My long-awaited solo trip to London had arrived at last… and on Monday morning, I said farewell to Penelope and my folks and headed to Gare du Nord to hop aboard the Eurostar to St. Pancras. It still amazes me that you can take an underwater train from Paris to London (even if you don’t get to see any fish).
I’ve taken the train between Paris and London several times over the past two decades, and it remains easy, efficient, and tremendously comfortable. Speedy too! Monday’s trip was no exception. I arrived at my hotel in Kensington around lunchtime, checked in, and headed to the local Sainsbury’s to stock my room fridge. I’d booked a single room at the Nadler, a wonderful hotel that we’ve stayed at in each of our London trips over the past decade (both the Kensington and Victoria locations). Each room has a mini-kitchenette, which we’ve loved for easy breakfasts and/or dinners at home.
After settling in and noshing on a few of my favorite British snacks, I headed to Covent Gardens for the Monday Antiques Market in the Jubilee hall. Browsing complete, I checked the offerings at the Transport Museum, but they had very few Tube poetry posters left, alas.
I had several hours left before my evening engagement, so I decided to take a walking tour with my trusty Rick Steves’ audio guide. Though I’ve been to London many times before, I’d never toured the neighborhood surrounding St. Paul’s, also know as the City… so why not now? I walked from Covent Garden to the tour’s starting point, the Church of St. Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice and began the tour.
Three miles later, I’d crossed London Bridge and ended the tour on the other side of the Thames, just in time to find some dinner before the evening’s entertainment: a play at Shakespeare’s Globe.
This summer’s plays are largely histories, but I’d elected to see a comedy I’d never seen before: The Merry Wives of Windsor. And I had a bench seat right at the very tip-top of the theatre.
IMHO, this play isn’t one of Shakespeare’s finest, but the performance was wonderful—full of physical humor and wordplay. Falstaff was in particularly fine form.
All in all, a wonderful first day in London—tired but very happy, I headed home for a good night’s sleep, with 21k steps and 20 flights of stairs on my FitBit.
Tuesday morning it was time to head to the British Library to see their Treasures exhibit. Although they keep some of their pieces on permanent display (like Jane Austen’s writing desk), the letters and first editions have often been changed on each of my visits. Today I had the pleasure of seeing pages from Virginia Woolf, two of the Bronte sisters, and Derek Walcott, among many others.
I took some time wandering happily around the ground floor, from the gorgeous displays to the wonderful bookshops, and then departed for my next stop of the day: the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A is one of my all-time favorite museums—the art is wonderful, the special exhibits are often spectacular, and the building itself would be worth a visit on its own.
I neglected to take any pictures of the art, but the many rooms were, as always, most enjoyable—and I spent a happy hour browsing the enormous gift shop as well. One of the best museum stores, especially if you like William Morris (which I do).
Alas, I needed to cut short my visit a bit, as I had an art gallery opening to attend across town in Shoreditch.
For the past five years or so, I’ve been following the art career of Lorraine Loots, a watercolorist from South Africa. She specializes in miniatures, and her series of work is called Painting for Ants. And it just so happened that her solo retrospective was scheduled for the very week I was in London—so I had to go.
I arrived promptly at 4pm for the buyers’ preview, and I was delighted to be early enough to purchase one of her works. Someday I might acquire an original, but for today I decided on a piece from her limited artist’s proof run of prints—and managed to buy the last one of the five available of… The Hobbit.
I enjoyed the rest of the exhibit very much—she had over 900 works on display, along with magnifying glasses with which to examine her teeny-tiny work. And with that, I was ready to head home and spend the evening relaxing in my hotel room.
Late that night, alas, I was struck down by food poisoning. We shall therefore, dear reader, pass over the next twenty-four hours, in which I moved only from my bed to my bathroom—at times with great urgency. Let us say no more.
