A 5.a.m. start is nothing new when you suffer from chronic insomnia. In fact, I’d just begun to feel drowsy when my alarm sounded. It was getting light when I got out of the bath about ten minutes later and headed downstairs. I switched on the radio and Radio 4 had yet to start broadcasting. I caught a few minutes of the World Service overnight broadcast before Tuesday’s first shipping forecast, the start of Farming Today, and the full weather forecast.
‘Why the fuck were you even up and about at this ungoddessly hour?’ I hear you ask.
Because I was going to London again – that’s why.
I left the house at about 5.50. I wanted to buy a paper before catching the first train. I’d been prepared to walk into Aberdare and buy a paper there, but the Spar in Trecynon was open when I passed. Job done!
I don’t think I’ve ever caught the first train before. I knew from some of my friends that it used to be a bit hit and miss (especially during the winter timetable), but when I came within sight of the station the train was already in. It had started to rain while I was in Robertstown; that was in line with the forecast, anyway.
The booking office wasn’t open, and the ticket machine is hit and miss as well, so I boarded and waited for the conductor to come along. The train was composed of four cars, and was (perhaps unsurprisingly) pleasantly quiet. The rain got heavier as we headed towards Cardiff; if I’d been heading for the Orkney Islands, I might have had a chance of sunshine. It’s August in Wales – go figure!
I jumped off the train at Cathays and crossed the road to the bus stop in Park Place, just opposite the Students’ Union building. I had about twenty minutes to kill. Subway and the coffee shop were gearing up for the day’s trading. I’d had breakfast and made sandwiches before I left the house. I’ve done this too many times to fall into the trap of eating out in the city.
The coach pulled in just after 7.35, only a minute or behind schedule. The main reason why I’d booked the ticket from Cathays, rather than the city centre, is because Cardiff Bus Station has closed for ‘redevelopment’, and the new National Express terminus is at Sophia Gardens. It’s a bit of a trek from Cardiff Central Station on a good day. Tuesday wasn’t a good day. I’d have been drenched before I got on board. Cathays was much more convenient.
It also saved me three quid each way. I think I’ll be revising my travel plans in the future.
By leaving before the rush hour traffic kicked in, we were able to make good time to Newport, and thence to the Second Severn Crossing. As soon as we hit England the clouds departed and the sun came out. To begin with I was engrossed in the last chapters of When the Sleeper Wakes. I’d also taken Iain Sinclair’s book Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge (see Limehouse Blues and Twos), so I didn’t really pay much attention to the journey up. When you’ve done it as many times as I have, the fields of crops flanking the motorway merge into one continuous prairie punctuated by church towers, interchangeable new housing estates, and a steady parade of service stations.
It was obviously a new experience for the teenage boy sitting behind me. He insisted on giving his mother a running commentary about everything that caught his eye. He can’t have heard that Chris Evans got the Top Gear gig, as he remarked upon every flash car he spotted from his window seat. I’d zoned out after the umpteenth Mercedes, so I was slightly shocked when he pointed out ‘a big castle’. It was Windsor Castle. It was just a few minutes after ten. We were making excellent time.
Clarkson manqué turned his attention to aeroplanes as we sped past Slough. We shot past Heathrow and into the suburbs without losing pace at all. In all the times I’ve done that journey I’ve never known such an uninterrupted run on the motorway. Suddenly, catching the earlier coach didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
It crossed my mind to point out some interesting features of the London landscape as we passed them, but the lad seemed more interested in his mobile phone than in his new surroundings. I heard him voice his amazement when we passed The Ark, so I told him what the building was called. That was as long as his attention span lasted before he turned back to spotting expensive cars, pointing out ads for the latest iPhone, and commenting on movie posters. London is wasted on the young.
We dropped off at Earls Court just after 10.30, and I was free to explore for a couple of hours. I doubled back along Cromwell Road, crossed the complicated rail junction south of Kensington Olympia, and made a mental note that it’s an untravelled section of my Rail Atlas. Maybe next time …
I took a detour into North End Road, topped up my Oyster card at West Kensington Station, and spotted an interesting shop front just opposite.
I hadn’t heard of this pub before, so I didn’t know about its importance in the Punk and Post-punk era. It had closed by the time I first got to London, so it wouldn’t have been on my radar at all. There’s a little cluster of shops nearby, but they quickly dissolve into a warren of residential streets as you head south towards Fulham.
It’s an area which grew rapidly after the railways brought it within an easy commute of the City and the West End. As a result, the architecture is brick-built, solid, undeniably Victorian, and rather easy on the eye. The pale yellow of the houses, commercial buildings and railway structures contrasts really well with the bright red of the later buildings. I passed a few large street-corner pubs (none of which were open at that time of the day, of course) before turning into Star Road. I hadn’t gone far when a blue plaque on a red brick block caught my eye. I decided to investigate.
