Let’s get this party started
Picked up the free WHERE London publication at the Concierge.
As with all publications London, there’s a map in the back. The whole city, spread across two pages.
I had to take my glasses off to read the street names, because London is a six-page city if ever there was one.
I don’t exactly know where I am—I can see Russell Square on the map but I don’t know how to get from here to there, which is the Dickens Museum.
Huh. Charles’s house is not listed in any of the Museum Attractions sections, and is not on the map.
To the Soane Museum, then. Maybe they can tell me where Charles’s house is.
Plan for Day 1, made sitting in the cafe just after the coffee kicked in so it might be overly optimistic:
- Soane Museum
- Dickens House
- Back to hotel to freshen up (but NOT nap)
- British Museum in the evening – it’s only across the Square (and I might be “done” by then anyway)
Weary, jet-lagged, but indomitable (okay so maybe not the last one, but gosh it sounds so terribly terribly British) I bused my own table and gave a cheery wave to the coffee-man, and was off on my adventure.
Went up the street the wrong way initially/naturally. Tavistock Square, that’s not the way to go. Serendipitously, though, I found this when I got there…
…which I took as an omen that the day would play out my way.
Turning myself (or the map) around, started walking the other way. Didn’t pay attention to the map or the cross streets, couldn’t find the Soane Museum.
I just…kept walking down the street.
But that led me to this lovely edifice, because the street literally ended right in front of it.
Which is a biggish kind of deal if you are a constant (chronic?) NPR listener.
Buying some fizzy water at a Sainsbury Express (and drinking it) helped re-energize brain.
The pair of AA batteries in my new, bought-for-London-trip camera ran out pretty quickly (before lunch on the first day). Went to buy some more, had to get a pack of eight. The clerk at the Sainsbury Express felt bad that all he had was the “large pac” and that it was priced at £5.95.
Turned out to be completely worth it, because the batteries ran out every half day or so and I only had two left by the time it was time to go home.
A continuation of my unanticipated and inadvertent perambulation—why can’t I find myself on the map?—led me down the street where I said hello to the dictionarian of great fame, Dr. Johnson, who would’ve been my boyfriend if he were pleasanter…
…then onto the monument to the Temple Bar, which was a gate when it existed…
…and finally onto the heart of the Lawe of the Lande, The Royal Courts of Justice.
So giving into the wandering that inevitably overcomes the jet-lagged-but-not-going-down-for-a-nap set, I…
…and I still didn’t know where the hell I was.
The window of the pub, and no, you cannot buy the miniature donkey.
Reviewing my trusty map I realized that I had almost stumbled upon the first findable stop of my day, the house of John Soane!
I am so awesome.
The House of Soane(All photos in this section by courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum, for which I thank them very much.)
Time capsule of what it was like back in the first third of the 1800’s (try figuring that out with jet lag).
If you were rich. And clever. And part of the smart set. And architect of Bank of London, posh country houses, etc. etc.
I got the impression that Sir John was a bit of a grand poohbah in his time.
He owned, for instance, the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I.
Soane bought the sarcophagus himself in 1824, with his own money, because the British Museum didn’t want to cough up the cash for it.
He punched a big hole in his wall to get the sarcophagus into his house, then threw a party for it once it was in.
And it’s still there.
Every room in Soane’s house has windows and beautiful ceilings and skylights. I mean every room, and I mean beautiful.
It’s a little crowded, his house, because it’s a little bit full of his, uh, stuff.
He was a collector in the old-timey sense, as in the time-to-do-the-grand-tour-of-the-continent and oo-ancient-Greece-was-awesome sense, and basically bought what he thought he ought.
Nobody put skylights in rooms back then, but he did. So, so fashionable. And clever; just imagine how dark it must’ve been inside London homes back when everybody burned coal and the air was thick with soot.
(And in an environmental twist, the current skies over London are so sunny—for London—that the UV light was beginning to damage some of the pieces in the collection. The museum had to have a specialist come in and apply, um, UV protectorant to the skylights over the main staircase and the Picture Room.)
Sir John surrounded himself with beautiful things from almost every period that had humans in it, and had Parliament—Parliament!—make an Act that settled and preserved “…the house and collection for the benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture.”
Thus he’s given, for 175 years, anybody who wants to the opportunity to experience the joy of discovery and study that they otherwise would not have.
Also, there was some kind of family rift and he didn’t want his everybody-says-so profligate sons to get anything.
The house has been more or less left the way he left it, and every room, every stairway, every turn of the head offers something to look/wonder at.
