Instead, I impulsively decide this will be Museum Day. There's several of 'em I want to visit (or re-visit), and that's always a happy way to spend a moist day. So I splash through the puddles to the Tube and hop on board the Circle Line train to King's Cross and then back out into the rain, but not for long: the British Library, which was once contained within the walls of the British Museum, is right next door to King's Cross and Euston Stations. They're putting on an exhibition of maps of London, which is about as dandy an idea that I can think of. I love maps! I love London! So this is like the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of exhibits, if'n you ask me: rich chocolate maps smeared with creamy salty London. It's an amazing exhibit and takes me over two hours to go through it because, as opposed to most museum exhibits, I actually stop and read all the tabs and look at all the maps. Truly amazing and educational...I was especially intrigued with the maps that distorted or hid true locations because they were created for a specific client and it wasn't politic to show certain details to that client. My favorite two maps are lightly represented: the London Underground Tube Map and Mrs. Pearsall's groundbreaking A-Z map. I realize the range they were going for here, but I wish they'd included more examples of these two maps that everyone is familiar with. I think one of the most appealing aspects of museums to many, many people is when they can recognize something they know or have had: it's why it's more interesting to go through the Museum of London in reverse chronological order, for examplewe all know more about Tony Blair than we do Pitt the Even Younger. The British Library Museum Shop is brilliant though; a great mix of books and souvenirs, and if I didn't think I was already over my return luggage weight limits (and the strength of my little stuffed arms) I'd buy that big heavy coffee-table catalogue of the exhibition. I'm very tempted by one of a series of CD-ROMs that lets you examine each page of ancient or Renaissance manuscripts, especially one that reproduces the first printing of Shakespeare's sonnets. I flip over the CD case. £47.50?!? That's nearly a hundred bucks, and Mister Shakespeare isn't even seeing a penny of it. I gulp and put it back on the shelf and buy a souvenir pencil.
It's going to be an all Circle Line day, so it's back to King's Cross Station. I've been reading a wonderful collection of John Betjeman's BBC radio talks entitled Trains and Buttered Toast, and curmudgeonly but frequently on-target Betjeman writes of King's Cross: "A fine example of engineering and architecture in one. It is so hidden by huts and litter in front that no one notices." He wrote that in 1932, mentioning that it had been eighty years since King's Cross had been built, and now was the time for things to change. Well, it's almost another eighty years on and it looks just as Betjeman described it: hidden by scaffolding and cross-crossed by hoarding, the short block to the British Library as creepy and dodgy enough to rival the uneasy feeling I felt on Shoreditch High Street. Ruined or broken London gives me the creeps, and when I see a vandalized phone box with broken windows and the phone ripped out and gone, I shudder and move on towards the station a little more quickly.
I move from dreary urban renewal to magic, because you can't visit King's Cross without walking into the BritRail Station and checking out the most famous railway platform since Ilsa left Rick in the rain: Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. As guide Alan told us on Christmas Eve's Harry Potter walking tour, J. K. Rowling actually had Euston Station in her head when she wrote the scene, but it says King's Cross in the book and here I am at King's Cross, so let's check it out! It's actually quite a long hike down most of the length of platform 8 before a spur of the station allows you to duck away towards platforms nine and up. And there it is, right before you actually reach the real platform nine. My cynical little aspects note that it's set far enough away from any working station traffic and is actually many many steps away from the real platforms, but the delighted magic-loving little stuffed bull giggles in excitement and poses for a photo beside the luggage trolley embedding halfway through the wall. (Brief moment of cynicism tells me that's to keep kids from ramming luggage trolleys into the wall itself, but it makes a dandy photo-op and indeed the place is crowded with flashing cameras.
