Returning to London
I haven’t been to the UK since I was 18. Over winter break my freshman year of college I spent two weeks in London studying art history. The professor lectured from a different museum every morning and the afternoons were ours to run around and explore. I was the youngest student on the trip and basked in being old enough to drink in the pub. I saw Les Miserables on stage and Harry Potter in the movie theater. I rode the London eye, saw the Globe Theatre and rode the tube. I went home thinking I really saw England. Really I’d hardly seen anything.
The United Kingdom is made up of 4 countries spanning 93,600 square miles making it about the size of the state of Michigan. In February I was getting ready to spend 7 weeks re-visiting a place I hadn’t seen in 14 years to visit my British boyfriend and meet his friends and family. This would be our fifth date and our 7th country in just over a year. I flew from Cleveland to New York to London on Valentine’s Day and made a sign proclaiming “I’d cross and ocean for you, Valentine.” It all seemed so romantic and so improbable that something like this happens outside a rom-com.
Craig met me in arrivals and we had a coffee and croissants. He brought me a valentine too, and a SIM card for my phone. We had a hotel booked in Crystal Palace and having not slept much on the red eye, I was happy to have a place to nap. The Crystal Palace Exhibition hall was moved here from Hyde Park in 1854 and destroyed by fire in 1936 and now all that remains is the huge park that surrounded the former glass edifice. Giant sphinx frame staircases to nowhere and in a pond are concrete sculptures of poorly proportioned dinosaurs.
I love dinosaurs. I have the skeleton of one tattooed on my thigh. My favorite childhood moving was Land Before Time and the first job I ever remember wanting was to be a paleontologist. While that didn’t pan out, I still delight that science has been able to discern so much about these ancient beasts from their fossilized remains. Learning that there the first-ever attempt at a full-scale replica of extinct animals were so close, I had to check them out.
Created between 1853-1855 the 31 sculptures are the work of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who worked with paleontologist Richard Owen. Today they look a bit ridiculous and disproportionate but for Victorian times when paleontology was in its infancy, they’re pretty amazing. The giant concrete sculptures are on three islands in the back of the park near the railway station. We past the Crystal Palace Football club stadium and wandered though a field of grass to find them.
They’re awkward, with huge eyes, bulging bodies and exposed teeth. None are particularly recognizable as they were based on skeletons constructed of bones that didn’t actually go together. Some have long, skinny necks. All of them have scales and claws. They were refurbished in the 1950s and again in 2002 but some of them look worse for wear covered in algae and falling apart.
I love them. We wander around in the morning then take the overground train to the city center. We stop at Camden market for a kebab and some curry. The curry place is giving away samples. They’re delicious. A woman walks up behind me and asks if it’s really hot. I tell her it’s not that bad. “Not that bad? Where are you from? It’s pretty hot,” the vendor eyes me up accusingly. I tell him I lived in Laos last year and developed a taste for chilies. He’s from Thailand. We hit is off.
Craig and I window shop in a rave store full of day-glow party wear. We get a pint at Amy Winehouse’s old haunt The Hawley Arms, then walk down the street for another at Brew Dog. The story goes that the founders of the Brewery were turned down for a business loan from the bank because they were a rough and tumble crew that didn’t fit the bill for who the bank usually lent money to. They walked strait out of the branch and into a competing bank across the street, told the banker they’d been offered a loan from the competition but wanted to see if they could get a better rate. They walked out of that bank with a loan and ten years later, Punk IPA is world famous and the company is a £100 million publicly traded company.
I chatted up the bartender and told him I was from Ohio. It turns out he knows and has hosted the head brewer from Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland. Small world. THEN I find out that the first Brew Dog pub in the US is going to be just outside Columbus, Ohio. It’s been a very serendipitous day.
I didn’t see any popular sites in London. (Well I did walk across London Bridge and I can attest that it’s most definitely not falling down.) This meandering way of travel has grown on me. I used to be the kind of person who made a meticulous agenda and kept busy from sunup to sundown doing and seeing everything. I didn’t want to miss out. I read guidebooks and prioritized the most famous places. Anymore I show up and see what happens. I talk to people. I wander around. I stop for a coffee or a beer. It’s a different pace of travel. I’m slowing down, I’m turning up and doing what I like.