A little further on I came to St Andrew’s Church, which operates a community café in the mornings. (It’s the sort of thing Fr Robert has in mind for St Elvan’s in Aberdare.) It was just a shame that the scaffolding got in the way of a nice photo.
I was tempted to call in for a cuppa, but as I had plenty of time before my appointment I kept on walking into Greyhound Road. The Greyhound was a well-known music venue back in the day, too, but now it’s turned into a trendy bar with a different name.
It was still too early for a pint, so when I got to the busy shopping part of Fulham Palace Road I turned southwards. I had an sudden urge to see the Thames, and I had a couple of hours to kill. It was a bit cloudy, but pleasantly warm and quite breezy – ideal weather for walking around the suburbs.
I ate my sandwiches on the way towards the river. I wasn’t entirely sure where I’d emerge, but some of the buses heading north had come through Putney, so I had a very vague idea. I passed a little recreation ground, and there was a high hedge alongside it. I didn’t find out until I’d consulted the A-Z that it was Fulham Cemetery. I bet there are some interesting graves in there. While I was wandering towards the river I came across a number of old-school street signs, like this one. I think they’re got a bit more character than the modern ones.
I skirted the extensive grounds of Fulham Palace, and wondered whether to have a look around inside. In the event I sidelined the idea and carried on walking into a busy area of shops and pubs. Among the mini supermarkets, newsagents, clothes shops, hair salons and cafés there’s a very strange shop selling nothing but boxes, bubble wrap and other packaging materials. Either the housing market is experiencing a surge in the Fulham and Putney areas, or it’s worth competing with online companies like Viking.
I also found this ornate tiled archway, which I presume used to be an entrance to a tube station. Putney Bridge Station is nearby, so it might have been a secondary approach.
I was still on the perimeter of Fulham Palace when I spotted a war memorial surrounded by mature trees. It reminded me of the Mountain Ash memorial at first glance – although I think ours is rather more dramatic.
I returned to the pavement and found myself on the northern approach to Putney Bridge. You can tell from the clouds that I was expecting to get soaked at any moment.
I’d forgotten how busy the skies over West London are. When I was a student in Uxbridge, we’d often hear the traffic overhead on its way to or from Heathrow. That was thirty years ago. Now there seems to be a plane overhead every two minutes. There’s a running joke in one of the ‘Reginald Perrin’ TV series, where a character’s voice is drowned out by the roar of jet engines, followed by the line, ‘Sorry, we seem to be on the flight path again.’ That’s what it must be like to live in Putney.
On the south side of the bridge I found a walkway leading to the shore of the river. I’d never been right up to the edge of the Thames before, so I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. There was a large gaggle of geese dabbling about at the margin, but they ignored me as I took a few more photos.
I decided to walk under the bridge, and immediately realized I’d made a mistake. What appeared to be a thin coating of algae on the pebbles was, in fact, the slimy and rather smelly green crust of about two inches of mud. If Humanity ever does discover life on another planet, it’ll probably resemble the multicellular colonies I inadvertently disrupted before deciding to turn back. The thick grey ooze didn’t even wash off in the river. At least I was wearing boots. It would have run right over the top of a pair of trainers.
I walked into Putney and headed for a covered shopping centre. I wanted to wash my hands, and I guessed – correctly – that there’d be public toilets inside. I also found a small Waterstones, so I was able to buy Ben Aaronovitch’s latest paperback Foxglove Summer before heading back into the main street.
The bus back to Fulham left from the middle of Putney Bridge, and made excellent time to Greyhound Road. As things turned out I’d misread their letter, so I was over an hour early for my appointment. It was a good thing I’d brought a book, really!
After my appointment I headed into the labyrinth of Charing Cross Hospital to pick up my travelling expenses, and walked from there to Hammersmith Station. I caught a Piccadilly Line train into the centre and perused my A-Z, trying to decide where to get off. In the event I made my way to the surface at Holborn, took a moment to get my bearings, and headed for Bloomsbury Square. The centre of the square was full of people taking advantage of the afternoon sunshine. I cut across the grass towards the statue of Charles James Fox at the northern gates. A minute later I saw the huge frontage of my destination, thronged with tourists and visitors.
I still can’t believe that I spent most of my student Sundays in Uxbridge, when a couple of quid would have got me into the city centre within an hour or so. Consequently I never visited any of the countless museums and galleries which make London the greatest city in the world. On Tuesday I decided to make up for lost time with the biggest and best of all – the British Museum.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I made a beeline for the Egyptian sculptures on the ground floor. I’ve got a dozen or so books about that ancient civilization, but (apart from the odd little museum on the campus of Swansea University) I’ve never seen any of the artefacts. The only word that came immediately to mind was ‘Wow!’
