Highs and lows in London

Tudor gate at St. Bartholomew the Great.

Not surprisingly, it rained for much of my time in London, and when I went to open my umbrella, I discovered that the high winds in Portsmouth had not just blown it out, they'd pretty much completely killed it. Once my umbrella went in the trash can, it quickly became clear that I wouldn't be able to get by with just my raincoat, but fortunately, on a rainy day in London, you're never far from a place selling umbrellas.

I surveyed the rack outside a tourist shop, scanning the tourist-geared umbrellas with their twee patterns. I did not want a umbrella with a twee pattern. I hate being outside in rain enough as it is; I don't need my umbrella to make some lame attempt to cheer me up. I scanned a bit further, and found a nice black umbrella, wrapped tight in a case. I paid, exited the shop, removed the plastic, and encountered one of the lowest points of my travels, right up there with the food poisoning. When I unwrapped the umbrella, I discovered that it was not, in fact, plain black, but instead boldly emblazoned with "I Y London."

Gaaaaah. It felt like a moment in some sort of London-based sitcom. Except now I was either stuck with this touron umbrella for the rest of my trip, or I would have to buy a new umbrella. I couldn't quite stomach buying a new umbrella when I had a perfectly functional one, but I found myself using it only in the absolute worst rain for the rest of the trip, starting with the Shakespeare and Dickens London walk I went on.

The walk felt long and slow to develop to me, partially because I was not about to bust out old "I Y London" in front of all those other tourists, so I spent much of it trying to burrow deeper into my raincoat, but mostly because the presence of actual old buildings at the beginning of the walk were few and far between. After the easy history of Portsmouth, I wanted to see some semblance of history, not just leave everything to the imagination. Fortunately, the buildings got older as we got near Farringdon tube station, most notably the Tudor gate at St. Bartholomew the Great, a very cool church I wanted to come back and explore later but didn't quite make it to.

Main entrance to the Old Operating Theatre Museum. Yes. Really.

After the chilly walk, I worked my over to Bankside, first heading to the Old Operating Theatre Museum, perhaps the oddest and creepiest museum I've ever been to. You reach it by climbing a ridiculously narrow spiral staircase, sure the whole time that there is no way this is the main entrance. Through a door into a shop that looks like a dollar store has vomited all of its slightly science-related objects along the wall, and it is clear there is indeed no other entrance. Hand the woman at the counter your 5 pounds 80, and walk up a little ramp to a dark, wood-beamed garret, filled with hanging herbs, apothecary's tools, and display cases crammed with all manner of medical obsolescence.

Herb Garret.

In the 18th century, this space was indeed used an apothecary's shop. Beyond it, after you pass a few more display cases detailing important advances in surgery, simple things we take for granted like anesthetic and sterile instruments, is the main attraction, a 19th century operating theatre that lay forgotten in the roof of a church for many years — the cause of the unorthodox entrance. I'm not sure what was creepier, realizing that medical students would crowd into the theatre to watch surgeons perform grisly surgeries without anesthetic, or the fact that such a large space could sit entirely forgotten and undiscovered for so long.

Old Operating Theatre. Yes, the operating table is made of wood.
Got germs?

After the operating theatre, I still wasn't quite done for the day with crawling around in strange places — I had one more ship to check out on the trip, the replica of the Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world during Elizabethan times. After HMS Victory, the Golden Hind was shockingly small, and didn't have nearly as much to offer by way of exploration or explanation.

Replica of the Golden Hind.

Still, it was interesting to think of Drake and his men circling the globe in such a tiny ship, though, and downright preposterous on the gun deck, which couldn't have been more than four feet high. I crab-shuffled my way along, wondering how the men could have possibly fought the guns or slept down there without succumbing to claustrophobia.

After the Golden Hind, I went to the nearby Anchor Bankside for an early-dinner pint and steak and ale pie that ranged somewhere between mediocre (filling) and downright bad (crust). It was quite a letdown after the pubs of Portsmouth, but at least it did kill some time before I went over to St. Paul's Cathedral for Evensong. I'd seen a lot of cathedrals during my first two times in England, including St. Paul's, and didn't really feel like yet another cathedral tour. At the same time, I remembered the soaring space of St. Paul's from my first trip and wanted to revisit it in some way, so I decided to attend an Evensong service — open and free to tourists.

