Little green huts

SOUTH OF KENSINGTON Gardens, just west of the Royal Garden Hotel, there is a small green hut with a pitched roof beside Kensington Road. It is one of the thirteen remaining cabmen’s shelters dotted around central London, which were established by the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund (‘CSF’) in 1875 and are still maintained by this organisation. Back in those days, cab drivers could not leave a cab stand whilst they were parked there. This made it difficult for cab drivers to obtain food and drink whilst on duty.

The solution to this problem was devised by the newspaper editor George Armstrong (1836–1907) and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885). They conceived the idea of the shelters to provide cabdrivers with refreshment. By law, the shelters had to be no larger a horse and cart, which explains their small size. That way, they did not encroach on the carriageway too much. In the past, these shelters confined themselves to serving cabmen. More recently, members of the public can buy snacks and drinks at these huts, whose attendants are supposed to make a living from their shelters.  Cabmen can eat within a shelter, but others can only use them for take-away refreshments.

Recently, when passing the shelter on Kensington Road, I noticed that there were a couple of menus attached to it. Next to them was a small blackboard on which the following was written in chalk:

“Till Rolls 3 for 2.50 Receipt pads 4 for 2£”

This is stationery for the exclusive use of taxicab drivers. I was pleased to see this because it means that although they are open to the public, they are still of special use to cabdrivers.

I have never sampled anything at a cabmen’s shelter, so have no idea of the quality provided. Years ago, when I was practising dentistry, one of my patients was a taxicab driver. He was a ‘foodie’ and  told me that he knew great quality, reasonably-priced eating places all over London. I cannot recall that amongst the many places he told me about that there were any cabmen’s shelters.

Piling it on along the canal

NEEDING BREAKFAST ON our way from Warwick to visit Baddesley Clinton House, we chose to stop at the Hatton Locks Café, which we had noticed on our road map. What we did not know is that the café is located next to the uppermost of a flight (or series) of 21 canal locks. The locks are situated on a stretch of the Grand Union Canal that was, when it opened in 1799, the Warwick and Birmingham Canal, which was built to carry locally mined coal for use in power stations and nearby factories (https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-history/history-features-and-articles/the-history-of-hatton-locks). It became an important transportation link between London and The Midlands.

 The 21 locks are spread along an almost 2 mile stretch of the canal and the towpath along this section of the waterway is popular with cyclists, walkers, and their dogs. Some of the locks are narrow. They were built when the canal was first constructed. Other locks on the flight are far wider. They were built in 1932 and allow two craft to use the lock simultaneously. The newer locks were built at a time when the canal system began to have to compete with motorised road and rail transport.

The café is about 310 yards northwest of a small car park and is reached by walking along the towpath. Near the café, there are some unusual looking tables and benches made of old timber. Most of the timber pieces are planks with a short semi-circular projection at one end. These wooden piles used to be driven into the floor of the canal between parallel wooden blocks that held them straight upright against the walls of the waterway. Their purpose was to prevent the banks of the canal from being eroded by the water flowing past them. Nowadays, they have been replaced by coir matting that serves the same purpose because it is considered to be more eco-friendly that timber. The wooden piles were driven into place by a mechanised hammer system aboard a motorised boat that plied along the canal. One of these boats, now disused, has been preserved near the café.

The locks on the Hatton Flight looked different from the many other canal locks we have seen on our travels around the country. Each lock is flanked by what looks like a pair of tall, stout candles. These things house the mechanisms that control the flow of water into the locks and are operated by canal users equipped with a special handle or windlass that fits onto a projection that is linked to the gearing that operates the valve.

The Hatton Locks Café is a real treat, both visually and gastronomically. Both inside and outside, it is decorated with a profusion of objects, some folkloric, some whimsical, and others related to the life and traditions on the canal. A team of friendly workers produce simple but excellently prepared English breakfast items as well as very acceptable coffees. So good was our breakfast that we made a detour to return to this place on the following morning. Most of the clientele seemed to be locals, many of whom were on friendly terms with the staff. Although we had only been once before on a busy morning, the staff remembered exactly what we ate and drank on the day before. When we are next nearby, we shall certainly visit this wonderful establishment again. On our next visit, we will join the other walkers and stroll past all the 21 locks.

Boy meets girl: dining in Bradford

BRADFORD IN YORKSHIRE is a vibrant multi-ethnic city. Many of its inhabitants have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. We found that many of these people with subcontinental ancestry regard themselves as neither Pakistani nor Indian, but Kashmiri.

International restaurant in Bradford

When we first visited Bradford a few years ago, we were itching to try the local restaurants serving what is generally called “Indian food”, regardless of whether it has been cooked by an Indian, or a Pakistani, or a Bangladeshi, or even a Kashmiri. As we drove from the station to our hotel in a taxi, we asked the driver, who was of Kashmiri descent, where he thought we would get good Indian food. He recommended ‘X’ in Bradford and ‘Y’ in nearby Shipley. A couple of other people, of whom we asked the same question, both recommended X. With three different recommendations for X, we decided to book it for that evening.

