Category Archives: London

Tate-ing and London’s public transportation

There are a lot of small differences between England and America. One thing I’ve been shocked about is that you don’t have the freedom to put your own milk in the tea or coffee that you order. But what if I want cream or skim milk…or half and half…? You either order it ‘white’ or ‘black’ no if buts whys hows whens about it. The first time I encountered this it took me by surprise. For the first time in my life I was bad at ordering coffee.

There is a remarkable public transportation system in London. I’ve been taking the underground, the tube, everywhere. Every central station has a jenga-stack of lines that are stories and stories below ground. You can shoot all across the city in a flash. At each station you have to wait 3 minutes (at most) for a train. Why drive! Then above ground, if you want to see the sights there are busses on busses. In central London, there is at least one bus per block at all times. London’s made the buses iconic and stylish. It’s cool to ride them…unlike the buses in the U.S.

Right now it seems like London has a pretty good handle on its water management and flood control. However, should water get passed the barrier at the mouth of the Thames and creep into the river-side stations, I fear that the slick tubular tracks of the underground will look more like sewers than transportation stations. The lines are sometimes so far underground that it would be a disaster to try to dry them out and get them up and running again. The underground lines are London’s arteries. They keep people moving and keep the city pumping. The tube has a daily ridership of about 3.5 million people. The city would shut down without it.

In addition, London’s public transportation is really getting it going with bike shares and water buses. Dotted all over the city are bike hubs where you can take a bike for a pound or two (2 or 3 dollars) and drop it off at another bike station. You are charged a little extra if you take more than 30 minutes…and what happens if you get to a station and there are no open parking spaces? Nevertheless, it’s a good thing to try and it seems like it is going well. The Thames has really funky, nicely designed docks for the water bus that runs up and down the river. It’s a very convenient method of transportation for tourists and residents alike. Great views!

Water bus station.
Water bus station.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the Tate Britain. I went to go see a painting exhibition, a retrospective of L.S. Lowry. Lowry was an English artist who portrayed the industrial landscape of North West Britain. For 40 years he painted urban landscapes and the life of its working class. His work shows men coming and going through factory gates, gathering around a street fight, or rushing to the ‘football’ pitch. I was pretty struck by the exhibit, his paintings told stories. Together, they tell us about a bygone era in England’s history. Between 1920 and 1950, Lowry left a descriptive record of life between the world wars that is even more accessible than any George Orwell book or history text.

I then walked around the museum and sketched this. The whole time I was drawing I hoped that I won’t have to do something similar in India.

An Athlete Wrestling a Python by Lord Leighton.
An Athlete Wrestling a Python by Lord Leighton.

My other favorite pieces in the Tate involved elephants. The first was a big room with two screens and on the screens were projections of an elephant in that very same room. I turned the corner and saw an elephant unexpectedly so honestly at first I was pretty scared, especially since I was the only person in the room. Then there was this sculpture made out of old car doors. I dig sculptures made out of re-used materials.

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Eurostar to Brussels tomorrow. Netherlands on Thursday! More drawings to come soon.

Thames Barrier

In 1951, the east coast of England was hit with a flood; 300  lost their lives. If the water reached all the way into central London, the death toll could have been a lot worse. The 1951 flood and the prospect of further damage triggered the British Government to restructure the city’s flood defenses. In 1966, Sir Herman Bondi did an investigation and reported that raising the bank together with a flood barrier with movable gates would fulfill London’s needs. Parliament passed the legislation in the Thames Barrier Flood Prevention Act of 1971. A year later the banks were raised and in 1982 the construction of the barrier was complete. To this day, there have been no floods in London.

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The Barrier was designed by Charles Draper who got the idea of ‘rising sector gates’ from the shape of a gas tap. Building such a complicated structure required a lot of very technical engineering. One method they used to build a foundation into the riverbed is called a ‘Cofferdam.’ A Cofferdam is a watertight steel box, formed using steel pipes sunk into the river bed. ‘Tremie’ pipes were used to feed the concrete into an excavated space under the river. Concrete sets underwater forming a water-tight seal, then the water is pumped out. The Romans used the same method.

Seventy-five percent of the project was financed by the central government funding while the rest was provided by the local government. It cost 535 million pounds in 1980. The cost to build it today would be on the order of 1.7 billion pounds. The upkeep of it costs 8 million pounds, then there is the need for capital improvements which cost another 10 million pounds a year.

