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Seeing how things are a bit slow here in Melbourne for yours truly, maybe it is a good time to revisit London.

Allowing enough time to see Greenwich is trickier than it might seem. The scale of the place is deceptive, and you can eat up a fair amount of time just getting from one place to another. My first visit took place late one afternoon. I headed straight for the observatory to see the clocks. Anyone who has read “Longitude,” by Dava Sobel, will know what I am talking about. When ships from maritime nations first started sailing off the edge of the earth they had one big problem, how to figure out where they were. As long as they could see the sun and stars they could calculate their degree of latitude with a fair amount of accuracy. Longitude was the big problem. Getting a celestial fix is possible, but difficult, requiring careful astronomical calculations and advanced mathematics. Astronomers were working on accurate star charts, but they were still a long way off.

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The other solution was so preposterous that no one really thought it possible. Build a timepiece that would be unaffected temperature, moisture, the movement of the ship, maintaining near perfect time for thousands of miles from the point of origin to the final destination. This challenge was considered so intractable that the British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 (comparable to £2.87 million in modern currency) for the solution. If such a clock were set at noon in London at the start of a voyage, you could see from the clock how far you were from London by taking a reading at the Sun’s highest point. For instance, if the clock said midnight at the noon hour, then you would be half way round the world, (e.g. 180 degrees of longitude) from London.

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John Harrison was a self-educated English carpenter who had already turned to clockmaking when he became aware of the great prize. He went to work on the intractable problem and he refused to give up, dedicating most of his working life to building a clock that would win his fortune. He made four clocks over a period of thirty years, finally constructing something resembling a a marine chronometer that kept nearly perfect time over long voyages at sea.

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On its trial run, when HMS Deptford finally reached Jamaica, the watch was 5 seconds slow, corresponding to an error in longitude of 1.25 minutes, or approximately one nautical mile. Even though Harrison’s persistent tinkering solved the problem, the Board refused to award him the full prize, an injustice that was finally rectified by an exasperated King George III and an Act of Parliament. I was fortunate enough to tag along with an extremely knowledgeable guide or docent, who was holding forth about Harrison. I was mesmerised for the rest of the afternoon.

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The town of Greenwich was named by Danish settlers, meaning the green place on the bay near the mouth of a river. The town is built on a broad platform to the south of a broad bend in the River Thames, with a safe, deep water anchorage. To the south, the land rises steeply, 100 feet (30 m) through Greenwich Park to the town of Blackheath.
The Roman road from London to Dover, Watling Street crossed the high ground to the south of Greenwich through Blackheath. This followed the line of an earlier Celtic route from Canterbury to St Albans.

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During the reign of Aethelred the Unready, the Danish fleet anchored in the River Thames off Greenwich for over three years, with the army camped on the hill above. From here they attacked Kent and, in the year 1012, took the city of Canterbury, making Archbishop Alphege their prisoner for seven months. When he refused to allow himself to be ransomed for 3,000 pieces of silver, they stoned him to death. It was only when a stick that had been immersed in his blood bloomed, that they decided to release his body to the Christians. Alphege achieved sainthood in the 12th century.

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The town of Greenwich is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The town became the site of the Palace of Placentia from the 15th century, and was the birthplace of many in the House of Tudor, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was rebuilt as the Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant. These buildings became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and they remained an establishment for military education until 1998 when they passed into the hands of the Greenwich Foundation.

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The Cutty Sark has been preserved and restored in an amazing installation by the river. The clipper ship spent only a few years in the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years. Near the Cutty Sark site, a circular building contains the entrance to the Greenwich foot tunnel, opened on 4 August 1902. This connects Greenwich to the Isle of Dogs on the northern side of the River Thames. The north exit of the tunnel is at Island Gardens, from where the famous view of Greenwich Hospital painted by Canaletto can be seen. It is a bit spooky walking under the river, but well worth doing for the wonderful view.

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There are any number of cities in the world in which the rich and the poor live cheek by jowl, but the stark disparity between the City of London and the East End is striking nonetheless. And it has been that way for a very long time. Fortunately for the adventuresome tourist, it is easy to explore both areas with informative guides. For my tour of the City, I signed up with Corinna of the “Hairy Goat,” who specialises in photographic tours.

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Corinna hails from “Down Under”, so we had some things to chat about, but it had to wait until the tour was over and she had a half hour to grab a sandwich before her next meet up. Running around “like a hairy goat” is one of the Aussie expressions she picked up somewhere along the way and it stuck with her. Corinna’s hectic work life seems like an apt description of the phrase.

Many of the outstanding details of the City are subtle and hard to spot, so it is very helpful to have someone along who can point them out and suggest angles. In addition to filling your head with history, she points out possible pictures that bring it alive. I had just started experimenting with slow shutter speeds and the effects are evident in my pics that afternoon.

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The boundaries of the City of London remain largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it still covers the “square mile” to the East of the City of Westminster and north of the Thames. This is the oldest part of London, stretching back to Roman times and even earlier. Aldgate, Ludgate, Bishopgate and Moorgate indicate where the main gates in the City wall were located.

