It's no secret that a very special place in my heart always has and always will be reserved for that magical, once Roman city on the Thames. But this past week has been like seeing a different side to the city - one that's not as cold as usual. It's only a little chilly. But still rainy.
From Thursday morning when I flew in until now, I've been swept away by London's charm once again and found myself far from feeling underwhelmed or less than entertained despite the amount of times I've spent here. Instead I've only discovered new sides to the story, seen new faces and learnt so much more than I thought I would just be bein around in a warmer season.
The Borough markets were my first stop on Thursday, and even half asleep and probably jetlagged they held a kind of spark. Dedicated solely to food and located in what looked like the Victorian back alley beneath a railway, I was more than happy to be escorted there by some new friends I'd made at the hostel that morning. There was so much option to sample and marvel at with more than a few different foodstuffs I'd never even heard of, and even some, like game pie, that I thought were ripped right off Henry VIII's dinner table. And don't even get me started on how damn good all the cakes looked.
Later that same day we made it to Camden, which if you've been there is more of a labyrinth of markets rather than a larger one. After all there is Camden Lock, the Stables, the main market and so many extra shops and food stalls around that link them all up. If you say yo're heading for Camden, then by all means be prepared to either get lost, leave behind some breadcrumbs or duel the Minotaur that I'm sure is hiding in the centre of the town somewhere. I didn't have any of those because I had some guides and no need to be anywhere that day, but I did score myself a pocketwatch for my next trip down the rabbit hole.
If you're looking for clothes and you didn't find them in Camden, then I'd suggest heading to Brick Lane and the Old Spitalfields markets in the East End. Or even if you don't, give them a try. The stretch of Brick Lane itself is supposedly the most concentrated area of Indian restaurants in the entire world, more so even than in India, with over 50 restaurants along the road. And that isn't even including the ones in other streets nearby. In fact, like the Borough markets, Brick Lane is pretty exciting for food, too, even if you're not big on the Tikka. With hundreds of international food stalls and something for everyone, the likelihood that you'll starve is pretty close to nil unless you're just trying to be difficult. But apart from the food, both Brick Lane and Old Spitalfields are some pretty great areas to hit up in general - I think I even preferred them to Camden. Because not only are they great places to get some cheaply delicious lunch, but they're great for clothes and on top of that they're just damn cool. The East End is home to some of the most gruesome, creepy, colourful and wonderful stories from London's past; notorious figures from Jack the Ripper to the Cray Twins, Banksy the artist and plenty of upcoming new stars, to exciting new ventures like the Lucky Juice machine are all in abundance here. So if you're ready to branch outside of the Cities of London and Westminster themselves, I reckon hop to the East End for a look in - there are even plenty of walking tours to guide you if you aren't sure of it on you're own.
Note: I haven't been to Portobello market, but hey I was never really that into Bednobs and Broomsticks.
Like I always do wherever I go, I spent some quality time at the museums over the past week. This week I made it to the Museum of London (albiet for less than half an hour because I got in a little too close to closing), the Museum of Natural History, the British Museum (where I spent way more than a couple of hours), and the V&A (That is, the Victoria and Albert Museum). The British Museum I went to first in order to see the Vikings event the Friday after I got in and let me tell you that was as weird as it was awesome; the event consisted of a number of different acts from Opera, to standup comedy, a poetry reading, a choir and a live action battle replay (the last even included the Viking curator dressed in chain mail and swinging a sword.). The idea of the separate acts was to bring in different art and music forms to convey Viking culture and life and how its still prevalent even now about a thousand years ago. And it totally is! The least of all is the language we speak and a lot of our English words are taken from the Vikings, but for other information I suggest either looking it up or checking out the Viking exhibit currently on at the British Museum - trust me, it was so worth it.
The Natural History Museum I went to only recently in January, but since then they'd opened up the human prehistory of Britain exhibit that I went back to have a look at. And since I'm staying around the corner from the museums I figured why not take advantage of that closeness. The exhibit was smaller than I'd have liked, but I enjoyed reading about the evidence they'd found in Britain that dragged the earliest known dates of human occupation in Britain back up to a minimum of 40,000 years ago - which was already pretty much established in mainland Europe, Africa and Australia. The idea is all very significant if you're an archaeologist, and I enjoyed that. Plus the explanation of how they came about those dates, particularly the form of dating that they used, although I would definitely like to have read more about that. What can I say - I want to read more about what they did and what they used from the statigraphy to the evidence they found that lead them to think they'd found a family group. Also the gift shop had some great gag gifts that I really wanted to buy.