The things you can look at that he looked at include:
- Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress.” All eight paintings. In one room. On one wall. One.
- Hogarth’s “Election” on two more walls. In the same room.
Nobody has more Hogarths.
It was like Hogarth Heaven, really. I just stood there gaping; I may have actually said “Oh my gawd” when I walked into the Hogarth Room (you can take the girl out of America…). You can’t can’t can’t prepare yourself for this room, so if you have a hankering for Hogarth (and some us of do, darling, and we’re not ashamed) this is the place.
And it’s free.
Not just the Hogarths, but the entire museum. And if you are a gawker, you can stay until they turn the lights out.
The people that run this museum are so happy that you have willingly stood in their grey London weather for a few minutes whilst they ensure that the museum is not at that moment overrun with visitors before they let you in, so, dare I say, excited, about the museum and the man and the contents that they are the most delighted, delightful, helpful museum-iers that I have ever encountered.
I did indeed get directions to Mr. Dickens House from a guide at the Soane—it was on the map, just not where I was looking.
I guess everybody in London just knows where it is…
More than Just Museums
The seemingly angular and circuitous route upon which I was sent turned out to be a godsend—a godsend, I tell you!—because it took me past (and into) an outpost of a beloved institution that I still remember fondly from my days of living here, and also lunch!
It was great to see Boots the Chemists again, since that was where all my stuff feminine/beautical/bathroomy was bought during my bout of London living, and I still love it. This one was a small store, and as I was brain-fuzzy from jet-lag and the not having had lunch yet, I didn’t get much. I took advantage of their “3 for 2” vitamin/mineral sale, and glad I was because arithmetically speaking I wouldn’t’ve been able to tote up the prices of three things individually; I could just barely get away with doing two things because I could round up to the next even number and then see how many fingers I had out…
Und zo, I’m bringing back from the UK: fizzy Vitamin C tablets; Vitamins for Vegetarians; and Evening Primrose Oil capsules.
I was not bringing back the “Bath Essence” because I already knew I was going to use the entire bottle during my visit (and I did).
And then, I discover something new for me, something so terrific and so inexpensive and so simple that I would have been happy to eat all my meals there, such was my joy at ignoring my jet lagged brain (“just keep going, the Dickens Museum isn’t that far away”) and doing the sensible thing (“go in, for heaven’s sake, it’s lunch time in London, it’s allowed”).
I had the most refreshing, reviving bite to eat at hummus bros.
Hummus utterly fab, pita soft and spongy inside. Mint tea was hot water with tons of mint leaves in it.
Great, great, great. Vegan, even.
Suitably satiated, I eagerly looked forward to my jaunt up to Charles’s.
A Dickensian visit
He wrote Oliver Twist here. Fame came after that, as did children (an inordinate number), and eventually they moved.
Charles Dickens: Probably the first international literary superstar.
Clever business fellow, he serialized everything he wrote, and so people paid and paid and paid to find out the rest of the story (except his Christmas stuff).
All of his publications in America were serialized as well, but at that time Americay did not have copyright laws, so he never made a guinea/dime from his American fans.
When he went there, and told them he didn’t like that (the not making money from them), they didn’t like him for not liking that, and everybody went away in a huff.
But when he went again, it was one great big love fest—because they got to hear him read his stuff and he got to charge them for hearing it. Made a mint.
There is an oh-so-worth-it admission fee of £7, and it’s a self-guided tour, and all floors including basement are open, with a cafe and and a walled garden, and a short/informative video of Dickens’ life, and a shop in which I bought this:
because I had listened to this:
and never forgot it.
I made the tiny mistake of sitting down to watch the above-mentioned informative video, and the very second I did so the jet lag washed over me, and started whispering, “I am really, really tired. Aren’t you really, really tired?”
I watched the video twice.
Now, aside from the generally interesting things I found at museums Soane and Dickens, the most interesting fact I discovered is that both of them can be rented for private functions. With booze, even.
Oh my GAWD can you imagine sitting down to dinner at John Soanes’ table?
I am moving to London just to make local friends that I can invite to my private functions at these places.
I’m still 3 years old – I need an afternoon nap
It was time to go back the hotel. I was very, very, very happy that Charles’ house was three blocks from the hotel. I don’t think I could’ve walked any further than that, nor did I have the brain power to determine any other way to get back to the hotel other than walking in a straight line, down one street.
London, Day 1 pages:
Day 1, Afternoon: Museums-r-us (this page)