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IT HAPPENED ONE COLD, RAINY DAY IN LONDON
by Roy A. Barnes
"The monster London laugh at me." Abraham Cowley, Of Solitude
Globetrotter’s log: October 7, 11:10 a.m. . . .
Love has many prices. One of them is accepting the imperfections of the person, place, or thing that has found its way into your heart. The sum of my love of the many geographical twists and turns that make London what it is, is made more complicated by my uncanny ability to get lost when blazing a new trail for myself and anyone with me. When one has covered as much of London by foot as I have, he or she has the potential to become very frustrated with the sheer anarchy of the street layout; nevertheless, even the streets that run in a straight line suddenly can become a path with a different nomenclature.
Well, being temporarily lost in London was happening to my traveling sidekick Gordon and me again. We’d covered much of the city the previous six days. It was my third time in London, but only Gordon’s first. Yet it was Gordon who bailed us out on more than a few occasions, when my tendency to lose my sense of spatial whereabouts kicked in. I had sometimes over-read, over-analyzed, and over-everything-else’d the maps in my "Eyewitness Travel Guide" of London. Earlier in the week, this foible of mine cost us some valuable sightseeing time. We were only a few blocks away from a grand London skyline view at a great vantage point in Hampstead Heath, but at that time I instantly turned into the comedic sidekick. The result: for the next ninety minutes, we would be bussed all over the northern perimeter of Hampstead, then down the A1 motorway to some shopping center/bus hub combo! But then again, it could've been the plain ol’ leftover curse of Dracula that I could justify for my comedy of errors; after all, that creature did haunt the area we ran circles around in during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Only this time, Dracula’s curse sucked out some of my travel focus and energy instead of a pint of my O-positive blood.
This time my goal had been to get to the eccentric museum showcase of the very late Sir John Soane. Now Gordon and I started walking along Queensway with little confidence after jumping off the Tube at Holburn Station. The rain had let up a bit, but it was still as cold and drizzly a day as I had ever endured while visiting Great Britain. I was freezing something awful, even though I had my big red ski mask turned cap, when folded over, and three layers of clothing under my yellow raincoat. My daily planner of sites to see was stuffed inside my "Eyewitness Guide." Both were very soggy and wet, as I kept taking them out of my backpack and looking at them during the day like some football coach calling plays during an ice bowl match-up. Our day of exploring, like all the others before, had begun just before 7 a.m. Yet what was supposed to be a grand final day of exploring London was turning into a test of endurance by late morning.
The Soane museum was part of a tenement row of homes that surrounds Lincoln's Inn Fields, southeast of Holburn Station. Yet the side streets on the map didn’t have any names. So, at first, my terrible sense of direction decided to take us north, believing it was navigating us south. Soon we approached the street sign that showed that we had reached Theobald's Road, off the grid-like map of Holburn. We did stumble upon some fields though, better known as Bloomsbury Square. So, once again, we trudged back to Holburn Station and I counted the apparent blocks in the other direction until we’d reach another nameless side street that was to lead us directly to our destination. Gordon and I headed south one block and then two, but I still felt some trepidation, fearing the map was going to mislead me. My partner, as he always did, just took my antics in stride. He never complained about some of my initial and misguided treading into the unfamiliar parts of London. His answer to feeling good all day was to take an aspirin each night before bedtime. Gordon’s left leg, which sporadically bulged out with fluid until it was drained properly, didn't even give him one fit on this trip to damp England. Ironically, the British weather seemed to be a great tonic for his ailment. He miraculously completed the daily six-to-eight hour marches around town, up and down the continuous flights of stairs and escalators of the Underground's close to fifty different stations we networked with to see the sites. Gordon wasn't even feeling the chills of the rain and wind that I was experiencing, though he was wearing a heavier ski jacket.
We finally embarked upon the nameless short road on the map that seemed to lead straightway to the Fields. At least the locals did have a conspicuous name for it: Remnant Street. I commented, "Well, let’s try this, because the map says it will still lead to that park, and then the museum is somewhere around there. Damn, it’s friggin’ cold out here. I shoulda brought another jacket!"
Gordon was holding the umbrella over me as I again took off my gloves and unloaded the travel guide from my backpack to study the map. I still feared we were heading in the wrong direction, but hoped for some reassurance from the guide that I wasn't totally incompetent in finding places. The pages presented itself in different colors of ink that were running as well as sticking together because of the weather. My written-out daily itinerary had smeared so bad that I could barely read half of it, and we still had a few more hours of Saturday exploring to do.
We proceeded down this glorified alley, and all the sudden this little street started veering off to the south a bit. But as the map said, we finally saw the park called Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Directly in front of us was a street full of apartments. Once again, a sense of anxiety came over me.
"Gordon, Lincoln's Inn Fields is the name of the park, is it also the street name, too? What’s the address of that place? This is very confusing."
"Didn’t you say 13?" He could tell I didn't want to have to take my wet gloves off to get my travel book out of my backpack again.
