Two thousand years, eight million people

A two-week trip to London is almost long enough to start getting blasé about being surrounded by spectacular Victorian buildings, any one of which would be a showpiece in Seattle.

Beatles Tour
For example, here we are waiting for the Beatles tour to start. Ho hum.

Is it long enough to get blasé about the walk from the Tube stop at Tower Hill, where you migrate along with the crush of people stealing glances at a view that includes a massive fragment of the original Roman wall and the hulking medieval menace of the Tower of London in the background?

London - Wall and Tower from Tower Hill

Nope. I could probably live in London for years and never truly get blasé about that.

This was by far my longest trip to London, and I think I’ve almost got the city figured out. Electronic doo-dads make things much easier. Ridiculously easy. Almost… disappointingly easy. They take some of the adventure and romance, which is to say, some of the hassle and annoyance, out of travel. Maybe in retrospect I feel a bit cheated that I never actually got so utterly and completely lost that I had to take a cab just to get back to where I recognized things.

In 2007, my last London trip, I didn’t have a smart phone, and I wouldn’t have used it anyway because it would have been 69 cents just to send a text message. This time, I had text messages and data for free. I also had an iPad, and WiFi was just as ubiquitous in London as it is in Seattle. I liked how easy this made it to map out a travel route or book a night’s lodgings, but it still felt a little weird to be checking Facebook and all, like it was a normal day or something.

(Hey! Goober! You’re in London! What’re you doing on the freaking Internet?)

Tourist tip: you can get a USB-to-UK-wall-outlet adapter pretty cheaply at one of those mobile tech stores. Mine looked like this:

I was there for Loncon, the World Science Fiction Convention. It was a pretty good convention, very crowded, and in a rather disappointing part of London — the Docklands. It felt almost like the London version of South Lake Union, an area of ultra-high-gloss modern development that preserves only the tiniest hints of its gritty industrial past. In keeping with the relative scale of both cities, the Docklands are vast and heavily developed enough to feel like a substantial city in their own right. However, it’s not a city that anybody would fly across the Atlantic Ocean to visit.

Central London from Canary Wharf
Teeny-tiny in the distance, you can see Postcard London.

(History note! Apparently the current configuration of the Docklands is caused by the London docks having ALL closed rather abruptly between 1960 and 1980, when the shipping industry went to container shipping and the London docks couldn’t handle the larger vessels.)

Anyway, on the one hand, the ExCel Center was extremely far from anything interesting, and the only halfway decent restaurant in the immediate area was the wine bar ( On the other hand, you could get to central London easily in about half an hour on the train.

(Note: the Docklands Light Railway to central London passes a place called Isle of Dogs, which caused us all much speculation every time we passed. Were there actually dogs there? I’ve since looked it up. Nobody seems to know why it’s called that. So you know what I’m thinking. Werewolves.)

For some reason I ended up traversing the same bits of London over and over. All my routes seemed to overlap: the route from the Tube to our group fancy restaurant experience at Saint John’s Bread and Wine took us past Dirty Dicks, the pub where I would later be taking a photograph of Keffy raising a pint in front of a case of weird taxidermy and mummified cats at the pub where his grandfather drank during World War II; the route followed by our Jack the Ripper walking tour took us past the same church we passed on the way back from Saint John’s; the Beatles walking tour passed the same part of Soho where Paul took me to a pub that a customer told him about; it also took us past the place where Keffy and I stopped to pay homage to the John Snow pump (not that Jon Snow) which marks the birth of modern epidemiology; the random bus that we took from our hotel took us right past Dirty Dicks again, so we went to Turkish dinner near there and the pub afterward.

