The last day of a trip like this is always bittersweet for me.
I am so ready to go home, but not.
I’m ready to return to ordinary life: driving my own car, sleeping in my own bed, not spending so much money, cooking in my own kitchen, getting back to work. Enough experience. Time to process.
But after a week in a new place, another sort of life has become familiar, and you find pleasure in living it. After a week, you know the neighborhood just a bit, and more importantly, you know what you don’t know, so you know what you’d like to know, and you see more and more interesting corners and crannies that invite exploration. It’s not just a confusing blur anymore. It occurs to you that the square around the corner could be more than just a lovely green space you rush through on your way out or wearily trudge through on your way back from the day. The people sitting on the benches with their books at the end of the day or their coffee in the morning? That could be you, living that way, with that in sight, with that around the corner.
There’s just a sense of – now I know the basics. Now I get the lay of the land, finally. Now I can start digging deeper….
But then it’s time to go.
So with no real plan, and a lot of regrets about what hadn’t been seen yet, we set out Saturday morning.
The younger one and I went out first by ourselves. He had one more area of the British Museum waiting for him, and the older one was more interested in sleep, so M and I set out to try to get to the museum as soon as it opened, do an hour there, and return for the other.
He grabbed a coffee at Caffe Nero (see my food post), we walked to the bus stop and in a couple of minutes, were at the museum.
(We could have easily walked the whole way, but it would have taken twice as long – twenty minutes instead of ten – and we needed those ten minutes.)
The destination was the two rooms dedicated to the Americas. So, not much meat, as Spencer Tracy once said, but what was there was cherce.
The Central and South America exhibit was his focus, because that’s his interest, and has been for several years now. He was very excited by the pieces, spent a lot of time here. These turquoise headdresses and masks were, even I could see, quite something.
We caught the bus back, found the brother up and ready to go, so we set out.
I’d decided that we might as well hit the one major tourist type area we’d not gone to yet – Kensington and Knightsbridge, where there’s a collection of museums – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert as well as the London Oratory. What I had thought was that we could spend time there and then try to get across Hyde Park in time for the advertised 3:30 tour of the Martyr’s Shrine at Tyburn Convent. I was a little confused by how that tour worked, so I had emailed the convent the previous evening and the Mother Prioress responded, answering to yes, just show up and ring the bell, and they would give us a tour.
That was the plan – and no suspense – it worked out fine, with a bit of a rush at the end because of slow restaurant service – but the actual visits to the museums flipped a bit from what I’d expected.
When I thought about what we might do on this trip, neither the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum were on the list. We have been to so many and that’s not why I was going to London, although the former does have a historical component. Plus, the Natural History Museum advertises a “Spirits Tour,” which is not, as you might think, a survey of whiskey and gin, but rather preserved specimens. That would have been interesting. The trouble was, I could never get the online reservations thing to work, and by the time I really applied myself to the task of trying to reserve a spot, it was Friday evening, and no more phones would be answered until Monday.
So – essentially – since it was free admission, I thought that it might be worth an hour of our time and my nature-loving son was interested, so that became our first stop.
We took the subway down, and as we disembarked, I got my first intuition that this might not be a breezy time. There were mobs of people. Strollers wheel to wheel. We followed the signs and fell in behind a huge group of German adolescents – dozens and dozens, with no way to get around them, no escape. Fortunately, they started to peel off into waiting tour buses, so I knew we wouldn’t have them to contend with at least.
But we did have all the other families of London and probably surrounding areas. Of course. I should have expected no less. It’s free. It was a Saturday, and it was the first day of English schools’ spring holiday.
The other problem was that the Natural History museum is undergoing renovations, and honestly, I couldn’t make any sense of the layout, and the crowds didn’t help. After about twenty minutes, we agreed that this wasn’t a place we were interested in staying – with no regrets!
We did see a couple of interesting sights though – first the fossils were good, and the story of the discovery of the amazing marine fossils by Mary Anning was interesting.
Secondly – this.
My photo isn’t great, so go here to learn more about it. It’s a collection of dozens and dozens of stuffed hummingbirds, a display dating from the early 19th century. I have never seen anything like it.
