Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 Olympics Preview: Olympic Park

London is an expensive place to live, but much like Washington, DC, there are lots of free or inexpensive things to do if you know how to find them -- and we try to take advantage of every opportunity we can find.  This weekend an organization called Walk London was offering a variety of free guided walks around London, lead by certified Blue Badge guides.  Normally these walks cost £8/person, which is still a pretty good deal, but free is even better!  We've been curious to see the Olympic Park, which has been under construction in East London ever since we arrived, so we spent over an hour on the District line riding the Tube out to the West Ham station to do the Olympic walk on Saturday afternoon.

We had never ventured that far east before, but although it was a long trip on the Tube, it was pretty easy since we got on at the beginning of the line in Wimbledon (guaranteed a seat) and didn't have to change trains.  We had no trouble finding the starting point -- there was a huge crowd of people gathered just outside the exit to the West Ham station.  In fact, so many people showed up for the walk, that they divided us up into three groups of about 30 each, since they had planned ahead and sent three guides.  Clearly, we weren't the only ones willing to brave the cold weather for a free tour. 

Our guide's name was Andy.  He lead us from the Tube station to the Jubilee Greenway, which is still partially under construction.  This is a new 60-km walking and cycling path that will connect many of the Olympic venues in celebration of the Queen's diamond jubilee.
The Jubilee Greenway: Sorry for any inconvenience
Signpost on the Greenway
We stopped at several spots along the way so Andy could give us some history on the Olympic games and tell us a little about the previous two times that London has hosted them: 1908 & 1948.  The 1908 games were originally scheduled to be held in Rome, but were moved to London after Mt Vesuvius erupted in 1906.  The 1948 games were the first Olympics held after WWII, and were known as the "Austerity Games" as the UK was still under rationing.  So, even though this is the third time London has hosted the Olympics, it's really the first time they've had a chance to properly prepare for the games.
Andy fills us in on Olympic history
When London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics back in July of 2005, the original budget was £3 billion.  The day after it was announced, there was a terrorist attack in London, and the security budget skyrocketed.  The current estimate is closer to £9 billion.  And that's just to prepare for the games.  The cost of actually running the games is mostly covered by private funds that come from corporate sponsors, such as Coke, McDonald's, and VISA.  Andy advised us not to show up in the Olympic village with a Pepsi and a Whopper, or we'd be politely asked to hide our food from the TV cameras.

At one point, Andy stopped to tell us how some of the nearby waterways had been restored, but we were distracted by the beautiful Victorian building off in the distance...
Andy shows us a map of the local waterways
And by this weird graffiti-covered thing behind him.  Some kind of large plumbing fixture?
Not sure what this is, but everyone took a picture
Andy promised to tell us about the building at our next waypoint.  This part of east London had been hit pretty hard during WWII, so it really stood out among its post-war neighbors. While it had fallen into disuse and was undergoing some restoration, it was clearly once a lovely building.  What could it have been?  A school?  A hospital?  A town hall?  Nope.  Give up?  It was a sewage pumping station!
Abbey Mills pumping station
The large hangar-like aluminum structure behind it (to the left in the above photo) is the current pumping station.  Not sure what they plan to do with this building, but it would be nice if it could serve some function during the Olympics.

We could start to see parts of the Olympic Park from the Greenway, including the top of the stadium, and a large metal tower that looked like a hellish roller coaster.  We also passed a lot of new construction on the outskirts of the park, which Andy said was all speculative housing, retail, and office space.
Approaching the Olympic Park
We came to a thick metal line and some numbers embedded in the walkway, which turned out to be the Prime Meridian.  This is an exciting discovery for cheapskates, because you have to have to pay an admission fee to take a photo on the spot where the Prime Meridian is marked in Greenwich, by the Royal Observatory.  The numbers around the line formed a sundial, which required a person as the gnomon to cast a shadow. 
Andy straddles two hemispheres
Since the sun wasn't shining, we couldn't test it out, but there was a handy spot in the middle instructing you where to stand by month.
Where to stand to be a human sundial
As we made our way towards the grounds of the Olympic Park, we were passed by some sort of official-looking 2012 Olympics tour bus.  Andy told us that you have to book these tours months in advance through the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), and they are likely sold out through the start of the Olympics.

