Sunday, 19 May 2013

London -- Les Misérables

Greetings Blog Fans.  We had a great day-trip to London yesterday.  The prime focus of the trip was to see Les Misérables at the Queen's Theatre.  We purchased the tickets some time ago (February?) to get good seats to a Saturday matinee and we decided to make a day of it.

If you are careful about which trains are selected, you can get to London and back to Derby in about 1:30 each way-- much faster and easier than driving/parking though a little more expensive (£83 for the 4 of us with our railcard and very advanced purchase).  We took the 8:01/9:34 in and 20:55/22:30 back which gave us about 11 hours in the city.

Perhaps not the most efficient plan, but it suited our needs.  Having spent 12 days in London already, we've ticked (that's checked in American) off our top tier sites.  One "second tier" site on our list was the Museum of London which is where we spent the bulk of our time before the show.

Our entire day from the map above:

A & K:  St Pancras International Train station
B  -- quick Tube ride to Barbican
C -- short walk to the Museum of London
D -- short walk to Postman's Park (recommendation from my friends at Fodor's)
E -- short walk to St. Paul's Tube stop
F -- Tube ride to Tottenham Court Rd
G -- Soho Square -- walk by
H -- walk to the Queen's Theatre for Les Mis
I -- walk to Thai Dream for dinner
J-- Bonus walk back to Covent Garden (had extra time)
K -- Tube back to St Pancras

It was quite a relaxed day.  If anything I allotted too much time for transportation/walking and we had extra time before the show (though I'm not one to cut it too fine/close) and after dinner.

First stop:  the Museum of London

The tagline for the Museum is to "Discover the history of London and its people".  It takes you through the pre-Roman "London before London" days, Roman London,  Medieval times, War-Plague-Fire, the Expanding City, Victorian times, through to present day.  There was a special exhibit on Michael Caine as well, but we didn't have time (or so I thought).

In some ways, it was quite similar to other museums we'd been to in Canterbury, Liverpool, Chester, etc. though on a considerably larger scale (and a bigger focus on London, naturally, but the overall themes are quite similar).

I didn't feel the need to snap a photo of every little knick-knack, but here are a few:

These were skeletal remains of a 30-40 year old women found rather recently (1989) at Staines Road Farm, Shepperton.  They are thought to be from around 3500 B.C. which, of course, is pretty old.  Her teeth were worn, but free from disease.  Her lower leg bones were slightly deformed from perpetual squatting or a childhood nutritional deficiency.  She also had high levels of lead in her teeth which meant she likely grew up elsewhere (Derbyshire was one of the places mentioned).

The Romans expanded their empire to include most of Great Britain around 50 BC or so.  They settled on the banks of the Thames and called in Londinium.  They did their usual Roman things (roads, aqueducts, amphitheaters, etc.) and also built city walls in which the photo above is one of the remaining sections.

For a long time, the city of London was contained within the walls.  Today, it is but a small part and now. "The City" is simply a district (?) that is part of a much larger city.

Side note:  Interesting story -- the Romans had a do-over of sorts in London around AD 60 due to one pissed off, and powerful, lady.  Text, some paraphrased, from wiki:

Boudica was queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.

Boudica's husband Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni tribe, who had ruled as a nominally independent ally of Rome, left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor in his will; however, when he died, his will was ignored —the kingdom was annexed as if conquered, Boudica was flogged, her daughters were raped, and Roman financiers called in their loans.

In AD 60 or 61, while the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading a campaign on the island of Anglesey off the northwest coast of Wales, Boudica led the Iceni, Trinovantes and others in revolt. They destroyed Camulodunum (modern Colchester), and later Londonium, which she burned and destroyed.

This could have been it for Romans in Britain(nia) but they eventually regrouped and stayed around another 300 years or so.

Fast forwarding to 1630, this is the earliest known painted view of London.  St. Paul's is pre-fire and thus pre-dome.  Note the detail, if you can, on the London Bridge -- decapitated heads/skulls greet you as you cross the river.  (Lovely).

