Saturday, December 30, 2006

Notting Hill and farewells

What to do today, my last day in London? What to do?

I hadn't made up my mind when I went to bed last night, and I still hadn't even by breakfast. The frontrunner for a while was to walk across Kensington Park to Lancaster Gate, to wander through the streets around and behind Gloucester Terrace, my first home in London, maybe then amble over to Paddington Station to take some pictures of its Victorian iron-raftered splendour, maybe have lunch at my favorite fish-and-chips restaurant in the whole city, Mickey's on London Street just off Praed Street, or possibly one of the numerous cheap but tasty kebab houses. But I remember last year the sadness I felt at seeing the boarded-up, closed and gone-away White Hart pub on Brook Mews, and I don't want that sensation to be my last day's memories of this holiday. How about Marylebone High Street? Great shops, and then I could wander down to the BBC Shop on Margaret Street...but my luggage is stuffed to bursting with books already, so I have to keep the shopping light or non-existent today. And like the London Transport Shop, the BBC Shop is just a shadow of what it once was, and until or if it's going to move back into its old massive digs at Broadcasting House, I'll pass it today too. Kew Gardens? A little too far—I've got to be back to the hotel by 2 PM for the shuttlebus to the airport. Something close then. Maybe something new, someplace I've never explored. How about another London Walk? Maybe there's a good one running this morning. I unfold the London Walks brochure and spot, like another moment of serendipity, the Notting Hill & Portobello Market London Walk:
This is reconnaissance on the razzle—the search-party that syncopates. Because Notting Hill on a Saturday morning—market morning!—is curious and colourful, offbeat and yeasty. Here you walk with a ticket of freedom—a pass to scintillating escarpments. Just consider what's squeezed out onto the palette this hillside: swells and scruffs; market stalls and scandal; Jimi Hendrix and Carnival; Cut Throat Alley and Victorian Gothic; Madonna and Hugh Grant (let alone Julia Roberts and that bookshop); cottages, potteries and piggeries; colour washed mews and cab shelters and a race course and the gout route to Bath and butchers in straw hats and an invisible boundary between the present and the past....magic!
Absolutely. Spot on. Perfect. Notting Hill Gate Tube Station is two stops away. It's even within walking distance if I wanted to walk there or back. My late afternoon wander yesterday through Notting Hill widened my little black button eyes and perked up my fuzzy ears: I'd made an exploration of Portobello Market years and years ago and been overwhelmed, but in the context of a tour, that might be just perfect. And I love the movie Notting Hill. To be able to walk through the street where my favorite scene—the four seasons passing as Hugh Grant walks through the market— would be a special treat for a last day. So I swallow the last of my tea, check my overstuffed bags with the hotel concierge, reluctantly check out of the hotel, and set out for Notting Hill.

Wouldn't you know it: on my last day here, my Oystercard has run out of money. I topped it up once with an extra ten quid a couple days after Christmas but all that museum-hopping yesterday drained it like the Salt Vampire in Star Trek, only with less pockmarks and better gift shops. In the queue two people ahead of me a guy manages to break the Oystercard automatic top-up machine and put it out of service, so I shrug and dig some chunky pound coins out of my pocket and buy a reg'lar Underground ticket. Notting Hill Gate isn't far, but it's only station out of Zone 1, so the fare is three pounds. Three quid? That's six dollars for a five minute ride! Ah well, it's my last day. I'd only blow it on chocolate at the airport later.

Holland Park Tube StationIn contrast to grey and drizzly yesterday it is a bright and brilliant day and warm...the first day above 50 degrees. The Irish doorman at the hotel told me he'd heard it was going to rain, but I look up as I emerge from Holland Park tube station and there isn't a single cloud in the sky. Could he be wrong? Anyway, it's the perfect day for a walk.

