London: Sunday Sail to Greenwich

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MUCH IS NEW in London since I was last here a decade ago, development spurred largely by the 2012 London Olympics.

Not least of the improvements are the new Overground train service, which makes access to central London from some outlying neighborhoods, including Dalston, near where I’m staying, much more convenient, and the Thames Clipper, a large-capacity ferry service with a score of stops at newly built wharves on both sides of the river.

This past Sunday, my friend and I joined the throngs of tourists speaking a babel of languages on an eastward sail to Greenwich, a pretty riverside town with a long maritime history, where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born.

It’s the site of another masterpiece of classical architecture, Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital, now a university campus, as well as the red-brick Victorian Royal Observatory, now a family-friendly planetarium — a steep climb gladly undertaken for the view — and the Meridian line that establishes Greenwich Mean Time (just a line).

Beyond that, Greenwich is a vast swath of hilly parkland, with rewarding vistas of the city skyline five miles to the west, and a long-established village with several lively outdoor antiques markets and crowded pubs.

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A view of the new building called the ‘Walkie Talkie’ from our embarkation point near London Bridge. Heading east under Tower Bridge…

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Past modern residential developments and re-purposed old warehouses…

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Glimpsing of the historic pub The Prospect of Whitby tucked between more massive newer structures…

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Christopher Wren’s and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor’s classical set piece dates from 1694. Until 1998, it was The Royal Naval Hospital

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Enjoyed my Ploughman’s lunch (bread, cheese, pickled vegs) at the Trafalgar Tavern 

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The classical complex at Greenwich is now a university campus, with a chapel, an art museum and some rooms open to the public

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London: A Dickensian Day with Pubs Aplenty

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IT WAS MORE THE HOUSE — a late Regency row house in Holborn that I knew would have similarities with the two mid-19th c. houses I own in Brooklyn — than any particular connection with Charles Dickens that brought me to 48 Doughty Street. After all, I had read only one of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations, and that was because we had to in high school.

But I ended up learning a great deal about the author’s biography and the world he inhabited from the virtually untouched Charles Dickens House, below, a museum since 1924, furnished to accurately convey how the young Dickens and his wife Catherine lived as renters there in the late 1830s. The upwardly mobile couple stayed only two-and-a-half years before moving on to larger quarters, while Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickelby and Oliver Twist, became father to two more of an eventual ten children, entertained in grand style, and was every bit the gentleman scholar.

The surrounding streets, in Holborn and neighboring Clerkenwell, hold intriguing pubs and lunch spots, duly noted for future reference. We had a beer in the Jerusalem Tavern, an artful re-creation of a vintage 18th century public house that totally fooled me, and peeked into two more: the impressively ancient Cittie of Yorke, which Dickens frequented, opposite a half-timbered medieval survivor on High Holborn, and the over-the-top Princess Louise, a Victorian fantasia of etched glass.

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All five stories of the Dickens house are open to view, from the kitchen and scullery in the basement to the curved-wall dining room and ‘morning room’ on the ground floor, the formal parlor and Dickens’ study on the floor above, and bedrooms on the two top levels. Some furnishings come from his estate. 

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The Lady Ottoline, half a block from the Dickens house, is appealingly serene.

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London seems to cherish its Deco, rather than renovate it out of existence. 

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There was an old shop on the site of the Jerusalem Tavern until 1990, when a clever renovation based on historic research created the current pub.

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From an inscription inside an archway at the base of this extraordinary building: “Original building erected 1545-1589 by Vincent Enghame and Another. The front after various alterations was restored to its original design in 1886.”

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There was a pub on the site of the Cittie of Yorke from 1430, says a posted sign. It was rebuilt in 1695, and in the 1890s, the building “which had been showing regrettable signs of decay was partially demolished and reconstructed in its present form. Much of the old material was carefully preserved and incorporated in the present building.”

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How about that Princess Louise? (She was one of Queen Victoria’s daughters.) Here we ran into a Yorkshire couple from the Jerusalem Tavern, also on a self-guided historic pub tour. 

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In Dalston, another neighborhood entirely, late in the evening, I passed this Art Deco beauty, now an art cinema.

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A Sunny, Art-full Day in London Town

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SUNNY AND IN THE 60s…I can’t complain about yesterday’s weather in London. And there’s something about the sky. When it’s not gray (as it so often is, and is again today, Friday), it’s particularly, poignantly beautiful.

