Greetings From Delhi

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Back in Delhi

Last Monday night, I flew from London Heathrow to Delhi via Jet Airways. I took a random punt on this airline and it was a pretty lackluster experience. The aircraft was quite old and backdated. I had an aisle seat in the middle aisle row of seats. The two seats of the four in the middle were vacant. On the other end of my row was an old Sikh who got very drunk and disorderly and later incurred the wrath of the airline staff who refused to serve him more whisky. There sadly was nothing entertaining, charming or witty about him and he was a constant pain and drone for most of the flight. I spent the majority of my flight either taking advantage of the in-flight entertainment system or listening to my iPod.

Delhi was just as I had envisaged it to be when the plane landed at Delhi airport. The entire landscape from the runway was blurred by thick blinding smog. As everybody began to disembark from the plane, I realized that I couldn’t find my navy blue retro cotton scarf. Amongst the mess of used airline blankets and headphones, I couldn’t see it. I again looked in my bag. No luck. I broached this to the airline staff but it was a futile quest. Ah fuck it, I concluded. Lets get out of here.

I waited over an hour just to change £30 into Indian Rupees at the Thomas Cook bureau de change at Delhi airport. The recent demonetization events in the country involving the sudden withdrawal of all R500 and R1000 notes, representing over 80% of the country’s money supply, compounded with the tough restrictions on how much money one could withdraw or exchange meant that one was by law not supposed to exchange more than R5000 a week. I was with a group of other fellow travelers including a group of Peruvian tourists who’d just flown in from Hyderabad and they were equally dejected by the whole thing.

I decided to take the modern metro airport express direct to New Delhi station instead of haggling with a cab driver. At the entrance to the station there was a security check with austere Indian police in charge. The express train blazed through vacant and baron swathes of outer Delhi. The heavy smog made all the surrounding scenery translucent and vague. Many trees were either dead, dying or suffocating by the smog, pleading desperately with the gods in vain for rain. They would have to wait until at least June next year. At the top of the smogged skyline was the sun, heavily veiled to resemble one of those glowing white coated energy saving lightbulbs rather than a piercing brilliant white hot glow. People had to have lungs of steel to live in this city.

Arriving at and exiting New Delhi metro station gave me my first official taste of India since the last time I arrived here almost 10 years ago. All the famed filth and fury slowly began to unravel and reveal itself to me. As I made my way towards the entrance of the main bazaar thoroughfare of the legendary tourist ghetto of the Paharganj district via the hectic and high pressure New Delhi Railway station, I bump into two long-term travelling backpackers. Both look like they’ve allowed India to get under their skin and truly connect and flow with the rhythms and current of this fascinating, multi-faceted, mind blowing, full power wild soup. Peter is from Germany and his partner Olga is from Russia. They both met in Rishikesh. Peter had in fact traveled to India by bicycle from Germany. In Iran he was involved in a road accident and this delayed his trip as he recovered in a Tehran hospital.

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The Paharganj district of Delhi

We all walk together through the mess of the main Paharganj bazaar as Peter tries to find a Post Office and I try to find the Hotel Vivek. Not much has changed along this main thoroughfare of mayhem since I last graced this road as a fresh faced 23 year old backpacker. Back then I foolishly didn’t book accommodation for my first night. Furthermore, I got overcharged by my taxi driver from the airport with hardly any past travel experience under my belt. I had thrown myself in the proverbial deep end. Arriving in the Paharganj all those years ago was like arriving in the middle of some bombed out extra-terrestrial mess on another planet in another galaxy. I was always getting harassed by unsavory touts and constantly trying to avoid being hit by a passing motorbike or rickshaw. I carried my heavy backpack with no reservation, not knowing which hotels to enter or avoid. I remember settling on a veritable fleabag of a place which had these soulless dirty busted rooms for around the R200 mark a night. My current room at the Vivek is no great shakes and the mattress is pancake-thin but this is like the Best Western compared to that place. Before I check into the Vivek, I say goodbye to Peter and Olga. Perhaps I’ll bump into them next at a temple somewhere in Sri Lanka? Who knows.

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Back in the Paharganj after an almost 10 year absence 

Instead of going to bed, I dump my things in my room and re-enter the Main Bazaar. I walk back towards New Delhi station and onward towards Connaught Place. It is here where I discover a marvelous open air secondhand book stall. Mountains of books are piled on top of each other like mini towers of Babel. By now I find myself feeling the undesirable effects of Delhi’s air pollution. Its not only my mouth which feels like one great field of ash and dust. My eyes are stinging like I am walking through clouds of sulfuric acid. I need a bottle of water sharpish and some vitamin C tablets to phase out the carcinogenic mess of free radicals manifesting inside of me. What I’d give for an incubator of premium quality South Pacific air!

