Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Gone Abroad: London Itself

In Which Our Heroine Hits the Streets

In fact, by the time we reached London on Wednesday evening we were once again perilously low on fuel. Parked the car for the night and took residence in our room at the Hempstead Guest House. This is a wonderful, wildly eccentric B&B, each room wildly different from the last--apparently one of the upstairs rooms has a four-poster on tracks, so you can move it in and out of the sunlight! Our room was a former parlor in the front of the house, complete with an upright piano, dining table and four chairs, hundreds of books in Dutch (owner is from the Netherlands), several pieces of eccentric art, two stone teddy bears, and an assortment of couches that fold out into beds. The owner did not appear while we were there; running the place were two nice Polish kids (meaning, in their early 20s) who didn't know a lot about a lot--like where we could find petrol--but were very cheery and helpful in their ignorance. So we wandered the neighborhood, had dim sum for dinner (excellent dim sum) and crashed fairly early, since the next morning we had to return the rental car.

Bright and early on Thursday morning we left, searching for petrol and the Alamo office. This proved a little tricker than we had first thought. Once again I had plotted out a route; this worked pretty well until we got to Hyde Park, at which point everything went to hell in a handbag. Nobody died, but there were a couple of moments where I felt like I needed a sticker on the car that said "Caution, Dumb American Driving!" We lucked out and found a petrol station (we had once again been proceeding pretty much on fumes), and Ellen, scanning the map, kept us mostly on route. But the Alamo office was tucked away in a mews so small and hard to find that it took us a good hour of turning in circles and estimating where it ought to have been before we actually found it. The attendent, hereinafter Helga the Rental Car Nazi, treated us with suspicion, subjected the car to the most rigorous examination I have ever seen, but finally let us go, leaving the Vauxhall behind. A sigh of relief was heard.

Ellen was again very good humored about following me around as I charged all over the city looking at locations for research. We headed up from Bayswater to Baker Street, pausing at 221b to see the Sherlock Holmes stuff. Then we walked to Manchester Square, where Miss Tolerance's aunt's brothel is located. Took pictures of the Square and surrounding streets, then headed south on Duke Street to Oxford, thence to Bond Street and the Burlington Arcade, and into Piccadilly, where I took Ellen into Fortnum and Mason's, the Tiffany's of food. I thought her head might explode; as it is, she bought a box of really good fudge; I considered spending $30 for a jar of Welsh honey, but chickened out. At some point we had decided to head for Covent Garden, as there was a map store I wanted to check out. So we headed there, had some uninspired pub food, and found the map store, where I scored an Ordinance Map of London and environs from the early 1820s, and A Regency A-Z of London, a book of street maps. Then we went to Quinto's bookstore, a place that reminds me of The Strand in New York: dusty and crammed with books. Then we headed off to Fleet Street; I have a book of walks of "Notorious London" which includes the location of several of the old prisons--The Fleet, Bridewell, Newgate, etc., as well as the location of Hanging Sword Alley (where many of the good salles des armes were located). We didn't finish the entire walk--a good deal of Old London in that neighborhood has been devoured by New London--but we did find some fun bits--an old Bank of England office which had been made rather gloriously into a pub; St. Clements' Church, the offices of Twinings Tea (which has the most wonderful frieze of Chinamen (yeah, I know it's not a PC term, but the representation was not PC) over its door; and an empty office window with a lifesize model of Leo McKern in the role of Rumpole, made out of newsprint! By the time we headed back to Blackfriars to catch the underground back North we were both exhausted; we calculated we must have walked about six miles. We went home, caught our breath, checked email, and headed out for dinner (pizza) and a post prandial drink on the High Street. As we were sitting there talking, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter walked by; we kept our cool, they kept theirs, it was very civilized.

Friday morning we set out for Notting Hill/Portobello Road. Even on a Friday morning it was busy. Lots of antique stores with a range of stuff from the bizarre to the sublime, rubbing shoulders with kitschy tourist stuff, and many restaurants and pubs. We walked a good fifteen blocks up Portobello, then back again, stopping for lunch. Ellen bought one of the world's oddest pairs of pants, and I fell briefly in love with a set of antique leather suitcases (love knows no reason). When we had exhausted the possibilities of street markets I dragged Ellen to Green Park and the neighborhood around St. James's Palace. Took a picture of Almack's House, and of other sites in the neigborhood. A number of the old stores I remember on Jermyn Street are no longer there, which was rather disappointing. I think Ellen was a little bewildered, following me around on the Ghosts of London tour, looking for sign of buildings that are no longer there. I wish I had more time to keep walking around. Coulda done it in a week...

We had dinner at The Wells, a restaurant/pub just off the heath which had once been the site of a health spa of sort, where people came to drink and bathe in the waters. Excellent food. Then, of course, we got lost navigating back to our B&B, so we went back to The Wells for dessert, tried again to find the B&B and had luck this time. I got myself three-quarters packed for the trip back home. The next morning I got everything squared away and caught the underground to the Gatwick Express to American Airlines. Despite the dire headlines--"Thousands Stranded in Airline Mess!" I got checked in with relatively little stress, went through the three (!) security screenings, and caught my flight back to the US. The flight went from Gatwick to Dallas, and it was loooong--nine and a half hours, give or take. By the time we reached Dallas I was perfectly happy to stretch my legs to go through Customs--but not so happy with the half-assed procedures for rechecking my bag. I had a bad feeling when I handed my bag over; the guy looked harrassed and overwhelmed. You would think that if an airline has a flight coming with from abroad with 300+ passengers, a good number of whom are transferring to another flight, they would have a better system for handling baggage. So of course, they lost my suitcase.

We landed at SFO at 10; almost instantly I was surrounded by capering children (mine, thankfully). They continued capering (quietly) while I dealt with reporting the lost bag, and they took me home. I had slept a little on the flight from Dallas to San Francisco, but was pretty exhausted. Spouse had somehow gotten across to the girls before they picked me up that Mama Was Going to Be Tired, so I endeavored to live up to the rep, and they endeavored to let me sleep.

And my suitcase was delivered on Sunday evening.


Blogger C. F. Blog said...

Man...to be Ellen. I bet she got all the scoop and directors cut of Miss Sarah's adventures.

I hope she was worthy, she sounds like a trooper.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Ellen was great. She rode shotgun, kept the map straight, and didn't flinch (too much) when she thought I was too close to something on her side of the car. She and I kept lapsing into music hall dialect and cracking each other up. She also sampled all the weird beers at every pub we went to (and we went to a lot), veering toward the ones that had really odd names. I kept hoping we'd have a chance to order a pint of the Midwich Cuckoo, but no one had a lager by that name on tap...

11:17 AM  
Blogger Jonquil said...

The Regency A-Z sounds most excellent.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous Caryn said...

Oh, wow. How marvelous! Especially the Sarah researching bits.

I'm turning slightly green with envy.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Is green your color?

1:32 PM  

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