Friday, September 30, 2011

100 things: Kenwood Ladies' Pond

Today I went and swam in the Kenwood Ladies' Pond at Hampstead Heath for the first time - I can't believe really that I've never done it before. It's not that I'm against open air swimming - I grew up swimming in rivers, lakes, the sea and the tendency now to call this "wild swimming" I find a bit ridiculous. Unless it's in the Arctic or somewhere like that, surely it's just "swimming"?!

I went with my parents so we originally headed for the mixed pond but it had closed today for the winter, so we divided up. Not so fun for Dad to be on his own but Mum and I got to swim in the ladies' pond which is much more famous. I don't have any photos because we didn't want to take too many valuables with us (there are no lockers) but you can find plenty if you follow the links or google the ponds, variously known as the Highgate Ponds or Hampstead Ponds - officially the mixed one is the Hampstead Pond, the men's is the Highgate Pond and the women's is the Kenwood Ladies' Pond - as listed on Camden Council website anyway.

The Heath itself is amazing. It's not as big, for example, as Richmond which is my nearest really big park, but at 320 hectares it's still pretty impressive. We walked through about a quarter to a third of it this morning and I couldn't believe how much more stretched up to the north west beyond where we were. Then of course I've heard of the amazing view from Parliament Hill and seen it in films but its not the same as going up there yourself. We got the Overground to Gospel Oak in the south east corner (you can also go to Hampstead Heath, or Hampstead, Golders Green or even Tufnell Park on the tube are all near various parks of the heath) and walked up past the Lido before realising the mixed pond was on the other side from the others, then it was closed, so we came back... so, not knowing the park very well, we went up and down Parliament Hill twice, and with the sun blazing down were a little hot and bothered by the time we finally sorted out which pond was where. We did manage to admire the rather hazy landscape of London, from Canary Wharf barely visible in the distance, to St Paul's (the view of which was ruined rather by the Shard now directly behind it), to the top of Victoria Tower (part of the Houses of Parliament) and the Post Office Tower. Apparently the reason why it's called Parliament Hill might be because Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators went there to make their plot. I am slightly sceptical.

The ponds themselves were lovely. The Highgate and Kenwood ponds are on the East side of the park with other ponds - a model boating pond, a duck pond, etc - between and above them. Originally the ponds were a series of reservoirs for drinking water. The entrances are all on the side nearest the edge of the park (we did a bit more walking around them) The men's is bigger but with some areas roped off for fishing, and it has a grass area by the entrance which has been adopted as part of the pond area, where lots of men were sunbathing. There is also apparently a rather small bit of grass inside for nude sunbathing.

The women's is more secluded with bushes and trees all around, and has a larger meadow where mobiles are banned and a smaller grassy slope where plenty of women were sunbathing topless too. It costs £2 (or £1 concession) but you're trusted to pay, and then there are changing rooms, mainly open but a few cubicles, toilets and cold showers (and a rather charming arrangement with a hot tap and a basin if you want a warmer wash). There are lifeguards on duty and life rings moored sporadically around the pond to clutch whenever you need a rest, as the pond is deep and there is really nowhere else to get out other than the jetty at the entrance. It's pretty cold, even on a hot day (the temperature starts to drop off after August) and we both had to persuade ourselves a little bit, but once in, it was wonderful! The atmosphere was peaceful, with people chatting, exchanging remarks about how cold it was as they swam past, the ducks joining us in the slightly cloudy water (the quality isn't bad - reports can be found on the City of London website), and all enclosed by greenery. Afterwards we had our picnic by the boating pond until the heat overcame us. And all in late September.

So, many thanks to Ella for a fantastic suggestion! The ponds were threatened with closure a few years ago and there was uproar - I'm not surprised. Definitely one to love.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

100 things: the Hungerford Bridge at night

There is a footbridge that goes alongside the Hungerford Bridge between Embankment and Waterloo - I walked back across it last night from a lovely dinner at Wahaca for my friend's birthday (it was definitely also something to love but at the time, other than garnering a couple of suggestions for this blog, I was more interested in enjoying the company and the food than taking photos!)

Anyway, we'd been talking about how wonderful walking across any bridge in London is and going to get my train from Waterloo I remembered why. This part of the river at night is just stunning, coming from busy Embankment to the cool dark river - St Paul's a shadow in the distance; the neon lights of the National; the Oxo Tower (also on my list), the Royal Festival Hall's open faced front full of welcoming busy bars and restaurants - the photos do it no justice. I've got lots of things people have suggested I do along here and I'm looking forward to it: it's always been one of the parts of London I love the most.

100 things: Strand on the Green

I grew up near Strand on the Green, and am living back there now. From going to see the ducks and the window with the Wild Things toys as a small child, to Christmas Day walks, to inadvertently biting a piece out of a pint glass when trying to impress my friends as a teenager, to these days using it as a slightly more sophisticated venue for a drink, I've probably been along there hundreds if not thousands of times and it's still one of my favourite parts of the river.

The first photo is the view from Kew Bridge - as someone said to me last night, crossing any bridge over the Thames in London is always good for appreciating London.  Then Cafe Rouge, not quite on the river (though it's called Thames Road here), but a favourite venue for meeting up for citron pressé, and Rose Cottage where Nancy Mitford apparently lived when writing The Pursuit of Love.

< One of our favourite things to do as children was to walk along the wall. It extends along quite a long way from Kew Bridge to where Strand on the Green proper begins. We were never allowed to walk on the bit shown in the photo when we were smaller and so I still think of it as more dangerous - right next to the river, obstacles in the shape of those bollards - but parts of the rest of it are still encroached on by bushes and low hanging branches enough to give us a thrill. The tide was very high when I took these pictures - on spring tides the water can come right up to the houses and they all have flood defences. Also pictured is the first of Strand on the Green's three pubs, all of which have experienced various guises since I was little, and have become increasingly gastro-pub-ised. The Bell and Crown is good for the additional seating along the river wall on a nice day.

