Sunday, December 24, 2006

Hoofing it: Posh west, working east, and Diagon Alley

If you're here to specifically read about the totally brilliant Harry Potter London Walks tour, I talk about that in the very last paragraph of this post. (But there's some nice stuff in between, too!)

Wandering is the watchword for Bully in London today: It's Christmas Eve and it's Sunday, so by British shop law, stores can be open no more than six hours today. That means lots and lots of Londoners cramming every moment of Christmas shopping into a few hours, frantically bustling to and fro, big shopping bags swinging dangerously close to a little stuffed bull's head. I think I'll stay off the High Street today and do some exploring.

Waiting for the busYou all know how much I love the Underground, but there are some places the Underground won't take you. One of them is the far side of Chelsea, at the bottom end of the King's Road, and that's the perfect place to start today. No worries, I'll simply take a bus. I used to find the bus routes confusing and intimidating (at least in comparison to the Underground), but a few years ago Transport for London initiated a radical redesign of bus maps and signage at major stops that's made it exceptionally easy to find out where you can catch the exact bus you need, what route it will take, and where you need to get off. They did this by designing bus maps that are essentially overground versions of Harry Beck's famous and much-copied Underground map—using clear and comprehensive graphic lines and ticks to explain the routes and bus stops. It takes me only a moment to realize I want is the number 49 bus, that it stops at bus stop "A" on the High Street, that it'll be along in three or so minutes, and all is good and well in the world. Three and a half minutes later, I hop on a number 49 bus, wave my Oystercard over the touchpad and take my seat in the upper level, as the bus zips along through the streets, carrying me merrily along with it. I very much miss the old-fashioned conductor-manned Routemaster buses, but I'll actually settle for knowing where I'm going so much more clearly than I ever did before on a bus.

Justice WalkThe far end of Chelsea is a posh, upscale residental area. Even on the King's Road past Sidney Street the shops are shuttered for the holiday and there's little to no motor or foot traffic. It's very quiet here; I take my headphones off for a while and enjoy the silence punctuated by my hoofbeats on the pavement. I swerve down side streets and start to explore. There are gorgeous old houses here that I'd love to live in, if only I could save that many pence. A lot of the doors are decorated with beautiful Christmas wreaths and I start taking photos of them, hoping no one will burst out of their house and yell at me. (They don't.) Many of the buildings have beautiful old-style street signs still mounted on them, and there are plenty of the famous historical Blue Plaques as well, showing me where famous people have lived in London at one time or another. (The largest majority of Blue Plaques in London are in Chelsea—Sure, all the classic names are here: Thomas Carlyle, Bela Bartok, Tobias Smollett. But I'm pleased as punch to find one for Mick Jagger in a quiet, unassuming house overlooking the Thames just off the Chelsea Embankment. I bet he threw some great parties there. Another treat for a little stuffed bull is the Old Dairy Building, which features a lovely painted mural of grazing cows on the side and a life-size stone gargoyle cow head far above the door. Maybe that's where I should live.

Chelsea HousesDown the Embankment then, and up and across the King's Road (it's getting busier now the closer I get back towards Sloane Square Tube Station) and I cross into one of my favorite residential areas just north of the King's Road: an area where many of the houses are painted in brilliant, cheerful pastel or bright shades, in many cases alternating like crayons down a single street. My very favorite is No. 23 Godfrey Street: now that's where I want to live. It's a brilliant shade of blue, sitting at the bottom of a slight slope leading down from King's Road, quiet and peaceful neighborhood only a few steps away from the bustle and fun of Chelsea. I consider knocking on the door and asking if they will let me live there, but then I see some other interesting houses and stroll away to explore further.

My travels take me up and down in a curlicue pattern, following the not-quite-straight streets back in the general direction of Sloane Square. I stumble on a small quiet square of closed shops by accident and am surprised to find a shop I'd intended to visit when I was planning my trip but crossed it off my list on realizing I probably wasn't going to get there: Traditional Toys. It looks like a beautiful toy shop free of the usual plastic tat that populates chain stores and I'm sorry it's closed. There are several friendly looking stuffed animals in the window that I bet wish they could be home with a cheerful human this Christmas, and I consider how lucky I am. And vow to break them out later if I can.

