To not lose a vacation day to travel, I scheduled my flight from NYC for Tuesday evening to arrive Wednesday morning in London. I still can’t get over how great it is to be able to take a direct flight somewhere that is not Dallas or Houston. I enjoy the Oklahoma airport experience as much as the next calm-loving person, but there is something to be said for one-plane international travel.
The flight was mostly smooth, although the passenger behind me seemed not to understand the fundamentals of the online video screens and kept fiercely prodding my headrest, despite me asking multiple times for him to stop. Oh well. The flight arrived on time to Heathrow and I took the train to the center of the city. While I did technically go through a sort of night on the plane, I really only had a couple of hours of drifting in and out of lucid dreams, so I was fairly exhausted when I finally was able to put down my luggage. It was late morning, so I decided to try to rest my eyes for a spell and somehow dragged myself out of the welcome sleep shortly later. I’d had three late nights out before traveling and worked right up to my departure, so the jet lag and general fatigue was pretty strong. However, I knew I had to stay away, as I’d bought a ticket to see Sweeney Todd that evening. Yes, somewhere in my travel planning I thought it would be a brilliant idea to go to the theatre my very first night in London, forgetting that I am a human. But there is so much that coffee and the anticipation of exploration can do, so I set out from the flat for both.
I began a long walk, passing by Buckingham Palace and walking through St. Jame’s Park. While St. Jame’s gets its name from a leper hospital that was once in the area, it’s a much more illustrious place now. The park has been redesigned several times by kings and queens since the 16th century when it was started by Henry VIII as a royal chase, and fell on some hard times in the 18th century when it became more favored with prostitutes and people staging duels than aristocrats (actually, they definitely came for some of that as well). Now it’s quiet and rather unassuming for a space bordered on one side by Buckingham Palace and the other by Parliament offices and the horse guards.
Most of St. Jame’s Park is softly rolling green grass and small ponds, but there are some curious structures on the grounds. One is a hermit’s hut on an island, where a hermit actually used to live (this was a fashionable thing for gardens at a certain time), and another is the bird keeper’s cottage shown above. Birds had long been a feature of the park, and the cottage was built in 1837 by the Ornithological Society of London as a home for the bird caretaker. A bird keeper is still employed for the water fowl of the park, which includes a flock of pelicans.
Cutting over to the river (looking at a map now, I have no idea how I wandered this far, but this photo proves it), I came upon this striking statue of a winged soldier. It is part of the memorial to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. The statue is called “Daedalus” after the character in Greek mythology who built the wings that his son Icarus guided too closely to the sun.
Walking back to St. Jame’s Park, I saw this strange bunker across the street, contrasting with the more stately structures around it. The vines were grown in an attempt to make it look less ominous, but I think they instead make it look more menacing, like a monolith that has suddenly appeared from an apocalyptic jungle. In researching, I found that this was a military fortress built for World War II in case fighting ever reached the city center and now it is impossible to destroy.
I then walked up to Trafalgar Square, picking up more coffee on the way and sat down for a moment to watch people scramble up on the backs of the imposing lion sculptures for photographs. The four lions are situated around Nelson’s Column, topped and named for the admiral who died in the Battle of Trafalgar.
Here is another view of Trafalgar Square where you can see the fountains and the silhouette of Nelson on top of the column. Fun fact: the square used to be totally overrun with feral pigeons, with their flock reaching its peak at 35,000 birds, so that the city had to take action in employing birds of prey to eliminate some of the population and ban the feeding of pigeons in the square. I don’t see a single pigeon in this photo, so it looks like the hawks were a success.
One of my favorite London museums, the National Gallery, is in Trafalgar Square, and currently sitting behind an Olympic countdown clock. I should mention that I’ve visited London before, but every trip is different even if some of the sights are the same. And in London most of the major museums have free entry, so I went into the National Gallery for a quick visit before it closed. Maybe because I spend more time now looking critically at art than in the past due to my writing, but I was totally exhausted by the amount of exquisite painting in the galleries. Every work was just so demanding in its amazing execution that I was worn out even in just a brief visit. Oh, maybe this was part of the jet lag and lack of sleep? I did have time to see one current exhibit, Titian’s First Masterpiece, presenting “The Flight into Egypt,” the Italian artist Titian’s first work where he displayed his brilliant use of color and detail. (It’s gorgeous, and worth a look even on the internet.)
When the National Gallery closed, I walked over to Covent Garden, where all these giant Easter eggs painted by different artists were displayed (and getting a lot of photo attention). They were part of the Big Egg Hunt that happened in London, where 200 eggs were hidden around the city with QR codes you could scan. I had missed the hunt and instead got to see they all displayed in front of the old market.
I was somehow still awake with the fall of night (having lost track of coffees) and made my way to the Adelphi Theatre for Sweeney Todd. I happened to read that the Adelphi is supposedly haunted by the actor William Terriss, who was stabbed to death at the stage door by a rival. He is also said to haunt the Covent Garden tube station, yet with all those opportunities I experienced no apparitions, except that of fleeting free wifi. Sweeney Todd, however, was plenty ghoulish without the ghost. Way back in 2004, I saw John Doyle’s London revival of Sweeney Todd, where the actors also played the instruments on an almost claustrophobic black stage with red lighting, only disturbed by a long black coffin used creatively as a prop. It was an intense experience, to say the least, and I was curious how this current production would compare, with the usually jovial Michael Ball playing the dark lead. It turns out that despite him always being a lovestruck Marius in my head, the guy can be decidedly insane and convincingly menacing. I was totally amazed, both at the vocals and his transformation into the character. Imelda Stauton, who was playing his partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett, was fantastic as well, as was the industrial set that seemed to have a constant, ominous chatter of machinery. The throat slashings were especially brutal and bloody, which was a shocking sight right up to the end. Anyway, it’s probably good it’s not playing in New York, because you know when I like something I see it like a million times. And by the end, I was wide awake.
So with the first day including a bird keeper’s cottage, mesmerizing amounts of art, and haunting musical theatre, so many obscure obsessions were already indulged, and it was just the beginning of the trip! And there was much more to come.