Dr. Samuel Johnson famously pronounced that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Update that to expand from “a man” and I have to agree.
London was one of those places that I used to dream about when I was growing up. Since I was always a reader, I was familiar with Shakespeare and Chaucer and the other writers. London, it seemed to me, always glittered with magic. Roman Britain, Elizabethan England, Romantic London and England, Victorian London — you name it, you can find it.
I’d read so many novels set there, some historical novels from various periods of history, some of them Regency romances by Georgette Heyer. Jane Austen especially let me imagine the life of her time.
Sometimes I’d get a map and look up streets of London, or find articles on famous buildings — Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace. Some places no longer existed, long destroyed in some disaster or just by time. Some places were outside of London– Hampton Court Palace, Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Rye, Bath.
My love of history and literature, already established by the time I graduated from high school, only deepened with studies at undergraduate and graduate school.
By the time I first traveled to Europe in 1974, I’d long traveled there in imagination.
That summer I stayed in Stratford-upon-Avon for six weeks and was a student at the Shakespeare Summer School. I spent some time in London.
I was hooked on foreign travel. My mother, I suspect, secretly hoped that that one summer would get it out of my system. Not a chance.
Once I started teaching at Lamar University in 1975, I started taking a vacation to London and other UK sites every summer. I’d spent a week or ten days, go to plays, spend time walking and looking and just drinking in the atmosphere.
Sometimes, it seemed to me that I’d been there in some other life — that’s how familiar the streets were. I’d anticipate where to turn or walk, and there I was. That’s how much I’d read and studied for so many years.
I’d take day trips out of London, going to Canterbury or Oxford. I’d spend a few days in Stratford to see plays. In London I’d go to a museum, sight-see, take in a matinee, and sometimes in a week I’d see maybe 4 or 5 plays. Need I say that I bought relatively inexpensive tickets? However, it is also true that ticket prices were more reasonable then also.
Now London is somewhere I dream of staying for long periods. Maybe renting a flat for a month or so. When I go there now, I no longer try to jam in as much sight-seeing as possible, because now I target a few things, slow down, and savor the experiences.
So when I took a long weekend trip there in May, flying from Athens, it was a rather spur-of-the moment trip. This year, I built my trip around getting a ticket to see a special exhibit at the British Museum, one on Pompeii. Once I’d managed to get a ticket, for the Sunday of my trip, I could sort of think about what I wanted to do.
Specific things I wanted to do: catch up with a friend who was there before flying home to Florida. Have drinks with my friend Sara who lives there. Maybe see a friend’s son who is living there. I managed the first two, but not the third.
Arriving on Thursday, I got to my hotel, checked in, and walked up to Kensington High Street to do a bit of grocery shopping (there was a small refrigerator in the room). I walked around a bit and then went back to my room. I showered and unpacked, ordered room service for dinner, with some wine.
There’s just something so indulgent to me, still, about doing that. I love it. A nice meal, some wine, a book, and a comfortable bed with fluffy pillows and I was in heaven.
Friday was the Covent Garden day — just a short hop away from the Kensington High Street tube station. Emerging from the Covent Garden tube station, I headed left toward the small area known as Neal’s Yard. Until a couple of years ago, I’d never been to Covent Garden, despite many times in London. So my friend Christopher introduced me to it, and it was love at first experience.
In Neal’s Yard, I found Neal’s Yard Remedies, which makes organic creams and lotions and soaps and even makeup, sort of like The Body Shop, but not franchised. Now I always make time for a foray to the shop there, though I have found a New York City store that has a website and I’ve ordered from it. The original London store, though, small as it is, has such a neat setting.
Neal’s Yard itself was undergoing some changes when I was there in May. What had been a small restaurant and, on the corner of the same ground floor of a building, a hair salon, was under renovation. The small sandwich and snack place I knew was still open, though I wasn’t there on the day of the week when a guy plays the piano.
