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English Lit

My first toy was a dictionary, so it only made sense for me to pay a visit to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s home-turned-museum in London. Dr. Johnson, publisher of the first printed English dictionary, was born into his fate, as I learned on the candlelit tour, since he has been born in a bookstore. Wordies, linguists, and English teachers will all be mused, and inspired, by the quips and quotes from Dr. Johnson, all on display throughout the house. Pictures of important friends and family hang beside replicas of the first English dictionary, while the museum staff enthusiastically shares intimate details of Dr. Johnson’s life.

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As the tour continued, I learned about Elizabeth Carter, a pioneering woman who studied the Classics back when women weren’t exposed to such scandalous texts. Lauded by Dr. Johnson as a good cook, and even better conversationalist, Elizabeth Carter helped him edit texts, while also expanding his social circles. The other memorable highlight was the story of Francis Barber, Dr. Johnson’s manservant and friend, who eventually became Dr. Johnson’s heir. As a man who loved a debate, Dr. Johnson strongly opposed slavery and bequeathed much of his small estate to someone who came into Dr. Johnson’s life shortly after his wife had passed.

Listening to our guide reveal more details of Dr. Johnson’s remarkable life, I was inspired by this man who seemed to be a pioneer in his own right. Flipping through his detailed dictionary, I thought about the enjoyment I used to get from mine, coercing childhood friends to play word games, after which they eventually tired, saying it reminded them of school.

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I certainly didn’t think I’d be eating tacos in London. But lucky for my strong sense of smell, I was led along the cobbled streets of Soho by the trace of hickory smoke to an underground haven called Temper. Unbeknownst to those walking by, it has a modest front, and you’d never know that this culinary gem lies below. Looking around, trying to figure out where the luscious smell was coming from, I saw blocks of firewood through the glass, my first clue that I had found the source.

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Do not come to Temper if you are a vegetarian or vegan. The sight of lamb shanks, beef loins, and a pig’s head roasting over crackling fires might deter you. It only lured me in further. I took a seat at the bar-the perfect spot to watch the Temper team make fresh tortillas, prepare cuts of meat, and toss eggplant onto the coals. When my plate finally came, it was hard to decide where to start. The fresh burrata drizzled with lime and jalapeno oil, or the soft cuts of pork gently set atop fire-grilled tortillas? Life should always be filled with such decisions! With portions small enough to sample a few options, I began my fireside feast.

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In the era of smartphones, it seems as though there’s a social media channel to suit everyone’s fancy. I love Instagram, so it was only natural that I pay a visit to Saatchi Gallery, “the world’s number one museum on social media” as they say on their site. And rightly so. With tastefully, yet provocatively, curated exhibits, Saatchi Gallery is a must-see while you’re in London – whether or not you have a smartphone.

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I planned to see the opening of Saatchi Gallery’s SALON featuring Tsuyoshi Maekawa’s paintings, and was pleasantly surprised. A longtime fan of Maekawa’s work, I learned a bit more about his art and the Gutai Art Association, Japan’s post-war avant-garde art collective. The word gutai means “concrete”, and was an intentional choice by the collective’s founder “to express the idea that art constitutes the embodied, material manifestation of human spiritual freedom.”

Walking among the rest of Maekawa’s work, and Saatchi Gallery, I thought about my own spiritual path, what “freedom” really means, and the profound and distinct impact that art has on all of us.

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Leaving Saatchi Gallery, I enjoyed an uncharacteristically sunny day in London and walked up to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Friends who recommended I visit warned me that the museum was large, but I had no idea what to expect upon arriving. Holding over 2.3 million objects, I figured I should tackle only two exhibits and save the rest for my next trip to London.

A photography enthusiast, I caught the last days of The Camera Exposed, a small exhibit that featured black and white photography, with each photograph capturing the camera, either in the hands of the photographer, or angled to attempt antiquated selfies. Studying each image, some dating as far back as the 1850s, I was reminded of my days in the dark room back in college.

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My last stop at this immense place was the Lockwood Kipling exhibit. Up until early April, this exhibit details some British history, not only of the V&A Museum and its beginnings as the South Kensington Museum, but Kipling’s contributions to the arts and crafts in the Punjab region of British India.

