Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Day in the City of London

The doubleganger and I decided we were due a return visit to our old haunts in the City of London where both of us had worked for many years. Kate was keen to check out the recently refurbished St Paul’s Cathedral and I wanted to make a long over-due visit to the Geffrye Museum of Historical English Interiors. On a day typical of the wettest May London has seen since the 18th century, we met in a downpour on the slippery steps of St Paul’s.

In a recent post covering my favourite freebies in London, I used the opportunity to whinge about both St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey charging hefty entrance fees to visitors. I still think it is a sad state of affairs but the transformation of St Paul’s is so magnificent that I can only encourage everyone to open your wallet, give them the £9 and go.

After spending four years under scaffolding at a cost of £10.8 million, the interior of the St Paul’s has undergone a stunning restoration as part of its 300th anniversary that has left it gleaming and magnificent. During the “mother of all spring cleanings”, over 1,000 cubic feet of dust were removed and 15,500 square meters of stone cleaned. Although I have visited St Paul’s countless times, I found the cleaned-up mosaics, paintings and stonework much more exciting and engaging. To keep children interested and for anyone who would like spectacular views over London (without paying the £13 for the London Eye), be sure to climb to the Golden Gallery in the Dome which rises 285 feet (85.4 meters) above the Cathedral floor.

On the day we were there, staff was setting up an exhibition of photographs taken of Anne Frank’s family by her father before the family was to go into hiding from the Nazis. This exhibition will remain in the Cathedral until June 12 and is included in the admission charge.

From St Paul’s, we decided to walk to Spitalfields for lunch. On the way, Kate introduced me to one of those places in the City which you can walk by hundreds of times and have no idea of the importance. In this case it was a bust of William Shakespeare in a charming small garden off of Love Lane dedicated to John Heminge and Henry Condell, actors and friends of Shakespeare, who collected his plays and arranged for the publication of the first folios in 1623. The memorial presents the case that without the selfless diligence of these two men, the world might never have heard of William Shakespeare.

On top of that, behind the garden is the remains of the Christopher Wren church of St Mary Aldermanbury which was built in the 1670’s, destroyed in the Blitz in 1940 and moved to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in the 1960’s where Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech. I was completely amazed to find important milestones in the lives of Shakespeare and Churchill in one hidden corner of London. But then, that is London.

After a stroll through Spitalfields, we ended up at St John Bread & Wine on Commercial Street opposite the market. This is the “little brother” of St John in Smithfield Market, a shrine to lovers of animal entrails of every description. I had been dying to try this place and Kate was game. The menu is limited and somewhat challenging ( stuff you don’t usually eat and/or stuff you’ve never heard of or don’t want to hear of) but what we had was superb. I had the devilled kidneys on toast and Kate had the best looking bowl of cockles I’ve ever seen. With tip, lunch came to £15 a head.

After lunch and en route to the Geffrye Museum, we had a Carpe Diem moment which I am happy to report, we seized. Walking down Folgate Street to show Kate the outside of Dennis Severs House, I let her know that this was one of my favourite places to visit in London but difficult to see because of the limited opening times. Just then we noticed that the door at Number 18 was open. We had been lucky to stumble on an out-of-hours opening and even luckier to be included in the group making their way around what David Hockney has described as “one of the world’s five greatest experiences”. Like everyone, Kate was blown away and if you find yourself in London on a Monday or the first or third Sunday of the month I can give you no better advice than to drop everything and visit this house. Opening times are explained in more detail on the website. It’s a good idea to call ahead.

After we finished communing with the French Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields, we finally made our way to the Geffrye Museum of Domestic Interiors on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch. Turning into the front garden surrounding the beautiful 18th century former almshouses of the Ironmongery Company, one gets a good dose of that “step back in time” feeling which makes London one of the best of all possible cities to be a visitor.

We began our visit in the older buildings working our way around to the new wing, eager to see the special exhibition Domestic Archaeology, an audio-visual investigation of the living room. As we approached the exhibition, the fire alarm sounded.

Now every society has moments in its history which brand the national psyche forever and after living in London for over a decade, I am convinced that the big event as far as this town is concerned remains the Great Fire of 1666 after which 87 churches, 13,200 houses and 436 acres of the city lay in ashes. To this day, Londoners take their fires seriously. Former New Yorkers are less excited and given that we were rapidly chased out of the building, we decided to stroll through the award winning gardens. This gave great displeasure to the stressed-out guard who insisted that we congregate with the rest of the visitors as the fire brigade, straight out of Fahrenheit 451, rushed into the building. At that point, we decided to call it a day and left the Geffrye Museum to its fate. You’ll be happy to know this oasis of calm in the bustling East End of London is still standing.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Ludgate Hill
Tel: 020 7246 8357
Tube: St Paul’s

Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 16:00

St John Bread and Wine, Spitalfields
94-96 Commercial Street
London E1 6LZ
Tel: 020 7251 0848

Dennis Severs House
18 Folgate Street
Spitalfields London E1 6BX
(closest tube station is Liverpool Street)
Tel: 00 7247 4013Fax: 020 7377 5548
The house is open every Monday evening (except holidays). Times vary according to the season. £12 Reservations required ALSO the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month between 2- 5 PM £8 no reservations AND lunchtime between 12 – 2 PM on the Monday following the first and third Sunday. £5 no reservations .

Geffye Museum
136 Kingsland Road
London E28EA
Tel: 020 7739 9893
Tube: Old Street
Open Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 5pm
Sundays & Bank Holiday Mondays 12 - 5pm
Closed Mondays (unless Bank Holiday), Good Friday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year's Day

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