17 Aug

The Iconic Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral

It was our last week in London and we still hadn’t seen two of the city’s iconic sites so we hooked up with City Wonders for a guided tour of the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

Here’s the thing; I’m usually loathe to hire a guide but lately we’ve been feeling as though we’re missing out and, when we have had a guide, our experiences have been much richer for it.

Marc, our guide for this tour, was a Blue Badge Guide which means that he had to earn that flashy blue I’m-a-tour-guide button hanging around his neck. In fact, it turns out that he had to study for two years in order to get his certification and thus the great honour of having people like us follow him around asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over again.

Works great for us though because:

  1. We didn’t have to do the studying.
  2. We didn’t have to do any research before visiting these historic landmarks.
  3. We could trust the answers he gave to our inane questions – he didn’t have to make up the answers because he actually knows the answers!

Our day started early as we had the chance to witness the Key Ceremony where the Yeoman Warders and Palace Guards officially unlock the gates to the fortress. It is, of course, now a ceremonial ritual – I mean, they don’t actually rely only on that gate to keep those Crown Jewels safe, right?
Tower of London Key Ceremony
Tower of London Key CeremonyOnce the Tower was officially open we could enter deeper into the grounds. Historically the site was a palace; a stronghold of power and economy before becoming a prison, and the site of several executions,  later on in its evolution. Of course I kind of knew all of this but Marc brought it all to life as he spewed dates and names and stories to catch us up on all our lagging high school history lessons. A welcome refresher indeed.

Besides being the home to many a history lesson and ghost story, the Tower also houses the Crown Jewels. It was an impressive display of artifacts and royal regalia that has been used for centuries and is still used by the monarchy today. Seeing the pieces (no photographs allowed) and reading their stories brings to life those television images of the Queen carrying the sceptre or of the newest Prince George being baptized.
Tower of London Crown JewelsAfter getting our fill of gruesome history, a look at armour throughout the ages, and visiting the on-site ravens (who, legend says, must remain or the Crown will fall), we walked along the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Raven of the Tower of London
London's Thames RiverNow, we’ve seen our share of churches this summer so St. Paul’s Cathedral is not one we probably would have visited were it not part of the tour. Having Marc explain the history, the architecture, and the main players did make a difference though; he described its building, pointed out where the decorations deviate from the original vision, and took us back to World War I when the Cathedral was one of the only buildings remaining in London as its residents kept it safe during the Blitz.

My favorite part, though, was climbing to the top of the dome. The views of London were outstanding and worth the somewhat strenuous climb to get there.
London view
London ViewWe were lucky to be able to stay in London so long and to see so much. It’s a city that I really enjoy and could see spending a ton more time exploring all the neighborhoods (and all the neighborhood pubs!) but, OMG IS IT EXPENSIVE!! Really expensive. Like make me sick to my stomach expensive. We may return one day but we’ll have to be dragging a bag-o-money when we do.
Until then we’re off to a warmer, and more affordable, corner of the world.

17 Apr

Eating Well in the East End of London

You’ve all heard how bad the food is here in England. Soggy fish and chips, boiled vegetables, and grey meat with insipid gravy.

You’d think the only saving grace here was the beer. Believe me the beer is THAT good but the food is also very good. We have not had a bad meal in the week we’ve been here. I’ll admit that most of our experience is with pub meals – we have spent an inordinate amount of time (but not TOO much time) in pubs – but the fish and chips, hamburgers, and even Thai food we’ve sampled have all been above board.

Wanting to sample a little further afield than our local we signed up for an Eating London: East End Food Tour.

We met our guide Emily in the courtyard of a coffee shop. She was bubbly and kind right from the start; her background in theatre and her love of her own East End neighbourhood showing through immediately.

Eating London Food Tour

We set to the task at hand right away making our way to St.John Bread & Wine for the mother of all breakfast sandwiches…a bacon butty!

Eating London Food Tour

Besides cutting their own back bacon and curing it in salt, maple, and sugar, they also bake all their own bread in the tiny in-house bakery.

Eating London Food Tour

I wish I could show you the salty, bacon-y, buttery, toasted creation but Jason snapped it up quicker than a pig can roll in a mud hole. Gone.

Eating London Food Tour

What goes best right after breakfast? That’s right, pudding! We rolled up to the innocuously named The English Restaurant which looks suspiciously like a pub both outside and in. No beer for us yet though.

Eating London Food Tour

Bread and butter pudding. Smooth and custardy, bready and sweet.

