It was an early morning Eurostar train ride from Paris to London, the last leg of our European tour. London—for the first time! At last! I was prepared for quintessential images of “Englishness”: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, tea and crumpets. It was all those things, yet so much more.
When we arrived for check-in at our Bloomsbury apartment that morning, we were told that the room wouldn’t be available for hours—not until the standard 2pm check-in time. A minor inconvenience, but no big deal: we dropped off our bags and headed out to soak up the nearby surroundings.
But first, coffee (and yes, free Wi-Fi). We wandered down Marchmont Street and stopped in at Fork, a quaint café with a distinctive storefront. The baristas serve beautifully prepared cups of locally roasted Monmouth Coffee to go with their freshly made salads, sandwiches and baked goods.
With breakfast taken care of, there were still hours to go before check-in time. Luckily, a couple of London’s great museum collections were within easy walking distance. The Sir John Ritblat Treasures at the British Library are just across Euston Road. The gallery, free to the general public, includes rare documents such as an original copy of the Magna Carta (one of four), one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and handwritten notes from musicians as varied as Bach to the Beatles.
In the opposite direction, Russell Square and the British Museum are at the geographic heart of Bloomsbury. Going to the British Museum—to see the Parthenon pediment sculptures in particular—had long been one of the things to cross off my personal bucket list.
London itself is a great agglomeration, an array of cultures and artifacts collected—or outright plundered—from all corners of the globe.1 The infamous Parthenon sculptures (sometimes referred to as the Elgin Marbles) illustrate some of the complex issues of Britain’s imperial past.2
Our first full day was spent soaking up the grandeur of Westminster: starting with Westminster Abbey and making our way past the House of Parliament, Whitehall, and then through St. James’s Park to Buckingham Palace. Aside from the amazingly layered space of Westminster Abbey (no interior photos allowed), I was charmed by the Horse Guards Parade. The Horse Guards and the Old Admiralty bookend the eastern end of St. James’s Park, while Buckingham Palace lies at the opposite end. Chalk it up to being an American, perhaps, but I do harbor at least a tiny (if contradictory) fascination with the pageantry of the British monarchy and Parliament.
The grand Victoria & Albert Museum (or V&A) in South Kensington is now easily one of my favorite museums ever. The collection is downright encyclopedic and contained within a gorgeous building. The serendipitous timing of the annual London Design Festival, which uses the V&A as its hub, meant hundreds of special exhibits and events at the V&A and across all of London.
London Fashion Week was also well under way, so Somerset House was humming.3 It made for prime people-watching: on the one hand, there were the aspiring fashion folk in the open-air court of Somerset House, peacocking for the occasional photographer in the hopes of landing on a street style blog, while in the background, shuffling between tents and the gallery interiors, the real action was happening.
We eventually made our way to Oxford Circus to meet up with my cousin and her family for afternoon tea at Selfridges rooftop restaurant, which was hosting a pop-up called “On the Roof with Q”. A three-tiered tray of scones, finger sandwiches, and an assortment of sweets appeared alongside a pitcher of Earl Grey tea.
The East End of London has historically been known as home of immigrants and the working class: tradespeople and dockworkers come to mind. It has been the subject of Dickensian flights of fancy and gangster dramas, but nowadays the topic most commonly at hand is gentrification. The City of London is a global financial center, and the East End’s proximity to wealthy bankers (and the real estate speculators that would follow their lead) made the area ripe for upscale redevelopment. Likewise, the area centered around the Old Street Roundabout had emerged from the recession to become one of the world’s top tech startup districts.
Gritty brick lanes, studded with Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, inexpensive clothing shops, and money remittance offices are punctuated with sleek cafés, funky boutiques, and street art. A bohemian vibe lingered, but encroaching construction cranes loomed in the near distance. Over in the “Shoreditch Design Triangle,” numerous design firms, galleries, and shops were throwing open their doors for the London Design Festival; many of these businesses occupy historic buildings once used by traditional skilled tradesmen.4
Old Spitalfields Market has been an East End destination for centuries, operating a market since the seventeenth century. The focus of the market’s wares shifts frequently: Thursdays is antiques, Friday is clothing, while special days of the month are set aside for vinyl records or thematically edited markets. Food stalls at the market like Café Caribbean, run by an ex-boxer cooking his mother’s classic Jamaican recipes, dish out affordable meals to lines of locals, office workers, and tourists. As market forces move on to “newer” neighborhoods throughout London, hopefully places like the old market at Spitalfields will persevere.
Our last night in London was actually spent up north in the small Hertfordshire town of Bushey with my cousin and her family, where she hosted us for a traditional roast dinner. As we ran to the station to catch the last night train back to central London—tipsy from wine and post-dinner drinks—I couldn’t believe that our trip was finally coming to a close.
London is a dizzyingly vast and fascinating global city. In light of the Brexit vote, I worry about what the future portends for this city, its country, and the world as a whole. Interestingly, shortly after the Brexit vote passed—two hundred years after Britain’s purchase of the Parthenon Marbles from Lord Elgin—there is a renewed effort from within Britain to restore ownership back to Greece—possibly setting the stage for the Parthenon Marbles’ own departure.