An illustrator, designer, curator, and teacher, Kipling, along his wife Alice, made much of his life, and artistic contributions, in India. Intricate watercolors from artisans in Calcutta are displayed next to Kipling’s earthenware plates that depict these artisans, each piece telling a different story. As I stepped out of the exhibit in the expansive halls filled with art from around the world, I thought of the quote hung on the wall at Dr. Johnson’s home, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. I definitely wasn’t tired – just on to the next part of my journey.

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Bespoke London

It was in 2014 that I had the pleasure of meeting bespoke tailor Joshua Kane. I had seen a larger than life image of him skateboarding at an exhibit hosted by the Somerset House, eventually making my way to his showroom to purchase one of his signature necklaces called “The Shear”. Since then, I’ve followed the daring designer’s career, as he moved from his old showroom to the new Fitzrovia location, launched a women’s line of bespoke suits, and most recently, breaking records at London’s Fashion Week with his well-attended show “Journey” at the iconic London Palladium.

Joshua Kane’s journey weaves design schooling at Kingston University, where he graduated with Honours, formal fashion experience at varied design houses like Burberry, Jaeger, and Paul Smith, and an entrepreneurial spirit that had him designing bespoke suits out of his small flat not long ago. Fully enveloping the motto, “Blood, Sweat, and Shears”, Joshua’s path is his ethos. His undying passion is evident as he shares what “bespoke” means to him. “Bespoke comes from Latin, ‘to speak for’, and that’s what we’re doing here. Each conversation, as well as each product, needs to be personal to our clients.”

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As with all serendipitous journeys, Joshua’s recent Autumn/Winter show broke fashion week records, showcasing a joint men’s and women’s collection. The show entranced the audience with an opening fit for the opera house. As a pair of ballet dancers twirled and swayed across the stage, a string quartet playing Adagio for Strings enveloped the crowd. Drawn in by the duo’s symphonic energy, Joshua’s show began and his perfectly tailored looks were shown to all. It was a show like no other. It wasn’t just a catwalk of the latest fashions; it was an absolute sensory journey.bespoke7
His bespoke fittings follow suit. “After the client walks away from showroom, I want them to love it because of the experience they’ve had”, the designer imparted. As we moved through his showroom, I asked Joshua what inspires him. “Skateboarding, because when you think about it, the movement, it’s quite like a dance, really.” Just like the dance that closed the show at Fashion Week – inspiring to all of us who sat there in awe.

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One of my favorite things about traveling is partaking in local customs and learning a bit about the culture in the process. The art of afternoon tea is definitely one of those British customs you’ll have to enjoy while in London. But don’t settle for just any tea service. The high tea at The Berkeley is high fashion and a nod to tailor-made design.
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The Berkeley’s “Prêt-a-Portea” experience changes seasons, just like the fashions on the runway. Executive Pastry Chef Mourad Khiat draws upon the latest season’s designs to inspire his menu of bakes and biscuits. Baking expertise runs in Khiat’s family, where he learned this difficult art from his father, also a pastry chef. Eventually honing his skills at culinary school and abroad, Chef Khiat finally brought his eye for delicious and delicate detail to The Berkeley.

Having just celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2016, The Berkeley compiled a cookbook featuring Khiat’s signature recipes. The perfect souvenir for any baker, confectioner, or aspiring pastry chef, this recipe book is filled with encouraging quotes from Khiat, “Showcase your icing and styling skills with this chocolate butterfly fascinator”, exquisite photos, and of course, templates for you to attempt these beauties at home.

Browsing through the book, I sampled on sumptuous tea sandwiches, a bite size spinach and feta muffin, and my favorite – scorched tuna in a horseradish beurre blanc. Absolutely mouthwatering! Sitting in a room flooded with natural light, I perused the selection of teas that would accompany my sweets still yet to come.
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Before heading to London, I came across the beautiful and beguiling Instagram of Luna Mae London. Luckily, I secured an appointment with founder and bespoke lingerie designer Claudia Lambeth, given that her calendar was full with Valentine’s Day and Fashion Week related deadlines. Claudia’s infectious energy was a pleasant surprise as I arrived at her showroom. Eager to share the story behind her exclusive brand, Claudia welcomed me to her Mayfair location, where she conducts private bespoke fittings.