Eating London Food Tour

Cheese. Who doesn’t love cheese?  Our next stop was the Androuet Cheese Shop. I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about this one. I love cheese but I know that Europe does cheese on such a grander scale than we’re used to in Canada. I worried that I would be faced with a stinky-feet, over-powering, mouthful and not know where to turn.

Eating London Food Tour

The super-cute, and super-kind, owner (with an oh-so-sexy French accent) described the evolution of English cheese and introduced us to the three we would be sampling. I don’t remember anything he said really (remember…cute and a french accent…) but I did try all the samples, including the scary blue cheese on the last platter (which was surprisingly mild and pleasant).

Eating London Food Tour

One of my favourite things about the tour (okay, two things) was Emily’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and interest in each of the places we visited and the glimpses into East End London history and culture.

Emily not only introduced each restaurant and it’s story within the neighbourhood but also delved into the historical and cultural significance of each dish. We learned how bread and butter pudding came to be during the war, why there are so many Indian restaurants in England, and how bagels came to find their way here.

More than that, though, we learned about the inhabitants over the years; how international events shaped the demographic of this area leaving a lasting mark on the cuisine, the architecture, and the feel of this diverse neighbourhood.

The food was good but it was Emily who made the tour for me.

Eating London Food Tour

What’s an English food tour without fish and chips? Poppies is an institution in these parts and are not just resting on their years and years of success; they were voted best fish and chips in all of London just this year…again.

Eating London Food Tour

Light and fresh isn’t something you say often about a deep fried meal but this one was just that. I also loved the mushy peas.

Eating London Food Tour

A really, truly, English ‘local’, The Pride of Spitafields is the first ‘free house’ we’ve visited here in London. Meaning it is run by the resident owner, a free house isn’t beholden to any one brewery. They can pour what they want for whatever price they choose. This one is truly local; like stepping into someones living room almost.

Eating London Food Tour

My only complaint of the whole tour…who pours beer into a glass this small?! Tasty but definitely wanting for more!

Eating London Food Tour

Did you know that curry is the #1 dish in all of England? The most restaurants, the most take-away, the most ready made at home than any other. And Brick Lane seems to be the epi-center of it all with 50+ curry houses in a few short blocks all claiming to be the ‘world’s best’, ‘England’s #1’, or ‘voted #1 again’.

Eating London Food Tour

Aladin was a great choice. We sampled a vegetarian and a chicken curry but it is this lamb dish that stole the show. Sweet and spicy, soft and tasty….it almost makes me want to return to India…but why, when I can have all I want right here?!

Eating London Food Tour

There are two bagel shops on one block of Brick Lane; choose carefully for once you patronize one you are forever beholden to never step foot in the other. Hint: choose Beigel Bake.

Eating London Food Tour

All they do is hot salted beef on chewy warm bagels with hot mustard. The line up snaked inside all the way to the counter. We were lucky to visit during the day – the evenings see the line extend out the door and down the block.

Eating London Food Tour

I can’t think of a better after drinking snack. Hot dog? Pfft! Try this first.

Eating London Food Tour

Our last stop was, for me, a little disappointing. Not because the food wasn’t good. Oh, no; the salted caramel, chocolate tart with a perfect cuppa tea was a great way to finish but the venue was larger, and more corporate, than all the other intimate little neighbourhood spots we had visited. Pizza East was beautiful – in an old converted warehouse with rustic finishing, a hipster clientele, and wood fired pizzas on the menu – but I can’t show you because the head-office-type-folk wouldn’t let us take pictures. Boo.

Eating London Food Tour

Looks good though, doesn’t it?

Eating London Food Tour

The tour officially finished with the tart but, after waving good-bye to all our new friends, we popped around the corner to a pub recommended by Emily. A pint at The Owl and the Pussycat really was the perfect way to end the tour – I recommend you all do the same!

Eating London Food Tour

The Eating London: East End Food Tour runs six days a week (not Sundays – poor Emily needs a day off!). I’ll admit that the cost put me off at first; at 59GBP it is an investment and I wondered if it would be worth it.

After enjoying the four hour tour, eating 7 great dishes and learning about their historical and cultural backgrounds, I can say that it is totally worth it. In fact I even tried costing it out a bit – once I added up what all the dishes would have cost us (if we could have even found them, never mind the entertainment factor) and I looked at the cost of other tours in London (street art tours, bus tours, etc) I found that the cost of this one is more than reasonable.

In fact I would say that if you didn’t take the tour you’d be missing out. I enjoyed it that much.