Day Four: Portobello Road, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, The British Museum, London and Tower Bridges, and the Messiah at Southwark Cathedral
My last full day in London arrived far too soon. There was so much I hadn’t done and seen yet and I was determined to cross a few more destinations off of my list. By ten o’clock in the morning I was on the Tube heading toward Holland Park. I was on an important mission, one I had been planning since childhood. I was determined to set foot on Portobello Road. Now, for those of you who have never seen the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks you must immediately stop reading this blog, go out and buy the DVD or rent it from Netflix, and watch it this minute. It’s alright, I’ll wait…okay fine. Just watch this part:
Awesome, right? And now you know why I had to go to Portobello Road. I remember watching that movie all the time as a child and one of my favourite parts was always the Portobello Road dance sequence. It was a bit of childhood magic that I had placed in my pocket when I came to the UK; something I had decided I wanted to do before I set foot on the plane in September. As I sat on the carriage that was speeding along the track, the song ran on repeat through my head.
Eventually I emerged from the station and found myself on a beautiful, wide street. It was lined with gorgeous homes and it was so quiet. It was quiet a sunny day and the white exterior of the houses seemed to gleam against the green shrubs and blue sky.
This is it, I thought. If I were to live anywhere in London, it would be here.
I turned down one of the side lanes and strolled past the uniform front stoops of dozens of these well-manicured homes. The quiet filled my ears. It was the quietest the city had ever been. I breathed it in. It was perfect.
I turned down one more side road and finally arrived at Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are stowed. The road stood before me and wound past colourful buildings. The merchants were putting up stalls on the pavement. I had arrived probably a bit too early to get the full effect of the bustling market. I wandered past antique shops, shops selling all manner of kitsch, souvenir shops, cafes, pubs, second-hand clothiers, and record shops. I passed a crepe stand and instantly my mouth began watering. I passed a stall with ancient looking cameras and golf clubs. There were stalls filled with scarves, faux fur coats, and military jackets. Then I came to the man playing the steel drum. He was the only taste of my childhood imaginings I came across on Portobello Road. I wandered up and down the stalls and then decided to head back to the station. Perhaps had I come a little later or not directly after a holiday it would have been a more bustling scene. As I passed the beautiful homes again, I realised I wasn’t disappointed by my experience. It was a place I would love to visit again. I imagine it is the type of place that is ever changing and evolving with the seasons, weather, and people. I made a mental note to seek out Portobello Road again the next time I was in London.
Twenty minutes later I was once again emerging from a Tube station. This time I was at Hyde Park Corner. As I began to walk into the busier downtown area of Knightsbridge my phone buzzed in my pocket. I looked down and to my surprise I saw a message from someone I hadn’t seen in ten years. He had been a senior when I was a sophomore during my undergraduate days. By a remarkable coincidence he was in a performance of Messiah that evening at Southwark Cathedral and had seen from my posts on Facebook that I was in the city. I made up my mind to attend and shook my head at the enormous coincidence.
My stomach rumbled and I sought out a restaurant to grab a bite. I settled on Wagamama where I partook of their trademark juices and noodles. £20 later I was heading back toward Hyde Park hoping to catch a glimpse of Winter Wonderland. I passed through the Hyde Park Screen and joined the crowds heading toward the centre of the park. As I neared the entrance to the fair, I heard a woman’s voice echoing across the grass. She was beckoning everyone to come to Winter Wonderland.
I entered the fair and started to feel a bit disappointed. I had now been to at least two Christmas Markets and this did not seem to be any different. In fact it was almost exactly the same at the Edinburgh Christmas Market, same food, stalls, and tchotchkes for sale. It just seemed a little bigger. I decided to turn up one of the paths and all of a sudden I was in an amusement park.
I kid you not, dear reader, the Christmas market had dissolved into carnival games, roller coasters, haunted house rides, and scramblers. Buckets of cotton candy (or fairy floss as the natives call it) hung from popcorn and sweet carts. A large Ferris wheel reached up into the sky and I had to blink several times to make sure I hadn’t entered some sort of odd delusion. One moment I had been in the prototypical German Christmas market and the next I was at Six Flags. I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass.
I weaved through dense crowds and gaped at the sites around me. Eventually I made my way back to the market and finally out into the park. I shook my head, still unsure if what I had seen had actually existed.
Buckingham Palace was a short walk away and I figured while I was in the neighbourhood I might as well drop in. I wandered through Green Park, under the Wellington Arch and down a lovely tree lined road. The Victoria Memorial rose up in the distance and the gates in front of the palace were lined with people three deep. I was reminded of when I had visited the White House while I was in Washington, D.C. I say visited, what I mean of course, when I passed the gates and had to work my way to the front of the crowd for a proper view. Here I was seven months later and an ocean away working through the crowd for a glimpse of Buckingham Palace. I watched for a minute or two as one of the guards marched back and forth beyond the gates before I moved on. After I circled the Victoria Memorial, I decided it was time for another museum.
