Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Brunel Underwater Concert & The Mayflower

I'm sure you've all heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the top hat-toting, great British civil engineer from the 19th century, famous for his bridges, dockyards and construction of the Great Western Railway. But did you know he launched his career as an assistant engineer to his father, Marc Brunel, to build the world's first underwater tunnel?  It was built beneath London's River Thames, between Rotherhithe and Wapping, and considered as one of the greatest engineering feats of its time.  It was also the only project which both father and son worked on together.

Brunel Museum
Despite two severe flooding incidents during its construction (one of which almost killed young Isambard), the tunnel was a success and is still in operation to this day as part of the London Overground (which used to be the East London line).  There is a fascinating museum at Rotherhithe, dedicated to both Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his father, Marc Brunel.  When the tunnel was finally completed in 1843, it was hailed as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World' and had over a million visitors in its first few months of opening, where it was used as a fairground, a concert hall and a shopping arcade. Westfield, eat your heart out!

After the first flooding incident, it was important for Isambard to regain people's confidence in the project, so he came up with a genius PR idea.  He arranged a fundraising banquet which was held inside the tunnel under the Thames.  It took place on 18th May 1827 and the tunnel was decked out with a long table dressed in crisp, white damask, elaborate silver candelabras and crystal ware.  Fifty special guests, including the Duke of Wellington, were privileged enough to enjoy this most amazing and unusal feast, although they didn't get to talk much as they were being serenaded by the Coldstream Guards playing such hits as 'Rule Britannia' and 'See the Conqu'ring Hero Comes' (Handel), which was pretty deafening in that enclosed space.  The world's first underwater concert and banquet went down a storm, and there is a wonderful painting by George Jones which depicts the evening perfectly.
Entrance to the chamber

There is a deep underground chamber next to the museum which is part of the tunnel. When the London Overground line was recently renovated, the museum were fortunate enough to have a new floor laid inside the chamber which has created a huge space which will hopefully be used for various future events.  Last week, I ventured down to the Brunel Museum and joined several other curious people for a special choral concert inside this chamber.  Access to the chamber is still very awkward and involves going down some tricky steps, crawling through a small hole in the wall and then down some makeshift staircase right down inside the dimly-lit chamber. But that's part of the fun as it's like entering a secret underground bunker.

View of the underground chamber from above

Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Choral Society in full swing, deep inside the underground chamber

A friendly man who runs the museum, gave a fascinating account of the tunnel's history, showed us a projected image of the Thames Tunnel Banquet painting by George Jones, and then the Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Choral Society proudly sang some of the songs which would have been played by the Coldstream Guards at that banquet back in 1827.  This was the first underground concert to take place there since then, so I felt very lucky to be there.

Projected image of the Thames Tunnel Banquet painting by George Jones from 1827

I highly recommend you make your way to Rotherhithe (you'll find it on the London Overground line no less) and go and see this fascinating place for yourself, although I'm not sure how often the chamber will be open to the public as it still early days.  And do make sure you pop next door to the Mayflower pub which is set right on the Thames and is also steeped in history.  It is where the famous Mayflower ship set sail from back in 1620 when it took the Pilgrim Fathers to America.  But that's another story...

The historic  Mayflower pub, Rotherhithe

View up river from The Mayflower

View downriver including The Shard in progress, from The Mayflower

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Big Tweet-Up

Twitter is a funny old business. Loads of random strangers 'following' each other and regularly updating one another on their every move. But tweeting is fun and a great forum to meet some interesting people. So, whilst tweeting about new restaurants, secret bars, interesting plays and so on, I thought it would be a nice idea to engage in such banter with fellow Tweeters face-to-face, rather than tweet-to-tweet. I suggested to Jess (a Tweet chum) that we round up a posse of Twitterati and have a night on the town, enjoying cocktails and chinwags.

@TheOnlyTed, @TrueDeli (Henry),
Miss Immy & David C
@Madebythechef (Hulya)
@Bittenwritten (Zeren)
@Jess Latchford & Oliver
@TheOnlyTed, @TrueDeli, @alinstone
@fernandez&leluu (Uyen) and
@Fridayfoodclub (Lee
Uyen & The Alchemist
The Big Tweet-Up took place at Barts speakeasy (read my earlier post all about this excellent bar) last Thursday and was a huge success.  I emailed everyone instructions on how to find the elusive Barts and they all made it to the secret door, said the magic password and were greeted with a special rhubarb cocktail.  These cocktails were so popular, I think they were the star of the night! Not being a fan of rhubarb, I indulged in a few Alchemist cocktails which were delicious and tasted just like summer (cucumber and freshly mown grass!)

