Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Piccadilly, Peas in a Pod and some pricey Christmas Crackers

The gold macaroon has gone to the great digestive tract in the sky (or wherever it is), but getting these lovely presents was a delightful change from lying awake at night. Actually, when daily life is a strain, T and I try to make time to go out and take a walk, or better still a cycle ride.  We use the London Transport specialist cycle maps, (FREE from tube stations) which help choose quiet and pleasant routes.  

We decided to go and look at the Illustration Cupboard's winter show in the old and interesting area of St. James's, just off Piccadilly and minutes from Piccadilly Circus.   It was just an excuse to go out really, and it was a slightly surreal experience when we reached Regent's Park, because in some parts, it almost felt as if we'd returned to summer.

So it seemed almost odd to turn around and see this lonely creature in a crowd of sticks....

We spotted a man wading in the mud of what is normally a pretty lake.  They're doing maintenance, and he described how they had passed a weak electric current through the lake before draining it. This stunned all the fish, which were then "relocated" in another pond.   We couldn't help thinking there must have been some mighty surprised fish when they woke up - assuming that fish feel surprise, that is!

More animal welfare issues of a less amusing kind arose when we reached the very expensive shopping area around Piccadilly.  The men putting up the feathery Christmas window display at the clothes boutique "Joseph" were pointedly ignoring animal rights campaigners with a megaphone who were noisily picketing the shop because of its use of fur.    

If even half of what they said was true, then I'd boycott "Joseph" too (assuming I could afford to shop there in the first place, which I can't).  I won't repeat what they said here but I gathered that some of the methods used on furs used by "Joseph" are illegal in the UK,  and the details are not for the squeamish.   Nobody tried to move the protesters on. Was that a victory for free speech, or was it a reluctance to turn a protest into a more major incident? 

There are some lovely shops in the area.  We stopped at Paxton and Whitfield, cheesemonger, because they were giving away free samples of magnificent brie and goats' cheese from an upturned barrel outside the shop......

Also took the chance to visit St. James's Piccadilly, one of my favourite churches, and a place with a lot of history and associations.  You won't find it on many tourist itineraries, (which just shows how hidebound tourist irineraries can be.)

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Pauls, the church was consecrated in 1684, and is associated with well known people  like Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe" and  the anti-slavery campaigner and ex-slave, Ottobah Cugoanom, who was baptised there in August 1773. Cugoanom worked and lived nearby, and wrote several books, including "Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species," and campaigned against the slave trade and worked on behalf of the poor.

Inside,,I noticed a beautiful and most unusual font, showing Biblical scenes. Here's Noah's Ark

Wondering who had made it, I bought the church guide for 50p and discovered the font was a stone carving by Grinling Gibbons. Gibbons was one of the top wood carvers of his day (and arguably one of the best ever), a friend of Christopher Wren and the diarist John Evelyn.  Click this Youtube link to find out more about his interesting life and see some of his work at Hampton Court Palace.).

And when I reached the altar of St. James's, I found that the reredos, the bit behind the altar, was carved out of lime wood by Gibbons.

I looked to see if I could spot Gibbons' trademark pea-pods.  The story is that when the pods were carved open, showing peas, it meant Gibbons had been paid for the work. When the pods were closed, it meant he hadn't been paid.   I can't see any open pods, but there looked to be some closed ones towards the top of this detail here:  sorry it's a blurry picture, I had to enlarge it right up. What do you think? are these closed pea pods?

So it seems Gibbon's St. James's carvings were for the glory of God, and perhaps he had an eye on future commissions from Wren, (such as St. Paul's Cathedral, which was then in the pipeline).

We  finally got to the Illustration Cupboard, to admire the work of many of my favourite illustrators, old and new, such as Dick Bruna, creator of dear little Miffy.
And Graham Oakley - this is a picture from his lovely Church Mice series of picture books. 
So that was the purpose of our visit achieved, and we left the gallery with the idea of having a bite to eat.  What about Fortnum and Mason's, the grocers established in 1707? After all they have lots of delicious food, not to mention beautiful Christmas decorations - such as these crackers at a "mere" £500 a box.

