Friday, 3 February 2012

China Town - Chinese New Year 2012

Clattering, clanging and crashing its way through Chinatown, the chaotic and mesmerising Lion Dance was my first experience of London’s Chinese New Year celebrations. As I joined the crush of people penguin-walking towards the source of the commotion, I notices the tens of street stalls set up especially for the occasion either side of the street.

Amongst the trinkets and ready-to-eat whole ducks, my inner 6-year-old jumped for joy at the sight of miniature fire-crackers. By the time I had gleefully picked up a packet, the Lion Dance had travelled up the street to directly in front of where I was standing.

It was an incredible spectacle. Two Dragon-Lions, each made up of two people (a front and a back) with a large, draped, glittering costume over them leaped high and crouched low as the Dragon’s jaws opened and closed, attempting at one point to playfully devour an unsuspecting bystander. Stood behind the dragons was the percussion band entourage, armed with cymbals of all shapes and sizes, producing an exciting cacophonous sound.

As the procession moved on and I pressed through the crowd, I began to make my way towards Trafalgar Square. On arrival, there were yet more stalls, tents and trinkets with a large stage set up next to Nelson’s column, nestled between two of the Great British Lions. There were a number of acts through the day, many of whom travelled from China. The performance as I arrived was a Chinese Opera singer’s rendition of ‘O Solo Mio’, and I was immediately shocked by the power and volume coming out of his slight, circa 5’8” stature!

After enjoying the performance, lunch was next on the agenda. It took some time wandering around in the 0˚c temperatures before finding a Korean bistro on the edges of Chinatown. It is worth noting that the streets of Central Chinatown (around Denmark Street) are filled with people at Chinese New Year and there is an absolute minimum ½ hour wait to get in. My plan for next year will involve booking a table at one of the restaurants closer to the edge of Chinatown, or arriving better wrapped up with the expectation of the wait…

After a late lunch, we headed back towards Trafalgar Square to watch the closing ceremony. The high-pitched warbling of the Chinese singer carried across Trafalgar Square and beyond as I arrived and although perhaps not what I would choose to listen to was undoubtedly interesting.

The finale of the New Year’s celebrations comprised a fantastic acrobatics, dance and lighting display. Two sturdy flag-bearers were raised up on platforms either side of the stage whilst performers delivered a Kung-Fu inspired dance to rousing music and impressive visuals on the screens either side of the stage before the Year of the dragon was finally ushered in with a short firework display.

I will plan my day slightly differently next year, arriving earlier, booking a lunch for around 14:00 and truing to pick up the Lion Dancers, the highlight for me, from the start of their procession but I will undoubtedly be going back!

Were you at the Chinese New Year celebrations in London or elsewhere across the Globe? What were your highlights?

Monday, 30 January 2012

Borough Market

This is my favourite part of London. I lived in Mansion House in central London for a year and Borough Market became my sanctuary most weekends. This is a place that any foodie must visit. Better than Harrods or Selfridges’ food halls and with street food as good as many restaurants, Borough Market offers the best of fresh, cured, baked and cooked ingredients.

Although it fits into quite a compact area, the variety of food on offer is vast. There are large stores that are ‘staples’ of the market such as Brindisa, offering the best Spanish ingredients in London and the celebrated Neal’s Yard dairy which started it all and which pedals a beautiful range of artisan cheeses. There are cooked food stalls, offering food from sausages to seafood curry. Then there is the world food offering, with stalls selling spices, herbs and seasonings from India, Mexico, Italy, France, Turkey and more. If you are looking for some slightly more obscure items, it is likely you will find them here or in the surrounding area.

I have a number of haunts in Borough Market. One of my favourites is on the way in as you enter the market from Stoney Street, just down from Borough tube stop: Le Marche du Quartier. As you walk in, your nostrils are hit by the beautiful smell of duck cooking in an enormous skillet at the same time your ears are assailed by a bald Frenchman in a flatcap bawling his wares across the market! As you enter the store, be sure to look on the left, where you will see a pair of barrels from which, French-style, you can bring a 500cl or 1l bottle to fill up with red or white wine. As well as other bottles of wine, the store contains a host of other French treats including cheeses, confit duck legs, and wonderful jars of pre-prepared cassoulet.

Another favourite stall is just 2 shops down from Le Marchet; a shop called Utobeer. This contains probably the largest range of continental beers I have ever seen. Belgian, German, or the newly emerging range of artisan American ‘Craft’ beers are all available. What’s more, Utobeer have an excellent pub further into the market called The Rake with a nice little beer garden that is as nice in the winter with the awning drawn over as it is with the sun beaming down in the heart of june.

If you are a photographer or artist, a camera is an absolute essential when travelling to Borough Market. As well as delicious smells and flavours, Borough Market is a feast for the eyes. Colourful displays of seasonal vegetables, artisan breads and cheeses and in the autumn, mountains of spectacular mushrooms are piled up on the many stalls, although they do like you to pay if you’re going to snap! Even if you are not coming for some specific food items, I would recommend bringing a small amount of spending money to pick up a few treats.

The farmer’s market is another interesting area, as this is the area of the market that changes most from week to week. The last time I was there, there was an excellent Biltong (a South African Beef Jerkey) stall, but there are always interesting new things to see.

