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Trip Report London: Victorian History a Focus

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Hi, Fodorites. Spent five, happy days in London, and hope my report may be of use if you’re interested in the attractions I visited. This is long, so I tried to break it apart as well as I could.

CHELSEA PHYSIC GARDEN & GEORGE ELIOT’S HOUSE
Absolutely worthwhile to anyone with an interest in history- botanical, medical or otherwise. £9 entry fee to tour a smallish garden (about 4 acres, I think). The lease, arranged by the 17th century physician, Hans Sloane, is £5 annually to the Cadogan estate, in perpetuity, for this prime acreage in Chelsea. Wonderful tour guides – you MUST take the tour. Fascinating plants and trees everywhere. Replicas of wardian cases (or wardian cabinets, if you prefer), a gorgeous fernery and beautiful old hothouses. The café food is really good, even if the service is oddly snobbish. (A café worker there looked just like Daniel Craig, and the plant records manager I encountered in the fernery, was very handsome. London men are dreamy.) Plan on, at least, 30 minutes for the tour, 30-60 minutes exploring on your own, and 30-60 minutes for the café, gift shop and restrooms.

I walked from my hotel (base2stay Kensington) down to Chelsea, and stumbled across George Eliot’s house on Cheyne Row. (One of the reasons you have to love London.) Outside of the entrance to the garden, I slipped, and came down HARD on my knee. My right heel slid on what I, at first, thought was dog mess – which would have been worse – but ended up being a wet mash of London leaves. London has lots of slippery spots like this. I don’t really know why. I'm sure it's me, gaping at everything around me. Disappointingly, the fall left only the faintest, dime-sized bruise. It hurt A LOT, and I deserved a better bruise.
http://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/
http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/visitkensingtonandchelsea/seedo/people/blueplaques/recordse-g/georgeeliot.aspx

BOOKSTORES
They still have them in London. One thing I learned to do on earlier trips is to take a notebook and make a list of books that appeal, then order them at my local library. Many titles get less shelf space or attention in the U.S. Disheartening to see the number of books the “Fifty Shades” trilogy has spawned, though.

I did buy a book for the plane ride home, and was seduced into buying two others by the book clerk at Daunt Books in Chelsea (158-164 Fulham Road) who knew the authors of the obscure books I was looking for RIGHT OFF THE TOP OF HIS HEAD. London men are dreamy.

The books I bought: ‘The Architects’ by Stefan Heym and ‘The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson.
http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/

THE LINNEAN SOCIETY LECTURE (Burlington House)
My first evening in London, I went to a lecture on Edward Lear at Burlington House. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Linnean Society and the Royal Historical Society. A great evening. The Linnean Society had the most extraordinary library on the second floor, plus a small display of historical items belonging to Charles Darwin and Carl Linnaeus. Plus, the academic crowd that turned up for the lectures, as eccentric as you might imagine, were nearly as interesting as the speaker.

The societies, along with the Royal Institute and the Royal Geographical Society, (and there must be many others), host lectures throughout the year. I was thrilled to be able to sit in a lecture hall where men and women of science have been presenting their findings for hundreds of years. I found the experience incredibly moving, a real testament to those who struggled to advance the knowledge of the human race.

The lecture was free, open to the public, and was 90 minutes long. A reception was held in the Linnean Society library upstairs before the lecture.
http://www.linnean.org/

GARDEN MUSEUM
If you are interested in 17th-19th century botanical exploration, a wonderful exhibit (created in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society) runs through October 21, which is the reason I went.

Otherwise, the entry price of £7.5 was a bit steep for the small, permanent exhibit, which featured a collection of tools and some interesting documents and photographs of Victorian-era gardens.

However, the church yard contains the tomb of William Bligh, captain of the HMS Bounty – topped with a breadfruit which was the “bounty” the ship was seeking to deliver to the colonies to feed the slaves – and the tombs of the Tradescants, if that is of interest.
http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/

MUSEUM OF LONDON, LUNCH AT WHITECROSS STREET MARKET, FORTUNE PARK
Spent only a couple of hours here, but did enjoy the exhibits on the “Victorian walkway” as they showed the storefronts of little shops and all the accoutrements and tools of the shopkeepers. Was excited to see the fashion display in the re-created Vauxhall pleasure garden, but the exhibit was kept so dark, was difficult to see the clothing. If my time were limited, I might pass on this museum.