Even though a few of us already knew one another, it wasn't long until we were like a bunch of long lost friends, some carrying onto into the night for more drinks and ogling Jude Law no less! The most impressive guest was @jessmears who managed to down a couple of cocktails, disappear for a game of footie and return in time for round two!

@Dinehard (Neil), @Madebythechef (Hulya), @Bittenwritten (Zeren)
@luvfoodluvdrink (Pritesh) and @theboydonefood (William)

Emma D & David The Egg Man
Mmm, scotch eggs, cheese and ham
David, Lee, Miss Immy & Ted
The cocktails and conversation flowed; the scotch eggs and mini sausages were devoured, and the dressing-up box was raided.  It was a great evening and so nice to meet such a friendly gang. Now when I tweet, I can put a face to the name. I feel a Big Summer Tweet-Up BBQ coming on...

Barts speakeasy
@sarahbb1 rhubarb cocktail heaven
Miss Immy & True Deli Henry

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Trinity Buoy Wharf

I went on a little jaunt the other day and ended up in the most peculiar place - Trinity Buoy Wharf.  Situated in E14, it may feel a million miles away from anywhere, but it is in fact on the cusp of zone 2 and definitely worth a visit.

The first thing you notice is the wonderful community you've stumbled upon. As it's on a peninsular, Trinity Buoy Wharf is not the kind of place you end up by accident. Or maybe you do..  It's a wonderful riverside haven with a great view of the Dome (O2).  It is also home to London's only lighthouse, a lovely historic building built around 1864 by James Douglass. Apparently Michael Faraday, the 19th century physicist, used to carry out experiments here, and there is a small wooden shed called The Faraday Effect (one of London's smallest museums) which has been created as a mini ode to him.

Within the lighthouse there is something else which is rather special.  Longplayer.  This is a computerised composition of music which will play continously, without repetition, for 1,000 years.  It started playing on 1st January 2000 and will complete its cycle on 31st December 2999.  How mad is that! Situated in the top of the lighthouse in the former lamp room, you can take a pew and listen to this very peaceful and atmospheric music, which is made from the sound of Tibetan 'singing bowls'.  I was lucky enough to be there on my own and got totally lost in the peace and tranquility of the relaxing music whilst perched atop the lighthouse, enjoying the views through the diamond leaded windows.

If you're feeling peckish, there is an extraordinary place to eat at Trinity Buoy Wharf.  Fat Boy's Diner.  A proper 1940's American style diner which has been plonked in this obscure location. It felt so surreal, as if I had suddenly arrived on the set of a Coen Brothers movie.  Fat Boy's is the real deal and the interior is very retro, full of original chrome and mini jukeboxes. The food is authentic and extremely good value, the shakes are thick and they even sell wine.  It's a winner!  But if you're looking for something less diner-esque, there's also the Driftwood Cafe (only open weekdays) tucked in the corner with seats overlooking the River Lea, which serves homemade sandwiches, soup and cakes.


The other cool thing you'll come across at Trinity Buoy Wharf is Container City.  Developed by Urban Space Management, they've literally converted a whole load of old sea containers into the most amazing studios, workspaces and even affordable accommodation. It is such a clever and ecological project - the container spaces look great, with round porthole windows, brightly painted exteriors and some of them even have little balconies with mini gardens. It's a perfect place for the numerous artists and craftsmen who reside at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

I loved my little trip to Trinity Buoy Wharf, especially as it's so peaceful and unspoilt, and can't wait to round up some friends and head back there for a few drinks and snacks at Fat Boy's whilst sitting by the river on a summer's afternoon.  It beats the touristy chaos of the West End any day!