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A great secondhand bookstall by Connaught Place 

As I trudge around Connaught Place, the sun has already gone down. There are impossibly long lines of people outside every functioning ATM hoping to withdraw some limited Rupees. It doesn’t matter that the current daily limit has recently been increased from R2000 to R2500, I can see more chance of pigs flying than achieving a successful and hassle-free ATM withdrawal. Yet I fortunately have another option for getting cash in the form of my scarce supply of hard currency. I genuinely feel sorry for the locals who have been affected by this.

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People queuing up outside an ATM in Connaught Place hoping to withdraw some scarce Rupees 

I look for a street vendor selling bottled water. I find one offering me R20 for a liter bottle. He even says that he has change for a R2000 note as he palms me nineteen R100 notes along with the rest of my change. I am extremely grateful to him. For the most part, carrying around one of the recently issued R2000 notes is like carrying around a King Cobra. I can’t take it everywhere.

I chat to some random locals in Connaught Place. The people I speak to genuinely want to chat and the conversations never turn to money. For dinner I pay a visit to Hotel Saravana Bhavan for some delicious South Indian food. There are already people waiting outside with their names on the waiting list. I sign myself up and wait around 20 minutes before I am allocated a seat. I am seated opposite a middle aged Delhiite. When the time comes to order I go for the Thali Special. All this glorious food hits the spot. Afterwards I take a rickshaw back to my hotel to rejuvenate.

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Outside Hotel Saravana Bhavan

 

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The Thali Special at Hotel Saravana Bhavan

The next day I wake up at 11am after over 12 hours of sleep. I exit the hotel just before noon. A secondhand book shop catches my eye in the Paharganj. The owner even has another larger shop around the back bursting with books. I conclude that this must be the best stocked book shop at least here in the Paharganj. I purchase a secondhand copy of a book of teachings by the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi.

For me the heart and soul of Delhi is its old city around the high pressure Chandhi Chowk. I took a metro train over there. It is a monumental sight, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. When I was last here, it was a mind-blowing and overwhelming experience. As soon as I exit Chandhi Chowk metro station, a bicycle rickshaw driver decides to stick himself to me like glue. He becomes a magnificent liability. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve missed this chaos. I finally manage to break free of him by very diligently crossing the carnage of Chandi Chowk traffic where there is something resembling a pavement on the other side. I spot a peanut wallah and purchase a small bag for 10 Rupees.

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Chandhi Chowk

At the end of the main Chandhi Chowk thoroughfare is the monumental Red Fort. This exotic clay-red juggernaut of a fort was constructed during the height of the Mughal period. I enter the outside grounds but I do not go inside as I’d already visited the fort during my last trip to Delhi. Soon I get chatting with an affable local named Satish and we have our photo taken together by the entrance.

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In Chandhi Chowk

 

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With Satish outside the Red Fort

Chandi Chowk may be hectic but for an even more glorious, full powered and disheveled experience, nothing beats the labyrinth of bazaars, streets and hidden alleyways around the nearby Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque.

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Old Delhi street scene 

Like the Red Fort (and the Taj Mahaj in Agra), it was designed by Shah Jahan, a famous Mughal emperor whose reign was often said to be the golden age of Mughal architecture.

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The magnificent Jama Masjid

The streets and bazaars around this jewel of a mosque are special to me. We may be living in the digital age, but walking these streets I feel very much connected to the past lives, energy and spirits of this part of the city. This is ancient Delhi at its finest.

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One of the streets surrounding the Jama Masjid

One particular memory of this area which never escapes me are the reams and reams of black electricity wires tangled and coiled like snakes everywhere and hanging by the most fragile of threads. Seeing these wires so naked and exposed is like seeing my body with much of my skin removed and all my arteries transporting blood around my body for all to see; I am still alive and going but mess around or damage them in any shape or form, and it’s curtains.

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Notice the mess of electricity wires

I spend a long time sat down on the steps at the top of the Jama Masjid watching this fascinating maze of life. I simply observe it and don’t attempt to make any sense of it. I am so happy to be here and the longer I sit here watching it all unfold in front of my eyes, is the moment I know that I am truly in India. It’s marvelous to be back.

