Enclosed is a longish discussion of what I did this time around. I’ll get into most of this stuff in more detail later but for now, here is the gist…
As an aside, this was *not* my first trip to London. I went here this past April/May for 10 days and while I thought it was amazing I was a little overwhelmed and didn’t experience everything I wanted to. Speaking of which, you’ll probably find that I kept a rather frenetic pace, faster than what most people may want to take. In some cases, it really wasn’t *that* fast – walking down a London street sometimes becomes a tourist experience even if all you were doing was aimlessly wandering – but overall, yes, I am a mid-30s male travelling alone and as such was not tied down with “commitment” or “anything resembling a social life I needed to keep up”.
So, bottom line: if this inspires you to go to old Blighty and you find you can’t keep up, don’t feel bad. You probably weren’t able to keep up because you are cooler than I am.
Got in at about noon and boy, was I tiiiired. I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep the couple weeks previously and was kind of hoping that this would have the effect of allowing me to sleep on the plane but no, that’s not how the world works. Took the Pecadilly tube all the way from Heathrow Terminal 5 to the Pembury Hotel, which frankly is a dump but that isn’t a totally bad thing – after all, I wasn’t in London to hang out in my lodgings.
Made two very, very big mistakes the first day. First was trying a doner kebab. I was later told by English friends that they are, in fact, awful, and this particular one was probably bad even for a doner kebab (I say “probably” because I did not try one again on the trip). The heat lamp for the spit hadn’t been turned on until I came in, which right there told me I probably should have chose something else. It was dry, the chili sauce barely made a dent into the cardboardy taste, and in the end there was just too much of it. I’m lucky I didn’t give myself food poisoning!
The other big mistake, the one that cut the day short, was that I decided to take a little nap at around 4. I figured I’d get up at 6 or so and go on out to Leicester Square or somewhere similarly nighty to experience that aspect of London culture. Yeah. I woke up at 11:30, tried in vain for a few hours to use the hotel’s wi-fi, and took a pill to get back to bed at 2.
My first real day in! I decided to take the DLR down to Greenwich, only to find that the DLR was closed all weekend. A lesser person would have decided that the entire city was conspiring against them and hole up in their awful, awful hotel, but not me! I took the alternate bus service instead – complete with Greenwich-area traffic jam at 9 in the morning – and managed to take in the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. Since I got there before those places opened I stopped in at a local pub to get some breakfast, which was interesting in its own right if you’re interested in the “little things”.
First up, English breakfast. What is your peoples’ fascination with beans? Eggs I get, sausages I completely understand, the mushroom I can figure out, even chips I can justify because they’re not too far off from hash browns, but… beans? I don’t wish to cast aspersions but perhaps this is why you folk are so regaled for your “ironic” sense of humor: just as you can never really tell whether an Englishman is taking the piss, you can also never tell whether he is about to let out a breakfast fart.
Second, it was again 9 in the morning and I counted more than one person in said pub relaxing with a fine ale. I don’t know what you call that in old Blighty but in the States that is known as “alcoholism”.
Anyway, the Maritime Museum and the Observatory were both very fine. The MM features a very large propellor from a (obviously) much larger boat that slowly turns and turns as though it were about to fall off and kill you. It also houses a 1930s era speedboat which is apparently famous for losing to a faster American boat (AHAHAHA WE WIN AGAIN LIMEYTOWN) and a good bit of memorabilia surrounding the Thames and, of course, England’s history of naval warfare. Oh, also the outfit that Horatio Nelson wore when he was shot at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can even see the hole in the jacket where the bullet punctured, although the dried blood on his socks is, I am told, from his secretary.
The Royal Observatory was, for me, even cooler, probably because I am a first-class nerd. Seeing all the clocks that were used to try and solve the question of how to figure out longitude was a very educational experience. Longitude is one of many things that we take for granted now but when you think about it, it’s not so easy to figure out when you don’t have a GPS or onboard digital clock (which you can cross-reference with at noon to figure out where, exactly, you are). Because I like to buy stupid touristy things, I got a couple of maps of London at the Observatory – one from the Tudor era, the other from 1902.
It was only around 1 even after I spent about an hour at a local Internet cafe so I took a bus down to the south end of the city to experience the Imperial War Museum. The IWR is a fantastic place, maybe the best museum in all of London (I have to give the British Museum negative marks for stealing so much of their stuff from other, poorer countries). There’s a good deal of very intricate coverage of the two World Wars, so if you’re a fan of that period you’ll likely go gaga over seeing so many relics in person.
