When I was in England three months ago, I was lucky enough to arrive in Rochester the weekend of the annual Summer Dickens Festival. Twice a year, Dickens enthusiasts commemorate and celebrate the life of Charles Dickens. In practice, this means that people dress up, partake in a parade and re-enact part of “Great Expectations” along the street.
In the last 14 days, I have seen and done quite a lot. I stayed in Rochester, Essex and Cumbria, with day trips to London, Canterbury, Cambridge, the lakes and villages around Cumbria (Keswick, Cockermouth, Whitehaven and Penrith to name a few) and other towns in Essex. And today I had my last day in London. It was probably my favorite day, because I behaved less like a tourist and I wandered and discovered things to do and see with only slight direction. I wanted to go to Brick Lane and spitalfields market, maybe see a matinee of a musical, but just decided to see how I went.
After training to London, my day began with a visit to the British Library, near Kings Cross. It is not that beautiful a building, especially in comparison to the newly restored St Pancras Hotel next door, with gorgeous gothic brick architecture. However they had an exhibition on about English literature and the representation of English landscape throughout the years. It was actually one of the best things I have seen. The exhibition moved from rural dreams of the countryside to the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, then to wild moors an heaths to the city and London itself, with the last part covering the lakes, waterways and rivers of Britain. It looked at how writers have been inspired by the landscape and have in turn influenced it.
They had old 14th century books, and a 10th century book of Old English Poetry, one of four books of such poetry left in the world. They also had John Lennon’s original handwritten draft “In My Life” lyrics. Verses were crossed out, and upon listening to the recording I discovered only the first verse out of 6 made it in the final song! The 2nd verse was actually about Penny Lane, but funnily enough the verse doesn’t appear in that song either. They had the original manuscript for the first Harry Potter novel, alongside a painting done by JRR Tolkein himself of “The hill: Hobbiton across the water” done in 1937. I learnt that the first use of the word sarcasm was in a 1579 poem, “The Shepherds Calendar” by Edmund Spenser, and that “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was written after a dream, but the manuscript was burnt as his wife was disturbed and worried by it. He rewrote it twice over 6 weeks, and the original was much more sexual than the end product was.
Also on display was a letter from Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) to his mother, outlining his plans for a new house in Surrey. They had Pygmalion with handwritten revisions by George Bernard Shaw recommending the Cockney pronunciation for Eliza Doolittle. Close to my heart, due to having to study it in high school in intense detail, was an illustrated Wuthering Heights. Turns out that poems she wrote from 1844 to 1848 formed the basis for Wuthering Heights. They had the book of poems on display, but her handwriting was so small I couldn’t read any! And finally, they had a pictorial map of England and Wales as some form of boat game. Each county was a numbered spot, and players had to do certain things depending where they landed. If you landed on #41, a coal mine, you had to stop whole other players drew once, and “if he chooses to put on a dirty flannel frock, may descend in a bucket, an view the works”.
After the library, I took the tube to east London, to walk around Brick Lane, Spitalfield Market and Shoreditch. I never made it to Spitalfields as I had too much else to do walking around exploring. East London reminds me so much of Wellington and Melbourne. I felt right at home, amongst vintage clothes stores, cute little cafes, guys in colored skinny jeans and girls wearing bowties. However, unlike Wellington where the key to being alternative also seems to be to snob those who aren’t, and be ‘too cool’, I felt so at home and met the most lovely people. People were friendly, chatty and warm. There are so many amazing shops around Brick Lane, including Blitz, the largest vintage clothes store in London. There are small galleries hidden down alleys, alongside beautiful street art. Some of it was just breathtaking, and I walked down lots of side streets hunting for street art. This girl I met told me about a famous artist, Pure Evil, whose signature is a bunny rabbit. I sought out his gallery but sadly it was closed. Next time.
I also did like the locals do, and stood in a 10 person line for a burger at this cafe off Brick Lane. It was the best burger I have had in ages, even though it was a vegetarian aubergine and halloumi burger! Even here, friendliness trumped alternative hipster snobbery, and I sat with a local called Steve who was modeling for a photography course that afternoon. He actually thought I was a teacher on the course, due to my DSLR on my shoulder. After lunch I stumbled upon the pop up mall, that provided the idea for the Christchurch city pop up mall after the earthquakes. There was a lawsuit over it, with the London mall developers claiming that two of the developers in Christchurch stole their intellectual property. I actually have to agree with the Glassons’ lawyer and admit it looks nothing like the Christchurch one, you wouldn’t even know it was made out of containers!
Round the corner from the mall, I was given a free beer and invited to an art gallery exhibition, more street art but in a gallery rather than on buildings. They were all these boxes and other containers, with an artist at work outside spray painting designs on a flattened box. Turns out he won a street art competition that year, and he is brilliant at it. They got him involved in the exhibition before he won, so are even more stoked now that he has won!
My east London stint ended when I found myself so far away from the Spitalfields market I tried to find my way there, only to get distracted by London bridge being raised for some official looking ships. That then led me to Soho, where I hunted down a cafe called “Flat White”, started by New Zealanders with an aim of introducing drinkable coffee to England. Sadly my trim flat white tastes bitter, but at least the fern on top was pretty. And then of course, because I was in the area, I finished my day off with window shopping on Carnaby Street and Oxford Street. A pretty non touristy day, and I loved it. I felt like I was just enjoying a day off work, going shopping, getting lunch, going to galleries and seeing (although today I was making) friends. One of the girls at the street art exhibition asked if I was considering moving to London, and today has actually made me consider it!
Today was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city, yet it still left me wanting more! It was also so beautiful and warm, and made me think of how Wellington is so great on a nice sunny day, England is the same, it just took 2 weeks to get a day like that! It also helped me get used to warmth again, as on Thursday it is back to Asia and 30+ degrees Celsius weather. Hopefully it isn’t too much a shock to the system!
English countryside. Rolling meadows. Zebra houses. Old local village shops. Tea and scones. Who needs fake tans and the Sugar Hut? This is my Essex. The real Essex.