London and Rochester

Wednesday 26th November 2008, Bayeux
We have now returned to France to spend a month in Normandy while Ian gathers material from amongst the libraries and archives to further Alain's research into the French book trade in this region prior to the French Revolution. We will not be offering you a detailed analysis. I will also be doing my best to curb Ian's enthusiasm for slipping photos of manhole covers into this blog! Aficionados can flock, in their ones and twos, to his specially dedicated blogsite if they wish.

During our return to England we visited friends and family in and around London where we temporarily became tourists in our own country. It occurs to us that as we have several friends living around the world who are following our travels, a blog of London and South East England may be of interest. British readers please indulge us this once.

First though …. As we approached the entrance to the ferry port in Calais for the Dover crossing home to England, we were following a huge Polish container lorry. It halted for a moment waiting to turn out of a side road. Suddenly, unseen by the lorry driver, out from the bushes emerged a young man. Ignoring our open-mouthed astonishment, with amazing speed he proceeded to undo the canvas covering at the rear of the lorry. Three other would-be immigrants rushed from the bushes and as the lorry moved away they hurled themselves onto the tailboard! They were not quite fast enough and were forced to drop back into the road in front of Modestine. With shrugs of resignation they slipped back into the bushes to await another opportunity while the Polish lorry continued in total ignorance of what had happened, until it was pulled out and searched at customs when they noticed the back flap was undone. We are so glad we did not witness a successful attempt. Would we have reported it? I suppose so. After all, the Polish driver would have been heavily fined if the stowaways had been discovered, and they would only be adding to the economic troubles in Britain if they had succeeded in getting there. We did have a certain sympathy though with the plight of such economic migrants. They must be desperate if they are willing to leave their own countries and undergo such difficulties in their efforts to secure financial support and the possibility of a better life in Britain.

The crossing was so short we were photographing the chalky cliffs along England's south coast almost before we were out of sight of France. On top of the cliffs, as we approached the port, stand the imposing remains of Dover Castle.

Approaching the port with Dover Castle in the cliffs

Our first priority on landing was to visit our daughter Kate in the south coast town of Brighton just before she flew off to Peru on the start of her four months of travel around South America. It was a very happy reunion though far too brief. We will be publishing her travel reports at Kate in South America

We spent the first few days of our return to England with family and friends in Croydon and Lewisham. Thank you so much for the warmth of the welcome we received. It's such a delight to feel loved and wanted by you all.

Croydon, where we bought our first home, forms part of the ugly sprawling conglomeration of South London with its massive office blocks, characterless flats, overcrowded roads and dirty transport system. Whenever we return we experience a conflicting mix of nostalgia for familiar corners and relief that it is not necessary for us to join the thousands of unhappy commuters streaming up to London, fighting for a seat on the train or tossed around in overcrowded rush-hour buses. As for driving – forget it! The streets are snarled solid. We decided the best way to see the suburbs was from the top deck of a red London bus. It took over two hours to crawl our way the fifteen miles up through Croydon, Streatham, Brixham, Lambeth and eventually on to Trafalgar Square. Before that though we abandoned the bus and walked – it was quicker. The suburban streets were fascinating with street markets selling all kinds of strange vegetables to their cosmopolitan customers. There were specialist butchers serving Jewish and Islamic residents and even a real cockney jellied eels and pie shop. The colours and costumes of the multi-ethnic people on the streets added brightness to an otherwise grey environment of grubby streets, dirty brickwork and messy litter – and too many of the shops had heavy iron protective shutters, a sad reflection of the way the streets have changed since our own post war childhood. I recall riding these same streets as a small child with my grandmother. Then we were on a London tram, the stallholders and shopkeepers were cockney and the rubbish consisted of nothing worse than cabbage leaves dropped from the greengrocer's horse-drawn cart. Yes, even back in the early 1950s!

Trafalgar Square is dominated by Nelson's column, a large central fountain and four massive bronze lions proving perches for pigeons and tourists. Overlooking it is the National Gallery. It now requests voluntary donations but is otherwise free. Here we mopped up all the paintings we'd been unable to find in national galleries abroad. There were more Rembrandts, Vermeers and other Dutch masters here than we'd seen in Holland!

Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square

Entrance to the National Gallery

St. Martin in the Fields seen from Trafalgar Square

Detail from the fountain in Trafalgar Square

One of the four lions in Trafalgar Square

London tour bus

Nearby Chinatown is a touristy but interesting area of oriental food stores and restaurants. Here we had our traditional London treat of a cheap buffet meal of rice, battered prawns, sweet and sour pork and indefinable vegetables together with a Chinese beer.

