Despite being badly out of shape (trying to walk the breadth of New York like I once did proved to me just how awfully out of shape I am) and sporting a growing blister on my left foot, I decided that yesterday evening would be good for exploring a bit of the Camden area. I took the Northern Line from King’s Cross to Chalk Farm intending to walk all the way back to the hotel.
Firstly, I really like the Tube. I think it’s efficient, the announcements are intelligible, I’m a big fan of the Oyster card, and there are little LED signs that tell you when the next train’s coming. (New York has implemented some of these in my absence, but I’m granting the benefit of the doubt to London having put them in first.)
I’m fascinated by how much smaller the tunnels are, and how they’re round. I know that must sound idiotic, but it’s a very distinctive look. I’m used to the much bigger subway trains, with their straight flat ceilings and their taller tunnels. The Underground trains are beveled on top to account for the circumference of the tunnel, and are shorter anyway. The cars feel a lot more close. I wouldn’t precisely say intimate, but it’s a more communal feeling.
This said, I’m not a fan of the cost. In comparison with New York, the Underground is astronomical. I bought a weekly unlimited Oyster card (the MTA killed the unlimited option a couple of years ago) for about £24, or loosely $50-ish. Back when they were still available, a weekly unlimited MetroCard cost maybe half that. I do understand, though, that NYC transit is strongly subsidized by both state and federal funds. Surprisingly, I’m also keenly aware at the lack of facilities for the handicapped. I only realized it because I didn’t want to haul my suitcase all over the damn place. I do understand that adding ramps and lifts to stations would be a logistical nightmare.
Coming down from Chalk Farm station, I ended up at the Stable Markets. I was not entirely aware of the sheer size of the place, and got pleasantly lost in all the tunnels and passages. I also found a nice Spaniard making hot chocolate, so I most certainly indulged. It was thick and sweet, and I had to drink it fairly quickly before it congealed in the winter cool. Speaking of Spaniards, I was surprised to hear so many continental Europeans in the crowd. Portuguese, Spanish, many French, and even a German or three. It’s a bit foolish to feel surprised, I guess, but living in the US and now Australia has colored my sense of distance.
One thing that struck me is the fashion in those market stores, and along Camden High Street. I’d always assumed my sense of style, what little there is, was a matter of what I liked and might fit. But if I had to lock myself into a label, I’d say Camden, after what I saw. I’d post photos, but most stalls and shops expressly forbade taking pictures. I regret that mostly because I found an old original travel bag from BOAC, the predecessor to British Airways.
I’m a history geek. I like the minutiae of every day life, the little stories it tells. The stables were interesting in and of themselves, and I wish I knew a bit more of their history. I suppose a quick trip to Wikipedia will sort that out, but I can do that once I’m home. In the meantime, I enjoyed the architecture itself, brick and stone and wood.
Another thing that struck me was the food midway. I wouldn’t call it a court, as the food stalls occupy a central thoroughfare, much like the heavy-hitter games did in early 20th century traveling carnivals. The metaphor still holds in the sense that most vendors had a patter, calling directly to passers-by. Again, a bit of a yokel observation, maybe, but it struck me how all of them said “madam” and not “ma’am.” Writing it down makes the reasons obvious, but at the time it did feel a bit strange.
By this time I was starving, and for the heck of it drifted close to two Mexican food stalls. Chatted with the Indian proprietors in Spanish, which was a lot of fun, but before I had a quesadilla I spotted a fish and chips place up a little ways. Hell, I can make Mexican food whenever I want it. Fish and chips? Other matter entirely.
It’s called Seawise Camden [30 January 2012 editorial note: for some reason, the original Google Place page has vanished; I’ve changed the link to Seawise’s own page, which wasn’t up when I originally wrote the post; my glowing review still stands], and if you ever end up in the Stables Market, I suggest you go here straight away. It’s very near Proud Camden. I can give you the shop number, but I fould them useless for navigating. James, the owner, explained he’d been open only four weeks, and that Friday night had been the slowest he’d seen. Other vendors who’d been there longer confirmed it. He figured it was a combination of post-Christmas/New Year’s lull and people waiting until the summer to come to London, for the Olympics.
James’ father owns two seafood shops, and the freshness of the fish was evident. I asked for traditional fish and chips, though the cold and hot menus are extensive, and was rewarded with the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. He cooked it to order; nothing was sitting around, stewing in its own oil. The breading was perfect, hard-crisp on the outside, just a little soft and even a bit airy on the inside, and the fish flaked with ease. To top it off, I had an English oyster, just to try since I was stuffed, and it was wonderful. Briny, with that faint metallic taste you find in fresh oysters, bright and clean. A nice big one, too! I washed it all down with a Bulmer’s cider knowing I wouldn’t have to eat until well into the next morning.
From there I wandered down Chalk Farm Road, then Camden High Street, until my foot blister finally declared war. I caught the Tube at Mornington Crescent, managed to get myself onto the Bank branch at Euston, and returned to the hotel for a well-deserved rest just off King’s Cross station.
Today is set for the Tower of London, and if I do things right, tomorrow’s a day trip to Stonehenge, Bath, and Windsor.