July 2011 hails as a month to remember with the trip of a lifetime, a literary pilgrimage honoring favorite writers from England, Wales, and Ireland.
London served as the first leg, where we pilgrims discovered that parachute pants have made a fashion comeback and the streets of the English capital are laced with joggers who prefer to sprint with small backpacks hitched to them. What was that about? A friend from Southampton explained that many Londoners jog to work. Could this be the reason?
Nestled between the Lords Cricket Ground, the Central London Mosque, and the London Zoo, in St. John’s Wood, we lodged at the Danubius Hotel Regents Park ( 18 Lodge Road, NW8 7JT, 020 7722 7722 Subway: Edgware Road), which was seated right next to a shisha bar, known in the States as a hookah lounge. Every time we neared, the lane was filled with the scent of cherry tobacco.
Leaving most of our time to whimsy, we sketched a rough itinerary using some of the following online sources as guides:
- Twenty Free Things to do in London
- Cheap Eats in South London
- London’s Best Cocktails from Bon Vivant (thanks to Julie Chiariello for this little gem of site)
- London’s Best Cheap Eats
- Museum Mile
Soon as we arrived, we dropped off our bags, and, without even taking time for a quick shower after flying in from California, we dashed over to the British Library (open: Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm, closed Sun). I broke into tears gaping over Charlotte Bronte’s handwritten manuscript of Jane Eyre, listened to an original recording of Yeats’ “Wild Swans at Coole” and bowed down before original manuscripts by Woolf, Beethoven, Conrad, Wilde, and so many more greats. Too bad no pics are allowed in the archives.
After wiping the tears, we stumbled onto an overwhelming collection of sci-fi from its European incarnation at the gob-smacking exhibit “Out of This World: Science Fiction But Not as You Know It” Talk about over-stimulation.
Day 2 in Londonium took us north on a Thames River Cruise to Kew Garden (earliest departure from Westminster:10.30, last boat from Kew: 16.00) accompanied by the Miss Marple crew. Apparently, our interests coincide with silver Centrum-aged travelers.
Sodden with rain, Day 3 was a perfect chance to soak up the sites at Highgate Cemetery (open 10 am weekdays, 11am weekends closes 5pm, last admission 4.30pm, $L3 )where I found myself empty-handed for any offerings to leave at George Eliot’s gravestone. We also chanced upon a headstone that had been blackened with tar. I’d love to know the story behind that defacement. Winding our way through the tombstones and markers, at every turn, I felt like I saw dark presences lingering in the corner of my eye.
The best scotch egg, and the only scotch egg I’ve tasted yet, was enjoyed at the swank pub The Bull and Last tucked on Highgate Road in the posh neighborhood of Hampstead Heath, Keats’ old haunt. Wonder if he’s ever had a scotch egg, which is a soft-boiled egg wrapped in sausage which is then breaded. Its the Brits hand-held version of moco loco, and this one was perfection rolled into a beautiful oval. The sauteed greens were incredible as well. London knows how to treat their vegetables now. No longer boiled and tasteless, they give just enough heat to let produce stand on its own naked savoriness.
Before meeting up with our traveling companions, K&C on Day 4, we strolled through Portobello Market (Sat ONLY 5:30a-5p, shops open M-Sa. Tube: Ladbroke Grove or Notting Hill Gate, Pembridge Rd), which we missed on our first trip to London. After divulging in some retail therapy, we connected with K&C at Leighton’s House in Holland Park (10-5.30 closed Tu, $L5, 12 Holland Park Road, W14 8LZ, Tube High Street Kensington) , which preserves the breathtaking abode of Victorian artist Lord Frederic Leighton. Highly decadent and sumptuous in its design and decor, the architect George Atchinson makes use of all the four life-giving elements. A Byzantine pool of water greets visitors in the foyer, decked with mosaic tiles collected from Leighton’s travels to the East. His library/study, paneled with wood, elicits contemplation, and his dining room is feted in fiery rich reds and a plush wallpaper made of fabric. Light floods the stairwell that boasts paintings from artists who gifted Leighton with their own work. The second floor opens to a carved out Turkish bed that overlooks the water fountain foyer. To the right of the bed is his studio, which includes a special door wide and long enough to move huge canvas paintings in and out of the room. Leighton had two studios, including a winter studio, overlooking a lush green landscape. The winter studio avoids the obscurity of fog and smog which hindered the seasonal skies.
After Leighton’s house, we found ourselves in London’s Chinatown, which is a small section of neighborhood that doesn’t quite meet the boisterousness of San Francisco’s Chinatown or the serene history of Vancouver’s.
Day 4 started with all 841 steps up to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral (doors open for sightseeing 8:30, 11:30 last entry. Cafe 9-5, Afternoon Tea 2:30-4pm M-Sa; Cafe 10-4 S, Evensong daily 5pm). The fourth largest church in the world turned out to be one giant tomb for Britain’s military personnel, where the Suffragettes planted a bomb in 1913. The views from the top rival the London Eye.
During our stay, we also stopped at the Emirates Stadium for a peek of the Gunner’s home. Our traveling companions, K&C stayed at the The Rookery (Peter’s Lane, Cowcross Street, EC1M 6DS – Tel +44(0)20 7336 0931, Tube: Farringdon), and they visited the following sites:
- Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, SW7, 10.00 to 17.45 daily, 10.00 to 22.00 Fridays). Special tickets had to be purchased for the exhibit The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 (open 2 April – 17 July 2011 ($L12, timed tickets)
- Battersea Park – (Tube: Sloan Square, walk 1km south, via Lower Sloane Street and Chelsea Bridge Rd. Loop Albert Bridge, Oakley St, Kings Rd.)
- Chelsea Physic Garden (across the Albert Bridge, $L5)
- London Markets – Sunday Brick Lane, Petticoat Lane, and Spittalfields (near Shoreditch, Aldgate tube).
- Leadenhall Market website– Victorian covered mkt near The Rookery (stalls 11-4 M-F, Whittington Avenue, EC3, off Gracechurch St, EC3V)
All told, we sipped and dined in at least 21 pubs throughout the three weeks traveling, which included some of these London spots, but not all: The Harp, Covent Garden, The Seven Stars, The Old Cheshire, The Jerusalem Tavern, and The Bull and Last. Our pub research came from the following sources, The Guardian’s Ten of the Best Pubs in London and View London’s Pub & Bars
We hoped to make the following but there’s only so much time in the day, so these little hot spots may just have to wait for the next trip:
- Brick Lane – Sunday market til 2. Tube Shoreditch or Aldgate
- Chelsea & Nottinghill Shopping
- Grovsner Square
- The Guardian’s List of “Top 10 London Outdoor Activities”
- Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P with the show, Romantics Dates: 9th August 2010 to 31st July 2011, including paintings by Henry Fuseli, JMW Turner, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and William Blake, exploring the origins, influence and legacies of Romantic art in Britain
- Much Ado About Nothing (16th May 2011 to 3rd September 2011) at Wyndhams Theatre with David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
For more writerly musings on this trip, check out the post “Writer as Traveler” at the salon and for more pics of the places above click on the following: