Thursday 24 May 2012

London in the Details

I'm back in London en route to my latest Lonely Planet assignment in Poland, and I'm feeling some of the excitement of my first visit to the British capital over 20 years ago.

Aside from all its well known attractions, there's something special about London at an everyday level. Something - a look, a feel, a vibe - which marks the city out as interesting as you walk along its streets.

I was feeling this yesterday as I wandered around in a slight haze while waiting for night to fall so I could go to bed at a normal time to beat jetlag; and today as I travelled around the city in a more wakeful state.

Here are some of the quirky details which caught my eye...

1. The slightly crazy but always interesting decor in my hotel, the Radisson Blu Grafton Hotel next to Warren Street Tube station.

A hundred year old hotel which used to be decorated in a conservative businesslike style, it's recently had an extreme makeover producing colourful public areas full of bright colours and offbeat art (there are two gold-faced alpacas standing in the foyer). Somehow, this contrast of wild and classic works:

2. Not far from the hotel I looked back and saw this scene. It seemed very London to me, the contrast of the 1960s Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) with the older building in front. The fact that I first saw the tower in an early black-and-white episode of Doctor Who also helped make it interesting...

3. Walking along Baker Street, I spotted this sign opposite the Sherlock Holmes Museum:

4. This grand crest of the Metropolitan Railway is on the exterior of the Baker Street Underground station building.

The Metropolitan line, established in 1863, was the first underground railway in the world, and its original stations just below street level still look distinctively different from their deeper successors.

5. My hotel is in the neighbourhood known as Fitzrovia, reflected in this sign I spotted when walking its streets. It seems the neighbourhood was playfully named after the Fitzroy Tavern, itself named after 18th century developer Charles FitzRoy.

With its narrow streets and mix of cool little cafes and shops mixed with residences, it also reminds me of the inner-city suburb of Melbourne named Fitzroy.

6. Still in Fitzrovia, here's the patriotic view along Charlotte Place, a pleasant pedestrian-only street. It also contains the excellent Australian-owned cafe Lantana, which I wrote about last year in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. It's a great little place for a coffee, in a city which repays attention to detail...

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Visit Britain.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Pubs of Belfast 2

Last week I shared images of three fine old laneway pubs I visited on my trip last year to Belfast, Northern Ireland (hosted by Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland). Here are three more to make up the set...

1. Duke of York (11 Commercial Ct). This pub was situated in the most attractive entry (the Northern Ireland term for alley) which I'd seen so far, dominating the space with planter boxes, colourful signage and outdoor seating.

Although I'd been endlessly warned about the Belfast weather, it was actually well behaved during my visit and I sat outside the pub for a while when the sun came out:

2. The Journos' Hangout. According to the Belfast chapter within Lonely Planet's Ireland country guide, the Duke of York used to be the pub of choice for print workers and journalists, and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams once worked behind the bar here.

Nowadays it seems to attract a broad clientele, fitting with the Cathedral Quarter's recent reawakening as a cool nightlife zone:

3. Red Hand. Both the pub's interior and exterior are decked out with signage from now-defunct whisky and beer brands. This variant of Guinness, Red Hand, caught my eye as this legendary hand is a symbol of Northern Ireland and appears on its flag.

The legend of the Red Hand of Ulster claims that during an ancient absence on the throne of Ulster (a northern kingdom), whoever's hand first touched the shore at the end of a boat race would become king. In a grisly display of lateral thinking, one of the potential kings allegedly cut off his hand and threw it onto the shore in order to win the crown:

4. Kelly’s Cellars (1 Bank St). Not in an alleyway, this 1720 pub is located behind a stretch of modern buildings and therefore stands out like a beacon with its intact old-fashioned look:

5. Stew... or stew. I was here around lunchtime, so I asked the barmaid if the pub offered food. Turned out there was just one dish - Irish stew. Damn good though, and cheap - the stew and a half-pint of Guinness was only £5.30 all up:

6. Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria St). My final memorable pub dramatically departed from the humble look of the likes of Kelly's.

The Crown Liquor Saloon was refurbished in insanely over-the-top Victorian decor in 1885 in order to attract the beautiful people attending the opera house down the road. The result is a riot of tiled surfaces, gleaming brass and decorative windows:

... and on top of that, it must be one of the few National Trust properties in the UK where you can order a pint, pulled from a tap. I like that.

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Friday 11 May 2012

Pubs of Belfast 1

A year ago I spent a few days in Belfast, Northern Ireland (hosted by Aer Lingus and Tourism Ireland), and discovered some marvellous pubs.

I'd arrived in the city mid-morning on a weekday, having just endured the 23-hour flight from Melbourne to London before flying the short hop across the Irish Sea.

