Recap of my madcap dash through London

Well, I left Canterbury on Sunday when the Harry Potter convention Diacon Alley ended (see previous posts in my fandom LJ for details), but upon traveling to London found that my HP fan experience really didn’t end. Not that this was truly surprising, given the how many scenes in the books take place there, not to mention how many scenes in my Harry Potter role playing games have been set there as well. (I’ll never forget meeting Severus by the Traitor’s Gate… and Lucius shortly thereafter… *shivers*)
My first night in London I found my hotel near King’s Cross without too much trouble. In fact, it was called the King’s Cross Hotel. It’s on Argylle Street, and is one of about twenty or so small hotels clustered on that street and the next one over just across Euston Road from the train stations (King’s Cross and St. Pancras).

From London sights July 25-26 2012

Before booking there I had looked for rooms online and read many reviews, so I was prepared for the shared bathroom facilities. Basically, I booked the cheapest private room I could find that wasn’t a bunk room in a hostel. And that’s exactly what I got, a room that was just a smidge up from hostel level, and remarkably similar to the dormitory room I’d left at University of Kent. One single bed, a desk, a wardrobe for clothes, a water kettle, and a small sink for running water inside the room. The toilet room and shower room was down the hall, and the breakfast room downstairs. The place was quite clean and the staff very friendly, but many Americans I know would freak out at the thought of sharing a toilet and shower with strangers. For the price, though, I thought it quite reasonable, and more secure and private than an actual hostel.
I rested for a few hours, watching a baseball game via streaming video live from New York, and then at 10pm local time decided to go out walking. I explored the King’s Cross/Islington area for about two hours. The weather was pleasant and although it’s a fairly quiet neighborhood at night, there were other single women and couples walking about and it seemed quite safe. I popped into a Tesco Express and stocked up on Pot Noodle, which is the UK equivalent of Cup Noodle. (Strangely, I found it not salty enough, even with the “soy boost” packet…) I’ve now had instant ramen on pretty much every continent I’ve been to, in pretty much every country, ironically, except Japan (wasn’t there long enough).
On the walk back I came to a crowd of people at King’s Cross Station and discovered they were clustered around Platform 9 3/4! If you read my earlier entry about arrival in London last week, I went searching for the platform and found King’s Cross undergoing massive renovation, closing off access to where the platform actually should be. I did find a sign at the doorway into the construction site saying the following, though: “Please use Western Range Site Entrance Located at Harry Potter.”

From Harry Potter convention and London trip

Meanwhile, they had apparently moved the “trolley stuck in the wall” and “Platform 9 3/4” sign to an exterior wall, which they papered over with a giant photo of the column. People speaking at least four different languages (Italian, Chinese, English, and something I couldn’t make out but which might have been Hebrew?) were taking photos of their friend and family pretending to push the trolley. I didn’t take a photo then, figuring I’d be passing that spot many more times and not wanting to fight the crowd.
The next morning I got up to enjoy the “full English breakfast” at the hotel included with my room, which included baked beans, fried egg, voluminous toast, butter and jam, fruit juice, and tea. It was my first time having beans on toast and I quite liked it. Then I went off to the Westminster boat docks to catch a tour boat to Greenwich.
The Westminster docks are right near the foot of St. Stephen’s Tower, the clock tower that holds the bell known as Big Ben. Which is right at the houses of parliament, which I can neither type nor say without song-virusing myself with “We’ve got the funk.” Directly across the river is the London Eye, the largest Ferris wheel in the world, 400 feet tall. The boat trip was an hour up to Greenwich, accompanied the whole time by the patter of one of the crew, who pointed out many places on the river where infamous criminals were drowned, pubs where infamous incidents occurred, and where scenes from Oliver Twist took place.
Another quintessentially British book was in my mind when I debarked at the Royal Naval College, however–or rather series of books, since it was impossible to be there without thinking about the books of Patrick O’Brian. The college buildings have been converted to other uses some of the time, including Trinity Music school, but the chapel, seaman’s dining hall, and several others are maintained in splendour (sic).

