Home. Where, unless things have gone horribly wrong, the shower is close to ideal, the coffee is how you like it and the bed is just right. It’s hard not to come over all Goldilocks when you get home after a long trip. Except for the stuff about breaking and entering. And the bears. And – you have to hope – the gruesome, Grimm-original ending.
Although breaking into your own house or flat at the end of a trip is one of those things some people possibly wind up having to do. Things get lost. Bags end up on the wrong continent. I’ve never had to do it, myself. Important safety tip: when flying home, the house keys go in the carry-on luggage.
Yes, home to the necessary washing machine; to not too much unopened mail and nothing unspeakable in the fridge. To plenty of sleep, welcome back messages and the unsurprising news that everything at work has been changed. Again. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that until next week.
The last few days in England were not exactly jam-packed, a mix of the fun and the … not. Other than washing clothes and a trip to the post office my only other plans for Friday involved an evening event at the British Library, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the publishing of The Hobbit, and then a trip to Paddington Station to
pick up a bear meet a friend who flew over from Prague for the weekend. That meant staying up late, talking, and not getting enough sleep. Which may have had a material effect on where the weekend ended up.
Saturday involved the last (for me) seriously touristy and pre-booked thing for the trip: a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a place I’ve walked past and photographed and even ducked into before (to use the loo), but never actually explored. So it had to be done.
It’s an impressive pile, absolutely, from outside and inside. But it’s also clearly suffering a bad case of St. Peter’s envy and one of my chums quite rightly observed that – with apologies to Sir Christopher Wren, a lineage of Deans and anyone who worships there regularly – the atmosphere has little of the religious about it: St. Paul’s is a monumental declaration of state and commercial power and the relationship between them. Consider the location: almost on the border between the City of Westminster, home of the government and the bureaucracy, and the City of London, the City proper, the square mile of money, machinations and fucked-up Masters of the Universe. The only place in London where the shops are shut on the weekend, ’cause the bankers and the lawyers have gone back to Sussex and Somerset.
The decoration in the nave is, of course, focused on religious imagery but the spiritual essence is lost behind an ostentation of gaud, especially the ceiling mosaics, which seem to be a collision between Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, with due acknowledgement to the great and good and well-connected who paid for them: in the South Quire aisle, for example – right next to the High Altar – there’s a mosaic bracketed by Masonic symbols.
The most unambiguous religious sentiment I saw was up in the dome, in the frescoes and the statues of Augustine and others – but from floor level, you’d hardly know they were there, and you certainly wouldn’t know who the statues were supposed to be.
The focus on state power and state purposes is there in other parts of the building, too: the American chapel at the west end of the quire, the OBE chapel and the prominence given to Nelson’s and Wellington’s tombs in the Crypt. Nelson’s is right under the dome: the floor of the nave was removed to allow his body and the monument to be lowered in. Wellington’s tomb is under the dome altar: it looks remarkably like Napoleon’s memorial in Les Invalides. The Crypt also contains tombs and monuments to many other servants of the Empire: not just generals but artists and composers, too. After ‘Sir’ I swear the most commonly-used three letter combinations were CMG, FRS and FRA.
For me, the most moving monument in the place was the relatively small plaque dedicated to those who died in the Arctic convoys. I couldn’t say why it affected me as much as it did but I have a similar response to the Battle of Britain memorial down on the Thames: I dare anyone to go look at that thing, to look at the average age of those who died, and not be moved.
Anyway. I couldn’t go to St. Paul’s without climbing the dome (thinking, on the way up, about the poor buggers who pretty much lived up there on fire watch during the Blitz). It’s a looong climb, and a tiring one: less dark and narrow and squeaky than some of the castles and cathedrals I’ve visited before (the Duomo in Florence springs to mind) but still a trial. A trial made all the more exacting by the poor reward at the end. Not the views, which are as spectacular as you might imagine, but the mass of people, half of them on the phone. The top of the dome was probably never intended for visitors; the walkway around the cupola is narrow, and access is made more difficult by the knots of people who thought the best way to observe the occasion was to call someone. (I confess to a Facebook post – with a picture – but I did so quickly, discretely and quietly.)
