East of Ealing

Easy like #AlmostSunday morning

It’s Sunday. No – it’s Saturday! This is one of the recognised downsides of my rebranding of Friday as “#AlmostSaturday”. Yesterday while out and about a grim realisation dawned upon me that my jeans may self destruct at any moment. Luckily I’m 50 yards from Next on Oxford Street so I’m able to rescue myself from one of those impromptu ripped clothing crisis that the Incredible Hulk would be all too familiar with.

Things of Leon

It’s Chinese new year and I want to do something appropriate. The Time Out website says that there are some oriental things going on at the London Docklands Museum and so a plan is formed. I’ve never been that far east of Tower Bridge so it’s an opportunity to experience something new. Apparently there is a branch of Leon there and having been to the marvellous branch at Spitalfields and experienced some lovely things it’s a prime candidate for lunch. Docklands turns out to be very impressive.

Docklands
Docklands

It’s toytown stuff with huge office blocks, the Docklands Light Railway and a shopping centre boasting some quality names. This must be the only retail centre in the UK with no pound shops or empty units. It turns out that there is also a great range of lunch choices and the lure of Japanese takeaway Wasabi is sufficiently strong to relegate Leon into second place on this occasion. Why don’t we get this quality and range of eateries in the Midlands? There’s not a McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut or KFC in sight here, just a great range of healthy fresh food outlets.

Chicken Katsu
Chicken Katsu

China Crisis

The museum is free to enter and charts the history of the dockland area from Roman times through the middle ages and upto the present day. The content is well presented and sections on the slave trade, wartime and transformation into a financial district in the 1980s are most engaging. My favourite annecdote concerns the firemen that doused sugar warehouses set alight in the blitz – they would salvage items entombed in molten and resolidified sugar to take home and break up as a sweet toffee treat. They weren’t too bothered about any health risks of such actions since other events presented a much higher risk to their wellbeing. I emerge after a couple of hours wondering where the Chinese exhibition got to since I never saw it. Oh well…

Beer of the Tiger

What to do in London on a Saturday night? Whatever I want, of course! And what I want is a top ale in a local pub followed by interesting eats. Beer In The Evening website informs me that the Carpenters Arms is not only a stones throw from my hotel in Marble Arch but serves real ale house and is popular with the locals. And so it is. A pint of award winning Betty Stogs bitter sinks agreeably in a bar where most voices sport a London accent and there is a darts match going on in the back room. My window view of the side street I also interesting. There’s an Iraqi restaurant across the road hosting some family party. In the street a cycle rickshaw passes having come all the way from Covent Garden and later I double take as I thought I saw a sushi delivery van drive by. I’m moving in around here!

It’s only a short tube hop to Leicester Square but it might as well be a trip to the moon. The streets are packed with people of every description and purpose but all attracted like fireflies to the shiny lights. Chinatown is aglow with red lanterns and bunting even though official celebrations take place next weekend. I opt for a Cantonese restaurant that looks a little shabby around the edges but is popular with young Chinese people so can’t be too bad. It’s a soap opera. I’m led to a table where I order Udon noodles and Tiger beer.

A senior gentleman who has been directing the waiters comes over with a dish of food and asks in broken English whether I mind him serving it at my table. I’m not quite sure what he’s asking me but reply that this will be fine. He then sits down opposite and embarks on what I now understand to be his dinner break. He eats with a spoon which surprises me. Then after 3 minutes he shouts an order at a waiter who produces a fork and gives it to me. I thought I had been using chopsticks happily and successfully up until now but perhaps I’m being told otherwise. It’s not the first odd behaviour – I was presented with the bill immediately after ordering before actually receiving anything. To cap it off my dinner date grabs a rice bowl, pours some of his green tea into it and dunks pieces of pork from his meal into it. I’m not falling for this because I know if I do this next time I’m in Hong Kong in the pretence of pretending to know what I’m doing everyone will stop and laugh. They do things differently here.

Beer and Posing in Las London

Status descending…

As I smugly sink into a sofa in the luxuriant 1st class passenger lounge and connect my netbook to the WiFi the smart and professional receptionist asks to see my tickets, to prove that I am “the right sort of person”. After all we wouldn’t want those “other” types getting in here would we? It turns out that I am one of the other types because my advance 1st class tickets don’t qualify for the lounge unless I pay an extra £5. My train is in 10 minutes so I turn my back at the pug faced battle axe and strop outside to mix with MY people. It was crap in there anyway – full of yattery business types dictating to their PAs. And the sofa was no great shakes.