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There are medieval and Christopher Wren churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, the ultra-modern Barbican Centre, Guildhall, Leadenhall Market, the Museum of London, narrow courtyards and claustrophobic alleyways butting up against spectacular modern buildings like the Gherkin and LLoyds, which represent the business of the City today– high finance.

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Many of the institutions that now reside in high rise buildings started in coffee shops, so it seems appropriate that the Royal Exchange has devoted most of its ground floor atrium to a coffee shop. The Monument to the Great Fire was erected near the point where the fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane in 1666. Fanned by a strong east wind, the flames raged through the city for three days. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Even though there only six verified deaths, many more were probably cremated in the inferno. Then, as now, the poor didn’t count for much.

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Ben from Alternative London Tours had a large group in tow when we set off to see the street art that seems to have taken over the walls in the East End. Like many people, I got my introduction to “street art” through the work of Banksy, that elusive character with the hoody who seems to have been everywhere with paint cans and stencils. Ben’s job was to introduce us to some of the artists who have been following in his footsteps, leading the the whole scene in new, more sophisticated directions.

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We began our tour at Spitalfields market, what used to be London’s largest wholesale fruit and vegetable market. In 1991, it was moved lock, stock and barrel. All that remains is part of the Victorian structure. As in Canterbury, the Huguenots from France were some of the first refugees to settle in the East End. In the late 19th century, they were followed by the next wave– Jews. In the 1880’s there was an influx of 100,000 Russian, Polish, German, Austrian, Dutch and Romanian Jews. As they became more affluent, they moved to the outer suburbs or abroad, and the next wave of immigration began.

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Today, the East End is the most ethnically diverse area in the entire city as well as the poorest. Historically, it has suffered from under-investment in both housing stock and infrastructure. From the 1950s, the area represented the structural and social changes affecting the UK economy in a microcosm. It had one of the highest concentrations of council housing, the legacy both of slum clearance and war time destruction.

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The area around Old Spitalfields Market and Brick Lane, called “London’s curry capital,” has been extensively regenerated and, among other things, has been dubbed Bangla Town. Ben brings our attention to a building which has gone through several incarnations, first as a Christian chapel, then a synagogue, and now, a mosque.

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The progressive closure of docks, cutbacks in railways and the closure and relocation of industry contributed to a long term decline, removing many of the traditional sources of low- and semi-skilled jobs. However, beginning in the 1980s, there have been a number of urban regeneration projects, most notably Canary Wharf, a huge commercial and housing development on the Isle of Dogs. Many of the 1960s tower blocks have been demolished or renovated, replaced by low rise housing, often in private ownership, or owned by housing associations.

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Much of the area remains one of the poorest in Britain and contains some of the capitol’s worst deprivation. This in spite of rising property prices and the extensive building of luxury apartments in the former dock areas and alongside the Thames. With rising costs elsewhere in the capital and the availability of brownfield land, the East End has become a desirable place for business. And the City of London is right next door.

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There are a lot more pics at my Flickr site. Click on any of the photos running alongside this post and you’ll be taken to “Red Flier,” where you can check out the rest of my pics.


William Eades favoured warm red brick when he had the large country house built near the top of Holly Hill in 1693. His father was a bricklayer, a practical man, and the home reflects the taste of an artisan more than that of an architect despite its size and imposing exterior. Joshua Gee bought the house in 1706. He was a Quaker linen merchant who also traded in iron ore, one of the founding members of a company created to have pig-iron produced in Maryland for sale in England. At one stage in the company’s history, he went into partnership with the father of George Washington.

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The house got its current name when James Fenton purchased the property one hundred years after it was built. The Fenton family had made their fortune exporting coal from the city of Riga in Russia back to England. The family was very large and social, sponsoring weekly dancing classes for the girls. In 1829, James Fenton presided over a meeting of Hampstead tenants to protest a last effort by Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson to develop Hampstead Heath. Fortunately, his heir ceded his rights to the Heath and it passed into public ownership in 1871.

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Fenton house and its grounds served as a gracious home for a number of different families until it was bought for the last time by a Lady Binning in 1934. She bequeathed the estate, and her fine collection of porcelain, to the National Trust in 1952. As well as chinaware, Fenton House is the repository for Benton Fletcher’s exceptional collection of early keyboard instruments and the art collection of the late actor, Peter Barkworth, a resident of Hampstead for over forty years.

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Major Benton Fletcher, who amassed the harpsichords, clavichords, virginals and spinets, bequeathed the instruments on condition they were played regularly. If you pass an audition you may be allowed a tinkle; otherwise you can attend one of the concerts that take place throughout the year. The National Trust houses have just re-opened after a winter hibernation, and I was lucky enough to be going through when a local pianist dropped by to give an Italian harpsichord a beautiful workout.

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The formal gardens, with lawns, clipped hedges and flowery bowers give way to a more practical fruit, vegetable and herb garden in summer, making up of a 300-year-old orchard. There is a two pound donation requested in the honesty box to tour the garden, which is spare this time of year but very elegant all the same.

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The National Trust’s only public-access example of international modernism, Number 2 Willow Road, is the middle house in a terrace of three houses designed by Hungarian-born émigré architect Ernö Goldfinger. During his studies in Paris, Goldfinger was strongly influenced by Le Corbusier’s former mentor, Auguste Perret, an expert in designing reinforced concrete structures.

