When I worked in the writing center at my college, I would often take people’s paper drafts and make an outline of what they had already written. I found this more useful, sometimes, than an outline before drafting, because this “reverse” outline showed what they had actually written, instead of what they thought they were going to write. So rather than give you a regular itinerary for my trips, I think I’ll go with a “reverse” itinerary–not my plans, but what I actually did!
Thursday, Day 1/2: Kensington, Earl’s Court, Hammersmith
This day doesn’t really count, because I was so tired from being awake for so long. I knew I needed to stay up until at least seven, to try and get on London time, so I basically wandered around Kensington and Earl’s Court. When my feet started hurting, I took the Tube over the Hammersmith to check out their Primark (my favorite UK store, which will reoccur in this entry!)
Friday, Day 1: Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Covent Garden
I started off this day bright and early, with breakfast and coffee (there was toast, boiled eggs and cereal, a pretty good spread for a free hostel breakfast!). Then I was off to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. It was raining, but I got there early and ended up talking to a nice family from Barcelona. They had three generations there, but only the youngest could speak English, so there was a lot of gesturing and translating. Unfortunately, we all waited in the rain for an hour just for them to announce that they were not doing the big ceremony…because of rain. Still, I got to see these guys!
Then I walked over to Trafalgar Square, and spied my next target–the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey!
Westmister Abbey is a little overwhelming, because every inch is covered in a plaque or memorial. Especially “Poet’s Corner,” with Chaucer, Kipling, George Eliot, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and many many other great authors. I had kind of an eerie feeling about walking over all these graves from the past centuries…but it was unavoidable. Also, I usually don’t like audio guides to places, but I was happy to let Jeremy Irons narrate my visit. It was basically like having Scar from The Lion King talk to me about British history for a couple of hours.
Then I headed over to the market in Covent Garden, which isn’t really a market so much as semi-covered shops and restaurants. But it was great, and totally decked out for Christmas. The highlight was Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop–a store that sells old fashioned toys, including these elaborate paper theaters that were popular in the Victorian era (of course I got one!). Also the pub, Punch and Judy’s, which was everything you want in a British pub–dark wood, London ales, friendly bartenders. Perfect.
Saturday, Day 2: Kensington Palace and Gardens, lunch at Harrods, Lord Mayor’s Fireworks
On Saturday, I went to my favorite place in London. Really. Kensington Palace blew my mind. The palace itself was beautiful, but it had these thought provoking and artistic exhibits about its former inhabitants, and everyone who worked there was a pleasure. I learned so much about British history. Did you know that Victoria and Albert spoke German to each other in private? Or that Queen Anne lost 18 children?
Then I went over to Harrods, and ate a fancy pants lunch in the tea room. It was definitely a splurge, but quite an experience. Finally, I ended up on the South Bank of the Thames to watch the Lord Mayor’s Fireworks. It was impressive and a cool way to end the day. Plus I bonded with a French girl, who also had no idea where the fireworks were supposed to be.
(NB: Doing this update now from Rome, via my Nook, so you’ll have to check out my Flickr for pictures from the rest of the week!)
Sunday, Day 3: Camden Markets, British Library
I love all markets, and even with the high amount of touristy plastic gift items hawked at Camden, they still might be some of my favorites. You just have to dig deep to find the bargains. I took a break after lunch to visit the British Library, where I was surprised to find a manuscript for Beowulf, handwritten Beatles lyrics from Paul and John, a Gutenberg Bible, an early version of the Magna Carta, and much more…and it was free! So cool. Only downside was that they have the original handwritten manuscript for Alice in Wonderland, but it wasn’t on display. Then back to Camden to sit by the water and watch the sunset, while drinking mulled wine. Perfect.
Monday, Day 4: National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery, Charing Cross Rd., Oxford St.
I really enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery, as it is arranged chronologically, and you can really see how art has evolved, while filling in gaps in your British history knowledge. At the National Gallery, I hit up the temporary exhibit about Viennese portraiture at the turn of the century. It was great, and I got super contemplative amongst all the Klimt and Schiele, thinking about pictures and portraits and how we choose to represent ourselves. If you’re a rising middle class person, maybe Jewish, in Vienna circa 1900, do you go with a “safe” painter, or do you take a risk on something new, someone who may not depict you the way you hoped? How do we select our profile pictures today, on Facebook?
I spent the afternoon picking my way through the used bookstores on Charing Cross Road and the clothing stores on Oxford Street. I finally visited the flagship Primark–nothing short of a pilgrimage for me. Let’s just say that it fulfilled all my dreams of cheap, cute clothing, and that I’ll probably never need tights again. (That’s a lie. I go through tights at an alarming rate…)
Tuesday, Day 5: Museum of London, Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Museum, Romeo and Juliet, Lighting of Oxford Street
Started Day 5 at the Museum of London, which traces the city’s history from Londinium all the way to the 2012 Olympics. It was great, especially the “our Londinium” exhibit, which had London teens and kids contextualize Roman London and find ways it connected to their lives today. Also, I loved the mock Victorian streets, and everything about the suffragettes. If you don’t know about Mrs. Pankhurst…you should.
I visited the antique toys at Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Museum (not related to the store in Covent Garden). If you’re like me and really love antique toys, go for it, but there’s a much better collection at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood.
Then I was at loose ends, so I stopped by the discount ticket booth in Leicester Square and saw that they had 10 pound tickets to the National Youth Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet…for a matinee in just 20 minutes. It was one of the best impulsive choices I’ve ever made. The show really got at the sex, drugs, and simmering anger under the surface of the play by setting it in early 1980s Camden. I know, but it didn’t feel like a gimmick! It was thoroughly and intelligently done, and there was a live rock band on stage. I just wish they hadn’t cut it down to two hours, because Juliet was a powerhouse, and I didn’t want it to end.
Finally, I ended up back on Oxford Street for the lighting up of the Christmas decorations. Can it be Christmas already?
Wednesday, Day 6: British Museum, Covent Garden, Matilda
I spent my last day in London going to the British Museum, which is amazing…but makes me feel kind of sick and uneasy about imperialism all at the same time. Actually, that pretty much characterizes my feelings about Britain as a whole. Great Britain, I love so much about you, I love so much of your culture and literature…and I hate so much of your impact on the world. Sigh.
But the day ended on the best possible note, with Matilda: the Musical. Based on Roald Dahl’s book about an incredibly smart little girl who doesn’t get the parents she deserves, the play is dark, witty, melancholy, uplifting, and affirms the power of books and storytelling. It is perfect.
Sadly, after Matilda, I had to go back to my hostel and pack everything up. After a fantastic week in London, I was finally going to Austria to meet my host family for the next year…
Spoiler alert: They are amazing. 🙂