One place was still there — a walk-in massage business. Twenty minutes for my shoulders and back was just what I needed.
Above the Neal’s Remedies store, there’s a blue plaque that in England marks a building or flat or house associated with some historic or literary figure. This marker announces that Monty Python’s Flying Circus did something there.
Walking out of the little alley out of Neal’s Yard back to the street, I noticed a chalkboard with quotes on it. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson. I liked that.
Once at the street, I took a right and two stores later was in Neal’s Yard Cheese shop. If you’re a cheese lover, as I am, this is a real treat. Huge wheels of small-dairy cheeses are everywhere. Hand-lettered signs tell you who made it, what it is, etc. If you’re interested in anything, you can taste it. I ended up with a variety of cheeses, a small hunk of organic butter, some crackers, and a hunk of beautiful bread. Wrapped and paid for, my cheeses and bread and butter went into a cotton shopping bag emblazoned with the name of the store.
I had enough for night meals and snacks, plus a useful memento (the bag).
That joined the Neal’s Remedies purchases, in yet another cotton bag.
From there I walked a bit and stopped at a Starbucks. With a big cappuccino, I sat with a view of the street, took out my iPad and logged on to the free wifi, and enjoyed a relaxing break in a warm place. My view allowed for a lot of people-watching. People wrapped up in coats and mufflers walked around, stopped and shopped. I was cozy inside, sipping my cappuccino.
Once I finished and decided to wander back toward Covent Garden, I stopped at one store to look at a leather bag I liked, but decided against it. A few doors down was the tea shop I’d been in before. Not a place to drink tea, but a store that offers teas and teapots and other accessories. Twenty minutes later I had a third bag on my arm, filled with several varieties of loose teas and a nice flowered porcelain teapot. Right now the teapot is sitting on the counter behind me as I’m at the beach house, which is where I intended for it to be.
Then I crossed the cross street and headed into what many people think of when they think of Covent Garden — market area. The Apple Market has a different set of vendors every day of the week. For example, if you’re interested in antiques, go on Tuesday. I’d walk up and down, look at what was on offer. I ended up with a nice small handmade purse and a shawl. At one end of the open market is an area where street entertainers position themselves. That day I joined a crowd watching some guy on a tall monocycle. Amusing patter, gymnastic antics. At the end, I put some change in his hat on the ground and wandered back to the market area. I popped in a Crabtree and Evelyn store. I found some homemade soaps. Finally, I stopped and ate a late lunch at a Jamie Oliver place. Second fish and chips meal in two days, complete with mushy peas and a great cider.
I walked around a lot more and finally headed back to Kensington High Street, picked up a few more things at a Boots chemist (pharmacy + other things, a UK chain), and then walked to the hotel. Once back in my hotel room, I warmed up under a hot shower that was perfect for sore feet and shoulders.
The nice thing was I wasn’t concerned about ticking another thing off a predetermined list. For a bit I considered going to a play, but I didn’t have any luck getting a ticket to see Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” Night two was another reading night.
And so it went. Though I started out with one idea on Saturday about what to do, and that was to wander down Portobello Road. Saturdays are always market days. Again, it’s worth it. People-watching, snacks, street singers and entertainers, pubs, stores, stalls. Once more, I spent a leisurely day, ending up with some presents — a handful of cotton shopping bags (Portobello Road). I’m not the only bag lady I know.
Saturday evening I met my friend Susan, who was with a friend of hers who lives in England. We walked around and ended up at a pub I’d been to before, the King’s Head, and had some drinks. After they left, I ate dinner (fish and chips again, more mushy peas) and had some more cider.
Sunday was British Museum day, and that was wonderful. That evening my friend Sara met me at my hotel and we sat in the bar and enjoyed catching up while we drank some wine. Okay, make that a lot of wine. I wasn’t driving, and neither was she.
On Monday I returned to Athens.
Just a neat short trip, and if there was something I didn’t get to do, that’s okay. London always has something on offer.
Dr. Johnson was right.