 

By Nicholas Peart

12th December 2016

(All rights reserved)

Original Relics Of Medieval London

The history of London goes back to 43 AD when this city was first founded by Roman settlers and orginally christened Londinium. Yet when one visits London today, one could argue that the year zero of this city begins with the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren who was responsible for rebuilding the city after most of it was devastated by the Great Fire Of 1666.

Today very little of old medieval London exists. Yet it is there! Mostly in the form of the few churches which survived the Great Fire and of course the mighty Tower Of London and Tower Bridge. One of the principle reasons why most of London was destroyed by the Fire was due to the fact that the majority of the city’s houses and buildings were made out of wood. The fact that the Tower of London was made of good old hard stone speaks volumes about how its bacon was saved.

To experience a decent slice of medieval London, I personally like to head to EC1 and the Cloth Court/Cloth Fair area of narrow medieval alleyways and of course the magnificent St Bartholomew’s church. Nearby you have the legendary Smithfields Market and a little further up is the Barbican. By the jungle of Brutalist architecture one can find St Giles church and surviving relics of the original London Wall. For a definitive and comprehensive history of this city, the Museum of London is right round the corner. Currently there is an excellent exhibition on there commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1666. It is a very thorough exhibition with lots of information and even some original artifacts from that time. The exhibition is on display until April 2017.

Below I am featuring some photographs from my wonderings exploring another side to this city and unearthing some of these original relics of London, which were unaffected by the Great Fire…

 

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A portion of the original London Wall in the Barbican area

 

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St Giles-without-Cripplegate church

 

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The Staple Inn: This enourmous medieval building was built in 1585 and narrowally escaped the Great Fire by only a few metres

 

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St Etheldredas Church: this church was built in the latter half of the 13th century. It is one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches in England.

 

 

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For me, this area close to Smithfields market is a fabulous slice of medieval London around the junction of Cloth Court alley and Cloth Fair. Notice the entrance to the iconic St Bartholomew’s church in the background

 

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41 Cloth Fair: This is the oldest house in the City Of London orginally constructed between 1597-1614

 

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St Bartholomew Gatehouse: this was constructed in 1595

 

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Priory Church of St Bartholomew-the-great: close up

 

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St Bartholomew-the-great church: this magnificent church was first founded in 1123 by Rahere (a prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral). It is adjacent to St Bartholomew’s hospital which was also founded by Rahere in that same year and is one of the oldest hospitals in the U.K.

 

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St Bartholomew-the-less church

 

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This shop built in 1567 was featured in Charles Dickens’ ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’

 

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The Seven Stars pub: This unique and charming pub first opened its doors in 1602. It is one of London’s few remaining independent pub and remains little change since it’s early days

 

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The Olde Wine Shades: first opened its doors in 1663

 

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This handsome medieval building on Fleet Street called Prince Henry’s Room survived the Fire. It was a former tavern where the London diarist Samuel Pepys liked to hang out

 

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St Katherine Cree Church

 

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St Andrew Undershaft Church: this church was originally constructed in 1532. It survived the Great Fire of 1666 an drew World War Two, but was unfortunately damaged in an IRA attack in 1992

 

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St Helen’s Bishopsgate Church: this gem of a church was built in the 12th century. It has the distinction of being the largest surviving church in the City of London. This was also William Shakespeare’s church during his time in the city.

 

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St Olave Hart Street Church: this church was constructed built in 1450. This church was saved by the Great Fire by Sir William Penn (who’s son also named William, founded the state of Pennsylvania) who instructed that the houses surrounding the church be destroyed to make a firebreak and thus save the church

 

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The Tower of London and Tower Bridge in the background. The Tower of London castle was built in 1078.

 

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All Hallows-by-the-Tower Church: Although the current facade of the church goes back to 1658, it is on the site of a church’s going back to 675. Samuel Pepys watched the city burn during the Great Fire from the church’s tower.

 

Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart

4th December 2016

(All rights reserved)

Touring The Oldest Pubs Of London

Following on from my tour of the pubs of Glasgow back in October, I thought I’d share with you all my experiences of touring some of the oldest pubs of London. Some of these pubs go back to the times of medieval London before the Great Fire Of London of 1666. The history of London is fascinating in itself and some of these old pubs or taverns project a strong energy and spirit of what London must have been like all those years ago.

 

Ye Olde Mitre

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This notorious pub, hidden down Ely Court in the Farringdon area, was first established in 1546. The bottom floor of the pub by the bar is full of hanging old beer mugs from the ceiling and historic photographs and pictures. The pub or tavern was originally built for the servants of the Palace of the Bishops of Ely from Cambridgeshire. The pub and palace were later destroyed in 1772. The pub in its current structure dates back to that year.