While recovering, however, I did finish watching The Umbrella Academy and start Good Omens. The former was good, the latter—AMAZING. Having now finished the series, I can say without reservation that it is all-time my favorite book-to-screen adaptation. It’s just brilliant.
So, on to Thursday. I’d had tickets for both the Tate Britain Van Gogh exhibit and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for Wednesday, but since I’d spent the day sick and/or recovering, I’d had to forfeit both. Luckily, my Harry Potter tickets had resold, and I was able to buy new tickets for seats at Saturday’s double performance. And I decided to try my luck at the Tate Britain, though the exhibition ticket policy clearly states no refunds, no exchanges.
I made my way slowly over to the museum via the Tube and a short walk. Still recovering, I was moving at a somewhat glacial pace, a fact underscored by the man on crutches who passed me halfway there. But I eventually made it to the Tate Britain, where a kindly clerk took pity on me and allowed me an immediate entrance to the Van Gogh exhibit, with no extra charge. My fortunes were on the upswing.
The exhibit, Van Gogh and Britain, was very fine indeed. As alert readers will remember, I’ve mentioned the contextual aspect of recent exhibits I’ve seen whilst on sabbatical, and this exhibit was no exception. In addition to a wonderful array of paintings by Van Gogh himself, the exhibit also included many of the paintings mentioned in his letters—painting he’d seen in London museums or as reproductions in art shops. They offered a library of all of the books he was known to have read in English, from Shakespeare to Dickens (and many others). And many of his letters written to his brother Theo were displayed as well, documenting his years living in London. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, which was surprisingly extensive.
After I finished this special exhibit, I decided to spend a bit more time in some of my favorite galleries—I first passed through the Turner wing (stopping here and there) to visit the William Blake collection upstairs. And then I spent nearly an hour in the 1830s room—my absolute favorite gallery at the Tate Britain. The masterpieces there are stacked three and four deep, and the room contains some of my very favorite paintings.
By now it was early afternoon, and I had just enough time left in the day for two destinations: the central Bank of England and Kew Gardens. At the former, my purpose was straightforward: to exchange obsolete paper bills. Every ten years or so, the UK seems to change its money—or at least that’s been my impression. And hapless tourists who keep a spare five or ten pound note in their wallets can no longer spend these bills when they eventually return to England. But I’d read online that you can exchange these notes for new ones at the main branch of the Bank of England on Threadneedle Street. So off I went—and upon arrival, was questioned thoroughly by first an armed guard and then a man in a wig and top hat. But eventually my task was deemed an honorable one, and the new notes were secured. Made of polymer, not paper—they are slippery devils, indeed.
With now-spendable cash, I set out for Kew Gardens. My energy was flagging a bit, but a few hours wandering in the beautiful botanic gardens was exactly what I needed. After a mid-day rain shower, the skies were beautifully clear and sunny—and the garden shone bright. After the hustle and bustle of the financial district around the Bank of England, Kew was a blessed oasis. Calm, quiet, and lovely.
As an added bonus, Kew is hosting a Dale Chihuly exhibit, so there are a dozen major installations around the grounds, in addition to the usual foliage. The pieces were bright and evocative, sometimes standing out and sometimes more sympathetic to their surroundings. I’ve seen several Chihuly installations in gardens in the US, but this one might just be my favorite.
With the garden closing, I headed back to the Tube station and an evening’s rest at home. Art, fresh air, and the scent of roses had made me feel fully restored, and I’d decided to take a bit of a field trip the next day.
So Friday morning I was bound for Birmingham. This day trip was a bit of a lark, really. A few weeks ago I’d read The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson, in which a now late-middle-aged Bryson tours around England, as a sort of sequel to his enormously popular memoir/portrait of a country, Notes from a Small Island. I found myself charmed, as always, by Bryson’s voice—and also quite intrigued by his description of the Art Gallery and Museum in Birmingham. His book alerted me to the fact the Museum has the world’s largest collection of pre-Raphaelite art—and I decided I might just have to see that for myself. Having never been to Birmingham, I set off without much planned.