From Royal Naval College

Then I climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory, where the original Harrison Clocks are still in operation. (Check out Dava Sobel’s book LONGITUDE for the saga of John Harrison and the race to solve the problem of calculating longitude while at sea). Also there are many telescopes used by royal astronomer John Flamsteed in the time of Isaac Newton. In fact, there was a kind of rivalry between Flamsteed and Newton, and Newton got hold of 3/4 of Flamsteed’s unfinished star catalogue and convinced the queen it should be published. Newton wanted the data to further his own studies and felt Flamsteed’s perfectionism and waiting until the sky catalog was “done” was foolish, but Flamsteed tracked down and burned all but about 100 copies of the incomplete publication. As it was, Flamsteed died before the catalog was done — as it was he was only doing the northern sky while Edmund Halley did the southern. Halley, he of the comet, became the next Royal Astronomer. Now I have the urge to read/write Newton/Flamsteed slash. Perhaps I’ll request it at Yuletide.
From there, I took the boat back to Westminster and then walked to afternoon tea at the Charing Cross Hotel. I had a thought to go looking at the bookshops on Charing Cross Road (plus the supposed entrance to Diagon Alley is there…) but I ended up walking around Trafalgar Square, then got bad directions, and was late to my tea reservation. Just made it in time to be served, though, so it all worked out in the end. London is even worse than Boston when it comes to a dearth of street signs. What ones there are are on buildings, seemingly at random places, with many streets just not marked at all. Fortunately at each bus stop there is a small map of the few blocks around, so for a pedestrian one can continually re-orient. But I would never try to drive there (besides, my left/right dyslexia kicks up something fierce with the driving on the left business).
Tea was lovely — will write that up in more detail for TeaWritings.com — and then I went off the the London Stone pub for a Harry Potter fan meetup! One fellow who did not think he would be able to make it to the con called a pub meet so he could at least catch up with some folks while they were in town. I ended up staying until the pub closed and they kicked us out, chatting with some new folks I’d not had a chance to catch up with at the con, several of whom I have known for a long time on LiveJournal but had not yet met. Lots of folks from the con committee as well. Oh I shall miss these folks and wish I could come back for Halloween!

