I just spent two weeks as a tourist in my new home. The beauty, history, charm, quaintness and glamour of London are making the lights of Nashville fade a little more. Now that I will be living there I should pace myself, but her history is waiting to be told, her museums to be seen and her curry devoured. We didn’t stop. We went and saw and ate and toured every single day.
Upon landing we wasted no time and after dropping my bags, went straight to the antique stores on Eccles and Northcote Roads around Clapham. Margit met us at the flat Saturday morning and we took the bus to Brixton and window shopped at the Brixton Market. It dates back to the 1870’s, fairly new considering London’s Borough Market is 1,002 years old. The market is a combination of African, Caribbean and hipster food and wares. A large supermarket looks and smells exactly like the Supermercado in Pemba or Hypermaxi in Lusaka. Small stalls offer most any fruit or vegetable ever grown, the seafood stalls have tuna, scallops and lobster on ice. Little restaurants serve a huge variety of ethnic foods. We chose the one with the shorter line, never the best choice, but more than okay when you are jet lagged and ravenous. I had a traditional English breakfast with eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, baked beans or “sugar beans” as June Fleisher calls them, and a veggie “sausage”. Also traditionally English (not necessary with breakfast), I had a Pimm’s cup, an infused gin concoction with fresh mint and berries.
On Sunday we went to church. It is in walking distance across Clapham Common. William Wilberforce worshipped at Holy Trinity Clapham at the beginning of the 19th Century. It is old and beautiful, a modern projector screen and stage lights hang in front of a brilliant stained glass window. At the end the congregation sings my Atlanta friend Pat Barrett’s song, “Good, Good Father”. It’s funny to hear it sung by all these British people holding babies in this sacred place. And suddenly in my tall wooden pew the world seems so small. And the Father whispers to me he is in the details and that our voices are to be heard and creations shared around the globe and we cannot fathom the ripples of our lives. And in that moment I finally feel as if just maybe I am on to something after all.
We took the tube to Westminster Station and strolled along the backdrop of Big Ben and the grandeur of Westminster Abbey. The hordes of tourists and a huge bicycle race made it necessary to hide and there is no better place in London than in a pub. And one with a Sunday nut roast with Yorkshire pudding.
On Monday we took the bus to King’s Road, one of my favorite for shopping. The intent was to walk from the King’s Road to Harrods’s. When we approached Bibendum Restaurant on Fulham Road I had to go inside and gawk. It once housed the Michelin Tyre Company and has three large stained glass windows of advertisements of the time. It is named after the Michelin mascot Monsieur Bibendum, Latin for “now is the time to drink”. I always called him The Michelin Man. Monsieur Bibendum is way better. The oyster bar out front is an expansive outdoor covered white tiled patio placing you comfortably close to the sidewalk, a perfect people watching perch.
In Harrods we bought pistachio Turkish delight and nibbled on that while we walked the aisles of the most over the top department store on earth.
We spent an entire day just going through Westminster Abbey and National Art Gallery. I know I will go back to the gallery over and over again. Museums are free so you can do that, pop in and sit and stare. That evening we went to Ping Pong for dim sum.
We got up early one morning and went to Portobello Road to see the famous antique market. It was disappointing if you are really searching for antiques. It seems the market we went to was mostly new junk and loads of fruit and veg. I bought a linen safari hat from a great little clothing store that sold mostly plaid wool blazers and capes. It was full of leather trimmed beautiful traditional English coats and gloves and I loved it. We walked up the road to the Farm Girl Cafe’ for rose lattes.
The Tower of London should be any tourist’s first stop. Entrance is around $30. You could spend an entire day there. It is a castle built in 1078. Let a Beefeater take you on the one hour tour and then take your time going through the tower. Reenactments occur as you go. It houses England’s Crown Jewels, which literally means the jewels in real crowns, scepters and swords and you can go inside and see them. The castle was used as a prison and was a place of torture and beheading. Two of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded there. That evening we went to Shakespeare’s The Globe theater. We saw The Inn at Lydda, a play by John Wolfson. It is a fictional encounter between Jesus and Tiberius Cesar. It ends in a prophetic monologue about the future, wars and corrupt leaders. I am a critic of lots, but not plays. I thought it was great.
Fortnum & Mason and Liberty London are two must experience shopping destinations, skip Harrods and Selfridges. Fortnum’s was established in 1707 as a grocery store in the Victorian era. It developed into a department store and is known for it’s luxury picnic hampers you can fill with foie gras, caviar, quails’ eggs and cheeses. The women’s department offers luxury candles, pajamas, hats, scarves and perfumes. I doused myself and knapsack in Clive Christian perfume because I could.
One morning we drove to Canterbury to see Lisa, Robert, Oscar and Evelyn. We had breakfast there at the Wild Goose at The Goods Shed. Canterbury is lovely and the cathedral majestic, but The Goods Shed is the best breakfast money can buy. Situated on railroad tracks, the Goods Shed is a large food market. You name it, you can get it and guarantee it will be fresh. They boast their prices less than chain supermarkets. Men in wellies and wool sweaters haul in fresh beef and straw baskets of rocket and carrots. You sit on wooden stools at a large L-shaped bar and a young girl in jeans and sneakers prepares breakfast on an Aga in front of you. I had mushrooms in white wine and lemon sauce on toast with two perfectly poached eggs. Sit by the window and watch the rain. It always rains.
We spent a day seeing small villages of the Cotswolds. We stopped in Tetbury, Highgrove, the Cotswold home of Prince Charles is nearby.
When in London you must go Borough Market. Go on a Thursday or Friday morning when it is less crowded. The market holds any food your heart could desire. You can buy fresh fruit and veg, spices, pastries, seafood, you name it. I sampled Turkish delight, was looking for ice cream, found a stall of nothing but fudge, but then saw dozens of oysters on ice. It is easy to get distracted. We got two each and ate them in the cobblestone aisle and chased with little plastic cups of Prosecco. We then walked to The George Inn, a medieval inn and pub. Dickens references it in Little Dorrit. The interior is dark, wood floors and wooden tables with a winding staircase in the middle. It smells like cider. We slunk a booth in the corner and stayed for hours.
And then it all ended. Abruptly, the clock struck 3:00 and a taxi came and collected me for the airport. And London seems like a different planet compared to life here. I have written all of this from a smoke filled Thai restaurant with free WiFi and flies. And I am waiting wide-eyed for the moments ahead, the lives I will encounter, the whispers that come in the still place and the green curry I just ordered.