ODA tour bus
We turned our noses up at the plan-aheaders in their nice warm bus and continued on foot towards what Andy promised would be a nice vantage point overlooking the park.
To the "View tube"
Although only the people in the special bus were allowed on the grounds of the Olympic park, the "View Tube" did afford us a pretty good view of many of the venues, including the new stadium, which can seat 80,000 people.  Since London already has a large-capacity stadium in Wembley, they don't really need another, so this one was designed to be temporary.  Its fate after the Olympics is still to be determined, but it may be reduced in size and used as a football (soccer) stadium
Olympic Stadium
We were curious to know what this thing was, since we could see it from some distance.  Andy said that most school groups call it "the big red thing,"  but it is officially known as the Orbit Tower.  The mayor of London thought the Olympic park needed some kind of iconic structure, and this is the result.  It was largely funded by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, who apparently has more money than Richard Branson, and was designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor.
The Orbit Tower
The tower has two lifts surrounded by a spiral staircase leading up to an observation deck.  After the games, the plan is to put a restaurant in the tower, but that it still to be determined.  There is quite an emphasis on Sustainability and Legacy with these Olympics, so many of the venues have been built with recycled materials, and will be recycled themselves after the games are over.

While most of the Olympic venues are now complete, there is still a lot of construction going on in the surrounding area of Stratford.  Off in the distance, behind the park, we could also see part of the massive new Westfield Mall.  I was surprised to learn that the mall had been planned on this site before they knew the Olympics would be held here.  I had always assumed it was the other way around.
Westfield Mall (left) and Olympic construction boom
L to R: Basketball venue, Water Polo pool, Tower, Aquatics center
Map of Olympic Park
Our walking tour ended here, so we took advantage of the nearby pop-up cafe to warm ourselves up with some tea and cake.
The Container Cafe
They seem to have made good use of shipping containers here, using them not just to build a cafe, but a small exhibit space, and, of course, a shop.
The requisite 2012 merchandise shop
Cafe supply vehicle
Since we still had some daylight left, we walked into Stratford to check out the town center.
Sunset over the City of London
On the way, we passed this historic building under renovation.  Warton House was once the headquarters of Yardley's of London, and still bears their old flower-seller logo.
Warton House
While the outskirts of Stratford seemed a bit dodgy with all the ugly post-war buildings and construction sites, the town center was actually quite nice, with some lovely architecture.
Stratford town center
Ye Olde Black Bull pub
Old Town Hall
Stratford Outdoor Market
St. John's Church (ca 1834)
Since it was getting colder and darker -- and nearing dinner time -- we decided to check out the Westfield Mall and find a place to eat there.  As we approached the massive shopping center, I could see why it was built here.  It is directly adjacent to the Stratford station, which is the endpoint of two Tube lines and is also served by the DLR (light rail) and overground trains.  I imagine it's also easy to get here by car, as evidenced by the huge parking garage.
Orbit tower and Aquatic center from Stratford station.
There was a pedestrian walkway connecting the mall to the station
Approaching the mall
This is one gigantic shopping center!  In addition to all the usual mall stores, it has a huge movie theater, a bowling alley, a casino, tons of restaurants, and a supermarket.
Shall we see a movie, or go bowling?
We did a circuit around all three levels of the mall, which was bustling on a Saturday evening, and then had dinner at Wahaca, part of a chain of Mexican restaurants in London.  I doubt I'll spend a lot of time at this mall, since it's pretty far out of my way, but I'll add it to my list of places to spend a cold, rainy day when I just want to get out of the house.

We were glad to get a peek at the Olympic Park and are looking forward to going back in a few weeks for another preview.  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

One Nightstand, Two Nightstands

As I've mentioned many times before, most things cost quite a bit more here than they do in the States.  As a result, our house is furnished with a hodgepodge of items that we brought from home or bought here at IKEA and various discount furniture warehouses.  Since we don't have a car, shopping for home furnishings can be challenging, so I occasionally scan the listings on Gumtree -- the UK equivalent to Craigslist -- to see if anyone in the neighborhood is trying to offload something we could use.  (They do have Craigslist here, but no one uses it.) 

So far, all that we've netted through Gumtree is a couple houseplants we bought from some Americans down the street who were moving back to the US, but yesterday I spotted an ad for a matched set of pine bedside tables.  The seller not only lives in Wimbledon, but offered to deliver locally.  Score!  With all the visitors we are expecting this year, I really wanted to get some proper nightstands for our guest rooms.  We only have one, which we bought for £50 ($80!) at a furniture warehouse, that I've been moving back and forth between the two spare bedrooms depending on whether one or both rooms were in use.  A plant stand has been serving as a second nightstand, but can only hold a small lamp and not much else.
BEFORE: Plant stand on the left and our one existing nightstand on right
After a few emails back and forth with the seller, I was able to confirm that:
  • The nightstands would fit in my very narrow guest room
  • They were coming from a non-smoking, pet-free home
  • They were for sale because they were redecorating their bedroom and had already replaced them with new "shabby chic" white ones
  • The seller could deliver them this very evening
Sold!  For £40 ($62), these were a good deal.  They were much nicer than anything I'd be able to get at IKEA for that price.  In fact, I don't think I could even buy ONE decent nightstand at IKEA for £40.  The seller stopped by around 6 pm to drop them off.  He turned out to be a very sweet guy from South Africa (are there ANY Brits in Wimbledon?!) who lives right around the corner.  I think we were equally thrilled by how easy this transaction was. 
AFTER: Matching pine nightstands
I immediately set to work moving furniture around.  My "new" bedside tables fit perfectly in the guest room, and actually make the room feel a little bigger.  The small nightstand went back into the smaller guest room (yes, the other room is even tinier than this one!), next to the twin bed.  I haven't decided where to put the plant stand yet, but there's a good chance it may finally be put to use as a plant stand.  Thanks, Gumtree!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Back to Battersea

