part 3 of our Birmingham-Spain-London trip

Hampstead – Westminster Abbey – Dean Street Townhouse for afternoon tea – Covent Garden – London Museum – Camden Town

photo by Adam Hardy

We’d been looking forward to stopping in one of the four rooms above the King William pub in Hampstead High Street for some while. Hampstead is well-to-do, graceful, a bit quirky and a historic village but not far from the action. The tube stop was very close by, we could walk to Hampstead Heath, we were near lots of shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs and of course we had a great pub right beneath our room! Oh, plus the famous crepe stand close by outside the pub (it’s been there for 30 years and we’d had a crepe there on our London visit previously when we’d visited Hampstead).

The mostly French bar staff were very friendly too, and showed us to our small room but which was full of character. We had a 4 poster bed and a large fireplace mantel! We were also to learn soon that there was a hotel cat, which was a sweet thing who waited outside our room for some attention on most nights.

It was about 7.00-7.30 in the evening now and dark outside, of course. We had a meal at the pub downstairs, beer and either cider or soft drink for Marie. There’s some great characters at the pub. Hampstead in general is the sort of place you find eccentric characters, as well as a host of celebrities. Behind Marie were a table of probably fledgling actors, whilst at the other side of the bar sat a jolly, elderly lady who was clearly a regular. She called over to Marie and I, “hello dears, I love you”! And an old chap with a Sherlock Holmes hat walked by sucking his pint of beer through a straw!

Day 11 –

For the whole holiday, as I always do I made skeletal notes in my travel journal so as to write everything up when I got home. Imagine the typewriter and Jessica Fletcher music at the start of ‘Murder She Wrote’! But for the London leg I thought I’d just rely on looking at the photos we took because I’d taken so many. I’d be piecing together everything we were to do over the next 3 days partly through memory, through the photos and with the help of Marie’s memory!

We woke in beautiful Hampstead then, and made the walk of about 30 feet to one of our breakfast options, the Coffee Cup café. Reading about it online beforehand, apparently many famous people have ended up eating here at some point, including Paul McCartney. It’s basically a very nice, wood panelled, 1950s greasy spoon owned by Italians (we think). Well it’s more than a greasy spoon, as it’s a restaurant too later in the day.

So many eateries in London are Italian owned! We sat down to enjoy a full English breakfast and coffee at around 10 pounds a piece, one of the biggest full English’s we’d ever had. For American readers, that’s English bacon (closer to Canadian bacon than American), sausage, fried egg, beans, fried tomato and toast – the ideal way to set yourself up til late afternoon without having to eat again!

Today we would be doing a major historical site, Westminster Abbey. Before the trip, Marie had said that she’d like to do either Hampton Court Palace or Westminster Abbey (which Marie visited when she was 16 years old in the 1990s). We got the tube from Hampstead Station – about 100 yards from our hotel – and got 7 pounds day passes each. Travelling by tube along the Northern Line proved to be really easy over the next few days and there were no line closures either. We got off at Embankment, and we loved the walk along the Thames, also ducking into Whitehall Gardens which was equally scenic. Walking along the river, I posed for a photo in front of the London Eye, then we admired a brilliant new Battle of Britain brass sculpture relief.

A number of sheds by the river were selling Thames boat tour tickets, going to either Greenwich or Thames Barrier. We thought about booking one for the next day but didn’t bother in the end because we had so many other things we wanted to do.

Now we came up to the Houses of Parliament. Marie said, ‘”don’t forget Lisa and Neal are here today so keep your eyes peeled”. Considering the masses of tourists, I thought she was partly jesting. Neal had written to his local mp in Solihull to request visiting the House of Commons, and to watch the debates including ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time”! Apparently, your mp pretty much can’t refuse if you request to do this. Lisa and Neal were in London for just a day to do this and a little bit of other sightseeing.

Next to Westminster Abbey then. I only had a vague idea what to expect. Well, I suppose I just expected a grand abbey. As we were going in, Marie said we would probably be there 3 hours. Quite a lot of tourists, but not too bad, we paid and also got the self-guided tour headphones.

I must say that the next 3 hours were quite fascinating and we also had plenty of time to sit inbetween a lot of standing and milling. On the headset, Jeremy Irons gave his commentary on all the main aspects of the abbey. Of course, all royal weddings had taken place here, since…I think the 11th century, and all coronations too. In Medieval times, major royal events held here had often happened surrounded by disorganised peasant revelry but by 1953 the Queen’s coronation had been more sedately arranged with several thousand extra seats put in. The most interesting facet of the abbey is arguably the people buried there! From notorious ex Kings and Queens like Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to literary, historical and artistic giants in Poets Corner…Keats, Darwin, Lawrence Olivier etc etc etc.