How to get there: East India (DLR) or Canning Town (Jubilee line)
Longplayer is open every weekend 10am - 5pm (free entrance)
Fat Boy's Diner - open 10am til 5pm (Tue - Sun)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

18 Folgate Street (Dennis Severs' House)

Photo by Roelof Bakker
On arriving at number 18 Folgate Street, you sense something unusual is about to unfold, stepping back in time from the moment you pull the wonderful old doorbell (definitely no fandangled push bell with a bad rendition of Greensleeves here.) The friendly proprietor of the house greets you in a hushed voice, giving simple instructions as to what to expect and where to go, and then you're on your own, a humble figure transported right back to the 18th century, left to roam around this extraordinary house at your leisure. No talking allowed.

In short, 18 Folgate Street is a time capsule which was created by a Californian artist called Dennis Severs, who wanted to use the imagination of the visiting public as a canvas for his art, giving the visitor the sense of walking directly into, and being part of a still life masterpiece, whilst creating a completely unique experience. It really is an experience, not a museum!

Photo by Roelof Bakker

Dennis Severs' journey was a strange one.  He loved English history so much, he decided to upsticks from America and followed his heart to London in search of a home, which he found at 18 Folgate Street in 1979.  In the 1970's, the area around Spitalfields and Shoreditch was particularly run down and inhabited by struggling artists and fellow Bohemian types - a far cry from the hip, trendy and happening place it is today.  The house had no lighting or heating, and to this day, it remains the same, relying on candlelight, log fires and coal burners.

The property was in a very run-down state when Severs bought it, but before he started restoring it back to the splendour of what it would have been in the 18th century, he decided to sleep in each of the ten rooms so he could get a proper feel for the place and unveil its secrets.  He would then spend the next 20 years until his death in 1999, lovingly transforming the house into the enchanting time capsule it still is today.  He sourced pieces of old furniture and various obscure and original objects which he picked up along the way or found at local markets, and painstakingly decorated the house from top to bottom. 

The most interesting and curious thing of all is the Jervis family.  An entirely fictional family that Dennis Severs created to live in the house with him. They were French Huguenot silk weavers who had fled persecution in France in 1688 and bought the house in 1724.  Despite them being completely imaginary, Severs has managed to create an enormous sense of reality.  And even more strange is that despite him living there in very recent times (1979-1999), he lived alongside his 'housemates' as if it was still the 1700's, cooking and cleaning with no modern facilities at all. 

Photo by Roelof Bakker
As a visitor, it really does feel as if you're having a good old snoop around the house whilst the Jervis family are there. Everything has been left exactly as if they've just left each room, and you're almost convinced that if you're quick enough, you may catch a glimpse of them. The beds are unmade and probably still warm.  Mrs Jervis' cup of tea and half eaten boiled egg is still on the table in her bedroom. A pair of children's shoes are on the kitchen floor.  Mr Jervis' coat is slung on a chair.  The dining room reveals remnants of a recent dinner party and unfinished glasses of port. You can hear the sound of a horse-drawn carriage on the cobbled street outside. Freshly baked cakes and scones on the kitchen table alongside half peeled sprouts. The soft scent of oranges. A clock ticks and a door slams upstairs - footsteps on the staircase. The warmth of the crackling fire and the flickering of candles.  It's all so real.

On entering one of the rooms, you look up at the large Hogarth painting above the fireplace which depicts a scene of a raucous bunch around a table.  A table adorned with a fallen candlestick, a blue and white painted bowl, half empty glasses of wine and a red coat hanging on the wall. Then you look closely and realise you are in fact in that very room, standing in front of a table adorned with a fallen candlestick, a blue and white painted bowl....  You are part of the painting.  Eerie, yet mesmerising.

Photo by Roelof Bakker
I think everyone's visit to Dennis Severs' house is unique to the individual as it depends how open-minded you are. There will be those who don't 'get' it and are quick to trivialise it as a glorified museum. And then there are those with a good imagination and a sense of intrigue who will appreciate the art and mystery. After all, the motto of the house is Aut visum aut non!  You either see it or you don't!

Dennis Sever's House, 
18 Folgate Street, 
London E1
Open every Sunday 12pm - 4pm  Entry cost: £8
Check website for other opening times including special candlelit tours

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

F&L Supper Club for The Jamie Oliver Foundation

As a bit of a supper club regular, I felt very honoured to be invited along to Fernandez & Leluu's charity dinner on behalf of the Jamie Oliver Foundation. F&L are by far one of the best supper clubs in London, so I knew the evening was going to be a good one...

