Saturday, May 30, 2009

Driving On the Wrong Side of the Road - Part Three

I get up about 8:30 AM, shower, shave, and put on some comfortable shorts for the day’s events. Yant has promised that we’ll first make a pilgrimage to a couple of famous London bike shops. Finally, a traveling companion who knows how to make a boy happy!

We wander through various neighborhoods and then find a small coffee shop to tank up on Brick Lane. Again, no different than any small cafĂ©’ in the states. Tiny joint, one staff person perpetually running behind, a dozen or so people scattered around the place with laptops, and a couple bikes just leaning against the wall inside. My kind of place.

It’s here I spot a truly unique London artifact. It’s a World War II era poster in deep red with block white letters that reads only, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Each word is on a separate line, succinct and absolute. This is one of a series of similar posters displayed during the Nazi Blitz, designed to keep up the nation’s morale under dyer circumstances. I like it.

Our next stop is the home of Brick Lane Bikes. It’s just around the corner from the coffee shop. We arrive at 9:45, but it doesn’t open until 10:00. Already there are people lining up outside; some riding bikes, some carrying wheels to be fixed. All seem anxious to get inside.

When the doors open the rush of people disappears deep inside the building while I stop short just inside the door.

There, hanging in the window, is a beauriful Bob Jackson custom built track bike. It’s got those simple traditional English lines. Nothing fancy except for maybe the brazing work on the impeccable lugs. It looks flawless.

As I move my gaze away from this beaut, I realize that the room is filled with Bob Jackson frames. Most are branded as his, but many are branded as BLB or Brick Lane Bikes frames.

They apparently have a close relationship with this famous Leeds frame builder. The frames are not cheap, but considering the workmanship not out of reach either. All seem to fall in the 400 to 600 pound category. That’s about $700 to $1000 US. I see Bob Jackson frames everywhere in this city. They are somewhat ubiquitous while still maintaining an artful, hand-built, old-school image.

Brick Lane Bikes specializes in fixed gear parts, frames, and service. All throughout the store there are gems to uncover. The ceiling is loaded with vintage Italian racing bikes from the 70’s, and 80’s. Colnago, Piniarello, Benotto. They’ve got a huge selection for such a small shop, of Phil anodized hubs, Paul Components cranks, and others. Yant and I spend about a half hour before our eyes begin to glaze over and we look for an escape route.

Next stop we head towards the Tube station some 10 or so blocks away. En route we stumble onto another shop that looks like an upscale fixed gear haven, 14 Bike Co. Unfortunately they’re closed and we have to settle for snapshot or two through the glass windows.

The tube is quite a funny adventure for a 6’3” tall traveler. The sides of the train cars drop down quickly from the peak. I can only stand up straight directly in the middle of the car.

Leaning either way causes my head to rattle against the sloping ceiling.

After a short ride on the Tube, we get off at St.Paul’s Station and head upstairs.

Within a few moments, we’re circling the outside of the historic cathedral.

The architecture is awe inspiring and I take what seems like a thousand photos before we’ve gotten around to the formal entrance looking down towards fleet street.

From there we walk toward the Thames river and the Millenium Bridge, built in 2000 as a pedestrian connector from this side of the river, to the Tate Modern Museum on the other side.

The bridge is a spectacular span of stainless steel trusses and cables. Its design gives one the feeling of floating across the Thames on a silver ribbons and threads.

Yant and I take over an hour to peruse the Tate Modern. It’s built in an old power plant for London. And the space inside is gargantuan. It’s wider and at least five times taller than any aircraft hanger I’ve ever seen. And that’s just the atrium space.

From there we stroll for miles along the walkways adjacent to the Thames.

There are more people here than I’ve ever seen in such a place. Even the hustle of New York or Chicago cannot compare to London. The city spreads out for miles in every direction and the crowds of people are spread out around it. I feel like I’m in a constant river of life, moving from one venue to the next.

Along the way there are more museums, galleries, theaters, and shops. Where one of the bridges crosses, there’s a huge open air book market and sidewalk artists recreating masterpieces in chalk.

Just a few steps from this place there’s a covered section of promenade that set aside as a skate/bike park. It features all the ramps and rails you’d imagine, but also the place is covered head to toe with graffiti. The crazy patchwork of tags demarks the perimeter of the park, and there’s even two kids tagging the wall as I watch. And the most interesting thing is the crowds of onlookers standing two and three deep watching the kids play. It’s like entertainment for the masses.

We stroll on now past “The London Eye,” a massive 443 foot tall Ferris wheel. It’s now a landmark in London, built as part of the millennium celebrations in 2000. The wheel never stops moving. It moves slowly enough that people are able to walk on and off the cars without having to stop them.

From the Eye it’s only a short walk to the Westminster Bridge.

This, of course, leads to Parliament, the Abbey, and Big Ben. By the time we cross the bridge and pose for a few touristy photos, I’m tired and parched.

We head down some backstreets to get away from the hoards and look for a pub. I’m grateful again to have Yant along as my guide. The curling byways of old London can be confusing for first time visitors. A few blocks later we find a place called the Sanctuary Pub – Ales and Pies. (And we’re not talking cherry pies here… these are meat pies!)

We walk through the doors at a great moment. It’s the start of another football championship match. This one is the FA Cup Final between Chelsea and Everton. The pub is beginning to fill up with patrons, and there’s an interesting mix of wedding-goers, tourists, and locals standing around waiting for the game to start. All the best tables next to the tele have been reserved by groups. We stand at a small round and watch the first half before heading back out.

Yant takes me on the big tour.

We walk from Westminister thru St. James Park, Buckingham Palace,

Trafalagar Square and the National Gallery, Haymarket, Picadilly Circus, St. Martin in the Fields, Charing Cross Road,

then Leicester’s Square’s theatre district where there’s a quaint statue of Charlie Chaplin.