This morning I met a group of AWC ladies in Battersea Park for a "Walk & Talk."  This is a monthly activity where we spend a couple hours walking around a different neighborhood and then stop for lunch or coffee afterwards.  The leader often shares some interesting tidbits of information about the area or various landmarks, but it's not so much a guided tour as a chance to get some exercise, socialize, and explore a new part of London.
Battersea Park, Chelsea Gate
Battersea Park sits on reclaimed marsh land on the south bank of the Thames, in what was once an agricultural area.  The crops weren't quite as romantic as those grown on Lavender Hill to the south, but who doesn't love carrots and asparagus?  The park and the nearby Chelsea Bridge, which connects it to Chelsea on the north side of the river, opened in 1858.

One of the most distinctive landmarks in Battersea Park is the Peace Pagoda, which was built in 1985 by Japanese Buddhist monks.
Peace Pagoda
From the park, you can also catch an occasional glimpse of the iconic Battersea Power Station, which once famously graced the cover of a Pink Floyd album.
Battersea Power Station over the bowling green
The bandstand in the center of the park
The park is quite large, covering 200 acres, including playing fields, exhibit halls, a small children's zoo, and a sizable lake where you can rent boats in the summertime.
Map of the park
The lake
After walking for about an hour and a half, we stopped at the Gondola cafe for tea/coffee/soup. 
Gondola Cafe
Since there were several new members in the group, the activity leader had the lovely idea of going around the table and sharing a restaurant recommendation as well as a tip about living in London.  Now I have a nice list of new restaurants to try.  None of them are near where we live, but it may come in handy on our next expedition into central London.  Looking forward to next month's Walk & Talk in Putney...

Friday, January 20, 2012

Going Potty for Pottery

No, this is not about chamber pots.  'Potty' is British slang for 'crazy,' and if there's one thing the ladies of the American Women's Club are potty about, it's shopping for pottery.  Every year, they endure a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride -- each way -- to hit the January sales at the factory stores in Stoke-on-Trent, also known as The Potteries.  It's apparently one of their most popular annual activities, and although my weakness is for handmade pottery rather than the kind manufactured in a factory, I couldn't resist signing up.  And I could really use a nice teapot.

Due to the abundance of clay, salt and lead (for glazing), and coal (for firing the kilns), the Stoke-on-Trent area has been a center for pottery manufacturing since the 17th century.  Josiah Wedgwood built one of England's first large pottery factories there in 1769.  Other large companies, including Spode, Royal Doulton, Portmeirion, and Moorcroft, followed suit.  Today, there are more than 25 factory stores selling top quality china along with factory seconds and discontinued pieces.  Sadly, while the distinctive bottle-shaped brick kilns still dot the landscape, most of these companies have moved their manufacturing overseas.

I got up at 5 am (!!!) yesterday and took the Tube up to Sloane Square, where I met up with the 35 other women who had signed up for the trip.  This was a highly-motivated group of shoppers, willing to get up before their husbands and venture out on a cold, dark, rainy morning carting large tote bags, wheeled shopping trolleys, or rollaboard suitcases to bring their purchases home in.  We all piled into the giant bus the AWC had chartered for the trip, and we were underway by 7 am.