While catching up on all things underpinnings, Claudia shared a bit of her design philosophy. “At Luna Mae London, ‘Bespoke’ means two things. Firstly, we pride ourselves on the fact that each Bespoke piece is made to measure and handcrafted in Britain, supporting British craftsmanship. Secondly, alongside the beautifully made bespoke garments we create a truly bespoke customer service, whereby a client is guided through each step of the bespoke process and their unique needs and desires are catered to.”

It’s evident from first touch that her pieces are not only unique, but crafted from the highest quality material. Her silk, a triple A grade satin silk, is sourced from Como, Italy, while the Italian macramé embroidering and beaded detailing is exclusively designed for Luna Mae London. No detail is left to chance: solid eighteen carat gold fittings are individually hand-cast in London’s Hatton Garden and beautiful monogramming is applied to each bespoke piece. As she showed me some of her bespoke lingerie, which has over 40 structured pieces, as compared to the average 5 that a mass-produced bra entails, Claudia talked about her artistic muses. “Alexander McQueen is a major inspiration to me. I am also greatly inspired by beautiful photography. In particular, I admire the work of Helmut Newton and Sam Haskins.”

Both being women who travel quite a bit, we compared notes on what’s always in our carry-on. Whether it’s to visit international clients or to promote the Luna Mae London brand, Claudia always takes her Luna Mae London loungewear: a silk slip, kimono, and eye mask. “The eye mask in particular is a lovely essential that I always use on the flight,” she added as I mentioned my nagging jet lag. As I wrapped up my appointment, Claudia and I talked about changing trends in lingerie, some of our favorite hosiery brands, and what else to see in London.
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Leaving the Luna Mae studio, I made my way to the pop-up shop for Fine Cell Work. This London-based organization offers rehabilitation programs to prisoners, who are trained in the art of fine needlepoint and embroidery. Marveling at the elaborate designs, I learned a bit about the organization’s origins from Dr. Katy Emck, Fine Cell Work’s Founding Director. “Our founder, Lady Anne Tree, the daughter of the former owner of Colefax & Fowler, Nancy Lancaster, was a regular visitor to HMP Holloway women’s prison in the 1960s, and our first needlework commissions were sewn for the Colefaxes in the 1970s, by life-serving prisoners at that prison. These were two large intricate needlepoint carpets, drawn up by the Royal School of Needlework and sold for £10,000 apiece.”

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Surrounded by everything from lavender sachets, decorative pillows, and holiday ornaments, Dr. Emck continued with the founder’s story. “Early on, Lady Anne had the idea that prisoners would make beautiful things at the highest level they could be truly proud of, and have the chance to earn and save a nest egg for their release, so they could escape the cycle of poverty and crime.” As with most worthwhile ventures, there was a bit of a challenge to this model since prisoners weren’t legally able to be paid for work which they were completing in their cells. But Lady Anne persisted, lobbied, and eventually the law changed, and in 1995 Fine Cell Work was officially registered as a charity.

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As I walked through the shop, at Pimlico Road until early July, I thought about the fine tailoring of Joshua’s bespoke suits, Claudia’s intricate stitching on her bespoke lingerie, and was grateful that this organization gave citizens a chance to contribute their own handmadbespoke-londone pieces of art. When I asked Dr. Emck how she defined “bespoke”, her response seemed to embody what is truly special about commissioned pieces. “Hand stitching is inherently unique, as each item differs from the other slightly depending on the stitcher. Many, often hundreds, of hours of work have gone into the pieces. The pleasure of understanding the provenance of the piece, as well the joy of knowing it was made especially for you, and only one exists in time, is endless.”

Purchasing a few souvenirs for friends and family back home, I looked at the special designs and bespoke pieces on the shelves. Thinking about this calming past-time, I wondered how many of the prisoners transferred this skill to life outside. Dr. Emck enlightened me, sharing some of the success stories and recent commissions by the V&A Museum, Kensington Palace, and Kew Gardens. “The sense of pride in hand-crafting a stunning piece of work, which you then get paid for and that somebody wants to buy and put in their home is a significant achievement for our stitchers. It gives them work skills and it gives them experience of success. It also enables them to be part of a community that is not about crime.”

Upon parting, Dr. Emck and I traded stories of our experiences on boards for non-profits, the value of helping those in your local community, and the trend in pop-up shops. Grateful for such a meaningful visit, I wandered up the street, feeling lucky for the freedom to experience the multi-faceted city that is London.

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A Belmond Journey

While you’re in London, the last question you’ll ask yourself is “why leave?”. With iconic music landmarks, bespoke fashion, and provocative museums at every turn, it’s no wonder that this metropolis is one of the most visited cities in the world.

But an excursion that you absolutely must put on your itinerary is a luxury train journey with the Belmond British Pullman. These train cars have many a tale to tell, having hosted notable guests like Sophia Loren, President and Madame Vincent Auriol of France, and Sir Laurence Olivier. Rich in history, these cars were used in some of the famous rail services of Britain including the Brighton Belle and the Queen of Scots. The British Pullmans, all of which have been refurbished and restored to lavish, yet comfortable grandeur, are named after American George Mortimer Pullman, who designed these trains to be “palaces on wheels”.

And it definitely felt like a palace from the moment I first stepped foot on the train. Greeted by friendly staff eager to help me settle in to my plush chair, I sipped on my peach bellini while taking in the art nouveau decor and delicate vintage details. Waiting for other guests to board, I read up on these luxury rail cars like the Minerva, Audrey, and my car Perseus, which was Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train car in 1965.

 

Before long, our journey started as we pulled away from Victoria Station and headed towards the English countryside. While enjoying the most sumptuous brunch of Scottish smoked salmon, caviar, and a warm buttered crumpet, all served on the British Pullman’s signature china, I quickly became friends with the travelers across the aisle. Well-versed in the British legal system, my neighbors shared some of the nuances of their system and recommended I visit the Royal Courts of Justice when back in London. What I loved most about our conversation was the personal, cross-cultural exchanges that can only happen while you’re traveling. We discussed the differences between the British and American systems, the U.S. constitution and its cultural grip on gun laws, and what it means to rehabilitate a citizen in the justice system.

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Looking out the window, I drifted off into a pleasant state of daydream as our journey wove through farmlands edging out of a winter frost. Grazing sheep and fields of pheasants dotted green pastures, while the gray clouds broke up as the sun beckoned. It was already turning out to be a beautiful day.

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As we arrived in Bath, our destination for the day’s journey, we were guided through the ancient town on a short bus tour that showed us the highlights. Our guide pointed out Jane Austen’s old haunts, the distinctive architecture of the city, and where to wander at our leisure, all while slipping in some interesting anecdotes.

 

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Exiting the bus, our guide whisked us past the long weekend lines to visit the Roman Baths. Once inside, it was like a flashback to my AP Latin courses from high school. Statues of Roman politicians like Julius Caesar and Vespasian lined the open terrace that overlooked these historic waters. As I sat under a blue sky with these statuesque stone figures above, I reminisced on my school days as president of the Latin Club, where we attended annual conventions that held everything from chariot races to spelling bees, all eventually ending in a nightly toga party.

Making my way up to the exit, I passed my self-assigned patron goddess Minerva, and marveled at the interior baths and stone architecture of this ancient site. With a few hours to roam the city of Bath at my leisure, I headed up towards the hill that led to Royal Victoria Park.

The best part of this Belmond journey is that there is something for everyone in Bath. You can meander through antique stores, catch a rugby match at a local pub, or if the weather is nice, sit outside in one of the parks and observe the greenery lined with intricate cathedrals, buildings, and monuments.belmond4

Always a purveyor of art galleries and museums, I wandered up Broad Street towards the Fashion Museum. Along the way I found Magalleria, a little shop that merged two of my favorite things: art and magazines. Named one of Bath’s best shops in 2016, Magalleria specializes in curating rare, provocative, and artistically designed publications. If you’re in need of a gift or a souvenir, browse their “gallery”. You’re sure to find something that is a smart alternative to a coffee-table book, and won’t weigh a ton in your luggage. After talking with Susan, Magalleria’s owner about the changing landscape in print publications and how artistic magazines are making a comeback, I made a mental note to connect her with a few publishing contacts back home.