In the early 1930s, Goldfinger met and married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse & Blackwell fortune. The remainder of his career would be based in the UK. Hampstead was a popular place for artists and architects after the War, and the family home near the Southern end of the Heath was completed in 1939. Ernö and Ursula stayed at Number 2 for the rest of their lives. Goldfinger’s view that ‘the most significant thing about a house is the view from within it’ springs to mind when you look from the huge windows toward the Heath.

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His choice of location incurred the wrath of an MP and other local grandees opposed to the project. The most notable of those offended was, of course, Ian Fleming. Fleming had been among several of the objectors to the pre-war demolition of the cottages in Hampstead that were removed to make way for Goldfinger’s house, but it was a chance encounter on the golf course between Ian and Ursula Goldfinger’s cousin that led to his decision to use the name for a villain in his book by the same name.

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The architect consulted his lawyers when “Goldfinger” was published in 1959, which prompted Fleming to threaten to rename the character ‘Goldprick’, but eventually Erno decided not to sue; Fleming’s publishers agreed to pay his costs and gave him six free copies of the book.

Goldfinger did make a modest attempt to fit the home in with the Hampstead aesthetic. Although it is made of reinforced concrete, the building is clad in red brick. The only real harmony, however, is on the inside. You can see what the architect was attempting to do with his easy-to-clean hospital floors and careful window and skylight placement for optimum natural light. He loved space-saving gadgets, pocket doors, hidden storage and fold-up beds. He was aiming for clean lines and lots of natural light. Unfortunately, my visit happened on a morose, rainy day, so I wasn’t able to enjoy its best feature.

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What makes this house unique is that everything remains as he left it when he died in 1987. He and Ursula were friends with a number of artists from Paris and London. Paintings and sculpture from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose and Henry Moore and others decorate the home. The colour scheme is unusual and certainly striking, but not unsettling. The furniture, designed by Goldfinger and his associates, looks a little dated now; the only room that really appealed to me was the dining room with its wonderfully deep windows.

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The volunteers are enthusiastic, however, more than making up for Goldfinger’s reputation as a prickly personality. The short documentary about his life and times is worth watching. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the house, so I have been forced to rely on the work of others for this post. It would be hard to imagine two more different homes representing domestic architecture, and it is easy to see them both on the very same day. In between there is a nice long walk through the heart of Hampstead.


Let me admit, first off, that I like theatre but I’m not a big fan of musicals. Some people may not see how it is possible to say that one likes theatre that does not include the singing and dancing kind. It certainly restricts the theatrical offerings, probably knocking out about ninety per cent of the plays on offer in London and New York.

Despite my extended bout with the flu bug, I have not been entirely comatose during our stay here. We were fortunate to have arrived in time for the London Mime Festival, which encompasses a diverse range of theatrical expression, from pantomime and circus-oriented acts to brilliant expressions of visual imagination. It is worth braving the wintry weather of January to sample the work of artists from all over Europe.

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I had purchased tickets to a reprise of a play at the National Theatre while a friend was visiting, but our friend was under the weather and my wife had came down with the flu before passing it on to me. “Port” was a wonderful play, covering thirteen years in the lives of two troubled siblings, whose mother abandons them to flee her abusive husband and the bleak prospects of life in Stockport, a city in the Midlands. The text and performances were excellent and the scene changes seemed magical, one of the perks of having the National Theatre at one’s disposal.

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Our next theatrical night out was another reprise, this time the 25th anniversary staging of “Our Country’s Good,” based on the true story of the production by convicts in New South Wales of George Farquhar’s “The Recruiting Officer.” Timerlake Wertenbaker’s play, based on the Thomas Keneally book, was a hit when it first came out and continues to be widely performed.

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This particular production is stunning, from the arrival of the convicts in Australia to the opening night of the play. You are THERE, grappling with the emotional fireworks triggered by prisoners and officers who are psychically and sometimes physically shackled together, playing out their designated roles in this strange and hostile land. The staging of the play represents an escape from their roles as prisoners but it is threatening to their guards.

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We first came across the work of Robert Lepage when we were living in Montreal. “Les Aiguilles et l’opium” (Needles and Opium) melds an experience from his own life (a failed love affair) with the entangled love lives and drug addictions of French surrealist author Jean Cocteau and American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Lepage played all three characters with captivating visual theatrics, including his suspension between 2 propellers, simulating a flight between Paris and New York. It was a brilliant piece of theatre. That hooked us. Two years ago we saw another production of his here in London– the Blue Dragon.

You can see a clip of it here–http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=o0E_Y5eXRKc

In the Blue Dragon, the theatrical invention was there, but the text was less interesting than Needles and Opium. That alone could not have prepared us for “Playing Cards 1: Spades,” a truly dreadful play. The Boy Wonder theatrical alchemist who has succeeded on a global scale in theatre and opera has somehow failed to distinguish gold from garbage. None of the characters is real enough to make us care about his fate, and the elaborate staging in the round reminded me of a hokey circus or a video game. The play is set in Las Vegas, which says it all.