  Ah, well, it costs nothing to go in and try some free samples and soak up the atmosphere, and wish I had a bit more of this

I love the elegant counters - this one sold mainly dried and crystallised fruits. Fornum's "colour" is this charming sea green or pale turquoise which you see in the piled up boxes.

The tailcoated assistants

Something of the ringmaster in those tailcoats - I'm sure the male assistants all used to wear black, but in fact since the shop has an 18th century ambience, bright colours are more appropriate.

Here's their symbolic green-coated page, who stands on the newel post of the main staircase.

The lady with him isn't a customer.  She's part of Fortnum's Christmas theme this year, which appears to be  along the lines of "burlesque" or "Las Vegas".

The outdoor window displays were certainly entertaining passers-by.

For old times' sake, I  put 50p in the Gruber polyphon, which has been in the shop since the 1880s. Polyphons are a kind of Victorian jukebox, a giant musical box worked by steel discs, found in pubs, clubs and shops.  Fortnum's is, of course, a very posh one.

 When one of our daughters was about 5 or 6, it was her joy to go into Fortnums when we were passing, and we would put some money in the polyphon and she would dance, prance and pirouette to it - to the amusement (I hope) of the other customers.

Money collected in the polyphon goes to the Prince's Trust, Prince Charles' very interesting charity for young people.  It's a good cause, but this time when I put my 50p in, nothing happened.  When I complained, a very nice man in a black tailcoat came along with a big key and wound it up and it played "Silent Night."

I am ashamed to say I didn't buy anything in the shop today.  I do, sometimes, on special occasions, when I'm feeling rich.  But I went across the road instead to Pret A Manger which is always my recommendation for good cheap takeaway food.   We had some nice soup and yogurts for what I guess must be approximately the same price as one of those beads on one of the Christmas-crackers.

And set off home in the evening sunshine.   I felt as if I'd paid a fleeting visit to several centuries in a single day.


  1. Your life seems seeped in architectural reminders of the past. How nice that you were able to peddle and walk from one layer of history to another. In comparison we are so young in my part of the world. :)

  2. What a lovely post, I feel as though I spent the day with you.

  3. Well thank you Jenny. I have enjoyed my visit, and learnt a few things too.

  4. I love seeing England from your walks. Are they painting those feathers to decorate the windows? Nice to have samples. And I loved that marble Noah's Arc piece. sandie

  5. Aww Miffy takes me back to my childhood! Fantastic photos, I particularly like the one of the lone flower.It's simple, but effective. A great post.

  6. It's a lovely area. I only went there once, a long time ago. How about those crackers, though. £500 a box - I wonder what was on the inside? It was interesting to read about the animal rights issue... I honestly didn't think real fur was used these days. Seems I was wrong.

  7. Looks like an amazing shopping area, the kind you could get lost in, wonderful. Good on the fur protesters.
    I love that Graham Oakley illustration!!

    Lorraine :-}

  8. I love that you tell us non-Londoners about these little enclaves, so that we can have a look next time we visit - which for me is in a few weeks' time. Thank you!

  9. A wonderful outing, thank you for sharing it! Prêt-à-manger is where my sister and I always eat whenever we are in London, have you tried their "Chocolate Goddess" dessert? (At least I think that's what it was called) And their soups are good, too.
    Could be peapods indeed on that carving!

  10. A great and interesting trip around as always!

  11. What a wonderful post! Enjoyed everything you showed us. Is Regent's Park the same area of London Zoo? So beautiful there.
    Oh, and just wondering...what kind of prizes would there be in the expensive Christmas crackers? And would they still have the paper hats to wear? Curious to know, but could never buy them to find out!!

  12. Thank you for your wonderful post - I need never leave the house again as I travel with you on your educational journeys.