 

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Inside Ye Olde Mitre

I prefer to come here for a pint during the afternoon when it is quieter and there are less punters. My favourite part of the pub is upstairs where there are many old pictures of historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots. When I was there with my sister back in August, we were the only people there. During the evening, especially on a Friday night, the pub becomes uncomfortably overcrowded and loud. The pub is currently owned by Fullers brewery and does a decent selection of beers and ales. When I was there I had an Oakham Green Devil IPA ale. A sterling choice but at 6% this stuff can make you weak in the knees quicker than you think.

 

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St Etheldreda’s Church

If you have some free time, try to visit the atmospheric St Etheldreda’s Church which is the oldest Catholic Church in England built in 1291.

 

 


Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

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Number two of the Ye Oldes, this legendary pub, located on Fleet Street, was first established one year after the Great Fire Of London in 1667. What immediately strikes me about this pub is its heavy, wooden Old London austerity, rawness and darkness. You could have a thousand suns beaming down on this pub and inside it would still be darker than the blackest of hearses. This is not a place to go to for natural vitamin D therapy but if you want to experience the ghosts and grime of a time long gone, this is a great find.

 

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Many literary figures including Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G Woodhouse and Dr. Samuel Johnson are all said to have been locals of this pub. Charles Dickens was also a regular of this pub and the atmospheric and ‘gloomy old London’ energy of the pub must have provided him with an abundance of inspiration for his writing.

 

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Downstairs at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Here this pub is at times a curious mix of one timer global smartphone-glued tourists and hardcore spit and polish long timer locals who’ve been drinking at this pub longer than I’ve been on this planet. My favourite part of the pub to sit is either in the small room where the bar is by the main back entrance or downstairs below the ground floor. It’s in these areas where I feel the spirit of the pub the most.

 

 

The Seven Stars

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The Seven Stars is a special pub in London. Not only is it one of London’s oldest boozers first established in 1602, it also has the rare distinction of having survived the Great Fire of 1666. Fortunately none of the owners throughout the pub’s history have been shortsighted enough to redesign the pub in any shape or form and so it remains exactly as it was when it first opened its doors in the early 17th Century. Furthermore, it is one of the very few remaining independent old pubs in London.

 

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Inside the Seven Stars

Since the pub survived the Great Fire and owing to the fact that it has hardly changed since its original beginnings, it offers a veritable taste of a typical medieval London tavern. A part of me would probably die if this place was ever turned into, god help me, a ‘gastropub’. What’s more, this pub has a decent selection of ales. When I was there with my sister, I had a pint of the dark Roadside Adnam ale which was very good.

 

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Yours Truly at the Seven Stars with a pint of Adnam ale

It is located by the Royal Courts of Justice and London School of Economics meaning that it is often frequented by LSE students and barristers who take their clients here for a celebratory drink.

 

 


The Cittie Of Yorke

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The Cittie Of Yorke is an outstanding old pub located in Holborn. It is a Samual Smith owned pub but is probably one of the most atmospheric pubs I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The on site history of the pub goes back all the way to an impressive 1430 even if much of the current building is a rebuilding from the 1920s.

 

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Inside the Cittie Of Yorke

The main bar area is situated in an awesomely atmospheric hall with high wooden beam ceilings, low suspending globe like lights and a series of big wooden beer barrels above the bar. More than many other pubs I’ve frequented, it is here where I could really imagine myself in a crowded, noisy and messy old London tavern. People would be dressed in rags or in immaculate suits, coats and top hats. I could imagine the former like being straight out of a painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Adriaan van Ostade who was a great painter of the Dutch underclass who spent there time in tavern like places getting drunk and merry and disorderly; tankards clinking, loud voices singing and a multiple of instruments ringing.

 

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The legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who was a great lover of pubs, wrote an impromptu ode to this pub when it was called the Henneky’s Long Bar. Aside from the main bar, there are some equally atmospheric rooms with dark wood furnishings, leather coaches, tall old windows and paintings.

 

 

The Hoop and Grapes

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The Hoop and Grapes located on Aldgate High Street was originally built in 1593 and is one of the few existing relics of medieval London to have escaped the 1666 Great Fire. This current pub dates back to 1721 and is currently owned by the Nicholson Brewery. In spite of its unique history and all the old furnishings and photographs on the wall, this is quite an ordinary commercial pedestrian pub playing standard mainstream chart music. Unlike Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the original spirit of this place is hard to find.