My visits to London’s Art Museums have been similarly hit and miss. I have been to four photographic exhibits and a half dozen other art shows. My last show, at the Tate Modern, was a retrospective of Lichtenstein. I came to the conclusion after wading through room after room that it was too bad he was so successful so early in his career. He never needed to explore much beyond Benday dots. The last room in the exhibit held a small selection of paintings that were done at the very beginning and end of his career, before and after his phenomenal success. Oil on canvas, brush strokes, vibrant and alive.

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The Manet show at the Royal Academy is the one I would consider unmissable. It is the first major exhibition of this work in the UK, the first to focus on his practice as a portrait painter. “His elegant awkwardness of style, absolute honesty of vision, and persistent inovation and risk-taking established Edouard Manet the father of modern art.” This show was five years in the making and well worth all all the effort. For that alone, I am grateful to be in London.

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The Heath and Hampstead Society puts out a series of five walking booklets covering a fifteen mile area from Alexandra Palace to Camden Town. They are not free, unfortunately, but they do contain a lot of fascinating information and pictures about various buildings, people, natural attractions and the social history that one encounters enroute.

Last Saturday we followed the rather circuitous route suggested by one booklet to go from Hampstead to Belsize Park. It is only one stop on the Northern line, probably a mile or less, but the tour took us two and a half miles. I read some bits out loud so my wife wouldn’t have to look over my shoulder, which seemed to attract some odd looks from passersby. North American visitors are not supposed to be as eccentric as native Englishmen.

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While we were stopped in front of Erno Goldfinger’s landmark modern house, two mounted police came riding up and asked what we were looking at, why we were stopped. I explained the home’s significance according to my pamphlet, and related the story of how Ian Flemming was so offended by the demolition of 18th century cottages and the building of this residence that he named his first villain after the architect.

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The house has since been acquired by the National Trust as its first “modernist” property. The mounted police people were amused by the story and we had a nice chat. Their horses were patient and beautiful. Belsize Park is a very different area from Hampstead. Many of the houses were built by developers. Now, the horse stables attached to some of those houses are worth a small fortune.

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On Sunday we set off in the opposite direction, heading north toward Hampstead Garden Suburb and Golders Green. Thanks to a lady by the name of Dame Henrietta Barnett, much of the walk goes through the Hampstead Heath extension. It is very muddy this time of year, but the ducks are milling around on the ponds and there are lots of things to see along the way. The route finding is a bit tricky, since Hampstead Heath and the Extension are criss-crossed with trails going in every direction.

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The first section of the route is the highest section of the Heath. There are thick beds of sand, much of which was excavated in the 19th Century for use in mortar for laying brick. During war-time it was used for filling sand bags. A settlement called North End grew up along one side of this part of the Heath; the gem nearby is a house called Wyldes, a home dating from the 17th Century. For many years it was the home of a landscape painter named John Linnell, a contemporary and rival of John Constable and a patron of William Blake. Dickens took refuge here from time to time.

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Among the money men responsible for development of London’s Underground was an American railroad man by the name of Charles Yerkes. His plans to extend the Nothern line from Hampstead to Golders Green included a station near the Wylde house. He did not count on the opposition of Dame Henrietta Barnett, a philanthropist and local resident.

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Henrietta was one of the country’s leading protagonists in campaigns to improve the “industrial classes.” With her vicar husband she came to believe in “environmental determinism” – that the poor are brutalised by their squalid environment and so began a lifetime of philanthropic social work in the East End where they built Toynbee Hall and promoted respectable work in household service as an alternative to prostitution.

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She abhorred the kind of suburban development which was springing up around new tube stations, so she set her mind on raising enough money to prevent this one. She raised enough money to buy Wyldes Farm and 80 acres from Eton College. This became known as the Heath Extension, which made the new station no longer viable even though platforms had already been built.

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The village that came into being to the north of Heath Extension became known as Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a planned community, its architect chosen by Dame Barnett. An imposing church, St Jude-on-the-hill, anchors the southern end of the community to the surrounding landscape. The suburb was strongly influenced by the ideas of Edwin Lutyens, Britain’s leading designer of country houses.

Among its design aims were the following: it should cater for all classes of people and all income groups; there should be a low housing density; roads should be wide and tree-lined; houses should be separated by hedges, not walls; woods and public gardens should be free to all; and it should be quiet, with no church bells.

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Our timing at the end of our walk was perfect. Even without the bells, it was obvious the church service had just ended. We were just in time to elicit an invitation to tour the interior from one of the parishioners. It was a generous invitation, and we were glad to take advantage of it. Our good shepherdess even suggested a place for lunch, a former “convenience station” called Toulous. It was another longish walk, but the risotto was delicious. We caught a bus to Golders Green, then hopped on the tube one stop to Hampstead. It is a good long way between stops, thanks to Henrietta.

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Hampstead, our local underground station, is on the Edgware branch of the Northern line of the London Underground. Its one claim to fame is the fact that it has the deepest platform in all of London. The station was opened on 22 June 1907 by the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway. Heath Street was the original name proposed for the station, and the original tiled station signs on the platform walls still read “Heath Street”. The platforms are 58.5 metres or 192 feet below ground level. It has the deepest lift shaft on the Underground at 181 feet, with two high speed lifts that always seem to work.