The centrepiece of the gallery is this huge stone head of a pharaoh, raised on a plinth to keep it beyond the reach of curious hands. It must be at least fifteen feet high and weigh several tons – it makes you wonder just how big the whole statue must have been. The rest of the room is filled with smaller statues, several huge stone sarcophagi, and two enormous granite pillars carved with hieroglyphics. It’s difficult to believe that these mighty works were executed by hand, using only iron tools, some four thousand years ago.
The room was filled with sightseers, and I think it’s fair to say that they were all as amazed as I was. If I have one minor criticism, it’s that the place was too busy. It was almost impossible to have a close look at the individual pieces without feeling that you were getting in the way of a dozen other people.
After having my mind blown by the sculptures, I headed for the stairs and the main Egyptology section. The stairwell is lined with some huge mosaics from Halicarnassus. It’s sobering to think how painstakingly these pieces were put together. Each individual tessera is smaller than a postage stamp, and each picture is composed of many hundreds of tesserae.
The Egyptian exhibits occupy several adjoining rooms on the third floor, and they’re dimly lit to preserve their vivid colours. There are several mummies on display, including some rather cute mummified calves and a disturbingly high number of cats. (I almost got lynched in a lecture a few years ago, when I said the Egyptians had the right idea when it came to cats – they built great stone monuments and bricked the buggers up in them.) There are papyrus scrolls, ushabti figurines, carved figures of gods and goddesses, farming implements, fishing gear, items of jewellery, inscribed stones – the list goes on and on. I must have missed some of the exhibits, though, because I didn’t come across the Rosetta Stone. Its trilingual inscriptions famously provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics.
I found my way back to the atrium through a maze of rooms showcasing artefacts from all over the world and all periods of history: the Middle East, from Babylonian times to the recent past; the Indian subcontinent; China and the Far East; mainland Europe; Roman and Celtic Britain; even some twentieth century sculptures. I’d only been in a small part of the building, and I was conscious of zooming past too many interesting things.
It doesn’t matter, because I’ll definitely be paying another visit soon. Like the Victoria and Albert Museum, which Rhian and I rushed through last year, the British Museum is far too big for a single visit. The ideal strategy is to list the contents in order of priority – what you really want to see, what you’d like to see, what you wouldn’t mind seeing, and the stuff you’re not fussed about – and work your way down.
Back in the atrium I gave into temptation and visited the little shop. The souvenirs seemed a bit overpriced, frankly. (They wanted £9.99 for a two gigabyte memory stick in the shape of the Rosetta Stone, for instance. Only last month I paid a fiver for eight Gb in Argos.) Even so, I found a nice little resin model of an obelisk, painted gold, which has joined the Egyptian pantheon on my stairs at home.
Back in the open air I called into a souvenir shop next to the Museum Tavern. I’d decided to send Mother a postcard to pay her back for the one she sent me a few years ago. It’ll be a nice surprise for her. I never tell her in advance that I’m going to London, because she’d worry relentlessly that I’ll fall victim to a terrorist attack, knife crime, gang warfare, muggers, pickpockets, aggressive beggars, illegal immigrants, junkies, prostitutes, clip joints, airborne viruses, the Russian mafia, or another of the thousand things that give Daily Mail readers nightmares. (For example, on July 7 2005 she rang the shop to make sure I was there, and hadn’t decided to visit London on the day of the bombings!)
As a matter of fact I’ve always felt much more confident walking around London that I ever did in Cardiff city centre after dark – or even late at night in Aberdare these days. In London – where the shops and cafés stay open long after the good people of the Valleys have gone to bed, where buses don’t vanish after 6 p.m., where people are always around in large numbers, and where police cars patrol constantly and CCTV cameras monitor the streets 24/7 – your chances of getting into a scrape are much smaller than you might imagine. As long as you’re sensible about keeping your stuff safe, and you don’t look like a tourist (by not consulting your A-Z every two minutes, say, or looking completely adrift on the tube), you can walk around most of London perfectly safely. Apart from being rather desultorily propositioned by a young tart in Soho on one visit, and being offered some dope on a street corner in Ladbroke Grove many years ago, I’ve never encountered any of the low life. Of course there are parts of the city that are best avoided unless you’ve got a military escort – but you can say the same of some of the big estates nearer home, too.