BrianOur tour guide is the magnificent Brian, who's absolutely perfect for this walk. I've enjoyed and appreciated every single one of my London Walks guides, but I think Brian is my favorite: funny, vibrant, loud-spoken (always a plus with a big tour group), effortlessly takes the lead with long strides whenever we set out, and he has a wonderful quirky touch of providing a cliffhanger to every segment of the walk that makes you long for the next stop: hinting teasingly at a point of history or wonderful site to see, he caps off many talks with "...and you'll see why at the next stop!" It leaves us eagerly jogging along to keep up, to get to the next point of interest, to find out exactly what he's talking about.

Notting Hill WalkThe walk is colored with discussion of "that movie," which no doubt baffles some of the people on the tour, who have really no idea why I'm taking so many photos of the Travel Book Shop (the real one, not the movie dressed-up version which took place a few blocks away. We see the key garden Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts snuck in after Honey's birthday party, the church in front of which Tim McInnerny rants in exasperation "James Bond never has to put up with this s---!", the building redressed as a newsagent where Hugh quite completely fails to note the British tabloids full of Anna Scott scandal...almost everything except Rhys Ifan's bottom. But by no means is it a movie-only tour: Brian is impressively descriptive as he walks us past a classic British butcher shop, points out the houses of Annie Lennox and Robbie Williams, and remarks on the ubiquitous nature of Charles Dickens. A walk through a charming curving alleyway called Pottery Lane puts a little chill up your back when Brian explains how thieves and murderers used to ambush their victims here, and his stories of the abject poverty and horrible living conditions (average life expectancy: eleven years) bring a little tear to your eye.

Portobello RoadBut then Brian tells a joke and shows you a big-ass kiln big enough to live in, and then you're off to the next stop, and it all ends up at the amazingly packed Portobello Road market. What i saw last night was the merest sliver of the crowds at Portobello Road, and it's packed ear to ear with marketeers and shoppers, looking through tinkling silver and old jackets and antique books and framed cigarette cards and the riches of ages untold. Or, as Mister Cat Stevens once sang in quite possibly the greatest song to ever mention a stuffed bull:

Getting hung up all day on smiles
Walking down Portobello Road for miles
Greeting strangers in Indian boots
Yellow ties and old brown suits
Growing old is my only danger

Cuckoo clocks, and plastic socks
Lampshades of old antique leather
Nothing looks weird, not even a beard
Or the boots made out of feathers

I'll keep walking miles til i feel
A broom beneath my feet
Or the hawking eyes of an old stuffed bull across the street

My eyes are not hawking, they're as wide as soupbowls. I keep my eye open for Mister Gruber and his bear friend, but I'm swept away in the crowd.

Sausage and MashWhen the tour ends, I'm close enough to walk to the Notting Hill Gate tube stop, which means I'm close enough to walk back to the hotel. There's plenty of time. In fact, there's plenty of time for lunch, one last lunch in London, and what better place to have it than at a pub? So John, Marshall and I crowd around a table in the Windsor Castle pub at the top of Campden Hill Road and have one last pint and a big plate of sausage and mash, and we toast our successful holiday and make a vow to return very soon.

Now I'm sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the airport, tapping away for the last time in London on my little laptop. I look out the window and guess what? It's pouring rain. All through the morning the bright blue skies gradually filled with clouds and greyed, but it held off until I was actually done with my holiday before it started pouring down. I don't mind London paraphrase Heather Nova, nothing heals me like it do...but I'm glad it waited until I was leaving.

I'm looking forward to the airport: business class executive lounge to wait in, plus the amazing almost-a-mall Persian bazaar delights of the international departure duty free shopping area, with Harrod's, Hamley's, and a full bookstore. Maybe John will buy me that giant Toblerone, or better yet, one of those Cadbury bars bigger than I am. And the flight home will be fun: the big seats, the posh service, the relaxing atmosphere punctuated only by the worry that it's gonna be really, really hard to go back to flying coach after dipping my hoof in business class this holiday.

Goodbye, London...or maybe I should just say "Cheers." I'll be can count on it. For more London. Coz you can never have enough London in your life.
More London

1 comment:

Paul said...

I loved your Xmas English blogs.

You must be worn out!

I have to say, though, that there are not many societies with an average life expectancy of 11 years - at least none that have generated offspring.