Platform announcements may be more audible than of yesteryear but they make no more sense. The news that the 9:01 to London St Pancras is imminent and that first class travellers should make their way to the rear of the train is less than helpful since they don’t mention which direction the train is approaching from. I happen to know that it arrives from the left – the opposite end of the platform to the 1st class business lounge – and that it always will do, raising questions about the recently redesigned platform layout.

Once aboard I’m please to see that suited corporates are sparse (presumably they took earlier trains to the capital) and that there are “proper” people aboard which makes for better people watching, and less obnoxious conversations to earwig.

A date with Jimmy Hill (ugh!)

My lack of itinerary for the weekend is a front. I have ideas. After booking the hotel I decided that I was going to see some football. There are a dozen or so London clubs so there should be plenty of games to chose from over the weekend. Except this is FA cup weekend and all the local teams have been knocked out except Chelsea whose tickets are not on general sale, leaving just Fulham who play Notts County on Sunday.

Yes I can book a ticket online but I am checked into my classy Oxford Street cupboard by 11am so decide to tube it over to Putney Bridge & collect one in person. Craven Cottage is a proper old fashioned cantilever stadium that sits between Victorian Terraces and the Thames. I approach it along the Thames footpath when it starts to rain and I’m glad that I packed an umbrella but less chuffed that it is currently sitting in my hotel room. Fulham looks interesting but I’m getting wet so ticket in hand it’s a quick hop back on the tube to Covent Garden and…

A moving experience

…the London Transport Museum. It sits bang next to Covent Garden and I have walked past it on numerous occasions without venturing in, so today is the day. It’s unsurprisingly full of London transport paraphernalia.

Bus & Tram
Bus & Tram

I’m not too bothered about the “kit” so much – although there are some interesting old horse drawn trams, underground carriages and buses of a certain vintage – but the social history is compelling. Particularly striking is the realisation that so called modern themes relating to the drag of the suburban commute through to the environmental impact of the transport infrastructure were very hot topics as early as the 19th century. Three hours well spent.

Underground as a suburban salespitch
Underground as a suburban salespitch

Old habits

I’m a sucker for Mussels and Belgian beer so hunger pangs in the Covent Garden vicinity can only result in a trip to Belgo, next door to the Donmar Warehouse. My advice if you haven’t been there is to go even if you hate mussels. Situated in a large celler with oodles of copper, stainless steel, naked flames, beer to die for and the sort of comforting food to counteract the anticipated hangover this venue has an undeniably fine ambience. Efficient and engaging staff steer you to a trestle table next to fellow diners where there are plenty of people to observe and snippets to overhear. The waiters dress as monks but that’s their only bad habit. Doh!

I enjoy an entrée of 5% Cristal lager – one of the weakest beers on offer, followed by a yummy 7% Affligem Brune with a darker palour. There are many stronger beers served by the bottle – Chimay, Roquefort, Leffe, Steenbrugge, not to mention the 12% Bush Scaldis, but it’s 6:45pm and the line must be drawn somewhere.

Belgian Beer waiting for me
Belgian Beer waiting for me

Food for thought

Since I’m sat here in a Belgian restaurant I order some mussels in a Thai broth. In fairness they are very nice but nothing I couldn’t do myself. That said, it’s the whole package of food, beer, venue and clientele that makes this a worthy visit.

Belgo Thai Mussels
Belgo Thai Mussels

Time for a brief mozy around the Seven Dials area which always draws me in with its designer stores, independents and quirky coffee & nibble outlets followed by a pleasant stroll through the increasingly populous streets to Leicester Square and onto Chinatown. Sunday is Chinese New Year and this year it’s the turn of the Tiger. See my previous blog entry for your prospects this year if you must.

The lanterns are out and there is a tangible buzz. It’s a shame that the major celebrations here are taking place on the following weekend because they would be a wonderful sight to behold with fireworks and street processions led by human dragons. I console myself by joining a queue of people at a street stall in the belief that they must know something good lies at the other end. The zen navigation technique pays off handsomely with a thing probably best described as a pork dumpling in chilli sauce. A terrific treat for the taste buds. Perhaps I will return here on Sunday. Surely something festive will be going on, unless the Valentines crowd render the evening a write-off.

Things can only go downhill from here so I head back to the hotel cupboard. It may be early but there’s a few miles in my legs today.