I visited two of the city’s outstanding art museums, the 250-year-old Royal Academy of Arts, where one of the current blockbusters is American Painting After the Fall (meaning after the stock market crash of 1929 — I had wondered which fall they were talking about), full of rarely-seen, dystopian works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and other social realists. Most were borrowed from museums other than New York’s and were wholly new to me.

I breezed through the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery just to get the idea, lingering over a few Tudors and Stuarts whose faces or costumes particularly arrested me. Then I enjoyed a ‘modern British’ vegetarian lunch in the third-floor restaurant, where the view rivaled (and resembled) that of Florence, with an unexpected number of domes and spires.

Both art institutions are housed in venerable buildings whose interiors have been cleverly revamped to suit current purposes, with (in the National Portrait Gallery, especially) dramatically long escalators and glass elevators that allow the building’s original ornate detail to still be seen.

Late in the day, I walked through some of the city’s poshest precincts, including St. James Square, top, and Westminster, wearing out more shoe leather over the Millennium Bridge. Destination: the National Theatre for Twelfth Night, a brilliantly staged production of Shakespeare’s original, in modern, outrageous costume and with hilarious physical comedy. I hope they don’t bring it to Broadway, where they’re sure to ruin it.

Come see what I saw.

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Above, The Royal Academy of Arts on busy Piccadilly

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While just around the corner, on the narrow side streets, the feel is of a smaller, even older town

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High-priced shopping in the Burlington Arcade, off Piccadilly, includes several hatters and other old-fashioned businesses. Above, Fortnum & Mason’s glittering displays

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I peeked into Zedel’s, a fabulous and festive Art Deco-era brasserie, a dead ringer for Paris’s, and found it hopping at lunchtime

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Outside the National Portrait Gallery, above. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of homelessness on display in London

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Samuel Pepys, 17th century diarist, bon vivant and Secretary of the Navy, without whom we would know much less of London’s Plague and Great Fire

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The brooding young poet, later priest, John Donne

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The view from my table at Portrait, the National Portrait Gallery’s top floor restaurant. Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square is prominent

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Above, the view from my plate: a goat cheese starter and herbed quinoa and cauliflower main, artfully composed

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Trafalgar Square from street level in late afternoon, now pedestrianized. I remember it as a terrifyingly traffic-choked roundabout in the late 1960s

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Skirting St. James Park at sunset

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Same time of day but looking east, a host of golden daffodils

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Japanese musicians on the Embankment, astonishingly good

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Irresistible Thames evening views, again. You can be sure I wasn’t the only one taking iPhone photos

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London: St. Paul’s to Fleet Street to Waterloo Sunset

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YESTERDAY I LET MYSELF BE LED THROUGH the multifarious heart of London by two lifelong Londoners. First by bus, where I appreciated the classic proportions of St. Paul’s Cathedral, above, from the top deck of the swaying red leviathan on wheels. There’s no bad angle on St. Paul’s.

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We were headed for Two Temple Place, a heavily paneled Neo-Gothic palazzo where there’s a show ongoing through April called Sussex Modernism. On display are 1930s works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and others, who wrought surprisingly subversive art, anti-war and gender-fluid, in the quaint villages of southern England.

Later, as we walked along Fleet Street, a main thoroughfare since Roman times, I was fascinated by the few surviving medieval houses, below, that pre-date London’s Great Fire of 1666 — heavily restored, of course, but still functioning. They’re a curious counterpoint to the stately Victorian headquarters of some of England’s earliest banks and the limestone Art Deco blocks in which news organizations were housed when Fleet Street was the epicenter of the newspaper trade.

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We had tea in one of several cafés in Somerset House, below, a massive 18th century palace now used as a cultural complex. It’s now the home of the Courtauld Gallery, known for its impressive collection of Impressionism, among other art institutions, and definitely bears further exploration.

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Then we trekked across Waterloo Bridge toward the Royal National Theatre, below, its 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture jollied up with colored lights, and bought tickets for a future production of an apparently uproarious modern Twelfth Night.

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The view from the bridge toward the London Eye ferris wheel and the Houses of Parliament caused us all to start softly singing the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

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I set off solo as darkness fell, enjoying the gaudily lit theatres on Aldwych, the bowler-hatted doorman at the Waldorf Hotel, and what is reputedly London’s oldest shop, all in the same area.