Next to it were some vintage displays – natural history museum exhibits the way they used to be – and I liked them. Very straight forward, very matter-of-fact.
I looked at the one on the right, and all I could think of was Do the chickens have large talons?
Our experience in the Natural History museum led us all to agree, without hesitation, that we’d skip the Science museum, and head to the Victoria and Albert.
I wrote elsewhere, I think, that even though I had read about the V & A, I still didn’t really get it, and thought I would mostly see teacups, evening gowns and sideboards. Well, no.
Our search for this piece led us through the Asian rooms, which were substantive and well-done. We spent some time then in the European medieval rooms, which had some wonderful pieces including:
It was used in Palm Sunday processions in Germany.
And an amazing collection of sculpted altar pieces.
It was lovely to see them, but a little sad to see them in a museum.
Short version of our trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum: it was a mistake to save it for last, and as an afterthought…
People were getting hungry, so we started looking for a place to eat along….road. I noted the Oratory on the way, and reminded them that we’d pop in there after we ate. This area is very wealthy, so there weren’t a lot of inexpensive options – the one McDonald’s was out the door – so we backtracked to this pub. There I had a steak pie and boys had burgers – the kitchen was slow – probably overwhelmed – but the service was very good and the food was tasty.
But…by then it was three, and we needed to get across Hyde Park by 3:30. I’ll remind you that I wasn’t quite sure how this worked. The convent advertises daily tours at 10:30, 3:30 and 5:30, so I suppose I expected something formal and very scheduled for which we Must Be On Time. So we got on a bus – after a quick look in the Oratory, which is gorgeous – and then around up to the Marble Arch stop, where we disembarked, ran, found the Convent, found the way in to the chapel…and sat.
Ready for Passiontide veiling at the Brompton Oratory
There was, of course, a Sister in Adoration, and a few other people praying, including a person (I am presuming it was a woman) completely and rather mysteriously shrouded in black crouched in the back pew. We waited in prayerful silence for about ten minutes when I decided that this just wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. I found a back door to the chapel, peaked through it, and saw an actual entryway to the convent itself, complete with a bell to ring. Oh. So I rang it, and after a minute, a sister peaked out, rosary in hand. I asked if we were too late for the tour, thinking that it had already started, but it was clear from her response that this was a per-your-request type thing, and the tour times merely meant was that this was when you were invited to show up and request a tour. She told us to go back into the chapel and wait, which we did, and after five minutes, she reappeared and took us down.
If you don’t know the history of the Tyburn Martyrs, go here. The convent dates from the early 20th century, and so the Martyrs’ shrine is not in any specific place of martyrdom (that is down the block) but collects relics and images and is a place to remember and pray.
The sister, who was from Africa, gave us an excellent tour. It was somewhat rushed because Vespers was to be prayed at 4:30 – so unfortunately, we didn’t have time to linger and really take a close look at the relics. But it was quite something for all of us to be told the stories of the Tyburn Martyrs, who were killed for their Faith by the State 400 years ago there close to the spot where it happened, and to have this narrated by a Sister from Africa.
We never did get to Westminster Abbey, but who cares? This experience was a far better defining moment and far more relevant to who we are and who we are striving to be, ever so fitfully.
We stayed for Vespers, then moved on. We walked for a bit down Oxford Street – a big, busy shopping road, and, well…the strength of the Muslim presence in London became very evident at that point. Oxford Street was crowded with shoppers, and probably two-thirds of those surrounding us were of Muslim/Middle Eastern origin. It was an education, and thought-provoking.
We ended up down by Parliament, just for one last look at Big Ben and all that, which we got, but it was such a mob scene, that there was no reason to linger, so we hopped on a bus for the drive up towards our apartment.
Riding back, I had my strongest understanding of the size and busy-ness of London. The crowds from Parliament all the way up through the West End on Tottenham Court Road were reminiscent to me of Times Square crowds. It didn’t inspire any desire to disembark and linger.
We did eventually get off at the Goodge Street stop, one stop before our regular point, Warren Street. There was a bookstore nearby, and one of mine was hankering for the second volume in a series he’s reading, so I thought for sure they’d have it – they didn’t, but it was, I admit, quite wonderful to be in the quiet of an enormous bookstore, to be amid people looking through books, to see a man carrying a stack of five books for purchase.