I could easily speak about Borough Market for far longer, but the best way to experience it is to go… but not on a full stomach!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Covent Garden

I’m not quite sure where the garden is in Covent Garden but it is an unmissable part of London. Always packed with a mixture of local Londoners and tourists and host to a horde of street performers from the tacky to the fantastic, the people-watching opportunities alone make it worth a visit.

The best way to navigate is via the impressive central square and arcade. The cobbled streets which surround the square give it a timeless feel, despite the frequently changing stores that surround the centre, notably including the impressive Apple store. Personally, I like a bargain or at least to feel I am getting my money’s worth, so I wouldn’t recommend eating at the cafes and restaurants around the square but a morning coffee or afternoon beer in the sun is a delight.

For a good meal, I like to travel West. I don’t know what your price range is but with the wide selection of pre-theatre menus mean that a good meal is usually available for a good price throughout the afternoon. Although there are many good restaurants offering food from around the world, I seem always to end up eating Mexican food whenever I’m in Covent Garden, and it’s always good!

It seems like a shame to eat a pre-theatre meal without going to the theatre, and that is surely the main reason many people visit Covent Garden. The choices are endless and frequently changing and whether or not the show and the performance are good, the experience is almost always fun.

However, whatever you choose to go to Covent Garden for, make sure that you do take some time to drink in the area and enjoy this dynamic place and all the life contained within it!

Monday, 23 January 2012

The South Bank

The vibrant Udderbelly in the Summer, the enchanting German Market in the Winter and the carnival atmosphere created by the buskers, breakdancers, beatboxers, magicians and mimes make the South Bank a wonderful visit at any time of year.

Travel West along the River and you find the centerpiece of this great Carnival: the famous Ferris-wheel that has become such an icon of the London sky-line: the London Eye.

But there are other nuggets to explore as you travel West. For a colourful interlude, the Dali exhibit offers a fun journey into the mind of the artist with engaging displays, mind-bending pictures and sumptuous sculptures. Or for another artistic take, you can try the Manga Art Exhibit.

However, perhaps the most wonderful part of travelling West along the South Bank is the way you are watched over by Big Ben and the majestic City of Westminster, whose views across the river I believe to be especially spectacular when illuminated at night.

There are also many enjoyable experiences a you travel East. Just up from Waterloo station is the Southbank Centre and Royal festival Hall. Aside from the hall itself, which contains a series of magnificent spaces, it is surrounded by a large number of restaurant chains from American diner to Dim Sum.

Walking further East leads to even more culture. After a leisurely walk past the Oxo tower and the fascinating boutiques hidden under its shadow, you reach the Globe pub. Rebuilt to the precise design of the original Elizabethan Globe Theatre, it hosts Shakesperian performances delivered as they would have been, with the audience having the option of standing down in ‘the pit’ whilst others enjoy the luxury of seated perches higher up. To boot, The Swan at the Globe, an adjoining pub restaurant, is one of my favourite bars in London, and is a wonderful place to while away Sunday afternoons with live music from a series of interesting artists.

Finally, just beyond the Globe, you reach the magnificent if controversial building of the Tate Modern. Following technological developments, this old Power station was converted into a magnificent art gallery, with surely one of the largest installation spaces in the world. I have found some Installations more engaging than others, but I am always stunned by the amount of work required to put them together and the sheer scale of them!

The above is only a small selection of the things to do along a small chunk of the South Bank’s waterfront, but hopefully this gives you a small taste of the thriving hub of fun and culture to be found in this dynamic part of London’s waterfront.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

City of London

I am fortunate (or unfortunate depending on your opinion) enough to work in the City of London. This area (also known as the Square Mile) is the oldest part of London and as such has a huge wealth of things to see and places to visit.

When I think about it, it amazes me how much has happened in this relatively small area through the ages. I would suggest reading a short history to make sure you can really appreciate the area at its fullest before you go.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Upcoming London Events

Personally I find it difficult to know what is going on in this vast city sometimes! Below is a brief round up of exhibitions and events that are coming up in London.

Scott's Last Exhibition - Natural History Museum - Opening 20 Jan
The story of Captain Scott's last expedition to Antarctica, along with photos and specimens.

Golden Spider Silk - V&A - Opening 25 Jan
A display of the world's largest piece of cloth made from Spider Silk. (Free admission)

Stephen Hawking: A 70th birthday celebration - Science Museum - Opening 20 Jan

Chinese New Year - Trafalgar Square - 29 Jan 10:15am - 5:40pm

Burns Night - 25th Jan

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Natural History Museum - The Building

The Natural History Museum building is known as the Waterhouse Building, and in my opinion is one of the most interesting and the most pretty buildings in London.

I'm not going to pretend to know much about architecture, I would prefer to divert you to the History and Architecture section of the National History Museum website. However I have written a few bits and pieces below on some of my favourite parts of the building to get you started.

The original idea for the decorations of the building all come from nature in the past and present. Wherever you look on the inside and out there are plant and animal motifs. Even the things that you don't think could be based on plants or animals probably are =)

One of the first things that you are likely to notice are the many statues and gargoyles that adorn the roof line of both the inside an outside of the building. These include many extinct animals and dinosaurs such as the Pterodactyl.

Many of the columns display pattens from fossil trees, and the iron arches in the main hall have alternating flower and leaf motifs.

The attention to detail in the building in incredible, and it is really worth devoting time looking at the building itself as well as the exhibitions inside it.