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London, May 2012: Part One

July 26, 2012

Christina writes: As impressed as we were by the breakfast at our Oxford hotel, it was far outclassed by that offered at the Chancery Court Hotel in London (I wrote of our arrival there in my previous post). Just the first part of the buffet in the Pearl Restaurant stretched almost thirty feet (nine metres), beginning on the left with hot offerings – the usual bacon, sausage, potatoes, and scrambled eggs (on some days, served in little ceramic dishes) – followed by a wide selection of cereals, including muesli and granola and the option of adding dried fruits, nuts, and seeds. Then came a selection of smoked salmon and cold meats and a variety of breads, including regular and almond croissants and danish pastries. A second buffet in the dining area contained bowls of fresh strawberries, blueberries, melon, and kiwi, whole apples and bananas, yogurts, and fruit juices, including freshly squeezed orange juice. Hot drinks were served by wait staff at the table. We also could have ordered  specially prepared hot dishes, such as omelettes and pancakes, but were fully satisfied with the buffet. If the breakfast had one flaw, Wayne says, it was the hot tea, made with a teabag and rather ordinary after the breakfast tea he had in Oxford.

On Thursday, 17 May, our first full day in London, the first task on our list was to renew our British Library reader’s tickets. We took the Piccadilly Line train from Holborn to King’s Cross and walked along Euston Road to the Library. The registration office had been moved since our last visit and seemed rather busier but very efficient. We received our new cards with little delay. We then visited the Library’s current general exhibition, intended to display the variety of its holdings to visitors at no charge. Since the contents of the exhibition change over time, much of what we saw was new to us, not having been on display on previous visits.

Writing BritainWe then saw the Library’s special exhibition, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands (still on view through 25 September), devoted to British landscapes and cityscapes in reality and as envisioned by authors, artists, illustrators, and photographers. Literary texts (often in manuscript) were juxtaposed with visual interpretations. We were surprised to find the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x) included, as we had seen it only a week earlier in the Romance of the Middle Ages exhibition at the Bodleian. That exhibition closed on 13 May, so there must have been an empty space in one of the two displays for a few days during the overlap. Also on view was the Exeter Book manuscript with the Old English poem The Seafarer, on which Tolkien had worked with E.V. Gordon. A more direct Tolkien connection was his water-colour frontispiece for The Hobbit, The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the Water, displayed in connection with a section on nostalgia for lost countryside. Tolkien was also prominent in the exhibition’s publicity material – posters, a postcard, the cover of a blank notebook – through words from The Lord of the Rings (‘Not all those who wander are lost’) printed against a photograph by Fay Godwin of Top Withers, near Haworth, a ruined house said to have provided inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. After sharing a mediocre bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich in the library cafe, Wayne and I visited the British Library shop, noting a few books of interest and buying one of the exhibition postcards and a small poster. We waited until returning home before purchasing a copy of the book accompanying the exhibition, which was written by our friend and Wayne’s fellow Arthur Ransome enthusiast, Christina Hardyment.

London You're BeautifulNext, we took the Underground to Oxford Circus and walked to the Fine Art Society gallery in New Bond Street to view an exhibition of art by David Gentleman for his newly published book London, You’re Beautiful: An Artist’s Year. Wayne was momentarily disappointed that the Society had already sold all of their autographed copies. From there we went to the Illustration Cupboard, another small gallery, in Bury Street, devoted to children’s book illustration. Their spring exhibition included original artwork by Jan Pienkowski for The Kingdom under the Sea, by Graham Oakley for The Diary of a Church Mouse, and by Robert Ingpen for A Christmas Carol. After that, we walked along Piccadilly to visit two shops selling new books, beginning with Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop (founded in 1797). Hatchards has an especially elegant character and always an excellent selection; happily, they had piles of signed copies of the David Gentleman book, so Wayne was in luck after all. From Hatchards we moved on to Waterstones’ enormous flagship bookshop for further browsing before returning to our hotel by bus, with aching feet (and also aching knees in my case).