Christ Church - Spitalfields
London - Carnaby Street
London - John Snow

London is either the easiest city to get around in, or the hardest. The streets are incomprehensible — laid out like a partially untangled box of Christmas tree lights — but the Tube is quite possibly the most convenient public transit system ever devised. (At least, if you are able to walk and climb stairs pretty well.) It’s all point-to-point matchups, like really slow portal-based teleportation. Going to St. Paul’s? Follow the colored lines and connect the dots until you pop up at the stop called St. Paul’s, which is just around the corner from the spectacular cathedral. The trains are usually no more than five minutes apart, and there’s nearly always another way you can get somewhere (important if there are partial line closures.)

London by street
London by Tube

(Travel tip: get an Oyster card before you leave, or first thing on landing, and you can easily reload it at any Tube stop.)

The central touristy areas also have freestanding maps on many street corners, which is super handy if you want to make sure you’re not heading the wrong way to the British Museum because you got out at the Tube stop and saw a great big impressive building that wasn’t actually the British Museum but sort of fit your vague 1995 memories of what the British Museum looked like, and boy do you feel silly when you see the real thing because it’s WAY bigger and more impressive than that totally random building you were heading toward.

This is the British Museum. Note that there is nothing British in it.

The British Museum and the Jack the Ripper walking tour were both repeats from 1995 — the tour because a bunch of my awesome friends were going, and the museum because it was the same Tube stop as that pub Paul was looking for, and the Tube stop HYPNOTIZED ME with art that forced me to go look at Egyptian artifacts.

London Underground
Just look at it! Come on! Who could possibly resist?

Paul wasn’t all that keen on a repeat visit, but admission was free so it was easy to talk him into it. It was similarly easy to drag him to the JMW Turner room in Tate Britain, another free museum, but after the awesomeness of the Turners he had premature museum brain. Do you know about museum brain? It’s a state of cognitive overload, where you’ve looked at so much cool stuff that you stop being able to absorb any of it until you’ve given your brain a rest. Closely related to what Paul calls Expo Leg, which is that particular sense of weariness in the legs, feet and lower back that you get from being on your feet all day in a big crowd.

Both repeats were well worth it, though — years of Ripperology (that’s a thing) had provided a lot of new information, and is it actually possible to get tired of looking at Egyptian artifacts? I don’t think so!

Look! It’s the Rosetta Stone! I mean — come on — that is the ACTUAL ROSETTA STONE. Seriously. The real thing. Although I feel obliged to point out that this photo was snurched from the British Museum website, and that what I actually saw in real life was surrounded by tourists three deep.

Anyway, my interest in writing an urban fantasy starring a resurrected mummy and her faithful shabti was definitely rekindled, as well as any steampunk fiction idea I ever kicked around, because it’s impossible to visit London and not think about all things steampunk.

New things seen this time around: Highgate West, Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, plus 3 days in Oxford, which is not actually in London at all but is easily accessed from London by moderately priced commuter train.

Highgate West
Interesting Highgate factoid:Highgate is one of seven elaborate cemeteries established during the Victorian era in what was then the outskirts of London. These cemeteries were nicknamed “The Magnificent Seven” which causes me to look at that Clash song in a totally new light.

Buckingham Palace was, in a word, opulent. Like much of London, it bears heavily the stamp of the Victorian age — the ornate sensibilities, the jaw-dropping wealth, the arrogance, the beauty, the multiple portraits of Queen Victoria. (The current queen gets only one, but it’s full of corgis.) Anyway, we toured the state rooms, which are only open to the public during the summer, so that was a cool aspect of being there during peak tourist season. Less cool was the fact that everything was sooooooo crowded. We did not tour Westminster Abbey, or go up in the London Eye, largely because the lines were massive and we didn’t want to spend half our precious time in London just standing around waiting for something to happen.

Buckingham Palace
Look, even the lights outside the palace have to be wearing a little gilded crown. That strikes me as a Victorian thing.

(Travel tip: most of the sights that you tour from the inside — the museums and cathedrals and so on — skew early, opening at 8 or 9 and closing at 5 or 6. This can actually make it a bit challenging to catch more than one of them in a day, especially when you are still on Seattle time.)

