During my first trip to the United Kingdom two years ago my friend and travel writing compatriot, Mike Sowden, took me on an architectural walking tour of York’s old city walls. As we neared the megalithic York Minster Cathedral, he asked what cities I had visited in England.
“Only Newcastle and here,” I said.
“You haven’t been to London yet?” he asked, astonished. “Good for you,” he added after a few moments of reflection. “So many tourists only visit London and think they’ve seen England.”
This time, I decided it was finally time to visit London and see for myself what the hype was all about. Fortunately, after a miserably long and cold winter, the sun came out on the day I arrived and stuck around for the better part of a week. Hoping to see the most important sights, I walked for hours each day. Crossing over to the north shore of the Thames I meandered down to the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, then back into the financial district for a close-up view of unexpectedly avant-garde skyscrapers that dominate the skyline. St. Mary’s Axe, affectionately known by its nickname “the Gherkin” soars skyward like a giant ‘conehead.’ Just down the street, the Lloyd’s building looks for all the world like a stack of spiral-bound notebooks plunked down on a library shelf. Nearby, tourists and locals alike rubberneck at the city’s newest skyscraper, currently under construction, which features a startlingly concave, gravity-defying design.
I joined throngs of office workers in Leadenhall Market who were lifting a pint before heading home after work; strolled through St. James Park, where exotic birds gifted to the monarchy by world leaders paddle serenely around the lake; and peered at the inscrutable palace guards at a boxy, uninteresting Buckingham Palace. One whole day was devoted to exploring South Bank, a long narrow strip along the River Thames that is chockablock with tourist sights, from the giant Ferris wheel known as the London Eye to the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern Museum.
By the time I got around to the Palace of Westminster, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey on day three, I understood precisely what my friend Mike had meant. London is an exhilarating city but after a few days of sightseeing exhaustion set in. The crowds around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square were the tipping point; I had to escape from the crush of tourists and find a way to connect with locals.
I pulled out my map and began examining the small streets of the Southwark neighborhood where I was staying. Just around the corner from my hostel was a small green square labeled Little Dorrit Park. I squinted at the surrounding roads and found Clennam, Doyce, and Copperfield Streets near the intersection of Marshalsea Road and Borough High Street, as well as St. George the Martyr Church. The names were familiar; on the plane ride to London I had finished reading Charles Dickens’ novel, Little Dorrit, which featured the characters Daniel Doyce and Arthur Clennam, as well as the infamous Marshalsea debtors prison.
The next morning I set out on a self-directed Dickens discovery tour. At Little Dorrit Park I struck up a conversation with a mother whose children were scrambling over monkey bars and laughing down slides.
“You can still see a wall of the old Marshalsea Prison,” she said. “They were going to tear it down but a local group stepped in and stopped the demolition.”
I found the remnant of the old wall just across the street, pressed into service as an enclosure for the gardens at St. George Church, where the characters in Little Dorrit had been married. I sat on a wooden bench, trying to imagine the neighborhood in the days when the infamous prison still existed. Seeing the places that Dickens wrote about brought his novels to life for me, but for the author it was much more than just fiction. Dickens is often touted as a master of character development but the truth is that he wrote about the things he knew best. As a child he spent a great deal of time at Marshalsea, where his father had been imprisoned because he owed money to a local baker.
The following day I continued my quest for a more local experience when I joined Access All Areas Tours. From the home of the late Freddie Mercury of Queen fame, where diehard fans still leave notes attached to the estate walls, to the Notting Hill apartment of Monika Dannemann, where Jimi Hendrix died, our tour guide took us on a no-holds-barred romp through the history of rock and roll. The coup de gras was our final stop at Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded their album of the same name. Scads of young girls took turns marching across the pedestrian crossing in front of the studio, imitating the photo of the military-like strides of the Beatles that was featured on the album cover.
“They’re way too young to remember the Beatles,” I protested to our guide who, like me, had grown up during the Beatles era.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “A young Japanese girl on a tour last week told me more about the Beatles than I’d ever known.”
And so I joined the rest of the rock and roll pilgrims, marching across the avenue and stopping briefly in the middle of the road to wave at the street cam, knowing that I could retrieve my photo online from the AbbeyRoad.com website anytime during the ensuing 24 hours.
When it was time to leave London, I did so with mixed emotions. I was happy to escape the crowds and traffic, sad that there was so much of the city I had not seen, but pleased that I had explored some non-touristy neighborhoods where I’d had delightful conversations with regular Londoners. Had I had a month to spare, I suspect that I still would not have seen everything the city has to offer, but frankly, seven days in London is a sin and I’m already planning a return.