Thursday, October 18, 2012

London Bookstores

I was stopped on 5th Avenue the other day by a woman who asked me if I was from London -- she saw I was carrying my cotton canvas tote bag from Daunt Books.  I explained that I'd recently visited London, and she said she'd been living there -- "around the corner from Daunt Books, one of the best bookstores in the world" -- for three years and was now back in New York and was feeling homesick.  I completely understood how she felt, not only because I have London very much in mind these days but also because Daunt really is one of the greatest bookstores I've ever been to.

I'm referring to the store's Marylebone High Street location, at numbers 83 and 84 near the Baker Street Tube stop (there are three other outposts in the city).  [And by the way, Marylebone is one of those English words that trips people up. I once worked with a British fellow from London who told me it was pronounced MAHR-luh-bone but I have also heard it pronounced MAHR-luh-bun.]  Anyway, Daunt is a dream of a bookstore, with a beautiful room in the back of the street level floor that's lit by a skylight and is devoted to travel books!  It's a kind of heaven, and the books are arranged in my favorite way, which is that all of the books about each country -- fiction, cookbooks, biographies, travel guides, maps, memoirs, etc. -- are all found together.  There is an entire section devoted to Corsica!  (If you don't know this yet, Corsica is one of my most favorite places on the planet -- see an article I wrote for the travel section of The New York Times, 'Along the Road of the Artisans,' 17 October, 2004.)

I bought some books published by British imprints, as well as a copy of Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge, originally published in 1935 and now brought back into print by the publishing arm of Daunt. It was hard to leave this store, but it was also great to visit Heywood Hill [10 Curzon Street, Mayfair], a 75+ year old bookstore that deals in both new and old books.  I bought a copy of The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters Between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, 1952-73.  When Heywood Hill left to serve in the British Army in 1943, he turned over the running of the store to Mitford.  She actually owned a share in the store, and later she famously wrote to Hill, "doing business with friends is let's have a divorce."  There is one of those standard blue, commemorative plaques outside the store, indicating that Nancy Mitford worked there from 1942-1945, as well as one of the Royal Warrant plaques (more details about this later).   I also loved going to Stanfords [12-14 Long Acre, Covent Garden], one of the world's greatest travel bookstores.  It's been here since 1901, and reportedly has the world's largest inventory of travel books under one roof.

This time, I didn't get back to one of my other favorite London bookstores, Books for Cooks [4  Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill; the only reason I didn't go is because I was actually trying to avoid the annual Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival].  I also really wanted to go to Foyles [113-119 Charing Cross Road, Soho; did you know that the name of the great British series, 'Foyle's War,' was inspired by this bookstore, which won the UK Bookseller of the Year award in 2010?] and John Sandoe Books [10 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea], and Primrose Hill Books [134 Regent's Park Road]...but I simply couldn't fit them all in.  And I nearly lost my  mind when I discovered the London Bookshop Map: so many bookstores, so little time!

If it seems like I spent all my time in bookstores, I really didn't (though I wouldn't have minded!).  More unique London retail stores up next.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Ceremony of the Keys, London

Most memorable highlight of my London trip:

*The Ceremony of the Keys, Tower of London.  This is known as the oldest, longest-running ceremony in the world, and it is positively fabulous.  Since 1280, every single night without fail -- even during the Plague, the Fire, and the Blitz -- a man known as the Gentleman Porter (or Chief Yeoman Warder) walks down the cobbled lane between the inner and outer walls of the Tower of London carrying a lit, brass lantern at precisely 9:53 p.m. (the only time he was a little late was when on 29 December, 1940, when a bomb fell so close that the Tower warders fell off their feet, and they wrote a letter of apology to the King for lighting the lamp three minutes late; the King replied that he understood).

When the Gentleman Porter reaches a certain spot down the lane, a sentry calls out, "Halt! Who comes there?"  And the Porter replies, "The keys!"  "Whose keys?" asks the sentry.  And the Porter says, "Queen Elizabeth's keys." And I won't spoil the rest of the ceremony but will only say that it is dark, a little spooky, dramatic, a little corny, and thrilling all at the same time and you positively have to attend it.

The tickets (shown above) are free but you must reserve in advance, at least several months ahead if you're visiting in the summer months (I wrote in February for tickets in August):  see details at Historic Royal Palaces.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

London Walks

In another forgetful moment I neglected to mention in my last post that I really enjoyed eating at Jamie's Italian in Covent Garden [11 Upper St. Martin's Lane, WC].  I am a big fan of Jamie's Italy cookbook, and this restaurant was big fun and lively, and I could have eaten bowls and bowls of the parmesan-rosemary crisps.


Without doubt, the first thing you have to do when you know you're going to London is check out London Walks, the original (from the 1960s) London walking tour company.  As  you'll discover when you take a look at the website, London Walks is "in a class by itself" and is "the premier walking tour company in the entire world."  If I'd had my way, I would have gone on a London Walks tour every day; but as it was, I had to also satisfy the London desires of my husband and daughter, so I had to settle for just one: 'Old Westminster, 1,000 Years of History.'  "Miss it and you've missed London" is how this tour is described, and I would quite agree.  The guide was superb, and one of my favorite parts of it was when we saw two original signs for bomb shelter locations, painted on the side of buildings throughout the city during World War II (pictured above).

It is, of course, the guides that make London Walks.  They are all ridiculously qualified, interesting, and enthusiastic.  And they've won mountains of awards, including an MBE by Her Majesty for services to the tourism industry and a coveted Guide of the Year honor.  Two actor-guides have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the BBC, and the National Theater.  And one was on a list of fifteen of 'The World's Greatest Guides' list in Travel + Leisure.  She was the only one of the fifteen who was from England. 

There are lots of themed walks from which to choose, and really, the hardest thing is to make a decision -- just a few others are 'The Secrets of Westminster Abbey,' 'Westminster at War,' 'Hidden London,' 'The Queen's Jubliee Walk,' 'Jack the Ripper Haunts,' 'The Beatles In My Life Walk,' ' Ghosts, Gaslight and Guinness,' and the list goes on, with truly something for everyone.  All the tours are a very reasonable 9 pounds per person (7 for seniors and students), they take about two hours, and the starting point is always near a Tube stop.  Also, you don't need to reserve in advance, and of course if you are part of a group you can arrange for a private tour.  And, there are London Walks tours to Oxford and the Costwolds, Stonehenge, Bath, and beyond.   

You may remember that I recommended the London Walks book a few posts back -- it's also excellent, and is almost as good as going on an actual walk (by the way, one of the best things about the book is that David Tucker and the guides who wrote it recommend specific places in London to read each chapter -- brilliant!).  What really grabbed me when I read the book was in Tucker's Introduction -- he wrote that one night he was watching a lamplighter (London actually still has some lamplighters) and he wondered how many other people even knew there were still lamplighters around, and he also wondered how many other facts about London people didn't know and how great it would be if they did.  He writes, "London Walks guides are, after a fashion, latter-day gas-lamp lighters. Picture it: the lamplighter's figure moving along a London street in the gloaming and one by one the street lamps coming out like stars. And you think there's no romance in London? So that's what we do - light things up for people. Both out on the streets of London when we're guiding, and here, in these pages."  And this beautiful image below is now on the London Walks website (I don't know the title of the work or who the artist is, so I apologize for not giving credit where credit is due but I'm going to try and investigate and report back) and when I saw it it rather warmed my heart.  I think it perfectly encapsulates the inspiration behind this wonderful and worthwhile company.