I had heard about the great fire of 1666 but didn't know much about it.  The photo above shows typical housing construction of the day.  As you can imagine, they were quite packed together as well.  The fire started in Thomas Farriner's bakery on Pudding Lane (I'm not making this up) and raged for 4 days and 4/5 of the City was destroyed.  Most people were concerned about getting outside the walls (with their stuff) and not about putting the fire out.

Note:  this essentially resulted in the beginning of the insurance industry (after the fact)

painting of the London fire (apologies, I did not record the details) -- I believe it was contemporary and thought to have been done by someone very familiar with the city, if not there on that night

zooming ahead some more:  very early Black Cab

We enjoyed the museum.  Given our self imposed time constraints we rushed through the more recent sections and perhaps we should have skimmed some of the early years instead.  At any rate, it's certainly worth a visit but is also appropriately classified as "second tier" given all the other options in London.

One of the random bonuses for the day was a photo exhibit outside of the Museum of London.  Here are some of my favorites:

 male panda, Yang Guang, from the Edinburgh Zoo (James Glossop, TheTimes)
Euro 2012 runner-up Mario Balotelli of Italy (big tough guy, somewhat controversial, but did have a phenomenal semi-final game -- one of the few matches I actually watched last year)  [John Silbey, Action Images, Nikon Sports Photographer of the Year]

One of Team GB's cover girls, Jessica Ennnis, crossing the finish line to win gold in the Heptathlon (Mark Pain, Mail on Sunday).  Note that she got married today in Derbyshire (Hathersage)

 London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (Andrew Baker, Freelance)

Private Stephen Bainbridge lost both of his legs to an improvised bomb in Afghanistan.  Photographer Jason Howe was there to document the story as well as pitch in.  (It took quite some time for him to be allowed to contact Mr. Bainbridge who gave him permission to show these powerful photos).

Saving Private Bainbridge

Queen's Jubilee Street Party in Belfast -- young Tristin Hamilton loses his burger (William Cherry, Presseye)

Thanks to a suggestion in the Fodor's travel forum (a frequent haunt of mine), we stopped at Postman's Park.  I never would have thought to do so (much less found it).

Inside this small park is a 1900 Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.  We enjoyed going through and reading the various tiles.

 explanatory tile

A typical example above.  There were quite a few of folks perishing in fires and drowning while trying to save others (many were unsuccessful on the saving part as well).

 our favorite due to the quote -- only 11 years old

 quick shot of St. Paul's Cathedral on the way to the Tube

you can get some crazies on the Tube but this just happens to be a cool advert in the station (you can tell it's not real because there's no one on either side of Yoda or standing in the aisle -- the Tube is always crowded in our experience)

After getting our bearings outside of Tottenham Court Rd station, we took a quick walk through Soho Square.   At first, I didn't realize what King Charles II was doing in Soho, but later found out that this dates back to the 1670's and used to be called King's Square.

Quiz:  historical significance of Charles II?  Recall that he was the first King back on the throne after Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians reign after the Civil War (i.e.the restoration of the monarchy).

Recall our nice visit to Boscobel House (link), one of Charles II hiding places while on the run.

half-timbred gardener's hut (still in Soho Square)

the Conversion of St. Paul, blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, originally made for St. Paul's Cathedral's 300th anniversary in 2010

I just noticed that the plaque for this says:

Bruce (Denny) makes limited edition bronzes of all sizes for exhibition and sale.  He is also available for commissioned work and would be happy to discuss his ideas with you.

Anyone?  I don't recall such a brazen  request near a public monument, but maybe that's just me.

random art in a store front -- for those that don't want to dress like a tourist (or anyone else for that matter)

and here we are -- the Queen's Theatre, ready for our matinee of Les Misérables (tough to get a photo here as it is very crowded)

early birds in our seats (I mentioned we were a little too efficient getting across town) -- 6th row baby

The show was absolutely fantastic.  Kuk and I had been here in 2009 when we visited our friends the Lafargues.  We all saw, and enjoyed, the movie over Christmas so I thought the kids were ready for the big time (and they were).  It's such a powerful performance (I must say it got a little dusty in there at times).  So glad we did it.

