Saturday, June 23, 2007

Vacation 14: London Finished

Parliament guards.

(More mostly random pics not indexed to the text.)

Friday. Our last full day in London. We have a car coming to the hotel tomorrow morning at 7 to take us to Heathrow, and thence to Chicago. We just cashed in our Oyster cards, the prepaid public transit cards which you use to get around on the tube and buses. I hated to give my little passport to the city back; we had just begun to feel comfortable getting around.

Cool old house near St. Paul's.

Yesterday (Thursday) was an odds & ends day, and we left the hotel after breakfast with five or six items to accomplish, thinking we'd just see another swath of the city this way. Step one was the Samuel French drama bookstore up in Bloomsbury. We took the tube up there and figured we'd walk the rest, at least until our feet gave out. Susan found a couple new plays, and we headed South on Tottenham Court Road (which I cannot see or say without thinking of Audrey Hepburn saying it in My Fair Lady) in search of The Old Curiosity Shop. It's currently a shoe store, and its presence on the street is in stark contrast with everything else, around it or elsewhere. The sign on the front says the building dates from 1567, and our book says it was a typical storefront before the great fire of 1666. The whole building is listing precariously (I wonder if it was built this way or if it has really settled that much), and the heavy oak door stays shut by gravity pulling against its slant (and it takes quite a push against gravity to get it open and keep it open long enough to get in or out). Tottenham Court Road from Bloomsbury down to Oxford St. is packed with high-end electronic boutiques, and reminds me of parts of New York--a street with a personality distinctive from its neighbors.

After the Old Curiosity Shop (which is apparently a book by Dickens, though it's not known if it's really this shop that's referenced) we went in search of the city's only Birkenstock store, trying to find the pair of shoes I've had on order in Appleton for a year (they've forgotten surely, but nobody else has them apparently either). This shop was familiar with the shoe in question--I was wearing my current pair--but said they'd not been able to get this particular model now for three years or so. They had nothing else quite right, and so we were off for our next objective, the market at Covent Garden, and lunch. Covent Garden is really fabulous and atmospheric, seeming like how shopping might have been done a century ago or more. There are several aisles, mostly covered, in a center courtyard, surrounded by a substantial ring of shops. There were 10,000 people milling around, and a whole host of street musicians (very good ones) and magicians and hucksters packing the place.

A small part of Covent Garden Market.

Susan headed off to shop, and I went to a corner of the market where the London Transportation Museum is located. I was in search of a book about the history and construction of the London Underground, and thought I might tour the museum to boot. But the museum is closed for renovation. Just as well, as it took me forever to cull thru their large selection of books about transportation-related things. I'm almost paralyzed in a place like this, as I'd like if not to buy every book and map I see then at least to absorb all the information from them. They had several good books on the London Tube, plus books about specific lines, especially the most recent addition, the Jubilee Line. This latter book had one of the things I'd been looking for, diagrams showing how the stations look in 3-D underneath the existing buildings and infrastructure. Those diagrams were particularly fascinating to me--especially the big section on the Westminster Station, which is huge and elaborate and transports you 10 stories or more below street level to get to the trains. Alas, there just wasn't enough information about everything else to warrant buying it, and it alone promised to take up my whole budget for this trifle. There was also a book about abandoned stations on the tube, something for which I would pay an unreasonable amount if it were in reference to the New York subway system. But I just can't claim enough connection to this system to warrant it. But I love, love, love the eau de whore nostalgique that a book like this is drenched in. I ended up with a good general history of the tube, without any of the things I loved from the other books but maybe a better dollop of solid general information.

One thing I got from the attendant (or rather, from her boss, who had been working at the place for 25 years) was an answer to my question about why the tunnels were so deep in London. I guess it's not a very difficult question, and one any transportation geek from another city might ask. But the first clerk I asked was blinkingly flummoxed, and quickly summoned the Great Answer Man, who made short work of it. London has the oldest subway system in the world, first opening in 1863. The first lines were done in the same manner as New York's and Chicago's, by a process called "cut and cover", where the line followed the path of the street, and a channel was just dug for the length of the street and then covered over when the work was done and the street repaved. But, he said, London was a medieval city, and the streets did not lend themselves very well to this. Also, London was already in the 1860s a terribly busy and chaotic place, and the period of subway construction imposed an unbearable inconvenience to the city's commerce, so much so that the city declared that no more work of this sort would be tolerated. So much for cut & cover. Additionally, once the decision was made to go further down and tunnel along, it was decided that if they went down just a bit further yet there was a layer of clay which was very easy to tunnel thru. And so the need to go deep was modified by a motive to go a bit deeper yet. There you have it. (You can sleep soundly now!) (For what it's worth, it helps explain why the population of London headed for the tube for shelter during the blitz in WW2. The subways in New York would not necessarily be very safe during a bombing raid, but nothing would reach you in the London tube.)

Book in hand, we walked thru town to Trafalgar Square and caught the tube over to Susan's former workplace, Harrod's. She worked briefly at the makeup counter here about 20 years ago, illegally employed thru a friend of hers who also worked there. Eventually someone figured out that she wasn't really legal to work, and they sent her packing--but not before she was about to throw in the towel on her own. The store is quite unlike anything I've ever seen. It's immense, sure, but more than that is the range of things they carry: you can get everything from all your grocery needs (all quite high-end) to every conceivable home furnishing item, including pets and pet supplies and jewelry and travel agencies and all manner of clothing, and much more; all under the same roof. What they don't have, they'll get; and personal shopping services are one of the things they offer--like a hotel concierge for the population of London (well, the rich population).

We got a little snack from their impossible deli, and looked at the statue and memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, whose father owns Harrod's. The statue in particular is quite stunning, and rather sensual and innocent. It's said that the two memorials draw thousands of visitors a day, and there is a Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Walk in Hyde Park, as well as other reminders of the princess. There are also plenty of pictures and postcards of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (who has the title of Duchess of Cornwall, I believe), but the continuing popularity of Diana is a bit of a mystery to me. Not being from here, the business of her moving on with her life after her annulment is the slightest bit strange to me, as I only think of her in reference to the royal family. But of course, she had moved on, and the memorials of the end of her life reflect this change. I can only figure that the British are so taken with her still because in some part of the collective English mind a switch was flipped which said "Here is to be our next Queen," and the emotional attachment (which seems almost familial) had taken place accordingly. She was a very popular princess in life, and I just think this is a brand of celebrity that goes much deeper than, say, our affection for Madonna or Britney Spears. The papers are still full of news of the Royals, with a picture of Charles and Camilla (who seem like a proper couple) at the Ascot Op'ning Day (he says, chanting รก la Lerner & Lowe), and a story today about Prince William turning 25 and getting a cool 300,000 pounds-yearly allowance from his mother's estate.

We caught a series of trains back to the hotel after Harrod's (it was now about 6:pm) and I headed off for an organ concert at Grosvenor Chapel, where someone I'd never heard of was exploring the North German treatment of chorale tunes--music of Buxtehude, Bach, Scheidt, Vogler, and a couple others. Very nice, and there were only about 25-30 of us there, in a small space listening to an organ built in 1991 (the organ builder was in the audience).

Today, Friday, we tentatively decided that after three weeks of continuous going, we might just sit around the hotel and wind down. But of course it didn't quite come off that way. I had some schoolwork to complete for my upcoming yearly recurrent training (into which I am thrown barely 24 hours after return to native soil). So that bit of studying took about 90 minutes, after which we lunched in a nearby pub, and decided we'd just go look at a few streets we hadn't fully examined (as though there were only a couple of those left). A train ride to Oxford Circle, and we walked down Regent Street to Picadilly, stopping to look at shops along the way. We walked most of the way back, taking the train for the last little bit and cashing in our Oyster cards at the end. (It was surprisingly depressing to give this little card back, as you felt mobile and like a citizen with it, and rather stranded without-I can only imagine what it must have been like for Dzesika after living with the system for years. Susan and I both felt a bit blue.)

Except for our ride tomorrow to the airport, that's it for London.


Dzesika said...

Not as cool as the transport museum (or at least the transport museum when it's OPEN), but you might like this:
And you're SO right about the Oyster card. I really should have kept mine ...

wunelle said...

Oh, this is a GREAT site, exactly what I would do if I had the knowledge. I'm just so taken by what we've left behind, and this business of being able to glimpse stations which have been abandoned for 50 years makes me want to go back and go on an easter egg hunt!

He has the hobby I want.