A March 2001 trip
to London by Idler
Quote: A forty-something woman leaves job, husband, and son behind and goes wherever her fancy takes her for five days in London, a familiar city she hadn't visited since she'd lived in England back in the 1980's.
London never sleeps, and it seemed at times neither did I as I raced about the city, attending concerts, musicals, and plays, having tea at Fortnum & Mason, tracking down esoteric items while shopping, browsing through bookstores, meeting old friends at the British Museum, visiting the Victoria & Albert Museum, Sir John Soane's Museum, The Museum of London and the Tate and Wallace Collections; looking out over London while riding the Eye, pottering about Highgate Cemetery and Petticoat Lane, and taking in an "Oscar Wilde" themed London Walk. Phew!
London is a great place for solo women travelers - it's relatively safe, friendly, and packed full of enjoyable sights. Traveling on your own, you're almost certain to meet any number of interesting people.
Pick up a copy of Time Out to find out what's on that interests you. Try taking one of the London Walks that are listed in the magazine - it's a great way to meet people with similar interests. But don't be shy to strike up conversations with people sitting next to you at the theatre or in restaurants, too. Everyone I spoke to was kind and helpful, and a few were downright fascinating.
One thing I would have done differently: I would have taken the train, rather than the Underground, to my hotel as I ended up wrestling my lugguge through throngs of morning rush hour commuters. If your flight arrives during the morning rush hour, consider the express train that goes to Paddington Station - it costs more, but not having a long and possibly crowded ride to your hotel when you're fatigued from a transatlantic flight makes it worth it.
By tube, bus, taxi, and on foot. London's an easy city to get around in. Try to do as much walking as your stamina and schedule permit, as London's a great place for walking. Just be sure to look right rather than left before stepping out in the street.
Hotel | "The Edward Lear Hotel"
The exterior of the hotel is attractive, with cascading baskets of plants and a blue historical marker by the door. Like many hotels that have been converted from dwellings, however, it has its eccentrities. Narrow corridors branch off from the main reception area in a somewhat confusing array. It can be a challenge getting a suitcase up some of the staircases.
Most rooms in the Edward Lear are not spacious - but, frankly, I've never stayed in a London Hotel with large rooms. (They exist, but I can't afford them!) The rooms are clean, homey, and feature coffee/tea makers and a TV. The clientele wasn't noisy or inconsiderate; there were no thundering herds of package tours or visiting youth groups charging in late at night. As I was travelling solo I ended up sharing a breakfast table with different people each morning, and everyone was quite pleasant.
The staff was friendly and efficient, though they weren't long-term residents, so I didn't ask them for advice as I might have with an English staff.
The hotel offers guests free internet access on a computer in the lounge, though you're restricted to 15 minutes' use at one time. Still, this is a great way to keep in touch with family while travelling.
One thing that may put some people off is that many of the rooms - particularly the cheaper ones - do not have en suite bathrooms. Instead, bathrooms are located throughout various parts of the rabbit warren-like building. A few doors down from the room I stayed in, there was a room with a bathtub and sink - but no toilet! To use the toilet, I had to go up a short flight of steps. In that room, there was a toilet and sink, but no bath! It was a little strange, but didn't really put me off, as both the bath and toilet were clean and never crowded, at least during the hours I needed them.
The hotel is named after Edward Lear, who lived there for about a year while he was employed sketching birds at the London Zoo. Lear's drawings festoon the walls in the lounge and breakfast room, adding a warm, whimsical touch.
I'd recommend the Lear for anyone who wants good value for the money and doesn't mind a somewhat eccentric hotel layout. The location can't be beat, and I felt completely comfortable and safe staying on my own there, which is more than I can say for some places I've stayed in London.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 24, 2002
Edward Lear Hotel
28 30 SEYMOUR ST MARBLE ARCH
London, England W1H 7JA
44 20 7402 5401
Attraction | "The British Museum"
Some of the highlights of the museum include the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and an amazing collection of mummies and other Egyptian artefacts (the best outside of Egypt, in fact). There are guides to and quick tours of the museum's highlights, such as the "Highlights" tour offered three times a day (8 pounds; tickets can be purchased in the Great Court). However, you may find such a whirlwind approach almost overwhelming. My advice, therefore, is to concentrate on one section of the museum and take your time. You can even sign up for a free Eye Opener tour and concentrate on a specific collection in the museum.
