18.09.2012 - 23.09.2012
An easy downhill run with our rollabout suitcases returned us to Torquay railway station, and presently the tiny two carriage train arrived on time, to scoot us a few stations up the line to Newton Abbot, where we changed to the London Paddington train. The British train system looks to have had a go at modernisation a couple of decades ago, but not much has changed since then. Faded, but still reasonably comfortable. Provided you have your own earphones, you can watch some video content if you are lucky enough to have a screen mounted on the back of your neighbour's seat.
Soon we slid into Paddington, ready to tangle with the Tube in order to find our way to yet another hotel. Room costs in the centre of London being prohibitive,I had booked a room in Stratford, an East End locality in Zone 3 of the public transport system, at a reasonable rate. I had also carefully written out the sequence of changes of line and landmarks to get there. With a mad tangle of interconnected lines covering just about any London locality you want, the Tube and its navigation is essential to a successful visit to the capital.
At Stratford the line rises up from the underground, with the station spilling out people to the forecourt of the enormous, shiny Westfield shopping centre. An elevator and a broad pedestrian bridge allow us to cross over the railway lines, the glass side panels of the bridge still lined by the remaining Olympics related posters. The arenas and other infrastructure are visible nearby. We cross at the traffic lights with a large, evening peak crowd. On this side of the tracks there is another shopping centre that is rough around the edges, where shops are more everyday, such as Sainburys, chemists, and mobile phone shops, and all the big fast food names full of patrons. The central walkway is a continual highway of the local people; a melange of African, Jamaican, West Indian, Indian, Pakistani,and a small proportion of Anglo-Saxons all rushing along going about their business.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of money around. Groups of young men posture and preen, but their clothes are cheap knock-offs of American brands. You can choose any watch you like from the market stall in the high street for three pounds. Everyone takes the short cut through the churchyard of St Johns. Homeless men huddle there at night, against the wall of the church, or stretched out heedless on the grass. A sign states that a maximum of four dogs on leash may be taken into the churchyard.
The church must have been a blitz victim, because most of the bricks appear pale and yellowish, compared to the eighteenth century style of its front. Other victims are noted in the compact front yard of the church on a tall ceramic memorial (provided by the local terra cotta manufacturers). Here the tales of local martyrs in the sixteenth century are recorded, such as "near this spot a blind man and a lame man were shackled together and burned to death for denying the truth of the bread and wine being the body of Christ."
On the other side of the road a large blue neon sign decorates an anonymous looking building with the words "You Me Bum Bum Train."Still don't know what it means.
Our room overlooking the busy street provides plenty of people watching opportunities in between forays into central London to see some sights. And access to the wi-fi internet connection at the electronics shop opposite our window during their opening hours. With the Ibis wanting ten pounds a night for wi-fi, free was a good option.
During the course of our stay we glimpsed the following notables:
On the way to the tower, right next to the Tower Hill Tube, a substantial chunk of the Roman wall that marked the city boundaries during their rule, now watched over by a statue of the emperor Trajan.
The Tower of London. Vast collection of castles and towers from six hundred years of royal habitation, incarceration or execution, depending on the politics of the time. Saunter by the little green grassy square where Jane Boleyn lost her head. Over there, an unobtrusive little tower where the two young princes were allegedly murdered by Richard II Nearby. Traitors Gate, an entry way from the Thames where those condemned to death would arrive to meet their fate. Many prominent bones are described proudly by the Beefeater guide in the Royal Chapel where the same Jane Boleyn's remains still lie.
Arms and graffitti from long ago evoke the experience of soldiers and prisoners. Walk through narrow spiral stairways with narrower window slits, just sufficient to fire an arrow. Outside, where once lions and monkeys roamed for the amusement of the king, now street theatre performers prance and play anachronistic guitars. Where are the lions when you need them? The Crown Jewels, glittering splendour presented in semi-darkness with sound effects, very few dated prior to the English Civil War because the puritans smashed the jewels as they then were. The goldsmiths and jewellers must have been exceptionally busy during the Charles II restoration period.
Museum of London. Fascinating displays of artefacts from early occupants of the London area, and the beginnings of civilised behaviour. Keep trying, OK? Great range of objects of outstanding historical interest, yes. Stand out item: burnt bricks and fused metals from the Great Fire of London.
Museum of Natural History. The one with the massive Diplodicus in the hallway. Walls groaning with fossils including many gathered at Lyme Regis by Mary Anning. Demonstration of the effects of an earthquake, via shaking of the room: not as shaky as the average Tube trip. Discover little room called The Vault. It contains exceptionally rare and precious things, gold and diamonds and sapphires, and rare crystalline forms of minerals wrought by natural forces into extremely beautiful things. Then just for extra impressiveness, there were moon rocks, rocks from Mars, and a meteorite almost as old as the universe. Adisplay case of about two hundred and eighty diamonds of all colours, sparkling under a UV light.
Regents Park. It's not Hyde Park. It's either formal paths cutting through rose gardens leading in to rugby and football games, or duck ponds. It does contain the Greater Union Canal, which links London with the Midlands for the narrowboats that put put their diesel powered way along the remaining network of waterways.
Baker St underground station. Just down from 221B Baker St, old haunt of Sherlock Holmes, this station is remarkable for its original condition. It was one of the first stations opened for business in the 1860s. Most of the decor looks like it hasn't been updated since, apart from a few shameful 1970 tiles. So quaintly mid Victorian it should be preserved.
Greenwich. We ventured out on the Docklands Light Rail in light rain, passing through the expansive building sites fringing the Olympic arenas, and the new financial centre at Canary Wharf. Pausing only to contemplate the charmingly named Mudchute, we arrived at Greenwich. Immediate steps taken to procure fish and chips at pub next to church where Henry VIII was baptized. Greenwich was a royal residence when the Tudors were in vogue. This place of zero longitude fairly drips with naval history, from the Cutty Sark hoisted high and dry the better to be viewed by the passer by, to the intriguing archeological displays of the Old Royal Naval College. As well as the uniforms and occupational fittings of old sailors, there were such items as an anti-witch spell consisting of a bottle, containing urine, bent bins, nails,hair and fingernail cuttings, which was buried beneath the threshold of a house on the site in the sixteenth century.Many grand Georgian buildings with exquisite interior decorations adjoining , now devoted to music teaching. A long trudge uphill to the Royal Observatory, for a brief view of the line where time is measured from, and a fine view back over the Thames valley. The parklands surrounding the Observatory alive with squirrels, busily harvesting acorns.
Stratford. Cross suburb walk with backpack full of dirty clothes in search of laundromat. Kind lady lets us wash load, while the adjoining mosque continues with evening prayers. We catch a double decker bus crowded with night club ready locals back to our hotel.The salad bar at Pizza Hut is honestly the freshest food in town. In the morning there will be yoghurt again, and a move to another hotel for a night free of the smell of East London drains.