Posts Tagged ‘england’

None of my traveler friends had ever visited Bristol, so naturally I had to go. For visitors to Great Britain this city in the south west corner of the island is a little hard to get to, it is officially ‘off the beaten track’, a perfect destination for me. I was feeling quite smug about my choice until I began to research the city who’s river Shakespeare had set into history, the River Avon, where he lived at Stratford on Avon. But long before that, some 60,000 years before, people have been known to have inhabited the area. I set out to find out why.

My plan was to settle in for a two week stay, long enough to get a feel for the comings and goings of the place. I always like to meet the area residents wherever I go so as to find out what their lives are like. This is part of the travel experience I enjoy the best. Over the many years I have traveled I have seen more than enough ruined piles of stone to have shifted my interest to the people who live in these places. I find that when shopkeepers and publicans, grocery clerks and post official countermen have seen your face on a regular basis they open up and don’t mind telling their stories. As I usually do when I hunker down in a single location for an extended period of time I book an intermediate stay apartment with a corporate provider. I found a fantastic period architectural place fronting the River Avon and one of the many bridge crossings in the heart of town called the West India House.

The first thing I noted were the numbers of young people in town. The University of Bristol is a popular place for foreign students coming to Britain to study. The campus is quite illustrious and looks as if it has stood for a thousand years, but looks are deceiving in the case of Bristol. Although the entire city appears to be original and ancient it is in fact a reproduction in it’s entirety. Bristol was heavily bombed during the second world war and lay in ruins for the better part of the period after Nazi bombers attacked the area because of the aircraft manufacturing facilities and airstrips. In fact one fine Sunday morning while we were having coffee in the High Street we were fortunate enough to set into conversation with an older gentleman who lived through that horrible time. He told us a very sad story of how his best friend had been killed by a bomb that had landed with only meters between them. How fickle is fate in times of war?

The faithful architectural reproductions are remarkable. As with the rest of Europe that had to rebuilt after that great war, it is almost unnoticeable to the naked eye that this rebuilding of thousands of buildings isn’t original. St Mary Redcliffe church is remarkable in that it’s many 13th century fittings of medieval knights and dignitaries buried for centuries under stone sarcophagi have been preserved. I happened in while choir practice was underway and the atmosphere was heavenly. The Georgian Period Queens Square has been so lovingly rebuilt that it almost seems as if the first bricks of the 17th century were painted only yesterday. Many of the cobblestones streets are lined with modern shops and coffee houses but you don’t have to look very far before finding an unaltered gem like the Llandoger Trow, an ancient public house in the center of the old city or The Nails in Corn Street where deals were made over shipping concerns that spanned the globe during days of empire and the term ‘cash on the nail’ was coined due to the requirements that Sterling be laid on the top of the brass topped tables.

Bristol had been a famous shipping port for exports and imports from around the globe through the Elizabethan to the Victorian ages. The port was also a wooden shipbuilding mecca for square rigged sailing traders who sought commerce on the far reaches of what was then unknown territory in the dangerous competition of the day. The term ‘Bristol Fit’ described a ship that was rigged to take any sort of challenge including armed confrontation. Much of the trade was legitimate but Bristol was also the main port in Great Britain for the African slave trade which saw millions of black Africans captured and enslaved by Arabs , West African man hunters and tribal chieftains selling their own people , finally to European ‘Blackbirders’ who transported the slaves to colonies as labour, particularly the newly established sugar plantations of the America’s, French, British , Spanish Caribbean and west coast of Portuguese Brazil. The slave trade was outlawed in Britain in 1833 but is still unfortunately an active practice amongst certain Arab and African nations.

One famous legacy in the City of Bristol is the home of a slave ship captain that was built upon his rich return to England after years at sea as a ‘Blackbirder’. This ships captain, John Newton, wrote the original hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. The house he built is a time capsule of all the mod cons a rich man could buy at the time, including a plunge pool on the lowest level of the six floor residence. On his return to England his guilt may have gotten the better of him and he became an Anglican minister.

It’s always best to walk around a new city, this is how the place will reveal it’s personality and it’s secrets to you. Bristol is punctuated by open pedestrian squares and green parks that appear as if by magic. The first walk-about I took led me past the ruined keep of a Norman tower, there since the first occupation by William the Conqueror in 1066 in the famous battle of Hastings. Plain functional buildings from the 1960’s abut Shakespearean row houses laced with odd graffiti scratched in the stone, the meanings of which have long been forgotten and covered with ivy sprouting from the cracks. Narrow lanes abound through the core of Bristol’s original founding. Lively pubs are raucous and carousing well into the night. The sound of ebullient laughter pours down the cobblestones stairwells like rushing water. One Sunday morning constitutional led me straight into an all morning jazz blast where the street performers were wildly costumed and in riotous makeup. The occasion seemed to be lost on anyone I asked.