The newly built Great Court, built around the former British Library Reading Room, provides a wonderful place for the weary museum goer to sit in an open, airy space and have tea or browse through the museum shops. The Reading Room itself is my favorite part of the museum, a wonderfully historic place, filled floor-to-ceiling with rare first editions.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 23, 2002
Great Russell Street
London, England WC1B 3DG
+44 (207) 7323 8299
Like other mega museums, the V&A is best done in restraint, with planning and pacing. Stop by the front desk and get a plan of the museum, then decide what you're in the mood to look at. I've been to the museum four or five times, but can't claim to have seen more than half of it. Areas that I have personally enjoyed include the costume collection, the jewelry gallery, the textile area, and the stained glass. Getting from one area of interest to another sometimes involves wandering into some esoteric area of domestic design, such as wrought iron or inlaid wood, that you never really thought about before. More than once I've been waylaid entirely when I set out to get to one gallery and ended up spending an hour in another gallery entirely.
The V&A is a quiet museum, generally, not the sort that people go through in great thundering herds. It has a decent cafe, an excellent museum shop, and the staff are friendly and helpful. For such a vast place, it has an intimate feel. Two thousand years of design housed under one roof - no small feat!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 24, 2002
Victoria and Albert Museum
London, England SW7 2RL
+44 (20) 7942 2000
My favorite night out was a chamber music concert in Wigmore Hall, one of my favorite places for music in London. Less successful - and about three times as expensive - was a night at the opera, "Aida" at the Royal Albert Hall. The acoustics were awful in the hall, and seeing an opera 'in the round' was strange. The complexities of the staging were less than successful. Sometimes the principal members were singing with their backs facing me, which was actually less of a problem visually than acoustically, as their voices would bounce off the opposite wall and reach the area I was in later than the sound of the orchestra! "Aida" has always been a favorite opera, but the much-touted production in the Royal Albert Hall was a disappointment.
A more entertaining night of musical entertainment was seeing "Momma Mia," a musical based entirely on Abba songs. It’s a frothy, camp, goofball musical, the sort you can't help but enjoy, full of infectious enthusiasm. All right, so the plot wasn't the most original. So they stretched things a bit to work in all those Abba songs. Who cares?! It's not every day you see a male chorus line kitted out in swim trunks, snorkels and flippers.
I also went to see "Shockheaded Peter," billed as a sardonic "junk opera." The production had less bite than I expected, though it had its moments. I was surprised to see rows of school children in the audience, apparently on some sort of school outing, but there was a sort of Roald Dahl aesthetic to the production that children find appealing. I'd give the production a weak thumbs-up; it was entertaining, but not magically so.
Finally, I went with a friend to a small theatre on Jermyn Street to see "Mapp and Lucia," based on the eponymous E.F. Benson novel. Now, I've been in some tiny theatres before, but this one was the smallest. There couldn't have been more than fifty people in the audience, and every seat was filled. The intimate setting was a bonus, however, as the production was sprightly and smoothly done in the best "British theatre" tradition. I gave myself over uncritically to the performance and was rewarded in kind with a solid night's entertainment.
In short, there's something for everyone on stage in London. The lesson I've learned, however, is that price is the least trustworthy measure of enjoyment when it comes to the London theatre.
The London Theater Scene
Attraction | "London Shopping, part I"
My first foray was on Oxford Street, just down from my hotel. I've always enjoyed shopping in Marks and Spencer's, that bastion of the respectable middle class shopper. The first day out, I stopped in the food hall and bought snacks to eat on the run: yogurt, chocolate bars, juice, biscuits, and cox apples. I spent an inordinate amount of time ogling the prepackaged meals, regretting that I had no means of heating them. On a whim, I bought a large bouquet of spicy-smelling pale yellow carnations to brighten my hotel room, arranging them in one of my empty juice bottles.
The next stop was Boots the Chemists, where I was hoping to find a certain lemon scented facial astringent cleanser I used years ago when we lived in Cambridge. Boots no longer produces it, but I found several other kinds of scented witch hazel and citrus-y concoctions that were comparable. English bath and beauty products always have struck me as good value for the money, and on this trip I splurged on them, bringing back lotions, toilet water, scented soaps, room scents, and other items.
By far the headiest place to shop for these things is Harrod's of Knightsbridge. I wandered through its vast halls, spending at least an hour making my selections in the perfume and cosmetics hall, with two graceful salesladies in amused attendance. Harrod's is not to be missed, but, unless you've got plenty of money, it's not really a practical place to make major purchases. I bought tins of tea in the world-famous food halls, a set of juggling bean bags for my son in the Toy Kingdom, and (unsuccessfully) searched for fingerless riding gloves in the Sports department.
After a foray in Harrods, tea is highly recommended, and there is no shortage of places to have it in London. I met a friend for tea at Fortnum & Mason, and he promptly informed me that I should have waited to get my tins of tea there instead of Harrod's, as Fortnum & Mason is the premier tea seller in London. (I have to say, however, that I have been quite happy with my Harrod's teas.)
to be continued....
Various outfitters, bookstores, and dept. stores
Attraction | "London Shopping, part 2"
However, I was not without other leads, so I set off for several other sporting goods shops nearby, working my way through the Schneider Riding Boot Co., Cording's, and Lillywhite's (where I found fingerless riding gloves - hurrah!) before finally running the whisk to ground in venerable Swaine Adeney. I say "venerable" judiciously; the firm received its first royal warrant to make carriage whips for George III. The price for the fly whisk left me momentarily speechless, but having finally found it and determined to have it, I set my jaw and produced my charge card with what I hope passed for royal sang froid.
My next search was for books. This was easy. London is bibliophile heaven, with numerous antiquarian bookstores in Charing Cross Road and near the British Museum. A friend had recommended Hatchard's, one of London's oldest bookshops, on Piccadilly Street. I found the books I had been seeking, and also got several recently reprinted Wodehouse novels.
The "Rescue Remedy" homeopathic ointment I was buying a friend proved to be the easiest thing to find, suprisingly. Walking down Wigmore Street, I noticed a small chemists with a notice in the window advertising homeopathic remedies. Bingo! The clerk didn’t seem the least bit curious as to why I was buying ten tubes of the stuff, but I offered up the information that I was buying for a friend’s horses, whereupon he simply nodded. Common equestrian remedy, apparently.
The only items I didn't find on my shopping list (well, I found them , but they were too expensive) were moleskin trousers for my husband. Harrod's had them, but they were three times what we'd paid for them some years back in Cambridge, and I simply couldn't believe prices had risen that much. I decided London was not the best place to shop for reasonably priced sporting goods (having absorbed the lesson of the fly whisk), so I decided to wait on the moleskin trousers until my next visit to the U.K.
All in all, I enjoyed my "scavenger hunt" approach to shopping in London, which surprised me as I'm not usually very fond of shopping for anything other than books. I came back with almost everything I'd been commissioned or planned to buy, and I had great fun finding them.
Attraction | "The Museum of London"
My only cavil about this museum is that in London, history is everywhere: in the buildings that surround you, the ancient churches and graveyards, the historic pubs and theatres, and the very cobblestones beneath your feet. Going to see it safely ensconced behind glass seems to pale in comparison, but if it's a solid introduction to London's history you're after, then this is a good place to start before seeking out the real thing.