Passing quite a few enticing bars and cafes, I was grateful that I didn’t have to worry about choosing a place to eat, as I would be treated to a delicious dinner on the British Pullman after departing Bath. All the more time to wander these quaint streets!

My final stop in Bath was to the Fashion Museum, which seemed fitting as it was Fashion Week back in London. I started with the newly opened exhibit, Lace in Fashion, that displayed intricate designs, dresses, and decor dating from the 1500s. Walking past gowns by Balmain, Dior, and a beaded dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor during her controversial trip behind the “Iron Curtain” to Moscow, I thought about my recent visit to the Luna Mae showroom, where dreams of bespoke lace lingerie come to life. Seeing this craftsmanship behind glass gave me a new appreciation for this elegant material.

As the British Pullman rolled out of the station, I thought about the Romans’ contributions to transportation, the developments since that era, and how much we depend on these various modes today. Watching the sun set, I savored each bite of the most delicious cauliflower soup, a perfect starter to the freshly made seasonal menu served for this trip’s dinner.train

Over a few more courses which included a delectable daube of beef, dauphinoise potatoes, and a cheese plate sampling regional cheeses from the British Isles, I caught up with my neighbors about what they saw on their afternoon in Bath. As it turns out, we all carved different paths throughout the town, each of us highlighting a favorite experience.

Winding our way back to London, I was already thinking about when I could travel on another Belmond journey. Luckily there are many options to choose from! The newly launched Belmond Grand Hibernian, Ireland’s first luxury touring train, glides through rugged countryside, winding along the striking scenery of Ireland’s northern coast. Or choose the highly anticipated Andean Explorer, South America’s first luxury sleeper service, where you can see the spellbinding curves and natural crevices of Peru.

Regardless of your destination with the Belmond Trains, one thing is for certain – you’ll definitely have the trip of a lifetime. My journey on the luxurious British Pullman is something I hope everyone can experience on their trip to England. The superior service and world-class gastronomic fare provided by the British Pullman team, the intimate and daring conversations with your travel companions, and of course, the postcard scenery along the way all add up to create a unique journey for each of us. And really, that’s what travel is all about – the journey.

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abbey-road

London Calling

I knew my money was well spent on the London Rock Walk tour when our British guide made the controversial statement about how rock ‘n’ roll started in the U.S. Before leaving our meeting spot near Tottenham Station, our guide, Richard, proceeded to tell us the story of Vince Taylor and the Playboys, his move to California, his move back to London, all while weaving in stories of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, and other rock ‘n’ roll forefathers. Richard, who I imagined could probably weave a good ghost story around the campfire, kept us on the edge of our seats while we wandered through London’s musical landmarks to his soundtrack of storybook snippets about the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, Elton John, The Who, and other musical greats.

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Guitar shop along Tin Pan Alley

Passing through Tin Pan Alley, our group eagerly listened as Richard deftly told how the war, the end of compulsory military service, and school regulations had shaped music history and the bands that had come out of Britain during that era. Circling back to his opening character, Vince Taylor, Richard told the tragic tale of Taylor’s demise into drugs and alcohol, and his relationship with David Bowie. By far it was my favorite anecdote, probably because the main character shares my father’s name, but also because I was nearly in tears as Richard shared how their friendship inspired the famous song “Ziggy Stardust”.

Not wanting the tour to end, our group wrapped up with a lively question and answer session at Carnaby Street. At nearby Camellia’s Tea House, a few of us enjoyed that English tradition of afternoon tea and compared notes on all that we had heard on the Rock Walk tour. Sipping on a pot of handmade “Dancing Rose and Violet” tea, I enjoyed buttery scones, with a medley of clotted cream, lemon curd, and the most perfectly sweet raspberry jam.

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Head this way to the rock ‘n’ roll landmark

After wandering through the shops on Carnaby Street, I took the tube over to Camden. Coming up to the street, I was met with rows of stores selling rock-inspired clothes, pins, signs, and vintage wares. Not knowing which direction to go, I wandered towards The Regent’s Park and dipped into No Hit Records. Searching for a portable souvenir for my brother, I spent some time flipping through their extensive punk collection and left with a couple of records based on the clerk’s recommendations. Not wanting to leave this gem of a music shop, I asked him where to go that night and he recommended checking out the Melbourne Ska Orchestra that was playing nearby at The Forge.