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During the Blitz, tube stations like Hampstead were relatively safe places to sleep, and what began as an illegal solution to a growing problem eventually earned grudging acceptance from the authorities. Here’s Julia Smith’s childhood recollection of sleeping at Swiss Cottage station during the war. “The station was rather a magic place. It had a beautiful arcade which housed a good buffet, a chemist shop and, unusually, an umbrella repair shop…. Initially people used to lie on a blanket on the platforms, and passengers alighting from trains stepped over recumbent figures, but some time into the war, bunks were provided…. When the American forces first saw people in the Tube, they thought we were all homeless. In time, they realised that it was the only answer to getting a good night’s sleep….

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Diana Thomson, another Hampstead resident, was an ambulance driver stationed at Parliament Hill during the War. She recalls being called to Hampstead station to rescue a large and heavy woman who had had a heart attack in the middle of the night. There are 320 steps from the platform to the street. “The lifts were cut off during the air raids, so she had to be got up. It was very crowded with people sheltering there. Luckily, we had help from a couple of strong men.” It would be hard enough hauling one’s own body up 320 steps, without the burden of a heavy person who had suffered a heart attack.

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For ordinary visitors to London, taking the tube soon becomes a regular part of life. We turn into moles, hopping on trains from one hole to another. I suspect that most people take this enormous engineering miracle for granted. When that happens, a visit to London’s Transport Museum in Covent Garden is in order. It will renew your respect for all the expense and effort as well as the trial and error that went into creating this amazing network underfoot.

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My flu has finally flown, so I decided to check out a brand new exhibition of Underground Posters and see the museum at the same time. I got there early, before the hordes of school groups and parents with toddlers took over the huge building. A ticket is good for an entire year, so I may make my way back to the museum during the quiet time from 10 to 12 noon. There is a lot to take in.

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The Underground system is known colloquially as the Tube. The name originally applied only to the deep-level lines with trains of a smaller and more circular cross-section, distinguishing them from the earlier, sub-surface “cut-and-cover” lines that used steam locomotives. It is difficult to imagine how uncomfortable and unhealthy those early underground rides must have been, when people smoked in the passenger cars, behind the belching locomotives.

On January 13th, 2013, the very first train to travel on the Metropolitan line was commemorated with a new day of steam on the underground. A videographer named Ryan Skinner captured the event and put together a very elegantly edited version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yCOKb6KZZA. It is well worth a look.

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The brilliant London Underground map is now synonymous with the Tube and may raise more revenues through sales of towels, shower curtains, etc. than tickets for actual transport. Its design has definitely been influential around the world. Early maps based on actual geographic location became increasingly cumbersome as the network grew. The first diagrammatic map, the one we know and love now, was designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, a London Underground employee.

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Beck realised that because the railway ran mostly underground, the physical locations of the stations were irrelevant to the traveller — only the topology of the railway mattered. Beck streamlined the system, using straight lines, geometric angles, and clear differentiation of ordinary stations from interchanges. This approach is similar to that of electrical circuit diagrams; although these were not the inspiration for Beck’s maps. Beck was paid just ten pounds for his genius, which now seems a little stingy considering its popularity and influence on other underground mapmakers.

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The Underground now serves 270 stations and has 402 kilometres (250 mi) of track, 45 per cent of which is underground. It is the fourth largest metro system in the world in terms of route miles, after the Seoul Metropolitan Subway, the Shanghai Metro and the Beijing Subway. It has one of the largest numbers of stations. In the year 2011/12, 1.2 billion passengers made use of the Tube, making it the third busiest metro system in Europe, after Moscow and Paris.

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Although the Tube is generally considered safe, a terrible fire broke out on 18 November 1987 at King’s Cross St. Pancras a major interchange on the London Underground. It is believed to have been started by a match, dropped by someone who lit up a cigarette upon reaching the top of the escalator. Although smoking was forbidden underground, it was still not uncommon in the ticket buying halls. The escalators in use had wooden treads.

At 19:45, fifteen minutes after the fire started, a flashover occurred and a jet of flames came from the escalator shaft filling the ticket hall with intense heat and thick black smoke, killing or seriously injuring most of the people in the ticket hall. This trapped several hundred people below ground, who escaped on Victoria line trains. Thirty-one people died and over a hundred were injured.

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The investigators found a build-up of grease under the tracks of the escalator, which was believed to be difficult to ignite and slow to burn once it started, but the grease was heavily impregnated with fibrous materials. As a test, a lit match dropped from the side of the escalator did ignite the contaminated grease and a small fire began spreading before it was extinguished. All wooden escalator treads have no been replaced and fire extinguishers installed.

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Overcrowding on the Underground has been of concern for years and is very much the norm for most commuters during the morning and evening rush hours. In 2009, temperatures in the deep tunnels reached as high as 32 °C. It has been pointed out that, if animals were being transported, temperatures on the Tube would break European Commission animal welfare laws. Air quality is poor. According to a 2003 study, it is 73 times worse than at street level.

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Two weeks ago, Prince Charles and Camila joined London’s commuters on the tube to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the underground. The prince had to be shown where to swipe his Oyster card as he and wife Camilla travelled one stop on the Metropolitan line. It was 17 years since Charles had last been on the tube and the first time the couple, who as Londoners over 60 would be entitled to free travel, had made a journey together.

