Part 1: The West End & An English Pub
Part 2: Borough Market, The South Bank, The City, & A Super Steak
Part 3: Hyde Park, South Kensington & Knightsbridge, Hummingbird Bakery, and Portobello Road
Part 4: Best Salt Beef Beigel, A Szechuan Restaurant, and Buckingham Palace
Part 5: British Food I Love (and then some)
Hyde Park is one of London’s biggest parks, consisting of Hyde Park and the Kensington Gardens. During one weekend, it buzzes with a massive rally of people protesting budget cuts, but when I return on a weekday, it’s more tranquil. Today, as I gaze at the swans and ducks gliding about Serpentine Lake (above), I also catch sight of joggers, people picnicking, and some crazy people (below) who’ve actually paid a real drill sergeant to put them through a workout. (I saw this program being offered online and frankly, you can’t pay me enough to endure it).
Londoners are lucky to have so many parks and I visit quite a few of them. Hyde Park is the prettiest in my opinion. Spring has made the flowers bloom here and lovingly maintained pathways tempt me into directions unknown. Along the pathway I meander on, I glance down and there’s a plaque that reads, “The Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.” A tiny arrow points ahead and so I follow it. It culminates at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Foundation.
Made from Cornish granite, the memorial fountain arrests one into silence. The circular fountain has water flowing from its highest point in two directions, meeting at the bottom of a smaller pool. I see people dipping their feet into the (chilly) water and we tourists are thrown into reverential submission when a garden patrolman berates a young, gangly man for running on the granite edges.
- Museums in London are always such stately, magnificent looking affairs. Here, near the Kensington area is the Natural History Museum.
I make my way out of the park and head towards Knightsbridge. This is one of the most visually riveting areas I immerse myself in along with South Kensington, a section of London that’s hushed and haute teeming with embassies, multi-star hotels, and glitzy fashion names. It’s an engrossing walk made so by the orderliness of the structures, the architecture, and really, just the elegance of it all. Rolls-Royce and Bentleys coast by like noiseless leopards, the only sound they make are the purrs of their powerful engines.
In Knightsbridge, Harrod’s is the star and while it’s akin to a trashy tourist proposition, I must go there. I chuckle when I spy a newsagent’s stall near the Knightsbridge Underground station with a hand-written sign reading “Harrod’s” and a hastily drawn arrow pointing up. That newsagent must’ve gotten fed up with all the queries, I think.
There’s no doubt that Harrod’s is garish and opulent. And it’s got more rules than the army. As soon as I walk in, a uniformed doorman with the body of a bouncer asks me to “Take off your rucksack (!) please, and carry it around the store.” I acquiesce and walk around the Food Hall in a suspended state of awe. It’s a gilded cornucopia of all the food items I’ve only ever read about. I’m itching to whip out my camera and snap a few shots but I don’t see anybody else doing so and I fear being escorted out. (Those uniformed guards seem to be everywhere!)
- This is the only photo I have of Harrod’s, and it shows the Teas section, possibly the most common purchase because after all (to a tourist at least), there’s nothing like carrying around a bag announcing to all and sundry that you’ve bought something, no matter how puny it is, from Harrod’s.
Nearby and more sedate, is Harvey Nichols, a shrine to high fashion and noted for its expansive make-up department. This is where I get a few things for myself, grateful that I’m able to browse more peacefully after the frenzy that was Harrod’s.
I have to thank my friend Sanya, for reminding me that “…no trip to London would be complete for you without a stop at Hummingbird Bakery.” She even furnished me with the bakery’s cookbook and explicit instructions on how to get there by the Tube.
Turns out that I end up going to all three stores of Hummingbird and loving each and every one of them. An American-style bakery in London, my favorite store is the one in South Ken (Kensington) just because it’s the biggest and I get to sit down. The first time I go, I’m delightfully dizzy from the butter and sugar smells wafting about. It’s like a warm, inviting embrace. All the edible eye candy gleaming at me from the display cases is sheer torture and while I can readily handle an order of each, I err on the conservative and order just a cupcake and a cup of tea.
While the Brits have their own version of cupcakes which they charmingly call fairy cakes, I notice that they’ve taken madly to American-style cupcakes. Those from the Hummingbird are some of the best that I try in London and can stand up to the cupcakes that I had in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Frosted with rightful American buttercream as opposed to the more common – in London- French or Swiss buttercream, the sponge is soft and moist, each crumb distinct. I burn my throat with my first sip of the scalding tea but it washes the cupcake down most wonderfully and wards off the chill on this dreary afternoon.
On another visit, my Bin is here with me and that means more dessert. The Frosted Brownie is a revelation. I realize that I’ve been wasting my time and calories on half-baked chocolate sludge instead of this: a balance of cake and fudge with a resonant chocolate flavor lashed with frosting that’s never sickly sweet.
And consider this: the Rocky Road. While romancing my cupcake, I overhear a customer ask, “What’s in it?” “Oh, everything,” the attendant replies. “KitKats, Maltesers, all the good stuff.” I don’t quite hear the customer’s reply to that but my eyes light up in glee. Good stuff indeed and good it is! Weighty enough to do serious damage to one’s noggin if thrown, the Rocky Road is chock-full – such an apt description – of everything the attendant mentioned as well as bits of dried apricot and enough chocolate to power me for hours. Every bite whirs not whispers, declares and delivers a motley crew of crunch and sweet and familiar flavors of my favorite chocolate bars. It’s a whirlwind.
- Even pigeons like cupcakes from the Hummingbird Bakery.
Portobello Road and Portobello Market
Still within the Kensington and Chelsea Borough in West London is Portobello Road. Spanning nearly the entire length of Notting Hill from north to south, it’s an area associated with trendy and alternative culture. Portobello Road is most famous for Portobello Market, an almost 2-mile long market known for its antiques firstly, and then for its second-hand clothing, then fruit and veg and bric-a-brac stalls.
- This is a clothing store decorated top to bottom with vintage sewing machines!
- ”Fight the big coffee chains!” Declares a sign outside this independent coffee house. But I’m more amused by this sign taped to the cashier.
My first visit is on a Wednesday and it’s underwhelming, to say the least. But I’m able to rootle around the independent boutiques and take in the vibe. Good thing because when I come back on Saturday, the day when it’s most alive, it overwhelms on a level of another magnitude (see 2 previous photos of this mad crowd). I’ve got my Bin in tow and there’s a sea of people slithering us along towards the market. It’s still an experience to be here but because this market’s focus is on antiques and vintage items and not food, we don’t stay for more than a few hours.