City of Villages

Trip Start Oct 15, 2012
Trip End Mar 12, 2013

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Feb. 12-Mar. 12: What fun it was getting to know London better. After two weeks here last year, I knew I wanted to return. (Last year's entry: This time I had four weeks, and I crammed in a lot, but also felt I didn't have to rush. I stayed at the same place as last time, and it was nice arriving at the familiar Underground station, getting a welcome hug from the manager, knowing where to buy groceries – and this time I had a ground floor room (not 84 steps up).

My Oyster card – the transit pass that gives discounted fares – was well used, and I took advantage of several London Walks, which introduced me to different neighbourhoods around Greater London and the City of London itself. I learned that Greater London is made up of villages, very distinct settlements that are hundreds of years old. I got to know a little about Soho, Hampstead, Piccadilly, Camden Town, Little Venice (there are canals in London!), Kensington, Westminster, Southwark, Rotherhithe, the Old Jewish Quarter, Chinatown, the Palace Quarter and more. The City of London covers only one square mile and has a resident population of 9,000, which swells to 300,000 on workdays. It has more than 100 gardens and 39 churches (many of which serve the workers during the workweek and are closed on weekends). At least one of the churches destroyed by WWII bombs was converted into a park, still surrounded by what remains of the old church walls.

There are so many attractions to visit and things to do in London. On my first day I rode the cable car over the Thames – Emirates Air-line, it’s called – and went into The Crystal, which houses an interesting exhibition about sustainable building, changing cities, global warming and population growth. Then back over the river, onto the DLR (Docklands Light Railway, part of the Underground system) to Greenwich, where the famous tea clipper Cutty Sark has been lovingly restored.

On the guided walks and my own perambulations I passed many old, established stores and familiar names: Carnaby Street, Leicester Square, Canary Wharf, Drury Lane, Fleet Street, Liberty (department store opened in 1875), Charbonnel et Walker (they hold a Royal Warrant as Chocolate Manufacturers to the Queen; I loved the free samples we were given – a champagne truffle and a flower-essence one, a favourite of the Queen and Queen Mother), Floris (founded in 1730, a luxury perfumier and toiletries shop, still run by the founder’s descendants; the mahogany counter came from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851.) The Camden and Stables Markets are fascinating jumbles of booths and eateries. There’s Greenwich Market, Spitalfields Market (the name is reduced from "hospital fields"), ornate Leadenhall Market, Borough Market, Covent Garden markets….

Before leaving on my trip I finished reading the epic historical novel by Edward Rutherfurd, London. To me it feels like London’s streets and buildings are drenched in history. There are innumerable "blue plaques" and signs around the city, marking where famous people lived, died, wrote, composed, etc. Graveyards and churches hold tombs and memorials to people who have contributed to British or world society. I toured Westminster Abbey, site of coronations and royal weddings, and overflowing with tombs and memorials to famous people.

Everywhere you look, old and new sit side by side. An example is Leadenhall Market, dating from the 1800s (it was a film site in Harry Potter) which abuts the futuristic Lloyd’s of London building. Downtown London is busy and modern, yet has many narrow, old passageways down which you might find an ancient pub or The Old Curiosity Shop (mentioned by Dickens).The locals have named new buildings for what they resemble: the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkies…

Museums and galleries abound. Besides visiting some of the biggies – National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Museum of London, Tate Modern – I also sought out some perhaps less busy ones: Sir John Soane’s Museum (architect and collector), Dr. Johnson’s House (of dictionary fame), Guildhall Art Gallery (with remnants of a Roman amphitheatre in the basement), Apsley House (Wellington Museum), Wellington Arch exhibition, London Transport Museum (celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground), British Library, Royal Courts of Justice, Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, St. Margaret’s Church (church for the Members of Parliament, beside Westminster Abbey), Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic), Brunel Museum at the Thames Tunnel (where father-and-son engineers built the “first tunnel under a navigable river,” 1825-43), and St. Pancras Old Church. The latter is where Sir John Soane is buried, under a monument of his own design, which later served as inspiration for the iconic English telephone booths.

I went on one of London Walks’s day trips: to Winchester, where we visited the famous Cathedral, saw the house where Jane Austen died and toured the elite, 600-year-old Winchester College and its chapel. Another day on my own I journeyed by train, bus and country-road walk to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, where there are interesting displays about his work. The ground floor rooms are furnished and decorated for the period, and it’s evident what a warm, comfortable house it must have been for his large family. Sunlight streams into the drawing room through large windows. The gardens weren’t blooming in February, but you can walk in Darwin’s footsteps along the path he strolled daily.

With friend Tracey, I climbed the 311 steps spirally up The Monument to see the views from 160 feet up. This Doric column commemorates the Great Fire of London in 1666. Its height equals the distance from its base to the bakery in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Another day, Tracey showed me Cross Bones Graveyard, site of a medieval graveyard for prostitutes, later for paupers, closed in 1853. Local people have created a memorial shrine; the plaque reads “The Outcast Dead R.I.P.”

When up in Hampstead I went to an arts cinema (where food and drink are served at small tables beside your comfortably cushioned armchairs) to see the movie Hitchcock. Later, a couple of blocks from where I was staying, I saw the house where Alfred Hitchcock lived.

And then there’s live theatre! I saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, now in its 60th year of production, the longest running show in the world (I saw performance number 25,104). At the end, the audience is exhorted not to divulge whodunit to anyone. I was thrilled to see both Helen Mirren and Judi Dench in person. The Audience, with Helen Mirren, provides an insider’s view of the Queen’s weekly audiences with a long line of Prime Ministers. Peter and Alice, with Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw (both acted in the James Bond movie, Skyfall), was a poignant story of the real people that Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland were based on.

I’ve made friends on some of the walking holidays I’ve been on since 2009. Sue came up from Ashford for the day for lunch and a walking tour in London. Tracey, Christina and Anneli have introduced me to several good craft-beer-serving pubs, and we attended two beer festivals. There are more than 30 breweries in Greater London. Many ancient pubs still have their original fixtures and layouts: at Prince Alfred pub you need to duck under low glass lintels through wooden half-doors to enter the small rooms of the pub. The Black Friar displays jolly friars in sculpture, mosaic and relief. The George is a galleried coaching inn dating from medieval times; it was frequented by both Shakespeare and Dickens.

I still have a long list of things to see and do in London. Four weeks, yet I never got back to the British Museum or Victoria & Albert Museum as I intended. I decided to leave the London Eye until next visit when I’ll qualify for the “concession” rate (over 60)!

If a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. So said Dr. Samuel Johnson, the second-most quoted Englishman in history, after Shakespeare. And he knows of what he speaks. I’m not tiring of London anytime soon.

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