“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” JRR Tolkien
I have returned home safely to my family and this is the final post, about my month of travelling, before returning to work tomorrow.
The long haul trip home from London N8 to Kiama 2533 was as painless as possible. It was a really good first return trip with British Airways, who I would highly recommend now that Virgin Atlantic have foolishly, from my POV, closed their route from Sydney to Hong Kong. As always, we had a family swim in our local rockpool as part of a travelling ritual about returning home safely.
There’s something deeply satisfying about planning a journey and successfully making it back.
My last ports of call were London and Stratford-upon-Avon. Even though I lived in London for the best part of two years and have returned half-a-dozen times to visit, I have never been to the Bard’s home town, just a relatively short train ride away. I asked on Facebook if I should finally do the deed and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone had fond memories of their visit and indeed, it is a charming town. My reluctance has always been to do with the nature of tourism at such sites. It often depresses me even though I understand why it is the way it is. However, the time had come and one comment summed up the experience perceptively: Stratford-upon-Avon, is a “marvellous tourist hell”.
I walked London to the point of being blood-shod. After so many days and hours walking along wooded paths the pavement was shin-splint hard. London is not as dirty an old town as it used to be and I notice far fewer homeless people in the streets compared to my first visit over twenty years ago. I assumed that was not because there were less homeless people but changed policies. A quick search online confirms this assumption.
I wandered around N8, especially Crouch End, which is bounded by Highgate Wood, as well as the Thames and a fair bit of the Monopoly board. I had planned to go to the National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and Dr Johnson’s House as salient destinations but the rest was just wander and see what I see.
An Oyster Card makes it easy to jump on a bus or the Tube when one has wandered far from the originally planned destination. When I first lived in London it took a while to work out that one could throw a blanket over quite a few of the stations as they are remarkably close to each other. I never tire of people watching on public transport, although, of course, mostly one avoids eye-contact. I cheekily snapped this person holding a newspaper open at a an amusing page while we were packed in like proverbial fish on the Piccadilly line.
How long can one spend at the British Museum? It is mostly free and has over 8 million objects to peruse (some would say ‘pieces of loot’). One can carefully plan what gallery to visit or even better, start with an idea in mind and just wander after that. I spent most of my time checking out the Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking exhibits.
There is currently a great special exhibition about Celtic art and and identity which bills itself as telling the story of “the Celts from 500BC to the present day.” I wonder how many people understand that the Celts are not a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced over time? Quite frankly, the amount of b***sh*t the term Celtic has inspired tends to, as Tolkien says, be more a ‘twilight’ of ‘reason’ than anything else. Of course, we do talk about Celtic languages but as with English, not all who speak it are English any more than those tongues were uttered by a homogenous group who knew themselves to be Celts. The exhibition makes the point that “Welsh, Irish and Pictish were not mutually intelligible”.
The exhibition focuses on the concept of Celtic as a style of art and an early European (500B- 800 AD)* way of communicating meaning and great beauty.
* I do wonder why the British museum does not use Common and Before Common Era?
Dr Johnson’s House
If you need a quiet space in the centre of London, Dr Johnson’s House is located in the incredibly tranquil hideaway of Gough Square. Once the hub of literary London, Johnson lived here (1748-59) to be near his printer but did, apparently, have 18 other residences at various stages of his life of which none survive.
I learnt a great deal about Johnson visiting this residence and must admit to never having read the Life of Samuel Johnson. At this stage of the game, I am probably more interested in Boswell’s travel writings. Johnson was a most progressive figure. We know him as the most important of all English dictionary compilers and perhaps for his editions of Shakespeare but he certainly was an important figure in 18th century London for his support of Enlightenment ideas. He believed women should be educated and actively sought their intellectual company. He also was an abolitionist and sponsored freed slaves to prosper and gain education and learning.
An aside: I could not escape Rugby Union smalltalk in England. I used to play but have less than zero interest in the game. Even here, to my surprise, the slightly built man running Dr Johnson’s house asked me if I watched the game last night (England had been defeated by Wales). At the airport, there was an air of disbelief that, as an Australian, I could be leaving the country the day before the World Cup matchup with England. My standard reply is I gave up watching boofy blokes run into each other some time ago. Said pleasantly, it usually evokes a laugh.
Face of Britain
I have never previously visited The National Portrait Gallery and there is much to see. If Miss 9 had of been with me, we would have lingered for a long time in the exhibition about Audrey Hepburn but my interest was in the Face of Britain.
Simon Schama is a pretty phenomenal brand for an art historian. I have loved Schama’s books and television series since the 90s and before I realised this was on in London had purchased the hard copy of the book and listened to the audiobook. There are many background stories to the portraits that make fascinating for reading, and then viewing. My favourites were the stories of Francis Drake and Winston Churchill, who is the only Prime Minister to have two portraits in 10 Downing Street.
The NPG is making a very good decision to partnered with for this exhibition and I am sure numbers will be well up after the television series screens.
“I long to hear the story of your life” (The Tempest Act V Scene 1)
If I had one literary wish it would be to know the complete story of Shakespeare’s life. Those missing years are particularly fascinating and one imagines, gone forever. Many would argue that his plays and sonnets provide plenty of glimpses but something more biographical would be splendid. A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon is probably as good as it going to get.
Walking along the River Avon in sunshine is probably a different experience than what generations of travellers to the town have known, so I enjoyed the beauty of the day as well as the ambience of the place. I visited William Shakespeare’s birthplace and grave. Pilgrimage places since the 1700s for all those who read, write or speak English, it was fascinating to see the graffiti scribbled on his window panes, including the signature of Henry Irving, one of the “greatest Shakespearean actors”.
I almost didn’t visit the home of Shakespeare’s mother’s as it had the potential to be too much like a school excursion for 6th Class. Mary Arden’s House is ‘a working Tudor farm’ and proved quite interesting to stroll around. It has a more authentic feel than one would expect as the employees go about their business. I particularly liked the kitchen but found the tethered falcons soured my mood. I find the concept of falconry fascinating but after reading so happily about peregrines recently just wanted to free the falcon. I am sure this would have resulted in more than just deportation. The Eagle Owl seemed not bothered, magisterial and strangely unshackled for one so tethered. Check out the great shot below of this owl shaking itself.
I visited “The Dirty Duck” for lunch.
I read less than usual while travelling but discovered at least two dozen must-read books in the many bookshops I visited, especially along Charing Cross Road. One of my favourite is Foyles but I also lingered in the British Museum bookshop where the photo below was taken.
I love travelling and have a bucket list that includes: Japan with my family at Christmas for month and the USA for my scholarship in 2016. After that, Germany in 2018 and possibly a return to China before that, if I am lucky and there is a school excursion.
I have started an account for a long-planned trip to the Antarctic and the Galapagos Islands with my partner. Miss 11 says we should go now before climate change makes it no longer viable. I certainly hope her quip is wrong because 2030 seems like a very long way away.
Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/21870045651 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license
All five travel posts for this trip to England and Mann can be found here.