I had been to the Natural History Museum, the V&A, and the Science Museum. I still hadn’t been to the most famous museum in London and I couldn’t call my trip complete until I had seen the British Museum.
Once more I climbed aboard the London Underground. I had become an old hat at riding the Tube and this time I was headed toward Tottenham Court Road. I still love emerging from the underground. You truly never know what you will find when you climb up those stairs. I felt as though I were in downtown Manhattan. The sidewalks were narrower, the crowds more dense, and the buildings felt more used. The character changed as I neared the museum into a more artsy sort of ambience, little cafes and bookshops rather than fast food places.
The museum came up on my left and I passed into the forecourt just as the sun was beginning to wane in the sky. I knew when I came back out after my visit, it would be dark. I climbed the step and passed through the columns and found myself standing in the Great Court for the first time. I chuckled a bit to myself. I had written a paper about the architecture of the Great Court without ever having seen it. Now I was finally standing there gazing at the gorgeous glass ceiling that canopied the vast, vacuous space. It was perfect.
I had only a few hours before the museum would close so I grabbed a map and decided to hit Ancient Egypt, the Parthenon marbles, Sutton Hoo, and the Lewis Chessmen. It was terribly crowded when I entered the Egyptian hall. Once again I was weaving through couples and families, tourists and scholars to catch a glimpse of the figurines, statues, and architectural pieces. I found an empty bench and decided to catch my breath.
I had been going for seven hours and I still had to make it down to Southwark Cathedral by 7:30. I felt like Portobello Road had been a week ago rather than a few hours. I cast my mind back to the day before, the V&A and the Science Museum, further back still, back to 2013 and New Year’s Eve. Had it really only been a few days? I had been back in England for less than a week. I had been home only five days before. How had I gotten here? I began thinking all the way back to when I had first applied to Durham. So much had changed. So much was still to change. I blinked and realised I had been staring at a series of several animal statues. I felt as ancient as those statues in that moment. I sighed and stood up.
I passed the Rosetta Stone, too late to realise what the huge crowd around it was gawking at and headed toward the Parthenon marbles. I read every label, watched the restoration video, and finally entered the darkened gallery where they lined the walls. Here were pieces of history and culture ripped from their original context and culture and transfigured into curiosities and art. In some ways they had lost their original cultural context. They seemed more British to me than Greek. They fit their surroundings. As I studied them intently I couldn’t decide if they should be repatriated or not. I thought I would have achieved clarity on the issue by seeing them in person. Instead I felt more conflicted than ever.
I wandered through gallery after gallery. I peered at every Sutton Hoo artefact and read every label. I climbed the stairs and found the Lewis chessman. After that I meandered through rooms filled with everything imaginable. It all blurred together and I allowed my brain to shut off and merely soaked it all in. My favourite item of the day was an elaborate clockwork ship that in its day would travel across a table and fire its tiny cannons. I passed scores of coins, statues, ceramics, and glass. I finally found myself in the café fifteen minutes before closing. I order a pot of tea and a lemon drizzle cake before finally bidding the British Museum adieu.
It made no sense to go back to my hotel. Instead I decided to head to Southwark Cathedral two hours early and wander the river front. Night had fallen across London and the lights on the Thames danced and sparkled. I gazed out across the river and saw the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I hadn’t made it there this time. Then there was London Bridge glowing bright orange. I strolled along until I came to the HMS Belfast and there was Tower Bridge in the distance. The city at night was beautiful and alive.
It was thirty minutes before the performance was to begin. I headed back toward the cathedral and found a seat on the aisle in the last row. It was a gorgeous space and I was so grateful that I would be hearing music. I hadn’t realised how starved I was for it. The seats filled up completely and finally the performance began. I spotted my old compatriot and smiled. It truly is a small world when you can be thousands of miles from home and still come across the people you knew.
The first chords of the overture filled the ornate cavern and then the choir began. I closed my eyes and allowed each note to pass over me. For the second time that day I turned off my brain and just soaked up my surroundings and the sounds of choral singing. I missed it so terribly. When I returned to Durham I would do everything I could to sing again. The performance concluded and I managed to catch up for a few minutes with my friend. They choir had been touring for two weeks and tonight was the final performance. I was saddened by this. I had hoped they would perhaps head north and I would be able to hear them again. Further disappointment came when I realised they had been in London on New Year’s Eve. How much different would my night have been had I spent it with people I knew! We took a photo to commemorate the occasion and I wished him luck on his journey home.
That night I returned to the hotel and began the arduous and depressing task of packing. My train for Durham would be leaving at half past noon which left me little time to wait in the morning. I dreaded lugging my baggage onto to the Tube and through the streets of Durham on the other side, but at least the buses would be running. As I zipped up my large red suitcase I realised that though being on my own had been difficult over the past few days, I had managed to see and do so many fantastic things. I was lucky. When else in my life would I have these sorts of opportunities? Soon I hoped. I couldn’t wait to do this again. London had nestled into a very special place in my heart and I wanted nothing more than to come back and stay for longer. Forever.