The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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Over the Sea to Scotland — Bookended by London with a Stop in York (Part 1)

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Loch Lomond

Travelogue time! Even though the UK had a late spring this year, it was a joy to spend three weeks on the other side of the pond, mostly in Scotland. To keep the narrative digestable, I’ll post about the trip in parts. First up, London and York.

London

I love London and was so happy to be back in my favorite area, Bloomsbury. I was able to check a few things off my to-do-this-time list. (I never get to all of them.)

On our one full day in London, we walked around St. Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. Later, after a pretty much obligatory pilgrimage to Foyle’s flagship store on Charing Cross Road, I dipped into the National Portrait Gallery. I had a particular reason for wanting to see works by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and then I just happened to stumble into a bust of him. Well, not literally.

By the way, during this trip I was reading Judith Flanders’ mysteries featuring Samantha Clair. They’re so engaging. Sam is a realistically rounded character — an accomplished introvert of a book editor who maintains a tangential, acidic, and astute inner monologue that I just love. I like her copper boyfriend Jake, too. Sadly, I finished the last current volume, A Cast of Vultures, on the plane home, but there’s a new installment coming soon. Pre-ordered.

York

OK, back to the travelogue. The next day, we took the train from Kings Cross to York. While waiting for our platform to be announced, we enjoyed watching youngsters and not-so-youngsters having their pictures taken as they pretended to board the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9¾. About two hours later, we were in the walled City of York. Since my first visit last year, York is one of my favorite places in Britain. Though it was cold, I was just glad not to be rained on so that it was possible to walk part way around the walls. York Minster dominates everywhere — which as one of the largest gothic cathedrals in Northern Europe, it is entitled to do. The interior is alternately fascinating and awe-inspiring, with overwhelmingly beautiful expanses of stained glass and a serene octagonal Chapter House. To top off coming back to York, I returned to the warmest of welcomes at the same place I stayed last year, the delightful Parisi Hotel.

Next up, Edinburgh and the Deeside. Watch this space!

 

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Down memory lane into the Inns of Court

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Staple Inn Yard

Once upon a time, when I was a law student, I spent a few weeks on a study abroad course in London’s Inns of Court. A lot of American lawyers have a crush on the British legal system and wouldn’t mind if we got to wear wigs and gowns in court. This secret desire all started — or at least took on a life of it’s own — with Rumpole of the Bailey, in case you didn’t know. In Horace Rumpole, barrister and author John Mortimer created one of the indelible characters of the Twentieth Century. Mortimer’s stories are wonderful and the great Leo McKern will always embody Rumpole for me. He lives on, though, in radio plays recorded with Maurice Denham, later with Timothy West (and his wife Prunella Scales as Hilda Rumpole — She Who Must Be Obeyed), and most recently Benedict Cumberbatch as the young Rumpole. The stories, the radio plays, and the TV series are all quite entertaining and you should track them down if you can.

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Hare Court, Inner Temple

Getting back to the heady days of my own “mini-pupillage,”  I went to receptions and dinners in venerable old buildings, spent time in a barristers’ chambers in Gray’s Inn, observed a murder trial at the Old Bailey from the courtroom floor level instead of the gallery, and rubbed elbows with policemen, lawyers, defendants, and court personnel. I felt awfully lucky to have the experience but except for poking my nose whenever I can into Temple Church, which is one of my very favorite places in London, I haven’t really been back.

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Gardens in The Temple

Walking down from Bloomsbury, we threaded our way through Staple Inn (once an Inn of Chancery, now home to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries) and the four Inns of Court:  Grays Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, and the Middle and Inner Temples, eventually coming out on the Embankment. Since it was Saturday, pretty much everything was shut up. We eventually found our way into Middle Temple and through to the Inner Temple. Athough the church was closed, we could still hear the organ being practiced. On the positive side, the Inns were all blissfully peaceful and at this time of year the gardens were in their glory.

Read about Dickens, the Inns of Chancery, and the Inns of Court here.


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My Bloomsbury

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Queen Square Park

Just as I returned home toward the end of July, BBC2 began broadcasting Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury Set — Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and all that — of whom it was said they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Very amusing, I’m sure.  That particular set is gone but Bloomsbury is still known for its garden squares, literary associations, and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions. Over the years I’ve stayed in quite a few different areas of London — Swiss Cottage, Ebury Street, Bayswater, Earls Court, Sloane Square and several hotels in Bloomsbury, to which I keep returning.  By way of contrast, last fall I stayed in a lovely hotel in Sloane Square but didn’t really enjoy the area — too upscale for me, I suppose. Bloomsbury (click for a walking tour) is comfortable, vibrant, multicultural, and wears its academic connections like a pair of old slippers. It’s slightly scruffy in places, but who cares? If I am within a stone’s throw of Russell Square and the British Museum, with the British Library not too far away, I feel perfectly at home.

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Breakfast at 49 Cafe

If you travel in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, you alight at Russell Square Tube station. Follow the Way Out signs, climb a short flight of stairs with your suitcase, wait impatiently for the cattle-car style lift, pop your Oyster card on the reader, walk across Bernard Street to Marchmont Street and there you are. For starters, have you seen the movie Pride? It follows events that actually occurred during the 1984 miners strike, when a group of gay and lesbian activists provided dedicated, direct support to some Welsh miners and their families. The two groups ended up making a deep and long lasting connection that is recounted in the film with humor, sensitivity, outrage, and yes, pride.  The first time I saw it, I immediately recognized  Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, a Bloomsbury bookstore that was a sort of headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.  It’s still there, a little bit of modern history where you can wander in and browse, or buy a T shirt. Anyway, the film deserves to be better known and more seen and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Also on Marchmont, there is a terrific place for breakfast at No. 49, helpfully named the 49 Cafe (lovely food, lovely staff), and Judd Books, which specializes in second-hand academic books and carries much else besides. North Sea Fish Restaurant and Takeaway (deservedly highly rated for fish and chips) is around the corner on Leigh Street. And Brunswick Centre, a shopping complex adjacent to the Tube station, will have everything you could possibly need and quite a few things you don’t.

There is a nice cafe, with outdoor seating, in the north corner of Russell Square, and one of only 13 remaining cabman’s shelters is on the west corner. When the weather is mild, I love to sit on bench or at the cafe with a book or notebook, people watch, and read or write, and day dream.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of what Bloomsbury has to offer. If you have a favorite London neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!