Sunday, June 26, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

England Day 5: The Nerdiest London Exploration

My inner nerd was satisfied today, as we walked around London to see some of the most iconic pieces of the city’s storied literary and film history. We started the day early and did more exploring of different parts of the city that we had not yet been to. Once again, I was happy to walk instead of take the tube, because who wants to look at a dark hole in the ground when we could be looking at some amazing pieces of London?

The day began fairly early, as we wanted to have time to take the Tube to King’s Cross Station and shop at Platform 9¾—a Harry Potter fan’s dream. Though the store is a lot smaller and less exciting than I thought it might be (it is no Universal or Harry Potter London Studio), I still loved seeing the décor and props like owl cages hanging from the ceiling, blue and gold wallpaper, and a whole cabinet full of model Hogwarts Expresses, Time Turners, and magical money. There were also stands for each house, which had a variety of items like sweaters, patches, notebooks, socks, and mugs.

Though I would have loved a Ravenclaw sweater, it is so hard for me to commit to an article of clothing as a souvenir. I settled instead on purchasing a Ravenclaw patch and some awesome wax seals—one with the Hogwarts logo and one with the Platform 9¾ logo on. I also got a tshirt for my brother, a keychain for my dad, a miniature Gryffindor mug for my mom, and four replica Hogwarts Express tickets. I might eventually order an official Ravenclaw sweater… Maybe.

After doing our shopping, we got in line to take some pictures of the Platform 9¾ wall just outside the shop. There sits a trolley about halfway through the magical wall, where tourists can pop on a scarf of their choice and pretend they are headed to Hogwarts. I might hate doing tourist things like this, but with something as important to my life as Harry Potter, I had to do it. I threw on my Ravenclaw scarf and pretended to be floating into the wall on my way to magic school. The pictures turned out pretty well—even if I did have to act strangely for a few seconds.

Our first mission over, we took some time to walk around the actual station of King’s Cross. Fun fact that most people probably know by now: the station used in the first HP film was not actually King’s Cross, because the outside of the station is actually not that pretty. It is basically just an unassuming brick building. Instead, they used the much more interesting neighbor St. Pancras Station, whose beautiful spires and detailed façade definitely make for a better movie set. We walked across the street to see the station more closely, and were not disappointed in seeing it up close. My bucket list now includes staying at a room in the St. Pancras International Hotel, and driving there in the adorable purple car we saw parked in front of it. It was truly a magical sight.

Next, we mapped our route to get to 221B Baker Street. Our walk started with a quick stop by The British Library, which turned out not only to be an unattractive mid-century modern brick building, but also to be extremely busy. The line to get into the library went all the way across the small courtyard and would have taken much more time than we had to give. So, we took some photos of the outside and then continued on through a commercial district toward Baker Street.

On that walk, we were met by few people and many interesting places. We walked by buildings like St. Pancras Church (with incredible Greek style statue columns), One Marylebone (a former Anglican church now used as a beautiful private event venue and museum), Park Square East (one of the largest private squares in London), the Royal Acedemy of Music (the oldest music school in Britain, where we heard a pianist practicing from the third floor open window), St. Marylebone Parish Church (from which the entire area of Marylebone gets its name), Madame Tussauds (completely garish and too touristy for us, but definitely an interesting landmark to see), and the plaque of the first underground location. It really is amazing what just walking around can find.

Finally, we arrived at the Sherlock Holmes Museum. This small building on Baker Street houses props and famous symbols from all different representations of Sherlock: the original novels, the Robert Downey Jr. movie, the Cumberbatch series, etc. We did not purchase tickets to the actual museum because we did not have time to take the tour, but the perfect set recreation of the original series looked absolutely amazing in photos. Pipes, hats, and pocket watches filled the tiny shop, as well as prints, matchbooks, and music boxes. It was a flashback into Victorian London that every Holmes fan would enjoy. And, it is actually housed at 221B Baker Street, the home of the fictional Sherlock. Though the atmosphere surrounding the house might have changed since Sir Arthur Cannon Doyle’s memory of it, I was so happy to see the real place where so many of my favorite fictional moments take place.

After a lot of walking, we were happy to grab the Baker Street tube back to Piccadilly for a quick rest. We stopped at a recommended doughnut shop called Crosstown Doughnuts to grab a quick snack before heading back to the hotel. Our next stop, The National Gallery, was about a five-minute walk from our hotel, so we decided to take a break and finish our doughnuts before heading out again. The doughnut was delicious, but I would recommend a plain frosted or filled one over the one with sprinkles—the icing on mine was stiff in order to hold on the beautiful but unnecessary sprinkles. The others looked just as delicious and would probably be more worth the price.

After our quick rest in the room, we headed over to the National Portrait Gallery. This was recommended to us by our hosts in Salisbury as a really cool place to go to see the Tudor portraits all the way up to the modern day Windsor family. As soon as I heard there would be Tudor portraits, I was all about checking it out. But it turns out there are more portraits in this building than anyone could ever hope for—scientists, authors, musicians, politicians, artists, and rulers. There really is something for everyone in this huge building.