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But they didn’t have to battle with the capital’s typically packed trains as they were given their own carriage for the £2.10 journey from Farringdon to Kings Cross – the route of the underground’s first line in 1863. After eventually swiping his Oyster, topped up with £10, Charles seemed to enjoy the journey, saying “Just one stop?” when the train ground to a halt.

He may have enjoyed his little outing, but I doubt if he’s giving up his chauffeur driven Bentley any time soon.


If you are going to be laid low with the flu, the only redeeming feature may be that you can’t do much else. The body aches, the lungs wheeze, the vile liquid comes out of the sinus cavity. There are headaches, hot flashes and chills. The only thing I can bring myself to do is settle down with a book and a box of Kleenex.

“The Immortal Dinner” was recommended to me by an employee at Wentworth House, now a small museum in Hampstead dedicated to the brief relationship between John Keats and his fashion-obsessed eighteen year-old neighbour, Fanny Brawne. If any of my readers follow the films of Jane Campion, you will have seen its recreation as a set in the movie– “Bright Star.”

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John Keats was one of the small group of individuals invited to the home of a young painter the evening of December 28, 1817. At that time, Keats was only 21, wholly ignorant of the charming Fanny. He was living with his brother in another house in Hampstead. He had not written any of the works for which he was to become famous, but his genius and dedication was evident to his friends and fans. Benjamin Robert Haydon counted himself among this small, select group.

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John Keats

“In December Wordsworth was in town, and as Keats wished to know him, I made up a party to dinner of Charles Lamb, Wordsworth, Keats and Monkhouse, his friend; and a very pleasant party we had.” Benjamin Robert Haydon, “Autobiography”

“The Immortal Dinner,” the book by Penelope Hughes-Hallett, was given the title because it was called that by the host. Haydon comes across as a thoroughly exasperating artist, intense and charming, loyal and supportive, liable to take offence over trivialities and extort funds from his most impecunious friends, money he could never hope to repay. To his patrons he was worse, failing to accommodate their most reasonable requests. He was an impatient, quarrelsome snob, and his friends loved him.

Benjamin Robert Haydon, self portrait

Robert Haydon, self-portrait

He thought of himself as a genius, born to return British painting to the depiction of historical subjects. The dinner would be held in his large, new “painting room,” dominated by the unfinished canvas of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Other guests included the wit and essayist, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, a popular giver of literary parties, and Joseph Ritchie, a young doctor and would-be explorer who would soon be off to explore the source of the Niger.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Despite Haydon’s copious notes, a dinner party, no matter how rich with literary and artistic luminaries, is not a natural subject for a book. Haydon did not record much of the evening’s sparkling conversation, only what struck him as amusing after the fact. Hughes-Hallett pulls the book together by inviting us into the world of London 1817, the world of Keats, Wordsworth, Lamb and Haydon. We find out where they lived, what they ate, drank, discussed, what gave them sleepless nights.

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

William Wordsworth by Robert Haydon

“On 28th December, the immortal dinner came off in my painting room, with Jerusalem towering up behind us as background. Wordsworth was on fine cue, and we had a glorious set-to — on Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and Virgil. Lamb got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty…. He made a speech and voted me absent, and made them drink to my health.”

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We witness the hothouse flowering of the Romantic poets, their passions and squabbles and the financial and psychological burdens they carried, as well as the battle over the direction of British art at the time of Constable, Gainsborough, and Turner. It was the era of the Regency. Napoleon was exiled to Elba and the English could visit Paris once more. It was a time of political turmoil, rabble rousers and riots. The arrival of the Elgin Marbles stunned the art world; the robbing of graves for dissection turned doctors into criminals. The author casts an illuminating light on the artists and scientists, art patrons and surgeons, explorers and actresses from the ballrooms to the terrifying corridors of Bedlam.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Coleridge

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

Sir George Beaumont, art patron

“By this time the other visitors began to drop in, and a Mr. Ritchie, who is going to penetrate into the interior of Africa. I introduced him to Wordsworth as such, and the conversation got into a new train. After some time Lamb, who had seemingly paid no attention to anyone, suddenly opened his eyes and said, alluding to the dangers of penetrating into the interior of Africa, ‘and pray, who is the gentleman we are going to lose?”

The portrayal of the evening’s progress is intense and thrilling nearly two hundred years later. Only Wordsworth would live to a ripe old age. We can thank Hughes-Hallett for bringing them all back to life in this vivid evocation of one memorable evening, 1817.


Considering the fact that we both took the trouble to obtain flu shots before we left Canada, it would seem only right that those responsible for the spread of such diseases would see that London got the same virus as North America. Such is not the case. Yours truly is sick as a proverbial dog and the sun is shining brilliantly for a change. I did hold off for a week longer than my better half, but I can no longer regard the effort as anything more than a foolhardy attempt to stave off the onset of the headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, wheezing and general misery. Better never than late, if you ask me, but I was not consulted.

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The snow is gone, which is absolutely astonishing considering the weekend before last, everyone in London seemed to be out on Parliament Hill. It was complete chaos, children and adults taking off on anything that would slide. While we were there one guy made his way into the melee on downhill skis, another arrived on a snowboard. They seem not to have heard that sledders are supposed to climb up the hill on the sides, leaving the middle section for those intent on coming down. It was a free-for-all. These are Londoners, after all, and they don’t get a lot of practice at this sledding (or sledging) business.