 

 

The Anchor

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This pub located on the South Bank has a very impressive history. This was William Shakespeare’s local and the pub from where the great London diarist, Samual Pepys, watched the Great Fire Of London. The genesis of this pub was a tavern reported to be 800 years old and this would make this place one of the oldest pub establishments in the city even if the pub had been destroyed during the Fire and subsequently remodelled a few times since then. The Anchor was recently refurbished in 2008.

Despite the epic and awesome history of the place and even the fact that the old decor remains, albeit with a slick facelift, it is quite an ordinary commercial pub serving the usual fare of alcoholic drinks and pub grub. Still it’s location on the South Bank can’t be beat and on a pure blue summer day, this is a good place to go.

 

 


The George Inn

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Located close to Borough Market and short distance walk from the Anchor, the George Inn is a gem of a pub and unlike the Anchor has retained much of its original character and charm. The George is a former coaching Inn dating back to 1542 and the current building dates back to 1676 after the original Inn was destroyed in a fire. The pub has also had a distinguished set of people who came here to drink. Most notably William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. The latter mentioned The George in his novel Little Dorrit.

When I came here I had a pint of the locally brewed George Inn ale which I highly recommend. This is an outstanding pub and would be my personal choice over the Anchor if you happen to be in SE1.

 

 


The Prospect Of Whitby

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The Prospect, located in Wapping, is one of the oldest pubs of London and the oldest riverside tavern of London dating back to 1520. It is also one of the best pubs I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. It was originally called The Pelican, which was later renamed The Devils Tavern and then later The Prospect of Whitby in the 18th Century. Back in those early days most of Wapping’s residents worked by the river as fishermen, sailors, and boat and sail makers. In addition to this, Wapping also had its fair share of pirates, thieves and smugglers.

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Many famous people frequented the Prospect. ‘Hanging Judge Jeffries’ was a regular here. Throughout history it has been claimed that he would tuck into his lunch on the balcony of the pub whilst watching the hangings at a place then known as the Execution Dock. It was here where the notorious pirate Captain Kidd was executed in 1701. Then there was the 17th century London diarist Samuel Pepys who was a regular here during his stint as a clerk for the Navy and later Secretary to the Admiralty.

After the end of World War Two during the 1950s and 1960s, Wapping like many other parts of East London was in decline. However the pub was still doing brisk business and one of the pub’s rooms upstairs was a restaurant which was popular with many celebrities of that time including Richard Burton, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Mohammed Ali and Princess Margaret.

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One of the rooms in the pub upstairs was at one point in history used for boxing matches. Some of the earliest international matches happened between sea workers from around the world. As well as boxing matches, cock fighting matches also too place in this particular room.

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I came here with a couple of friends one summers day back in September. We spent most of our time here on the outside riverside patio of the pub enjoying our pints and the beautiful weather. When we were not outside we were exploring the interior of the pub, it’s multiple rooms with old shipping memorabilia and paintings, portraits, photographs and records of all the distinguished people who crossed paths with this mighty place.

 

 

The Mayflower

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From Wapping my friends and I take the Overground line one stop south of the river to nearby Rotherhithe. It is here that we visit the historic Mayflower pub. This pub was originally established in 1550 and then rebuilt in 1780 as the Spread Eagle and Crown before being renamed The Mayflower in 1957 after the Mayflower ship which took the Pilgrim Father’s from Rotherhithe to America in 1620.

 

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Inside the Mayflower

The pub is atheistically a very tasteful pub with lots of old shipping related pictures and artefacts on the walls and around the pub. In a way it is the perfect vintage pub and it’s cosiness and warm vibe increase its attractiveness. It is best to come here when it isn’t crowded. When we came here there was a massive entourage of people celebrating something and we couldn’t move anywhere. But when it isn’t busy this pub is a delight. The riverside terrace is also one of the best in London.

 

 

The Angel

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Also in Rotherhithe is the Angel pub. For me it is not as attractive or interesting as the Mayflower. The interior reminds me more of a tough East London boozer where the Kray brothers or one of the older EastEnders actors or Lennie McLean would call their local. Nevertheless, this Samuel Smiths pub is a good no nonsense boozer and has a long history. It was originally a 15th century tavern established by the monks of Bermondsey Priory. It is mentioned in Samuel Pepys diary as a place where he drank.