When I phoned the restaurant, a lady answered. I asked to book a table for two. Then, she asked:

“Is it two males or a male and a female?”

Puzzled, I replied:

“A male and a female.”

When we reached the restaurant, we were given a nice table. We had arrived at X with high expectations and good appetites. It was a pleasant restaurant with obliging staff. However, we were served one of the worst meals I have ever eaten in a restaurant serving Indian food. After this experience, we did not try another ‘Indian’ restaurant in Bradford.

During that unsatisfactory meal, the head waiter or manager came up to our table to ask if all was well. Politely, we replied that it was, but my Indian wife, who had seen ladies entering the restaurant but disappearing up a flight of stairs, remarked:

“I have noticed that apart from those little girls with their father, I am the only woman in this room. It does not bother me, but it is a bit strange.”

The head waiter looked perturbed and said:

“Sorry, so very sorry. You should not have been given a table in here. I was not aware of your arrival. Had I greeted you, I would not have seated you in here. It is reserved for men, and sometimes they can get rowdy. Can I move you to another table?”

We said that we were happy where we were. After the man left, we wondered how it was possible that men could get rowdy in a halal restaurant that clearly did not serve alcohol. At the end of the meal, we noticed that there was another section of the restaurant where men and women could dine together, a sort of ‘family room’. We also noticed that groups of women unaccompanied by men were directed to another part of the restaurant on the floor above. While the food at X was memorably poor, the experience was far from dull.

Recently, in September 2021, we revisited Bradford. There, we met our Polish host. Remembering our unfortunate experience at X, we thought it would be fun to try something different, a Polish restaurant perhaps. We asked Pavel if he could recommend one. To which he replied:

“There used to be a Polish restaurant here, but it’s closed. Anyway, I don’t like Polish food. You should eat curry here. Try the International. It’s just around the corner and gets good reviews on Tripadvisor.”

In view of our previous ‘Indian’ meal in Bradford, we entered the bustling International with some trepidation. When the food arrived, our fears evaporated rapidly. We were served some of the best ‘Indian’ food we have ever eaten in the UK. The portions were enormous, and we noticed that at every other table, diners were taking home the remains of their meals in packages. We also noticed that at almost every table, diners had ordered chips (French fries) with their ‘Indian’ dishes. The restaurant’s owner, the son of its founder who opened it 50 years ago, told us that in Bradford:

“These young people eat chips, pizzas, and burgers all the time; sometimes they don’t even eat curry.”

We asked him whether the International was an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant. He told us that it is the latter, but he and most of his staff are Kashmiri.

Tandoori king prawns at the International

We enjoyed the International so much that we returned there for dinner on the following day. Once again, we enjoyed first class food served in huge portions. Thinking of the tandoori king prawns and lamb chops makes my mouth water as I write this piece.

On both occasions, we sat at tables on the ground floor. On the second evening, our table was next to a staircase leading to an upper floor, which we were told was used for parties. Both waiters bearing trays loaded with dishes of food and also customers continuously dashed up and down the stairs. At one point in the evening, a group of heavily bearded Asian men dressed in loose fitting robes, Pathan suits or similar, began ascending the stairs. One of them looked down at us, an Asian and European dining together, and we saw him smile and then heard him say:

“Boy meets girl.”

Don’t be fooled by Jack the rip-off

I USED TO PARK our car in Kensington’s elegant Edwards Square when going to work at my dental surgery in West Kensington. From the square, either I walked to work, or I caught a number 28 bus. When I felt lazy, I used the bus. The nearest stop to Edwards Square is outside a row of three Iranian food shops and their neighbour, the Apadana Iranian restaurant, which is a pleasant place to enjoy Persian cuisine. While waiting for the bus, I used to stare idly at the Persian shops with their outdoor stalls where fruits, especially piles of pomegranates, are displayed.

Today, more than four years since I retired and even longer since I last stood at the bus stop, we visited the Iranian stores to buy a bunch of fresh tarragon. While my wife was making the purchase, once again I stared idly at the colourful shops, some of whose windows are filled with stacks of tins of Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea. It was then I noticed something I am sure I have never seen before.

What I saw was a newish circular blue commemorative plaque on the wall between one of the shops and Apadana. The plaque reads as follows:

“Kensington & Chelsea. JACK THE RIPPER 1891-1899. Also known as Dr SSA Hasbro. Surgeon & Restauranteur LIVED HERE”

At first sight, this looks like one of many commemorative circular blue plaques, which can be found all over London. On closer examination, there are several things that are worrying. Rarely, if at all, do these blue plaques in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea bear the words “Kensington & Chelsea”. Often, they bear the words “English Heritage” or “Greater London Council” (or one of its predecessors: GLC or LCC).  Another problem is the dates given. Do they refer to the period that Dr SSA Hasbro lived in this spot, or what? The next problem is that the true identity of Jack the Ripper has never been determined. As for Dr SSA Hasbro, all references to this name on Google direct one to the plaque under discussion, including an article by Lucy Elliott.

Ms Elliott wrote an article about blue plaques in “The Kensington Magazine” (September 2020 issue). With regard to the plaque for Dr SSA Hasbro above the Iranian establishments in High Street Kensington, she wrote:

“It is not known when this suddenly appeared but certainly gives visitors to the area, pause for thought (and quite enough consternation for the residents too). Definitely a fake.”

She is most probably right.

It is a little bit worrying is that the so-called Jack the Ripper, who is commemorated on this misleading sign, is said to have been a restauranteur and the plaque is almost directly above the Apadana restaurant.

Eating securely at Baltic Amber

HAVERHILL IS IN SUFFOLK, close to where this county’s border meets those of Cambridgeshire and Essex. It is not a place that is near the top of Suffolk’s list of attractions. It does not rival, for example, Lavenham, Bury St Edmunds, Long Melford, and Southwold, to name but a few. However, we chose to spend a couple of nights there. When exploring the town’s dining opportunities, one place caught my attention. It is a restaurant/bar named Baltic Amber.

On the establishment’s website (www.balticamberrestaurant.com/), there is a pair of sample menus. One is in English and the other in Lithuanian. The restaurant was established by a Lithuanian family in March 2020. Despite this, there are only a few Lithuanian dishes on the menu. When we visited, of the five Lithuanian dishes, one must be ordered a day in advance, and, sadly, another was unavailable.

On arrival at this modern place next door to a large Travelodge hotel, we were met at the entrance by two burly but extremely friendly uniformed security guards. One of them checked our names on a list which was attached to a clip board. We asked them if they were expecting trouble. They answered, half jokingly, that they were there to “… keep out the riff-raff to allow diners to enjoy their meals peacefully.” Then, we were led inside and met by a waitress, to whom the security guard said: “table 24”. We were greeted by the lady, who turned out to be Lithuanian and she showed us to our table. I practised the three words of Lithuanian, which I know, on her and later on the owner. Both seemed pleased with my efforts.  The interior is modern and almost Scandinavian in design. The chairs at the tables were comfortable. Outside the restaurant, there are tables and chairs as well as a couple of fire-pits around which diners can be seated and kept warm.

Lithuanian potato pancakes with soured cream

We sampled Mead Vilnius, and aromatic spirit, rather like the Czech Becherovka. We also tried a Lithuanian beer. We ordered one of the Lithuanian dishes to share as a starter. Made of grated potatoes, which were fried and served with thick soured cream, they had a great resemblance to the Jewish dish, ‘latkes’. We followed that with Beef Stroganoff and Duck in an orange sauce. Both were above average both in quality and quantity.

The restaurant was full. The other diners, probably locals, were all having a good time, as did we. The place has good service and a pleasantly lively atmosphere. I am glad that I ‘discovered’ this place and would happily go again.

Poetry and a Chinese supermarket

GERRARD STREET IS THE HEART of London’s Chinatown. We often visit it to eat delicious dim-sum and other dishes at our favourite restaurant, The Golden Dragon, which has both indoor and covered outdoor dining spaces. One of our favourite dishes, which was introduced to us many years ago by my sister, is steamed tripe with chilli and ginger. It might sound off-putting, but, believe me, it tastes wonderful. Our visits to Gerrard Street always include a visit to Loon Fung, a Chinese supermarket. This well-stocked establishment bears a commemorative plaque that I only noticed for the first time today (12th August 2021). Partially hidden by a string of Chinese lanterns, it informs the passerby that the poet John Dryden (1631-1700) lived on the spot where we purchase pak-choi, chilli sauce, black bean paste, and a host of other ingredients for preparing Chinese-style dishes at home. I suspect that Dryden was unlikely to have ever come across any of these exotic ingredients back in the 17th century.

According to the English Heritage website (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/…/blue…/john-dryden/):

“Dryden lived at 44 Gerrard Street with his wife Elizabeth (c. 1638–1714) from about 1687 until his death in 1700. His years there were difficult: his conversion to Catholicism in about 1685 meant that he was unable to take the oath of allegiance after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. As a result he lost his position as Poet Laureate, one he had held for 20 years. He found himself in financial difficulties but remained highly active in London’s literary world.Dryden usually worked in the front ground-floor room of the house, and it was here that he completed his last play, Love Triumphant (1694), the poem Alexander’s Feast, or, The Power of Musique (1697) and translations such as The Works of Virgil (1697). In the preface to the latter, Dryden likened himself to Virgil in his ‘Declining Years, struggling with Wants, oppress’d with Sickness’…

… Number 44 was built in about 1681 and re-fronted in 1793, before being redeveloped in about 1901. At the same time number 43 was demolished, a deed described in the press as ‘a hideous and wonton act of vandalism’ …

… The plaque, though damaged, was immediately re-erected on the new structure. It is unique among surviving Society of Arts plaques in its colour – white, with blue lettering.”

Well, I can add nothing to that informative quote. So, ext time you wander along Gerrard Street do look for this and other reminders of the area’s history. It was a place where several other well-known writers and artists resided several centuries ago.