A tray of aperatifs: Three short walks in London and Cambridge

London Walks has a simple but successful business idea. It offers guided walks through the streets of London and to a few places within striking-distance of London (see http://www.walks.com/). Each walk covers perhaps five kilometres and most walks last from 1½ to two hours. The standard charge is £8.00 but if you’re old or a student you get a £2.00 discount. The size of the groups we joined varied from a dozen (on a rainy day) to 79 (for the tour around the interior of Westminster Abbey).
The guides point out the big-ticket sights and tell you the basic facts about them, but they also take you into little-visited nooks and crannies, drop lots of famous names, and get you instant discounted entry to certain big attractions that are ordinarily buried behind a scrum of long queues. In fact the real heroes of London Walks are the guides. They have stentorian actors’ voices that are never intimidated by the din of passing traffic. They are voluble, amusing, ultra-knowledgeable, and full of arcane stories. (They are also brisk, fit walkers.)
Here are some notes on three of the six London Walks that Emmy and I completed during our nine days in London, as far as I remember them (I’m writing this in Pontevedra, Spain, two weeks after our visit to London). The total distance we covered probably added up to around 25 kms over the six walks. I have ranked the three walks reviewed here from delightful to disastrous.

Little Venice The title “Little Venice” is a bit of a misnomer because it suggests something like the canals of Venice with their gondolas and ornate renaissance buildings. But it is a forgivable misnomer because, on the day we did it, this walk was a delight from beginning to end – and even beyond the end. It took us through the Maida Vale area of Paddington in the inner west suburbs of London. It took in an area that includes a part of England’s little-known network of canals that survives inside the metropolis. Our guide, Shaughan, was in good form. He brought to life the squalor of nineteenth century London, especially Maida Vale’s’s hellish cluster of piggeries, brick kilns, gin dens and brothels that today has become an enclave of the genteel middle class. It was a vivid lesson in history and (for me at least) in the politics of aesthetics. We passed an old brick kiln where once many hundreds of men, women and (nota bene) children risked their lives and ruined their health in smoked-filled filth to produce the bricks that built the grand houses of Victorian London. In those days the arbiters of taste would never have come anywhere near this spot, and would have sneered if anyone had dared call it “iconic” or “high class”. But today the kiln has become an admired architectural landmark. It houses a very up-market restaurant filled with rich diners. They eat there, in part, to display the exclusive discernment and refinement of their taste.
Further along in the walk we stopped under the broad trees of Paddington Green where, with flapping hands and capering feet, our guide gave a spirited rendition of a popular 19th century song.

She was as beautiful as a butterfly and as proud as a queen,
Was pretty little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green.

We then walked past the solid, multi-storey houses of several famous people including Victorian poets John Masefield and Robert Browning, and the contemporary pop celebrities Joan Collins and Annie Lennox. The walk concluded with an atmospheric stroll along the Regent’s Canal where we were able to see the exotic long narrow canal boats coming and going.

The “Little Venice” of London

At the conclusion of the walk proper Emmy and I took a “water bus” – a thin canal boat with seats in it like a bus – several kilometers along a canal to Campden Lock where we found a weekend community market at its boisterous mid-afternoon height. We browsed the ethnic food stalls for half an hour, bewildered by the bounty of choice. Eventually I had a Venezuelan snack of spicy chicken in a corn bread pocket (delicious), and Emmy had vegetarian paella with freshly squeezed orange juice (tasty). It was a delectable end to a perfect day. This walk is highly recommended. ✭✭✭✭✭

Cambridge This walk is an all-day event. Swimming against the high tide of morning commuters washing through the halls of Kings Cross station you meet with London Walks guide Simon in front of an “authentic Cornish Pasty shop” run by Indians. A fast train fires you through the bright green of the English countryside to Cambridge, a trip of about ¾ hour. Here a brilliant melange of sights awaits you, from a ruined Norman fortress, to exotic narrow streets, to old churches sleeping in their gardens, to the ultimate… the soaring gothic extravagance of Kings College Chapel. I especially enjoyed the quick visit we made to a museum – part of Cambridge University – to see artefacts and specimens brought back from his voyages by Charles Darwin (if you ever do this, check out the extraordinary skeleton of a Galapagos tortoise).

Traffic jam on the River Cam

The climax of the day was an optional late afternoon punting excursion on the River Cam. Yes, there were banks of willows, a medieval windowed bridge, ivy-covered walls, verdant lawns sloping down to the water, and ducks swimming past with their ducklings in tow. But there was also an unpublicised downside. There are now so many punts on the modestly proportioned “river” that in places your voyage is more like a laboured stop-start bus trip through rush-hour traffic. The famed ducks are facing the same dangers that pedestrians face on a freeway. Certainly the idyll of punts being languidly poled through the rippling reflections of ancient buildings is gone. Today it’s “traffic jam on the River Cam” with the ducks squawking as they pop out from the vise-like clash of boats. Amateur gondoliers show off to their girlfriends, slithering about on the sterns of their boats and thrusting their poles at other punts as they wobble past. We were warned several times to keep our hands off the side of the punt in case our fingers got crushed by a neighbouring boat.
The Cambridge excursion costs quite a lot more than the average walk: £14 for the walk itself plus £37 for the train fare to and from Cambridge and a further £10 if you choose to take the optional punt ride at the end of the day. So all up you could spend £61 and be up for even more if you choose to eat lunch in a restaurant, café or pub. Still, Simon’s commentary was excellent and for me the experience was definitely worth the price. ✭✭✭✭✩