Spitalfields MarketEventually my hoofbeats take me to Sloane Square Tube Station and I hop on board the Sunday-service Circle Line to take me to a station I can't actually remember having gotten off at: Liverpool Street. It's also a British Rail main line station and the place is filled with holiday travellers. I prefer the old-style station style of Paddington, but Liverpool Street has done a nice job of modernizing and the designers have kept the original arching iron girder roof intact above. A handful of steps away is Spitalfields Market, one of the top craft and antiques markets in London. I find Portobello Road too crowded and a little hectic, so maybe this will be a pleasant change. I can't ever remember having been here before so I step through the elaborately designed and decorated market gates (seriously folks, they look like the gates to Graceland), and I'm pleased and surprised to find it's actually quite fun: busy and crowded, but still easily navigable. It would be an excellent place to Christmas shop if I hadn't finished up already. I'm most interested in a booth that is selling a large variety of British hardcover comics annuals. There's also several food stalls and restaurants under the old market's roof, and I pop a steak and Guinness pie from Square Pies (yes, they actually are square!) into my hungry mouth. It's absolutely delicious! You can't get a good meat pie in New York like that. (Oh, stop it with the "Why is Bully eating steak?" outrage!) With a bit of mash and gravy it's just what I needed and I'm up and off again in my wanderings. There are several trendy shops near the market and I stop in design shop OneDeko, which has the ultimate Christmas present for me: a glass-topped coffee table with the London Underground map illuminated from within. The best coffee table ever! Cost?£1500. I check my change purse and I don't quite have anywhere at all near that. Something else for my wish list.

I start to walk towards the Geffrye Museum of Historical English Interiors, which doesn't have a tube station immediately adjacent. I expect to be in for a short walk but that short walk turns quite long indeed and I suddenly notice I'm getting into what looks like the dodgy end of Shoreditch. I've been walking for almost twenty minutes and I think I'm still ten minutes or so away. Now take a look at the Museum map and tell me if you don't think that looks like quite a short walk from Liverpool Street! They didn't tell me it was going to take that long. I'm overcome with indecision and am uncertain whether to forge ahead into what looks like very run-down territory or head back. As if on cue, a London bus approaches me heading back towards the Tube station, and I wave my Oystercard and climb aboard wearily to cut my losses for the afternoon. On the bus I check my A-Z map book and see I was actually within sight of the museum. Oh well; I'm not upset. As the bus drives we pass by Petticoat Lane street market, a destination I had been considering in place of Spitalfields, and I'm relieved to see I made the right choice: Petticoat Lane looks like a New York City street fair, full of horrible cheap souvenirs and clothing. All it needs is the guy selling tube socks and it is so a Manhattan street market.

Back to the hotel, then. A quick hot meal at the pub (pork and apples, yum) and I'm ready to call it a day. "It's a day!" I proclaim triumphantly. But John smiles and has another surprise up the sleeve of his soft wool sweater. He bustles me and Marshall with him back onto the tube and we're off to Embankment Station via the Circle Line for a marvellous nighttime surprise: the London Walks tour "The real World of Harry Potter: Wizards, Werewolves & Vampires" It was, to quote Ron Weasley, dead brilliant! Alan, the tour guide, was a magician and did quite a bit of theatrical slight-of-hand (sparking wands, glowing ears, disappearing sweeties) as he walked us through some dark and winding passages and telling us how J. K. Rowling was inspired by actual people, events, and places in London to write the Harry Potter books. I had been wondering beforehand how much of a London walking tour could actually cover Harry Potter (very little of the books take place in London, and we aren't even going anywhere near King's Cross Station), but it's a solid and entertaining couple of hours that winds around some twisty mews and alleys, made all the more spooky at night, while Alan recounts history of London and tells us tales of Rowling's inspirations, including some fascinating stuff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula's roots in British theatre, before ending up in an alleyway near Leicester Square that's the inspiration for Diagon Alley. He was especially good with the several kids on the tour, playing to them and appointing one small girl to be his assistant Hermione for the trip. Now I want to read the books all over again! Maybe Father Christmas will bring me the British versions. Except I already have them. Marshall and I quite enjoyed it; it was a wonderful end to a magical Christmas Eve. May your day have been as full of adventure and magic!

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