Monday, August 22, 2011


I have written of my personally-recommended tour of London, and this has been welcomed by friends abroad. Now, with a day trip here from the continent so easy, and if booked early so reasonable, I have compiled a day tour for those in mainland Europe who live within easy reach of a Eurostar station. Here it is.

Arriving into St Pancras Station from the Eurostar platforms, turn right and then right again for the Piccadilly Line Underground. This you will find after almost leaving the station. Descend the escalator. Take the Westbound line.

Get off at Leicester Square Underground Station (7 minutes). Leave the station by Exit 2 that says to Leicester Square and Chinatown.

Turn left as you leave the station and pass by Newport Street to turn left into the alleyway called Newport Court. This leads to Newport Place (a square) which you leave at its top left corner to enter Gerrard Street beneath the Chinese arch. You are now in the heart of Chinatown.

Turn right into Macclesfield Street, passing de Hems Dutch pub, to cross Shaftesbury Avenue into Dean Street. You will come to Old Compton Street. Turn right and immediately on the left is Patisserie Valerie (25 minutes from Eurostar).

At Patisserie Valerie take coffee and relax to enjoy a mille feuille (custard-filled) or, for more substantial breakfast fare, eggs Benedict.

You are now in Soho.

Turn left as you leave the café, and then branch right into Moor Street (past rental bikes) to cross Cambridge Circus, bearing right into Charing Cross Road.

Pass Leicester Square Underground Station, from where you arrived, and Cranbourne Street (leading to Leicester Square and with the excellent wine bar, The Cork and Bottle, hidden away in a basement on the left).

Carry on down-hill to pass the National Portrait Gallery (free) to Trafalgar Square with St Martin’s in the Fields church on the left and the National Gallery on the right (free) (possibly to see the dog, about which I wrote recently in my blog). Nelson’s Column stands proudly in the middle of the square.

Turn left beside St Martin’s in the Fields church into Duncannon Street. Cross the Strand to the Charing Cross railway Station entrances, where you will turn left into the Strand and then almost immediately right into Villiers Street down-hill.

Walk down Villiers Street, passing Watergate Walk (through iron railings on the left), followed, also on the left, by imaginative Embankment Gardens, to pass through the Embankment Underground Station. Walk up the 42 steps to cross the Thames by pedestrian bridge toward the Festival Hall. This will give you a good view of London and the river. If not wanting to take a gondola trip around the “Eye”, this is a good point for return.

You will have seen the London Eye to the right. Walk to it.

To buy tickets enter a building, as directed, where you will have to queue (this took us 10 minutes in early August). In another 8 minutes you should be in a pod on your way aloft to see an overview of London. This trip around the wheel will take 32 minutes.

Now retrace your steps over the Thames to pass through Embankment Underground Station again and just a bit up Villiers Street, to turn right into Watergate Walk and down steps to enter Gordon’s Wine Bar through a hole in the wall. This is probably London’s oldest wine bar, with the house above it having been the abode at various times of Pepys, Kipling and Chesterton. Take a good look around the bar’s candle-lit subterranean interior before ordering cold dry sherry (from the bottle) (no beer) and some olives. This will be much needed refreshment, as you will have been on the go for some 2 ¾ hours.

Return to walk up Villiers Street, to cross the Strand again, then to take a quick left and right turn up Adelaide Street, with St Martin’s in the Fields church on your left.

Up the slope and almost directly in front of you is the rather small and insignificant Harp pub in Chandos Place. You are here for its English pub atmosphere, its English beer (Hophead recommended) and its splendid sausages in rolls. The information about the sausage fillings will be written up in chalk outside, and also inside on the wall to your right. Order your drink (it doesn’t have to be beer) and sausages. The latter will be brought to you. This is lunch. Try to find space on the ground floor where the action is, but there is more comfort in the duller part upstairs (near the Gents and Ladies).

Leaving the Harp doorway, turn left up Chandos Place toward Covent Garden, keeping to Chandos Place and then Maiden Lane, to pass Rules, London’s most English of restaurants. At the T- junction, turn left into Southampton Street with Covent Garden in front of you. Walk straight through, taking in the fun, the sights of humanity, the trinket stalls and street performers (having a break there if time permits). Continue into James Street to reach Covent Garden Underground Station.

