Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we take in a view, buy some pashminas, and see the 18th century version of “Hoarders.”
10: First Few Days in England
Monday, our first full day in England, was a rest/heal day. We took a brief walk around the neighborhood, but otherwise just rested. The W10, up past Ladbroke Grove, is a nice little working-class neighborhood. Even though the guide books say you don’t necessarily want to be out after dark, I haven’t had that impression of the place. We walked to the Kensington Memorial Park which is quite literally 20 seconds from our front door, and thence down St Helens Road, St Marks Road, St Charles Square, at which point we ran out of saints and had to switch to gardens, walking on Oxford Gardens, Cambridge Gardens, and back up to Dalgarno Gardens. We stopped at the little convenience store near the bus stop—the “South Pole” which I suppose is some sort of joke since up at the end of Dalgarno Gardens is a street called North Pole Road—where we checked the balance on our Oyster cards (pay as you go, for all public transportation in London), and picked up a bottle of indeterminate wine.
Back at home, we decided to test out the all-in-one washer/dryer, which was described by our landlord as “dead complicated.” Turns out he was right. Moreover, it turns out that it isn’t an all-in-one washer/dryer but rather a washer/warm-er. In other words, the clothes come out warm, but wet (or, if you choose the “extra dry” setting, they come out warm and moist). And, if you choose the “dry only” setting, it still goes through a wash cycle, but doesn’t use any water, and then goes to the dry cycle, which doesn’t. In short, it’s not only dead complicated, it’s also dead useless as a dryer. So, as we had in France, we resorted once more to the Neapolitan method, and had clothes hung up to dry all over the place.
The rest of the day was spent fighting with the wi-fi, looking up bus and Tube routes on the Transport for London website, and planning an “in town” itinerary for the next day (Tuesday). We had a short list of things we wanted to do in London, but quickly learned that about half of them were closed on Tuesdays, leaving us two venues that were open but completely across town from one another. This is not the way we like to do things—spending more time traveling from venue to venue than actually spent appreciating the sight—so we fell back, retrenched, and replotted. Our new plan would keep us to one area of town, and keep our Tube time to a minimum.
Tuesday was grey and cool. It was actually nice to be chilly, after the swelter of Paris, but at times the stiff breeze out of the northwest made it downright cold. Still, not to complain…
First on our day’s plan was a bus trip—you can start to see a pattern to our city visits, I’m sure. We knew London pretty well, from previous visits, but it’s always nice to get reacquainted by going on an above-ground tour. The #7 bus would take us from our flat in NW London down through Kensington and east along Oxford Street. During this trip we couldn’t help but remark on how much Londoners had changed. Though only 4 years had passed since our last visit, London has become a much more casual place. It used to be that you’d never see anyone but tourists in jeans and sneakers, but now they were all over (including white-toe Keds, which were quite trendy among the young women). Almost all the men were in suits on our last trip, but this time we didn’t see a lot of suits until we got close to the heart of The City. And most surprisingly, we noticed that there were a lot more tubby Londoners than before. Londoners were like New Yorkers—obsessed with being and looking “fit”—but now they looked more and more like, well, like Americans: casual to the point of sloppiness, and increasingly out-of-shape. I was now regretting not having brought a second pair of jeans, since now my usual Seattle-Casual style would fit in just fine.
There is a great deal of roadwork underway in London right now. [Remember, this is before the 2012 Olympics.] Some of this is in preparation of the Olympics, but in chatting with locals, most of it is just due to the aging Victorian infrastructure. Water mains—a point of political wrangling during our last trip—have been leaking out more water than they’ve been delivering for about 20 years and now it’s reached crisis point. Electrical lines are corroding. Tube-train tunnels are starting to crumble. Add to all this the work required for beefing up/repairing the Underground, and you have regular planned and unplanned outages, diversions, and detours. The Underground is a great way to get around town, but these days it’s almost always crowded, much more so than le Metro had been.
So, our bus trip across town was slow, erratic, and not terrifically scenic as we passed by about four major roadwork operations. But it got us across town. We got off in front of the British Museum, but despite its being a definite top-ten venue, this was not our goal. We were headed to a different museum; one I’d wanted to see for a decade, but which was always pushed aside. We were going to what is arguably the quirkiest of all London museums: the Sir John Soanes Museum.
Sir John Soanes was a very successful architect in the late 18th/early 19th century. His home, situated on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and is different from all the others, marked by Sir John’s updates and modifications (plinths for statues, canted window frames to improve the incoming light, etc.). Sir John collected items of all sorts—paintings, statuary, pieces and casts of architectural fragments, books, architectural models, drawings—and his home eventually filled up with all of the items of his collection. When he died, he left the house as a museum to the Crown, stipulating that it should be kept as much as possible just as he’d left it. The curators have done this faithfully, and when you go into the museum, you are really going into an 18th century home. It’s small, with tight quarters made even tighter by the hundreds…no, thousands of items all around. Every niche, every wall, even the ceilings are studded with architectural fragments. The hallways are covered with paintings. Every nook and niche has a statue, a bust, a model. It’s three floors just cram-packed, and I was amazed by the number, variety, and beauty of many of the items. And just when we thought we’d seen it all, we found we’d missed a doorway in the rabbit-warren floorplan. Down the hall was another room, modified by Soane to enhance and maximize the natural light, filled with paintings and attended by a warden who would open up panels set into the walls to reveal a second set of paintings (Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress”) hanging within. Also on display during our visit was a collection of models of European cathedrals, all done to the same scale (1″:60’) so you could see in one room the Vatican’s St Peter’s, the cathedral at Cologne, Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, and a score of others. It was a bit overwhelming, and also a bit bewildering, since very few of the pieces are labeled and I didn’t have enough prerequisite knowledge to appreciate why all these bosses or cornels were grouped together. Also, since it has been kept as it was in the 18th century, it was rather dim in spots, especially down in the crypt, where the natural light filters down to the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, the inside of which is entirely covered with hieroglyphics and illustrations of the pharaoh and his trip into the afterlife.
