It was day two of my London adventure. Crossing Vauxhall Bridge east, I stopped to admire the ominous SIS building looming dead ahead. It is the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service headquarters, or MI6 Counter Terrorism Command. Recognizing it from so many James Bond films, a jolt of excitement hit me and I became a little more aware of my surroundings. Just standing in its shadow makes one feel like actually being in a spy movie. Surely I was walking beside agents at that moment! Maybe that woman in the blue suit over there. Or that guy waiting near the bus stop. Ooh, I bet the bloke walking a step behind me, chowing down on his jelly croissant is at least an informant. Trying not to look suspicious for no reason, I continued on to the Vauxhall St. George Wharf Pier.
One thing I especially love about London is that there are so many ways to get to the same place. I decided to travel by River Bus, the ferry service that runs along the Thames. If your point of interest is anywhere within a few minutes walk of the riverside, it seems a shame to miss out on the parade of architecture and history you’ll see passing right by your window. Palace of Westminster and Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, London’s Eye, London Bridge, Tower of London and Tower Bridge.
Today’s agenda was clearly marked for one destination: Longitude 0°. Greenwich Park is where the invisible boundary of east meets west lives; Greenwich Mean Time – the place where time ‘starts’. There’s something intriguing about the intangible and being able to place my feet on the unseen line of tomorrow excited me. The park is also home to the Royal Observatory, the Maritime Museum, and the Cutty Sark. So many historical sights to explore in just walking distance from each other. Due to construction at the Greenwich pier though, I had to disembark early and catch a red bus the rest of the way. This turned out to be just as interesting a journey, traveling deeper through the city streets and neighborhoods. Eventually, the buildings thinned and the surroundings thickened to treed hills.
Greenwich is a massive park. The walk to the Royal Observatory is a bit of a hike itself but well worth the time. In the spring or summer, I should imagine it’s beautiful with all the trees in full leaf and the grounds covered in grass. At the moment, another duvet of snowflakes left trees balancing sleeves of snow along their branches. School had been canceled and families with young children along with packs of teenagers made the most of the conditions. It was a gray, cloudy sky but the atmosphere was nothing short of festive. When I crested the hill at the observatory I found out why. The length of the lawn sloping down toward the Queen’s House (now a historic mansion and gallery) was littered with youth on makeshift sleds speeding down the hill with unbridled delight. Hoots and laughter warmed up the frosty late morning air, one girl, in particular, hollering the whole way down – which was probably a good two and a half minute ride. At the bottom, snowball throwers were engaged in full battle. It was like seeing the happy crowd at a town carnival except for all the rides and food stalls had already packed up and moved out without the people noticing.
I explored the Royal Observatory, catching a show at the planetarium, then trekked down the pathway to the Maritime Museum. Upon entering my eyes scanned for entrance fee at the visitor information desk but there was nothing. I wasn’t about to just waltz in without paying, not with there being so many possible unlikely looking MI6 agents around. I inquired.
“Entry to all the museums is free,” the museum attendant said.
Entry to all the museums is free. Because the British government thinks public accessibility to educational and cultural attractions is a priority. Huh. I try not to get political, but as an American today, it’s confusing to consider the terms ‘government’ and ‘cultural appreciation’ in the same sentence. I wonder how much public opinions would change if many American museums were free too.
Full sunshine had returned, warming up the late afternoon. After passing one of the fastest clipper ships in nineteenth-century British history, the Cutty Sark, I took the foot tunnel under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs on the north bank. The tunnel was opened in 1902 and served as a bomb shelter during WWII (although hiding under a giant river would most certainly not give me the warm and fuzzies). Large domed buildings marked the entrance and housed the large corkscrew stairwell that takes you down fifty feet below the surface. As you step down, you’ll feel as though you’re stepping right back into Victorian age London, if only for the duration of your journey. When I emerged on the other side I looked back across the river at Greenwich and what I saw made me pause. Allow me a moment to digress…
When I was young, I never aspired to be a meteorologist but was utterly fascinated by unpredictable weather. In the Florida summer sky, afternoon thunderstorms billowed up like bleach-white castles within a few short hours. You could watch one form right before your eyes; bulbous peaks expanding and building, like a slow-motion explosion, until they hit the ceiling of the troposphere and flattened into an anvil head. The dark gray underbelly would let loose a curtain of heavy rain, transforming it into a theatrical backdrop for spectacular lightning strikes and booms of thunder strong enough to shake the window panes.
The awe I’d felt all those years ago bubbled up when I watched pinkish gray clouds roll and tumble over each other, swirling across the late afternoon sun. Then the sky was again sealed in a dark blanket, snowfall threatening on the horizon. Any trace of a bright warm sun that had filled the city was now completely gone. All this had transpired in only a few minutes. The weather in London changes so fast. I hadn’t really believed it until I saw it for myself. Being an island and the fact that England sits under the meeting grounds for five potential competing air masses at any given time, it’s no wonder that the area is a hub for such wide meteorological swings. I guess it explains why the ever-adaptable British are such a resilient people, keeping calm and carrying on and such.
Heading back, I topped off the day with dinner at the Pimlico Tandoori restaurant just a stone’s throw from the B&B. Vegetable curry with basmati rice put me into a satisfied stupor as I prepared my itinerary for tomorrow, my last day in London.
By: Erica Ruhe