Towards the end we walked through the cloisters (where you were allowed to take photos), and we sat in the gardens within. Very few tourists took any notice of the gardens, so we enjoyed them pretty much on our own and sat on a bench by a pond with a view of Big Ben over the trees.

From the abbey, we got the tube to Tottenham Court Road. We would be having afternoon tea tomorrow and after research had chosen the Dean Street Townhouse. We wanted to go in personally and book for two days ahead. We found it easily enough, not far off Oxford Street, and I went in to reserve the table. The whole room had already been reserved for Thursday, so instead I booked us a table for 4pm tomorrow afternoon.

The DST looked just the ticket, and the afternoon tea (with cake stand) is one of the best deals around London.

We then took a general walk around tourist Ville. Leicester Square was heaving with crowds watching some kind of musical event. We passed a Five Guys! We’ve had Five Guys in New York – which originally came from Washington DC – and there is a branch of this quality fast-food burger emporium only about 2 miles from us in College Point near Whitestone. We’ve been a dozen or so times in NY. We were surprised to find one in London, and a big branch at that. We also passed a sculpture of Agatha Christie.

We then strode along by the Strand and sat in Trafalgar Square as night fell. Very oddly, they’ve replaced one of the symmetrical soldiers on horseback from one side of the National Gallery with a sculpture of a giant blue cockerel!! Not sure why, but we liked it anyway!

We got a lot of ‘tourist grockel’ pleasure from relaxing and just sitting in the square.

Back along by Covent Garden on busy tourist-laden streets, Marie spotted…my sister, Lisa, and brother-in-law, Neal, directly opposite us on the other side of the street!!!

The chances of bumping into them in London must have been almost nil, so it was fated!! We tried in vain to find the Cross Keys pub. Marie has a great memory for directions, but we struggled at first before we then came to Covent Garden Market. 2 or 3 years ago, we’d met Chris and his friend, also Chris, and Mo at the Punch and Judy pub and had gone on to the Cross Keys. It was the Punch and Judy that Marie knew how to get to and – though it can be packed, and it was – we were very happy to wangle getting an outdoor table in the patio space below and enjoyed an hour of conversation and drinks. It was now about 8pm and L and N hadn’t even booked into their hotel yet. Earlier they’d been to the Barbican Centre and to the Museum of London (or London Museum), which Lisa recommended to Marie and I. The next morning they’d be doing the House of Commons visit/tour.

It was great – and of course very unexpected – to have seen them one more time!

That was it for Marie and I for the day too, and we went back to Hampstead. I think we got snacks from Tesco Express to take back to our room and devour whilst watching channel Dave. We passed a clothes shop which proudly displayed a hand written message from Judy Dench on how much she loved their attire.

Back at the hotel, before bed we heard a mewing outside our door and were delighted to find a very affectionate hotel cat pining for some fuss. I think it was a she, she didn’t have any interest in trying to get into our room but just wanted some petting. Her ‘home’ was the staff room a few feet down the corridor. Marie is allergic to cats but loves them anyway.

Day 12 –

Over the next day and a half we’d be kind of following in some of Lisa and Neal’s footsteps. Like Lisa and Neal had the day before, we thought we’d also try the London Museum today on their recommendation. Tomorrow we planned to go to Camden and had already decided to see Camden Town and locks before we‘d left New York,. Coincidentally L and N had also just made a visit to Camden the previous day.

Again for breakfast we had the classic full English at the Coffee Cup, which we knew would sate us until late afternoon tea and cakes at Dean Street Townhouse. We walked off breakfast a bit around Hampstead, trying an alleyway or two off the High Street. Then the tube train to the Barbican, where we just ducked in to have a quick look and where I used the facilities. Then onwards and upwards for the few minutes walk to the London Museum.

One of the chief attractions of the museum right now is the ‘Cheapside Hoard’. In 1912, workmen excavating a cellar in Cheapside found a hoard of 16th and 17th Century jewels, and these are now on display at the museum as an additional, pay extra exhibit. We were interested but not enough to queue up and pay extra so we gave that a miss.

We both enjoyed the museum a lot. It’s not overwhelming, it’s fun and full of surprises. You start with a corridor of pre-historic London and ancient artefacts. A lot of the area that became Greater London was swampland a few thousand years ago. The museum had used the talents and imagination of local teenagers to help make exhibits intriguing and relatable. Ancient objects used in everyday pre historic times were shown next to their modern day equivalents. Then onto Roman occupied ‘Londinium’, through Medieval Times (the great fire of London, 1666 etc etc) and gradually up to the Victorian and then modern era. The first London cab is on display, an ornate lift from Selfridges from the 1920s, a mock up of a Victorian street and so on. Then lots of items from the 50s, swinging 60s etc to Olympics exhibits from 2012.