Greenwich On the day we did it, this excursion was a small disaster. Actually, a big disaster. Emmy and I joined an expectant group of about 30 outside the Tower Hill tube station at 10.30 a.m. Our guide was Fedra whose small stature and very charming personality was belied by her granite-shattering voice and no-nonsense efficiency. In no time she had shepherded us to the Tower pier where she bought our tickets (discounted) on one of the fast ferries that ply the route down the Thames to Greenwich. That’s when her problems began. The so-called fast ferry took its time arriving, and when it did arrive it was packed. Only a small dribble of passengers disembarked, not enough to allow our party of 30+ to board.
“No problem!” said Fedra as we waited in our special queue. “The next fast ferry will still get us to Greenwich quickly. We’ll easily make up the lost time.”
But we didn’t. The promised fast ferry didn’t turn up. Other passengers were filing aboard the succession of slower ferries that came and went, but at 12 noon – one and a half hours after handing over our cash – we were still standing in a queue a couple of hundred metres from our assembly point at Tower Hill station.
Our patience was sustained by Fedra’s cheerfulness, but we could see that even she was starting to crack. Eventually we boarded a conventional “slow” ferry. Sitting on the upper deck among other passengers we had to endure the dreary patter and very tired jokes of an on-board, cockney “guide” who had commandeered the public address system. He ended his mechanical performance with a request for us to “show our gratitude”. He stood on the pier at Greenwich holding out a bucket into which the less discriminating passengers dropped their “gratitude”.
As our group made its way up from the landing we had another disappointment. The great tea cutter of the 19th century, the Cutty Sark (a highlighted feature in the London Walks blurb), was not open to the public, in fact not visible at all. Ugly blue hoardings proclaimed that renovations were under way around the ship, I think in preparation for next year’s Olympic Games. And a fair swathe of the parkland and buildings of Greenwich had been fenced off and turned into the site for the Olympic equestrian competition. On the day of our visit some kind of “rehearsal” was taking place and parts of Greenwich were swarming with officious police. I’m no friend of high-level professional sport at the best of times so I was inwardly enraged that yet again there had been a capitulation to the hoons of sports officialdom, the people who think you can make history by chucking a ball through a hoop.
But perhaps I shouldn’t have got upset. Frankly, with the exception of the genuinely fascinating 17th-18th century observatory (which was not part of our tour), Greenwich is as over-rated as an equestrian dressage event. Perhaps Greenwich and the top-hatted horse-bullies of dressage really do deserve each other. The celebrated buildings, like the Royal Naval College for example, are clunky, squat, pretentious, and (let’s face it) downright ugly. But they are BIG, and that is basically what gives them their tawdry status.

Trying to stay interested in Greenwich

Perhaps the interiors of these buildings might have been more interesting than their exteriors, but our tour did not take us inside any of them. Instead it came to a dispirited end in one of the broad courtyards, with Fedra suggesting some interesting options we could investigate after we had recovered our enthusiasm over (a very late) lunch. ✭✩✩✩✩

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Evensong at Westminster Abbey

Approaching 5.00 p.m. on a cool, windy summer afternoon, Emmy and I join a queue filing into Westminster Abbey for the daily Evensong service. Vergers usher us to places in a block of folding chairs at the junction of the nave and transepts (called “the theatre”) under columns of time-polished stone that disappear into the ornate, peaked-arch roof more than 30 metres above us.

Westminster Abbey's interior hushes you and compels you to look upwards. (Wikipedia open-access image)

The ambience imposes a kind of hush. The vergers in black capes with bright red collars stride silently back and forth, pointing, whispering, bobbing. A group of teenagers wearing “I ❤ NY” tee-shirts sits nervously exposed in the front row. One of them pulls the ear bud of an iPod from his ear and hurriedly stuffs it into his shirt pocket. Three tiny Japanese ladies sit with smooth upturned faces, open-mouthed and silent. An old bent woman in a grimy gabardine overcoat comes by pushing a walking frame. A small squad of beefy, crew-cut young men, wearing white dog-collars of the priesthood, point and nod and murmur in German. A young tourist tries to cram her backpack into the space under her chair as if she is settling into an airline seat.

Exactly at five o’clock a very high, thin, scarcely audible note beams like a laser from the organ. Slowly it swells and cascades into a complex glissando. It is joined by a pitchless rumbling from deep in the stomach of the organ, and the space between upper and lower registers is filled in with a quiet but intricate play of melody. The effect is ethereal, an ornate structure of glittering sound filling the air like an audio-abbey.