From there take the eastern direction of the Piccadilly Line to King’s Cross/St Pancras – and Eurostar home.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Kingsford Smith and Co-Aviators

In the record books and from details taken from Kingsford Smith’s logbooks is the following:

1931 (24 September –16 December) Australia-England. First all-Australian airmail flight to England. Avro Ten trimotor Southern Star (VH - UMG). Co-pilot, Scotty Allen: engineer, Wyndham Hewitt. Time: 17 days. Route: Sydney – Brisbane – Cloncurry – Camooweal – Darwin – Kupang – Surabaya – Alur Setar – Bangkok – Rangoon – Calcutta – Gaya – Allahabad – Jhodpur – Karachi – Jask – Bushire – Bagdad – Aleppo – Athens – Rome – Lyon – Le Touquet (beach) – London.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, as he became, was a pioneer Australian aviator. He was the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean, and in both directions, crossed the Tasman Sea, and made the first successful westbound crossing of the Atlantic by air, mostly in a Fokker Trimotor (Avro built them under licence in England) that he called “my old bus”.
These were the days when aeroplanes were “stringbags”, flown by pilots and navigators “by the seat of their pants”. They were flimsy aircraft, unreliable, often dangerous, and with no navigational aids. It was also a time of opening up international air routes.
Kingsford Smith, surprisingly for a long-distance aviator, was terrified by the fear of the sea after a near drowning accident as a boy. He was also prone to panic attacks in the air and mysterious illnesses before epic flights – thought later to possibly be alcohol related.
He was a much loved international hero, especially so in Australia where crowds of 200,000 or more greeted him after his exploits in the air by hoisting him shoulder high in admiration and awe.
So who were those other two record-breaking aviators? “Scotty” Allen was also a famous Australian pilot, flying as reserve pilot with Kingsford Smith and Wyndham Hewitt (chief engineer) in the famous Avro trimotor Southern Cross - all, on one occasion, flying to Keepang, Timor, to collect air mail from England from the City of Cairo aircraft that had crashed there – a headline-breaking newspaper story of the time.
My own special interest in these early aviation days was that as a boy I was mad about aeroplanes and flying. In April 1932, at the age of 7, Kingsford Smith, a year after the aforementioned Australia-England record flight, was about to fly myself, brother and sister around London from the newly-opened Croydon Aerodrome in his ‘plane. Unfortunately the tail skid broke and a wooden replacement failed. So another pilot flew us around London in a Klemm Bat instead.
Why should Kingsford Smith volunteer to pilot us around London? It was because Wyndham Hewitt, the engineer on that epic flight was my uncle and friend of the great Australian aviator.
Wyndham, sent to South Africa after some misdemeanour or other, was next heard of in Australia. He was generally in trouble concerning women, cars and money, having kept a mistress in London in his schooldays (but those are other stories not for this blog). However, Wyn was a brilliant mechanic, completely at home with engines and their workings. So to Kingsford Smith he was invaluable when aircraft motors were unreliable and, in record-breaking exploits, under considerable stress for duration and ever-changing climatic conditions.
On the record occasion mentioned, The Southern Star and its three occupants landed at Croydon in record time with the Christmas mail from Australia, to be greeted by Sir Sefton Brancker (director of civil aviation), a congratulatory telegram from King George V, and jubilant crowds - aviation then being a new frontier to conquer and of enormous interest generally.
Although heralded as an all-Australian record trip, Wyndham Hewitt was English, which accounts for his name not featuring greatly, other than in the record books. Also not mentioned was that the aircraft had hit the top of a telegraph pole when landing in Darwin, nearly killing Kingsford Smith “and his engineer”.
Wyndham went on to found a successful engineering company and to race cars, dying in his 90s an unliked person, his several wives having been couture models and his cars the fastest models.
Kingsford Smith died, aged 38, crashing into the sea that he feared so much off Burma in 1935. He was attempting yet another England-Australia record.
I am proud to be in some remote way connected to so great an aviator as Kingsford Smith – even though he never did fly me around London from Croydon in 1932 or land in our field at Silchester where we had laid out sheets to indicate wind direction.
The truth is that Kingsford Smith was notoriously unreliable, and interested mainly in flying (of which he was a complete master), wenching and drink. However, he charmed everyone with his radiant personality and with his splendid songs accompanied by a ukulele.
Throughout his life he wanted to break records and, to make money, establish airlines. But, for the latter, other than using his name to good effect, the humdrum life as an executive and airline pilot bored him – so most were doomed to failure.
It was flying records he wanted and, appropriately I suppose, it was an attempted record that ended his life.