 

 

The Grapes

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This unique riverside Limehouse pub has a history going back to 1583. The current building of the pub has a history dating back to the 1720s and was originally a raw working class riverside tavern serving predominantly the dockers of the Limehouse Basin. Regarding notable figures, our faithful friend Samuel Pepys makes an appearance here. His diary mentions trips to lime kilns at the jetty right by the Grapes.

 

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Inside The Grapes

The pub also appears in the Charles Dickens book Our Mutual Friend. The back of the pub is full of Dickens related paraphanelia including a large portrait painting of him.

 

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Portrait of Charles Dickens inside The Grapes

I like this pub. The interior and decor hasn’t been messed with and as a result it retains its original character and spirit.

 

 

Spaniards Inn

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One day earlier this year I met a friend of mine in Hampstead. After a long walk in the beautiful Hampstead Health park, we visited this gem of a pub nearby. This attractive pub is one of London’s oldest pubs dating back to 1585 and is a great pub to visit full of original character and charm. There is also a large outdoor sitting area which is perfect for warm Spring and Summer days. This pub has a distinguished literary heritage. Dickens mentioned the pub in his book The Pickwick Papers and the poet Keats wrote Ode To A Nightingale here.

 

 

The Olde Wine Shades

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Although more of an ancient wine bar than a pub, this place in the City of London nevertheless merits a mention more for its history and the fact that it is, like the Seven Stars pub in Holborn, a rare example of pre 1666 medieval London. It was one of the few buildings of that year to escape the Great Fire. Historical importance aside, I was quite disappointed to discover that it is nothing more than a mediocre overpriced wine bar. I would come here for a curious peep but I would rather pick the Seven Stars or the Prospect over this place any day of the week.

 

 

Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart

2nd December 2016

(All Rights Reserved)

Dicing With Danger In Fortaleza

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Fortaleza: Not all a beach

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

29th March 2014

Today the aeroplane crashed into the mountain. What happened today was perhaps the most frightening and dangerous position I ever found myself in so far in all my travelling life. Getting mugged on the streets of Caracas five years ago was small beer compared to this.

In the morning I took a local ômnibus to Fortaleza’s international airport to buy my plane ticket to the Cape Verde islands and also to have some clarity over a few Cape Verdean related immigration queries. I was also carrying my rucksack containing my iPad so that I could take advantage of the wireless internet in the airport. When I arrived at the airport, the TACV (local Cape Verde airline company) desk for flights to Cape Verde was closed. There was nothing I could do so I took an ômnibus from the airport to the city centre of Fortaleza. I had planned to take some photos and make some short films discreetly. So far tudo bem. I take my photos and films, have two cups of agua de coco, and explore a large portion of the city untroubled.

Later in the afternoon I look for an ômnibus going to the suburb of Iracema where my guesthouse is located. A big tough ol’ fat lady weighing at least 300 pounds tries to guide me to my bus. After some time she becomes very aggressive and starts demanding money. I board a random ômnibus about to depart and she gets on it too and begins to lunge at me. Immediately she grabs at my shirt and trouser pants and tries to punch me several times WWE style. I naturally cry for help but unbelievably no one on the bus comes to my rescue. At this moment I am absolutely terrified and in a panic I empty my wallet containing 15 Reis. She snatches the 15 Reis out of my hand and demands that I give her more money. When I am unable to give her more money, she rips my fake pair of Ray Bans off my face and crunches them up to debris in one of her enormous hands like a crusher at a scrap metal plant. Right now she’s a combination of Medusa and Big Mama Thornton on crack. Five policemen enter the bus. Three of them try to restrain her. My Brazilian Portuguese is maybe only half a step up from standard Gringo level and most of the time I barely decipher what she’s saying as it jets out of her mouth at 90 times the speed of sound. Only a little later does it become clear that she tried to unscrupulously frame me by claiming that I bought cocaine from her. And not only that…that I refused to pay for it! Even if this house of cards allegation were true, by admitting that you are a drug dealer surely creates ramifications for yourself, does it not? The police officers turn me and my rucksack upside down in pursuit of the smallest nano particle of blow. When they eventually realise that I am in possession of no drugs let alone cocaine, they simply bark something at this rare disgrace and let her go. The pathetic absence of justice and incompetence on the part of the local police, whilst it didn’t surprise me, left me feeling vulnerable, insecure and full of fear. Yet in their defence they did do one caring thing for me by driving me back to my pousada on Rua Dom Manuel in Iracema.

I am still trembling from this rare hi-octane episode of barbery that I spend the rest of the day and night in my room. I only venture out once in the early evening to buy bottled water and have a simple dinner at one of the adjacent restaurants.

