London notes, Day 3

Slept for 11 hours last night. It felt like my bones were stretching. When I woke up for the first time, it was still dark and I remember thinking to myself, “Why in all creation am I awake?” The second time it was still dark and I thought, “Why–?” The third time my alarm went off and I turned if off and went back to sleep. The fourth time was the breakfast arriving at my room. And it was pretty good, a Fair Trade Twinings certified as official and all by the Queen. I feel good knowing that the Queen has certified my tea.

Then, as I ate breakfast, I watched this, sent to my by my brother-in-law. It’s beautiful, and so good to remember to look, look, look and be grateful. It’s an attitude I want to remember to cultivate while I am here. Sometimes when I travel alone (not that it happens all that often, but when it has), I want to put on my hard shell of toughness, which is a bit necessary for self-preservation and defense when you wander a strange city. But I don’t want to let that shell turn into coolness and blase, I don’t want to forget to be wondering, wonder-ful, as I wander this amazing place. I am so lucky to be here!

And when I’m at home, I’m so, so lucky to be there.

John’s email meant that instead of listening to the news (which I don’t do at home, but do sometimes do when I’m on a trip, to kind of surround myself in what-they-do-hereness), I’m listening to George Winston as I prepare for the day. It definitely gives a different flavor to my breakfast.

After some toast and muesli and tea, I jotted some notes for my foray into the world, put something into nearly every pocket, and was off. My list went something like this:
1. Cecil Court
2. Trafalgar Square
3. National Gallery
4. Big Ben/Houses of Parliament
5. Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church
6. Across Westminster Bridge (with a photo of the London Eye for the Boy) to
7. The Imperial War Museum*
8. If I still had energy, the British Museum (which is open late on Fridays)

Okay, my list was slightly less tidy than this.

Things to Do, With Directions

However, I was full of energy after 11 hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep, so with saggy pockets I leapt out of the elevator (no mean feat considering that the elevator is only the size of my grandmother’s deep freezer and the door is about 2 feet wide. Leaping through it takes finesse).

I took the Bakerloo line down to Leicester Square. I was filled with joy as soon as I emerged into the daylight. It was a beautiful day, sunny but not hot, and I was in one of my favorite places in the world: Leicester Square. I didn’t even need my copious notes. I found the art supply store right away, and stood with my nose nearly pressed against one window. I’m sure they get a lot of odd ducks in there (it is an art supply store) but still… I didn’t really need anything, and contemplated buying some spray mount just as a memento, but figured that the TSA would probably frown on it.

Then I got turned around. It’s not my fault! They are doing a huge amount of construction in all those little streets around the theaters (excuse me, theatres) in preparation for the Olympics next year and Cecil Court wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Instead, the National Portrait Gallery was. I was somewhat dismayed and went around the building, thinking surely the National Gallery was just putting up a lot of signs around town for their exhibits and with Trumpets and Fanfare, there it was.

Trafalgar Square.

My first thought was, “But I’m not ready for it yet!” It was third on my list! I drifted slowly to the railing overlooking the fountains. Behind me, in the square before the National Gallery, a mime was waltzing with a life-sized puppet attached to his body, his music loud. A group of kids and their teacher arrived at the railing. The teacher began to talk to her students, asking them questions.

Teacher: So, who can tell me where we are?
In unison: Trafalgar Square.
Teacher: And what–
Multiple kids, spotting the mime: Ooh, cool! What’s he doing? What’s that with him? I like the music.
Teacher: Very nice, but now we’re talking bout Trafalgar Square. The tall obelisk is in honor of Horatio Nelson–
Kids, now facing the mime with their backs to the Square: Ooo, look at him now!

The two boys next to me were oblivious to everyone else. They, at least, were observing Trafalgar Square.
Boy 1, informatively: That fountain is deep.
Boy 2: I could jump in that. I could swim in that.
Boy 1: It’s really deep.
Boy 2: If I jumped in, it would probably come up to my neck.

But they were interrupted, because their whole class was moving over to watch the mime.

Fine. I was going to look at Trafalgar Square (#3 on the list) first. I glanced down at the brass plaque conveniently located near my elbow, which labeled everything I could see. Nelson. The lions. The plinths. “Impressive buildings.” An embassy or two. I looked at the generals, George IV on his horse, and the big ship-in-a-bottle that is on the fourth plinth. I saw the lions. I thought about the whole place being filled to the eyeballs with joyful people on VE Day in 1945. I got a little misty-eyed. Then, I turned around to go find Cecil Court. I didn’t want to get distracted by the National Portrait Gallery until I had visited my favorite place in London first. I found it easily enough once I realized that my orientation had been turned around (easy to do; London is NOT built on a grid). Cecil Court is a tiny little street that feels hundreds of years old and is filled with bookstores (new, old, antiquarian), map shops, shops selling old war emblems and authentic Nazi travel papers (with photos!). One shop sold ephemera and had a tea-towel in the window reading, “Weak Tea, Weak Mind.” I was very tempted. I didn’t buy anything, though I might go back next week. I just needed to visit Cecil Court. It made me feel like I had really arrived.

Then I got lost trying to find the National Gallery.

I went back the way I came, I swear, but each time (I think it took five or six times to get it right) I passed something new. James Earl Jones is doing Driving Miss Daisy right now. And the Odeon Leicester Square brings its popcorn in, in giant bags as big as me, on a pallet-dolly. And why am I wandering through Chinatown…?

