A week in London

By Caitlin Kelly

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The last stop! (sob)

So grateful to stay with friends who live in an impossibly fab flat facing directly onto the Thames — as I write this, the only sounds are seagulls shrieking.

I took the bus a lot more this time than in previous visits, specifically the 188, (which terminates in elegant Russell Square, a block from the massive British Museum) and the C10 , which terminates in (!), the aptly-named Canada Water, (I’m Canadian.)

 

Traveling London by bus is fantastic for a few reasons:

 

—  It’s a hectic, crowded city so buses get your weary body off busy streets

— The Tube has a lot of stairs and few escalators or elevators, and a lot of walking between stations and its many different lines, so if you’re tired or have mobility issues, the bus is much less tiring

— The views! The buses, as you likely know, are double-decker, so head upstairs, and if you’re lucky, grab the very front seat for amazing vistas of the city below

— Building details are much easier to see and photograph, as is the stunning skyline.

Here’s some of what I did on this visit (one of many) in London:

 

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Museums

 

The Wallace Collection is a gob-smacking insight into accumulated, inter-generational aristocratic wealth, handed down from one marquess to another — room after room, (25 galleries in all), covered in jewel-colored damask silk — of paintings, sculptures, bronzes, armor, miniatures.

The collection is astonishing in its depth and breadth.

I loved their explanations of how armor was made and custom-fitted; you can even try on (!) some chain mail and helmets for a selfie.

Their cafe is a delight — huge, airy, filled with natural light. Be sure to make time for a cup of tea or lunch.

I finally went to the British Museum, with a friend, to see a fantastic show about the later years — ages 60 to 90s — of one of my favorite artists, Hokusai; the show is on until August 18.

He’s one of the legendary Japanese woodblock artists and painters, whose image The Great Wave, remains instantly recognizable centuries later.

I loved this show, and appreciated the way his life was contextualized, with insightful quotes — in 1830 he was terrified of penury (what creative person can’t relate?!)  — and the details about how he worked with and lived with his daughter, an accomplished artist in her own right.

Life in the late 1700s was every bit as challenging for this legendary artist as it still is today for so many of us.

Like most British museums, entrance to the collection — 8 million objects — is free.

I also dipped into the Victoria and Albert Museum, checking out their fantastic fashion display and some of their Islamic materials. It’s also huge, so plan accordingly.

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While you might see the Tate, Tate Modern, The National Portrait Gallery, the Design Museum, the Imperial War Museum (whew!), the city also has smaller, more intimate spots. Two of my favorites are Freud’s house and Sir John Soane’s House.

 

Exploring

 

If you end up on Oxford Street — filled with every major store imaginable — its crowds can easily overwhelm.

Duck instead into a narrow side street and you’ll find all sorts of lovely discoveries, like St. Christopher’s Place, filled with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. At Malini, I scored two terrific cotton cardigans (they came in every color) for 39 pounds each  ($51 each.)

Try to make time to also check out quieter neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Marylebone, Primrose Hill — each of which have gorgeous architecture, parks, shops and restaurants.

I got to know Primrose Hill because a relative lives in the area, on a square with every house-front painted the delicious pastels of sugared almonds. Regent’s Park is spectacular, and has wonderful views of the city from wide green hills.

London is a city that rewards slow, focused, observant walking.

Look up at the city’s 900 ceramic blue plaques commemorating famous people who’ve lived there. On one busy block of Argyll Street, there are plaques for the American writer Washington Irving and Brian Epstein, who once managed the Beatles; the latter’s is above Five Guys, whose burgers and fries are amazing.

Flea markets

I love these places…this trip, I went to Bermondsey Square, (held only on Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a great bacon and egg sandwich-maker on-site). I snagged a 16th century fragment of ceramic found in the muddy banks of the Thames, thanks to a terrific practice called mudlarking.

I also found a great little Art Deco rhinestone-studded rocket ship, also for 10 pounds — about $13.00.

Arrive as early as possible — 7 .a.m. — and bring lots of cash.

My usual haunts are Camden Passage and Alfie’s, and I’ve even brought home ceramic platters and jugs; (bubble wrap! hand luggage!)

If you want to ask for a lower price, do it gently, very politely and delicately: “What’s your best on this?” is a decent phrase to use. Do not think that disparaging an item will reduce the pricewhen it just pisses off the person who chose it and set it out for sale.

Even if you don’t buy, some vendors can be friendly and incredibly knowledgeable — I learned a lot more about early sterling silver from one man at Bermondsey while looking at his teaspoons and about 15th. century ceramics from the vendor selling mudlark shards.