I've always believed the best way to forestall jetlag when flying west is to stay up until the local equivalent of one's usual bedtime, so what was I to do for the rest of the day before a dinner appointment?

A flick through the Lonely Planet chapter covering Belfast gave me the answer - check out its numerous attractive old pubs, many located in alleyways the Northern Irelanders call "entries".

Given the city's maritime history, these were probably once rough-and-tumble joints full of boozed-up sailors and dock workers, so it'd be interesting to see what they were like in these more refined times.

My course was set; first port of call...

1.  Bittle’s Bar (103 Victoria St). Just down the street from my hotel, this corner pub decorated with a big shamrock stood out because it couldn't be much more of a corner pub without completely disappearing into its own acute angle:

2. The Champ of Lunches. Inside I found a narrow but cosy triangular space with a big portrait on one wall of Oscar Wilde and other Irish writers serving pints of beer. For lunch I ordered what I was soon to jokingly call the national dish of Northern Ireland - pork and leek sausages with "champ", a mixture of spring onions and mashed potato:

3. Pottinger's Entry. This was my first Belfast alley, named after a prominent local family who supplied Sir Henry Pottinger, first Governor of Hong Kong:

4. Morning Star (17 Pottinger’s Entry). This pub dates from 1810, when it was one of the termini for the Belfast to Dublin mail coach. It has some interesting architectural features on the outside:

 ... and a fairly shiny interior:

5. Winecellar Entry. By this point, of course, I'd realised that I couldn't order a pint of Guinness in every single pub... especially not in my befuddled post-flight state. So it was down to half-pints (well, one had to be civil). Here's my next alley, though less visually exciting:

6. Whites (1 Winecellar Entry). Here I found what's claimed to be Belfast's oldest tavern, dating from 1630. This is a good point at which to pay tribute to the friendliness of the locals - while I was taking photos in the alley a young guy who was passing stopped to have a chat and tell me more about the pubs, before heading off about his business:

... and here's the interior. Although there's been a tavern here since 1630, like so many of these places it's been completely remodelled from time to time. I found out later that Whites was rebuilt in 1790 and more recently refurbished in the 1990s after a fire. Here's what the interior looks like now - dim, cosy and atmospheric:

Next week: Three more Belfast pubs - one full of colourful signage, another humble but with special stew, and one spectacularly overdecorated for the Victorian gentry...

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Sunday 6 May 2012

Clunes by the Book

One of the best things about living in Melbourne but not having grown up here, is that I have many undiscovered towns to visit outside the city in the state of Victoria.

One of these was Clunes, where I've spent the weekend. A small town of 1000 people north of Ballarat, it's famous for being a book town along the lines of Hay-on-Wye in Wales.

There are several bookshops operating here throughout the year, bolstered by the arrival of numerous additional booksellers for the annual Clunes Booktown Festival in May. At this event they're housed in all sorts of venues around the town, slipped into nooks and crannies within historic buildings and existing businesses.

As pleasant as the festival this weekend was, I particularly enjoyed spotting the historic relics of a town which housed 9000 inhabitants at its goldmining height in the 1880s. Here are a few highlights...

1. Outside the venue for the festival's opening dinner I spotted this sign attached to a shed. Jerilderie is a fair distance away across the border in New South Wales, so what was it doing here? Turns out it was a prop from the 2003 film Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger, which had been partly filmed in Clunes:

2. And when you see the main street (Fraser Street) you can understand why this was the place to set a 19th century saga:

3. This is the old post office (now a bookshop). It's implausibly grand for a town of 1000 people, but at its gold rush height Clunes demanded nothing less than two storeys:

4. Surpassing it in grandeur is the former Town Hall:

5. On the topic of old-fashioned and possibly obsolete relics, I spotted this distinctive marker at the festival, used to indicate the location of temporary bookstalls. It's made mostly of outdated encyclopedias bolted together into a column. Sacrilege or the best use for them - what do you think?

6. Here's the accommodation we stayed in first, Keebles Country Guest House, which opened in 1863 as the Telegraph Hotel. It's quite plush now, but we were told the place had been everything from a bus station to a brothel in its time:

7. And finally, we hauled up the hill west of the shopping strip to check out the Clunes Bottle Museum inside an old school. Here's the attractive historic building:

8. And here's one of the most interesting exhibits in the museum. It's an unopened 1850s bottle of root beer which we were told has largely turned to sulphur dioxide over the years, due to the presence of SO2 in the original aerated drink. Not nice to sip - but a beautifully formed piece of history:

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line (as passenger rail services have just returned to Clunes, hooray!) and Tourism Victoria.