As it was a weekday, on a wonderful recco from Jamikins here on Fodors, I went to the Whitecross Street food market for lunch. Had the hardest time deciding what to buy. Food trucks set up on both sides of the street offered Indian, Thai, British, French pastries, German and Brazilian food. I understand there are pubs that will allow you to eat in their establishments, but as the weather was nice, I walked a block over and sat in Fortune Park instead, along with several dozen of the lunchtime crowd working in the City.
http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/
http://www.on-in-london.co.uk/markets/whitecross-market/

KEW BOTANIC GARDENS; CHISWICK HOUSE & GARDENS
These gardens can be done in one day. I took the tube from Earls Court to Kew Gardens. The gardens open at 9:30 a.m. If coming from the east/city, as Kew is to the west of London, once you exit the tube station at Kew, you take the stairs OVER the tracks to get you pointed in the direction of the garden. The entry gate is only about 4 blocks from the station. If you get there early, there are coffee shops (including a Starbucks) in the little shopping square outside the station.

I think you either like botanical gardens or you don’t – but Kew is pretty extraordinary, especially when you consider the scientific contributions the Gardens have made (and continue to make). The gorgeous Palm House, Temperate House and Waterlily House are like (massive) jewel boxes.

The Marianne North Gallery is a must see. She was an intrepid, Victorian-era painter and botanical illustrator who, at 41, made her first trip overseas in 1871. She traveled to many countries (Brazil, Australia, Africa, India, America), and painted her botanical studies and landscapes in oils. Returning to England, she offered her work to Kew, along with the funds to build a gallery there. It’s an incredible body of work, and the gallery is very beautiful. The framed art covers the walls from nearly floor up to the high ceiling.
http://www.kew.org/

To Chiswick House, you can either take the tube from Kew Gardens to Turnham Green, but it is a really nice walk if the weather cooperates. Good to mapquest this route, as you want the route that takes you over Kew Bridge, and along the Thames River. (Over Kew Bridge, down the steps to Strand on the Green, continuing west on Thames Road, north on Grove Park Terrace, and onto Staveley Road, which runs along the south boundary of Chiswick Park.) There are several pubs en route, with the most interesting river-front buildings and miniature doors.

Chiswick is just plain gorgeous. I love these grounds.
http://www.chgt.org.uk/

THE OLD BAILEY/CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT
On my last morning, I wanted to see British court proceedings, hoping to hear the legal language, which was a disappointment, as the judge and the attorneys (solicitors? barristers?) spoke plain, old English. No grand oratory, sad to say.

This was the least interesting thing I did in London. There is little inside the building that holds any clues to its past. It’s an ugly, modern building interior, though the facade is beautiful.

The Old Bailey is nearest to the St. Paul’s tube station. You can’t bring in any phones, food or drink. My gum was even confiscated. As I went as soon as the courts “opened,” 10 am on Monday, I was able to get in. However, from what I understand from a couple of ladies ahead of me in line, it is, at times, difficult. They had tried and failed twice before. The families and friends of defendants/plaintiffs, obviously, take precedence over observers/tourists. And, as the galleries are small, you may be turned away. Monday morning, or perhaps mornings in general, are the best time to go.

I arrived at 9:45 a.m. Checked in to the main door, which is on the north-south running Old Bailey street, and told to line up in Warwick Passage (about 60 feet further south of the main door). There are stanchions set up to indicate where the line forms.

The door opened at 10 am. There are no lifts, so you must be able to do stairs. Security checks your bags. There are court rooms 5-16 on 2-3 different floors, if I remember correctly. Each floor will have a guard, who may tell you to wait in the stairwell until the courtrooms are prepared to admit observers into the gallery. This isn't a tourist attraction, so the guards will not be friendly or patient. Nor is it kind to be too jolly about the experience, as you may be standing next to someone there in support of a loved one.

I didn’t get seated until 10:30, and then I was told I must sit a minimum of 30 minutes (to lessen disruptions to the court). I wasn’t even allowed to sit with my notebook and pencil in my lap, not that there was anything of interest for me to note.

I suppose the case might have been interesting for others, but not so much for me. From what I could glean, as we were admitted after the court had started, a young man had stabbed another – and whether this was an assault case or a murder case, I couldn’t tell. The jury (of 12) had not been brought in as the judge and attorneys were getting evidence sorted, it appeared.

The defendant was a deaf man, so there was a sign interpreter beside the judge. Witnesses were beneath the public gallery (on the ground level), and were hidden from me until they were called to the witness stand. The defendant’s booth was full of several young men. Evidently, the stabbing was gang-related: the Harts Lane gang vs. the Dagenham gang. And because this happened at a party, there were many young men in the defendant’s booth, and on the floor, there were more than a dozen be-wigged attorneys. There was room for 18, split down the 3 rows of 6 chairs – it appeared that the defending attorneys were on the left, plaintiffs attorneys on the right.

