London cabbies don’t let you jump into the car and then you’re off, á la Sam Spade tracing a mark. You must first speak to them through the window, explain where you’re going, and await invitation into the cab. One afternoon on a Bayswater side street, I stopped by an idle cab. Its driver hung his arm out the window, his fingers drumming against the door. I asked him how long a trip out to Heathrow Airport would take at morning rush hour. I had an early flight the next day, and I wanted to judge if taking the subway would be faster.
“It’ll take 40 quid,” said the cabbie, equating money to time value. Not exactly an answer to my question, but information nonetheless. “Yes,” I said, “but would the Tube be quicker. You see, I’ve got to catch a flight.” His face contorted. “What do you want to go muck’n around with that for?” he said. “Hire the cab and I’ll pick you up out front your hotel.” That would be the easy way, I thought. But then, why do something easy when adventure is more fun? Besides, $80 for a ride to the airport was outside my budget, and for $9 the Tube would be faster. I checked the subway schedule at Hyde Park Gate. Its first train left at 5:45 a.m. I could walk through Hyde Park from my North Kensington hotel at 5:00, and make that first train for that early flight.
I stepped outside the hotel door at 5:05 a.m. I stood on an empty street in total darkness. Nary a lark stirred in the trees, nor engine roared on the road. This was early April, and I was cold. I looked down the street. Inside Hyde Park’s gate I could see the gloaming suffused in the lamplight. This was adventure all right. And…at least it wasn’t raining.
The gate into the park swung in easily, but with a loud creak. There was no one about the place. The long line of lamp lights strung ahead like a 19th century pathway toward doom. Or perhaps I had read too much Sherlock Holmes into the mist hovering over the lamps. The wheels on my suitcase rumbled over the rough path like Caesar’s chariot. Yes, I thought, there was definitely no one around but me. Except…who? No one. There’s no one. There is no one out here but me. I looked back toward the road. Headlights opened a tunnel for a car moving slowly along Bayswater Road. It was not a cab, and anyways he would surely not stop for a person come running out of the park like a nutter loon. I pressed on.
Terrain can be deceptive when seen through darkness’ veil. Especially a park, whose shadows become anything your troubled mind doesn’t want to see: a creeping hand snapping at your neck; a witch in robes. When the path dipped into a hallow about halfway through Hyde Park, I thought I might not see the light of day. After all, don’t killers hang out in parks? Visions of Jack the Ripper came to mind. Okay, maybe no problem there, I consoled myself: Jack killed whores somewhere across the river, right? I looked into the sky. Stars twinkled over London. Didn’t it ever get light here?
Stalkers would easily follow the noise of my roller suitcase, I thought. They (I was thinking in numbers at this point) could be following close to the sides—or behind—just out of the lamplight’s safety. I looked over my shoulder, sure to see an ice pick driving swiftly toward my forehead. No suck luck; I stared into the black wake of my hasty footsteps. My eyes scanned the darkness around me for red predatory orbs looming beyond the light. If the tracking eyes were low to the ground, I could kick the beast upon attack. But WAIT! What about the Hound of the Baskervilles? It would tear my throat out before I could raise my suitcase to beat back its vicious bite. I walked more quickly, now hearing my breath in my ears, surrounded by the suitcase wheels grinding out death’s song.
“This is the end,” I thought, and then, “Does whistling in the dark ward off evil, or is it merely the manifestation of a frightened soul preparing funereal rites?” A twig snapped. I stopped and lurched around. Darkness. Maybe the sky was brightening. I looked up and detected a non-black blackness. I awaited the hammer to my skull. It didn’t come. What are they waiting for?
When the path opened onto a square near Hyde Park Corner, I felt the full moisture of fear’s sweat freeze across the back of my neck. Only one more block for the strangler to strike. There was the gate. Freedom. Salvation. I swallowed perhaps for the last time, the corse scrape of a killer’s rope brushing along my throat. Or was that too much starch in my shirt collar?
I passed through the gate onto the sidewalk. To my left, the stairs leading into the subway. I had made it: but was it all worth it? I took a step down into the subway. A cop rounded the corner on foot. He looked me up and down, focused on the suitcase, and then his eyes followed through the gates into the park. I knew the question on his mind: “Did you just murder someone in the park?” Yes, I know that look. This is London, after all. History has its minders.
London Museums and Sites
Perhaps the center of London is Trafalgar Square, home to Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. You can still hop in a cab and tell a driver, “Take me to the square with all the pigeons” even though the city of London has spent thousands of dollars to eradicate the birds. Anyhow, this square is a good start to London’s museum, government, and cathedral corridor.
The National Gallery holds spectacular works from the ancient religious iconography to modern pieces. I’ve spent hours and hours in the galleries, which have quite comfortable—padded—benches one can linger at many outstanding paintings. Better yet, as a state-sponsored museum, entry is free, though you can make a donation. And special exhibits cost money. Open daily from 9am. Trafalgar square; metro Charing Cross, Embankment, and Leicester Square.
The British Museum actually has the distinction of being the largest covered public space in Europe. Its collection holds such things as the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles from the Athenean Pantheon, and assortments of Aztec, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian goods. Ah, the benefits of a once-worldwide empire! Open daily from 9am. Great Russel Street; metro, Holborn.
Little is made of The City—officially the City of London in olden times—because it now sits as the hub of London’s financial district, where modern high rise office buildings dwarf such ancient sites as The Tower of London. Yet The City still has some of the oldest streets in London, those that the Great Fire of 1666 didn’t obliterate. In these little streets you’ll find 17th century pubs and very narrow cobbled alleyways that give you a sense of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean London. Take the Tube to Tower Hill and walk through the winding streets. You’ve found The City.
The Tower of London is my favorite stop on a tour of London. The ancient White Tower is a reconstructed castle on the original site of William the Conqueror’s castle from 1066. That’s old, kids. Inside the castle you’ll find exhibits surrounding Royal lore, military history, armaments, and court life. Now in my opinion, the castle is not the only, or the most interesting, part of the Tower. What really captures my imagination is touring through the apartments used as prisons for the well-heeled who had “angered” the past English Kings and Queens. Elizabeth I spent time here, as a princess. When she became queen she imprisoned (and later beheaded) her cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots). Later, James I imprisoned Sir Walter Raleigh, who spent 12 years in the tower under house arrest, his family and servants with him, and there he wrote his History of the World. Open daily from 9am. Tower Street; metro, Tower Hill.
Travel with kids in a big city like London can be a chore, even for the most fun-loving family. The city is crowded, busy, with insane traffic that moves in the opposite direction from which you are used to. But there are plenty of kid-friendly places to take the little ones for entertainment, relaxation, and learning.
(read more about London, England’s highlights here)