt a bit strange to see the real thing so soon after leaving the exhibition. The latter, thanks to its shape, is referred to by Londoners affectionately as the “Gherkin.” For me, ever since we first set foot in London, I had been calling that structure the “Bullet.” Despite that Justin tried to convince me of its architectural merit, I still did not quite get it. Nope, still don’t.
As it was the weekend, the financial district was deserted: no businessmen, no tourists, nobody but an eerie silence. If someone asks me which part of London did I find the least populated, I’d answer: “The financial district, of course!” Of the small handful of people that we encountered near the aforementioned landmarks, most were architecture aficionados, snapping away with their giant Canon and Nikon digital SLR cameras. So now we all know who take over London’s financial district on Saturdays and Sundays: architects, architecture students, and their partners.
Leaving the Gherkin behind, we began our trek to nowhere. I really wanted to take Justin to the Brick Lane and Spitalfields neighbourhood that I had enjoyed so much on my visit five years ago. Aside from the markets, there were also design shops on Cheshire Street, like Shelf, that I wanted to show the guy. So, we started to randomly walk northwards, only to get miserably lost. I suppose it really is not a good idea to base your sense of direction on blurry mental images of what a neighbourhood used to look like five years ago.
“I don’t think it’s that way.”
“Well, I don’t recall seeing these new buildings when I came here in 2003.”
Eventually we did locate the New Spitalfields Market, but it wasn’t quite as how I had remembered it. The moral of the story is that I should have done more research or brought my old maps with me whenever I visit an unfamiliar place that I have not been to for half a decade.
“Skin+Bones,” hosted by the Somerset House, was the second exhibition that we saw that day. Originally, Justin and I were very interested in seeing this, since it advertised itself as an effort to celebrate the “synergies between fashion and architecture” and featured many designers or architects that we admired. The actual display, however, was a bit disappointing for both of us: the exhibits on fashion and on architecture functioned more as two monologues than as a dialogue. The two components of the show were so disconnected that the exhibition could have been split in half and no one would notice the difference. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed walking through the Somerset estate itself and its other regular exhibitions. If only we had more time before the building’s closing time, we would have stayed longer in its courtyard to watch kids play with its water fountains. For those of you who will be going to London, I highly recommend a visit to the Somerset House.
Even though London is a city noted for its bustling nightlife, Justin and I had a hard time thinking of what to do next. Neither of us liked drinking at bars, pubs, or clubs (okay, we are two crashing bores), so joining the local pub crawlers and partygoers was out of question. Originally, we had planned to go to Café in the Crypt at the St. Martin’s Church for supper. While we had expected it to be a tourist hotspot, we were put off by its canteen-like atmosphere. So there we were, standing right in the middle of Charing Cross, stuck with nothing to do.
Luckily, we managed to secure two last-minute tickets (first row on the balcony!) for the spectacle “Thirty-Nine Steps.” Based on an Alfred Hitchcock film with the same title, it featured a cast of 4 but a whopping 150 characters. I do not want to spoil the play for those of you who have not seen it, but I just want to say that I loved every bit of it. It was unbelievable how so much could be accomplished with so little.
Names & Addresses
Borough High Street
London, SE1 1TL
40 Cheshire Street
London, E2 6EH
London, WC2R 1LA