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Despite the freezing temps, the ponds were open for business. The water was just above freezing and the men’s swimming group, amusingly known as the East German Ladies Swim Team, was out in force. If I had known about it, I definitely would have gone over for pics. One local bather was quoted in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “It was amazing, but so is every time you swim in the ponds. You think you’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually you’re in one of the biggest conurbations in the world.” Only a Hampsteader would think of dropping “conurbation” into a conversation.

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Hampstead Heath has witnessed some amazing sights over the years, from the hanging of highwaymen in the late 1500’s to horse racing in the 1730’s and 40’s. In the early 1800’s Byron, Keats and Shelly came often to visit fellow poet, Leigh Hunt, and sail paper boats on one of the ponds to amuse the children. Karl Marx used to take his children out for donkey rides when he wasn’t buried in books. Now, he’s buried in Highgate.

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In the late 1800’s the Heath became a place for working class entertainment and recreation, from family picnics to huge fairs which took their impetus from the ‘Bank Holiday Act of 1871.’ There was music and dancing, food vendors, stereoscopes and silhouette artists.

But the event that trumped them all arrived much later, in March, 1950– a downhill ski jump! It seems to have been triggered by the odd idea of increasing British tourism to Norway in winter. Twenty-five Norwegians came to London with 45 tons of snow packed in insulated wooden boxes with dry ice. The jump itself was supported by a tower of scaffolding 60ft (18.29m) high, giving skiers a 100ft (30.48m) run-up to the jumping point, 12ft (3.66m) above the ground. Modern ski jumpers reach 200ft – 300ft (60m – 90m), but skiers on Hampstead Heath only had enough room to jump about 90ft (27.43m).

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The London ski jumping competition, as it was known, held a trial contest the first day involving only the Norwegian skiers. This was followed by a contest between Oxford and Cambridge University, whose teams had trained for two weeks in Norway. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the sunshine to watch the University Challenge Cup. A broadcast commentary on the competition kept everyone informed of the quality of each jump, but the spectators seemed to be more interested in how deep each skier disappeared into the straw at the bottom of the run.

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In the end, the Oxford team, captained by C. Huitfeldt, won the competition, while the London challenge cup – open to all competitors – was won by Arne Hoel of Oslo. It was estimated that 52,000 visitors came to the event, hosted together by the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association. The plan was for another event in 1951, but it seems fairly clear that it never came about. Perhaps the costs were too high for the revenue, or everyone came down with the London flu.

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Hampstead has never seen its like, but the urge to get out and enjoy the Heath in winter has never gone away. Only the snow.

Check out the Pathe footage at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKZ3yzPZer0


New Year’s Day took us to Halifax airport, once again, for a flight to London. The wintry weather in Nova Scotia had cancelled a number of flights that week, so we considered ourselves lucky that our particular flight was still on the board when we arrived at the airport. Unfortunately, a two plus hour delay put us into the early hours of January 2. It was going to be a long day’s journey into the new year.

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It has been only two years since our last stay in London during the dark months of winter, but my previous absence from the City had stretched to 43 long years, so I do have some catching up to do. My peripatetic professor spouse had found us a new place in Hampstead for this visit. Not quite as convenient as Kensington, perhaps, but far less congested with tourists and frenetic shoppers. Once again, we have been blessed with a charming flat, a good heating system, and a fine place for long walks. This time in the “lungs” of London, Hampstead Heath.

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Despite our nomadic natures, it always seems to take forever to settle in. Yesterday, I finally had the feeling that we had made the transition at last to the new city in the new year. Imagine my surprise when I looked out the window this morning. Snow! It may have snowed on parts of London in 2011, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t snow in Kensington.

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The enticement of Hampstead began with its mineral springs. Their alleged medicinal quality, combined with with the clean air from the heath, attracted Londoners north from the unhealthy, smoke-filled city. According to the Wikepedeans who make it their business to know such things, the word “chalybeate” is derived from the Latin word for steel, “chalybs” coming from the Greek word “khalups.” Chalybes were mythical people living on Mount Ida in north Asia Minor who invented iron working.

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Early in the 17th century, chalybeate water was said to have health-giving properties and many people promoted its qualities. Dudley North, 3rd Baron North discovered the chalybeate spring at Tunbridge Wells in 1606. Dudley North’s physician claimed that the waters contained ‘vitriol’ and the waters of Tunbridge Wells could cure:

“the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.”

He also apparently said, in verse:

“These waters youth in age renew
Strength to the weak and sickly add
Give the pale cheek a rosy hue
And cheerful spirits to the sad.”

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Hampstead’s chalybeate springs were originally managed by trustees, but an attractive piece of land was leased to a man named John Duffield in 1701. Duffield laid out the amenities of a spa, along the southern side of a promenade, Well Walk. The chief building was the Great Room, for assemblies, with its east end partitioned off as a pump room, where a basin held the waters. Concerts and dances were advertised.