A fine couple of hours at the museum. Marie posed for photos next to a dalek!

Then on to Soho Square once more, for a rest stop. And from there for our 4pm reservation at Dean Street Townhouse. I imagined we’d be sitting at a formal table, but – no – you’re shown to a relaxed lounge area and sit on low comfy, old fashioned furniture in a beautiful atmospheric pocket at the back. We enthusiastically savoured the pots of tea and pastries over the next hour-and-a-half, especially the scones and clotted cream. I suppose afternoon tea is a lady’s thing to some extent, but I have no shame in saying that I equally enjoy it. We devoured everything from the little chocolate cake to the macarrones. As is obvious from my journals, we greatly enjoy our food in general. In fact, it annoys me when other people take such things for granted. I notice all the time, in restaurants, that other customers barely even talk about their food and then leave a lot. There are even ‘beer crimes’ that go on; customers leaving half or three quarters of a pint on their table after they’ve left. Next to us, some French speaking women left over half of their cakes on the stand uneaten. Marie told me afterwards that one of the women picked up the battenburg cake, gave a look of disgust and put it back with disdain, We can’t understand that attitude. Okay, they’re paying for it but when you get natives in Africa grateful for plain rice…well, it’s a cliché but it’s so true. Anyway, a bit of brief venting there!

We both loved the DST and would definitely go back there, though there are also other great places in London for afternoon or high tea we want to try so we’ll probably do somewhere different every time we’re in London if we can.

Back in Hampstead for the evening, we finally tried the Hollybush pub. In 2010 we’d made the short but steep climb to this historic establishment only to find we couldn’t get a seat (it had been the weekend) but now we settled at a table easily. A fantastic pub, it’s at the highest point in Hampstead.

One of the bartenders or kitchen staff came round to try customers with free, experimental Christmas appetiser bites, and there was also a good range of Fullers ales.

From there, we went on a short nocturnal meander up Heath Street to get a glimpse of the edge of the Heath. It was dark now of course but we just wanted a quick nose before we walked the Heath proper tomorrow morning. There was a Whitestone Pond and Whitestone Walk!

Day 13 –

For the last day of the whole holiday, we would be spending time mostly in the London suburbs of Hampstead and Camden Town.

We had a different kind of breakfast this time; tea and pastries at a quaint Hungarian bakery, Louis Patisserie. Delicious, if a bit pricey. From there we took the few hundred yards uphill walk to Hampstead Heath. I imagined we’d just be on flat open grassland – and I’m sure there’s lots of that too – but we took a stunning mile or two long wooded path, passing a few joggers and many dog walkers along the way. I took about 40 photos along the route, it that was photogenic.

It was blissfully escapist and you wouldn’t have known you were in part of Greater London. At one point, an elderly couple passed us, then the woman came back to the bench we were sat on. She told us she had to feed her robin, gave some kind of whistle or signal and the bird duly flew on to her palm and fed from the seeds. She said she’s been feeding the same robin for 3 years! We tried calling the bird after she’d left, but nothing.

a photo I took at the end of our Heath walk in Hampstead, before we exited back to the village…

Eventually we emerged at an open field, a pond and then back onto roads that led us naturally full-circle and up towards Hampstead High Street again.

Back to the hotel for a rest, we petted the cat again, and then went back out. We bought day tube tickets once more and made the short journey to Camden Town. The first thing we did was make straight for our well planned lunch, at Poppies chip and fishery. Lisa and Neal had also tried this. We liked the wartime décor and atmosphere that Poppies carefully contrives, down to the staff uniform. Marie ordered up a large cod (unusual for Marie) and chips, myself a large haddock and we shared mushy peas and bread and butter. Champion fare!

Camden could not be more of a contrast to Hampstead Heath! Alternative, busy, slightly grungey but trendy and full of colour and bustle. I hadn’t been to the Market since around 10 or 15 years ago (?) with Chris, when he bought a brass Buddha.

We watched the locks being changed at the canals by the market. It’s done by volunteers and we watched a young woman and then another use all their might to get the deed done. I didn’t recognise much from my last visit. We mooched around a plethora of multi-ethnic food stalls (Greek, Spanish, Ethiopian, you name it) and then indoors to other stalls where I bought a pocket watch for 4 pounds! We found them being sold everywhere afterwards, but so far (back in New York for 2 weeks) it seems to be high quality and is keeping time well.

We watched a dancing bear (well, a bloke in a bear suit), and marvelled at the sculptural reliefs outside shops….giant doc martins and the like.