Having said that (and feeling slightly guilty, for I did enjoy the museum), there are exhibits in the London Museum that are unique, and it was great fun to see how exhibits played off one another, with the juxtaposition of, say, Regency fashion complemented by a grand display of antique carriages. I almost expected Beau Brummel to open a carriage door and step out.
Less successful was a rather ho-hum "sound and light"-style presentation of the London Fire. Perhaps I'm spoiled, coming from near Washington, D.C. and accustomed to the Smithsonian, but that particular historic event seemed to me to cry out for the full Imax monty. Someday, I imagine, it will get it.
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London, England EC2Y 5HN
+44 (207) 814 5613
Attraction | "The Trocadero"
Ride up and down the escalators in this neon wonderland and check out all the shops, cinemas, cyber cafes, restaurants, video arcades, and exhibits such as Madam Tussaud's "Rock Circus." A carnival atmosphere prevails, and the place definitely is for the young or young-at-heart. However, being on the far (and matronly) side of forty, didn't stop me, and I never felt out of place.
I did, however, regret for the first time on my trip that I was on my own, without family in tow. Soon I found myself imagining that my ten-year-old son was with me, giddy with excitement at the prospect of all those video games, sweet shops, and gadgets.
After riding up and down the escalators and wandering around the complex for a half hour or so, I went into the Sweet Centre. Kid heaven! I'd never seen such a variety of candy - gummy animals of every conceivable species, indescribably shaped and flavored candies, yard-long licorice in dozens of flavors; candy teeth, candy lips, jawbreaker eyeballs and any other body part you'd care to name rendered in confection; marshmallow sharks, chocolate dinosaurs, jelly babies, gum-drop dwarves, and jelly beans in a hundred flavors. Tastebud overload! I filled a bag with some of the most peculiar and appealing sweets, taking a vow of candy chastity as I did so (it was for my son, you see. Hah!).
Exiting the Trocadero into the heady London atmosphere that is Piccadilly, I made myself a promise: the next time I came, I'd bring along my son, and he'd pick out his own candy.
London, England W1D 7DH
+44 891 881100
Attraction | "London Walks"
My first London Walk some years back (in the 1980's, if the truth be known) was on a Ghost Walk in the Old City. After the first walk, I was hooked. There are walks to suit every interest: Magical Mystery Tour walks, Jack the Ripper walks, historic pub walks, Charles Dickens walks, walks featuring London's famous eccentrics, Mayfair walks... the list goes on and on.
On this trip, I chose to go on an "Oscar Wilde" walk. The guide, Alan, was easy to spot when I arrived at the meeting point. He was turned out in full Oscar regalia, complete with green carnation. For two solid hours this man with the gift 'o gab charmed us, showing us around a small section of Mayfair once frequented by Oscar: the places where he bought his cigarettes, his clothes, his hair tonic, his hangover remedy (which I sampled in the shop where it's made to order); not to mention the places he'd meet Bosie or spots where the Marquis of Queensbury tracked him down and insulted him. Alan knew everything and I mean everything there was to know about Oscar Wilde. Amazingly enough, though, he wasn't the least bit pedantic. He loved his subject and really warmed to the questions the fairly knowledgeable people that were in our group asked him.
London Walks meet in the morning, afternoon, and evenings, with different walks held on different days of the week. Check their web site or the London Edition of Time Out magazine for the schedule.
London Walks: Ghosts of the Old City
St. Paul Tube Stop
+44 (020) 7624 3978
While tickets for the Eye aren't cheap, keep in mind that a single rotational trip will take a half an hour. Compared to other famous "vantage points," such as Chicago's Sears Tower, the Eye provides an uncrowded and unhurried view out over all of London. Tickets for the Eye are booked in advance and passengers are assigned an exact departure time; thus, there's no waiting in line once you arrive at the entrance. Getting to the Eye is relatively simple - it's a five-minute walk from either the Waterloo or Westminster Underground station. You can't miss it.
When you've disembarked from the Eye, try strolling across Westminster Bridge, pausing to look back and take photos of this amazing engineering feat.
The London Eye
South Bank of the River Thames
London, England SE1 9TA
+44 (870) 500 0600
Attraction | "The Wallace Collection"
London, England W1M 6BN
+44 20 7563 9500
Wigmore offers a near ideal setting for chamber music and solo performances, with acoustics that are justifiably famous. The hall itself dates from 1901 and is decorated in lavish "Arts and Crafts" style murals symbolizing the spirituality of music. Having such pleasing surroundings enhances the performance, and the elaborate cupola over the stage provides a delightful focal point for musical reveries. The hall resonates with an indefinable sense of history that seems to saturate the very walls. Musical luminaries such as Prokofiev, Hindemith, Segovia, Britten, Poulenc, and Schwartzkopf have all performed here. To this day Wigmore Hall features the London débuts for many up-and-coming artists.
Not only is the hall attractive and soundworthy, but the audience that frequents it is urbane and knowledgeable. The last time I went to Wigmore Hall, I struck up a conversation with the distinguished-looking gentleman sitting next to me, who turned out to be a violinist with the London Symphony. He gave me his "short list" of the best acoustics in concert halls around the world (his favorite was in Japan, which surprised me).
Wigmore Hall also features a small cafe downstairs, the perfect spot for a quick bite before the concert. Each time I go to London, I check to see what's on at Wigmore Hall. So far I've been to three concerts there, and all have been delightful. The London Times once referred to Wigmore Hall as "the jewel in London's musical crown," and it's easy to see (or rather, hear) why after attending a concert there.
36 Wigmore Street
London, England W1U 2PH
+44 20 7487 4874
Sir John Soane's Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields
London, England WC2A 3BP
+44 20 7405 2107
Other notable denizens include eccentric traveler James Holman, who roamed the globe in the early 19th century with nary a hitch despite being completely blind; Elizabeth Siddall, a famous Pre-Raphaelite model; Michael Faraday, one of the most famous scientists of the 19th century; novelist George Eliot AKA Mary Ann Evans, author of that English lit staple, "Middlemarch"; William Friese-Green, the first man to make moving pictures on celluloid; writer and philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest"; famed Orientalist and translator Arthur Waley; and notorious lesbian novelist Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall.
Highgate is also associated with a famous episode in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Don't miss the "Egyptian Avenue" of elaborate vaults, featuring obelisks and lotus-flower columns. The atmosphere in Highgate is definitely gothic, and there's a surprise lurking around every corner. If you enjoy English eccentricity - and who doesn't? - then an outing to this cemetery will be just your cup of tea.
London, England N6
+44 20 8340 1834
Attraction | "Petticoat Lane"
The actual market is held on Sunday, from 9am to 2pm; however, the adjacent
Wentworth Street market is also open Monday to Friday 10am - 2.30pm. The nearest Underground stations are Liverpool Street and Aldgate East.
Petticoat Lane Market
Middlesex Street and surrounding streets
London, England E1
This fantasy is fueled by plenty of period reading, such as E.F. Benson’s As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show. His account of gatherings at the houses of famed London hostesses such as Lady de Grey are a particularly rich source for my reveries. In my favorite scenario, I am bidden to one of Lady de Grey’s delightfully Bohemian evenings, along with Alick York, Edoard and Jean de Reszke, Rejane, Melba, the Duke of Cambridge, and, of course, Oscar Wilde. Those unfamiliar with my imaginary contributions to the evening's entertainment have, I regret to say, missed some of the wittiest conversation ever to grace a drawing room.
I generally attend these soirees while I am trying to find all my overdue library books, waiting for my son to finish his homework, or any time something particularly unpleasant, like scrubbing the bathtub, presents itself. I especially like to hail a cab from Mayfair and say, "The Countess de Grey's. Step on it!" when I cannot find any clean T-shirts and realize the laundry has not been done all week. Opening the refrigerator and finding we have run out of milk, the cab turns the corner of Bruton Street and out I hop, light as a thistle, in my fashionable evening gown and completely unconscious of the stains on yesterday's T-shirt.
