Last Christmas, our gift from the in-laws was a fancy meal in a top-notch Indian eatery in old London Town – at a time and date of our choosing. We waited ’til spring to combine our lunchtime curry with a nautical-themed long weekend, staying in Greenwich, home to the Prime Meridian – of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) fame.
Our first day was spent following the crowds along the tourist trail around the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, popping in and out of the museums. Unlike my last trip as a young whippersnapper, we didn’t make it up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Liam was crest-fallen that he didn’t get a chance to stand astride the Prime Meridian.
On day two we cruised the riverboat from Greenwich pier to Battersea Power Station, which once lit much of London but has since been redeveloped into well-appointed rabbit hutches with obscene price tags. We were hoping to look around the massive power station itself but it wasn’t to be; it’s still a work in progress. The Cinnamon Kitchen – the chic venue for our meal – more than made up for our disappointment. The nine-course taster menu was probably the best Indian food I’ve ever had. And the mango sour cocktails weren’t bad either.
Our final full day in the Smoke saw us taking in the sights, sounds and exotic smells of Borough (up)Market followed by a quick gander round Shad Thames, the uber-trendy South Bank district, and a troll along the riverside Queen’s Walk. It’s an area I know fairly well and was the venue for my jury service at Southwark Crown Court back in the day. Eventually we docked at the best-guess replica of the Golden Hind, the first English ship to circumnavigate the globe, captained by Francis Drake – hero, buccaneer, pirate, thief (delete according to taste). After all that exertion, who could refuse us a restorative tonic and gin at an old riverside inn?
Who knew that there’s an Italian brand of pizza oven briquettes called ‘Faggetto’? We didn’t until the waitress sat us next to a stack of them at Franco Manco, a pizza parlour in South London. We weren’t offended. The waitress wasn’t making some sort of point (in fact, she was delightful). Besides, the casual use of ‘faggot’ and ‘fag’ doesn’t carry the same meaning here as it does over the pond, at least not for my generation. For us, faggot is a traditional British meatball made from pork, and a fag is slang for a cigarette – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘sucking on a fag’, something I used to do several times a day. Until I quit smoking, that is.
I spent much of my teenage years in Tooting, a rough-round-the-edges strangely-named suburb in South London. My late, lamented old pal, Clive, was raised there in a modest terraced house, and we enjoyed many a fun-filled Saturday afternoon hot-gossiping and talking silly schoolboy sex to a seventies soundtrack of Elton, 10cc, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and Bowie.
But as we discovered recently, the Tooting of yesteryear isn’t quite the Tooting of today. It’s still decidedly rough-edged but with a wonderful multi-cultural blend of spice and street cred drawing in an eclectic crowd, the young and the cool rubbing shoulders with the long-established South Asian community. It’s no wonder Tooting is now known as ‘curry corridor’, with a mouth-watering menu of restaurants. We quite fancied an ‘Indian’ but changed tack when we wandered through Broadway Market to find that the old stalls flogging fruit and veg, frilly knickers, tat and knock-off, have been largely supplanted by international street food vendors, sit-down eateries and uber-trendy bars.
We settled on artisan pizzas at Franco Manca washed down with vino and limoncellos, then boozy-cruised to a bar for espresso martinis. The evening ended with a couple of large glasses of fruity red at a ramshackle Portuguese bistro. Heads thumped the next day.
I reached the grand old age of sixty last year. This year was Liam’s turn and I’d planned a succession of treats – for me as well as for him – in old London Town. First up was a dinner date and gossipy catch up with an old pal in a fancy French restaurant in Chelsea, the trendy part of town where I gladly misspent much of my youth – ‘Days on the tills and nights on the tiles,’ I call it. The King’s Road is my memory lane and Liam joined me on my trip down it.
Next day I whisked Liam off to Covent Garden for a full English followed by a stroll. Once London’s main fruit and veg market with an opera house attached – think Audrey Hepburn as the cockney sparrow flower girl lip-syncing to ‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly?’ in My Fair Lady – Covent Garden has long since evolved into a major magnet for tourists. And there were tourists aplenty, finally returning from home and abroad after lockdown.
Here’s the queue for Burberry. All that fuss just for a posh handbag.
We decided to take in some street opera and pavement art instead.
Our Covent Garden jolly continued with a ride around the London Transport Museum. In many ways, the story of London Transport is the story of London itself. The city couldn’t have spread like it has without the constant innovation needed to enable Londoners to go about their business. If trains, tubes, trams and trolley buses are your thing, it’s an Aladdin’s cave. We loved it.
After a brief power nap back at the hotel, we jumped on the Tube for a real indulgence – a performance of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The musical tells of the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the (to me) lesser known American ‘Founding Fathers’, delivered in song and rap. The deliberately delicious twist is that most of the cast – including Alexander himself – is black or mixed heritage. Adorned with every gong going, the show is slick, brilliantly staged and tuneful. The rap is used as dialogue and is lyrical and clever. It’s a masterpiece, a work of genius.
The evening concluded with more posh nosh and a final snifter in our favourite dive bar in busy, buzzy Soho. The long weekend was a whirlwind with the perfect ending. We finally got to meet Fred, our newest great-nephew.
We spent three days in London, staying close to Soho’s Berwick Street Market. How things have moved on since I was a likely lad about town. The traditional stalls flogging fruit and veg, cheap knickers, household tat and knock-off have been supplanted by international street food, and the old Wimpy burger bar at the top of the street is now a trendy restaurant.
We lunched in Old Compton Street, Soho’s main drag, picking a table at an open window so we could people watch. Sat in front of us at a pavement table were a couple of well-heeled young ladies getting well-oiled – all flicky hair, painted pouts and posh frocks – necking upmarket cocktails. When they weren’t checking their iPhones, they chatted loudly and expressively in what I thought might be Farsi. There was a lot of gesticulating going on. It reminded me so much of our Turkey days watching po-faced Turkish princesses bitch and gossip.
Sitting quietly in the corner of the restaurant was their minder, watching and sipping coffee. Without warning, they signalled they were done and he whisked them and their fancy handbags off, presumably back to the Ritz or some other top-drawer dormitory for the filthy rich.
If anything positive has come out of this terrible pandemic, it has to be the explosion in café culture and al fresco dining. Come 5pm, up go the road barriers, out come the tables and Soho floods with punters. Well, if it’s good enough for Paris.