London Cont'd

You have many years to live - do things you will be proud to remember when you are old.
- John Brunner,
Stand On Zanzibar

Next day I went with my daughter into the City, where she works. The City is what you might call downtown London: the oldest part of town, I suppose, and the center of finance and business - you could say the City is to London as lower Manhattan is to New York. It was a pleasant sunny day.

First thing to see was, of course, St. Paul's Cathedral. Like so many of the great structures of Europe, it was undergoing cleanup and renovation work, so about half of the dome was swathed in scaffolding; but what remained visible was still worth seeing.

Something that may as well be said now: I didn't bring a wide-angle lens, and this greatly restricted my photographic efforts, and often made it impossible to get all of a given structure into the picture. I knew if I didn't take a wide-angle I'd wish for one; but a wide-angle creates its own problems of distortion, especially with verticals - and anyway, when you carry more than one lens you wind up spending far too much time and effort fiddling with lens changes.

Being restricted to a limited field, though, isn't always bad; sometimes it forces you to look for different shots rather than the obvious ones. You pay more attention to detail - and the detail on these old buildings is always worth looking at.

This is John Wesley.

I went to St. Paul's first not only because it's an impressive and historic structure, but also in order to give myself an orientation point. The huge dome of St. Paul's dominates the City's skyline, not so much now as it once did (buildings going up all around - buildings going up all over London and indeed all over Europe; they should put up a sign CONTINENT UNDER CONSTRUCTION) but still there and no mistaking it for anything else. The street layout of the City is irrational to the point of dementia, but you can navigate pretty well if you just know where you are in relation to St. Paul's.

Blackfriar's Pub, there in the foreground, is said by many to be the best pub in London. I wouldn't know; when I went by there it was still closed.

Even from across the Thames, St. Paul's remains the main physical fact on the skyline.

I walked across some bridge or other, cruised aimlessly around on the south side of the river for an hour or so, and walked back on a different bridge. Don't ask me the names; I never did get the bridges straight. Great view from the bridges anyway, some neato old buildings along the riverfront:

Not as much traffic as I'd expected on the Thames itself; they say there's something about the currents that creates problems this far up the river. In the background you can see the Y2K ferris wheel.

Another old church, not as famous but older than the present St. Paul's: St. Mary-le-Bow, like St. Paul's a Christopher Wren design erected on the site of a much older church. There was a saying that a true Cockney had to be born "within the sound of Bow bells"; the big bell of St. Mary-le-Bow is what was meant. Beautiful structure, I wish I'd taken a few more photos.... It was badly damaged by German bombs but lovingly restored.

(This is something that really gets to you, walking around London: you start to realize just how bad the bombing was. I mean, the God-damned Nazis blew the City to shit. Just about every old church or other historical building has a sign giving the background and the dates, and ending in, "Heavily damaged by enemy action in 1940." After a while the effect of those signs starts to add up. It's one of those things you know about from books and movies but you don't really appreciate it until you're on the spot.)

This is Leadenhall Market, which can best be described as a kind of Victorian mall. Still in use, and every bit as pricey as you'd expect.

So I asked a man on the street, "How do I get to the Old Bailey?" and he said, "Rob a bleeding bank!" (Boom.) This is indeed the Old Bailey, as in Rumpole Of The.

My daughter had explained how to get back to their place via the Underground or the bus, but I decided to walk it, even though the map showed the distance as several miles.

Glad I did, even though I paid for the walk with more aches and pains; on the way I stumbled across several interesting items I'd never have seen otherwise:

This is Dr. Johnson's house. It's up a narrow alley, on a little courtyard, and only a single not very big sign marks the way; I nearly missed it.

And this is Hodge, Dr. Johnson's cat. A monument to a cat; I like that.

Next day it was raining again. That was OK; it was also my birthday and I intended to take it easy.

By now I had discovered one of the great human institutions: the British pub. Specifically the Star Tavern, a small and utterly wonderful establishment just down the street from the kids' place; run by a friendly, chatty Irish couple, the Star has the distinction of being the place where the Great Train Robbery was planned.

I loved the place the instant I stepped inside. Warm, relaxed atmosphere, comfortable living-room-type furniture (what a marvelous idea - where is it written that barroom furniture has to be uncomfortable? yet in this country it almost always is) and a real fire burning in a real fireplace...and nice warm friendly people, nobody getting loud or doing attitudes; all in all the finest drinking spot I've ever visited, and if I lived in London I'd probably spend far too much time there and never get anything done.

So that was where I spent most of my birthday, sitting at the bar talking with various people on various subjects, putting away a fair bit of lager (it's true they drink their beer warm, but any decent pub will have something cold on tap as well, Heineken or even Foster's) and carefully avoiding thinking about the implications of turning 58. Late in the afternoon a trio of Scottish construction workers came in; one of them, it developed, was having his birthday too, and they were doing a pub-crawl to celebrate.

Finally I left the pub and started back down the street, and ran into my daughter, who was just getting in. She wanted to know where I'd been. "Went down to the pub," I said, "had a few pints with me mates, didn't I?"

That was where I had dinner, too: a pretty damn good steak with plenty of fries - excuse me, "chips." By now I was heavily into pub food. I'd heard all my life that British food was nearly inedible, but personally I loved it; bangers and mash, ahhhh.... High on the cholesterol, to be sure, and my heart kept telling me it wouldn't be responsible if I kept this up, but I figured I was walking it off. Which I must have been, because I didn't have a single fatal heart attack the whole trip.

Saturday was a bright sunny day; my daughter and I walked down to Westminster Abbey, which some Australian once described as "a bloody great barn of a place, full of dead Poms."

He might have added, "And surrounded by hordes of tourists." We didn't really even get all that close to the place; it was a major effort just to move along the sidewalk.

Around the corner, across the road from the Houses of Parliament, stands this medieval tower - the last surviving part of the old Westminster Palace, if I've got this right, and used by Edward III as his personal treasury.

And finally, of course, the Houses of Parliament. I am not sure which House this one is. But then if you've seen one House of Parliament I guess you've seen them all.

Which pretty much concluded the tour of mandatory sights. I should explain that I'm not much for interiors. I don't like museums at all - full of dead things and dead people, they give me the fantods - and much as I love art, I can't get into it in a gallery setting. As a tourist, I'm mainly an outside man.

I did, I confess, have hopes of making one major exception - I'd have liked to see the Imperial War Museum - but as things worked out there just wasn't time.

Next morning I walked down to Victoria Coach Station and caught the bus - excuse me, coach - for Dover. It was raining again. Through the misted windows the countryside looked rich and green.

By noonish I was standing on the afterdeck of a P&O Stena ferry, watching Dover recede astern. Dover Castle is just visible over the crest of the hill, right below the seagull.

Visions of romantic cross-Channel voyages in the mist also receded; this wasn't a boat but a floating mall. Apparently there is a whole subculture in England that lives for the weekend ride to Calais and back, not from any interest in Continental culture but purely for the duty-free shopping. Lots of them, I was told, don't even get off the boat; they just ride back and forth, drinking duty-free beer and buying stuff. Takes all kinds.

And as we look for one last time on the shores of England...

...and turn and see the land of France appearing ahead, we observe a little-known geographic fact: England is much thicker than France.

Onward, then -

Next: France
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