In some of the key parts of London, just walking around could give you a bad case of museum brain. So many things to look at! So much going on! So many different people! So many of them stopping right in the middle of Westminster Bridge to take pictures of each other!

London - Palace of Westminster
I liked Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but I still think blowing up this building would have been a Very Bad Thing.

If the problem with the suburbs is that there’s no THERE there, London is exactly the opposite of that — London is ALL there, and then some. It’s extra there. It’s a nexus — a focal point — as Paul put it, a key stop on the worldwide Underground.

London feels particularly special to me because so many of my personal obsessions intersect there, from Egyptology to 60s rock music to the Victorian age. It’s been the setting for so much literature and entertainment that I love — books, plays, movies, TV shows, pop songs, paintings, and did I mention books? Stunning architecture, fascinating history — and everything is so LAYERED. Look around — it’s the strata of two thousand years, as you cast your eyes from the Gherkin, a shiny ultra-modern high-rise, to the Roman wall, to the Tower of London.

London - The Gherkin
This picture illustrates what I’m talking about, but I’m pretty sure the reason I took it is that I was waiting in line for a public toilet and getting bored.

Right now the Tower has a a stunning art exhibit commemorating
the centennial of Britain’s involvement in the First World War, with ceramic poppies — 888,246, each representing a British or Colonial military fatality — flowing from windows and through the grounds like a tide of blood. Not something I was expecting, but it was gorgeous and moving, and that’s what you get out of London: all the wonderful things you expect, and many wonderful things you don’t.


London - Tower with Poppies
That’s a lot of poppies

If it were cheaper to visit, I’d probably go to London nearly as often as I go to New Orleans. It’s one of those places that exists as a permanent landscape in my imagination.

(Travel tip: London is an expensive city, if you’re from Seattle. Most of the prices will look normal, or even good, until you estimate them in US dollars and have a minor heart attack. DO NOT DO THIS. Set a trip budget, take out a bunch of pounds sterling, and spend according to your budget. Converting everything back into dollars will drive you tea-party-mad, and possibly cause you to do foolish things like talk your wife out of visiting the Tower of London because you think it’s too much money.)

I have a recurring pattern of anxiety dream, where I go to a fun place and somehow fail to have any fun there. I never leave the hotel room for some reason, or I get hopelessly lost, or they’ve changed everything all around and it’s not fun anymore. These dreams are inevitably set in London, New Orleans, and Disneyland. But they were set in London before I’d ever seen the city with my own eyes.

I get some of the same anxiety in real-life London. Did I do enough? See enough? Did I get enough out of the experience? Was it worth it? Is anything worth it?

My favorite single moment of the trip happened on the final day, when we finally made it to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Paul watched our luggage while I climbed the dome. 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery, an interior ring of benches from which you could conceivably watch services down below. Then another 119 much narrower steps to the Stone Gallery, an exterior ring offering a spectacular view of London. Then 152 more steps, for 528 in all, to the Golden Gallery. The final set of steps goes through strange interstitial spaces, a no man’s land between the ornate interior dome that you can see from inside the cathedral and the exterior dome that you can see from much of central London. This final navigation went through odd narrow passageways where I had to draw in my shoulders and duck my head to feel sure of making it through. It felt secret, special, like a place you weren’t really supposed to be.

Without knowing I was already at the top, I emerged onto the Golden Gallery, a tiny ringed balcony that sloped alarmingly downward toward the railing, which left me with a strange off-kilter feeling.

London - St. Paul's Cathedral
Taken with my phone camera instead of my camera or my other camera — they don’t allow photography inside the church, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that at the top of the steps I would be looking outside of the church and really, really want a camera. But it’s not like I was going to go all the way down and all the way back up again. Although that would make kind of a funny movie moment.

My God, I thought. It’s LONDON.

My throat tightened and my eyes filled with tears, for no reason I could explain.

London. There it was.

PS: If you want to look at all the photos I took, my Flickr stream is here: