While we were in England, we got the train from Bournemouth to visit London.
London was an important part of my life as soon as I was old enough to be allowed to travel there without adult supervision. Some people are naturally country folk, some people are city people; even though I grew up in small villages and quaint towns, that was never where I really wanted to be.
I was curious to see how London had changed since I last saw it, nearly 10 years ago. We arranged to stay overnight with Shimrit in Stoke Newington, which Sara amusingly misheard as “Stoat Newington”.
Memories fade, and my main reason for going to London was to take my new video camera and visit a bunch of familiar places and record them; the streets, the buildings, the traffic, the crowds.
We arrived at Waterloo Station, so we started off by wandering towards the Thames and taking a look at the London Eye. The Eye had been built some time after I left the country. I’d seen it on Doctor Who, but not in real life. We didn’t actually go up in it; there was a long queue, and the ride itself would have taken another half hour or so out of our busy schedule. There were more important places to see.
We crossed over to the Houses of Parliament. They were protest-free, thanks to the new “Serious Organized Crime and Police Act”, which bans such serious crimes as holding up a banner outside Parliament. We continued on to Parliament Square, where some Iraq war protesters were quietly camped out along the fence facing Parliament. Across the street, heavily armed police kept everyone away from their elected representatives.
We turned right and headed along Whitehall, past the Treasury and Cabinet Office. Some tourists were gawping at guardsmen outside Horse Guards; it’s good to see that the Queen is doing her duty and keeping the Colour regularly Trooped. We passed the old War Office; and defra, who were probably busy panicking over the latest outbreak of foot and mouth.
Trafalgar Square was disappointingly blemished by scaffolding, tarpaulins and wooden hoardings. It was also full of sky rats, of course, but they’re expected, so you can’t really call them a disappointment. We stopped at a small Italian restaurant nearby for a spot of lunch, then continued towards Leicester Square.
As we walked past the Odeon towards Piccadilly Circus, everything started to get very familiar, and I started to get tearful. The Swiss Centre is still as it was, and the Trocadero hasn’t changed much. Apparently the former is due to be modernized a bit, so I was probably lucky to get to experience it in its retro cuckoo clock glory.
We visited tate modern, of course. One thing we always missed in Boston was a decent modern art gallery, and Austin isn’t much better, though the Blanton does try.
By the evening, we were exhausted. We had some vegetarian curry at a restaurant near Shimrit’s pad, then crashed on the futon.
The next day we tried to take things a little easier, and started off at Oxford Circus for a day of shopping.
Now, I could be misremembering, but it seemed to me that the crowds were far worse than ten years ago. It was a rainy English summer day, but the herds of people reminded me more of the run-up to Christmas. We struggled towards Tottenham Court Road, ducking into stores here and there.
Given the current exchange rate, we tried to buy as little as possible; but inevitably, there were books, CDs and DVDs unavailable in the US which we were unable to resist. We went in to HMV, but tried to limit ourselves to stuff with a single digit price.
We had lunch at The Plaza, which had mysteriously moved the food court up to the second floor and made the basement vanish entirely. Baked potatoes. They’re not nearly as popular in the US. I used to buy one most Saturdays, from a guy with a cart in the Market Square in Cambridge.
Tottenham Court Road is still just like it used to be. I even recognized several of the gadget stores. The infamous Centre Point is still there, and still unnavigable by foot. The Telecom Tower is still visible from Oxford Street, but sadly sanity has prevailed and its existence is no longer an official secret.
The biggest change to London is that there are now coffee shops everywhere. Back in the 90s I had to bring an espresso machine back with me from Italy; now, you can’t walk for more than a minute or two without finding somewhere offering Illy or some other variety of “Genuine Italian espresso”. And tasty snacks, too. I definitely approve.
One good English food item I had forgotten about until I saw them at Waterloo Station was the pasty. I wonder if there’s somewhere in Austin that will sell me a good pasty?
Anyhow, we finished up our day with a little book shopping at Foyle’s and Borders, then got the train back to Bournemouth.