I don’t know if Mercury’s in retrograde or I spat in the Cheerios of the travel faeries or what, but every step of this trip so far has been plagued with problems: delayed flights, car rental difficulties, wrong turns, and so on. The only saving grace is that so far, none of them have reached the level of “detained for two hours by Israeli airport security.” <knocks on wood> But the unanticipated closure of Blackfriars station, coupled with my ill-considered decision to come in late on a Sunday night, left me stranded only partway to my hostel, with a rather expensive cab ride my only option for getting the rest of the way there.
Oh, and as of writing these notes, I have no money. Figuring out what’s wrong with my ATM card has been added to today’s schedule.
Anyway. It’s the first day of an Onyx Court research trip, and that means I have rituals with which to soothe myself. Down to the river I go, to greet Old Father Thames, and to walk the bank to the Tower. Epic amounts of construction keep diverting me from the river, with the result that I don’t get a chance to go looking for Coldharbour (cf Deeds of Men, but that’s okay. The real test comes when I turn north at the Tower, for my usual circuit of the (now mostly demolished) City wall.
This year, I’m doing it without a map.
See, I often claim I know my way around London pretty well, at least within my limited bailiwick. Put me on foot inside the Square Mile, and I’ll be just fine. But is that true? When I realized I’d set off on my travels without my usual map of the City, I could have printed off a new one. That, however, would have been too easy, and too sane. Instead I march off completely blind, to see just how well I do.
The result is a qualified success. I do an extraordinarily inefficient job just north of the Tower, but at no point am I actually lost; I simply overestimate how far east I’ve veered, overcorrect to the west, and have to fix that error. But I’ve screwed that bit up even with maps (since I only ever check them periodically anyway), and by Aldgate I’m back on course. Up to Bishopsgate I go — I’ll be back this way later, more than once — over to London Wall, and I find my favorite bit of wall without hesitation or error. That’s where I’m sitting as I write this bit, in the green (relative) quiet, while I rest my feet. I take photos of my shoes, wishing I’d done so at the start of the Ashes trip; the shoes were new then, but eight days of London and four of Rome did a number on the treads last year, and I don’t expect they’ll survive much past this trip. I walk a lot when I’m in London.
Museum of London next, where I discover that I previously overlooked the part of the gallery that would have been of use to me: the Tudor and Stuart stuff. Oh well. There isn’t much of it anyway, though the Cheapside hoard is pretty, and the cast of Oliver Cromwell’s death mask is morbidly interesting. The modern galleries are still closed (but should open next spring, at long last?). In the bookshop, however, I score an A to Z of Georgian London, the equivalent (via the same publisher) of the Agas map-book I got for Midnight, this time using Rocque’s 1740s map. Finding that, however, takes long enough that by the time I’m done, I have to scurry off down the rest of my wall circuit to make my lunch appointment at Orbit.
They take me to a very neat place just down St. Andrew’s Hill from my hostel, called Shaw’s Booksellers, where the menu comes on a clipboard and the bill comes tucked into an old book. No one at our table’s quite sure what the history of the place is, but given its location, there’s probably some connection to the printers and stationers that used to operate in the vicinity. I’m there with my editors and five UK bloggers; it’s nice to meet them, putting faces to names I know from reviews. And when we’re done there, I go back to Orbit’s office and straighten out my ATM card, so now I have cash, and all is well.
Except that it’s four p.m., which startles me. (That’s what I get for lingering over lunch and good company.) My plan was to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon, so I make my ritual walk up Ludgate Hill, grinning because now, for the first time, it’s the right cathedral. Wren’s monument to mathematics, replacing the one that burnt down in the Fire. I don’t know if I’ll have enough time to visit it properly before it closes, but it turns out I don’t have to make a choice: they’re already shut, setting up for the evensong service. Instead I sally down Cannon Street, saying hi to the London Stone as I pass, and jig south for the Monument (now free of the scaffolding that wrapped it last year). Back up the three hundred and eleven steps, and somewhere along the way I have an epiphany, that this is where I’m going to have [spoiler] happen. In fact, it occurs to me that I want to get into the laboratory below, so contacting Tower Bridge about access goes onto my to do list for the week. (Hopefully it will meet with more success than last year’s last-minute research effort, namely, my failed attempt to view Charles I’s death warrant. My odds are better, at least.)
It’s too late to talk to Tower Bridge now, though, so I pursue my other recent idea: back to St. Paul’s for evensong. No doubt things have changed since the eighteenth century, and this isn’t where Galen would go to church anyway, but it’s a pleasant experience to have. The acoustics, as one might expect, are lovely, and at some point (probably tomorrow morning) I’ll come back for a more thorough look.
That lets out at 6. I figure I’ll have dinner in the area of my 7:30 appointment, so off I go to Bishopsgate again (told you I’d be back). Heading there via Cheapside, I pass the church of St. Mary le Bow as the bells are ringing, and grin a little. Along the way I also find a second Wasabi (cousin to the Fleet Street one that has fed me many a time), so it’s a yakisoba night, perching on a doorstep in Folgate Street while I await my opportunity to enter the Dennis Severs House.
Dennis Severs appears to have been an odd individual, but his oddity is of a sort that serves me well. The house — which he inhabited until his death a few years ago — spans the Georgian and Victorian periods, but it’s not a museum per se. It doesn’t just contain period artifacts and replicas thereof, within their domestic context; it’s set up as if the house is still home to the Jervis family, French Huguenots who owned it back in the day. There’s tea in the cups, a half-peeled clementine on a plate, someone’s wig hanging on the post of a chair. The clocks tick steadily; the scent of pipe tobacco and linseed oil fills the air; the very real cat wanders from room to room scaring the crap out of people because she’s black and even twelve candles don’t light a room terribly well. You go through in silence (unless the cat startles you), and the illusion is that the Jervises are still there — they just went through that door there a moment before you entered. The effect is a little on the theatrical side, given the sheer density of they-were-just-here touches, but it communicates things no museum display ever could, and I barely even notice that my feet are starting to kill me.
Fortunately for my feet, that’s pretty much it for the day. Not that it was a lazy day or anything, mind you. This trip, however, is much less firmly scheduled than the previous ones (mostly because people keep not answering my e-mails). So a lot of what I do over the next few days will be more catch-as-catch-can. That’s okay, I think, even though I’m frustrated by my difficulties contacting places. I’ll adapt.
If I find myself with time to fill, I could always go learn the streets north of the Tower.