Finally made it back to the Gallery, had some lunch (goat cheese and courgette fritatta and tomato salad, with apple-elderberry juice) and wandered the gallery. It had a beautiful exhibit of comedian portraits, and one of glamour shots of famous stars from the ’40s (but the line was pretty long for that one and I was on the clock today!). Then off, down Whitehall which blends into Parliament Street and then into St. Margaret’s. The teeming masses were teeming, and we were all tourists together, so I tucked everything more firmly into my pockets, made sure my backpack zippers were all snugged up, and pulled out my camera. I took a lot of photographs. I try not to take too many when I travel, as a rule–I don’t want to live through the lens, I want to have experiences and taking too many photos makes you stand out as a tourist, but in that area of town, where Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are across the street from Westminster Abbey, there is no unique experience. You are just one more touristy body. So, I take a photo. But I try to get something different out of it. Also, these are the famous things that the Boy would like to see.

I love little St. Margaret’s Church, on the grounds of Westminster Abbey (I didn’t even try to go in there–the line was hours long) and I was lucky, because the choir was practicing, so I sat down and listened to them sing “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3,” to the tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” I don’t know, is this normal for choral groups? Anybody?

Also, in one of the stained glass windows in says, “Thou has been faithful over a few things.” Is this damning with faint praise? But then, why put someone in the window of The Official Church of Parliament if you are going to say, “mmm, not so shabby, your deeds”? I don’t know.

Oh, and then I remembered the Jewel Tower! So I went around back of Westminster Abbey and there it was. The little tower that could. Built in 1365 to house the personal wealth of the king (including his armory), it sat in the corner of Westminster Palace grounds with a moat all around. Now it has a quarter moat and a wee garden and you can visit its inside, which is mostly all still medieval, including a ceiling imp that glowers at you. There is a very interesting exhibit inside that explains how British government works, and talks about the civil war and Cromwell and the Restoration and how it was that William and Mary actually became co-regents, and it is all so medieval-now-Renaissance and stone and deep defensible windows and an iron door from James I’s reign and suddenly! There are photos of it as the official location of the Weights and Measures office and tables with scales all over them. The mind reels as history comes pouring in your ears.

Nice walk across the road to say hi to Big Ben, who didn’t look at all listy, then across the river, stopping to take a photo of Queen Boadicea and her daughters, evidently fleeing the Romans (or trampling them under the hooves of her prancing horses) and another of the London Eye. Then tramp, tramp, tramp, off I go to the Imperial War Museum. (Yes, I now have the Emperor’s theme in my head. Dun dun dun dun da dun, dun da dun…) I passed the Three Stags, which looked like a lovely pub, all renaissance and windowed, painted black and green, old man at a table outside with a beer in front of him, and Winnie-the-Pooh painted on each big window. According to their sandwich board out front, all honey will be donated to the British Heart Association.

Finally made it to the museum. There are giant guns mounted in front of the building. They are quite impressive, and longer than my house is tall. Inside, a guard lackadaisically checked my bag and let me go through. I thought to myself that he hadn’t checked very well, what if I were really packing? I came to a stop as I opened the doors to go in. I was confronted with a room packed to the gills with tanks, fighter planes and bombs. Clearly, the guard was not at all concerned with my backpack.

I will say right now that this museum was the highlight of all museums for me so far. I love the V&A with all my heart but as a museum, this was amazing. It had displays that were packed with items, all well themed and well labeled. They were not large rectangular spaces filled along the walls with cases; rather, one navigates a warren of cases that all lead in fairly predictable (for the staff) directions, but seem surprising to the visitor. Yet you end up where you are supposed to go, looking at things in the right order. At odd turns and corners there are videos set up, playing film shot at the time. I was there for three and a half hours and was only able to focus on a few exhibits: World War I, World War II, The Children’s War and 1940’s House, and Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children. The World War I exhibit has a part called “The Trench” in which you wander through a real trench, listening to the sounds and smelling smells and being surprised by what you see. Trench warfare was nasty. And the World War II area includes The Blitz Experience, in which you sit in the dark in an air raid shelter listening to the conversation of your “fellow” shelter inhabitants, waiting for the bombs… and when they happen, you are led on a tour to see the fallout. I didn’t take any photos of that area because it tended to be dark, but for the fires. The Children’s War and 1940’s House were wonderful, too, seeing it from so many different angles and hearing recounts from people who were children then, and were evacuated. I cried for a time in that exhibit. Classic War Stories for Children impressed me a great deal. It was a special exhibit, which you had to pay for, but was clearly intended for children as an audience. It focused on five children’s books about wartime, had exhibition materials (the suitcase of an evacuee, a barn with a model of a warhorse that was used for training those who were to help cavalrymen in WWI) but also had a child’s-eye level running series of synopses on small 3″x5″ tiles. Between each tile (a quote from the book) was an actor playing the main character(s), emoting what is happening with no background, just the actor in costume. I cannot exaggerate how impressed I was by this museum. And I completely missed their Holocaust area, and any wars after 1945. I just ran out of time.

Oh, and they had so many lovely wartime cooking and Make Do and Mend items in the gift shop! And the poster that read “Our Jungle Fighters Want Socks–Please Knit Now”!

But it was time to come home. The British Museum will have to wait until next week, because I was very tired and though I’d have had the energy to go a bit longer, my feet hurt and I have to be up at 5:30am to catch my train. That’s early enough that the hotel won’t even feed me my already-paid-for breakfast. They offered me a Boxed Snack, but I could tell that this is code for Thing I Won’t Like That I Have To Throw Mostly Away. I have a sack of almonds and cashews and a banana and the means to make a cup of tea before I go (though the little milk containers read “Tastes Like Real Milk!” which makes me nervous…). My next set of notes will be mostly notes on Not London At All, I guess. And I will say, I found myself so glad and grateful for the day, and so joyful to be here, and I don’t know if it was the video or three hours of children in wartime or just London that did it.

*Bing was so happy that I was going to visit the Imperial War Museum. He was slightly less happy to realize that it was not going to reference Darth Vader or the Rebel Alliance at all, but mollified when I told him there would likely be references to World War II.