An overnight flight to London landed us at Heathrow 6:30 am GMT. We are troopers. We navigate the morning rush on the tube without ease but with determination, and arrive at a very petite room in one of the holiday residences of travelers along Princes Square in Bayswater. We are not the sort to allow a minor thing such as jet lag take hold. We immediately set out into the sunlit streets- destination: Portobello Road. It is nearby and seems a likely first stop. It is monday, and before noon, so the street is only functioning at about one-third maximum capacity, but provides us a lovely cafe with outdoor seating for our first elevensies of the trip. Coffee and cigarettes, sitting in the sun- a fine way to pass half an hour no matter where one finds oneself.
Trekking south again, we walk through Kensington Gardens; people lazing in the sun, walking dogs. We comment on the straight lines of it all. Unlike our Central and Prospect Parks here in New York, the Kensington greens are all linear; straight rows of trees, benches, walkways which diverge and converge at mathematical angles. Pretty nonetheless. Having exited the gardens on the southside, we meander awhile through what appears to be a sort of university and business area, but wend our way back towards liveliness and brasseries. Finding at last a spot for lunch that is not filled with the business crowd, we order up some toasties and again find ourselves at a small outdoor table, soaking up the noontime sun. Refueled and rejuvenated again, we walk.
Now realizing our proximity to the Palace, we decide to have a shot. Off to walk round to the Palace gates. En route we are passed by a lovely black carriage pulled by a two-in-hand of smart-looking greys and driven by men of some importance, to judge by their livery. We learned a few minutes later, while peeking into the Queen’s Mews (where all her many horses are stabled) that we’d just witnessed the return trip of one of Her Majesty’s twice-daily mail calls. Ha!
Buckingham Palace is surprisingly disappointing to look upon. When in London, if you don’t have any other reason to find yourself in the vicinity, do not go out of your way to see the palace. Seriously. The fountain out front is quite lovely, and the gates are the most interesting things in the square, but there are far more lovely and impressive structures upon which to gaze. The mall which runs alongside St James’s Park from the Palace Gardens, however, gives one a straight shot to Trafalgar Square, and the National Galleries. Off we go.
Traversing the square, we come across a most disturbing large sculpture of what appears to be a pregnant woman with thalidomide limbs. She sits atop a large sort of column in front of the National Galleries. We experience the pigeon frenzies up close and personal as we approach the Gallery, then enter. We stroll through 1700-1900; Degas’ “Le Coiffure” and Goeneutte’s “Boulevard de Clichy Under Snow” are two that strike me as stunning. Another which stuck with me was Delaroche’s “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey”. Positively staggering in its scope and detail; it struck me that perhaps an epic painting such as this was the equivalent of a great motion picture in todays’ world. One could stare at it for countless hours and still be quite outside its inherent mystery. Other galleries visited included the Dutch paintings in 1600-1700. After a while we find ourselves sitting upon the benches in the galleries, even in front of paintings of no particular interest to us. Troopers we are, yes, but on so little sleep one must keep moving.
As we are so close to Charing Cross Station, we duck in there to see if we can procure any information about the high-speed intercity line trains, one of which we will require next morning to set off for Edinburgh. As we are very near to one of the jubilee bridges, as well as the Eye, we head toward the river and have a look. We decide we may check out the Eye up close and possibly even partake of its constant revolutions upon return to London the following week. But for the time being, the walk has tired us, so we hop the tube and head back to Bayswater.
Dinner was found at a place known as the Commander. A comfortable enough interior, and music which was neither annoying nor intrusive, we sit down and order pints. Decide on splitting a great platter of kebabs, chips and other such things. The Commander Platter arrives to table on a great wooden bowl/platter, the circumference of which nearly matched the breadth of our table. We laugh, and set about to make a dent in the vast quantities of rather bland fare. Being among the walking dead by this point, we have no real complaint, but this was the last time on the trip that we bothered with a modern “restaurant” style pub (save one in Glasgow which was exceptional). One must stick with real and proper pub lunches and pub dinners. Okay, sometimes you just want something quick and small for lunch, but mostly– no. Pub lunch, as we would learn in Edinburgh, is one of the loveliest day-to-day pleasures of Great Britain. A midday sanctuary, especially on those chill, drizzling days so popular among the weather cycles of that green and rocky place. But all that comes later.
On to pubs! We must make it til pub-closing if we are to beat the damn phenomenon of dreaded lag! We go from one to the next, in search of the right atmosphere. Though unaware of it at the time, we are only just beginning to hone our pub-judging skills. One must first learn what one doesn’t want in a pub. New York City bar-finding skills are of little use here. One place that we found (which was roughly the pub equivalent to a T.G.I.Friday’s) was called Shakespeare’s. The name should have been enough; way too obvious. Also, it was too centrally located to Queen’s Way, the main drag near all the little hotels, to be much good. (We did notice, however, that we heard no American accents in this little neighborhood of travelers; we’d apparently found the area where folks visiting from the continent stayed. So that was nice.) In short, Shakespeare’s was for punters. We left in short order. Final pub of the evening was a good one, however, and seemingly a spot for locals as well as travelers. Called the King’s Head, with a cozy interior and of the proper old style set-up, we hunkered at a table and finished out the night there with pints and whiskeys. Sleep came easily to two such non-stop zombies, and next morning we awoke feeling fully alive once again.