A footman announces me as I ladle low-fat powdered cream substitute into my coffee, and I stride imperiously into the room, leaving a few splashes on the linoleum in my wake. Then I trip over my son's hockey gear and swear, engagingly, as everyone looks up expectantly upon my entry. "It's Kay," Melba whispers to the Duke of Cambridge, "I wonder what her mood is tonight. Why last time...," but her voice trails off as I try to cram my son's skates into his tote bag and set the stick in the corner by the door, where it falls forward and hits one of the cats. "Yeoow!/Darling!," the cat/Countess cries, "It's been ages! Wherever have you been keeping yourself?" I laugh my bewitchingly throaty laugh and reply, "Making a house call, I'm afraid; a terribly long one, as dear Bertie has been so down in the dumps lately. He simply begged me to come down to Osborne House and cheer things up a bit." Here I pause to let the assembled circle of dear, dear friends absorb this interesting news and finally succeed in wedging the hockey stick behind the radiator, where I must not forget I have placed it.
It's clear that everyone is waiting to hear more news of this visit, but instead I turn to Edoard and tweak the flower in his buttonhole, saying, "I hope you won't deafen us with that dreadful noise you call singing again," and several people laugh appreciatively, recalling the occasion when he sang "le Veau d'Or" from Faust as loud as he possibly could, which was very loud indeed, and I shout back up the stairs, "Right where you left them!" before turning to Jean, tapping his wrist with my fan. "Now promise me you'll make him behave," I tease; "I'm NOT your servant! If you can't keep track of your things, that's YOUR problem!" He offers me his arm and we drift over to a sofa. A footman offers me a glass of champagne, but it's gotten completely cold and the powdered creamer tastes just awful. "Tell me," I say, looking over the top of my glass, "what you will be giving us this season at Covent Garden." I settle back comfortably upon the sofa, but a Batman action figure embedded in the cushions jabs me in the back and I miss the first part of his reply. "...and then we will be doing Die Meistersinger." "And who will be the Master singer?" I parry, as my eye lights upon a shoe I've been looking for recently which has been nudged out from under the radiator by the blade of the hockey stick.
But then, as often happens when no further witticisms come into my head, I leave Jean sitting on the sofa and walk out on to the terrace, which needs mowing. As I pace in splendid isolation, a figure detaches itself from the shrubbery and approaches. I recognize the distinctive gait of Oscar Wilde even before he puts the mail into the mailbox and calls "Good morning!" cheerfully. I fix my commanding gaze on his receding form. Then suddenly, back on the moonlit terrace, Oscar is standing next to me, looming largely, and I wait patiently for him to speak. I can tell this will be difficult for him, under the circumstances, and I am not initially inclined to make it any easier for him.
"I haven't told a soul," I finally say quietly. "Your secret is safe with me."
"Angel!" he responds. "I don't know what made me do it."
"It's not the first time this has happened..."
"I simply couldn't resist!" he interrupts. "The first one was such a success, and then everyone was simply waiting for the next. So when you showed me the draft of your latest, "The Importance of Being Erwin," I felt as though it were heaven sent."
"You stole it, Oscar. From my escritoire. It was my first play, "Lady Ambermere's Fan," that I was fool enough to show you."
"Forgive me!" he pleads. "I've come to rely on you so as a source of wonderful bon mots. Everyone thinks I make them up on the spur of the moment!"
"Oscar, my poor dear Oscar.... Don't you know that ambition is the last refuge of the failure? One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything except a good reputation."
"Ahhh! That's what I mean! May I use that one?"
"Of course, dear.... all is forgiven."
And arm in arm we bring in the mail.
Such fantasies can sustain me only so long, however. When the opportunity finally presented itself - after years of dutiful domesticity - to take a solo trip to London, I carpe'd the diem. My son and husband, I rationalized, would appreciate me the better for it. They'd bond. Do the father-son thing a bit.
And so, to London I went. I let Oscar come with me, too, of course.