Nope. We are not on the Rue Saint-Dominique in the 7th arrondissement.
Look at this next pic carefully, there’s a clue to our where-abouts:
Right! We are on the quaint and old-worldy Hampstead High Street in London :
Hampstead High Street is the main drag of Hampstead Village, in the London Borough of Camden, and is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical, and literary residents (past and present), and for Hampstead Heath, a large hilly and comparatively wild expanse of parkland. Hampstead Village has more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of the United Kingdom. So we, of course, should feel right at home.
The main commercial road of Hampstead Village (Hampstead High Street) is unspeakably cute:
This (below) is a rare sight in much of inner London but, here in adorable Hampstead Village, these delightful totems of Britain’s glory days abound:
I know! That’s a real, red, old-fashioned, cultural icon pillar box [mail box] with a real, red, old-fashioned, cultural icon telephone box behind it, on the quaint and old-worldy Hampstead High Street!
This (below) a screen shot from Google of The Coffee Cup , which became our favorite place for breakfast on Hampstead High Street. On our last breakfast there, a little girl on skates rolled in and asked if Nicco, her favorite waiter, was working because she wanted hot chocolate without whipped cream the way he made it. She was about 8 years old and already had standards. I approve.
This (below) is Gail’s cafe, where we went once for breakfast on a local’s advice. It was OK, but it’s usually crowded and you have to wait and wait for a table because there are regulars who feel entitled to buy one cup of coffee and spend all morning at a table reading the paper. At Gail’s I sat next to a guy who turned out to be a lecturer of philosophy at Oxford who was very interested in talking about China with a young mother at the table next to his. I thought their conversation was insipid. I expect pith and insight from an Oxford don, not observations about what a big country China is and how difficult its language is for foreigners.
If you look at the pic (below), you’ll see that there’s a small white shop under that big tree. It’s called Mary’s Living & Giving Charity (thrift) Shop and it was on my To Do List because, hello: Hoity-toity Hampstead hand-me-downs! (Turns out, it was not all that.)
That little passageway is called Oriel Place; Oriel is also the name of the oldest royal college (established 1324) in Oxford. Get it? Like the guy with the really lame small talk at Gail’s?
As my literary hero, Bertie Wooster, would say re: such unexplainable confluences in life, “Wheels within wheels, Jeeves; wheels within wheels.”
Directly across from Gail’s on Hampstead High Street is a small black building:
That black building is Paul Bakery . And behind those windows that you see on the top floor is our Air BnB on Hampstead High Street:
There is nothing finer, I now believe, than living above a bakery in London.
The entrance to our Air BnB was around the corner from the bakery, on a little alley off the High Street called Flask Walk:
From our corner window we had a fine view of Gail’s and Hampstead High Street:
And yes, I did stand for hours and hours at that window, my camera at the ready, waiting for a London double-decker bus to pass so I could get the perfect souvenir shot. I love these great London double-decker buses so much that I am now going to take you on a ride with me as we sit in the upper deck, front row, for a hair-raising raise through the back streets of Hampstead village, starting with a London double-decker bus-shaped cut-out of the foliage on Hampstead Heath:
It takes nerves of steel to herd these monsters in and out of these narrow, 18th-century roads:
If you notice, the bus takes up the whole lane, so the motorists on the on-comping lane move over to give it a wide berth.
THAT NEVER HAPPENS ON LONG ISLAND.
The next few photos are stills from a movie that I played, over and over in my mind, called HOLY FREAKING SHIT! THAT BUS IS GOING TO SLAM INTO US HEAD ON!
Riding in the front row, upper deck, of a London double-decker bus gives you a renewed and keen interest in not dying. It also gives you some perspective on life, in general, which, as I am not an Oxford don (Philosophy Dept.), I am not going to get into because I have much more important things to enlighten you on, such as this awesome advert I spied from on high in a bus shelter:
I have had a long-standing interest in the British usage of cats in advertising. For example, this is a snapshot I took 40 years ago, in London, in 1976, with my crappy Kodak Instamatic :
Then I moseyed into the countryside and in Hastings I snapped this:
Can you believe that it ever used to cost 43 pence (65 American cents) for 20 cigs? Today’s going rate is £9.40 ($12.22 American). And as of 1993 there are no more Black Cat cigarettes on the market, which is a pity.
BUT WAIT! WHAT IS THIS THAT I HAVE COME UPON in my London double-decker bus??!!
So here I am, tootling through Camden, London, in 2016, and I come across this extraordinary Art Deco building that I recognize instantly! I can’t believe my luck!
This — if you can believe it — is an old cigarette factory in Mornington Crescent . . . this is the famed “Arcadia Works” where Black Cat cigarettes were manufactured from 1928 to 1959, when the cig-making business moved out of London to cheaper digs in Essex and the building was sold to become office space and re-named Greater London House. For years afterwards, it was just a drab office block, but in 1996 it was restored to its stunning Art Deco glory.
But wait! There’s more!
All along the facade of this wondrous building are rosettes containing the image of the Black Cat himself!
That’s the cat that used to be on every box (I think the Brits say “packet”) of Black Cat cigs!
This is from my 1976 scrapbook — no, I never smoked a Black Cat cig but yes, I saved a magazine ad for Black Cat cigarettes for my 1976 scrapbook because isn’t that the kind of ephemera YOU save from your travels???
So, back on the bus, I am so excited to be seeing this marvelous, amazing, heart-thumpingly-awesome cat that I turn to the kid sitting next to me in the front row, upper deck and I say “LOOK! It’s all cats!!”
He looks scared and says something in Spanish. “Gatos! Gatos!” I say, waving towards the window infant of us; but he seems to think that the only way to handle a crazy lady on a London bus is to look away and play deaf. HIS LOSS.
I was thrilled beyond words that the bus stopped at a red light because I was already running late for a dinner date and could not jump off to get a good look-see, and it was just about to rain anyway, so while the bus idled I could take my time and aerial view to take the whole building in, to grok it with all my heart. Especially these guys:
The building’s design was inspired by the pharaonic tombs (1330s BCE) at Amarna, on the Nile River in Upper Egypt. So, natch, dominating the entrance to the building are eight-feet-tall statues of the ancient (c. 2890 BCE) Egyptian cat-goddess of war, Bastet, from Lower Egypt — don’t look for stylistic continuity here; it’s just supposed to look very pharoh-y and I LOVE IT.
Not my pic — photo credit goes to J. Anna Ludlow, 2011. This shows you the beautiful detail of these cats.
Who knew (not me, I can assure you), that I would, one distant day in the next century, meet my beloved black cats from 1976 in a serendipitous happenstance from the upper deck, front row of a London double-decker bus in 2016?
Wheels within wheels, I say.
Wheels within wheels.
And that’s my philosophy of life.
Have a wheely fine weekend, my Wonder Ones, one and all.