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Soon afterwards there were a row of raffling shops for bets, a tavern, and Well Walk chapel. To the south were gardens, with an ornamental pond and a bowling green. Duffield’s enterprise allowed the world of fashion to combine the quests for health and pleasure. So successful was he that in 1705, the year of Beau Nash’s first visit to Bath, a comedy called Hampstead Heath was played at Drury Lane. London was shown as deserted in favour of Hampstead, where ‘the cards fly, the bowl runs, the dice rattle.’
The entertainments soon began to deteriorate, however, perhaps because rough crowds could easily make the journey from London. The music was interspersed with popular entertainments, including acrobatics and comic turns, and by 1709 there were complaints about swindlers and prostitutes.

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Needless to say, the ebb and tide of Hampstead’s fortunes have changed considerably over three centuries. Fortunately, perhaps, it has not always been as prosperous as it is now. The village has been home to important writers and artists at various stages in their careers; some never became wealthy enough to live here in its current incarnation.

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John Constable, John Keats, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Agatha Christie and Ian Flemming all called Hampstead home. John Harrison, the clockmaker who solved the seemingly intractable problem of longitude, and Laszlo Biro, the inventor of the ball-point pen are buried here.

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We are in a little hamlet rich in history and the attractions of London are only a few tube stops away. We could hardly ask for more.

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Our stopover in London on our return journey to Melbourne coincided with a conference for my spouse, and another opportunity for me to explore the city and see some fine art. London is a wonderful place to be if you are a museum hound. I was delighted to learn that there was a brand new exhibition of the work of Dale Chihuly on display at a gallery in Mayfair. I discovered Chihuly’s amazing glass work at the Victoria and Albert Museum during our stay in London last year. An astonishing chandelier hangs in the foyer of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is like a huge piece of jewelry, capturing and reflecting the colors of earth, sea and sky, rainbows and Northern light, of everything under our sun.

My walk from Green Park tube stop took me through the posh streets of Mayfair, where the rich and famous must do their shopping when they are all out of Italian baubles. None of the stores I passed looked at all affordable, but there were very nice cars. Just before reaching the gallery, I stumbled across Berkeley Square and spotted some large, stone sculptures decorating the green park in the Square. I wandered over and was struck dumb by the marble busts. This was the work of Emily Young, an amazing British sculptor of whose work I was completely ignorant.

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So here we are, integral parts of the natural world, acting as natures’ agents, infinitesimally tiny players in the vast cosmos. In my particular little corner, when I carve a face into the stone, I seem to be acting out my self consciousness onto the stone, a stone that holds some of the history of the globe, formed of the very same original kind of material that I am formed of – a process begun billions and billions of years ago in the origins of our universe. I put a little modern consciousness back onto nature, who made both me and the stone. I carve the stone into familiar forms, carrying with them an emotional charge; the forms are beautiful, the stone broken. The expressions of sadness, of reflection, are easy to read – I like to think that anyone who ever lived on Earth, anywhere, any-when, would recognise these forms, and the expressions.

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The Earth is and has been so powerful, so wild, so completely the source and the surrounding of all that we are and are capable of – a long view of it shows it to be utterly beautiful and utterly rare. But our primitive respect and our physical sense of her honour is crumbling. And somehow we have become the gun that we shoot into the hearts of the innocent. We destroy, and as we destroy, we watch ourselves dancing and weeping on their graves.

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And so I protest, in stone; I want people to imagine what we will look like to posterity, how we would judge ourselves if we had such vision, and what we would do differently now: I want to speak down the years and tell the future of that bit of it’s past that was us – about what happens in our hearts now – about our surprise, our fear and sorrow, and shame – our apology. These pieces can be seen as memorials to a lost future, to lost wildernesses, to lost innocence; to the pointlessly, needlessly dead.

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I was delighted to have stumbled across one of Emily’s exhibitions– “The Metaphysics of Stone,” six large stone heads emerging from the earth, speaking to us eloquently with long syllables of silence. Chihuly, the American glass blower, seems like her human antipode. With a pirate patch over one eye, his manic work habits and powerful palette of colours, he offers up an exuberant vision that combines Las Vegas with Venice, the country fairground and the cathedral.

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To this day I have never gotten over the excitement of molten glass. All the forms we’ve invented and developed are based on the ability of molten glass to be blown and manipulated in a very natural manner. We use as few tools as possible, and most of them are like the original tools invented two thousand years ago. The process is so wonderfully simple, yet so mystifying. I’ve watched thousands of forms blown and I’m still amazed to see the first breath of air enter the hot gather of glass on the end of a blowpipe. The piece is always moving while it’s in progress and one has to make decisions very quickly. I like the work to reflect these quick decisions, the end result being a frozen fluid thought – as direct as a drawing.

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I’ve been such a nomad all my life, I don’t think I’ll ever lose the desire to travel to beautiful places – one more archipelago, another ring of standing stones, another glassblowing session in some exotic spot, or just one more trip to Venice to see the full moon over the Grand Canal.

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To me, the two artists are alchemists, turning the elements of the earth into magical form. I suspect they have more in common than is apparent from the contrasting nature of the work itself. I took a lot of pictures in the Halycon Gallery on Bond Street. Click on any pic running alongside this post and you can see the rest at Flickr. Unfortunately, the artworks themselves are no longer at these venues. Enjoy this show.

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