(I ended up buying it on Kindle…but when we returned, I got it from the library for him, and returned the Kindle book for a refund – which you can do up to a point after purchase, in case you didn’t know.)
Back to the apartment. They relaxed while I hopped back on the Tube and ran over to St. Pancras Station, to get a few souvenir food purchases from the Fortnum and Mason there. Quite posh, with fellows in morning coats to serve. I hope it’s worth it!
Then back, and time for our last dinner in London. They were sort of lobbying for Nando’s again, but I drew the line. My choice tonight, I said, so I chose the little Italian restaurant on the corner across from the apartment – Trattoria Monte Bianco. It was lovely. The place is small, the menu is limited, but what we had was excellent. A generous platter of salumi and fromaggio. The boys split pappardelle and Bolognese, while I had some lovely ravioli stuffed with meat and a good wine. The staff was spectacular – all Italians, friendly and helpful.
Then back…to pack and go to sleep.
I’ll not do a separate entry for the very last day, but just knock it off here.
I had hoped to get to Fr. Jeffrey Steel’s church, Our Lady of St. John’s Wood…… In fact, I had told him we would be there, but in the end, I just couldn’t manage it. We needed to leave on the Heathrow Express from Paddington, and there was the whole luggage thing to deal with, so ultimately I decided that an early Mass near us would be the best.
We walked over to St. James for the 8:30 – it was a no-music Mass, quiet and reverent. Perhaps 50-60 in the congregation, somewhat multi-generational, even not including us, and with a generous sprinkling of South Asian congregants. The homily was excellent, and I would like to hear all homilies preached in serious, well-tuned British accents from now on, thanks.
A Little Sister of the Poor spoke at the end of Mass, which was good for the boys to see – we have the Little Sisters of the Poor in Mobile, and they often come up here to make appeals. Once more, all the way in England, we experience our universal Church.
One of the things I liked was that the priest mentioned that Holy Week schedules were available in the back, and he encouraged – strongly encouraged those present to take a stack and share them and invite anyone and everyone to join them for the services.
Maybe an idea for your church? Get those schedules printed and encourage folks to spread the word?
Breakfast time because when it’s a travel day, you never know the next time you’ll be able to eat, and since it’s on a plane, even though it’s British Airways, you never know the quality of what will be put in front of you.
So a relatively full breakfast at Patisserie Valerie, which is a chain. Then back to the apartment, where we did a final cleaning, crossed paths with the owner coming to do his cleaning, went round the corner, caught a cab, got to Paddington and hopped on the Heathrow Express.
The flight back went smoothly. I much prefer the flight back than the flight over. When I fly to Europe I feel such pressure to sleep and such anxiety that I won’t sleep and I’ll be exhausted on the first day so of course….I don’t sleep. On the way back, none of that matters – I don’t have any concern about myself or others sleeping. I did a little writing, read the copy of the Spectator I had purchased in the airport, and then watched stuff. First, I binged on National Treasure, the Robbie Coltrane 4-episode series on a beloved British comedian accused of rape. It was very good, although flawed, and I need to think about it more. Some very arresting images. It just felt – a little shallow, I think. Then I re-watched several episodes of Veep. Although the last season had its problems, I think – the original producer left and it shows – the rapid-fire insults and banter was much more forced and artificial this last season – it’s still hysterical.
Landed, went through immigration – took about fifteen minutes, then to the car and a two-hour drive back home, which was fine. They immediately passed out, so it was a quiet drive, and I much preferred being in control of my own destiny rather than waiting at the Atlanta airport for a flight back to Birmingham that might or might not be delayed.
(And in case you are wondering, the burned/collapse interstate bridge is not on the way from the Atlanta airport to Birmingham, so it didn’t affect our travel)
Home by 10pm, and while exhausted, still amazed and grateful to live in a time in which I can breakfast in London in the morning and be in my own bed halfway around the world at night. I can’t quite grasp it, and am sure that I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.
One last post coming, with some closing thoughts, before we get back to Business as Usual around this place….