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a few days in London


I recently answered a post in the Forum and ended up waxing on and on about my favourite bits of London, so I thought I'd go out of order for a bit and put up my London entry while all those thoughts were still whirling around my head.


I arrived in London in late October on an overnight flight from Toronto. A friend picked me up and we ditched my bags at his place and then headed out into the city. I knew I had to keep moving in order to stay awake, but didn't have any specific idea of what I wanted to do beyond 'touristing sounds fun.' I lived in London, on and off, for five years, so there are some areas, like Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, that I know inside and out. And the last time I had been back to visit I dragged a friend around the Tower, the Museum of London, the National Gallery and to see a show at The Globe Theatre. So this time we decided to start with Big Ben and the parliament buildings because I hadn't seen those in a long time.

We ended up spending two days wandering the South Bank. Mostly East of the parliament buildings. That first day, we took a cruise down the Thames. I've never done that and it's been on my list of things to try. It was mostly sunny and not that cold, and we had a fantastic vantage point at the railing of the boat. There was an unofficial tour guide - one of the crew - but I could only hear him part of the time. We passed the National Theatre, the Globe, the HMS Belfast, the Tower, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf (which I had never seen), and ended up going all the way out to Greenwich.


We got off the boat and wandered through the grounds of Greenwich University and the Royal Military College. It was beautiful there, with the big white building standing out in the twilight, and strains of music drifting from one of the windows.


We kept wandering, stumbled across a map and realised we weren't far from the observatory that established Greenwich Mean Time. We hiked up to where it sat at the top of a hill and discovered a spectacular nighttime view of the East End.


The next day was a Friday, so I dragged my friend down to Borough Market. This is one of my favourite places in London. Or, it used to be. It was in the process of being renovated, and while many of the stalls were still open, nothing was where I remembered it. It's a whole market, tucked under the arches of a rail bridge and overpasses, so there's lots of old brick and wrought iron and it has a delightfully Victorian feel. They sell some of the most unusual treats, and lots of organic and home-made foods.


There used to be a stall where you could buy pheasant and other wild game all trussed up by its feet, but we couldn't find it this time. We ate lunch at the market, and bought snacks. Then we headed out along the river again, aiming for the HMS Belfast.

The HMS Belfast was a battle cruiser, commissioned in the '30s. She fought in WWII and was part of the bombardment at the D-Day landings. She was overhauled in 1950 and last saw active service in the Korean War. She is now permanently docked on the Thames and part of the Imperial War Museum.


We spent an hour poking through the various levels with one of those portable audio guides. I was most fascinated by the crew living areas. I spent ages peering into the kitchens and laundry and crew bunks, trying to get an idea of what it was like to live on one of these ships. We eventually retreated up to the deck levels because it was feeling very stuffy and oppressive inside, and I think I might have been a little seasick.

From the Belfast, we walked along the Thames, all the way back to the London Eye.

The ticket comes with a 4-minute 4-D Experience, where the fourth D, it turns out, involved being sprayed with mist and bubbles. And the ride on the Eye itself was beautiful. It was after dark by this point (by the end of October, it's getting dark pretty early) so we could see the city lights stretching on forever. There were only a few other people in our car, too, so I was able to move around easily, taking dozens and dozens of photos. Particularly of Big Ben, the Parliament Buildings, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Thames.


So beautiful. And very peaceful, actually.

The next day, I headed up to Camden Market on my own. Camden Market is another of my favourite places in London, and another place that has been recently renovated. It used to be its own separate village, but was annexed into a growing London. Many of the old stone buildings are still there, and practically all of them have been converted into a giant market. It's amazing. Parts of it are still grungy and boho. This is the place where you can still find punks with foot-high bright green mohawks. And goths. Lots of goths. I love it there, grunge and all. And I'm actually quite upset about the areas that have been renovated and cleaned up and turned into cute upscale boutiques. It always happens, though. The bohos make it cool, then the yuppies move in.


That said, some of the renovated areas are absolutely stunning. And they've opened up whole new areas that I had never been into before. It was amazing seeing the bones of the old stalls, the old horse hospital, all still mostly intact. And some of the bronze artwork they've put in, some of the lampposts and stautary, is just lovely.


On Monday, instead of finding a pub somewhere, a friend and I decided to meet up at the British Museum and do our catching up while we wandered there. Such a good choice. We started with the rooms off the atrium devoted to the Enlightenment. They seemed to hold a little bit of everything from just about everywhere. It also contained the library of King George III, and the whole area felt like a select library of the British Empire. My favourite thing in the room was a replica of the Rosetta Stone that the public was invited to touch. I loved being able to run my fingers over the stone, to feel the engravings. I'm not sure why that connection was so important to me, but it really made an impact.

From the Enlightenment, we headed upstairs. My friend wanted to see the Mesopotamian things and I didn't much care what we saw, so long as I could just wander through the museum. It turned out Mesopotamia was at the opposite end of the second floor, so we wandered through Ancient Britain to get there. All those old Celtic torques were giving me flashbacks to endless university lectures (I have a degree in Archaeology and Celtic Studies that is completely pristine and unused), but I couldn't really remember any of the specifics of what I'd been taught.

I loved the Mesopotamian stuff when we got there. Everything, whether it had pictorial engravings or not, was also covered in cuneiform writing. It was beautiful. Having been spoiled earlier, I wanted to run my fingers over everything, as though that physical connection would help me understand what it meant.

We then headed down to the gallery where they keep the big stuff. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, whatever. There were huge sculptures of human-faced animals, and animal-faced humans, taken from palaces and temples in many different countries. Slabs of stone friezes. A reconstruction of giant copper-bound wooden gates. The head and arm of a giant statue, described as colossal, the rest of which is still in the sands where it was found.
"Round the ruins of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone, level sands stretch far away." One of the only poems I know by heart. I've always loved the desert.

Also in this room was the Rosetta Stone. The real Rosetta Stone. Encased in glass, this time. No touching.


It's beautiful, with the rows of writing so tight and so neat, and perfectly straight. It contains the same text in Ancient Greek, the everyday language of the Egyptians, and hieroglyphics. Within 25 years of its discovery, historians had cracked the hieroglyphic code. And now a copy of the damn thing is printed on every single item they sell in the gift shop, from paperweights to dish towels.

And that was the end of my few days in London; the next day I flew to Marrakech to spend three weeks travelling around Morocco. It was a very good start to my trip, though, and I was pleased with my decision to find new things to see, rather than only revisiting the familiar. The markets, being particular favourites, were the exception, but with the renovations, there were new things to explore there, too. Next time I'll have to branch out and try new markets, maybe Spitalfields or Notting Hill, and find new rooms in the British Museum to explore. And maybe add a graveyard or two... There's always more to do in London.

Posted by kithica 12:52 Archived in England Tagged tourist_sites

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