The V&A I have still to see tomorrow, but I'm looking forward to it the most perhaps because the exhibit I'm on my way to see is all about wedding dresses from 1775 up until the present. And who am I to turn down the opportunity to marvel and lust over pretty, pretty dresses. I love my period clothing and even more so I love my gowns and princess dresses. It's no wonder that I love to read about historical time periods or imagine myself a princess with scores of beautiful gowns. I'd wear them everyday if I could both afford them and I didn't think that that would get me more weird stares than it already does. Trust me, I get some pretty weird stares as it is. The last time I was at the V&A there was a Hollywood costume exhibit on that featured some gorgeous pieces from films throughout history and included some amazing dresses from period films like Marie Antoinette, Dangerous Liasons and Cleopatra alongside so many others that I wished so badly that I could wear and prance around in. I love dressing up so much that someday I want to get married just so that I can have a pretty dress that I can wear and twirl around in and look pretty. I've had enough self esteem and image problems to last a life time, so sometimes dressing up pretty to make myself feel good goes a really long way. Anyway, I anticipate so much drooling and tail wagging at the wedding dress exhibit tomorrow that dragging myself away is going to be one hell of a feat.
As a writer, England is one of the best places in the world to travel around collecting stories. Not only does every borough and city within the land contain histories and stories that span hundreds of years, but its also a magical sort of place where fact and fiction are so interwoven that sometimes its hard to separate the two. Just think of things like King Arthur, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Sweeney Todd - all stories that never actually happened despite the years and years of retelling that has so become a part of the culture and history that they may as well have been real. But that's not even because the truth pales in comparison when you factor in characters like Dr Joseph Bell, Jack the Ripper, Dick Turpin, Burke and Hare, Charles II and Elizabeth of York. In fact, the English have a real tradition of glorifying their authors, fictional characters and cultures right alongside the real facts and figures in one big happy melting pot of awesome. Just look at Baker Street as an example: not only has number 221B been actually squeezed into the street and the house turned into a museum, but the Tube stations have big silhouettes of Holmes with a pipe in his mouth along the walls just in case you had any doubt you'd made it to the right place. My point is that England is an author's dream.
Some of the world's most prestigious and wonderful authors all came from here. People like Enid Blyton, JK Rowling, Beatrix Potter, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Lewis Carroll (or Charles Dodgson as he was really known), plus others like Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Ibbotson and Eoin Colfer who didn't hail from England but later made it their home.
Spending time in Oxford today was great for the pursuit of both stories I already knew and stories I want to write. Whilst the morning began with a touch of history in Oxford Castle, the rest of the day was a cornucopia of colours, stories and more than a little bit of magic (I even won myself a wand at Christ Church). The Story Museum boasted an exhibit dedicated to 26 famous characters of children's literature and children's authors including both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the Alice shop I visited was really worth seeing (original sweetshop that Alice Liddel used to visit), and the walking tour I went on had some really great information about Harry Potter, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lewis Carroll respectively because all were associated with Oxford University.
I could really go on for hours about how great Oxford was, or London and England in general, but I'll keep it brief; all I'll really say is that I was looking for a way to get back to basics whilst trying to assess where next I want to go in life, and this is definitely the way to do it. Between rediscovering the modern splendour and multicoloured histories of Europe, walking in the footsteps of some of my favourite and most influential authors, and just genuinely getting to be myself is a really nice way to just wipe a new slate for myself whilst I figure some things out. I am an archaeologist, but I was a writer and historian before that. I am a lover of art, costume, music, theatre, stories, travel, culture, writing and history, and I am so passionate about the things that I care about that there is no point in just trying to pick one. I accept that. Like I said in previous posts: what is the use in always put off the things we want in life in the promise of something that might never come? Seize the day, seize the night, and just remember to be yourself even if it means getting back to basics every now and then. Be inspired to be you, do the things you love. Life isn't just about sacrifice.
I have so much else that I could tell you about my week back in London during the Spring. I've seen so many new sights, heard so many new stories and learnt so many new things that I could talk for hours - and I already have! - but for tonight I will leave it here, and leave you with the three main themes of my trip so far and something to remember: get back to basics. It's ok to lose who you are sometimes, just remember to get back to basics every now and then to jog your memory. You'll feel inspired.
Oh, and did I forget to mention that I stumbled across the X-Men premiere at Leicester Square yesterday? I got to see Ian McKellan, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Patrick Stewart in the flesh. Yeah. That happened.
If you're interested in more about Tolkien at Oxford then I suggest this cute little video from the BBC in the 60's. It's certainly fun: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/12237.shtml