We also visited Portobello market, where I got a gorgeous cashmere turtleneck for 10 pounds ($13) and splurged on fabric and ribbon at this amazing shop (who ship to the U.S.)

Here’s a comprehensive list of London’s flea and antiques markets.

I lived in London ages two to five and have been back many, many times since, enjoying everything from tea at the Ritz to shopping at Fortnum & Mason to an amazing show of photos at Tate Modern.

The city really offers something for every taste. Be sure to enjoy a few very British traditions, from a leisurely afternoon tea to a pint at a pub.

Make time to watch the river traffic on the Thames, with everything from small sailboats to coal barges.

 

Have you been there?

What did you enjoy the most?

 

 

My life in 10 objects

Have you heard BBC Radio’s The History of the World in 100 Objects?

I’m addicted!

It’s based on 100 objects in the enormous collection of the British Museum, and I’ve so far heard the fascinating backstories of a Mayan lintel, an Anglo-Saxon helmet and a Korean roof tile; you can download all of them from the link above.

If you’re as much a fan of history, global culture and design as I am, you’ll love it.

This series also made me wonder which 10 objects might somehow sum up my life so far, and how they have shaped or reflected my own history. These are not the only ones, certainly, but each reveals a facet of my character and what matters most to me in life..

1964

Olympic badges from Tokyo

My father went to Japan to make several documentaries and brought me back some cloth badges from the Olympics. I was only seven, but seeing them made concepts like foreign travel, Japan and the Olympics alluringly real to me. It also piqued my  insatiable curiosity about the rest of the world — the hallmark of the rest of my life, really. (I still haven’t made it to an Olympics or to Japan though.)

1966

My Canadian passport

I was maybe seven or eight when I first recall using my own passport, and my first solo trip I remember was flying from Toronto to Antigua. I love being able to move freely between countries.

1960s

Two bears and a bunny

And yes, I still have them…photo of two of them above! The bunny was a gift from my maternal grandmother one Easter and his battered remnants are in the back of my closet. He was so stitched and repaired by the end he was practically transparent. He saw me through some tough times as an only child with no sibs to commiserate with.

The tiny bear is perfectly pocket-sized and kept me lucid and sane through yet another boarding school church service. The larger white bear looks a lot like (!?) my paternal grandmother. Don’t ask me how. He just does. He’s been all over the world with me, even in recent years, and is a very good travel companion. I imagine he has much amused TSA agents and chambermaids.

1970

Acoustic guitar

I attended summer camp in northern Ontario and every Sunday we put on a talent show that anyone brave enough to step onto the stage — in front of the whole (all girls) camp — was welcome to try. Thanks to my guitar and some crazy self-confidence, I did it often and sang songs I’d written. The welcome I received taught me to not be so scared to try new things or in front of a crowd.

1974

Pentax SLR camera

Loaned to me by a friend of my father who knew I had a budding and passionate interest in photography. I sold three color images of the city — one of our garage! — to Toronto Calendar magazine, a monthly — while still in high school for $300, a fortune in 1975 and still a pile ‘o dough. Discovering so young that my work had some commercial value gave me the courage to start freelancing as a (self-taught) shooter and I sold a photo to Time Canada when I was still in college.

1982

Carte de sejour

This little pink piece of cardboard, the official French document allowing me the legal right to live there for a while, was my ticket to the best year of my life, on a journalism fellowship based in Paris. I spent eight months living, learning and traveling on their dime (or franc!) and studied with 27 peers, all of us aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries, from Japan to Brazil to New Zealand. I’m still in touch with a few of them. That year taught me the true meaning of one of my favorite words — se debrouiller (to be resourceful, to figure it out on your own.)

1988

Green card

As the then unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to apply for, and get, a “green card”, also known as an alien registration card.  I am a registered alien. That card gives me the legal right to live and work (although not vote) in the U.S.

2002

Softball glove

I started playing softball with a local group of fellow suburbanites, men and women ages 18 to 70-something, which includes a cantor, several psychiatrists, college professors, an orthopedic surgeon, a pastry chef and a retired ironworker. These people know me better than almost anyone here in New York. I usually play second base and can hit to the outfield.

I love having an activity that’s outdoors, social, athletic, fun, builds skills and is competitive enough to be energizing but mellow enough to be enjoyable.

Here’s my New York Times essay about my gang.

2009

A pink and orange polka-dot apron

I love to cook and to entertain and a big, pretty apron is a must! I bought this one, in such deliciously French colors, at one of my favorite Paris stores, BHV. If you visit Paris, check it out.

If you were to select a few items that could explain your life to those who don’t know you personally, what would they be and why?