A tourist in my own town

“Italy has great food, Barcelona has great energy” (Stefon Harris)

Actually, it turns out Barcelona has great food too, but I do feel re-energised after my weekend away: My heart may belong to London, but there’s always room for an occasional holiday romance. It was such a pleasure to feel the sun on my face (yep, it’s still raining in England), stroll along La Rambla and gaze wide-eyed at La Sagrada Familia. I was unashamedly a tourist doing all the things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do back home.

I came across a list of London’s top visitor attractions the other day. The London Eye – nope, not done that. St. Paul’s – no, that neither. Buckingham Palace – errm…. You get the general idea. Even those I had been to, I’d only visited for some specific exhibition or event, never just to enjoy them for themselves. Paris and the Eiffel Tower? Essential viewing. London and Tower Bridge? Not a chance.

tourismBut why not? London’s landmarks, the museums and galleries are amongst the finest in the world. I’d served time beyond the M25. I’d learnt not to take such luxuries for granted. Even so, there’s definitely an element of complacency. The trouble with landmarks is they don’t have a deadline, no tightening noose, no pressure of a closing date. The Tower of London has been around for a very long time and let’s face it, will probably still be around for a very long time: There’s always tomorrow.

I do wonder, though, whether part of me isn’t just dismissing it on principle – All those attractions? Stuff for the tourists! You’ve as much chance of discovering London there as me having tea with the Queen. Hidden gardens, obscure museums, little known restaurants – that’s the real London. So in other words, it’s all about visiting places without visitors? Riiight. . .! Nice logic there Lindz. Some secret London which most Londoners haven’t even heard of it isn’t a more ‘real’ London than the famous bits, it’s just less crowded. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel a sense of adventure when you’re on a time-share with the world and his wife, but maybe the reason they’re so popular is that they’re actually worth seeing. Maybe the tourists had it right all along.

Which raises the question – can you can really be a tourist in your own city? Tourists are often criticised for judging by their own standards, for importing their own ideas; and to be fair, it can sometimes lead to gross cultural insensitivities: standing on the wrong side of the escalator, say, or (god forbid) talking on the tube. But it’s precisely this alternative frame of reference which allows visitors to see with a fresh pair of eyes. As a local, the hardest part is recapturing the shock of the new. Your senses are dulled by constant exposure. Just staying focussed can be a challenge – On holiday, you’re removed from all the distractions of daily life but at home, there’s no escaping the mountain of work commitments and messy house: Even palaces don’t look that great when mentally covered in dirty laundry.

The flip side, of course, is that experience offers its own rewards. The London Eye can’t show me the city skyline for the first time, but there’s still a thrill in recognising familiar landmarks or seeing how the landscape has changed. Where ever you go in London, you’re surrounded by world famous attractions. By assuming I couldn’t and shouldn’t play the tourist, ironically I’ve become the worst kind of tourist of all: I’ve seen only what I want, not what’s all around me.

I saved that list of London visitor attractions. What better place to start tapping into my inner tourist? That said, I’m still not sure I’m quite ready to start talking to strangers on the tube!

Water Water Everywhere : The Crazy Appeal of Riverside Living

Nordic Dock

It feels a little like sitting beside a sleeping lion: Wonderful to be so close but when will he start to stir? First the horrific floods in Somerset, now the Thames is at its highest for over 60 years. To the west and south, vast swathes of countryside are already under water. The Thames, a constant companion in this part of London, no longer seems a gentle friend. Its black waters are filled with the menace of drowned homes and sodden dreams. I can’t begin to imagine what those poor people in Somerset, Surrey & Berks are going through. I look at the river, the channels and docks surrounding us and wonder : When will the lion roar?

The powers-that-be are making lots of soothing noises : Andy Batchelor, operations manager at the Thames Barrier, has stated categorically “there’s no risk to the centre of London”. I’m sure that’s what Datchet thought too, but at least if we were hit, we’d have the satisfaction of knowing the politicians also had wet feet (Westminster and the Houses of Parliament are themselves in the Thames flood zone). Nonetheless, I do feel lots of love and affection toward the Thames Barrier right now. In the past three months, it’s closed a staggering 28 times – that’s a fifth of all closures in its entire 30 year history (For the full story of the Thames Barrier and to see it in action, have a look at one of my earlier posts here). With the river already so full, there’s a risk high tide could push the extra water back upstream and flood the capital. The barrier keeps the sea safely at bay until the tide has turned.

“If you don’t want to get flooded, don’t live next to a river”. For all the nation’s sympathy and support, go on-line or read the letters pages in the press and you’ll see plenty of comments just like this. Harsh certainly, but fair? Yes, there have been some ill-advised developments in recent years, obviously encroaching on known flood plains and yes, you might be foolish to buy there, but equally there are houses now affected which have never before flooded in their history. Can you really tell these homeowners ‘it’s all your own fault’? Riverside living has been a mainstay of civilisation for thousands of years. If the risks now are potentially greater because of human intervention and global warming, simply walking away from the problem is hardly a solution. Quite apart from anything, where do they expect everyone to go? There are 1.6m people alone living on the Thames floodplain, never mind the rest of the country!

Thames Flood Zone

When we moved back to London, we ended up by the river more by accident than by design. Most, however, actively choose it inspite of all the risks: According to Savills estate agents, riverside property in London commands at least a 20-30% premium over equivalent accommodation inland. Unexpected indoor swimming pools aside, life by the water does offer some significant practical advantages. In this congested little island, have a room with a view and someone’s bound to build a bloomin’ great tower block right in front of it. The river is a natural buffer – blue belt vs green belt. Likewise, commuting by river is a million miles away from the sardine crush of the tube – a guaranteed seat, scenery to die for, even a cafe and bar on board. Absolutely fabulous, provided you find your sea legs (it can get a little bumpy en route): Mine, sadly, are still lost at sea.