A walk down Whitehall took us past Prime Minister Gordon Brown's residence in Downing Street and the Cenotaph where preparations were underway for the 11th November ceremony to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War. We also passed several of the main London museums and eventually reached Westminster Bridge and the houses of Parliament with its huge clock tower, affectionately known as Big Ben. Outside stands the statue of Oliver Cromwell who became Lord Protector of England following the 17th century civil war when King Charles I was executed and we became temporarily a republic. Nearby stands Westminster Abbey where our monarchs are crowned and famous poets and writers interred.

On guard in Whitehall

London Cenotaph in Whitehall

Looking down Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England. 1599-1658

Westminster Abbey

On Westminster Bridge stands the statue of Boadicea in her chariot, the Celtic queen who fought the invading Romans. Beneath the bridge flows the capital's artery, the river Thames, crowded with pleasure-craft, while south of the river stands County Hall, the former centre of power of the Greater London Council led until recently by the controversial Ken Livingstone (Labour) and now by the highly unlikely Boris Johnson (Conservative.) Both exceptionally colourful characters in their very different ways.

Queen Boadicea on Westminster Bridge

County Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Council

Dominating the skyline is the London Eye, erected to celebrate the Millenium. It has been one of London's successes. We have been up round in it and can vouch that the views are quite stunning.

London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames

All the way along the South Bank there are superb views of London's waterfront. These include St Paul's Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, the pedestrian Millennium Bridge across the Thames and the curiously shaped new office block known as the London Gherkin. We passed an amusing bronze by Salvador Dali as we made our way along to Tate Modern, London's famed gallery of Modern Art. It too is now free of charge. Next door is the Globe Theatre, constructed on the site of Shakespeare's original theatre.

Westminster Bridge with Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

London skyline from the South Bank

Bronze sculpture by Salvador Dali

Across the Thames, showing St. Paul's Cathedral and the Millennium Bridge

Thames showing the Gherkin, the waterfront and the Millenium Bridge

We'd walked our feet off by this time so we made our way to the railway station and after twenty minutes on an overcrowded commuter train we found ourselves back in Croydon – rather quicker than our morning bus journey.

Shortly afterwards we were staying with friends in Lewisham where we again used our free, senior citizens bus passes, courtesy of the British taxpayer, to ride up onto Blackheath Common. This is normally a beautiful stretch of common land surrounding Blackheath Village, itself a gem of all that is lovely in 18th and 19th century south London architecture. On this occasion however the circus was in town and the common was liberally scattered with elephant dung and caravans. It was a quagmire of oozing mud. "I'd hate to be a constant traveller like that. Fancy living surrounded by puddles and poo with no proper facilities" I exclaimed. "That's exactly what we've been doing for months in Modestine" Ian replied glumly!!

We crossed to the gates of Greenwich Park, fond in our memories for the happy times we spent together there when we first met. The park is a wonderfully agreeable place overlooking the Thames from where passenger ferry boats can be taken upriver to central London. In the park stand the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the original home of the Astronomer Royal. Nowadays though, they are a museum freely open to the public, offering a fascinating insight into Britain's early achievements in astronomy, time measurement and maritime navigation. Here too can be found the Greenwich Meridian, the 0 degree of longitude from where world time and navigation are measured. After a couple of hours browsing the telescopes, sextants, chronometers and stunning, handcrafted early timepieces of John Harrison, we left, proud to be British.

General view of the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian. The red ball drops at exactly 1pm. Originally intended to indicate the time for London

Royal Observatory and the home of the Astronomer Royal, Greenwich Park

View down to the courtyard with part of an early telescope, Greenwich Park

Greenwich Meridian

Royal Observatory, Greenwich Park

Just nearby is a statue of General Wolfe, who captured Quebec from the French in 1759. He looks out across an amazing vista. A steep swathe of grass sweeps down to the Royal Naval College, the Naval Hospital, the National Maritime Museum, the Queen's House and the little town of Greenwich. Centre stage across the river rises the distinctive outline of the modern, and at one time controversial, Canary Wharf on the curiously named Isle of Dogs. Off to the right is the huge, flat roof of Britain's great white elephant, the Millenium Dome.