How's this for hole in the wall?  It's considerably off the beaten path and it's not possible to really stumble on to it.  So how did we find it?

As you know, we like our food.  I've found that "winging it" simply doesn't work often enough so I try to plan ahead.  In London, where 11,673 restaurants are rated on TripAdvisor, it can be a little daunting.  To help narrow it down, I first decide on an area (though usually through TopTable).  Since we had plenty of options (West End, Soho, anywhere between those and St. Pancras), that didn't help that much.

I then picked a cuisine.  We haven't had Thai in awhile; the one restaurant in Derby is just okay and overpriced and I've basically given up eating out in town because of the price/time and what I cook at home isn't so bad anyway.

There were quite a few options in Soho/Chinatown but they seemed a little expensive and still had mixed reviews.  I then found this little gem near Holburn:  "Locals in the know will tell you that Thai Dream is one of the last authentic, family-run Thai restaurants in Bloomsbury."

I liked this review in particular:

If you like:

1) a choice of more than a couple of wines (and ideally over £14 a bottle)
2) the sort of place where the barman/waiter isn't helping his laughing 6 year-old relative to practice handwriting at the bar
3) somewhere where the person cooking the food doesn't bring it to your table in person when its ready
4) a "concept" ambiance, where the music is more consistently themed than ranging between Portishead, James Brown, Dusty Springfield and some other randomness I forget.

...then this isn't the place for you. 

The food was great and reasonably priced (£71).  And yes, it was very much family run.

[Note to the Americans out there -- you will quickly have indigestion if you mentally convert £ to $ for food.  By and large, it's the same "number" for comparable value.  That is, even though that £71 meal cost $110, it's "like" getting a $71 meal in the States, if that makes sense.  Food is expensive here, no doubt.]

. . . so "family run" that the resident 7 year-old bugged his father (?) for the storage keys and began to play outside.  We encouraged Alex to join him before and in-between courses.  They are playing frisbee here.

. . . and later came in to play with electrical circuits.  Every now and then lights would flash and a bell/alarm would go off announcing their latest creation.  Too funny (and very memorable).

The service was also quick enough that we had time to head back to one of Alex's favorite places, Covent Garden.  He likes all the performers (in fact I recall seeing the same magician in the same square from our trip in October).

Keeping the Yoda theme, here's a quick shot of the latest craze:  "levitation".   (The rod is secured in the ground--the bulky cloak hides the support.  It's some serious cantilevered action and generally well done -- it does look like he's levitating).

After a walk around we head back to the Tube and eventually the train.  Back to Derby by 10:30 and home by 10:45.  Tired and happy.

Have a good week everyone.  No post next week as we are heading back to Scotland for the half term break (yippee!).


  1. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for the tip on Toptable. We have a partial day and night in London in early June on our way back from Croatia. So I picked an Indian restaurant close to our hotel- we often eat Indian in London because it seems so much better than what passes for indian food in Indy.

    The 1600's may have been the start of the insurance industry in England, but it is much older. In Roman times, soldiers could buy life insurance, and insurance that would pay to send their body back to Rome if they died elsewhere. And there was shipping insurance to insure your ships against pirates or weather.

    An interesting story concerns the ship insurance during one of the Carthaginian wars. Private insurers stopped writing policies because they were losing money as Carthage attached slow moving ships bringing grain to Rome. So the government started offering insurance. Of course people bought old rotting ships and sunk them to collect from the government which is never as savvy as private companies.

    Insurance probably dates from before this, but that I remember from my college course in Roman history.

  2. Thanks again for the history lesson, Ray. Glad you are following and sharing your wisdom!

  3. Hi Steve,

    Great! Very, very interesting. It's amazing how the castle has been maintained. Great post