Today starts off very well: with a sighting of my books!
See, I have no idea where to find bookshops in London. Once I had checked the Waterstone’s in Ludgate Circus, I was done. (And they didn’t have it in.) But this morning, en route to Westminster, I spy a Books Etc. at Fleet Street and Fetter Lane. Victory! Two copies. The nice clerk even lets me sign them.
Entering the Covent Garden area is a strange experience for me. My first visit to London was eleven years ago, at the tender age of sixteen. I’d finished an Earthwatch dig up north, and now had about a day and a half to sightsee before going home. I was staying with the older sister of a friend, and I think my parents expected her to guide me around. Instead she basically handed me a map, made sure I knew where her flat was, and sent me on my way. Which resulted in a delightful day of wandering around what I now know to be Westminster and the West End, stumbling with confused pleasure on all sorts of sights, without ever actually knowing where I was or where I was going. Around mid-afternoon I ended up in Covent Garden — except I didn’t even know the name; I just knew that clearly I was in the theatre district. I used a calling card to phone my family and beg permission to drop sixty pounds or so on a ticket, and was told in no uncertain terms that, for the love of God, I was in LONDON, of COURSE I should go see something.
I suspect that experience had a formative effect on how I interact with London.
I have a better sense of geography now, but I still wander. Covent Garden is on my itinerary because it exists now, from the viewpoint of the book: Inigo Jones built the parish church in 1633, as the centerpiece of a swank new housing development by (I think) the Earl of Bedford. Thus was the West End born. And though it soon descended into the eclectic mix of gentility and shabbiness that has been its hallmark, the shape is still the same. The Market is roofed over and filled with yuppie shops and cafes, but it still stands in front of St. Paul’s Covent Garden, as it has for nearly four hundred years. The buildings around it still bear an arcaded gallery on their ground floors. I look at London with an eye for continuity, and it isn’t hard to find.
I detour northward, to the Phoenix Garden, a community park I visited on drydem‘s behalf last year. It was closed for repairs then, but as I hoped, it’s open now. Half-wild and overgrown, it’s utterly charming. drydem, I see why you like it.
Going there also brings me through the Seven Dials, a neighborhood I saw mentioned somewhere in some reading and wondered where it was. Then I go looking for the headquarters of the Royal Society and fail, because I have only a vague sense of where it is and no sense of what it looks like. Failure! Oh well; they weren’t over in this part of town back then anyway. (They weren’t even in London until 1666.)
After a brief lunch in the crypt of St. Martin in the Fields — my thanks to whomever told me about that place — I wander around the perimeter of St. James’ Palace, which I really should have come and found last year. I don’t think the public are allowed in, but I can (and do) at least study the exterior. I’m not sure how much survives from the Tudor era — I had thought none, but the style still looks fairly period, albeit with much of the brickwork replaced. (That’s my half-educated guess, anyway, based on my tour of Hampton Court last year.) It’s something to check when I have real Internet access again, along with the location of St. Giles in the Fields. It was a major epicenter of the plague outbreak in 1665, and I’m not sure if I’m correct in thinking it was roughly where Soho is now. (Also, when will every mention of Soho stop pulling up the footnote from Good Omens? “In any place other than Soho, the onlookers would have been interested.”) Or more east? Maybe it was north of Coven Garden, and Seven Dials was a part of it. Not sure.
Today’s official mission is at the Banqueting House, the only surviving remnant of Whitehall Palace and the site of Charles I’s execution. (Yes, as you might expect, that scene will feature in the novel.) The tour, even with my helpful curatorial guide, doesn’t take long; unlike (say) the rambling extravagance of Hampton Court Palace, this is basically just a single imposing room, with a small historical display in the undercroft. The true gem will be if my guide can find out what happened to the model they once had of the whole palace. If I can go see that on Wednesday, I will be delighted.
I go by the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to see the original of Charles’ death warrant (there’s a copy in the Banqueting House), but it apparently is no longer on display. What are the odds I could get archives to dig it up for me in time to see it on Wednesday? Probably not good. Failure again! But offset by my discovery in Tesco’s of a dinner that neither contains something I detest nor requires cooking. Victory again! Dinner for a pound thirty-three. (Now let’s hope I actually like it.)
Reading these notes as you all do, cleaned up and posted online, you miss certain aspects. Like how the above paragraph ends abruptly in my notebook. Sitting in the garden behind some Whitehall building, I decided, screw it, and began speed-walking back to Blackfriars. I made it to the Orbit offices in time to take them up on their offer of computer usage, dig up the number for the Parliamentary Archives, and request an appointment on Wednesday to see the death warrant. I’ll find out tomorrow whether that will be possible, but hey — nothing lost by trying. (Except the energy I burned off in that sprint. It was after four p.m. when I made that decision, you see.)
So I’m waiting on that. In other news, my Tesco’s dinner was delicious. Victory indeed! If I can find one or two other decent things, they may become the Official Victualler of Onyx Court Research Trips.