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Treasures at Alfie’s Antiques

Inspired by the previous day’s rock ‘n’ roll history lesson, I made my way over to Abbey Road. Getting a bit lost in the neighborhood, I wandered down a side street where I came upon an antique mall. Hoping to get directions from one of the antique dealers, I wandered through countless booths of art, jewelry, and enough treasures to make me wish I had brought another suitcase. My favorite shop was a second floor room full of light fixtures; enough to make any interior designer swoon.

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Crystal blue skies at the Rooftop Cafe

Weaving along, I learned that this marvelous place I had stumbled upon was known as Alfie’s Antiques. I had a chance to talk with one of the antique dealers who pointed me towards the famous music landmark with his parting words: “don’t get hit by a car!” Thanking him for his guidance and his tips on what else to see in the area, I realized I had spent over an hour browsing through the booths, so I took a break at the rooftop cafe. A gorgeous summer sky greeted me, as I enjoyed a refreshingly chilled pea soup and crunchy housemade bread.

Eager to reach my destination, I followed the store owner’s directions and headed up the street til I saw throngs of people dodging car horns. Watching groups of families and friends reenact the famous Beatles’ cover for the eponymous album, I snapped some pictures of Abbey Road studio and waited my turn. Nearly getting hit a couple of times, I quickly made my way across the street and inspected the pictures taken by my newfound friends. After returning the favor, I spliced together a few of my photos for an amateur replica of the world famous record cover.

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Fine Cell Work boutique

My next stop was Fine Cell Work, a non-profit organization that trains prisoners in skilled needlework and handicrafts. After learning about their “trunk show” from Time Out London, I knew that I had to stop by for a peek at their boutique in Victoria. Once inside their small showroom, I had a chance to browse through hand-embroidered quilts, needlepoint pillows, and even some larger pieces like custom ottomans. Dominic, one of Fine Cell’s volunteer staff, shared some of the history of Fine Cell, how their program has helped over 400 incarcerated men and women learn a new skill, and anecdotes from their volunteers who conduct on-site needlework classes at prisons all over England and Wales. While we compared ideas on everything from prison reform to the lost art of handicrafts, Dominic helped me choose a pillow with the Union Jack emblem-a quintessential British souvenir.

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Detail of Rude Boy exhibit featuring Joshua Kane

Leaving the Fine Cell boutique, I wandered up the street and did the obligatory walk by the popular British landmarks Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, all while marveling at the lush greenery of the parks in between. My next stop was The Old Spitalfields Market to visit the studio of Joshua Kane Bespoke. I first learned of this gifted menswear designer while viewing the Rude Boy exhibit at Somerset House earlier in the week. Finding his site on Instagram, it turned out Joshua’s flagship store was right near where I was staying. Beckoned by the signature brass necklace I saw on his site, I paid a visit to his shop and luckily had a chance to meet Joshua right before he was closing for the night. An animated mix of dandy and dapper, Joshua was a true gentleman and showed me around his studio, while giving me a little history on his career as a designer and tailor. Boxing up my necklace, he offered tips on where to go in London that night and some must-see spots for my next visit.

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Transported in time, and cuisine, to Bombay

Making my way to dinner, I stopped in Rough Trade Records, because one can never visit enough record stores! In absolute bliss, I paced through rows of vinyl, read some staff recommendations, and heard a sneak peek of Led Zeppelin’s highly anticipated release of their reissue campaign. I eventually reunited with friends for a farewell dinner at Dishoom in Shoreditch. Having already enjoyed lunch here earlier in the week, I knew what to expect from this mouthwatering Bombay inspired cuisine. Taking some recommendations from our server, we dined on the most exquisitely assembled dinner, perfectly presented for sharing. Of course my favorite was the Black Dahl, their signature dish that’s simmered for over 24 hours and had me wishing I lived nearby. Relishing each bite of this spicy and savory cuisine, my friends and I shared stories from the day and ideas on how to get me across the pond for another visit.

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Namesake near Rough Trade Records