From Harry himself has some Guinness at the pub meet

Back at the King’s Cross hotel, I got a nearly full night’s sleep, then rushed off to my second (and last) full day of sight-seeing. I went straight to the Tower of London and from there straight to the Crown Jewels. There was a long queue to enter the Jewel House, but not nearly as long as when I looked later, so I’m glad I did it straightaway. They have Disney-style queueing, where much of the crisscrossing takes you through dimly lit rooms while multimedia screens inform and entertain. In one room you see footage of Elizabeth’s coronation, in another facts about the named gems in the crown and sceptre (sic), and so on. You pass by cases full of ceremonial swords and trumpets. And then you come to the crowns themselves, where you stand on a conveyor belt people mover, so that you cannot just stand and stare. This is smart because even the fairly jaded like myself would have just stood there and stared. You can go back around to ride the people mover multiple times (one running on either side of the cases) but that keeps it moving. It was worth making the trip to see, and I couldn’t help but think how there is this current craze among steampunks for tiny top hats — the style appears to have an actual precedent as Queen Victoria had a miniature diamond crown made that she wore quite often. That was one of the crowns on display.
Anyway, yes, very impressive.
In another building of the Tower one can see the former crowns out of which the jewels have been removed and re-set into the new ones, leaving a kind of honeycombed shell of gold.
Another exhibition that seems to be a temporary one includes armor from various kings, including a lot of pieces from Henry the VII. This is also very impressive stuff, not replicas but the actual suits of armor. It’s somewhat amusing to see that as Henry grew older, the shape of his belly is reflected in the ever-rounder shape of his breastplates. Also, the larger his belly got, the larger the accompanying codpiece. The armor was more impressive to me than the swords, which I know, isn’t like me at all. Also in the collection are gifts of arms and armor from other kingdoms and rulers, including an impressive set of lacquer samurai armor from Japan that was given in the 1600s.
Overall, the Tower was well worth a visit and the people-watching was also terrific. I don’t know why, but I find tourists making a spectacle of themselves with their touristy-ness to be amusing. At the Tower thy have various guards stationed here and there like they do at Buckingham Palace — the stoic guys with the tall furry hats. And one of these fellows would be standing at his post, or two of them would be marching along in unison, and people would be falling all over themselves to take photographs of this. I overheard a woman from Finland in the loo telling a friend what it was like, later, and I think she hits the nail on the head for a lot of folks. “it’s like something out of a storybook, isn’t it? The fairytales are like come to life and you just have to take a picture because it’s right there in front of you.”
Well, okay, I don’t quite have the Prince Charming reaction to a generic royal guard, but I can certainly agree generally with the sentiment. So speaks the woman who went looking for Platform 9 3/4 not once, not twice, but three times. You already know about the first time, when I found the construction sign. I went looking again after getting back from dinner on that night only to find it DISAPPEARED. That’s right, no sign, no trolley, nothing. I was certain I was in the same place where the people had been taking photographs the night before, but now there was no indication anything had been there. But, well, it’s PLatform 9 3/4. It seems fitting it just disappears, no?
This morning on my way to Heathrow I went and looked one more time. And this time there was a sign saying “Platform 9 3/4 Has Been Moved,” and pointing to another spot where it will be until the renovations are completed, when it can finally be moved back to where it actually belongs, on a column between platforms 9 and 10.
When I was finished at the Tower of London I tried briefly to find the Brahmas Tea Museum, because I had seen a sign for it at the Underground station, but according to the website, which I was able to pull up on my mobile, the museum closed “for renovations” some time ago. The website said “will reopen in 2009” but when I called the phone number, it appeared to be disconnected.
Instead, I went up to the Sir John Soanes museum. Soanes was a noted architect of his day who designed many significant buildings in London and for the government, and a collector of antiquities. As such the house, which is a brownstone facing Lincoln Park, is choc-a-block with statuary and archeological fragments as well as many paintings of Hogarth. They only allow 65 people in the house at a time, and no large bags or backpacks, as sometimes one has to negotiate narrow spaces between things to get around. The centerpiece of the collection is an Egyptian sarcophagus made entirely from a single piece of limestone that an Egyptologist friend of Soanes brought back to England and offered to the British Museum for 2,000 pounds, only to be turned down. So Soanes bought it and had three nights of gala parties to show it off, renting 300 oil lamps for the occasion.
Being an architect, Soanes designed various elements of his own house, including the placement of stained glass, skylights, and mirrors to spread light and color throughout the house. Overall, a very delightful place to visit. There is an MP3 audio tour free online that one can download but I didn’t bother.
Then I headed up to Piccadilly Circus where I would be meeting my cousin Chrissie (she’s a second great-cousin or something like that… on the Welsh side of the family) and her S.O. for dinner. I had some time to kill so I thought I would check my email and get a cup of tea. I eschewed Starbucks in favor of the “Internet Cafe” with “Free WIFI” inside Cool Britannia, a kind of tourist-trap store that sells just about anything you can imagine with the Union Jack emblazoned on it. Imagine an Urban Outfitters but with everything UK-phernalia and you have some idea what I mean. Unfortunately, the WiFi in the cafe did not work and the waitress complained to me that it has NEVER worked since they built the cafe in the basement. By the time I discovered that, I had already gotten a cup of tea, though, so I sat down and read the Evening Standard and did a little writing instead. Irksome advertisements would come on from time to time on the Cool Brittania “radio” playing, touting the free Wifi in the cafe.
Ooh, just looked out the window of the plane and can see land for the first time in a while. At any rate, my UK adventure tale is nearly done. I had a delightful dinner at Zilli Fish, which is chef Aldo Zilli’s seafood restaurant, where in addition to the regular menu there is a two-course set menu for a mere 11.90, three-course for 15.90, which was a very reasonable price for the quality of the food. We walked off dinner with a wander past Trafalgar Square down Whitehall street to see #10 Downing Street and such, ending again by the boat docks. The Eye was lit up, as were the houses of parliament, and crowds of people were walking about.
From there, it was back into the tube and back to the hotel to pack up and get ready to leave in the morning. I had one more English Breakfast at the hotel in the morning and then off to Heathrow I went. I managed to spend all the cash in my pockets except for about 2.50, managed to use all but about 2.50 on my Oyster Card, but I never got through most of the money I’d put on my mobile phone when I arrived, so about 10 pounds will probably go to waste. (I don’t think it’ll work in Iceland…)
We land in Reykjavik in about an hour, I think, and then the final leg of the journey begins. I’m thinking I may do a whale watch cruise to the puffin island, and I definitely want to soak in a hot spring. And eat. Beyond that, we shall see.

4 Comments

  1. Hmm, I stayed at the Fairway Inn, also on Argyle Street. Probably the same block. Sounds like the same room description too, except mine had something resembling a bathroom. By which I mean a shower nozzle and a drain in the floor.
    Turns out that in the original Ealing Studios version of The Ladykillers the view of the street looking out from the old lady’s front door is of Argyle Street with St Pancreas at the far end.

    1. Yup, I think The Fairway Inn was one of the ones I passed. I had a nice view of St. Pancras from my window. (will post photos in a bit)

      1. I don’t understand why it’s not “St Pancreas.” That’s what I would’ve called it.
        Great photos. The forces of Harry Potterdom seem to have favored you.

        1. Heh. Some things are everywhere I look even when they’re obscure… which Potter ain’t. I think the UK would’ve seemed like that to me even if not the week after the big final to-do with the film and all.

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