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Secret London

travel Updated: May 30, 2011 12:30 IST
Highlight Story


It's May in London, and the flowering trees are putting on a show. All manner of blossoms are budding, blooming and dropping. While magnolias, cherry blossoms and wisteria petals have carpeted the sidewalks with their petals, lavender, honeysuckle and azaleas are pushing forth. The sun is lingering longer, bees are bumbling indoors and all this is making the birds delirious happy and terribly raucous.



In much of India, it's sweltering. Those that can take wing are eyeing the alternatives. London beckons. As they pack, they wonder, "Will a light shawl or jumper do, or will I need a coat?"



Well, bring the jumper and borrow the coat here if needed, but do make your way to London as the place is humming. There's been a wedding, actors are in costume at the open-air Globe theater, strawberries are ripening for Wimbledon, and restaurants are flinging their doors open for al fresco seating. And if you haven't explored these spots favoured by the locals, you must get to them with single-minded determination.



Borought Market

Expect a light drizzle around lunchtime... a drizzle of aromatic olive oil on freshly baked bread at a stall in Borough Market. Taste a wedge at the fromageries, nibble a sausage at the charcuteries, try an energising acai berry smoothie as you chat with the vendors. The suppliers hark from some of the best-regarded farms of England and Europe. Around midday on Thursdays, Fridays and early mornings on Saturdays, this market starts to heave. Visitors come to buy fresh produce, to nibble their way through its offerings, to experience its ambience and to photograph it. The market is also encircled by some terrific restaurants. Follow the crowds to the most popular haunts. Brindisa, a Spanish stall, has the longest lines leading to their grilled pepper and chorizo sandwiches. Vegi-table serves a punchy bean casserole. Visit the Parmesan Cheese Company and Danilo Manco for their extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Bedales Wine Merchants have a terrific collection and Darren Brown - Seafood Trader has luscious scallops.



Roast, the restaurant in the Floral Hall, is superbly located at a height, giving diners a view of the stalls below whilst they delve into modern British cuisine.



London Walks

This company has mastered the art of guided walks to perfection. In just a couple of hours, you can be transported to the era of Jack the Ripper and his East End haunts. Delve into the history of England as you stroll around old Westminster. The intimacies of the neighbourhoods - Kensington, Camden Town or Little Venice are laid bare. Follow the trail of a favourite character, be it Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde or Sherlock Holmes. The walks are informative with witty scripts enlivened by guides who are often actors, historians or writers. On a walk through Belgravia recently, the guide regaled us with vignettes of "semi-attached couples who live in semi-detached houses" and of residents who "live in squares and love in triangles."



The Restaurant at Petersham Nursery

Take a scenic walk along the Thames in bucolic Richmond, and then stop by at Petersham Nursery which houses London's most atmospheric restaurant. Melding with a garden shop, café and bookshop, the restaurant's appeal starts with the atmospheric setting, continues with attractive Wellington-clad waitresses who tread the mud floor toting the dishes and is sealed with beautifully presented, delicious food.



Chef Skye Glyngell orchestrates every movement in the kitchen, using the freshest ingredients, many of which grow in the nursery's gardens. She serves a medley of seasonal leaves and vegetables which combine with fresh fish, lamb, lentils and aromatic spices that lend themselves to contemporary British and Mediterranean cuisine. The menu varies daily and offers good vegetarian selections. On my last visit I had fizzy elderflower, butternut squash soup, followed by fried artichokes with red peppers and a tranche of smoked salmon with caper puree. A slice of their signature melted chocolate cake begged a walkabout and a few paces away is their second eatery, a walk-in café where those who do not have a reservation can grab a coffee, soup, salad or sandwich. The counter foams with meringues, scones, muffins and cakes.



London Wetland Centre

Just across the Hammersmith Bridge in Barnes, on the bank of the Thames, 40 hectares have been devoted to a bird sanctuary where one can stroll under fish-eye lens skies, viewing several species of local and migratory birds. Two walkways meander around a large lake and some lagoons. Thickets of bulrushes, tall grasses and sprays of flowers make the place feel truly wild. Dragonflies, damselflies, bats, slow worms, water voles, marsh frogs, butterflies and foxes have found a home here. Wetlands all around the world are recreated through the landscape and flora. A great place to take children to run around, identify the fauna and get some fresh air. Watch the serious birdwatchers sit patiently for hours inside the blinds, towers and observatories looking through binoculars as they tick off sucks, sedge, reed warblers, bitterns, lapwings, plovers and sandpipers on spotting lists. Each month brings a pageant of new birds and flowers. The visitor centre organises dawn chorus walks, photography classes and lectures on conservation. Lunch at the café is good and sumptuous.



Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre is an almost exact replica of the original one from 1599. It burned down in 1613 when a cannon fired during the performance of Henry the VIIIth went awry. Today's Globe has the only thatched roof in all of London.



At the centre of the round building is the beautifully hand-painted stage, where high- calibre actors perform. The curtain-less frame allows the actors to interact with the crowds constantly. Often there is an all-male cast, in keeping with Shakespearean times. In those days, the 'goundlings' or the 'penny stinkards' (for they smelt vile from lack of washing) stood around the stage while the upper crust of society sat on wooden benches in a semi-circle with a partial roof overhead. If it rains as you watch, the experience will be exactly as it was 400 years ago, except polythene raincoats will be handed out. Every year, around four plays are performed between May and September, twice daily.



Explore Notting Hill

There is a palpable buzz in Notting Hill, a neighbourhood in West 11, London, that comes from the gravitational pull of dynamic residents, attractive Italianate villas that back on to communal gardens and the innumerable cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutiques truly worthy of exploration. The famous Portobello Street Market unfurls every Saturday morning, and each August the Notting Hill Carnival wends its way through the streets.



Drink at Beach Blanket Babylon (45 Ledbury Road), brunch at Daylesford Organic (208 Westbourne Grove), lunch at 202 (202 Westbourne Grove), take away from Ottolenghi (63 Ledbury Road), dine at Mediterraneo (37 Kensington Park Road) and shop along the intersection of Ledbury St and Westbourne Grove, and Elgin and Blenheim Crescents.



Absolut Ice Bar

Heddon Street in Mayfair comes alive each evening as crowds spill out of the line-up of bars and restaurants. But even on this road, the experience at the Absolut Ice Bar, an outpost of Ice Hotel in Sweden, is truly unique. Each year, a new bar is designed entirely out of crystal clear ice. The whole space floor, walls, seating and bar area even the glasses you drink out of are made of ice. Visitors are given designer parkas to stay toasty during their 40-minute slots in the bar, which is maintained at minus five degrees centigrade. Mixologists offer all manner of drinks including vodka and lingonberry,

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