So we started down the block, and immediately I noticed a small crowd of people standing in front of a front door entrance halfway down the street, some of them semi-jumping around on the top steps trying to keep warm. I knew this had to be the place. We arrived less than a minute later, but my neurotic mind was wondering why this group of people were standing around. I expected to be told that the museum was closed. I did voice my concern for all to hear. One of the visitors, a man dressed in a top overcoat, appearing to be in his sixties, told me that only a few people could be in the museum at any one time.
"It is free, though, isn’t it?" I asked with a bit of the trepidation, thinking Gordon and I would have to pay some kind of entrance fee. For me, if I have to pay to get in, then I just won’t get in. London has so many non-admission charge venues to visit, that one will never run out of them. Just off the bottom steps stood this woman in a plaid overcoat. She wore circular small spectacles and had freckles on her face, which was without any makeup. Much of her red hair peeked out of her beige hat. This short but stout visitor assured us that the museum was a free venue to enter into, something she’d been waiting for a long time to experience herself. She was an immediate breath of fresh air in the sense that most of the twenty-something women Gordon and I encountered on the subways, buses, or while walking along the streets, fashioned frowns on their faces as they quickly darted by us, seemingly in no mood to talk to anyone. Gordon and I conversed on the steps with this young lady, waiting for a reprieve from the elements.
Every now and then for the next fifteen minutes, one or two people would try to squeeze out the door in the midst of the waiting crowd. Then an older lady not dressed in any outdoor gear would peep out and say with authority, "We can take one more" or "We have room for two more."
Our new female acquaintance, whose name we never managed to ascertain, told us that she’d come from around the area of Torquay. It’s the birthplace of Agatha Christie, and located on the southwest coast of Devon. She claimed to be an avid architectural buff who had read and studied the works of the Georgian architect, and was anxiously awaiting admission to the museum. Though in this drizzly damp weather, the experience was like Odysseus trying to get back home.
I was the only one of the crowd who commented about out how cold it was, telling people as my teeth began chattering between syllables, "Wyo-ming has…dry humid-i-ty...For-ty or so de-grees in Wyo-ming...feels much…war-mer than here."
The sun tried to show a bit of itself as the wind started to pick up, but finally we were next to the doorway after a succession of tourists exited the museum. Again, the prim acting museum guide came out and announced, "We can have three more people, are you three together?" looking at Gordon, me, and the Torquayite.
Our newfound acquaintance quipped back, "No, but we’ll all go in anyway."
So the three of us entered the doorway in much the same way people sneak into a house sometimes. I felt like I was in a human sardine can as I began to temporarily abandon my wet coat and backpack in the foyer of the museum. The woman who let us inside gave us a lecture on the do’s and don’ts of being a guest in the Soane home, which houses some of the most priceless and antiquated objects in London. We started to spread out and look around on the ground floor.
Five minutes after exploring the east side of the ground floor, I was getting antsy to go upstairs. My "Eyewitness Guide" told of the strange walls on the first floor (second floor in America) that could be interchanged, but when I asked the guide if I could go see them, she held out her left hand, saying there was a capacity of viewers up there already, and we’d have to wait awhile until some of the visitors came downstairs. So Gordon and I proceeded west to see the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of Seti. The outside light shined on it since the glass dome above was transparent; and thus, some brightness was able to enter the crypt we found ourselves in.
Finally, Gordon and I made a swoop back to the main area to ask if we could go upstairs, and again, we were admonished to stand in line until the next pair came down. Yet I did see the nice young girl walking up the stairs. A couple of minutes later, two more people came down. At last, we were granted passage. I hurriedly asked the guide, "Where is that room with all the changing panels?"
"I will take you to the room this moment", she said, following Gordon and me as we plotted up the stairs.
When we got to the room, the Devonite appeared right in front of us as the museum guide began to explain to us about Soane's collection of Turner, Hogarth, and other early 19th Century paintings. The guide then showed us how ingenious Sir John was in being able to hide other panel walls behind the walls we were now looking at. These moveable panels displayed more historically significant works of art. Even Gordon, one who doesn’t really get that excited over anything (when he likes something, he says flatly "It’s okay" or "It's fine"), gasped with an open mouth at how the walls changed so quickly and easily. As for the very kindly, but plain-looking young woman, I could tell that she was having one of the best times of her life.
Several minutes later, Gordon and I looked around the remainder of the upstairs, finding more of the strange and antiquated objects which Soane fancied. We finally went back downstairs to do some more exploring. Yet before mutually deciding to leave, I told Gordon that I just had to go back upstairs and get a glimpse of that room with the changing walls one more time. I went upstairs again without any problem, as the guide was off somewhere else, and stood there in amazement over the way another quirky soul expressed himself.
After we gave our compliments to the guide for a nice time, we ventured back into the cold, passing an even bigger line of people, queuing not only on the stairs but along the sidewalk as well; after all, Saturday was the busiest day of the week for this attraction. I could feel my bones freezing again as I took out my guidebook and itinerary to see what point of interest Gordon and I would venture off to next.
Over the course of that week, I had exposed Gordon to so much of the pulse of London that this particular venture abroad mostly appears as a blur to me. Yet for some reason, it was this particular slice of our trip that still comes to my senses, especially when I am walking around my hometown in Wyoming in the midst of a cold rain.