I was in love with Bristol within hours of arriving and the attraction has continued to grow in my absence . The lively boathouse restaurants lining the river offered an array of entertainment steps from my door. The streets all seemed to lead me around in a fascinating circle hemmed by river water and locks. I spent several hours in the area around the railway station as it seemed so perfectly decrepit that I would not have wanted to change a single line of red brick and wrought iron left over from the restoration after the war.

Though I am a staunch budget traveler I found myself being drawn in to the many welcoming public house establishments for a quick drink and conversation. Travelers are unusual fare for the cosmopolitan denizens of Bristol who all seem to come from somewhere else. The city is full of tech workers on contract, visiting professors and students sharing this comfortable space. I was welcomed with interest and courtesy as a tourist as if I were something truly unique to the social mix. If you ever get the chance you should certainly give this rare city a visit, you might fall in love, as I did, forever.

In all the world, there’s no place like London. I love the  city. I love the people,  museums,  tube, galleries, high streets, parks, restaurants , pubs and all the things that describe England as a quintessentially unique culture in the expanding homogeneity of a globalizing world. But what I love best about London is Camden Town. If London is a distillation of all things  British then Camden Town in North London, is the essential oil of everything English.

I have tested the charm of London’s many area’s during my visit’s to the city both for business and pleasure over the years . Every neighborhood has  unique charms that continue to draw special favor from repeat visitors to this magnificent city. To satisfy my particular tastes I head straight to Camden after arriving at Heathrow. When it comes to travel I am an admitted convenience nut. I want to access as many things as can be in the easiest manner  over the shortest time and cheapest way possible. I like to be at the center of things.

The Borough of Camden is most famous  for the world renowned Camden Market that straddles both sides of trendy Camden High Street between Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A more eccentric or eclectic High Street and market mix in Britain you will never find. The street  is where Goth and Glamor have married to form the perfect union of fashion eccentricity. Londoners are fashionista’s with a flair, they fear no trend nor do they hesitate to create  their own. Styles may be for  personal entertainment or designed to spark an international fever over fascinating hats, glittering belts or crisp crinolines worn under T-shirts to be carried around the world by awestruck aficionado’s. Some trends last mere moments on Camden High Street.

Enter the crowded covered, and uncovered, Camden market from any of the gates and  find yourself in an Ali Baba’s cave of merchandise from around the world. There is no specific logic to the mix, it’s eclectic by design, there are collectable furniture shops  beside  high end clothing boutiques or old vinyl records. My stop always includes the vintage leather jacket shop in the basement of ‘The Stables’ that sells everything for ten pounds regardless of condition. The market blends centuries of product, from verifyably antique to just plain tired,  fashion forward styles to ever so practical house ware brick a brac.

There are several  food courts that are not to be missed. The highly charged and competitive take away counters offer generous portions of international cuisine for three pounds a plate. Austin Powers must have designed the seating. Rows of motor scooter seats are lined along the canal for the perfect view of Camden Lock water way to watch a constant stream of barges , walkers, joggers and general passers by. The food choices don’t stop at the market walls , they spill out into the street where restaurants and pubs line  surrounding area lanes and roads offering fabulous selection.  Thai and Japanese,  traditional English and some of the best Italian food anywhere are found within the radius of a few blocks in any direction. Each block of this neighborhood deserves a foodies attention.

The canal  is always in use by commercial and residential barges. They ply their way into the lock, rise up to the next level and off they go. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch the comings and goings of this heavily  touristed  area. Don’t let the idea of wildly diverse crowds put you off, that’s what makes Camden as charming as it is. This street scene is a parade as you may have never witnessed,  not one to be missed. You’ll  mingle with colourful Mohawked punks promoting the area’s  tattoo parlours and music venues , tittering groups of Italian school girls on a weekend shopping junket, local families out for a stroll and everything in between.

There is a dreamy iron bridge that steps over the lock anchored by a gorgeous Weeping Willow on one side and the market on the other. In fact, you may have unknowingly seen this  view when watching a news story out of London  by your local affiliate reporting from there. The CBC News World building is a fixture of the lock-side . Reporters often use the Camden Bridge for a back shot. Every afternoon, young people meet on a cobblestone platform under that Weeping Willow to party. The custom is to bring cans of beer to consume away from the  pub because the price is lower that way.

I have my favorite places in Camden, as  many others have over the centuries who’ve been attracted by it’s inimitable and understated charms. I am one writer in a long line who finds the neighborhood inspiring in some unwitting way. Poet Dylan Thomas lived there, a stately blue plaque rests on the heritage listed house where he once resided and has always been a place of pilgrimage for me whenever I’m in town. Charles Dickens once lived here and placed  ‘A Christmas Carols’  Bob Crachit’s family in Camden as well as the Micawbers of David Copperfield and passages of Dombey and Son. Amy Winehouse was found deceased in her Camden Square home.

I’ve always stayed at the Holiday Inn Camden Locks for the brilliant location and modern suites. Where ever I travel these days I opt to stay fewer days  so that I can enjoy better quality food and lodgings . This is a personal choice. For my taste there is no fun  in ending the day in a less than satisfactory room for the sake of one or two extra days on the road. A full week of comfort is much more restful than two weeks where I’m not entirely comfortable. It’s one of those quality vs quantity arguments you can only have with yourself and your visa card.