After a very brief pit stop to change drivers, we rolled into Stoke-on-Trent around 10:30 am.  It was clearly an industrial city, and by far the least scenic place I've been in England so far.  Our first stop was the Leeds Pottery factory shop, tucked away in an unassuming compound of squat brick buildings.  This was the smallest of the potteries we visited, and we must have been the first to arrive that day, as the shop was still locked.  Someone had to go to the reception area and have someone come out and open it for us. 
Leeds Pottery
The shop was so tiny that our big group filled the entire store.  I loved their handmade pierced cream ware, and the prices were very reasonable, but since it was my first time on this trip and I didn't know what was yet to come, I didn't want to blow my budget at the very first stop.  Plus, the teapots were a little small.
Leeds Pottery factory store (very small!)
 We walked down the street to our next stop, Aynsley, which was quite a bit larger and on 3 levels.
Aynsley factory shop
The main level had an assortment of fine china, porcelain figurines, crystal, and Christmas ornaments.  Above that was a cafe.
The factory seconds were down in the 'bargain basement.'  We were all intrigued by the pile of rejected Will & Kate commemorative plates and cups.
 Even though they were marked down to £5 (from £39.95), there were no takers.
Not a great photo of Kate!
We had a half-hour drive to our next stop, so we ate lunch on the bus (sandwiches, potato chips, apples, and bottled water from EAT) to maximize our shopping time.  Suitably refueled, we invaded the Burleigh factory shop next.  I liked their flowery patterned pottery in shades of cobalt blue, red, black, green, and brown, but it doesn't really go with anything else I own, and the prices were a little higher than the previous two shops.
Burleigh blue & white
Burleigh black & white with ceramic cheese & crackers
Burleigh red & white
Some of the other ladies decided not to buy anything here, either, and found a nice way to amuse themselves while waiting for the rest of the group to finish their shopping.
coloring books & pencils supplied by Burleigh
 On the way out, I got a shot of our giant golden bus (or 'coach' as they call them here).
Our golden galleon
The next stop was the biggest one of them all -- a huge warehouse with a combined Wedgwood, Waterford, and Royal Doulton outlet.
Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, and Waterford outlet
There were lots of great bargains to be had here, especially if you had the storage space -- and the money -- for a full set of fine china or crystal.  Most of the stuff they were selling was much fancier than what I was looking for, although if I go again before we move back, I might be tempted to buy some nice china, since we don't own any...
More china
Pretty Ladies
Christmas ornaments
Our next destination was the Portmeirion/Spode shop.  Spode once had a huge factory and showroom in Stoke-on-Trent that took up an entire city block, but it is now shut down.  It was sad to see as we drove past it.
Portmeirion shop
Coincidentally, a friend of mine had just asked me right before Christmas if I could help her find some extra fruit salad bowls to complete her set of Spode Christmas Tree china, so I was encouraged to see that not only did they have a large display of that pattern, but it was an additional 50% off.  Sadly, they did not have the specific item she was looking for, but they had nearly everything else you can imagine, including matching trays, salad and cake servers, candlesticks, coffee spoons, and serving pieces.  I suspect after she reads this blog post, I will get some additional requests in case I go again next year. 
Spode Christmas Tree
They also had a huge assortment of pieces from the Portmeirion Botanic Garden collection.  At least one person I know filled an entire shopping cart with this stuff.  It's another thing I might be tempted by on a subsequent visit.  I did see a teapot there that I kind of liked, but even with the markdowns it was a little more than I was planning to spend.
Botanic Garden
Our final stop of the day was the Emma Bridgewater shop, which had a first quality area and a much larger factory seconds area with a large cafe in between.
Hmm, I could use some new jugs...
Most of us headed straight for the 'exciting bargains,' but even at a discount, it didn't seem like much of a bargain.  Once again, I liked their merchandise, but it didn't really go with anything I already owned, and their teapots were even pricier than the ones I saw at Wedgwood.
In search of bargains...
Union Jack mugs make good souvenirs.
By 5 pm, we were all filing back onto the bus and settling in for the long drive home.  We hit some traffic leaving town, but otherwise the trip back went pretty smoothly.  I chatted with some of the other ladies sitting around me on the bus, and we shared snacks and drinks that we had brought from home.  We reached Sloane Square sometime between 8:30 and 9 pm, carefully packed our purchases into our bags, and said our goodbyes.  I took the Tube home and had a brief show-and-tell session with Josh as I recounted my day and what I had bought.

So, what did I bring home?  A set of pierced candlesticks from Leeds, a cream-colored platter from Aynsley, a heart-shaped "Sweet Pea" box with a scented candle from Portmeirion (which I told Josh he could give me for Valentine's Day), and a Union Jack mug from Emma Bridgewater. 
My loot
Even including one other item that I bought as a gift (and didn't include in the photo or list, for obvious reasons), I spent less than £45 ($70).  Considering the candlesticks along would have cost me £50 if I'd paid full price, I think I did pretty well, and showed remarkable restraint.  Some of the women on the trip bought so much stuff that they had it shipped rather than carrying it home on the bus.  But several of them are moving back to the US, so I can understand that.  They'll have far more storage space, and it will be a lovely memento of their time in London.  If I go on this trip again shortly before we move back to DC, I may splurge on some nice things to bring back with us as well.

Oh, and notice what's missing from the photo above?  That's right -- a teapot.  The one thing I was specifically looking for.  Well, I guess that gives me a good excuse to hit the January sales in London before they're over.