Okay, so I’ve been to Europe a few times and have heard all sorts of horror stories about European train strikes, but I’d never experienced one until a little over a week ago in London. I made my trek into the city (which took an agonizingly long time-2.5 hours to go 40 miles, and I thought Seattle traffic was bad) only to discover that no trains were running and all the tube stations were closed (hence the reason for the hellishly long bus ride). I had a rather aggressive itinerary for the day, which made the tube kind of necessary, but rather than stress over my list I revised my plans, and can I just say, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had traveling!
Lesson to be had: it’s great to have a plan, but don’t let everything depend on it. Sometimes you have a better time by just going with the flow. So, my new itinerary, which I entitled “Rachel Hoofs London” began at the Marble Arch bus stop, which was perfect as it allowed me to explore London’s Mayfair district.
I like to do my research on a city or country quite extensively before I go, but when I get there, I have the most fun when I have a short list of “sites” and can spend most of my time just exploring. As it happened, this day was PERFECT for that. Wandering through Mayfair, I was generally going in the direction of Soho and Leicester Square, but I got to walk through delightful little squares and gardens, including Berkeley Square (where, sadly, there were no singing nightingales–maybe it would have helped if I actually was there at night), and a delightful little piazza called Shepherds Market that has all sorts of neat shops and pubs, most of which I didn’t explore because it was mid morning and I had so much to do and see. A definite must on my return list though!
Walking through Shepherds Market I ended up on Piccadilly Street with all sorts of window shopping opportunities! I would have loved to have pretended I was a posh Londoner, but my camera equipment on my back and my jeans and t-shirt kind of gave me away. Still, I popped into Fortnum and Mason’s (hey, if it’s good enough for the queen, right?) and Burlington arcade, where I treated myself to a couple macarons from Ladurée. Bliss.
Continuing along Piccadilly eventually brought me to Piccadilly Circus and then Leicester Square and the West End. Behold the birthplace of my startled dreams! Now, I was on a mission that morning: I needed to get to the Garrick theatre to try and snag a ticket to see Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in A Winter’s Tale in October. I’ll be spending a few days in London this fall before flying back to the U.S. and wanted to see that West End production. Sadly though, A Winter’s Tale was completely sold out for October, but there was another Kenneth Branagh production that’s on alternating nights, and I got a ticket for that one!
Yes, darlings, I finally get to see my Much Ado About Nothing hero (pun intended) in the flesh! Hurray for flexible plans! I may need to buy a new copy of Much Ado for him to sign at the stage door, as mine is currently tucked away in a storage unit in Seattle.
So, my main mission was accomplished, but part of me still wanted to catch the 2:00 Old Kensington walk I’d originally planned on. However, Kensington is not exactly near the West End and without the tube running, that left me with buses. Now, I can navigate my way around any metro system like a champ. It’s one of my unique gifts, plus they have clear maps with the stops and the different lines. If such a thing for the London bus system exists, I didn’t find it. I wandered around the bus stops at Piccadilly Circus and eventually ended up walking to Trafalgar Square. By this point I was getting frustrated, and I only had about an hour to make it to Kensington anyway, with no way of knowing how long the bus would take. So I took a step back and remembered my new plan–and let the Kensington walk go.
Instead, I decided to give the National Gallery another chance: this time they had no room closures and I was able to see my Degas and Renoir (the Monet was still on loan somewhere). I also had a lovely lunch in the Gallery’s cafe and officially rescinded it’s nickname as The Gallery of Disappointments.
Looking at a map, I realized I was only about a 20 minute walk or so from the British Museum, and I figured that would be a worthwhile excursion. That 20 minute walk ended up taking me considerably longer because apparently I’m like Dug from Up when it comes to getting distracted in London.
My first discovery was a little street just around the corner from the Garrick’s stage door: Cecil Court. This may be my favorite discovery (thus far) in all of London. This tiny little cobblestone street is just bookshop after bookshop. Most of them selling used and antique volumes. One delightful shop specializing in children’s books had an honest to goodness actual Dalek (half hidden by a bald eagle statue). Another shop gave me Oxford flashbacks with its antique prints and maps. Sadly (luckily?) several shops were closed, otherwise I might have spent my whole day there!
Now off of my designated route, I began wandering through Covent Garden without much rhyme or reason, vaguely headed in what I thought might be the direction of the British Museum. More cobblestone streets decorated with bunting called invitingly to me, and I was detoured again when I came to Seven Dials, another discovery my careful research failed to uncover!
Seven Dials is an intersection in Covent Garden where 7 roads all converge on this one point. Down each road you can find boutiques, restaurants, and theaters. I chose one at random and ended up at the Donmar Warehouse. I stopped and took a picture, even though Tom Hiddleston wasn’t currently performing anything there.
By this point I was well off my original course, but I figured the British Museum was a big enough landmark that at some point I’d see a sign pointing me in the right direction (this turned out to be true) and after a scenic walking tour of Bloomsbury, in which I fancied myself meeting up with Virginia Woolf and her pals, I finally found it!
Okay, here’s the thing with me and museums. I love the idea of museums, but generally after an hour or so I’ve seen the highlights and I’m done (there are a few art museums that are exceptions to this rule). Truth be told, spending hours wandering around and reading all the little plaques describing each artifact bores me to death. This is one of the reasons why I love London: because there are no entry fees to the major museums I can go in and get my quick fix without feeling like I threw my money away or feeling compelled to stay because I just spent a bunch of money. Thank you, London!
So, I saw the highlights of the Egyptian and Greek collections and I was perfectly satisfied. However, let me tell you that it was thrilling to standing in front of the reliefs that once decorated the Parthenon and the statues that stood in Thebes over two thousand years ago. It’s an experience definitely worth having, and it’s marvelous to see the artistry and skill of those ancient civilizations.
Having looked my fill at the museum’s exhibits (and really, museum and ancient history buffs could really spend a full day or more there, there’s a reason this is a world class museum), I continued my exploration of London. Covent Garden had all sorts of streets and shops, and theatre marquees to marvel at. My wandering eventually led me back to Leicester Square where I finally got to sit and allowed myself to be entertained by street musicians.
In Chinatown, I found a wonderful little hole in the wall place serving delicious homemade dumplings, and by the time I finished, the evening crowds in Soho were really picking up. It was so much fun just to wander and feel the energy of that neighborhood: tourists and theatre goers and people meeting up after work. I didn’t venture into the red light areas, though I’m sure that had it’s own ambiance as well. Still, it was loud and crazy and lively and oh so much fun just to allow myself to be swept up in the party.
Gradually the scene shifted as I moved from Soho back into neighboring Mayfair. Here the crowds thinned and the atmosphere became less rowdy and more refined. I began seeing people dressed up for a nice evening out at a private club or exclusive restaurant. Most of the high end retailers were closing up for the night, but now the bars and cafes were opening up for the evening crowd. A couple art galleries were hosting events with attendees dressed to impress, and outside a couple of the very posh Mayfair hotels paparazzi were gathering (I found out later that it was most likely for Nicky Hilton’s wedding).
I returned to Marble Arch to catch my bus home, but was once again detoured along the way at Grosvenor Square where they had all sorts of activities going on: a private party, a concert stage, and an outdoor movie screen! Had I been staying in the city, I probably would have tried to join the festivities, but as it was I needed to catch my bus to go back to the farm.
Still, for a day that didn’t follow my original plan at all, it was still one of the best days of my trip thus far. I absolutely love London, and getting to explore it on foot was a marvelous opportunity that allowed me to discover areas I otherwise might have missed.
London, I can’t wait for October; we still have so much to do!