What a pleasure to finally put a face to all these very famous sites that have become part of my travel lexicon. We finally settle in for something to eat at an outdoor middle-eastern restaurant within ear-shot of the goings-on in the square.

After some nourishment we saddle up again and start the long walk back to The City district where my hotel is located.

Yant’s route takes us by another shop worth the pilgrimage, the Condor bike shop. Unfortunately, it’s getting late and they’ve closed for the day. But I take some pictures anyway.

A few blocks later we run into the poignant Ghost Bike scene. A white bike, festooned with flowers for a fallen rider, set in front of a stark blue storefront.

By the time we get to the Old Street tube station, we’re both fairly exhausted. It’s been a long day. I thank my host for his heroic hospitality, see him off at the station, and make my way back to the Hoxton Hotel for my last night in London. It was a great trip.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road - Part Two

London Town Tourist
(Part One available on my business blog - )

Driving back to Heathrow from Derby is a three hour affair. Now that I’m comfortable with the left-hand shifting, looking out over my right shoulder for traffic, and diving in and out of the roundabouts at breakneck speed, it’s time for me to give up the car. I have an acquaintance in London. I know him only from our interactions in the online forum on a bicycling website that I write for occasionally. We’ve never met.

Yant sent me a few recommendations for lodging options in London for the two days and nights I’ll have to be tourist. First choice was a funky little place called the Hoxton Urban Lounge. Now that might sound like more a club than a hotel, but the name is quite apt. It sports itself as a trendy hotspot for a younger crowd in London. Located in the city centre neighborhood, The rates, as it turns out, are very reasonable for such a well situated and apportioned place. $89 pounds, (about $150 per night at current rates.)

I check in to the friendly place, which features one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve had at ANY price, and shower up and change my clothes. The hotel is full of great attitude at every turn, witness "Boring Sign No. 5." Things like this were all over the place. Today is Friday and as such my official letter writing day wherever I am. I head down to the nice ground floor lounge to grab my first London pint, find a huge chair in the bustling room, and nestle in.

By the time I’ve written my first three letters, my Blackberry rings and it’s Yant at the other end saying he’s only minutes away. Tonight we’re intending to simply grab a drink and get to know each other. We head out the door and within two minutes we’re in the midst of at least five pubs that have all spilled out onto the streets with Friday afternoon clientele.

In this way it’s really no different than the states. There’s a mix of people, all colors and races, sexes and persuasions. Most wearing some sort of business attire, others just jeans and a soccer jersey. The insides of each pub are spacious despite the hour. Most people simply get their drinks and head directly out onto the narrow streets. It’s a gorgeous warm day in London.

Yant and I have a great chat while I drink a couple pints of Spitfire Ale to his Thomas... something or other ….. Then we get hit up by a beggar for some change. He asks, "some spare change for the Chicken Tikka?" We give him some pence. It was a great pitch!

I give Yant a present I’d dragged with me from my friend Dennis in Traverse City. Dennis stayed with Yant last year while here covering the World Track Championships in Manchester for the Fixed Gear Gallery. Yant and I finish our second pints and head off down the road to find another pub and maybe something to eat. He drags me through one backstreet after another with similar scenes of young people spilling out onto the streets with pints of beer in their hands. It looks not unlike Bourbon Street in New Orleans, except it’s simply much more civilized.

After wandering a bit we stumble into a place to eat solely because it’s got the smallest crowd in front of it. One look at the menu and we’re sold. Prices are reasonable and the food looks decent and unusual enough to be interesting. Once inside we realize we’ve managed to find something special.

The Hoxton Apprentice Restaurant, (no association with the hotel,) is a training facility for long-unemployed city dwellers. The restaurant puts them to work while teaching them a sought after trade in high-end culinary work. The food is excellent!

We finish up and stumble back towards the hotel, but not without first finding another pub or two to knock down a few more pints. It’s a real treat to have someone to show me around, and to tip a few with. I’m enjoying this trip. About midnight things begin to wind down in this neighborhood. Many of the pubs have specifically restricted licenses that mandate closing their sidewalk business at a given hour. Some have “ten o’clock licenses,” other elevent o’clock, and so on. We choose a place called the Foundry. It’s about as rough a pub as I’ve seen so far. In the US it might qualify as a biker bar. But all the people outside, (over a hundred,) are sitting on little three-legged stools which they’ve collected in gregarious amoebic clusters on the sidewalk at the confluence of four major streets.

Yant has suggested that we meet up again tomorrow early for a real tourist day in town. So we call it a night, but not brfore I grill him as to thr local late night traditions of pub enthusiasts. The power of colonial transference is readily apparent when he shoots back his answer. “Curries and kebabs man!” All of the U.K. has somehow taken on the fast-food likes of its once colonized distant continent.

I walk Yant to the Tube station, seeing him off, and stop by the Turkish Kebab shop for a little nightcap. It’s my first chance to do some people watching on my own where I can blend into the crowd a bit. In a tight space, no bigger than my condo’s bedroom back home, I squeeze in amongst ten or twelve others and get the attention of Amir behind the counter. I order a lamb pita with rice, and say yes to the question “salsa and salad?” The salad is lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber all piled onto the already huge pita. The salsa is some extra potent Indian hot sauce with essences of gara masala and coriander. Amir takes the massive thing and skillfully rolls it all up together in several layers of foil and wax paper. The smell coming from the package is both shocking and delightful. I get the whole mess to go, and start my stroll back to the hotel to catch up on email, call Torie back in Montana on Skype, and get a few hours sleep before my host comes calling again. Tomorrow is a busy day.