Really not interesting, and took a great deal of time that could have been better spent, in my opinion. The Royal Courts of Justice offer a tour, as does Londonwalks.com, for "Legal London."

LONDONWALKS.COM
Took an 11 a.m. walk of Oscar Wilde’s London. Allan, the tour guide, was exceptional—charming, and endearingly respectful of Oscar Wilde and the London of yesteryear. The tour ran about two and a quarter hours. We were a large group, and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to hear, but Allan had a microphone and was a pro in leading us to quieter corners so we could focus and hear all he had to say. The man definitely had the aura of Wilde, and could tell a story beautifully. Really great tour. I learned so much, and was able to ask a lot of questions as we moved from spot to spot.

OYSTER CARD & PEAK TIMES & TRAIN CROWDING
For my 5 day stay, I bought my Oyster Card at Heathrow Airport. Ticket machines (accepting cash or credit card) and window sellers (available if you need a live person to speak to) are at the turnstiles leading to the one train line (Piccadilly) into the city. The Oyster card requires a £5 deposit – which is returned to you when (if) you turn the card back in at the window sellers at Heathrow. You also get back any balance left on the card. You can pay either by cash or credit card and, contrary to what I read or believed, it didn’t matter if you mixed forms of payment. I used credit card for the initial loading, then a bit of cash to top up, and the refund and deposit were given to me in cash.

I loaded £25 plus the £5 deposit required an outlay of £30. This was a good amount for my 5 day trip, taking a combination of several buses and trains.

However, be aware that “peak” travel times (6:30-9:30 a.m. and 4:00-7:00 p.m.) are more expensive. I never paid attention to the reduced fare before, oddly (odd because I’m fairly careful with money), but I noticed that many people were hanging back to go through turnstiles right at 9:31 a.m.
(Example: from Earls Court to Heathrow: peak = £2.6, off-peak = £1.4.)

I took a rush hour tube from Earl’s Court to Westminster, Monday a.m., and I was astonished how crowded it was. Not a claustrophobic by any means, but the stifled air and tight space was really unpleasant. A pregnant woman was crushed into the corner right next to me, and she was having a hard time of it, aiming her face toward the little, open window between the two train cars and gulping like a dying fish. Felt rather impotent because I couldn’t help her maneuver through the crush of bodies to shame someone to give up their seat. Instead, offered her a stick of peppermint gum that I thought might refresh her (?), hoping the mint wouldn’t induce labor or anything. TIP: Claustrophobes and pregnant women- avoid rush hour or spring for a cab. Seriously.

A HAPPY INCIDENT (OR, INSTANT KARMA)
I found £40. Forty pounds. That’s like $63. I will tell this story for the rest of my life. I will shoehorn this into my conversations for the next five weeks. At least.

Exiting the crowded train at Westminster tube station, as I made my way to the exit, I spotted “money” at my feet. Didn’t stop to examine it in the river of humanity streaming out to the exits but at street level, I unfurled the paper to see two-20 notes, but the bills were slightly larger than my atm-issued twenties so I thought, perhaps, this wasn’t real money, which would be more my luck. But it was real. Totally real.

I felt rich. This find completely freed me for the rest of the trip to buy the odd pot of tea to ward off the chill, or the Cadbury Flake bar if I was a bit peckish. I highly recommend finding money to any traveler. Especially at the beginning of your vacation, as I did.

If you’re of a spiritual bent, you may imagine it was because I offered a stick of gum to a suffering, pregnant lady on the crowded traincar I had just exited, and the universe, adhering to some buddhist principal of cause and effect, rewarded my small kindness with forty pounds.

Me, not being spiritual, attribute the find to my clumsiness of the day before (see Chelsea Physic Garden), and scoping the ground at my feet as I walked.

BASE2STAY HOTEL
My second stay at this hotel, and it was just perfect for me. Each night was very quiet, very clean. Each room has a small kitchenette. Shower had good water pressure, and maid service did a nice job cleaning each day. The room was small, but cleverly laid out. For my purposes, location was great. A block from the Earls Court tube. Earls Court Road has a Marks and Spencer for groceries, and lots of little restaurants to grab takeaway, plus a Starbucks and Nero coffee each morning. I was able to walk to Chelsea and the V&A, and I took several buses down Earls Court Road. For four nights, I paid £485 for a single room. Will stay there again.

A great trip. Can't wait to return!

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