I made my way to F&L's HQ in Hackney to join a host of other diners including fellow bloggers, competition winners and representatives from Yell.com and the Jamie Oliver Foundation.  The event was sponsored by Trusted Places which is the review site for Yell.com, and an impressive £1,400 was raised for the the foundation. Well done Yell!

F&L, together with a couple of chefs from Jamie's 'Fifteen' restaurant, cooked up a storm using quality ingredients, all kindly donated by various suppliers, including Fin & Flounder's fantastic fish, and the East London Steak Company's amazing steak.  Green & Black's were also present with an abundance of tasty chocolate. Not to mention some really excellent wine from Naked Wines.  I bonded particularly well with the South African 'Arabella' Cabernet Sauvignon!

The menu had all the signature F&L traits comprising copious tasty and varied dishes. We started with a beautifully presented platter of sushi, followed by a cheesy bacon and tomato swirl (with a shot of fresh tomato juice).  Then came the oxtail which literally fell off the bone.  Next up was a delicious ceviche made with white fish marinaded in lime and coconut milk.  As if that wasn't enough, along came some seriously good steak complete with veg and perfect roast potatoes.  We just managed to leave a tiny space to squeeze in a homemade lemon fudge slice which came with a mourish popcorn ice cream.  This is definitely my new favourite ice cream flavour.  A feast indeed!

The event was a huge success and such a friendly bunch of people all having a good time and reluctant to leave. I didn't leave until 2am, which says it all. Big thanks to Fernandez & Leluu for hosting yet another great evening.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Wilton's Music Hall

Hidden down a little alleyway, just a short stroll from Tower Bridge, is Wilton's - the world's oldest surviving Victorian music hall.  And it is without doubt, one of my absolute favourite secret places in London.

Opened by John Wilton in 1858, Wilton's is a historical and wonderful treasure.  As well as playing the part of a grand music hall in its heyday, it was also used as a rag warehouse, a home for missionaries and a very welcome shelter during the war.  In fact, it survived both World Wars and is so steeped in history, that its current delapidated and worn out state is instantly enchanting, and you can't help but be filled with curiousity and wonder as to what and who has frequented its very being in years gone by.  The second floor is completely boarded up and not open to the public due to its precarious state, but The Wilton's Trust who now own the building, are raising funds towards getting Wilton's back to a safer state of repair and former glory, but hopefully without spoiling its derelict appeal.

I first visited Wilton's a few years ago when I went to see a fantastic burlesque show, and instantly fell in love with the place and all its glorious, crumbling character.  There's a lot to be said for exposed brickwork, old wooden floors and well worn flagstones. The feet of many a well-known actor, showgirl, musician and cabaret performer have undoubtedly trodden the boards at Wilton's.

I recently returned and took a couple of friends for drinks to the fantastic Mahogany Bar which was built around 1725 and has been a public house ever since, although the rich mahogany features have sadly been stripped away over the years.  The bar alone is really amazing with such a warm and welcoming ambience. We found ourselves a cosy corner where we sat quaffing wine and beer, whilst  losing ourselves in the atmosphere. The clientele are a real mixture including locals, musicians, workmen, curious wanderers who've simply stumbled upon it, and no doubt, the odd off-duty Beefeater!

Being a Friday evening, it filled up quickly (it was cinema club night) and soon reached a crescendo of happy banter.  Then out of nowhere, two people appeared with a large antique sideboard piled high with  freshly made cheese and ham rolls for sale.  The perfect accompaniment for a Wilton's glass of ale. If we weren't en route to dinner elsewhere, I am sure we could have quite happily whiled away the entire evening in the Mahogany Bar.

The main hall is beautiful, despite its faded, derelict glamour, which in my eyes completely adds to its charm.  You can totally imagine just how resplendent it would have been back in the day.

Even though it is only open during the week, there is a so much going on at Wilton's.  Whether you want to attend a cabaret, magic show, guided tour, fashion lecture, ping-pong tournament, cinema club, classical concert or jazz evening, there truly is something for everyone.  Even just partaking in a few drinks and a roll in the bar.

Wilton's are always looking for volunteers, so if you'd like to get involved, give them a call.  You can also become a friend or patron and do your bit to help.  Check the website for upcoming events.

Wilton's Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB
Mahogany Bar open 5pm - 11pm Monday - Friday

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