When I finally manage to calm down, I discard my emotions and purchase my flight ticket to the city of Praia in the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa. Tomorrow morning I vow to exit this city and go to the small and tranquil beach village of Canoa Quebrada.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source: http://www.expedia.com

Blazing To Panama City In Time For New Years Eve

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Panama City at night

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

 

28th December 2013

I am sitting in the armchair in the corner of my spartan guesthouse room in the city of San José, Costa Rica. In front of me is a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall with the words, ‘ the only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear’. Last night in my uber tired and messed up state I really pondered over these words. Now after at least seven hours of sleep, my body and mind are calmer and I am able to look at things more rationally.

My bus arrived in San José from the town of Estelí in Nicaragua at 11.30pm last night. It was originally scheduled to arrive at 8pm. I waited in Estelí for over two hours before the Tica Bus finally arrived.

This afternoon I purchased my bus ticket to the Panamanian city of David for tomorrow. From there I’ll continue on to Panama City.

 

 

29th December 2013

Today the pressure was high. I am now in my hotel room in David as I write this. I am falling apart from relentless travelling. Tomorrow will most likely be another eight hour journey as I make my way to Panama City.

The bus from San José to David was rather basic. At the Panamanian border, the officials demanded that I provide proof of onward travel out of Panama. This came quite unexpectedly. I certainly didn’t have a flight ticket out of Panama. There was one way I could get out of this. If I could show the officials a bank statement with funds of over $500, then they would stamp my passport and let me through. Fortunately there was a small ramshackle internet café nearby. I logged onto my bank account on this very dodgy computer with half the letters missing on the keyboard. Thankfully the connection was quite fast. My current account showed funds of less than £100. So I transferred £400 from my savings account onto my current account before printing off a statement of my newly topped up current account. I diligently sign off and revisit my bank account page to make sure I definitely WAS signed off. Interestingly, when I finally did present the statement to the officials they barely gave it a glance before my stamping my passport with a Panama entry stamp.

Here in my basic hotel room in David, it’s either too hot or too cold. There is an old AC unit with missing dials meaning I am unable to modify the Arctic temperature whenever I turn on the unit. In hindsight a room with just a simple fan would’ve been better but the crippling humidity in this part of the world makes me game for AC.

There is a noisy bar directly adjacent to my room. It’s 1am and the party is still going. Perhaps I should’ve anchored myself in San Marcos La Laguna instead of embarking on this batshit insane voyage.

 

 
30th December 2013

I woke at 9am. I don’t know how I feel. I feel numb. At one point in the night I woke up and thought I was in an unheated room in Puno. I turned off the AC and went back to sleep. I can’t see myself arriving in Panama City at a sensible time now.

I travel on a surprisingly comfortable and luxurious bus from David to Panama City. For $15 it was incredibly cheap for what it was worth. When I arrived at the bus terminal, I took a shared taxi to the Casco Viejo district. The taxista drove like a devil across the different highway intersections of the city to get to my destination. As we approached the outskirts of the Casco Viejo I almost forgot how rundown certain parts are. The section with all the tourist hotels and hostels is the more spruced up and nicer part. When I arrived at the big Santa Ana plaza I tried to find the cheap hotel I stayed at when I was last in this city some years back. After a few minutes of surveying the different corners of the plaza I finally found it; Hotel Caracas. Even though it feels like a tropical borstal, I remember when I last stayed here I had a basic but clean and spotless room with a fan for $10 a night. I asked to see a room. The first room I was shown looked nothing like the room I stayed at before. There were exposed live wires, marks on the walls and doors. Hell, even the bed sheets were a mess. The state of the shower looked like the aftermath of someone who’d blown their brains out with a shotgun during a game of Russian Roulette after an intense cocaine binge. The last time I’d seen a room as uniquely disgusting as this one was when I was in Beira, Mozambique. I kindly ask if I could see another room? I think we must have gone through about six rooms before finally settling on one for just one night – like choosing between six different formations of shit to eat. I choose the only one which had a window not facing an external wall. Yet when I did open the window it was directly facing onto an enormous heap of trash on the pavement of one of the more down at heel streets; a cocktail of death, decay and Kurt Schwitters. Yet even in my bombed out state of mind, there is something strangely fascinating about all this. I mentioned death but these streets are full of life. A raw and unsanitized liveliness. Isn’t this what I am always looking for? Well, now it’s there if I want it.