An individual gate can be closed in 10 to 15 minutes but closing the whole barrier for takes up to 90 minutes. The gates need to  be opened from the bottom so that the water level is even upstream and downstream of the Barrier.

The river front where the Barrier is has a rich history. In 1512 Henry VIII established his Royal Dockyards near there, where his flagship Henry Grace-a-Dieu was built. It was a massive ship for its time and was commonly called Great Harry. HMS Beagle on which Charles Darwin conducted his scientific studies was built there in 1820.

London mischief

My biggest challenge (by far) on this trip has been looking the right direction when crossing the road.

I’m living right down the street from my kindergarden, so walking past it I remembered a lesson from all those years ago. Stop, look both ways, and cross when it’s safe. Getting smushed by a double decker bus isn’t on my top ten list of ways to go.

This morning, I went out to get a tea. I took the Clark’s dog, Millie, with me so I could appear more local than I felt, especially since I was wearing my Tevas. Walking around Notting Hill on a saturday morning made me feel just like Hugh Grant. My wandering brought me to Portabello Market, one of the most popular saturday street markets in the world. Millie and I were a great team, she was a total magnet of attention. Then, she decided to pee terrifying close to a woman’s nice shoes, started barking ferociously at street actors that were ‘headless’, and finally took a big poo in the street. I knew you were supposed to bring a doo doo bag when walking around London to clean up after your dog, but all I could find in the kitchen was a zip-lock bag so I ended up walking down the busy market with a sandwich bag filled with dog poop. Nice. Millie is all tuckered out and sleeping on the floor next to me.


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting a British film director named Adam Smith. He took me out for a coffee in a swanky hole-in-the-wall (#onlyinSoho) coffee shop. I had met him 18 years ago when he did the light show at my Dad’s 50th birthday party…so it was great to catch up. He was really excited about what I had planned for the year and said to get a lot of footage of what I’m doing because I’ll appreciate having it later down the road. He was very soft-spoken gentle speaker but clearly was a brilliant, creative guy so he was interesting to listen to. One is the most memorable parts of our coffee get together was his description of the roads in India, how they are a symphony of interwoven bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, and animals that has no rules yet works flawlessly.

Here is one of his films (10 minutes long–but well worth it. It has a James Bond meets Blow meets Cohen Brothers vibe). Booya. Lana Del Rey wrote a song specifically for this, so you know its a keeper.

On Thursday, I hiked London’s riverfront from Parliament to the Tate Modern. It was remarkable how much tide and current changes the character of the river throughout the day. There were giant barges sitting in the mud in the morning that were floating in deep water by the afternoon. You could really see the thrust of the current, too. I immediately noticed how much London activates it’s riverfront. There are swamped, crowded patches of tourists, then pleasant stretches of benches and trees, then markets and so on. There are government offices, museums, cathedrals, markets, banks, and homes–thats why the government decided to protect London in the mid 70s.

The two things the government did was border the Thames is bordered with a 12-15 foot tall embankment throughout London. The city is literally giving the water lots of room to rise and fall with the oscillations of the tides. Closer to the estuary, where the salt water of the North Sea meets the River water, London built the Thames Barrier, a marvel of engineering that spans over a quarter of a mile across the river. It is the second largest flood barrier in the world that boats can pass through. I am going to dedicate a new post solely to my drawing of, and information related to, the Thames Barrier.


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iPad finger art

I drew that on the plane using an app called pages.

Departing Logan, the plane had a great fly-by past my New England home. As the sun was setting, I got my last glimpses of U.S. soil for the year. Specifically, I got a direct view of Boston, Portland, and Brunswick before we banked right and headed across the Atlantic. It was a great way to say goodbye.

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3 hours later, the sun rose again.

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Funnily enough I sat next to a 26 year old woman who had also grown up in London for 10 years. She moved back to the U.S. when she was 16 and has dual-citizenship so she has a better claim to British heritage than I have. Better yet she alternated between speaking a word with a British accent then a word with a Boston accent. I had to focus pretty hard to keep up. We had a nice chat over Virgin Atlantic’s penne pasta pick-me-up.

Heres a view of South London as we were circling around preparing for landing. You can just barely see the city-scape and the Thames at the top of the picture.

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I took the underground (tube) into central London from the airport. The front page of the Metro daily newspaper was a massive cover photo of the royal couple with their new baby. Imagine coming into existence and growing up to be told that you are the prince of England! I’m not sure I’d like it. But this unnamed young man is surely the hot news of London town.