Posted by: Robin | August 21, 2010

London: Ten Years Later

Three days in a city like London, one of them jet-lagged, is not good planning, but since I’d spent a week there ten years ago, it seemed like enough. NOT! Every few blocks is something of literary, historical or cultural significance, not to mention the ultimate place for fun and people watching.  What took me by surprise (and shouldn’t have) is how much can change in ten years. I knew that the Millenium Bridge and the courtyard addition to the British Museum were new since my time there, but Trafalgar Square and all the building and facelifts for the old (such as the White Tower at the Tower of London) were a little disorienting. Summer Olympics 2012, duh!

One thing I recommend to the first-time visitor to London, having done it twice now (my husband Don had never been there), is one of the city bus tours. You can get on and off if you want, and it gives a good overview of the city and what there is to see. For the jetlagged longing to go to bed, but needing to stay awake, it is a perfect low impact way to spend your time. Your ticket is good for 24 hours, and now (at least on the Original Bus Tour) includes trips up the Thames to Westminster or down to Greenwich. The Thames is the life blood of London, and to really get a sense of what makes this city work, it is a must.

So what did we do with so little time? We went till we dropped for better or worse, and still didn’t get to everything on our list. The big three for us were the British Library, the British Museum (or as I fondly call it, “Let’s rape and pillage the cultures of the world” Museum, though it is lot’s cheaper to have just one place to visit), and St. Paul’s Cathedral at evensong (worshiping in a place where Christians have been worshiping for at least 15 centuries was a moving experience, even if the choir was from New Mexico. Even choirs go on holiday in August in the UK). For two English majors and Biblically-educated people, the British Library was Mecca. We saw the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, an original Chaucer manuscript and Jane Austen’s desk and reading glasses. We listened to Yeats and Joyce read from their works, gazed at some of the oldest surviving Bible texts and an original Magna Carta with the wax royal seals still attached plus music written by Handel and McCartney/Lennon. I was twitterpated!

Everything had changed in the British Museum with a lot more on display. We could have gone every day for a week and not seen it all. The courtyard is gorgeous, filling the place with light and space, thoroughly modern and yet not clashing with the old. My favorite museum of all the National Portrait Gallery was in an entirely different building, while the National Gallery has taken up the former’s space and covers the whole northern block of Trafalgar Square. Nelson still presides from his lofty perch, but it is clean, almost pigeon-less and with a hedge maze to explore. The heart of London, it is now welcoming and alive in ways it hadn’t been. Even St. Martin’s of the Fields has gone from dingy gray to white, it’s beautifully proportioned soaring steeple sparkling on sunny days.

Tea at Fortnum and Mason’s, the food merchant to the rich, important and/or titled for the past 300 years or so, was like walking into one of dozens of historical novels I’ve read over the years the mention this London institution. For about an hour we were in a different world. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub that was the favorite haunt of many literary lions, from Samuel Johnson and his cronies, to Dickens, to Chesterton, with the odd American President thrown in (Teddy Roosevelt), had great food and atmosphere. We spent a nice meal with two American women visiting from the Pacific Northwest. It was better than time travel. A play, “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes,” a two-man show with Peter Egan and Robert Daws at the Duchess Theatre near Covent Garden and a great burger sans mayo at Byron’s capped our three-day tour. London, as it had before, played the flirt and the tease (except in Westminster where she pretends to be a grande dame), giving just enough to keep us smitten and unsatisfied enough to keep us coming back for more.

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