st albans cathedral

St Albans Cathedral
Continuing the theme of Roman and Saxon England, here is the impressive Cathedral at St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, just outside London. St. Albans is a lovely little city (and despite its size it is a city, not a mere town – it has a cathedral, so it’s a city), which despite being pretty close by to where I grew up in Burnt Oak, north London, I have only been to twice, this being the second time. I came to see the amazing cathedral once again. Now once upon a time St.Albans was a Roman city called Verulamum, and it was in this city that a man called Alban was executed in the late third or early 4th century by those Romans who at the time were persecuting Christians. Alban’s head was cut off, and he subsequently became Britain’s first Christian martyr. “A what?” they all said at the time. Apparently when Alban’s head was chopped off the executioner’s eyes fell out, which seems a little far-fetched to me. I’m very cynical as you know. It is believed that the cathedral (formerly abbey) stands on the spot where St. Alban was beheaded, being established as a monastery by the Mercian King Offa (he of the Dyke) in the 8th century. He’s one of my favourite Anglo-Saxon kings, a contemporary of Charlemagne, and a very persuasive man; as they said at the time he was “an Offa you can’t refuse”.

After exploring inside, we sat out in the sunshine, and my family patiently waited while I sketched. It’s not every day I get to sketch cathedrals, especially ones like this.

all hallows by the tower

London’s skyline changes every time I come back. The City now has at least two skyscrapers that were not there last year, dwarfing other prominent 21st century additions like the Gherkin. It is an ever-changing city and it always has been. Above is one building that, while subject to many modifications and rebuildings over the centuries, has pretty much the entire span of London history within its foundations. All-Hallows-By-The-Tower, a small and often overlooked church which sits right next to the Tower of London (which is rather handy given its name), is said to be the oldest church in London, founded in 675, though its main building and spire date from the 1650s (though greatly rebuilt after it was damaged in the Blitz). After drawing it, with one of London’s newest towers being constructed in the background, I popped inside for a look around, to learn a bit more about its history. There is an actual Saxon-era arch still standing, and if you go below to the crypt museum you can see some original Roman tiled paving – this church was built on the site of an building from the days of Londinium. On my tours years ago I used to tell Americans the two things I knew about the place: William Penn was baptised here, Pennsylvania fans, and John Quincy Adams was married here, you know, President number 6 (I never needed to go into too much historical detail as the open-top bus would be swinging past it too quickly, this being the home stretch). It was nice to finally come and spend some time looking at it and learning about it.
Tower of London

I also sketched a bit of the Tower of London itself. You want some history, here’s some history. This is the White Tower, the oldest part of the Tower, built by William the Conqueror. I don’t need to tell you the history of the Tower. Once on my old tour though I was telling people about the Tower, when one guy with a nasal midwest accent piped in, “hey, that’s not a tower.” Er, yes, it’s the Tower of London. “But it’s not a tower!” he insisted. Perhaps when I told him about the Tower he had been expecting Barad-dur or something, but I pointed out that yes, it is a tower,  though your personal definition of the word tower may be based on a modern idea rather narrower than the name of a building that has been around for 900 years. However to appease him I announced to the tour bus that had now arrived at the stop for the “Normano-Plantagenet-Tudor compound of castle, palace, tower, prison, moat and ramparts of London”. Nobody got off, so I assured them, “Here we are at the Tower of London! Have fun, and remember the Crown Jewels aren’t all crowns and they aren’t all jewels!”

i wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep

Trafalgar Square

I have to admit, London tired me out a lot this time. I think it was the heat – though naturally cooler than Davis, London actually had a heatwave, which when you add it to the fact that air-conditioning is a very rare commodity (Oxford Street’s shops were no places to cool off) and the overcrowded packed tube was a hellish place to be in hot weather, makes for a very stuffy city. I am not used to crowds and big masses of people any more, so I sought to see my home city in its quieter moments. Even a city that never sleeps dozes off from time to time. On one particular Tuesday, I got up and took the tube at the determinedly pre-rush hour of 5:45am and headed into central London to sketch in the early morning light. I love wandering around a city as it is waking up (preferably having recently woken up myself, rather than stayed up all night, as my much-younger self may have once done). London is no different, although in Leicester Square I did witness the remnants of some people’s night-before, a drunken testosterone match of pitiable proportions that made the street sweepers stop and raise their eyebrows and shake their heads. I’ve never liked Leicester Square. Trafalgar Square on the other hand… I’ve seen a fair few incidents of silliness there among the late-night throngs waiting for their night-buses in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, but when everyone is gone and before the city of the daytime re-emerges, this is an excellent place to stop and really absorb an epic sight. I’ll forever be grateful to London for pedestrianizing that awful north side of the square, the former rat-run outside the National Gallery, turning Trafalgar Square from a pigeon-infested overgrown traffic island to a pleasant place to sit and just watch the world, and this really is the world. The very centre of London, from which point all measurements from London are taken, is just on the other side of the square, at the statue of Charles I.  I sketched the view from the northern side in the early morning light, with Horatio Nelson on his high perch looking down Whitehall to the clock tower of Parliament, home of Big Ben. Summer morning light is like a golden custard pouring across the city, and those shadows move pretty fast when that sun rises.

Here are a couple of photos from the process – see what I mean about those shadows!
Sketching London in the early morningSketching London in the early morning

The morning moved along, some early commuters passed by the Square, the odd rise-and-shine tourist was out taking photos and waiting for the tour buses to start; when I used to tour-guide on those buses years ago I loved the early shift, with all the fresh faced tourists seeing the face of London that most Londoners miss. I sketched some of the buildings on the south side of the Square, whose rooftops I have long wanted to draw. That statue is of Sir Charles Napier, I believe, an old imperial commander, who has an impressive nose and sideburns that Wolverine would be jealous of.

Traf Sq south side sm
sketching trafalgar square

London can be incredibly annoying sometimes, expensive, grumpy, sweaty, time-consuming; but in these moments you get to see it at peace, waking up with a smile, in a good mood.

Also posted on Urban Sketchers London – if you haven’t done so, please check out their site!

tale of two towers

Big Scully's Tower Bridge

More form the first Saturday back in London… We all took the tube down from Burnt Oak (or rather, the Northern Line rail replacement bus, which for some unspecified reason took us to Finchley Road on the Jubilee Line – it appeared that the driver got rather lost) and went down to London Bridge, to visit the great Borough Market. My main reason was to get one of those really yummy grilled-chicken sandwiches that I had last year. I had been drooling over those for the past twelve months. After we sat and ate them in the gardens of Southwark Cathedral and listened to a little choir singing about how the tory government are destroying the NHS (I joined in the song, of course), we walked down towards Tower Bridge. There was a little event going on in the gardens beside City Hall, so I got a beer and we all sat down in the shade, where I quickly sketched Tower Bridge. My five-year-old son joined me for some father-son urban sketching, and he did his own version! He hasn’t done such observational sketching before so I was well impressed. He was very specific about getting the City of London flag right, that’s my boy.

Little Scully's Tower Bridge

I love being by the Thames. I have said it many times before, but I’m happiest by the river.

go back to chancery lane

Newsagent Chancery Lane
And so back to the London sketches. This was from the first proper day back, and I had just met a few London urban sketchers at the end of their meet-up in Leather Lane. On the walk back to the tube station I remembered this little newsagents on Chancery Lane. For some reason, I want to draw very British things like newsagents. It might sound funny, but we just don’t get many over here, unlike in London where they are everywhere. This one I used to go to a lot for snacks when I used to study every day at the Maughan Library, just down the street. Chancery Lane is pretty quiet on a Saturday, so I sketched peacefully before journeying back on the tube. Here’s one for you: spot the fire hydrant!

up above the streets and houses

Whenever an urban sketcher flies he or she is compelled to sketch the plane. You’re sat there for hours inside this huge metal perspective trick, usually with little else to occupy your mind than movies you don’t really want to see. Our flight to London was mostly ‘night-time’ (lights out for sleeping, though daytime outside), but I did get the sketch in, while my son coloured in a superhero colouring book that I drew for him. This year, trans-Atlantic flights are a LOT more expensive than they’ve been since I moved out here, so we flew Virgin Atlantic, who are slightly more expensive than United, but are about a million miles more worth it. The flight itself was smooth and pleasant, the cabin crew helpful and amiable, and the entertainment system, as always with Virgin, was top quality, though I didn’t watch anything myself other than an Alan Partridge special. The food was very tasty, and plentiful. It was cramped of course, as all these flights are (I love how at the end they make you walk through first class, to show you what you could have enjoyed if you had just been a little richer). As you land, the Virgin crew come around and give you sweets, and not just any sweets, but Love Hearts. Virgin is the best.

Compare that to our United experience in 2012. Ouch. I vowed never to fly United again – rude, uncomfortable, poor entertainment (tiny screens, terrible movies), lack of food (by which I mean they ran out of everything except beef, which I cannot eat), rude (by which I mean the cabin staff slammed the beef dish onto my tray and told me I had to have it, and had no right to complain – all I had said was “no chicken or vegetarian?”), the plane felt like it was falling apart, rude, the obnoxious smell of the toilets wafting through the cabin and – most of all – rude. I don’t like flying at the best of times, but Grrr, United. I don’t want no beef. I put their rudeness down to the fact that City had just pipped them to the League. At least it got my drawing energy fired up, as you can see from last year’s sketches.

United SFO-LHR
United LHR-SFO

In a review of transatlantic airlines, here is all you need to know: United give you beef, Virgin give you Love Hearts.

all-stars on the fourth of july

2013 little league t-ball all-star game

I just got back from my son’s little league t-ball All-Star Game. It’s the second time he has taken part, and it was a very hot July 4th Independence Day morning. Very humid too, unusual for Davis. We are in the middle of a really strong heatwave out here in the Western US, and we’ve had temperatures of between 100-111 (or more, some reported) for the past week. That scuppered some of the afternoon practice sessions, but the all-star game itself, made up of kids from various different teams, was early enough not to be in the scorching heat. I felt sorry for some of the older kids. Afterwards we went over for the pancake breakfast.

Happy 4th of July!

sketching at the little league