If you’re not, it may behoove you to do a teeny bit of research for your own personal enjoyment. It’s not that the exhibits are not well-documented – if there is one thing the English know how to do, it’s make a museum – but I have found that you tend to reach a point of saturation when reading museum murals, after which point you start looking at a 1940s era Serbian Army uniform and saying to yourself, “yep, that’s a uniform all right. Just like that English one I just saw. Where is the exit?” Museums can be great places to learn but IMO they aren’t really there for first-level learning. It’s because humans generally find true understanding after experiencing a subject in a number of ways. Just as book-learning will give you an incomplete sense of a subject, so will learning only by looking at artifacts. If you remember only what you learned in high school, I’d go so far as to recommend you read a good, gripping non-fiction book about the conflicts before entering the War Museum. Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldier”, for example, has been reviled for its plagiarism and sometimes loose association with the facts, but it would not receive that sort of publicity if it were not also very, very good in its own right.
That’s about the extent of what I did on Saturday and I’ve already prattled on enough about this day too much. Next!
On the bus ride on Saturday I’d spoken to an old friend from high school who had recently moved out to the City That Is Named London and we decided to get together this afternoon. I had the morning, then, all to myself. I strolled down Picadilly Street from the Circus towards Green Park. There are a good many places that are primarily shopping places for the rich that have become famous in their own right. The biggest example of this is The Ritz hotel, the place where the old song says that angels dine as well as the inspiration for the 1980s Taco hit “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (yes, I’m aware that it was a cover and perhaps the worst cover of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” ever). There’s also Fortnum and Mason, who sell impossibly expensive lunches and have a store facade that looks like they’re selling mermaids and dreams, and the arcades, covered avenues where you can purchase $600 sweaters.
I met up with Kaytie and her husband at Covent Garden, which we used primarily as a meeting-point but which is a sight to see in its own right. It’s a bit like Pike Place Market in Seattle, only older and a lot more dignified. It doesn’t have quite as much of the hippie anything-goes aura around it; it’s more of a place to antiques and clothing than organic food and left-wing news. Still, it does have its fair share of street performers and buskers and the facade is in and of itself reason to pick this place out.
They were torn between Spitalfields Market and Kew Gardens, so I elected to break the deadlock with Kew. Nothing against Spitalfields (which I never did get to see) but I know what an open-air market looks like and can see that sort of thing all I want at home. Kew Gardens, though… how does one best describe it? It’s like a zoo, only for plants. I was here in autumn so the leaves were beginning to change, which is a stunning effect with a park the size of Kew. There were greenhouses and little walking sections devoted to just about every climate that holds plant life in the world, from the American Southwest and its cacti (a location where children seem to enjoy running around at full speed – do they not have Road Runner cartoons in England?) to the Middle East to the South Pacific to Siberia. Some of the proceeds earned from the Gardens go towards a project that is dedicated to collecting the seeds of every plant on the planet. This is so that they can be replanted if they ever go extinct in the wild. Apparently this action has already saved at least one species that was destroyed in the Australia dust storms and fires this summer.
One minor bummerino: there is a very awesome area in Kew Gardens known as the Forest Walk where you get to walk around at the level of the treetops and experience the forest canopy. This, well, should have been a wondrous experience but I was in for a bit of a rude shock. When I was younger I was deathly afraid of heights. Anything over oh, around 20 feet in the air made my heart beat about twice as fast as normal and made me want to sit down right where I was. This fear seemed to have gone away with childhood but up at the top of the Walk I felt it all coming back. It didn’t help that the Walk swayed with the wind, or that they made it with corrugated steel where you could look down and see the ground far, far below.
That evening I got together with a couple of English friends I know from the series of tubes. We engaged in that most English of pastimes: kicking back a few pints and conversating. This was at a place near Turnpike Road; when I asked the station agent at Finsbury Park how much it was going to cost to get out there, we had this exchange:
Agent: (baffled) Why are you going out *there*?
Me: To meet a couple of friends.
Agent: Well, don’t be out there too long.
What was funny about this (and apparently hilarious to my drinking mates) was that Finsbury Park is not particularly well known as a posh, low-crime area.