I  like to ‘wander’ whenever I’m in Camden to refresh my love of the neighborhood. From the Holiday Inn on Jamestown Avenue I head down Arlington that runs parallel to the High Street. I like to relive past experiences when I can, I feel I get more out of a place that way. The original fresh fruit and vegetable market on Inverness Street is still a going concern albeit with fewer stalls than there were earlier in the century. It’s nice to know that many of the small shops are still in place, I wave, they don’t recognize me, I don’t care, it makes me feel good to buy a pomegranate and have a short conversation with the barrow man about the weather.

At the end of the block on Arlington at Parkway is the Good Fare restaurant run by the nicest Italian family. It’s a great place for a full English breakfast and a cup of tea, really bright and cozy. If I was to turn right I would visit the London Zoo two blocks up the road. A friendly cab driver named Tony told me that Neil Gallagher of Oasis fame lives in the street. There are some rather nice houses for the rich mixed in with rather ordinary Council Flats for the less famous. You can never be sure who you’ll rub shoulders with in one of the local shops. Across the street from the Good Fare stands a vacant shop that has a banner sign above the empty front window advertising monkeys for sale on one corner and a Tandoori franchise on the other. Camden has often been described as a place to find an ‘alternative lifestyle’. So far so good.

The High Street is an endless fascination, I like to walk up and down either side poking into the incredibly diverse shops. I’ll always find an excuse to ‘pop in’ to a new shop or one I have visited before. On my last trip I went into a general merchandise store catering to  Indian merchandise. I found the coolest shoes, I bought two pair, along with a little ceramic tea pot to use in the hotel room. I still send post cards to my friends stuck at home so I visit the post office for stamps, it’s also a bank. I collect metal cookie tins , the place for that fix is Marks and Spencers, ‘Marks and Sparks’ to ‘insiders’.

I’ve never met a cafe I didn’t like and Camden High Street is lined with every variety from ‘ mom and pop’ bistro’s to global franchises,  side by side. Quick food outlets like  Pret a Porte are easy on the wallet and serve reasonably good snacks and sandwiches. If you’re wanting something  substantial try a pub lunch in any of the famous pubs in the street. There’s a McDonald’s and a Burger King.

I  adore the ‘Worlds End’ pub  across  from the Camden tube station. It’s been in operation since the 1600’s. It reeks with character. ‘The End’ is a popular music venue  that hosts famous artists like ‘The Cranberries’. I have ended two  novels , The Bloody Oath’ and ‘The Enablers’ with the protagonist sitting at the rail of this fantastic  pub watching the world go by. The bar food is not half bad with a lager and lime . The Black Cap across the street is  a vintage  pub  dedicated to famous British drag entertainers.

Whether you’re walking down the High Street or decide to stroll the passage along the canal between Kentish Town and Regents Park, there’s always something to see or do around Camden. It’s one of the least boring places in the world as far as I’m concerned. Walk down to Abbey Road where the Beatles took the famous picture of themselves crossing the street in front of Abbey Road Studio’s, it’s a few blocks. The Rolling Stones sang about St. Johns Wood in the song ‘Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown’,  not far away. You can ‘get away from it all’ and overlook Camden Town by walking up the hill  towards Kentish Town on Chalk Farm Road. There’s some great little cafe’s up there.

Getting out at night is easy, you walk a few blocks . Try the retro Vinyl Bar on Inverness, it’s central and  lively.  Belushi’s on the High Street is top rated for  live rock bands ,  always fully loaded and ready to go.  ‘The Blue’s Kitchen’ on the High Street  is for the blues lovers, straight ahead good music and atmosphere, great staff.

I found  the staff in all the pubs, cafe’s and restaurants I have visited over the years  fun loving and hospitable . Bar tending and serving is a great job in London and  people  give off a really welcoming vibe,  nice when people are so cool. If you get lucky and score a ticket on the street or book ahead you might see a major band playing an intimate venue like ‘The Roundhouse’ or ‘The Underworld’ as often happens in London. Camden is considered one the main arteries for London’s music scene.

London is an expensive destination for most people, expensive but not impossible. I forget about the old days  when we would afford travel for extended periods of time by staying in flops and eating little. Today I enjoy London on a shoestring budget with a place like Camden as my focus for a shorter time. This area is so packed with inexpensive entertainment and excitement that a weeks vacation is exhausting and soul filling enough to make it seem  like I’ve been there  a month.

If you feel that you must see ‘the rest of London’,  remember, Piccadilly Circus is free, Trafalgar Square is free, the top museums are free to enter as are the fantastic parks and famous markets spread throughout the city. It costs nothing to window shop  through Selfriges on Oxford Street or Harrods in Knightsbridge. There is no charge for walking down ‘The Mall’ and gawking through the wrought iron gates of Buckingham Palace. For great entertainment on the cheap, walk down Camden High Street and tell me if you didn’t have the best time of your life.