It actually ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The other tourists were restless at first, whispering, letting kids run wild, clomping around in heavy shoes, and even, in one case, wheeling a suitcase across the black-and-white checkerboard floor. But eventually those who decided Evensong wasn't really their scene wandered out, and not long after that the choir got to the featured song, "Lamentations of Jeremiah," by Thomas Tallis. It might sound like I'm exaggerating when I say it was the most singularly beautiful thing I've ever heard, but I can't remember ever being moved to tears by a song before. Certainly, it wasn't just about the music. Sitting there, I felt little in that cavernous space, the gild-detailed detailed ceiling far above and the mammoth chandelier providing much of the light as the gloom outside got even darker into evening, the prayer candles flickering out in front of me, the faint scent of smoke in the air, and that beautiful music all around. I realized there's something to be said for tradition in church, for a little pomp and circumstance, for Tallis in a magnificent church instead of Christian rock in a bland megachurch amphitheater.

Although I'd been dropping my bag in any number of left luggage locations to sightsee more freely, on this Wednesday night, I was completely homeless, due to take the Caledonian Sleeper to Edinburgh later in the evening. Fortunately, though, I wasn't without a relaxing space to retreat to — my first-class ticket on the sleeper train, necessary for a guaranteed private berth, entitled me to use of the Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston station. This was the first time I'd traveled first class, anywhere, so it was fun to see what the lounge offered: ridiculously inexpensive drinks, mod chairs, a gigantic shower with L'Occitane products, and extra-flaky wireless internet access.

Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston Station.

When they announced my train was boarding, I headed down, only to find out about the previously blogged Glasgow/Edinburgh switcheroo. I tried not to let it bother me while I was on the train, though — there wasn't really anything I could do about it until we were dumped out in Glasgow the next day. So I headed to the lounge car for a little whisky and a snack. As part of the train disruptions, they didn't have any hot food, so I went for an egg and watercress sandwich, which might be my favorite British food not involving fried cod, and a scotch whisky that one of my fellow lounge car-goers recommended. Interestingly, although as a tourist in Scotland I was always drawn to whisky with complex, authentic-sounding names I couldn't pronounce or get in the U.S., all of the actual Scottish people in the lounge car seemed to be drinking Johnnie Walker Black.

I sipped my whisky and chatted with two people who were originally from Aberdeen. As is, apparently, Annie Lennox. One of them asked me if Annie Lennox had made it "across the pond". I was like, really, Annie Lennox? The Eurythmics? Really? And yet, the British tabloids were filled with mystery celebrities, obviously important there, who had definitely not made it across the pond.

I left the lounge car fairly early —at best, even if I dropped right off to sleep, I'd be lucky to get seven hours. It would be worth it for the extra time I'd gain in Edinburgh (even with the Glasgow detour I still arrived before 9 a.m.), and the cost savings of my sleeper ticket versus a night in a hotel plus a day train. My sleeper compartment was tiny, but novel to me, a narrow bed on one side of the long wall, and a counter on the short wall opposite the door, part of which flipped up to reveal the sink. Unlike Amtrak's roomettes and bedrooms, these compartments are permanently configured for sleeping only. And although it took me awhile to drop off, lying perpendicular to the train's motion, I did get a decent night's sleep.

I can't help but think now, if some of the solution to the old, "the train takes longer," problem could be solved by well-timed sleeper trains. I realize that the Acela from Washington to Boston, at six hours and 45 minutes, isn't an option that's going to beat flying for everyone. But if they could take a normal-speed train, and maybe even slow it down some more, so that you had a nice nightcap at Union Station, walked on to your train, got eight hours of sleep, and woke up in Boston, well, you tell me how that wouldn't beat flying.

London pics are all part of the bigger London set. Caledonian sleeper pics are part of my trains and stations set.

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