The Bell and Crown is where the towpath proper begins. There are lots of things I remember being fascinated with when we were little: the big overhanging willow trees, the swans, the toys in the window (though I think someone is keeping up the tradition in a different window, now, and the toys look older and dustier) and the steps and barriers between the path and the houses to keep the river water out.

Then there are always unexpected sights - like this enormous dog which was sitting out on the wall inspecting people as they walked by. This part of the river used to have lots of boat building activity and old mooring posts still stand in the river - I think these must be where the barge was moored after which the City Barge, the nearby pub and the middle of the three, is named. Another old favourite is Post Office Alley, very difficult to get a good photo of, and from the river end almost impossible to spot. A tiny dark archway in a house turns into an alleyway which goes up past Post Office House, and a little brick dwelling which we used to think must be the smallest house in the world, back up to Thames Road which runs parallel to the river. The City Barge is just next door.

Finally the path goes under the railway bridge (carrying the Overground and the tube between Gunnerbury and Kew Gardens) where the Strand on the Green sailing club is based, and past the Bulls Head, final pub and the one from which, legend has it, a tunnel extended to Oliver's Island which Cromwell used to escape. It seems unlikely given it's some way upstream, but it's a nice story. Being alone I avoided the temptation of a cold beer and walked back along Thames Road, picking up a slightly deformed Solero on the way, which I enjoyed back at the other end of Strand on the Green!

Thanks to Jennie for the suggestion. For anyone who doesn't know this part of London well, it's worth a visit - you can walk the towpath on either side of the river here and in the other direction to Isleworth and Twickenham too, past Richmond where the river stops being tidal and there is the first (or last?!) lock. Just diagonally across the river and on the other side of Kew Bridge from Strand on the Green are the Royal Botanic Gardens - otherwise known as Kew Gardens and also on my list.

Transport is good - Kew Bridge Station is on a branch line to Waterloo, and Gunnersbury or Kew Gardens, as already mentioned, are on the Overground and the District Line, and are probably 10-15 minutes walk away.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Perfect Timing

An Indian summer this week couldn't be better timing. I wanted to put this as one of my hundred things to love about London but I've looked up the Manchester forecast and it's just as good. Probably just as well, as I used to defend Manchester to the hilt when I lived there. Anyway, I'm glad we're all sharing in it!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

100 things: the Serpentine Gallery & Hyde Park

With the idea in the back of my mind that I might do something like this in London, on my first properly free day after returning home I decided to visit Hyde Park and the Serpentine Gallery - really mainly chosen for convenience because I was meeting a friend in Notting Hill Gate later on and that's only five minutes away from the park. One of the things you forget about London is how unexpectedly close things are to each other sometimes. It was lovely to be able to go on my bike - I've had it in the garage for nearly a year and the hills in Plymouth were always a bit too much for me for very regular cycling. London is so flat! I grew up cycling here and it's brilliant - I even soften a bit towards Boris Johnson because of Boris's bikes.

At the Serpentine Gallery I went into this year's Pavilion. I say that very knowledgeably, to be honest I've never been to any of the previous ones though I have a vague recollection of seeing them publicised. To be honest it was a bit disappointing. It's very visually striking from the outside, an angular black shadow which heightens rather than detracts from the prettiness of the gallery building. Inside, you walk through dark corridors which open onto the courtyard inside where a wildflower garden grows - and it's much more colourful than it looks in the pictures, my iPhone couldn't cope with the contrasts of light which are the best thing about it. There are little tables and chairs and you're meant to be able to take a moment to reflect. However, this was ruined not just by the number of people and their chatter but the constant scrape of iron furniture across the floor. It wasn't remotely peaceful.

The grass around the other side of the gallery was much more restful. I lay there, enjoying being off on a workday, and ate a frozen icecream from the Word on the Street van. Apparently "street food" has been all the rage this summer - I thought it was just food from a van, haven't we always had that?

In the gallery I didn't realise (stupidly) that you're not allowed to take pictures and got told off. The exhibit was by Michaelangelo Pistoletto and involved wandering through reams of rolled cardboard at chest height and occasionally being confronted by mirrors. Some of them had religious elements by them such as a Christian prayer stool, a Muslim prayer rug, a Buddhist statue, all facing the mirrors. I liked it, but my favourite bit was near the beginning with a round mirror inside the cardboard like a well, reflecting a round skylight above: it was beautiful. From then on it was all a bit the same to be honest. Well, if you've seen one bit of rolled cardboard... maybe I should have been more, I don't know, spiritual about it. Again, other people tend to get in the way of all that.

I finished with a bit of a cycle through the park, checking out the lido, drinking from the Lutyen's water fountain and then back and towards Kensington Palace. The Enchanted Palace exhibition is on at the moment, produced in conjunction with Wildworks, which might give it some street cred, but the title sounds awful. The cycle, however, and the day in general, was perfect for reminding myself about everything that's fantastic about this city. It's huge, but you can still bike across it. There were lots of people, but always somewhere to avoid them. The sun shone, the grass in the park was a vivid green, the snacks were good (as well as iced yoghurt there was real apple juice and posh crisps) and there was an unusual exhibition to see and think about. After stopping briefly by the Princess Diana playground for refreshments and a sit in the sun, watching a game of football, I headed for Lancaster Gate and away to Notting Hill.