I boarded a train at the Euston train station bright and early… or at least early—the skies were quite overcast, and the rain began almost immediately upon our departure. But I was thrilled to be embarking on a new adventure—and I always enjoy a train ride through the countryside.
Upon arrival, I headed directly to the Art Gallery and Museum, which houses both Birmingham’s art collection and various historical artifacts as well—including the recently discovered Staffordshire Hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold. Though I toured the whole museum, the bulk of my time was spent in the art galleries.
I was impressed by one of the world’s largest watercolor painting—and even more impressed by a William Morris design-in-progress of wallpaper.
A few hours later, I headed north through the city to the Jewelry District, where I stopped at the Rose Villa Tavern. Cozily decorated and well-stocked with regulars, the pub was a most convivial spot for lunch—and to dry out from the soaking I’d received from my walk across town.
My dominant impression of Birmingham’s buildings was red brick—and the effect, especially in the rain, was quite lovely. I also passed a picturesque cemetery, right in the middle of downtown—with a list of its “residents.” Perfectly British nomenclature, that.
After a stop at the historical museum in the Jewelry District, I walked back to the newer part of town to see England’s largest public library—and it really was quite lovely. An interesting design on the outside, and an absolutely beautiful browsing room inside.
My last stop of the day was the Bullring and Grand Central, a positively enormous mall attached to Birmingham’s train station. I’m sure I was the only tourist there—and it was great fun to see locals shopping on Friday afternoon. I very much enjoyed the people-watching and eavesdropping while also browsing through both department stores and smaller boutiques alike. And I bought a new umbrella at Boots, as my cheap umbrella from Florence had given up completely under the all-day onslaught of English rain.
My adventure complete, I purchased a Pret-a-Manger sandwich for dinner and boarded the train back to London.
On Saturday morning, I had my long-awaited trip to the Portobello Road Market. The Market seems larger and larger every time I visit, and I so enjoy looking through both the antiques and the reproductions alike.
I started with the actual (or at least more-likely-to-be-actual) antiques at the beginning of the market, in the interior shops, then worked my way all the way down to the underpass area, filled with vintage clothing—and then back up the other side of the street.
My browsing (and shopping) complete, I headed back to my hotel to drop off my treasures before taking the Tube to my final London stop: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’d remained deliberately in ignorance of anything about the play, wanting it to be a surprise. No reading, no reviews—nothing. And so it was with great anticipation that I arrived at the Palace Theatre for the Part I matinee.
After Part I ended, I walked over to Punjab, a reliably tasty Indian restaurant near Covent Garden—one I’ve been to on nearly every trip to London over the past two decades. It’s conveniently across the street from Forbidden Planet, a terrific store for fans of nearly every book or film or TV show you might imagine.
Dinner and neighborhood stroll complete, I headed back to the theatre by way of the House of MinaLima—a storefront for the graphic design team behind much of the Wizarding World in the Harry Potter films.
After admiring their gorgeous storefront, I went inside to further admire their wonderful prints—these were among my favorites. I think one (or both?) would look quite lovely in my classroom… maybe a future purchase.
The evening was waning, and it was time to return to the theater for Part II—where I donned my #KeepTheSecrets badge and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the play.
My UK trip (almost) complete, I boarded the Tube to my hotel to pack my bag and get some sleep before my early morning train back to Paris. And what a fabulous trip it was. Paris has indeed been wonderful, but I think London will always have the truest part of my heart. I love the English sense of humor, their reverence for history and literature, and, perhaps most of all, their firm belief in the queue. It’s quite a proper place, and I adore it so.
Oh—and an especially important post-script! This solo trip to London would, of course, not have been possible without the help of my parents, who took such good care of Penelope back in Paris while I was away. An amazing gift for both of us—and we both had a wonderful time. 🙂