We relaxed for a short time in our room before making our way to the Old Amalfi, an Italian restaurant in Southampton Row, for dinner with two friends – only about twelve minutes’ walk, thank goodness. We had met one of the friends through shared interests in both J.R.R. Tolkien and Pauline Baynes, and through him we had come to know his partner. Once again, time flew by as we exchanged news and described our discoveries in Oxford and Bristol. For dinner Wayne and I started with salade angusto; I followed this with veal limone and a dessert I forgot to record, while Wayne chose grilled seabass with zucchini and baby eggplant followed by profiteroles with vanilla ice cream.

Zoffany exhibition brochureOn Friday morning, we returned to Piccadilly to visit two exhibitions at the Royal Academy. The first was John Zoffany R.A.: Society Observed. We had missed seeing a version of this exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, last autumn, when we wisely cut short a visit because of a forecast of torrential rain. Zoffany, a German who became a naturalized British citizen, was one of the most prominent artists during the reign of George III. He is best known for his depictions of famous actors (especially David Garrick) and actresses in their stage roles, and for his group portraits of families and of friends made not just in England but also during his lengthy stays in Florence and India. Two of his most famous works are devoted to depictions of great collections: The Tribune of the Uffizi and Charles Townley’s Library in Park Street. The second, much smaller exhibition at the Royal Academy was Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination, mainly of photographs. We were very interested to see that one of the notes referred to our friend Ptolemy Dean, recently appointed Surveyor of the Fabric to Westminster Abbey. Today Ptolemy is a TV personality, well known for his work on historical buildings and for the watercolour sketches with which he illustrates his books. I knew Ptolemy many years ago while he was working on the first of his two books on Sir John Soane. One of his water-colours, Miss Scull in the Library, hangs in our sitting room, a present Ptolemy gave me on my retirement from the library of Sir John Soane’s Museum in 1995.

Wayne and I then made our way to the Soane in Lincoln’s Inn Fields to meet two of my former colleagues, Helen Dorey, the Deputy Director, and Jane Wilkinson, the Conservator, for lunch. We were very pleased with the choice of restaurant, the Osteria dell’Opera in Covent Garden, which was new to us. Wayne and I both chose to begin with gnocchi al sugo di pollo (gnocchi with chicken ragu and parmesan); I followed this with tiramisu while Wayne had cheesecake with strawberries. Afterward, we returned to the Soane and donned hard hats and yellow jackets for a tour of the renovation and restoration work in progress. Jane proudly displayed the newly designed conservation area – very different from the cramped conditions in my day. I was particularly interested in the ongoing transformation into an exhibition area of the research library where I had presided. Research facilities have now been moved into other spaces, and the old, smaller exhibition space is to be an enlarged shop. Helen was happy to show how, with much ingenuity, the Museum has managed to make all public areas of Soane’s three intricate late 18th- to early 19th-century buildings (nos. 12, 13, and 14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields) handicapped accessible. After our tour, we joined the rest of the Soane staff for afternoon tea. We just had time before the museum closed at 5.00 to visit the restored picture room and the current shop and catch up on publications since our last visit – seven more books added to our tally for this trip, though mostly very thin, as well as a Soane tote bag.

As it was still quite early, we caught a bus to Charing Cross Road to visit Pordes, a bookshop dealing with remainders and secondhand books. Wayne had hoped that they might have a copy of the catalogue of the Society of Antiquaries exhibition we saw at the Yale Center in March (see Four Exhibitions), as it had appeared on Pordes’ online list, but the staff knew nothing about it. (Wayne also looked for it in every other bookshop we visited in England, without success. He bought a copy through abebooks on our return home.) On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at the Forbidden Planet science fiction-fantasy bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, but did not stay long as a signing (by authors we had never heard of) made it difficult to move around. Having eaten well for lunch, for our evening meal we bought at Pret a Manger a tuna and rocket sandwich, which we shared, plus a lemon cake for me and an apple cake for Wayne.

