London and Ireland Trip, September 22: Camden, Southbank, Winchester
We were happy to let her suggest an agenda, and she suggested Camden. (A bit of web searching has revealed to me that Camden may refer to either Camden Town or the larger London Borough of Camden which contains Camden Town. I think we were within Camden Town, but I’m not sure. I understand that London contains two cities, but that’s about the limit of my understanding of all the places within this conurbation.) We were also happy to have her guidance with the buses; although we figured out the Underground fairly easily, navigating by bus remained opaque to me throughout our trip.
The first part of Camden we visited was a mixture of open-air markets crammed with tightly packed stalls and shops with fabulous three-dimensional facades.
As we meandered towards Camden Locks (once a canal yard, now repurposed as a mall full of shops), we saw a town crier.
It was our second full day in England, and I was still enthusiastic for British food. So we stopped for lunch at a little place called Brit Break Cafe.
In the US, I’d expect a “sausage roll” to be a sausage in a bun, like an overgrown hot dog. So I was charmed by the novelty of a sausage roll being a sausage completely encased in pastry. Unfortunately, it was mediocre at best - the sausage seemed to have more bread crumbs than meat. I appreciated that Deb said it was only so-so by her standards.
The luncheon conversation with Deb also gave me some insights into British cuisine. She said that British food often was as bland as it’s stereotyped to be, but it’s accompanied by very flavorful sauces, like HP Brown Sauce. That was an eye-opener for me; I hadn’t thought about the role of the sauces in the cuisine.
As we were walking about Camden Market, we spotted a really exciting ice cream place: Chin-Chin Labs.
Chin-Chin Labs makes ice cream to order with liquid nitrogen. When you place your order, the guy measures your ingredients, fills a pitcher with liquid nitrogen, dumps it all in a mixer for a minute or two, and then hands you your ice cream. It has a thrilling feeling of mad science.
And Ahrash, the proprietor, was splendidly friendly and excited to talk about what he was doing. Even though the trappings had a mad-science vibe, he was as convivial as any Roadfood proprietor we’ve encountered.
But how’s the ice cream? Lori ordered the Pondicherry Vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce, and it was extraordinary. It had the texture of soft serve ice cream, but it was even more smooth and the flavors were really rich and vibrant.
I had planned not to get anything, but after sampling Lori’s, I had to get some of my own. I chose Black Raspberry Brandy Sorbet. (Ahrash asked me how much booze I wanted. I said “medium booze”; in retrospect, I should have asked for more brandy.) The texture on this was just amazing; it was much smoother than any other sorbet I’ve ever had.
As we were heading back to Waterloo, I took a peek in a pub called the World’s End (dating back to 1690). Their prohibitions on what could be brought in merited a photograph:
Near Waterloo, we happened across a street fair celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Konditor and Cook bakery. We were particularly excited about this, because this seemed like an event that was intended for Londoners as much as for tourists.
We are hardly ones to pass up free cake, so we sampled the Victoria Sponge. It was light and caky.
We had only been there for a few minutes when a cry went up that the meringue bobbing was about to begin. I’d never encountered meringue bobbing, and was keen to see what this was about. Large donut-shaped meringues were suspended by ribbons from a long string. Young children lined up underneath the meringues, and when the emcee (in a splendidly plumed top hat) gave the signal, they raced to try to free the meringue - but they were forbidden the use of their hands. It was particularly funny to see the children who were too small to reach the meringues by standing, so sought victory by leaping and biting the meringue in midair.
I was curious about the “Pie Wrestling” listed on the schedule, because I figured that I could probably take an average pie two falls out of three. But we didn’t see the pie wrestling before we left the festival, and this inflated kiddie pool puts some doubt on my interpretation.
From there we wandered over to Southbank (the south side of the Thames, popular as a tourist area and skate park). Deb had to leave us after a bit there, but we kept walking around.
There were buskers:
We next walked across London Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament.
A panorama from London Bridge:
It happened that the Tour of Britain bicycle race was coming through just about that time, and Westminster was thronged with spectators. I tried to catch a photo as the bikes came through, but was unsuccessful.
Lori admired this statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.
Just past Parliament Square is Westminster Abbey. I had seen pictures, but I had not previously grasped how really massive Westminster Abbey is. It really towers over the people near it in a very grand way.
Because it was Sunday, Westminster Abbey was not open for tours, but we were allowed to attend the events going on. We attended an organ recital (impressive how the organ filled the immense space, but we both dozed despite our best efforts) and evening services. We were struck by the tombs and monuments set into the walls and floors - particularly the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the entrance, surrounded by silk roses. (Pictures weren’t allowed)
Another architectural picture, of Methodist Central Hall. We learned later that this was the original meeting place of the United Nations.
Even though we’d had a chance to rest our legs a bit in Westminster, we were still weary from lots of walking, and Lori’s feet were hurting from her blister. We chose the Speaker for dinner because it was just a few blocks away, only to find that it was closed. The signs on the door made for interesting reading about the history of Parliament, though.
So we found a cab and asked the cabdriver for a recommendation for a pub. She suggested the Prospect of Whitby. We had a really fascinating conversation with the cabbie; she told us about the rigorous process of becoming a licensed cabbie. Cabbies have to be able to navigate anywhere in London without reference to map or GPS, and the examination involves being assigned a starting point and destination and describing the best route in minute detail. To study for this, prospective cabbies drive around the city on motor scooters taking notes on clipboards in front of them. She said it takes four years to understand London well enough to get a license.
(We learned recently that this is called ”The Knowledge”, and there’s even a movie about it.)
The cabbie said the Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest pub. Signs inside the pub say it was patronized by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
I got fish and chips with mushy peas; none of it was particularly good. But hey, I can say that I’ve tried them.
Lori got roast beef with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. The vegetables were pretty good, but the beef was bland.
The summer berry pudding was much better:
We made it back to the hotel in time to watch half of the first episode of the season of Downton Abbey, which wouldn’t be available in the US until January.