We left Sir John Soanes’ and walked out into Lincoln’s Inn Field, a park surrounded by a square of Georgian homes and, on one side, Lincoln’s Inn, which is part of the Inns of Court, the English halls of justice. It’s a beautiful example of late 17th century architecture, built after the Great Fire of 1666, and we walked around the area, milling in with the smartly-dressed lawyers and advocates, before heading back to Holborn and our next goal.
From the reserve of the Regency, we went to the other end of the spectrum, and took a Tube ride up to Camden Town. Camden Town is a Bohemian enclave in north London, along the canal near Regent’s Park. Think of it as a combination of equal parts Berkeley, Haight-Ashbury, and Greenwich Village, with a dash of Grunge-era Seattle and a soupcon of Goth and Hempfest thrown in. We wanted to re-visit Camden Town because a month after our last visit, the main market section (housed in the old stablery section of the canal locks) burned down in a devastating fire. We wanted to see how they’d gotten on since, and believe me, they’ve done fine.
From the Camden Town tube station, you can walk up the High Street toward the bridge over canal locks. The sidewalks overflow into the street with tourists and barkers and placard-bearers offering deals on tattoos and piercings. The air is redolent with patchouli, incense, and a hint of spliff. We stopped for a meal at a pub which was what our feet needed, but if you go, I’d recommend forging ahead into the market itself.
Up the High Street and over the bridge is the world-famous Camden Town Market. It used to be housed in the stables where they kept the horses that towed boats and barges up and down the canals between here and Little Venice (near Paddington Station). Back then, the market was dark, twisted, close, and had a distinctively Dickensian feel to it, but the stablery burned and had to be pulled down. In its stead the market society built small, shuttered sheds that stand, cheek-by-jowl, filling the market space but leaving ordered, easily-navigable aisles that promote traffic and discourage pick-pockets. We shopped for scarves (my wife got three pashminas for £10) and thumb-rings (alas, I’m just not a thumb-ring kind of guy), and we just wandered, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place. Oh, and the reason I suggest you bypass a pub is that there are food merchants up at the market selling all sorts of “walking” food that you can buy for a third of the cost of a plate of pub-grub. Felafel, Carib, hot dogs, Asian, and good old English fare are all available and all smelled great.
Our feet felt pretty good, so we headed to our third goal: Primrose Hill. We walked down to the canal and headed out along the tow-path. Our last trip, we took a canal boat from Little Venice up to Camden Town and back, and it’s a relaxing hour I’d recommend, but today we were only going about a half-mile so a boat wasn’t needed. The tow path is open to the public, and you can walk the length of it. We walked down to Princess Lane and then headed up toward the hill.
Primrose Hill is a very British place, and old hunting ground for Henry VIII and now a park where locals go to run their dogs, jog, and take in the view. It is the topographical high-point in London, and from the top of “the hub” you have a panoramic view of London from Whitehall to Canary Wharf. The breeze was cold, but the climb warmed us—it’s not that high, just 207 feet, but enough of a grade to get the blood up. From the hub we looked out over the cloudy city. The dome of St Paul’s looked small amid the financial towers and the nearer, imposing British Telecom tower. London has long had a building height ordinance, eschewing the super-tall buildings familiar to American cities, but we saw, away across the Thames, a new tower going up. I researched it at home and found that the last Mayor of London had allowed a permit for a new building in the Stratford neighborhood, and what we saw was the project under construction. Even from this distance, and even at only 2/3rds its planned height, it already towered over everything else, standing out and looking completely out of place. We’ve talked to Londoners about it since learning about this “Shard of Glass” as it’s been titled, and it’s pretty much universally hated. Lord knows how they’re going to fill it. Of course, Londoners hated “The Gherkin” when it went up, too, finding it out of character and not a little obscene in shape, but the reaction to that building pales in comparison to the loathing being built up with this new one.
Somewhere on our return trip from Primrose Hill to the Campden Town station, my wife’s energy ran out, and the remaining trip home was a trial, complicated by detours, inoperative escalators, and crowds. A note to other travelers: subway stations have stairs, sometimes a lot of stairs, and the escalators are sometimes out of service (one tube stop in the heart of London only has a spiral staircase, which isn’t bad if you’re descending the 40-50’ to the Tube, but murder if you’re going up) . If you have issues climbing stairs, keep an eye out for stations marked on the Tube map with handicapped signs, as these stations will have lifts to supplement the escalators/stairs.
We got home later than we wanted, more tired than we’d predicted, and a good bit crankier than we’d expected. Our stamina had not returned after a single day’s rest. Despite our daily workouts back home, this trip, being on our feet, being out and about, being tourists for 8-10 hours each day had taken its toll on our reserves. As my wife’s mom had put it, “You’re not 20-year olds on your honeymoon anymore.” Too true.
At this point, I had real reservations about our plans for the next day: our first day-trip out of London. I didn’t know if it would be more taxing or less. The day would be long, but it would have rail travel that might be restful. Running out of energy in Campden Town was an inconvenience we could fix by hailing a taxi; but what if we pooped out in Oxford? We’d just have to see…