    Pret A Manger is my favourite coffee house - love to sit at the street tables and watch the world go by - not London of course - I need you to take me there in your wonderful posts!

    Anna :o]

  13. What I miss about England the most is the festive season, thanks for such a fabulous post, which made me smile as the memories flooded in.

  14. I thought for a moment that font was a rather artistic commode.

    I love the picture of the cat and the church mice. The cat looks a bit apprehensive though, as if she'd dearly like to know where the mice are taking her.

  15. I love taking little trips that are close to home as well. It's good to appreciate what we have close by rather than just waiting and saving for an exotic holiday overseas.
    Although your blog does always make me wish that London was a little bit closer to Australia!

  16. jukebox..aaah..i so much fancy the time that those were in vogue and i wish i were at those times :(

    nowadays businesses are only concerned with money and the daily lawsuits about violations of animal or human rights do not deter them from carrying on with the business as usual :(

  17. It doesn't matter how many times you wander this area there is always something new to see. Like you I love it.

  18. If I could just follow you around day to day I'd be happy. You definately know all the good spots and tell about them so well.

    Yes, I think those are closed pea pods in the carving.

    Now could I sample that cheese?


  19. Beautiful story, a wonderful tour of these shops some of them very beautiful. Perhaps the protest outside the escape by the skin, seem to feathers. A greeting and good photos.

  20. Let's see, what does America have that was founded in 1707? There's got to be something. I'll get back to you when I think of it.

  21. It must be amazing to live in London just for the variety alone. Everytime you step out the door can take you somewhere different. Thank you for the tour.

  22. Thanks for all the comments, which are, as always, appreciated each and every one.

    @Lynne, what you say about going somewhere different is just what I feel. It's like living in many different cities.

    Elliot, I don't know anything founded in America in 1707 either - but - (apart from the massive event of Fortnum and Mason opening) it is also the year that England Scotland and Wales became the United Kingdom. (Mind you I know SOMETHING happened in the 18th century in America, 1776 I think it was) :D

    @see you there! and @Librarian, glad you agree with me about the pea pods.

    Muhammad, I am sure they just carry on selling! Gave me the creeps hearing what the protestors were saying, hope it was an exaggeration.
    Bianca, I wish London was closer to Australia too, I'd love to be able to drop in on Australia sometimes!

    Thanks, Anna, that is such a nice thing to say. I'd hate to think I was responsible for confining you to the house and Pret A Manger though, even though I agree Pret is great!

    Librarian, I haven't DARED try the chocolate Goddess but I am sure I would love it.

    Cathy, hope you enjoy your visit. Are you going to seee Grayson Perry at the BM?

    aka Penelope, I often wish for the wide spaces of your part of the world.

    Sandie and Carlos, I think the feathers on the windows were stuck on.

    Spangle, I liked miffy too, it was good to see her again.

    Valerie and Kay, Well, whatever was inside those crackers, I bet it was bad value because crackers somehow always are, but then admittedly that's not the point of them. Maybe they would have real little fold up crowns instead of paper hats - and jokes crafted exclusively by some top comedian ...... makes me smile just to imagine it.

  23. Such a diverse things and places visited in one post. :)

    And it's interesting, as always.

  24. Seems like such a lovely trip... I love little bits of info on local history (which as you said tourist itineraries never point out)
    And the polyphon... ultra cool.

  25. Wow, I really enjoyed your tour. Looks like you were out from morning to evening. That cat and mice painting is priceless!

  26. Again another inspiration for the day... Piccadilly here I come...

  27. You are almost convincing me to undertake a pilgrimage to London again one day. By the way where on earth does one park a bike at Fortnum?

  28. We often go to the cafe on the first floor of F & M - it is reasonably priced, has table service, and is not usually over-run with tourists.

    I loved reading the Church Mice books to my children, but my favourite illustrator of all time is Edward Ardizzone.

    Best wishes Isabel x


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