Statue of General Wolfe, Greenwich Park

View from the Observatory down to the Thames with the Queen's House and the National Maritime Museum, with the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf dominating the London skyline beyond. Seen from Greenwich Park

Royal Naval Hospital with Canary Wharf, Greenwich

Greenwich was once a royal retreat from London. Today the town, or village as it terms itself, is mainly a collection of pricey antique shops, chic bars and restaurants, and a small market selling souvenirs, paintings and ethnic bangles. A pleasant enough place for a sandwich and coffee but it is the museums, housed in the former royal residences, that are the real attraction. Both the National Maritime Museum and the Queen's House, with its collection of maritime paintings, are free of charge, and even when interest in all things naval begins to fade, the buildings themselves will never cease to impress. As a break from the crowds of London, a trip to Greenwich makes a perfect alternative.

Queen's House, Greenwich

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Royal Observatory seen from the arcades of the Queen's House, Greenwich

We returned to our friends in Lewisham on the bus having had a really Grand Day Out for no more than the cost of a couple of coffees and paninis.

Before returning to Devon we also fitted in a brief visit to stay with Ian's cousin near Rochester and Chatham, two very different towns straddling the Medway where it joins the Thames estuary. Chatham is famed for its naval dockyard while Rochester boasts not only an impressive cathedral and castle, but is also where the 19th century writer Charles Dickens lived and wrote several of his novels. Many of the old buildings lining the town's picturesque streets are to be found in his works, in particular the gloomy, imposing home of Miss Haversham with its wrought iron railings in Great Expectations and the coaching inn of Pickwick Papers.

The surrounding mudflats of the Thames and the Medway provided the dismal setting for the opening scenes of Great Expectations. It was here, in the 19th century, that the hulks of decommissioned ships from the Chatham dockyard were moored and used to relieve London's overcrowded prisons. Out on the icy waters of the Thames, surrounded by bleak, windswept marshes, hardened, dangerous prisoners were held in appalling, overcrowded conditions where sickness and disease were rife. Hunger, exposure, recapture or gunshot injury was the usual rapid outcome of any bid for freedom by a prisoner. The boom of the guns warned of an escape and people would lock themselves indoors, for these were desperate men. It was here that the young Pip was terrified by the escaped convict Magwich, frozen, hungry and violent, in one of the village churchyards. Some of the spires of such churches are still visible today across the flat, barren, oozing mudbanks.

Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Castle

Miss Haversham's house in Great Expectations, Rochester

Swiss chalet given to Charles Dickens. He used it as a peaceful retreat to produced several of his works, dying here before the completion of The mystery of Edwin Drood, Rochester

Kentish weatherboard houses, Rochester

Rochester at twilight

Peaceful view of the river with mudflats beyond. Here the hulks would lie in all weathers, Thames estuary

Riverside village on the Thames estuary

Upnor Castle, Kent

Railway insignia for the line linking Rochester and Chatham to London

Nowadays the Thames estuary is home to a large oil refinery on the Isle of Grain and it is near here that the UK government has announced its intention of constructing a huge new coal-fired power station – along with its avowed intention to drastically reduce its emissions of carbon gasses. Both are to be achieved over the coming decade!!?!!

View across the Medway towards the oil refinery

Finally, en route for Didcot to celebrate our granddaughter's first birthday, we called on Ian's uncle in Chigwell for lunch. This involved taking Modestine on yet another ferry, this time across the Thames at Woolwich, famed for its arsenal and building society, both now pretty well defunct. The former exploded and the latter was voraciously swallowed up by Barclay's Bank. The rackety old ferry is Woolwich's final glory. It is completely free and takes just a few minutes to cross the river. We'd never used it before and it provided us with yet another vista of London - the Thames Barrage. This lies on the river below London and is intended to stop the city from flooding during particularly high tides.

Woolwich Ferry

Crossing the Thames at Woolwich

Thames Barrage, Millenium Dome and Canary Wharf seen from the Woolwich Ferry

We were also in the right place at the right time to see the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior, as it made its way upriver escorted by police launches, to protest against Britain's plans to build the new coal-fired power station on the Thames estuary. It was flying the flags of Europe's greener nations, the sum total of whose carbon emissions, Greenpeace claim, is less than this one new power station is likely to produce.

Greenpeace protest ship on the Thames – seen from the Woolwich Ferry

Okay, if you've made it so far, thank you and hope it was of interest. If you haven't, you will never know that I think you are really horrid and I'm seriously considering crossing you off our Christmas card list.