Friday, June 24, 2005

Playing for England

I have to say that London was much better this time around. Last time I was there was in 1998 and I felt a bit oppressed by it all. Crap weather, being sick, and having just got off the plane from Sunny Oz didn't help. Anyway, this flying visit partly made up for that. One thing is for sure, there's a hell of a lot to do in London.

It takes about 3.5 hours to get from Gent - Brussels - London on the Eurostar, which is not much longer than going from Sydney to Nelson Bay! It's fairly painless too, and checking in doesn't take long at all. But it wasn't so much the distance that has prevented me from going there, it was trying to get people to cover for me at work. Nearly impossible to do in June, but The Others all pitched in and I got a full two days off. Most excellent. Well, they get to do the Tour, so I don't feel too bad.

The excuse I had for going was to go to a Eurosport soiree to celebrate their coverage of the Tour. It was in the Bleeding Heart, a nice French restauraaaaa in Farringdon, so after hooking up with meine liebe schwester Lucy for a spot of afternoon tea and a lightning tour of her place of employ, I navigated my way back to Battersea to drop stuff off, then back up to Farringdon via the North Circular. London public transport is extremely good, and you rarely have to wait more than 5 minutes for a tube/bus. It's also fairly cheap, with a day travelpass costing £4.70 (I think it's more if you buy it at the beginning of the day), or you can use an Oyster card that you put money on, or you can pay the old fashioned way. Taxis are ubiquitous, but reasonably expensive. Even if you don't go via the North Circular.

Most of the crowd at the Eurosport thing were from the British press, and I think I came from the furthest away to be present. I only knew a couple of people there (Dave Duffield and Phil Liggett), but by the end of the evening I knew a few more and had imbibed a bit of the good ole' social lubricant. The theme was wine and cheese, and there were samples from a number of different stages of the Tour. It's all a bit of a blur, but we started with champagne as a sort of prologue, then went onto various parts of France. I think I started with some weird white from the deep south, which I didn't care for much, but then I got to a Pinot Blanc and a large bottle of Côtes de Rhône, which was somewhat better. There was some Bergerac too, and I think I ended up oscillating between the latter two, with a few others recommended by the sommelier thrown in for good measure.

I noticed a table full of Rosé, and Dave from News International encouraged me to try it. But, I declined. The Jacob's Creek Unlimited Release Rosé (January 2005 vintage) has left a deep scar. Eight bottles of that and you're really finished. And I was trying not do overdo it, but the rest of the wine was so good... By the end of the evening, everyone else had cracked except me and the hard core Eurosport crowd, who invited me to their post-soiree dinner which consisted of a quiche and more wine and cheese. That managed to fill the remaining gap, and we shuffled out of the Bleeding Heart at approx. midnight and I was told that I'd probably missed the last tube so I'd better get a cab home. I was in no state to argue with that suggestion and thankfully the cab driver knew how to get to Sabine Road better than I did, for the sum of 18 quid (about 45 Aussie bucks). Lucy was mildly shocked that I caught a cab, as she reckons by far the cheapest way is the tube or bus. I know now exactly how Bazza McKenzie felt.

Lucy checks out the Houses of Parliament across the mighty Thames

A Gherkin/Rocket Ship/Billy Cart. And the Tower of London in the foreground.

I woke up about 5 hours later, probably because of the light, then got up after I heard someone crashing downstairs. Turned out it was Martin's partner Sara, who was just off to work, but I did meet her for 30 seconds! Then collapsed on the couch with a glass of water, feeling somewhat...seedy. Wine does that. But after brekky (gotta have those blueberries) I was OK again and prepared to greet the day. I caught up with my cousin Martin, MP for Battersea, and he was his usual self although he had his hand in a cast after falling off his bike a last week. Then I started work on Lucy's recently acquired girly bike, which is a substitute for her nicer Peugeot that got stolen last week :-( It needed new tubes and the seat moved up, and seeing as all the bolts were rusty we needed to pay a visit to a bike shop and a hardware shop to buy the necessary implements. There is nothing that a shifting spanner and a hammer can't do, although we couldn't budge the seatpost that was frozen into the frame, so Lucy had to be content with a super low-rider position.

Lucy cruises in front of the Guildhall on her lowrider

I borrowed Sara's bike for the day, which was actually OK for height even though she's shorter than Lucy. Then we set off for a very cool tour of London, starting with the Thames path (many people) and going via the London Eye (big ferris wheel), Tate Modern (didn't go in), Tower Bridge (had an ice cream), Tower (didn't go in but admired the moat), up to the Guildhall and St. Paul's (did go in but didn't want to fork out 8 quid to see it all), and lunch in the tiny Postmans Park, which is apparently the same park used in the movie Closer. It's quite cool, and has a memorial wall with painted tiles dedicated to people who have lost their lives while saving others, mainly between 1850 and 1930. Each tile describes the person who died, how old they were, and who they saved while losing their lives. It's a very nice and moving tribute to them.

The memorial tiles in Postmans Park

Buck Hice, keep ite

Post-lunch, we cruised around to Buck Hice (Buckingham Palace), St. James Park, Whitehall, where guards stand all day and get their picture taken, then back through Belgravia and Chelsea along Kings Road, over the Albert Bridge, into Battersea Park, complete with Peace Pagoda, then back home four and a half hours later. It was such a great way to see London, and the good thing is that the government has introduced a congestion charge for city traffic, which has cut it down enormously. It's not quiet, but it is pleasant to ride around the centre, and you don't get abused or harassed like you do in Sydney. Lots of people ride, and Lucy is pretty handy on the bike now, even a low-rider. She was gapping me on the hills!

We had a fairly solid evening planned, starting at a moderately swish lounge called Browns at Angel/Islington. That was suggested by Pete, Lucy's new bloke, who is a nice Scottish/Yorkshire long-haired bikie, and lives sort of on the Thames. Lucy and I had a Staropramen (Czech beer, not bad, and thankfully it was cold) while we sprawled in the leather couches and waited for Pete, then Carolyn and Mandy Forbes, to turn up. It was extremely cool to see the Forbes' girls (daughters of my former piano teacher) after something like 13 years, as Carolyn would have been about 13 and Mandy 10. Carolyn is now working in the sound archive of the British library and singing in a folk band and Mandy is a rising opera star. It's funny the things you remember, but she used to sing "Queen of the Night" while on the loo, and made her Covent Garden debut with that same number...

After a few more Leffes, Staropramens and general catching up, we rocked on to dinner up the road. I was a little hesitant, but we settled for Turkish at one of the three Gallipoli restaurants within about 200m of each other. I think it was the middle one, Cafe Gallipoli Bazaar or something. Not bad, and we didn't have any döner kebabs, so I won't need that bypass operation just yet. It was an uproarious meal with four Aussies in close proximity, olive pips going out the window, and Pete was probably a bit bemused by it all. But we're not often in the majority in Europe, so we have to make the most of it. Three of Mandy's friends also turned up, including her boy Dave (who became Dazza by the end of the meal) and another Aussie from Tassie. In fact, I think they were all a bit bemused. Strangely, none of them joined us for a post-dinner drink at the Kings Head, which was the next pub up the road and it had live jazz.

All of us had sore heads the next day - a sure sign of a good evening - although I felt much better than I did after Monday night. That was essentially it and I got the Eurostar back to Belgium on Wednesday morning, ready to rock again.

It was a very fine trip!

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