As we had done in Paris and Amsterdam, we spent a great deal of time exploring London’s streets and parks. I’ve given you a bit of a preview in a previous post. As noted, we did much of our wandering in Bloomsbury, whiling away a good part of the first full day in the city in the few blocks between Bedford and Russell Squares—stopping to escape the heat, if not the humidity, in the British Museum. (The notion of escaping the heat in London was certainly novel.)
Bedford Square is one of those private parks, fenced and gated and accessible only to those who live around it. We were there on a quiet Sunday morning, and foot traffic was negligible, with few people taking advantage even of the public benches around its perimeter. Nobody appeared to explain this sculpture, erected at one corner of the little park.
A forest of windsock trees? Not sure what else it might have been. There were lights at the base, but we never returned in the evening to see how it would have looked illuminated. There were plenty of other travelers snapping photos of it, though.
We circled the square, inverting the familiar geometric conundrum, and headed off to the British Museum, our first visit there since the redesign of the Great Court by Norman Foster. Foster and Partners also designed what used to be the most iconic element of London’s new skyline, the Swiss Re Building, affectionately—perhaps—known as the Gherkin. However, the vista is becoming crowded now with other examples of contemporary architectural blockbusters, all given equally populist nicknames like the Walkie-Talkie, the Shard, and the Cheese-Grater. But more about that below. And more about the British Museum in another post coming up.
The Museum was warm and muggy and close. So we opted for fresh air again, and feeling that midday refreshments were in order, we headed around the corner to Russell Square and its outdoor cafe. The atmosphere here was decidedly more egalitarian and polyglot, with plenty of children taking advantage of the jets of water bubbling up from the centrally located fountains to drench themselves and dare their friends. Lots of good-natured squealing served as accompaniment to tea and cakes for us as we enjoyed the play of sun and shade.
The greatest opportunity to appreciate the changes in London’s architecture in recent years is itself part of the new skyline: the London Eye. Forewarned about long lines, we bought tickets in advance for a scheduled admission, but the experience still proved chaotic and time-consuming. Discovering where to pick up the tickets among the many different queues and kiosks itself was the work of nearly half an hour, and there seemed to be something perverse about the express pickup location being a small desk tucked around the corner from everything else. But we persevered and prevailed, waited another fifteen minutes for our tour guide to arrive and lead us to another queue—to whose head we were ushered—and finally stepped aboard our pod.
While there were plenty of clouds in the sky, the day wasn’t typical London gloomy, and the views were pretty magnificent. Our guide was a pleasant fellow who lived in southwest London (“nothing to see over there,” he advised, correctly) and pointed out many of the historic and contemporary features of the city, including less obvious landmarks such as New Scotland Yard and MI-6. He also offered clues to where some icons—like the Gherkin and the Tate Modern—were hidden from view.
It’s been a long time since I was high above a metropolitan landscape like this, maybe not since a terrifying tour atop the World Trade Center in the early 1990s. I was surprised that the view was not more encompassing, and especially surprised at how little of the Thames was visible beyond our immediate environs. But nonetheless, it was a pleasant and new way to experience London. On the ground the villages and neighborhoods may each have their own character, but it’s hard to place one vis-a-vis another, especially when the Tube is the chief means of getting from one to another. From the air, they all seem to melt into one another against an occasional irruption of green. So I guess London remains an enigma no matter what your perspective may be. But here are a few glimpses of what we saw of London from the Eye.
There are some interesting views from ground level as well. Although commercial skyscrapers are the icons of modern London, most architectural energy these days seems to be expended on the construction of luxury flats, like these new buildings going up behind the Tate Modern.
The going rate for ownership here, if I remember correctly, averaged above £3 million.
On the other side of the Tate Modern, the ancients and the moderns seem to have come to a mutual accommodation as the Millennium Bridge reaches across the Thames from the industrial brutalism of the former power plant to the serenity of St. Paul’s. (This photograph dates from a previous visit to London eight years ago, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in the portrayal if the riverside has altered since then.)
There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle to be found in modern London, but the best parts, for me, were the streets that we walked around Bloomsbury (and on other occasions in Mayfair or Kensington) where the noise and the glamor gave way to a greeny and leafy calm.
If there will always be an England, I hope that a few corners of it will always look like this.