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Then I hoofed on through London’s nighttime streets to The Viaduct, below, described as “the last surviving Victorian gin palace in London,” all etched glass and mirrors and Art Nouveau maidens, with chandeliers hanging from a red-painted tin ceiling. That’s where I had — no surprise — the best gin and tonic ever, made with Sicilian lemon tonic water, dried raspberries and rosewater. An ideal refresher after a 14,000 step day.

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Around London in 22,000 Steps

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I SET OFF EARLY YESTERDAY from my friend’s house in N.1 with a rough list of goals and my most comfortable shoes. I wound up wandering longer and farther than intended, into areas I’d never been and was curious about.

Eventually I’ll get to the Tate and the British Museum, to Shakespeare’s Globe and more historic houses. But yesterday was one long free-form meander through N.1, E.C.1 and 3, S.E.1, W.C.1 and 3. For those unfamiliar with London’s postal codes, that translates to Shoreditch, the City, the South Bank, Holborn, Clerkenwell and no doubt others.

I wanted to see trendy Shoreditch, which was merely up-and-coming when I was last in London ten years ago. Now you can’t turn around without spotting a modern café or pricey boutique.

I wanted to see the daring new office buildings, with nicknames like the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard, a tall skinny pyramid that inserts itself into every vista, and confirm my preconceived notions that I would hate them. (I did, of course, because I’m a lover of the old, but they’re more interesting than New York’s banal contemporary architecture, so I couldn’t hate them unequivocally.)

And I wanted to see the Thames, to reassure myself I was really in London. Once I got to the river, and walked along it for a bit, I decided to go out on Southwark Bridge for the view. Once I got to the middle of the bridge, I decided to continue over it to the South Bank and check out the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I knew there would be no performance in the open-air theatre because it’s off-season; there were no tours, either, because of school groups.

So I wandered down to Borough Market, a sprawling open-air food market that wasn’t there a decade back — kind of like a permanent Smorgasburg, under an old metal shed roof.

A short ride on the Underground took me to Farringdon, where I sought out Ye Old Mitre, an 18th century pub with roots in the 16th, that gives new meaning to the word cozy. It’s in every guidebook, but famously hard to find, down an obscure, easy-to-miss narrow alley. I wanted to see if I could find it, and did, with the help of my iPhone GPS.

I walked on, up Gray’s Inn Road, and toward nightfall, met my friend at the Booking Office Bar at St. Pancras Station, the greatest Victorian pile ever, and had a gin gimlet under soaring Gothic arches.

Today, clear and bright, I traveled by Overground (newly built for the 2012 London Olympics) and Underground all the way out to W.6, to interview an interior designer at her home in Hammersmith for an assignment. Then I had a pot of mussels and a glass of wine at The Dove, a historic waterside relic with Wi-Fi, where the locals were excited to be able to sit outside in the sunshine wrapped in blankets (it was in the 40’s), and I was happy to sit inside, where fires blazed in two hearths, and watch the racing sculls on the river through the windows.

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De Beauvoir Town, N.1

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Over Regent’s Canal and into Shoreditch…

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Inside the 1857 Shoreditch Town Hall

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Forge & Co., one of the ubiquitous modern cafés of Shoreditch

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This beautifully housed shop, Labour and Wait, sells utilitarian items like hot water bottles, enameled bowls and wooden brushes. It was closed, to my disappointment. 

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The new glass structures of The City, London’s financial district, are remarkably unsympathetic to the old, but at least they have curves and aren’t just boxes.

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The Shard seen from Southwark Bridge (and many other places – it’s hard to avoid)

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Shakespeare’s replica Globe, a few blocks from the original site

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The unassuming 16th century house above, housed both architect Christopher Wren while his St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built, and Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, at different times — that’s what it says on the ceramic plaque. 

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Near the Borough Market, which definitely bears a re-visit when hungry

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On Borough High Street, South Bank

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The George Inn, off Borough High Street, owned by the National Trust. The present building dates from 1677. 

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Ye Old Mitre, found with difficulty

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Re St. Pancras Station, the “great Gothic phantasmagoria” of 1868-74, I have to quote David Piper’s excellent Companion Guide to London: “High as a cliff crowned with pinnacled castle in a Grimm’s fairy-story; drawing up with complete confidence into its sky-assaulting rage of turrets.” And to think it was once threatened with demolition. 

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Instead, we have the glorious cocktail bar, part of a new hotel within the station. The line of chairs against the magnificent tile walls is in a back hall leading to the loos (see how I’m picking up the language?)

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Another day, another bridge. This is the 1887 Hammersmith Bridge in west London, a suspension bridge with ornate Victorian detail. 

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London: Slinging Thru Islington

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ARRIVING IN LONDON YESTERDAY MORNING for a late winter sojourn, I had none of the sense of disorientation and dislocation I normally do when landing in a foreign country after a semi-sleepless night on a plane.

No, I just got right into it, though I haven’t been in England in ten years and, despite at least that many visits, don’t know London well at all. Its intricate layers and ever-changing character seem to defy knowing.

I’m staying with a dear friend in De Beauvoir Town, a neighborhood in the northeast of the city, developed in the mid-19th century from farmland into row houses, much like my home borough of Brooklyn.

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From Heathrow I took the Tube to King’s Cross Station, above, and then a taxi to my destination, below. All smooth as clockwork. No sooner did I sit down in the back of the cab than the driver, noting my accent, said, “Well, shall we talk about the elephant in the room?” I was a little slow on the uptake (jet lag) and didn’t get it, until he added: “Your President!” Oh, him! I hadn’t thought about any of that in hours. The driver was smart and not a supporter, so the ride passed pleasantly.

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My theme for this visit: historic pubs. I plan to visit at least one a day. So far on schedule, though the two I’ve been to (the nearest at hand) are not particularly historic and not found in guidebooks. Both were incredibly welcoming, and I don’t know why Keith McNally, instead of continually reproducing old-school French brasseries, doesn’t bring us some upscale British pubs. Lunch today, at The Scolt Head, below, right around the corner, with two other old friends, was convivial and delicious.

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I had wild mushroom pie, but forgot to take a photo before tucking into it. The plate below belonged to another diner: your more traditional Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding. The sides were the same: potatoes, red cabbage, carrots and peas. Scrumptious.

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We’ve done two long walks: yesterday down to Regent’s Canal, below, where industrial buildings have been turned into residences and narrow working barges into colorful houseboats. A few casual cafés have even popped up along the towpath there.

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Today we did a circuit of what they call Georgian terraces in nearby Islington — that is, attached houses of the late 18th century to mid-19th century, uniform and understated, except for the occasional yellow or blue door. Some have carefully considered front gardens.

Islington has the feel of a village, organized around park-like squares. There’s little commerce, except for the occasional pub. It’s altogether genteel, a very fine address.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be exploring London, largely on foot. I hope you’ll come with me.

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Spring is farther along here. Daffodils, forsythia, early magnolias about to pop. The mimosa, above, already in full flower.

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Say Hi to NYC’s Second Avenue Subway

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ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, New York City opened its first new subway line in over half a century — well, three new stops, anyway. The far Upper East Side, once a pain to get to, is newly accessible via these three stops along Second Avenue at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street (it’s the yellow”Q” line on the map below).

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It’s visible proof of how transportation can bring new life to a neighborhood that for the better part of a decade was, to my mind, a place to avoid — inconvenient, boring and ugly.

But absent the scaffolding and the sawhorses and the orange cones and the big holes in the ground, Second Avenue looks fresh and optimistic, chock-a-block with old and new bars and restaurants to serve the densely populated high-rises that line the avenue.

Three times recently, I found myself on the Second Avenue subway. The trip from mid-Brooklyn to the UES now takes just under 30 minutes.

I met a friend for brunch at Jacques Brasserie on East 85th, an old favorite, and discovered a cozy hole-in-the-wall pub that I happened to stumble upon coming out of a doctor’s office — Jones Wood Foundry on East 76th.

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The architecture of the stations, while impressively scaled, is unexciting, but the art in the three stations makes up for it. The MTA calls it “the most expansive permanent public art installation in New York City history.”

At 72d Street, full-body portraits of colorful, eccentric New Yorkers, rendered in mosaic tile by Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, are imbedded in the white wall tile along the concourse, like so many fellow passengers.

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At 86th, there are overscaled photo-based portraits in mosaic or ceramic tile, some of famous musicians and artists (Lou Reed, Kara Walker, Philip Glass). They’re the work of Chuck Close (who also included a couple of self-portraits), and they are mesmerizing, both from up close and far away.

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Abstract murals of porcelain tile by Sarah Sze wrap the interior of the 96th Street station, into which we’ll descend below (yes, I visited all three stations just to see them).

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I’m glad I didn’t have to live through the protracted construction, but now that it’s done, I have to say: well done, MTA.

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