We chose to visit Cambridge on a Saturday (19 May), when trains leaving before 9.30 a.m. are not more expensive. Since the bookshops we wanted to visit opened at 10.00, we took a train from King’s Cross (not from Platform 9¾!) that would reach Cambridge just before that time. We were surprised to find the train quite full, but later discovered that this was one of the days on which some of the 2011 graduates were having their formal graduation ceremony. (A similar occasion was in progress during one of the days we were in Oxford.) The station at Cambridge is some distance from the city centre, but we only had a short wait for a bus. At the other end of the journey, it took us a little time to orient ourselves, but eventually we found our way to Sarah Key’s Haunted Bookshop in St Edward’s Passage, noted especially for secondhand illustrated books and children’s books. It packs a large number of books into a small space on two floors, and though always worth a visit, even under normal circumstances moving around isn’t easy. This time, it was made worse as books had had to be shifted after part of the premises suffered a water leak, and there was a problem with the electricity which allowed no artificial light in the upper room (fortunately, Wayne always carries a pocket torch, i.e. flashlight). Even so, we found three books to add to our collection: Kingdoms for Horses by James Agate, illustrated by Rex Whistler (an artist who influenced Pauline Baynes), Rebuilding Shakespeare’s Globe by Andrew Gurr & John Orrell (autographed by the authors as well as actor Sam Wanamaker who was the key person in building the Globe restoration), and Anne of Windy Willows by L.M. Montgomery in an old edition to fill a gap in my Anne (of Green Gables) collection.

David’s Bookshop, also in St Edward’s Passage, offers a mixture of remainders, secondhand, and antiquarian books. After browsing for a while and chatting for a few minutes with the proprietor about the state of current students’ interest in books, Wayne purchased Willy Pogany Rediscovered, edited and selected by Jeff Mengs, and The Terracotta Designs of Alfred Waterhouse by Colin Cunningham, and I bought The Medieval Quest for Arthur by Robert Rouse & Cory Rushton. We then made our way to Heffers, the main university bookshop, where we bought a new printing of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, having been informed that it included some corrections, including an amendment of the misstatement that Tolkien had been a noted breaker of horses for King Edward’s Horse.

Our afternoon in Cambridge was devoted to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Trumpington Street, a walk of some distance from the city centre. As we were now feeling a little hungry, we made our way to the museum café where we shared a warm apple and blueberry cake with cream and a large bottle of water. Thus refreshed, we visited the exhibition The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasure from Han China, some 350 items in jade, gold, silver, bronze, and ceramics from the Han period (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), including two jade suits and a reconstructed tomb. Wayne had never visited the Fitzwilliam before, and I had been only once, long ago, so we also skimmed through the permanent galleries, slowing when we saw items of particular interest.

On our way to the museum, we had noticed a nearby Loch Fyne seafood restaurant and thought that it might be a good place to eat. In fact, it turned out to be the only disappointing meal of our trip. My ‘whole grilled plaice, lemon and parsley beurre noisette, new potatoes, watercress’ looked good on the menu, as did Wayne’s ‘haddock, twice-baked chips, mushy peas, and homemade tartar sauce’. But we both found our meals bland, and neither of us enjoyed having to pick out so many bones. We both left a lot on the plate. We then topped up with a shared dessert described as ‘apple crumble’ but which was more raisin than apple. It did not help that the staff was inattentive, despite the restaurant not being very busy. Although we had aching feet and legs, we decided to walk back to the station, about twenty-five minutes, since it was almost two-thirds that distance to the nearest bus stop with no guarantee of only a short wait. Along the way, not far from Loch Fyne, we found ourselves in front of the Cambridge branch of the Bistro du Vin, the terrific restaurant we knew from Bristol, and kicked ourselves for not knowing it was there! We could only imagine the better meal we might have had.

The train back to London was again rather crowded, but we found seats and settled in for the return journey.

Images, top to bottom: Projected sign in the British Library for the exhibition Writing Britain, described above; dust-jacket by David Gentleman for his book London, You’re Beautiful, published by Penguin; cover of the brochure for the Royal Academy exhibition on Zoffany.

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