Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmastime in London

Yesterday, Tim and I popped up to London yet again for another day of sight-seeing and friend-visiting.

I began the day with some concern that we would not make our quite early train, because the parking lot was covered in black ice and so was part of the major road that run by our place.  However, the icy road almost immediately became simply wet road, so we were all right.

Upon arriving at Paddington Station (which is fast becoming my favourite, if only because this is now my way into London), we headed south and walked across a misty Hyde Park, as small flakes of snow fell (and eventually turned into rain).  We’ve had a wee bit of snow in Oxford this week too.  It never stays, but it makes things feel a bit more like Christmas over here.

The Serpentine, with the ferris wheel from Hyde Park's rather cheesy Winter Wonderland
 We met up with our London friend and her sister in Knightsbridge and set off to explore the vast consumerist innards of Harrod’s.  Harrod’s is fun to visit and sickening.  There is so much decoration, so much on sale, the prices are so high.  It is horrifying to realize that there are people in those pre-Christmas crowds who are actually there to buy £25 000 earrings and incredibly ugly futuristic sofas and purebred pets and designer clothes for children.  We were just there to gawk and snicker.  Tim, who dislikes shopping at the best of times, describes it as “hell” but was glad nonetheless to have seen the spectacle.

We then set off in search of coffee, seeing Royal Albert Hall along the way and across from it, the memorial to Price Albert, which is huge and neo-Gothic and gaudy, featuring a golden statue of Prince Albert.  Oh, Queen Victoria, what were you thinking?  (The Scott monument in Edinburgh is also very tell and neo-Gothic and slightly over the top but is much more aesthetically pleasing than this Albert memorial). 

 We had some Starbucks and the parties split up: our friends in search of Christmas markets and we searching for the Leighton House Museum.

 The Leighton House has been a museum since 1900 and was the home and studio of the Victorian artist Lord Leighton.  This is a great place to visit, especially since entrance is only £5 (or £3).  The best part of the whole house is the Arab Hall on the ground floor, which has a crazy dome, a brass chandelier modelled off those in mosques, a fountain, and walls of 16th and 17th-century blue Syrian ceramic tile.  There are also couches set into the Egyptian-style windows on either side of the hall.  Just beautiful.  Can you imagine having such a thing in your very own house?

Next, we hopped on the Tube (miraculously, most of the lines were running well – which hardly ever happens on a Saturday) and went to Embankment station to our old London “neighbourhood” by Trafalgar Square.  This is where Tim and I stayed when we came here on vacation in 2009.  Incidentally, it’s also where I stayed when I visited with my parents in 2008.  It’s one of the only parts of London I can sort of propel myself around without the aid of a map.

We noticed that the fabulous Sherlock Holmes restaurant and pub was open again (it had been closed when we arrived in September).  I goggled at the lovely and huge Norwegian Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.  We discovered, unsurprised, that the day’s allocation of tickets to the big Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery had sold out.  Oh well.  I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to this exhibition, but that’s fine.

 Then, we headed over to Piccadilly Circus, which Tim had never seen.  That was where we encountered our first great sea of humanity for the day.  Christmas shoppers were out in full force, which makes sense, since yesterday was the last Saturday before Christmas Eve.  (Yikes!  When did Christmas get so close?  What will I get Tim for Christmas?  Well, probably books.  But which ones?)

We headed down Piccadilly, checking out the giant Waterstone’s (which I believe is the largest bookstore in Europe), Hatchards (the oldest surviving bookstore in London, once frequented by Queen Charlotte and the romantics – very cool and creaky), and Fortnum and Mason (into which we popped our heads, verified that it was a cool old department store, and then skedaddled out of again to get away from the Christmas crowds).

We wandered around St. James’s Square (the garden is sadly not open to the public on the weekends).  We saw Chatham House, which has been the home of three British Prime Ministers, and a house where Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter and Charles Babbage’s partner, once lived.

And then, the pinnacle of the day.  We went on a tour of the London Library, which was originally founded by Thomas Carlyle because he was dissatisfied with the non-circulating nature of the British Library's collection.  I only discovered the joys of the London Library a few days ago via Stephen Fry’s blog post on the subject.  But I did dimly remember that the opening scene of A.S. Byatt’s Possession also took place there.  I decided we really ought to have a look around while we were in London.  Even though they don’t usually give tours to prospective members on Saturday, we got one.  (Note: The London Library is totally independent and does not receive public funds.  It is therefore supported by annual membership fees, which are, unfortunately, too expensive for little old us.  Also, I don’t live in London and I do have access to the Bodleian at the moment…)

We got to see the 1890 stacks with their interesting cataloguing (arranged alphabetically by subject, so that books on Coastal Erosion and Demonology are not all that far from each other, both found under “Science and Miscellany”).  The stacks are several floors high and the floor itself is slatted metal.  I had to be careful or the heel of my boot would fall between slats. 

We also got to tour the original reading room, where Carlyle and Dickens and George Eliot read and researched and where Stephen Fry and Tom Stoppard read nowadays.  It’s a beautiful room.  Tim and I were in book lover’s heaven.  We saw the other reading rooms and the art book stacks and got to peer into the neighbouring building recently acquired by the library to allow for further expansion. All told, it was the most wonderful tour of a lovely library and we were led around by one of the friendliest library ladies imaginable.

To end the day in London, we wandered down to St. James’s Park and sat and watched the swans and ducks and pigeons and squirrels as the sun began to set (at 3:30 or so in the afternoon…)

 And then we came home.  Google Maps tells me we walked about 11 km yesterday, which explains why we both slept so well last night.  Also, my legs are sore today!

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