If you're riding the Circle Line and pull into South Kensington Station, the pleasant recorded announcement voice of Miss Emma Clarke informs you to "alight here for the museums." Which museums? Which museums aren't here, you should be asking instead! South Ken is home to one of my fave museums, the Victoria and Albert, as well as the massive Science and Natural History Museums. I've been to the V&A many times but never the latter, so I stroll down the long, long subway tunnel that runs under Exhibition Row and pop out at the far endit's still rainingto head into the Science Museum. The British Library was busy, but this is packed, and no surprise: it's school holiday week, and there's hundreds of kids everywhere. The Science Museum is currently running an exhibition and interactive display of the history of video games, but a little stuffed bull would get stomped on trying to get up to those! So I settle for wandering the massive ground floor, which seems to go on forever, with its huge long hall of space hardware (as Kirsty MacColl warned, don't wish on these instead of shooting stars), and massive hangar-sized collection of heavy machinery (including Stevenson's Rocket steam engine and planes and cars). I'm most interested in the history of technology display on the far walls, which feature the everyday objects British families from the Victorian Age through the 21st century would use. Not only are the objects themselves intriguing (true to my hypothesis about people liking to see what they know, the busiest display is the most recent), but there's a very interesting display twist to each case: each era is displayed using museum and science criteria of displaying objects that were used or popular at that time. It's a great social twist to just lumping stuff in glass cases and it gives me pause for thought and admiration for the creativity skill of a museum curator. I know I have enough problem just figuring out what photo to use to illustrate a blog entry. This one's easy, though: on the walls were original art from several science fiction comics of the time. I just was absolutely delighted by this one panel from a Dan Dare comic, which features quite possibly the most British comment you would ever make while stepping into a nuclear submarine:
The Science Museum features four more floors of sciencey goodness, but I check out the gift shop, invest in a souvenir pencil, and slip across the road to my favorite room in any museum, anywhere: the Raphael Cartoons gallery in the Victoria and Albert. I said it last year and I'll say it again: it fills me with awe in a way no other single room can, aside from maybe the Batcave. You know that expression Cameron Frye gets in his eyes while looking at the Monet in the Art Institute of Chicago? That's the look I get in the Raphael room. The V&A's gift shop is always worth a visit, and they've extensively redesigned it since last year. Like the Science Museum gift shop, it's packed, so I squeeze into a queue and wait patiently to buy a lilac-colored V&A pencil.
But by far the museum highlight of the day is a late afternoon visit to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. I've never been to this museum, but my golly, what an amazing time: case after case, display after display, of household goods, toys, magazines, food, tins, jars, boxes...it's like a great historical supermarket, and one of the best ways to utterly immerse yourself in a rich deep pool of British culture for an afternoon. The Museum is arranged chronologically, so you start with early pre-Victorian branded items and work your way up to the present (there's more and more in each section the further you get towards the present). But even when you reach 2006 there's still plenty to come: a vast collection of the evolution of packaging across the lines of certain products, plus a lot of discussion of design and practicality, and a bonus gallery at the end of women's magazines through the ages. This was truly a delight and although it's a bit off the beaten path (about a ten minute walk from Notting Hill Gate tube station), it's very much well worth it. There's no pencils in the gift shop, but that's the sole drawback to an amazing display. Two hooves up!
That ten-minute walk is easy and a pleasure, as well. You could walk down Portobello Road if you want (I wouldn't in the weekend; it'll take you more like an hour than ten minutes) or cut down side streets. On one of these streets I spotted another of those wonderful "I bet most people don't notice this" objects: a gate with an unusual design:
Do you spot what's so special about it? It might be easier in this photo than in real life; I took several photos until I was pleased that one of them showed off the gate's unique aspects clearly: The bars are made up of elongated letters of the alphabet: like those puzzles of extremely slim and tall lettering that makes you tilt the page to decipher them, I wander to lift up the gate and look at it at an angle. I was very chuffed in finding it, tickled pink by another one of those moments of discovery at seeing something I bet most tourists miss.
EDIT on 18 January 2007: Remember the day I saw the Alan Fletcher exhibition at the Design Museum? Well, synchronicity rules the universe, because it turns out that what I actually stumbled on here was Alan Fletcher's West London studio: he designed those gates! Apparently a sketch for them was featured at the Design Museum, and I completely missed it. You can see that sketch on this page on the Design Museum website, about halfway down on the left.
Portobello Road market was winding down as I strolled up it back towards the hotel. It's never as busy on a weekday as it is on a weekend, but there were still plenty of merchants out and about selling jewelry and trinkets. My mind's not on silver or gold, though, but on pizza! There's a Pizza Express at Notting Hill Gate, right on the path home to the hotel, and hooray! The Christmas pizza is still available. (It looks and tastes different from the Christmas pizza last year, so maybe they have changed the recipe or the Christmas pizza changes every year. It's a wonderful treat to end a day of multi-museums, especially when I'm allowed to have a big creamy slice of banoffee pie for afters. Banoffee pie! The pie choice of Keira Knightley! She does not bring me the big plate of pie, which is a pity, but any mild disappointment I have is lost when I start eating its rich banana and toffee layered goodness. It's quite a very good end to a very good day.
But wait! The day is not yet over, assures John, and he pays the bill quickly and we dart into the Tube Station, heading for Covent Garden. What's going on? Where are we going now? That's a very good question, and it's one that will be answered not by me but by my kid sister Marshall, all in the very next installment!