In fact, the biggest problem I faced on my leisurely stroll towards Covent Garden was finding a bloody postbox, closely followed by having to run the gauntlet of some Barnardos chuggers in Neal Street. I passed the tube station, which has a nice gimmick on the information board: an inspirational ‘Quote of the Day’. Tuesday’s was this gem from Joan Didion. It makes a change from updates about delays and industrial action, doesn’t it?
It was about 4.30 by now, and the piazza outside St Paul’s Church was thronged with tourists watching the ‘free’ (i.e. ‘pass the hat’) entertainers. There was a living statue in the middle of the square, somehow suspended in thin air about eighteen inches from the ground. How he’d managed that was beyond me. In one corner of the square a street magician was preparing for his next magic show; someone else was beatboxing a few yards away; there were a couple of jugglers and a fire eater, too. The one variety of street entertainment I didn’t come across was a traditional busker, with a guitar and a handful of classic tunes. They tend to be found in the long tunnels on the tube network these days.
St Paul’s Church is where PC Peter Grant meets a ghost in the first book of Mr Aaronovitch’s sequence, Rivers of London. I thought I’d take a photo while I was in the vicinity.
I explored the side streets around Covent Garden for a while. I found a number of second-hand bookshops, but didn’t stop to have a closer look at any of them. (I had enough books with me by that stage.) I even found – by accident – the famous Watkins in Cecil Court. It’s one of the most renowned dealers of books about the occult/parapsychology/magick/unexplained phenomena. Typically for my luck, they’d decided to close early that day. Unforeseen circumstances, maybe?
Around another corner I found the offices of Oneworld Publishers. It crossed my mind to call in and ask if I could add my name to their list of freelance proofreaders. It was late in the afternoon, though, and I know from experience that publishers tend to favour an early finish.
I’d also had half a mind to pay a visit to the offices of Orion Books. Their Gollancz imprint publishes a whole raft of acclaimed science fiction and fantasy authors, including Philip K. Dick, Stephen Baxter, Brandon Sanderson, Christopher Priest and Mr Aaronovitch himself. They used to be based at the southern end of Covent Garden, just before it blends into Trafalgar Square. (While I’d been reading Foxglove Summer in the waiting room I’d spotted a few glaring errors – including one in the jacket blurb, no less.) Unfortunately it turns out that they’ve recently relocated to new offices in the City.
Next time I go up I’m going to take a pocketful of business cards and some CVs with me, to see if I can get a foot in the door with a few of the London publishers. Sometimes the direct approach will pay off, after all.
I meandered through Leicester Square and toyed with the idea of a pint in the Coach and Horses. Then I realized that I’d have to rush it, so I decided not to bother and headed for Trafalgar Square.
A couple of weeks ago my mate Jamie D. tipped me off about an unusual feature of the built environment, which I’d never heard of before. Jamie used to be a copper in the Met, and he’s as big a fan of London trivia as I am. He showed me a photo of it on a website, but it was a new one on me. I wanted to try and track it down for myself.
It forms part of one of the uprights of Admiralty Arch, which separates Trafalgar Square from the Mall. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d probably never see it for yourself.
You’ve heard of the London Eye – now meet the London Nose.
It reminds me a bit of a brief incident in Christopher Priest’s debut novel Indoctrinaire. The protagonist finds that – for no apparent reason – his prison building has a large ear on its outside wall. Jamie wasn’t able to tell me any more about the origin or purpose of the London Nose (making it even more like the inexplicable ear in Indoctrinaire), but I’m glad I’ve seen it for myself.
I sat in Trafalgar Square for a while, watching the living statues levitating a couple of feet from the ground and listening to a couple of buskers outside the National Gallery. At about 5.45 I made my way into the Strand and caught the 11 bus to Victoria Coach Station.
We made excellent progress on the return journey, too. I was back in Cardiff just after 9.30. I was engrossed in my book all the way back, and hadn’t noticed the time flying by until we passed the University Hospital of Wales. Maybe the school holidays have contributed to the streamlined traffic flow into and out of London. Perhaps next time it’ll be bumper to bumper as far as the Brentford flyover as usual.
The timely arrival in Cardiff meant that I could catch the 2141 train home. Even better, my old work colleague Jeremy H. was on his way home from a two-day stay in Liverpool, and he kindly offered me a lift from the station. I was back in the house by 11p.m., so I stayed up reading until I’d finished the first part of Foxglove Summer.
I don’t need to visit Charing Cross Hospital again, but I’m definitely going to keep up my semi-regular visits to London from now on. There are so many places I want to explore, so many things I want to see, and so much to do, that I could go up once a month and still only scratch the surface. Although I wouldn’t want to live there any more, it’s still my favourite place to wander around and investigate in detail. And if I can start targeting publishers’ offices as part of a day trip, so much the better.