A SUNNY DAY IN LONDON TOWN By Rebecca Yount
Several years ago my husband and I spent New Years in London. Avoiding the boisterous neighborhoods of Covent Garden and Piccadilly, we took a late evening stroll in the quiet Bloomsbury enclave where we were staying. We thought we were the only people out and about in Russell Square that night; that is, until we spotted a couple coming toward us. When they met up with us, the young man paused and whispered into my ear, "Happy New Year, luv." Only in London.
I'm quite serious. I cannot imagine a native of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Paris, or even Edinburgh doing that. The image of the English as being uptight and impersonal is nonsense. Scratch a Brit and you'll find a warm, witty friend.
Not that they are instantly chummy, mind you. It is best to allow the English to come to you, rather than vice versa. They freely admit to being wary of our premature Yank congeniality, so my husband and I have learned to hold back and wait. Wit is key to establishing friendships, and the English love it when Americans give as good as they get. Once, after a Londoner excoriated our KFCs and McDonalds, I said, "What does that say about a race of people who eat eels?" He almost dropped to the floor laughing.
Since 1990 we have visited London yearly, travelling there during the cheaper off-season (typically late winter or early spring) to enjoy some great plays in the West End. We have seen the likes of Vanessa Redgrave (twice), Diana Rigg (three times), Patrick Stewart (twice), David Suchet (twice), Derek Jacoby (twice), and Peter O'Toole in his final appearance on the stage. For us it's pure Nirvana to jump on the underground, get off at Piccadilly, and weave our way to Shaftesbury Avenue to see these great actors for ticket prices that are, at least by New York standards, steals.
Not that London comes cheap. It doesn't, unless you've done your homework and know where to find the best bargains. Over the years my husband and I have gathered such a wealth of information about this, we could practically teach a seminar on the topic. Hello, London School of Economics? As for popular tourist sites, forget Madame Tussaud's waxworks. The lines to get in are much too long. Do see the Tower of London and Big Ben -- once. Attend the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace -- once -- and hear the Guard's band playing hokey music, like the theme from the film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (I kid you not). It's the unexpected places, many not even on the guide maps, that make London magical. Take the Old Curiosity Shop on Portsmouth Street, which we just happened to run into. As advertised by Dickens, it was built around 1567, is down-on-its-heels charming, and possibly the oldest still-operating shop in London. One can easily imagine Little Nell inside dusting off the bric-a-brac.
Then there is the old Victorian horse hospital just behind the Russell Square underground station. It is abandoned now, but still standing proud. One can only imagine how busy it must have been in the days when horses were the main source of power and transportation. A vivid reminder of the past, it is worth stopping on your way out of the station to investigate this forgotten place.
One of our favorite sites is the Roman wall at the Elephant and Castle underground station. Believed to be a corruption of "Eleanor of Castile," most beloved queen of King Edward I (who reigned from 1272-1307), this station teems with commuters during rush hour. If you don't keep moving, even polite Brits are likely to run you down. However, it's worth taking that risk. Can you imagine coming out of your local commuter station and facing an original Roman wall? When my husband and I saw it for the first time we stood transfixed, damn the hordes of commuters. Reaching out, I touched the cold stone and shivers actually raced up and down my spine. The English have little notion of what something like that means to an American -- we who live in a country where 1776 is considered ancient history.
Another little known marvel is the Foundling Hospital, now a museum located in Bloomsbury. Founded in 1742 by Thomas Coram, a wealthy entrepreneur, and funded by the likes of composer Geo. Frederick Handel (he of "The Messiah"), the old hospital is a testament to the desperate plight of unwed mothers. Shocked by the site of abandoned children in the streets of London, Coram vowed to dedicate his life to caring for those who were unwanted. The museum is a virtual history of the lives of these orphans -- their care, education and, later, careers.
These are just a few examples of the wonders that await a guest of London. Turn a corner, and you are likely to find something intriguing.
But don't get too caught up in myths about London. For example, Fog: Since the city has converted to clean-burning fuels over the years, the foggy day in London town has long since dissipated. A taxi driver once told me that the most common question he is asked by American tourists is, "Where's the fog?" Rain: Yes, it rains in London, but not constantly as you may be led to believe. London has more than its share of sunny days.
Cockney: Rarely spoken these days. Londoners increasingly seem to be adapting a more "American" accent, perhaps because of the popularity of TV show re-runs, like "Friends" and "Frasier." If you listen closely, Princes William and Harry often infuse their speech with American phrases, and even Her Majesty has toned down her plumy accent.
Pubs: Alive and thriving. However, there is an increase in "gastropubs" that serve healthier cuisine. Still, you can enjoy mouth-watering fish and chips at the more traditional locals.
Flower Girls at Covent Garden: Where's Eliza Doolittle when you need her?
So the bottom line is this: don't assume you know London from public television, tourist guides, or bodice-ripping novels. Expect the unexpected.
And, by the way, the British Museum has not lost its charm.
A Death in C Minor and The Erlking, the first two books in Rebecca Yount's Mick Chandra crime series, are now available in e-book format from all major vendors. You can find her at: RebeccaYount.com.