London Town (2003)

Painted houses along Portobello Road
Co-worker Tina and her boyfriend Matt at Vinopolis, City of Wine.

January 2003

Every week I receive email from Orbitz and Travelocity and American Airlines and other offering me the low fares of the week, and every week I scan them, indulge in a few quick fantasy trips, and delete the messages.

Until the second week of January, 2003.

I’d been thinking about London for a few weeks. Thinking that I haven’t been there in more than a decade. Thinking that a visit there would be very comfortable for a lone woman traveler — they speak English, after all. Thinking about the new Globe Theatre and the new Tate Modern and Harrods and pints in a pub and . . .

…oh wait, that’s Tower Bridge
London Bridge is falling down…
Astor House, with the orangerie on the left.

In the second week of January the fare to Heathrow was $226. Could I be the kind of person who decides on the spur of the moment to fly to London?

If three days is spur of the moment, then yes. I can be that person. I booked the flight on Thursday. On Friday a co-worker came to my desk and announced that she, too had jumped on the fare for next weekend. Geez, and I thought I was being unique and daring!

Call Patsy, there’s a room available over Odd Bins, darling (it’s an Ab Fab reference sweetie).

But going from vague notion to landing at Heathrow requires some research. Time would be tight, sights must be seen. Where to stay? What museums to visit? What to avoid?

Bond, James Bond — or his car anyway, at the Museum of Science (!)

My research kept turning to gardens and parks and I kept having to remind myself it was January.

Armed with my trusty Michelin Green (my favorite guide for most places) plus a couple secondary references, I disembarked at Heathrow and headed for the Tube. I’d booked a room in South Kensington, direct from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line. The hotel — a B&B — was a delightfully short walk from the tube stop. I was welcomed by the proprietress, but sent away until later when my room would be ready. So off I went to explore the neighborhood, which includes, of course, Harrods.

Look kids, Big Ben

The day also included the Victoria and Albert Museum, a long walk, and, in the evening, the Tate Modern.

Call boxes and monuments, the essence of London.

Saturday morning I was off and running to the Portobello Road market. Me and thousands of other visiting Americans. My natural aversion to being among Americans in a foreign country aside, I felt uncomfortable in such a touristed place. This may be Britain, but terrorists know a target when they see one. I found a couple small silver items and pressed my way back through the hoards to the tube.

I’d booked tickets for the “Bond, James Bond” exhibit at the Science Museum in advance. I thought it was too silly to miss. In fact, it turned out to be rather stressful, with computerized quizzes and trivia to study. And not enough computer terminals, so one had to wait in line to access them. I came away feeling frustrated.

The manikins of Watson and Holmes, peeking down from a hatch in the attic, are far more lifelike than the mushroom farmers in the Loire.

Also on my silly museum list was 221b Baker Street, actually located between 234 and 236 Baker Street (something about the addresses being redone in the 1930s by “the men in bowlers with briefcases” — according to an employee). Surprisingly, in a display case of vintage jewelry among the Holmes and Watson junk I found two brooches that love.

the Tower of London
Modern and Ancient:

Saturday night I met up with my equally spur-of-the-moment co-worker Tina and her boyfriend Matt. We met at Vinopolis, City of Wine, advertised as a museum with wine tasting. The museum was hysterical — some old bottles, pictures of famous vineyards, reproductions of vaguely wine-related art. We were issues extra tasting coupons because the audio tours were not charged up. Who needed the audio? Clearly everyone in the place was there to drink. When in London . . .

Sunday turned out to be a good day for shopping, and I lurched back to my hotel with a heavy bag of British chick books and goodies from Fortnum and Mason.

On Monday I plotted out a six hour walking tour in the rain. St. James’s, Mayfair, and Trafalgar, Victoria Embankment, The City, the Tower, and St. Katherine’s Dock all saw the soles of my wet, tired feet.

221b Baker Street. Museum? Souvenir Shop? Home of arcane creative anachronists who don’t get that Holmes was a fictional character? Hard to say, Watson.
Robert Falcon Scott memorial in St. James’s. Scott and his team were the second to reach the South Pole and died on the way back.

A couple hours of that was inside the National Gallery. I could easily have spent a couple more (on another occasion).

Something happens here, you just have to sit in the chair with the deerstalker on.
Feeding the birds in Regent’s Park. Hey, where did those Canada Geese come from?

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