Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Champagne Wishes & Caviar Dreams in Little Venice

Remember the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?  (You must be pretty old!)  They could have filmed an entire month's worth of episodes in this neighborhood...

Monday morning I met up with several fellow AWC members for a London Walks tour of the part of London known as "Little Venice."  Josh and I had visited this area back in May during a canal boat festival, but this tour was focused more on the surrounding residential area than the canal. Our tour began next to a Victorian-era cabman's shelter outside the Warwick Ave Tube station.
Cabman's Shelter
These shelters date back to the days when a cab was pulled by a horse, so the driver couldn't exactly leave it unattended when he got hungry or thirsty.  These shelters were designed to keep drivers out of pubs and give them a place to get something (wholesome) to eat or drink and catch up on the news of the day in between fares.  Some of them are still in use, and while only cabbies are allowed inside, many have a takeout window where anyone can get a snack or a cup of tea.  Note the iron railing, where the drivers could tie up their horses.

Our guide introduced himself as "Richard III," explaining that there are SIX Richards employed as London Walks guides, and he was the third.  His blurb on the Walks site reads thus: "Richard III, scion of a Lord Mayor of London, is a writer, actor, director and stand-up comic. And the only London Walks guide to have addressed the United Nations!"  He was certainly a very entertaining and eloquent speaker with a theatrical bent.
Richard III
Our first stop was the Colonnade Hotel, which was once a hospital and the birthplace of Alan Turing, one of the pioneers of computer science and WWII codebreaker.  As a hotel, it has hosted the likes of Sigmund Freud and President John F. Kennedy.

Richard III: "If you stay here, you can sleep in President Kennedy's bed.  Indeed, many ladies claim to have done so."
Colonnade Hotel plaque
Nearby was the former home of another pioneering British scientist, John Fleming, inventor of the vacuum tube.
Sir Ambrose Fleming
As we toured the swanky residential neighborhood, Richard took us to Randolph Street, which was once known as "Randy Street" because all the well-heeled 'gentlemen' used to keep their mistresses there.  After dinner, the man of the house would send his children off to bed and tell his wife he was going to his club -- but, of course, he would spend the evening with his mistress instead.  And this is why gentlemens' clubs never revealed whether any of their members were present.  Nice.

Nowadays, the street is home to a slightly different class of people.  This house belongs to Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
Dave Stewart's house
Richard III pointed out that while the houses all had elaborate -- and high-maintenance -- stucco facades, they were actually made of brick.
Posh in the front, working-class in the back
At the end of the street, we came upon a new house under construction.  It was carefully designed to match the surrounding semi-detached houses on the street, but this one had been built new from the ground up.  Notice how it is completely white, while the neighboring house just has a stucco facade.
House for sale
There is no set asking price. You are expected to read the description, visit their web site, and then contact them to make an offer.  I'm guessing anything under £10 million would not be taken seriously.
Care to make an offer?
We crossed over the canal and into another swanky residential area...
The canal
This house only has one blue plaque on it -- indicating that poet laureate John Masefield once lived here -- but the two halves of this duplex have been home to many famous people, including Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who sold it to the current occupant, Earl Spencer (Princess Diana's brother).
Who HASN'T lived here?
Oh, and right next door, there once lived a young man named Paul McCartney.
Paul once lived here!
Richard III said if he could live in any house in London, it would be this one.  It once belonged to the famed actress, and former royal mistress, Lillie Langtry.  More recently, Madonna  and Barbra Streisand both made offers on the house, but were outbid by Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance.  It now belongs to some Greek shipping tycoon, but appeared to be undergoing some minor renovations.
Prime London real estate
I noticed one of the women carefully writing everything down in a notebook, and complimented her on taking such detailed notes.  She explained that she lived in the neighborhood -- her husband works nearby -- and thought it would be helpful to learn more about the area and be able to give her own tours to guests when they visit from the States.  She was quick to note that she did not live in one of \ the fancy houses we'd been seeing, but a more modest flat.  There are some slightly less expensive housing options in the area, including this lovely apartment complex.  Just across the street was an ugly brick block of council flats (public housing), which indicates that whatever used to be there was bombed during WWII.  Paddington Station is nearby, which was a target.  
St. Mary's Mansions
We ventured out of the residential area and into Paddington Green, where we saw one of Richard III's favorite statues.  It is of actress Sarah Siddons, who is buried in the nearby churchyard, and was the first statue of a woman erected in London who was not a member of the royal family.  Best known for playing Lady Macbeth, she died in 1831.
Sarah Siddons, 1755-1831
Back in another residential area, we peeked through a gate/hedge at a house with not one, but TWO historical plaques.  One was for Venetian painter Antonio Canaletto, who, ironically, lived and worked here long before this area came to be known as "Little Venice"
And the other was for Lokamanya Tilak, one of the first leaders of the Indian independence movement.
The poet Robert Browning also once lived in this area, and the island in the middle of the Pool is named Browning's Island in his honor.  It is inhabited by a variety of aquatic birds (ducks, geese, swans, herons, cormorants) and water rats.

Browning's Island
Along the canal, there are temporary moorings on one side and permanent ones on the other.  There is a 5-year waiting list for permanent moorings in this area, and they are some of the most expensive moorings in the world.  The houseboats often come with them.  Some are badly in need of repairs, but others are so big they have their own post code.
Canal boats on the left, permanent houseboats on the right.
Oh, and what's with the canals, you ask?  They were once the most efficient way to transport goods across London.  A single horse could pull a barge laden with the same amount of cargo that would otherwise fill two dozen horse-drawn carts.  Then the trains came along...

At Richard III's recommendation, several of us went to lunch at the nearby Prince Alfred pub after the tour.  It had a lovely interior, and what he described as "some of the best snob screens in London."  Indeed, we found ourselves in a little room with its own entrance that had lovely wood and glass screens separating it from the adjacent areas, with an opening at the corner to order from the bartender, and a small door through which the staff could deliver our food and drinks.  No need to mingle with the riffraff in the rest of the pub.  How very English.
In a "snob-screen" room at the Prince Alfred pub
We had lovely, sunny weather for our walking tour, but it started clouding up by the time I got home in the early afternoon.  The exact opposite of Saturday, when the weather did not cooperate so well with our schedule.  My field trip to a pick-your-own produce farm with my neighbors was canceled today as it was pouring rain, so I hope that means that I'll go back to having good weather for my next planned outing later this week.  Stay tuned...

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