I didn’t have a definite plan of action when arriving in London last week. I had walked the streets before, a few years back hitting most of the tourist highlights on that visit. This time I just wanted to wander and see what surfaced. I usually started my day with some sort of goal in mind whether it was a specific neighborhood destination to land in, a neighborhood market with exotic tastes and wears to do dinner shopping or a special site of history or scenery to migrate towards, but always with a relaxed and open mind to watch for spontaneous opportunities of curious distraction. And that folks is the sure fire way of how to have a full experience when on holiday, actually for life to be honest, because there is so much to be found in spontaneous opportunities !
Take for instance Eel Pie. One Saturday afternoon a few years back I was in my kitchen listening to a wonderful NPR broadcast about Eel Pie Island in the Thames river between Richmond and Twickenham, from that moment i knew upon my return to London i had to go there, to see it and to find out how good (if at all) an Eel Pie might be. A tiny
spot that had been leaving a big mark in the history of the area for centuries. It began with a legend supposedly dating back to Henry VIII’s time, when a more healthy Thames River was loaded to the gills with bounty such as eels and he would stop his royal barge at Mistress Mayo’s pie stall located on a little island. However likely or unlikely that legend may be by the 18th century a hotel had been built and by the early part of the 19th century the quaint and quiet charm of the island had become a destination for Londoner’s wanting
a retreat. Over the centuries, Eel Pie Island as it came to be known also became a Mecca for music in the dance hall and bohemians dating back before Charles Dickens days in the Eel Pie island hotel, finding its hey day from the 1940s to the 1960s especially during the British Rock revolution where up and coming artists such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and The Who got a start. Eventually the carefree bohemian lifestyle along with the deteriorated condition of the old hotel met its fate in 1971 with a devastating fire. Now about 50 homes remain on this island from boat yards to artist studios to lucky home owners, its a tranquil spot to wander by. And wander I did that day, in search of Eel pie but not without taking in all the beauty that
was to be discovered on that walk from the Richmond bridge alone the peaceful but mucky Thames to the Island and back through the town of Twickenham, wandering from pub to fish shop to pub to veg stand to yet more pubs with not an Eel Pie one (or any fresh Eel for that matter) to be found any longer in Twickenham and all directions and suggestions were leading to the East End. So the next morning I ventured out for a scenic ride on the water ferry from the London Eye up to historic and beautiful Greenwich, where one was to find the last remaining Pie Shop offering the traditional eel pie. After a stroll through the informative free tourism center, around the many streets of shops and cafes, through the charming Market where one could find beautiful hand made crafts, antique treasures and deliciously unique food stalls; there off a side alley from the market I spotted the sign..I had arrived. But Eel Pie was not to be, Goddards a family pie shop in the East end since 1890 now only offers eels in the form of stewed or jellied not only because tastes have changed since the
Victorian culinary craze hit it’s glory but also due to the drastic drop in eel sources because of pollution and over fishing finding them difficult and expensive to obtain. Danny manager of the shop was more than gracious to offer the chef to specially make one up for me but i declined and went with a delicious lunch of mince pie and mash and stewed Eels smothered in Goddards secret recipe parsley sauce (also traditionally called the “liquor”), Not too bad but I still prefer my eels pan seared with just s&p and washed down with a Guinness! The rest of the day I wandered around the grounds where Henry VIII great Palace of Placentia once stood, up the hill to explore the Royal Observatory and discovered the prime Meridian Line (0 longitude), then down through the Maritime Museum, and through the curious brick round house on the rivers shore that was a foot path under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, which used to be the Kings hunting grounds later harbor sites for fishing vessel but now an upcoming suburbanite residential community called Canary Wharf. I did find a friendly gang of men with thick cockney accents and passionate soap box stances hanging at the tunnels exit with the pop-up bike repair stall and enjoyed an hour long chat of East end history, news headline
discussion and homeland familiarity. Back on the a tube and into City Center to get lost some more. And that really sums up my week in London: searching for a few specific tastes of the curious but really enjoying taking the unknown path and visiting with the interesting people i stumble upon from the 5th generation east enders, to dancing Punjabis waiters, to Swedish Vikings on holiday. And I wander sometimes/most the time without direction but I always keep my eyes open for the unknown and interesting yet to be discovered. Because its not being lost, it’s about what can be found.