A year on, however, I’ve realised the appeal of the water is so much more than mere practicalities. Like the best arranged marriage, what starts as a matter of convenience becomes a real affair of the heart. The bustle of river taxis, the comedy of water birds, the lapping of water against the shore – the sound of the river breathing whilst she sleeps. I could never tire of watching the river, her ever-changing moods. Even on the darkest days when all seems hopeless, her constant ebb and flow is a comforting reminder : Life goes on.

It’s estimated around 6000 homes in the UK are currently flooded. In the absence of significant shifts in global environmental policy, living by the river probably is daft but for all its stupidity, I now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else: I love it too much.

As they say, love is foolish.

For whom the bell tolls – The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

“Established A.D. 1570” the sign above the door proclaims proudly. That date alone makes the Whitechapel Bell Foundry the UK’s oldest manufacturing business. In reality, the company can trace its history back much further to around 1420 but as Alan Hughes, whose family have owned the foundry for generations, explains – “round here, we tend not to worry about the odd hundred and fifty years”.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry Main-001

Step beyond the Foundry’s magnificent oaken facade and you might as well have lost a couple of hundred years somewhere en route. Gone is the multicultural shabby chic of modern east London. Enter instead a Dickensian world of wood panelling, narrow stairwells and rickety floorboards. Waiting in Foundry’s front room, I spy an old pendulum clocking-in clock complete with name cards handwritten in beautiful italic script: It’s almost a surprise not to see one for Bob Cratchit. When Alan himself arrives, his striking resemblance to Michael Caine only reinforces the sense of being in some lavish period drama.

Although normally off-limits, on various Saturdays the Whitechapel Bell Foundry opens its doors to general public.  Dates are announced in September for the following year and sell out almost immediately. The rarity factor helps: There are now just 8 foundries left in the world so anyone with a love of bells is hardly spoiled for choice. For many, however, the real attraction is the connection to one bell in particular: Big Ben, recast at Whitechapel in 1858. No sound defines London better than that beloved bell. Londoners lined the streets and cheered when Big Ben first made the journey from Whitechapel to Westminster by horse drawn carriage. All through the Second World War it rang, a symbol of defiance against Hitler. Even today if, on rare occasion, something goes wrong, it always makes headline news and countless column inches will analyse when we’re going to get our bongs back.

Even though large bells still account for the majority of Whitechapel’s business, nowadays they’re a more modest size than Big Ben’s mighty 13.5 tonnes: “Even if we could melt the metal, we couldn’t get anything bigger out the door!”. The metal, a mixture of copper and 22% tin, is heated in the foundry’s furnaces and then cast using a specially constructed loam mould. Large bell casting only takes place on a Friday as they need at least the weekend to cool down. Sure enough, the first mould we come across is still warm to the touch. ‘What’s the secret to successful mould making?’ someone asks, enjoying the heat. Good clay, goat hair and horse poo explains Alan with a grin. “Horse manure is porous so it helps to let any gases escape”. Hands are rapidly removed from the warm mould.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The size and shape of a bell has a significant influence on its tone. It is possible just to cast a bell and have done with it (a so-called “maiden bell”) but to achieve that aesthetic, harmonious bell sound, tuning is required. By careful removal of metal from the inside of the bell, the tuner can sharpen or flatten the various notes of the bell from the ‘strike note’, the sound the bell makes when it’s first struck, to the ‘hum note’, the lingering sound produced by the vibration of the entire bell (There are in fact five key notes the bell tuner is concerned with). Modern technology has helped considerably in providing precise sound analysis, so much so that someone tone deaf could now do a bell tuner’s job, but it still takes extraordinary skill to know exactly how much metal to remove and from where on the bell:  “One mistake – We smash up the bell and start all over again”.

Given the precision of the work and the pristine world of modern manufacturing, Whitechapel’s workshop comes as quite a shock. It’s a riot of equipment, dust, debris and of course bells, which crowd every surface and every corner. Alan’s good humoured safety warning at the start of the tour suddenly takes on a level of seriousness : “There are literally dozens of ways to hurt yourself here: We’d prefer it if you didn’t!”. Conditions are so cramped in the upstairs area used for small bell production, the foundry can’t employ anyone there over 5ft8. I enjoy the momentary satisfaction of standing tall at 5ft 3 alongside my doubled-up tour companions.

Heightism aside, how does Whitechapel recruit? By comparison with pop star, astronaut or banker, bell making hardly seems a likely choice of career so it’s a real surprise to learn the foundry receives far more applications than it could ever have positions. With only 20 staff, the team is small, bordering on tiny, and people tend to stay – the nearby wall is covered with memorials to all those who’ve died or retired on the job. We’ve always been far more interested in people who actually want to join, says Alan. A passion for bells is far more relevant than previous experience. As if to make a point, he picks up a handbell. It’s a beautiful thing, all gleaming bronze and seductive curves, and the sound it makes is exquisite – rich, resonant, far removed from the shrill, tarnished cry that once summoned me to school assembly.

How rarely do we get the chance to appreciate a bell? For most of us, it’s simply the sound of order and obedience. Fire drill – leave now, door bell – open up, bicycle – step aside, a symbol of compliance. It makes a business like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry all the more remarkable. Nothing about it complies with the modern world. Arcane industry, family values, hand craftsmanship. By rights it shouldn’t exist. Then again, as the irreverent company motto puts it : “Nothing is impossible: For those who don’t have to do it themselves”.