The theme of the service is Abraham’s unwavering faith. He is a model of the obedient believer, willing to personally sacrifice his own son if God asks this of him. The presiding priest tells the story in a curiously matter-of-fact tone:

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said ‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God.

The narrowly avoided sacrifice presages a later sacrifice that goes ahead uninterrupted. The choir celebrates it in a long, complex and beautifully exuberant anthem.

The Paschal Lamb is offered, Christ Jesus made a sacrifice for sin. The earth quakes, the sun is darkened, the powers of hell are shaken, and lo he is risen up in victory.

The fading sun – dyed purple and bright yellow from its passage through distant reaches of stained glass – slants across the congregation. The versicles and responses are intoned in a high, half-spoken half-sung monotone, passing back and forth between the priest and choir.

O Lord save thy people
And bless thine inheritance
Give peace in our time, O Lord
Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou O God

For once, I’m finding it hard to be unmoved. Evensong at Westminster Abbey is a confusing experience. I cannot be the snarling, sabre-toothed atheist I would like to be.

But equally I cannot quiet the thought that Evensong – with the power of the ambient architecture, the power of the words, the power of the music – is largely (but not entirely) about stifling understanding in the interests of privilege. With a rush of pure beauty the choir sings:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich hath he sent empty away.

I look around. Everything in the Abbey contradicts – even mocks – these words. Of the many hundreds of thousands of hands that shaped the stones, painted the windows, chiselled the ornate woodwork and worked high above the ground hanging from flimsy scaffolding, not one is represented, let alone named, in the inscriptions and busts and reliefs that crowd the walls and floors of the building. And this in a building in which the words “he hath exalted the humble and meek” can resound with such mesmerising harmony.

And behind the ancient story of Abraham’s near-miss murder of his son – with its metaphors of unwavering obedience, sacrifice and redemption through death – lies an unspoken, and probably wholly unnoticed, but very modern lesson: fundamentalism, fanaticism, terrorism and war find their deepest roots in stories like this.

Lunch at Auntie’s Tea Shop

Auntie’s Tea Shop is on St Mary’s Passage just off King’s Parade in the centre of Cambridge. It is only a minute’s walk from the soaring, echoing vastness of Kings College Chapel. After a morning walking around the icons of Cambridge the very name “Auntie’s Tea Shop” was an irresistible relief to Emmy and me. Images of fluffy English scones and delicately flavoured tea had already been disturbing our admiration of the town’s gothic and georgian magnificence.

Auntie's irresistable tea shop

We took a quick look inside. It was very reassuring. Several grey-haired ladies and balding gentlemen were seated primly at smallish tables draped in lace tablecloths. Huge porcelain teapots were being tilted over delicate cups. Waitresses in demure black uniforms with white collars and white pinafores glided between the tables with trays of cakes lying among mini-mountains of whipped cream.

We ordered lunch. I had ham and brie panini, Emmy had a huge chicken salad. The food was good, and naturally we ordered tea – English tea. This too was as delicious and refreshing as we imagined it would be. Peering out the front window over the heads of diners on the footpath, I took in Great St Mary’s Church across the street where Richard III,  Elizabeth I, Cardinal Woolsey, Oliver Cromwell and countless others once rustled their robes over the flagstones of its floor. Tea shop and ancient church… at last, the real England in one glance!

Auntie's huge chicken salad

This reverie was interrupted by a strongly accented voice.

“Sirrr, you like for leetle beet morrr tea?”

The waitress stood deferentially beside our table, her pen poised above a note pad, her gleaming blond hair in two plaits coiled into a bun at the nape of her neck. Polish? Czech? Ukrainian?

As we ordered more tea two young women wearing head scarfs, long black coats and Reebok trainers came into the shop. There was a whispered conversation with another of the waitresses.

“Just for prayers?” we heard the waitress ask.
“Yes, just for prayers”

A moment later five more young Muslim women filed into the shop and headed out to the rear. A short while later they returned, quiet and polite, and filed out again into the sunlight of the street.

In its appearance – like the great Christian monuments of Cambridge – Auntie’s Tea Shop is quintessentially English in the carefully crafted “traditional” sense. But when Muslims pray in tea rooms, and Ukrainian waitresses serve cream scones with jam, we know that something has changed deep down. They have become part of “England” and in becoming English they have deeply changed that “England”.

Inside Auntie's: olde Englishe tea served with eastern European accents

Of course I knew a bit about this new England from statistics, documentaries, Bend It Like Beckham, Zadie Smith, tandoori curries, the Kumars at Number 42 and a million other manifestations and caricatures of England’s migrant culture that have infiltrated into the perceptions of distant Australia.

But I needed an image to hold on to, and at a micro level, Auntie’s Tea Shop in gothic Cambridge is that image. In my mind’s eye – whether accurately or wildly wrong – Auntie’s Tea Shop has now taken up residence as the stereotyped embodiment of today’s England.