Flowers, alleys and Turner

Following our historical trip to Dubris, sorry, Dover, we spent our final full day in London exploring the heaving, bustling cosmopolis of the old city.

A friend of our host told us that the most scenic way to reach Brick Lane, where we planned to fossick among the stalls, was via the Columbia flower market. Which sounded perfect, though he did tell is to listen out for the Cockney accents for some extra local colour. As it turned out, we needn’t have listened out for the accents, as from the moment we started down Columbia lane we were engulfed in the sights, smells and above all sounds of the market. Stall owners were calling out to each other over the crowds in exactly the sort of Cockney accents that the streets are full of in Dickensian dramas. Under that was the chatter of locals and tourists, admiring the overflowing buckets and trays of flowers of all kinds, the rattle of bicycles and tooting of cars on the next street.
We briefly escaped the commotion in a little cafe behind the stalls, enjoying pies (actual pies!) and the relative peace of the room, before returning to the world outside.
Though there were many beautiful bouquets, it didn’t seem like a good idea to get flowers the day before an International flight, so we continued along the canals to Brick Lane.

Columbia Flower market

Columbia Flower market

Brick Lane seems from the end that we started on to be a series of jumble sale stalls, with collections of old books and shoes that anyone could dig out of their spare rooms. As we went on though, we saw the little specialty shops, boutique second hand stores and underground markets. They were the sorts of places where you could buy expensive candles and designer jewelry, vintage fur coats, bomber jackets and a green velvet cloak. Record stores, selling actual records, were doing a booming trade and mostly young people were striding around in groups, retro sunglasses on against the sun shining down the lane. Passing a placard with a mention of Jack the Ripper, and walls covered in the most artistic of graffiti, we found the food vans and regretting having already eaten.

Food stalls on Bricklane

Food stalls on Bricklane

After some difficulties in Whitechapel Station (it would be that one), we made our way to the centre of town and the National Gallery. We had only a limited amount of time to spend, so tried to find the eras we were most interested in. Very soon we had found the collection of Van Gogh paintings, including the famous sunflowers and nearby a huge painting from Monet. It was part of a series, but even alone was mesmerising. Pulling myself away I continued my search for a particular painting and soon found it, smaller than I’d thought. I don’t know what it is about The Fighting Temeraire, but something pulls me back to it over and over.
What’s it like seeing your favourite painting in person? Satisfying and a tiny bit disappointing, for the wait to be over.

By Turner

By Turner

There were other Turner paintings as well, which were also entrancing in their own way, not to mention an astounding horse from Constable and endless halls full of art.
Running out of time, we then had to leave, though by the time we got outside the sun had disappeared behind the clouds.

The National Gallery

The National Gallery

Now what was it we were in such a rush about? Well, when one is in London, one must go to the West End, don’t you know?

The show that we’d bought last minute tickets for was a production partly created by a fellow from our own home town, Tim Minchin. It was also based on a book that I had loved as a little girl. It was of course Matilda.
Due to having last minute tickets, we ended up right at the back, though we still had a great view of the stage and the audience. I was a little bit unsure of how it would go for my partner, as he’s well known to be averse to musicals, but we were both pleasantly surprised and in his own words, he got quite into it.

View from the back

View from the back

It was a show that was full of wonderful songs, sadness, great performances, spiritedness and a message to take away. It often seems that everything these days has some sort of moral, repeated in children’s theatre and movies so that even the least in touch can’t avoid it. The message this time, however, was not quite so Disneyfied. In short, sometimes life is terrible, but putting on a brave face isn’t good enough. If you just grin and bear it, to quote Minchin, you might as well be saying you think that it’s alright. If you want change you have to do it yourself. And friendship and intelligence are powerful. How’s that for inspiring the young?

Matilda!

Matilda!

We left the show, at least in my case, a tiny bit damp around the eyes, buoyed up by the music, songs and fantasy of theatre. Thus lightened, we decided to explore the city at night, taking in Waterstones (biggest bookstore in Europe, seriously, it was massive. And yes, of course I bought a book), Buckingham Palace (less impressive than I’d imagined), the WWII Bomber Memorial (very Greek), dinner at an Indian restaurant (we were in London after all) and finally the couple of drinks (mulled wine with rum!) at a cozy pub. After which we grabbed a ride on a double decker, seated right up the front on the top, for a final tour of the streets of London.

Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus

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Streets and stones of London

Though my previous post may have lead you to believe otherwise, there is more to London than just staring at fascinating and ancient artifacts from around the world.
Before I get into that and continue our adventure from the portico of the British Museum, I have a joke relating to an item at the museum to share with you, dear reader.
Me: Knock knock?
You: Who’s there?
Me: Sutton.
You: Sutton who?
And then we laugh. I came up with that joke all by myself, though I have to say that the first listener didn’t give me quite the response I was after. Some people just have no taste.

Anyway, having left the museum (and material for other hilarious jokes) behind, we continued down to the main street, further into London. As we went I noticed plaques on the walls of the very typical townhouse frontages, one of which stood out especially. It was dedicated to Dame Millicent Fawcett, who as I’m sure you know, was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and played an important role in the campaign for women’s votes. History really is everywhere.

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Dame Millicent Fawcett lived here

We walked for a while, taking in the bustle of tourists and locals, the black cabs and double-decker red buses and ye olde style pubs. Soon we found ourselves in Leicester Square, which seemed to to be heart of the West End. Wherever we turned, huge posters for shows loomed above us, some familiar and some new. We headed to one of the last minute booking stands, and after some discussion, booked tickets to a certain musical for the second last day of our stay. There will be more on that in a later post, and yes, it was fantastic and not revolting at all.

It seemed now that we were starting to slip into the more well known parts of London, the streets and squares featured on endless tv shows and movies. One of the most recognisable squares also waited just ahead of us as we went down towards to river from Leicester Square. All of a sudden, a huge column topped by an old fashioned looking gentleman came into view, and beneath him was spread a place that I have seen so many times that I felt a sense of deja vu. It was also bigger in person, the fountains on either side more like elaborate paddling pools and the lions under Nelson’s Column many times larger than life. At the time it was too dark to properly make out the statues on plinths around the square, but something that was well lit up was the National Gallery, sitting becolumned and huge behind the square. It was closing as we arrived, so we put that off until another day.

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National Gallery at night

In addition to the tourists and locals hanging about and climbing the lion statues, there was a collection of flowers, candles and waterlogged posters huddled next to one of the fountains. The words ‘Je suis Paris’, #endhate and the tricolour in various forms were almost lost in the darkness, lit up by the light of the fountain and the flash of cameras. And if you’re wondering, no we didn’t notice a huge amount of security, no more than the serious clusters of bobbies that I imagine would usually stroll around busy areas.

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Je Suis Paris

From the square, as we turned our backs on the National Gallery, a familiar clock face appeared in the distance. Not having any other plans, we headed towards it, dodging crowds, crossing busy streets and passing endless pubs and theatres. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben were all as impressive as I’d thought they would be, lit up and seeming to have just jumped out of a guidebook.

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There was also one final sight that I wanted to take in, one that isn’t on the front pages of the guidebooks. The Stone of London. I’d heard about it in the novel Kraken, by China Mieville, and then found references to it in guides to obscure sights of London.
It’s origins are mysterious, from a Roman mile stone, the foundation of a bath house to the remnants of a medieval wall, and has been mentioned in travel guides from the middle ages to the 18th century. In the 14th century the leader of a rebellion against the king swore an oath on the stone before going to war (he failed, though it probably wasn’t the stone’s fault), and it was commonly believed to be the heart of London. If it was moved, so it was said, the city of London would fall.

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The Stone of London

It’s now located behind a grating in the wall of a convenience store, with only a small plaque and the neighbouring London Stone pub giving away its location. Maybe in another 2000 years it’ll still be there, slightly more reduced and unimportant looking, dragging myths with it into the future.

After all this adventure our feet were starting to hurt and our stomachs were rumbling, so we sought out dinner and drinks and then went home. By the time we made it back, sleepy and tipsy, the name of the train line that we had to catch was completely hilarious. It kept us going at least halfway home.

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A tube line