This evening I went to a hole in the wall bar right next to my hotel. I was the only Gringo there. I started as a barfly and pretty soon I was dancing salsa in my very rudimentary way with some enormous butterball of a lady from the Dominican Republic. I thought about staying out longer but I want to have some energy for tomorrow. For the next two nights I’ll be staying at the notorious backpacker hostel, Luna’s Castle.

 

 
31st December 2013

I slept erratically last night. This hotel room is like something out of a William S Burroughs book. I was woken up at 7.30 am by an insanely loud rubbish collection vehicle. Not even the V8 engine of the AC unit in my room could drown out this Earth shattering noise from outside.

After transferring all my things from Hotel Caracas to Luna’s Castle, I took a taxi to Albrook Airport to sort out my onward travel to Colombia. Although Panama borders Colombia, neither countries are connected by road. The PanAmerican higher abruptly ceases at some point between Panama City and the border. All that separates these two countries is an impenetrable stretch of jungle called The Darien Gap. Some courageous souls have successfully navigated it yet the risks far outweigh the rewards and for the handful of travellers who crossed it successfully many more have perished. There are at least three feasible ways to get to Colombia from Panama. One is to fly from Panama City to any major Colombian city. The second is to take a 4/5 day boat trip via the San Blas islands and the third option is to take a small domestic plane from Panama City to a small isolated Panamanian village called Puerto Obaldía on the Panama/Colombia border from where it is possible to catch a motorboat to the Colombian village of Carpuganá. From there you take another motorboat towards the city of Turbo which has land connections to other parts of Colombia. I embarked on the third option on my last trip across Latin America.

When I arrived at Albrook airport and enquire about purchasing a ticket to Puerto Obaldia departing in six days time, I was told that all flights to Puerto Obaldia were booked solid for the next three weeks. I was truly disappointed at this discovery. On the other hand, it was a tad shortsighted of me to have left the booking so late, especially since the plane is tiny and the fact there are not many flights. Yet three weeks is a staggering amount of time to wait until the next available flight and I for one am not going to languish in Panama City for that duration of time. I refuse to do the 4/5 day sailboat trip. Everybody seems to be doing that trip and I can already foresee a lot of problems and boredom from doing such a trip. With the third and second options ruled out, the next logical step seemed to be a direct flight from Panama City to the Colombian cities of Cartagena or Medellín. I was shocked to discover that the cheapest flight going was $350. That is a ridiculous sum of money for a one hour flight. Fortunately I soon discovered one more way to get to Colombia. A kind local lady who worked at Luna’s Castle hostel explain it all to me. It involved travelling in a 4×4 vehicle from the city to a small coastal town called Cartí. From Cartí I would then travel by speedboat for something crazy like 9-10 hours to Puerto Obaldía and finally Carpuganá. Like a concentration camp version of the third option.

As I write this from my hostel dormitory, I am now only two hours away from the New Year and the rumba is already in full swing. I will raise my last bottle of Balboa beer of the year towards much luck for the remainder of my trip and that I finally do manage to get to West Africa from Brazil – whether by boat, plane etc – it doesn’t matter.

 

 

1st January 2014

Last night the party at the hostel was enourmous. I was thrashing the rum and cokes. The party went on until sunset. I passed out at around 4am. Today has been a coma’d day. I spent most of it inside the hostel. Around mid afternoon I went for a stroll on Avenida Central off the Casco Viejo. Amongst the rare silence today on New Years Day, I got talking with an old Panamanian lady who, surrounded by masses of pigeons, sold bags of pigeon food. I bought a bag and suddenly became swarmed by dozens of them every time I threw a handful of grains on the floor. Most of the restaurants were closed bar a small low lighted budget Chinese restaurant where I had a very ordinary meal of fried rice and chicken. There are many Chinese here in Panama City and most of the ones I encounter (although certainly not all) are reserved and indifferent.

Since yesterday afternoon I befriended a middle aged Turkish/German man. He speaks almost no English but speaks Spanish very well having travelled in Latin America for a considerable amount of time. Although he is very intelligent and head and shoulders more interesting to talk to than many of the other guests staying at the hostel, he is also very intense and unstable. He is the kind of person that would burn down cities if things didn’t go his way. As a consequence I feel a little uneasy around him. It’s quite interesting how sometimes the most alive and riveting people are also the most unhinged. I often rage against mediocrity and dull people but for the most part I cherish stability. I don’t want my life to be a nonstop proverbial rollercoaster ride. I don’t want it. I would rather have a boring and stable life rather than a life full of tension. Oh boy, what am I talking about? If only I could become more aware of all my glaring contradictions.

 

 

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

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