Previously, our intrepid hero had disembarked after a long journey from Amsterdam and found himself without a single farthing, standing in the pre-dawn, sickly flourescent glow of the Eurolines terminal near Victoria Station …
I needed cash, to begin with, but strangely, I wasn’t hungry. A bakery stand had just opened and a line had already formed for coffee, but though it carried a range of pastries, I usually try to avoid bakeries in dirty bus terminals. A man stopped me and asked me about where I was from, apparently I had a very interesting look about me. The bald head really throws people off.
The foreign exchange booth finally opened it’s shutters and I exchanged my Euros for quid. I left the bus station and walked a block down the street to the Victoria train station. I wasn’t about to spend a day in London lugging my giant backpack around with me, so I needed to find baggage lockers. Unfortunately, by the time I finally found them at the train station, it wasn’t even open yet. I sat on a chair nearby and thumbed through my LP.
Victoria Station is situated west of the city center. In fact, a walk towards the city takes you by Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Westminster. I came up with a general outline of things I wanted to see that day and mapped out my approach.
After leaving my large backpack, I set out from the station towards St James Park and the Palace. The very same way Britain tends to greet all of it’s citizens each every morning, it greeted me: there was considerable fog and a light sprinkling of rain. The grounds of Buckingham Palace were understandably empty, the Yeoman Warders themselves wouldn’t be caught dead at this hour. Apparently the changing of the guards occurs at 11 AM every other day, and even if I was there on the right day, I wasn’t about to wait around for it.
A walk along the border of St James Park brought me to the Parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey. I continued on past Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross, then towards the Embankment. The plan was to walk by some of London’s more famous landmarks, then spend some time at the Tate Modern. The walk along the Thames was pleasant through the crisp and wet morning, but when I crossed the river and arrived at the famous museum, I realized I still had some time before it opened too. I found a diner nearby and ate an overpriced and overrepresented meal. Then I got a coffee at a cafe across the street from the museum with the hopes of surfing the web until I realized much to my dismay that I had forgotten my laptop charger.
Finally the museum was open, and I spent a couple hours wandering from floor to floor. The best part about the Tate Modern, more than it’s though-provoking exhibits and the care to which every object and every space is designed, is that it’s free.
Right next door is the original site of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, or at least what’s left of it.
Further along the south bank of the Thames I passed the popular shopping/tourism/dining area near London Bridge, and further along was the even more popular Tower Bridge. Thankfully, the weather had begun to get better.
I crossed the bridge and ended up at the Tower of London. For just a second I contemplated going inside, but then recalled that I had been there many years ago and even though I didn’t remember a thing about it, it was good enough. Plus, I hate crowds.
That morning, while waiting for the bag check office to open, I read about the various public markets that are held around London. There was a popular one in Notting Hill called the Portobello Market, so with the time I had left before Rebecca finished work, I jumped on the tube and headed in that direction. Just outside the train station I saw a beautiful watch in the window of a pawn shop, of all places. I sat and stared at it for a couple minutes, then finally ducked inside. The owner was talking to a customer who was clearly a friend or a regular. I asked the guy behind the counter if I could see that watch. As I turned it over in my hands, remarking about how great it was, he smiled and said I could tell the owner myself, and pointed at the man he had been talking to. Then I made the mistake of asking how much it was. The answer was 600 pounds, somewhere in the neighbourhood of $900. I carefully gave it back, and told him I’d just step out to rob a couple banks and return for the watch.
Notting Hill is a really nice, upscale neighbourhood of quiet streets, beautiful and well-maintained houses and quaint shops. Portobello Road starts out with a few modest clothing shops and descends into a combination of food/produce stalls, arts and crafts and other merchandise, flanked by brick-and-mortar stores.
As I walked passed one of the clothing stores at the head of the street I spotted something that actually made me double back. No, not a pastry or pie … though what that would be doing in a clothing store I’m not so sure … it was a hat. To be precise, it was exactly the hat I was looking for, style, color and all. I tried them on and and found they fit better than any other hat I had tried so far. And remember that’s quite a statement: I had tried on nearly every kind of hat from Amsterdam to Geneva to Paris. It was breathable and stretchy, wool knit and conformed to my head perfectly (when you’re bald that really matters). It was more expensive than I wanted to spend on a hat (it certainly wasnt watch money), but as you can imagine from enduring my relentless recounting of how important one is, it’s well worth the investment. I ended up buying it, and it turned out to be a fantastic decision.
The market itself was on it’s last legs, so I didn’t get to see all of it. I walked down to the end of the road, pausing briefly at the stalls which remained open. At the end of the road was a small, empty pub, and I stopped there for a couple pints of Guinness. On my way back I picked up a chicken sandwich at a grill stand run by a very friendly and talkative German couple.
I met up with Rebecca at a Starbucks near Gloucester Road station. I hadn’t seen her in more than 1 1/2 years and in the middle of that crowd of strangers I put my pack down and gave her the biggest bear hug my tired and malnourished body could muster. We took the tube back to her place in West Hampstead and after I took a much-needed shower we met up with her boyfriend Nick (now fiancee, congrats Bec!) at a nearby restaurant. We spent a quiet night at her place, making up for lost time.