From St. Paul’s we took a plunge, for reasons I’m still not altogether clear about, into the madness of Saturday afternoon streets in central London, specifically Covent Garden, Oxford and Regent Streets – for Hamley’s, of course. We saw the Queen:
Tackling any one of those places on a sunny Saturday afternoon is a bad idea. Hitting them all, and Knightsbridge, was just dumb dumb dumb, not my idea and most definitely not recommended. Go somewhere else. Go anywhere else. Shop online.
And then, for my last day in England, some real fun. Please be warned I have a freshly loaded sarcasm trowel here.
First: raining. One of the few spells of heavy rain in the whole trip. It really does make getting around London difficult. I saw off my Prague friend at Paddington, and got a taxi back to Pimlico because I had no desire to deal with the Tube when it was raining, and I was feeling less than optimal. Now, London taxi drivers – the black cab drivers – are legendary, and for good reason. It takes at least three years and multiple attempts at the test to acquire ‘the knowledge’ and get a license: the result is drivers who really do know all the alleys and short-cuts, where to go for this and that, and often a fair bit of history besides. However, this doesn’t stop them being arseholes, and I encountered one on the way back from Paddington: obscene, racist and dismissive. Fortunately, he was more than cancelled out by the two other drivers I encountered that day.
Then: lunch. At Claridge’s. My travelling companions were celebrating a special occasion and wanted to do so in style. I’ve mentioned before that this kind of brand name dining (Gordon Ramsay, in this case) is not my thing, and now I have another reason why. The service and presentation was everything you’d expect, the menu suitably obscure, the food rich. But it was too much, in a number of ways: the restaurant made me feel uncomfortable and the food made me ill. Whether it was a previously unencountered ingredient, the richness and fattiness of the food, some kitchen slip-up or some weird chemistry between one or more of these and the fact that I was incredibly tired … well, the result was unpleasant. I made it back to flat in Pimlico OK – nice driver – but lost half my lunch in the flat and the rest in full view of the glorious public on the concourse at Heathrow a few hours later. How I managed to pack my bags, get a cab – in the rain, long wait; got wet – to Paddington and then the train to bloody Heathrow, through check-in and everything else without falling over I do not know. Necessity, I suppose – my travelling companions were staying for another day, so no back-up. I wound up paying for a few hours access to a non-membership lounge, to clean up and get at least a little sleep in a cubicle bedroom. I made it to Singapore without embarrassment with the help of a very understanding cabin attendant, who fed me pretzels and lemonade – needed the salt, the sugar and the fluids – and let me in to the galley to top up my water bottle.
I was really, really glad to get home.
By the end I wanted to come home, which is a good way to feel at the end of a holiday. In 11 days me and my travelling companions drove 1712 miles – 2755 kilometres – across the literal length and breadth of England: from London to Cardiff (the only part of the trip outside England proper) and from Bath to the Farne Islands. I took more than 900 photos, already culled down to about 700 (there was much fiddling with exposures on some occasions). I picked up about 15 kilograms of books and souvenirs, the bulk of which I have been guaranteed will be delivered tomorrow. I saw eight Shakespeare plays, three fresh episodes of Doctor Who and wrote six (including this one) blog posts, which at least a few people seem to have read and liked. Thanks for that.
On the flight from Singapore to Sydney – on an A380, definitely a better flying experience than the 747 – I sat next to a chap who’d just finished a holiday with his wife in South Asia. Through the flight, in the dark, he painstakingly drafted an update to his own blog on his laptop. I confess I took the occasional peak at what he was writing. It was … very detailed. Every meal. Every encounter. Every stop. Everything recorded, right up to – I swear – dinner on the plane, the fact that his wife had gone to sleep and that he was wrapping up his trip blog. And after he wrote that he opened a different document, an electronic task list. The last two entries – written who knows when, however many weeks or days before or into the trip – were ‘wife to sleep’ and ‘ me to finish trip blog’.
Normal, erratic service will resume shortly.