We found the Tudor and Elizabethan room first, as we were both excited to see the ancient portraits of British monarchs. On the walls hung King Henry I, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII, King John, Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, Katherine of Aragon, Queen Mary, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas Moore, a beautiful full body of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife), Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s third wife), King Edward IV, King Richard II, and many more.

It was absolutely fascinating to see all of these portraits not only because they are an important part of English history, but because they were the real thing. They are not replicas, prints, or reproductions. They are truly the same canvases that hung in the same rooms as these famous monarchs. To me, seeing the stunning image of one of my greatest heroes, Queen Elizabeth I, was beyond exciting. I was living the dream and enjoying every single second of it.

We then walked around more of the museum, wandering in and out of rooms we thought would be interesting. We found a hall of scientists, portraits of John Keats and Seamus Heaney, the only known original portrait of Jane Austen, James Joyce, Beatrix Potter, and huge paintings of the royal families throughout history. There were even some sculptures mixed in occasionally—one awesome one was of a conductor called Sir Thomas Beecham. He was a conductor of the London Philharmonic during the early 20th century, was considered Britain’s first international conductor, and used his family money to finance operas. It still astonishes me how much one can learn after seeing a fascinating portrait. 

We then visited a room very special to me: the Charlotte Brontë exhibition. The Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) are very near to my heart. Similarly to Jane Austen, the Brontës helped pave the way for other women authors to gain serious literary merit in their Victorian world dominated by men. Without them and their novels, who knows what could have happened to other famous women like Mary Shelley, Louisa May Alcott, and George Elliot?

Anyway, I have read and loved many Brontë novels, so seeing a whole room dedicated to the eldest sister really inspired me. On the walls hung her portraits and portraits of her siblings, and in the cases were letters, manuscripts, and paintings done by Charlotte. Highlights of the exhibit included the portrait of the three sisters painted by their brother Branwell, and a painting done by Charlotte of their childhood home on the moors. But the coolest things in the room were the tiny books written by the siblings about their imaginary world. The family was well known to have been creative, and the four siblings were always writing stories about the magical worlds they created. The surviving books are no more than five inches tall, but hold the earliest examples of Brontë creative literature that we have. That is an incredible piece of literary history. I am so happy to have seen them.

To get to the specialty exhibit, we next walked through the modern wing of the museum. This displays portraits of all sorts of public figures throughout contemporary British history. Included are people like Paul McCartney, Alan Rickman, Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Collins, Helen Mirren, Ian McKellan, and JK Rowling. Also in this wing are all of the recent monarchs and members of the Royal Family, including Princess Diana, her children, and Queen Elizabeth II. I got to stand in front of her portrait and take a picture with her. Even if she isn’t really next to me, it was still an honor to get a photo with one of the most influential people in my life. I would love to meet her for real some day, but for now, this will do as a cherished memory.

Our final stop in the Portrait Gallery was the exhibition on black photography. Unfortunately, it was not very big, nor very well described. Luckily for me, the entire description is available online and does a much better job of outlining the exhibit. The purpose is, through photographic portraits, to highlight lesser-known aspects of black life in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. It is meant to showcase the black presence in Britain before 1948, when major immigration happened.

Personally, I found this fascinating, because this section of history is not well known to anyone and certainly was never taught in American schools. I walked around looking at the photos, completely mesmerized by their beauty. In a time as intense as this, I thought this exhibit a poignant example of the importance of history and documentation in shaping the future. The most fascinating piece was a huge book of proofs, each labeled with name and date and number. There are so many photos left to be discovered, and I want to be part of the process of figuring it all out. A part of giving stories back to those who deserve them.

Successfully finished with the Portrait Gallery, we headed around the block to the original National Gallery. There, we accidentally happened upon Trafalgar Square—a bit of a shock, but amazing nonetheless. We were stopped by multiple buskers and scalpers, one of which called me Miss America. I thought that was funny.

We walked up the giant steps into the immense entryway and knew we were in for a daunting task. Both tired by this point, we decided to find the impressionist wing and see what we could see on the way there. The building itself is also a work of art, even besides the actual canvases that live there—multiple mythological mosaics line the floors, golden pillars prop up detailed domes and filigreed archways. The entire time, I felt like I had walked into a movie set. As cool as Milwaukee is, there is absolutely no history like we saw today. I was entranced.

We walked through room after room, looking at paintings by van Gough, Renoir, Degas, and Monet, Rembrandt, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Again, I could not believe I was seeing these paintings right in front of me. An original van Gough three feet away. Almost within reach. I learned about so many different artists that I did not know I liked, as well as the names of styles that I already knew about but could not describe accurately. I had an absolutely great time just strolling through to look at great art—something I rarely get the chance to do.

After a quick stop in Trafalgar Square to take some photos, we started walking through Soho to get to our lunch restaurant: Golden Union Fish Bar. It was almost 1PM by this point, so there was no wait to get a table in the small and relatively unassuming place. The rest of Soho kind of looks that way, though, so it did not really surprise me to know that one of the highest rating fish and chips spots in London lives in what looks like the back alley of a New York street. A bit of weaving is required when navigating Soho, but eventually, we found the hidden treasure.

Gold and red are the colors of Golden Union, and delicious is the word for the food. We wanted something traditionally English, since their fish and chips is much different than what we consider “fish fry”. Even though there were more adventurous options, we decided to split a cod and chips and get a side of mushy peas to share—the classic London lunch. We waited a little while for it to come out, but man, was it worth it. Crispy batter, flavorful fish, and perfectly shaped chips. The peas were not something I would want to eat every day, but definitely worth the try. We left back into the graffitied streets of Soho full and extremely happy. I would recommend this place for anyone looking for authentic fish and chips in the heart of a really creative neighborhood!

Finally full of food, we walked back to Piccadilly and stopped by the theater to pick up our tickets for later. Successful in this, we walked back to the hotel to rest for a few more minutes before getting on the tube once more. This time, we went on the Piccadilly line out to Earl’s Court to see the only Doctor Who police box left in London. The Tardis does not open for visitors, but is available for photos right outside the tube station. I only say this because Diana and I walked both directions from the station trying to find the stupid box, when it had been in front of us when we walked out the first time. Who knew a giant blue cube would be so hard to locate?

Back down to the station we went, and took the line back to Knightsbridge and followed the signs to Harrod’s. I was so excited to see such an iconic image of London, and was confident not to get turned away at the door like so many stories I had heard before. Leave it to me to look back to make sure the door didn’t need to be held for anyone behind me, only to run directly into the metal detector in front of me. The poor security guard asked if I was okay and made sure I didn’t need anything before letting me go in. Phew. How embarrassing.

We proceeded through the Cosmetics Hall to get to the clothes on the other side, including such sections as “Luxury Accessories” and “The Colour Hall”. This store was unlike anything we have in America—it was packed full of completely designer merchandise, in a way that made it confusing and disorienting to shop. I almost never get overwhelmed in a store, but this one did me in. Somehow, we found our way into the Egyptian Escalator room, a completely over the top, stylized room complete with sculptures and golden paint. Even if it didn’t go very fast, it was certainly the most luxurious escalator I’ve ever ridden.

We rode the crazy escalator all the way up to the top floor, where we walked into “Shoe Heaven”. This was the most incredible selection of designer footwear I have ever seen in my entire life—and displayed in a by now expectedly crazy style of Harrod’s. Golden metallic cases, diamond straps, mirrored walls… each designer’s salon room had a different interior style. It was absolutely insane.

After a quick spin through the women’s clothing and a similar sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, we quickly made our way down to the food on the ground floor. It turns out we skipped the gift shop and something called the Writing Room, which would probably have been pretty awesome to see. But the food hall was enough for us—four different rooms with muraled ceilings, golden filigree, and expensive fresh and packaged food in every available space. The Chocolate & Confectionary room was a favorite of ours, but the chicken rotisserie restaurant smelled very, very good, too. But again, we were getting a little tired just thinking about having to traverse any more of the store.

Instead, we decided to cut our visit short and find Ladurée for some macarons before leaving. We wove our way through the Fine Jewelry Room, the Fine Watch Room, and the Wine, Spirits, & Cigars section before finally arriving at Ladurée. After oogling at all of the impeccably French interior decorations, complete with marble floors, crystal chandeliers, pastel blue walls, and a luxury tearoom balcony upstairs, we then turned our attention to the incredible pastries in the case. We each chose three macarons to take home—I got a rose petal, a Marie Antoinette tea (rose and honey), and a classic vanilla. 

My favorite actually turned out to be the Marie Antoinette. It is simply a delicious blend of a subtle rose flavor (which I found too intense in the rose petal macaron) and the honey and black tea flavors, which balanced out the bitterness of the rose. It was absolutely delicious, and I wish I had bought many, many more—even if they were expensive!

From there, we exited that intense shopping space and hopped back on the tube home. Our day was almost done! We just needed to change and eat some dinner before walking across the street—yes, across the street—to Her Majesty’s Theater for our production of Phantom of the Opera. We picked our hotel specifically so that we would be close to the theater and not have to take the tube late at night, which I greatly appreciated even on our way to the show. Can’t beat a two minute walk to the venue, that’s for sure.

Even though our seats weren’t great, we could still see the stage and enjoy the wonderful music. The cast was phenomenal, and I thought the Phantom was played perfectly. In contrast to the weirdly loveable character played by Gerard Butler, this Phantom was appropriately creepy and mean, yet oddly endearing. I do not want to have a crush on the Phantom, I want to feel badly for him. And I did. The performance of Carlotta was also stunning. It was the best performance I’ve seen of a classic show. Out of the many options we could have seen, I am glad we chose this one.

After the show ended, we stumbled on our sore feet back across the street to our hotel room. I am so thankful that we researched well and did as much as we did, no matter how tiring it was. We saw so much and had a great time just wandering around the city, ending with an incredible performance. I think I can say we had a once in a lifetime day!

photo credit Diana Cleveland 

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