Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tackling my London To-Do List

Friday, July 24, 2010

I had showered, changed and was ready to hit the road to Litchfield when Michael descended the stairs to inform me that he had pulled a nerve in his back and felt uncertain about sitting behind a wheel for so many hours. Our trip to the Midlands was cancelled and I was left with the equally exciting prospect of spending a truly spectacular day in London on my own.

The thing about London is that no matter how often you've been and how long you've stayed, there is still always something 'new' to see. On a glorious day like today, I was torn between staying outdoors and ticking items off my To-Do List--many of which involved museums. In the end, I chose to walk the tight rope between outdoor and indoor activity and didn't do too bad a job at it.

So, I left Amen Corner at 10 am after a delicious oatmeal porridge breakfast fixed by Cynthia and Michael in tandem--he provided the bits and bobs (oatmeal, oat bran, milk, water, sultanas, chopped nuts), she stirred and served.

Kensington Gardens:
I hopped into a bus at St. Paul's, then changed to another on Oxford Street and hopped off at Bayswater, near Lancaster Gate. My aim was to stroll through Kensington Gardens which I'd never seen before (though I have been to Kensington Palace and the Orangery when Chriselle had visited me). I admired the Italianate Gardens though they weren't in bloom, then walked on towards the lovely sculpture of Peter Pan by George Frampton which featured the boy who never grew up among the fairies and animals he adored. Right opposite is the thinnest thread of the Serpentine and the approximate spot where the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's wife drowned herself--heart-breaking.

On I walked towards the Serpentine Gallery which I'd never visited. Hard to believe that I spent a whole year devouring London's art offerings and had never been to one of its most famous galleries. I seemed to have just arrived in time to enjoy the brand new lipstick red pavilion, the work of Jean Nouvel, that sits near the Serpentine Gallery which was once a tea room. Inside, I caught a striking exhibition of photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans before I spent a while resting my feet in Nouvel's new creation.

A Triathlon was on in the Park and I walked past groups of sprinters on the Serpentine Bridge before I went in search of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain where I was delighted to discover that I could kick my clogs off and paddle. What cool relief for my aching feet! Ten minutes later, I was near the Lido Swimming Club admiring the hanging baskets of flowers that filled the pavilion.

It was time to hop on a bus again and as it grew warmer towards mid-morning, it made sense to escape indoors for a bit, so off I went to Leighton House.

Leighton House:
Leighton House had remained closed for renovation, much to my disappointment, during the length of my stay in London. Since it reopened only a few months ago, it made perfect sense for me to make a bee-line to the London home of one of the late-19th century's best-known artists-Frederick, Lord Leighton, at 12 Holland Park Road. And boy, was it worth the wait! The house, which is absolutely nothing to look at from the outside, was a true stunner within. I was completely floored. My five pound entry fee was waived, thanks to my Metropolitan Museum connection, so in I went after I had lingered in the garden for a bit and enjoyed a brief conversation with a lady who had curated a special exhibit inside entitled 'Flaming July.'

Lord Leighton had a passion for everything Middle Eastern and entering this home is a bit like making a lightning visit to Damascus or Istanbul. His fondness for blue Iznik tiles is evident everywhere--on the walls, the ceiling and the floors--exactly as Llew and I had seen in the harems in Turkey. He was equally enthralled by Roman decorative design, especially the mosaics of Pompeii and I saw a great deal of the motifs I had seen during my visit to Southern Italy. Dozens of his own paintings line the walls as do a huge number of paintings, drawings and sculpture that formed his own personal collection. They range in style from the classical work of Michelangelo to the Impressionist work of Corot. The visitor walks through the rooms which have been recreated to reflect the manner in which Leighton lived in them, down to the finest detail as he was obsessive about getting every element right. Indeed, though the house was designed for him by the architect George Aitchison, Leighton was personally involved in every single aspect of it and his attention to detail is evident everywhere. So smitten was I by the man, his vision and his work that I believe this visit will be one of the highlights of my current travels in the UK.

The Science Museum:
Because the day was shaping up so beautifully, I spent a while lingering on Kensington High Street--I popped into Waitrose to buy some of my favorite goodies--their Walnut Bread, their Wensleydale Cheese with Ginger, their smoked ham--good for the sandwiches I shall prepare for our picnic in Wisley Royal Gardens tomorrow. With a triple chicken sandwich in the bag, I hopped into another bus, this time headed towards the Science Museum which I had never entered before.

You can tell that Science is not one of my passions, though children seemed to be having a whale of a time. I headed straight for the basement to see exhibits on the Home which detailed the history of such familiar household appliances and gadgets as refrigerators and toasters and irons, not to mention the cistern in toilets! I guess a science buff could spend the entire day (or several) in this space, but by then it was almost 5.00 pm and I was dying for a cuppa. The cafe seemed rather too bland for my liking and knowing full well that the superb Gamble Cafe was only a stone's throw away in the Victoria & Albert Museum, that was where I sped. One large cup of Darjeeling (and a sandwich later) later, I was wading into water again--this time in the circular pool in the museum's courtyard which was full of fellow paddlers. How delightful to be able to do this sort of thing! I had such a grand time and, of course, my poor abused feet enjoyed the treat as well.

Harvey Nichols and Fortnums:
On the bus again, we rolled in the direction of Piccadilly. When we passed by Harvey Nichols, I realized that I had never been inside this fancy department store--so off I hopped and in I went into another London institution. But, of course, once I was inside, I saw that there isn't really very much to distinguish one department store from the other, so I took the elevator to the fifth floor and walked around the Food Hall for a while before I rode the escalators down so that I could walk around each floor and admire the Jimmy Choos or the Vivienne Westwoods. On the bus again, I proceeded towards Piccadilly, this time hoping I'd make it there by 7 o' clock so that I could see Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason do their thing when the hour tolled--a tradition about which I had read only after I'd left London.

At exactly 7 o'clock, the two boxes on either side of the clock on the second floor of the store opened and out popped two life-sized figures dressed in the ostentatious garb (wigs included) of the 18th century gentleman. One carried a tray with tea things, the other held a candelabra. They moved smoothly towards each other, bowed graciously, raised and lowered their heads and twirled while the clock played a tune.And when they were done, they turned their backs on us and walked into their wooden boxes as the doors shut behind them. It was a the cutest sight and I was enchanted! To think that I have never left London without visiting this store (it really is one of my favorites) and did not know about this clock!

I'd have loved to have shopped for a few goodies, but I was in a hurry to get to St. James' Church, Piccadilly, in the hope of seeing the interior, but alas, it was closed for the day. I do so hope I shall have the time to see it before I leave. If and when I do, I shall make sure I go into Fortnum's as well.

It was time to get on the bus and head back to Ludgate Hill. I felt very proud of myself because I remembered the bus routes so well and barely needed to consult my map. Still, some things have changed for the worse--the construction ('road works')outside Tottenham Court Road has diverted the 6, 25 and 251 buses. I reached Amen Corner at about 8 pm really tired and ready to relax though I was simply too stuffed with all the food I'd eaten and decided to skip dinner.

I fixed some sandwiches for a picnic tomorrow and can only hope that the weather will hold up for my day outdoors with my friend Bash!

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