We then made a ten minute walk away from the hustle and bustle to a pub I’d looked up in the Good Beer Guide, the Prince Albert. It took a while to find it. We had to ask someone (maybe a medical student?). He told us the pub had a huge Charrington’s sign outside – the brewery? – but assured us that would be the Prince Albert. It was tremendous, all cream and green tiles with a great interior and exterior. There were two bartenders on, both early 20s I’d say, an Irishman and a Northerner. Very friendly, when asking for ale tips they gave me about 4 or 5 sample glasses of each so I’d already had almost a pint before I’d even ordered! Even Marie had a pint (Buttcombe, I think – I forget) and we sat outside in the small side garden/patio. It was going to be the last beer of the holiday!

The bar staff clearly enjoyed working there, as they spent a lot of time larking around.

And for our last supper? Marie noted yesterday that we’d had some fine meals on the trip but not many pies. I went on the kindle and read reviews. People raved about the Pie Room in Fitzrovia, which is above the Newman Arms pub in Rathbone Street. We got there at about 5pm. The very small pub was packed and we were informed that the Pie Room didn’t open until 6.00. We made for a quiet pub across the street, which also proved to be a nice find, the Wheatsheaf. I drank sparkling water but don’t tell any friends! I didn’t want to get bloated and just aimed to focus on the food now. We ate pork scratchings and studied London rental prices from a magazine we’d picked up.

Back over to the Pie Room a few minutes early, they let us in. It’s – like many other establishments we’d been to – all wood and traditional décor. A friendly middle-aged lady served us. Marie stated that she was going to have beef and guinness pie, but that if I wanted to have the same just to go for it and not try to select a different pie just to be…well, different. I went for the beef and guinness too. Then hearty dishes arrived with accompaniments, and puff pastry three inches high. Other pies on offer were steak and kidney, chicken and a lot more and some specials like oxtail and roast chestnut in ale.

Prices were good and around about the same as Poppies had been earlier.

A possibly Chinese couple, probably in their 60s, came in and sat at the next table. The restaurant is very small by the way. They were chatty and friendly and had never eaten a British pie before. Turned out they live in Idaho. We offered them advice as they pondered our mysterious eight-miles-high puff pastry, and the (other) Australian waitress tried to help them too.

A funny thing happened as we were leaving. I almost left my bag under the table – the second time on the trip that we’d almost forgotten a vitally important piece of our luggage (I had the camera in the bag for a start)…now, we call my khaki colour canvas bag ‘Colonel Tapioca’, as that’s the name of the shop I bought it from in Valencia many years ago. Or we call the bag, ‘the Colonel’ or ’tapioca’ for short. Anyway, Marie exclaimed to me as I stood up from our table, ‘don’t forget Tapioca!!” and the Chinese bloke shouted after us as we were leaving “no, don’t forget Tapioca – most important”!

Walking back through Fitzrovia, the ultra friendly owner of an Italian restaurant came out of his gaff, chatted to us and said we must try his restaurant next year. There was a photo in the window of him posing next to Mick Jagger.

That was it, really, We went back to Hampstead and the hotel early to pack, bought a bit of stuff at Tesco Express to take home (chocolates for people at work). The staff had arranged a 6am minicab for us tomorrow, to draw up outside the pub downstairs. In the rain and dark of the morning, we let the butcher in to the pub to deliver the meat, then waited outside on the street. The taxi was slightly late – it arrived just as I was walking to a phone box a few feet away to call them – but once again the driver was friendly and the fare cheap. He lived near to the airport, conveniently (in Hounslow) because it was his last fare of the night and was “going to Tescos and then to take the kids to school” before his daytime nap.

At Heathrow airport Marie led us to Gate 8 after we got through security. As it happened, it was the wrong gate. Marie looked at the pre-boarding passes and realized we should be at Gate 22. We were very early though. A major trudge to Gate 22, which must have been a good mile through the airport.

Interestingly, an extrovert, jolly American pilot came out to the gate and waiting area at Gate 23 to give an entertaining talk to the passengers on his Atlanta bound flight, cracking jokes and geeing them up!!

We agreed that it had probably been our best ever holiday together! All parts of the trip had worked well and we’d certainly try the Brum-London-Spain combo again, maybe with 6 nights in Brum, 4 nights in Spain and 4 in London or 6 in Brum, 6 in Spain (maybe including a day in Valencia) and 2 in London.

Back home, and our ritual post-holiday meal at Gyro World in Auburndale in New York and an early night.

Published by heathgrip

An Englishman in New York for around 15 years, I met a wonderful, beautiful, cannily smart and talented girl from Flushing, Queens whilst I was living in Manchester, UK, through the internet in 2005 and we married in Spring 2006! We both have a passion for travel, restaurants, history, music, all kinds of fun events. Who doesn't? I'm an artist and photographer, and also love to write. Anything creative really (you can keep your science and technology!). I've sent journals back home to family and friends for many years and they've often suggested I start a blog with writings pasted from my journals. So here it is!

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