Thursday started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel, which was kind of weird. Most hotels, if they offer breakfast, it’s usually a continental style, with pastries and coffee. Hostels often offer similar. This place had a kitchen so you could make what you wanted and offered up eggs, bread, cereal and some fruits. So we had scrambled eggs and toast before heading out for our day.
First stop, as planned, was the British Library. There was an exhibition on about British Comic Books until the 19th and since we didn’t know when we’d get another chance, today was our day for it (Monday and Tuesday were already blocked out due to the London Pass – to be explained later). In order to get there, we had to get off at King’s Cross/St. Pancras
station – which is even bigger than Victoria Station. It’s also home to Platform 9 3/4. So before hitting the library, which is across the street, we went and found the platform. They’ve naturally turned it into a tourist stop with a luggage cart halfway throughout the wall and a nearby shop. I’d been there once before but I still loved watching the excitement with which both the fans and the people working approached the place. There is certainly something magical about it. After waiting in line, pictures were taken and fun was had and we moved on to our original plan, Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK.
The British Library is an amazing place. It houses millions of books (and that’s only a small part of their overall collection) as well as having several rotating exhibition spaces as well as a permanent rare book room. Last time I was there was for a science fiction exhibit (which, as I recall, was free – this one cost) that was pretty good. This exhibit had some remarkable items, and followed the history of the comic art form over the past 150 years or so. It was made even more interesting when a few days later I would see panels at the convention featuring people whose work was represented in the exhibit. Presentation wise, they made an interesting choice by placing urban dressed mannequins wearing “V” masks sporadically throughout the area and using them as dividers between sections. I kept waiting for one of them to move.
After the comics, we went to look at the rare books, which included original Beatles lyrics and Jane Austen’s writing desk (which is NOT like a Raven at all). The thing I really wanted to see, though, which I hadn’t seen since most of the rare books were on display at the British Museum, was the original copy of Alice’s Adventures Underground. This is the handwritten book which became the Wonderland classic. Last time I was at the library the book had been off exhibit for restoration or something so I was hoping to see it this time.
I was thwarted.
Again, the book was off someplace else. Eventually, I will see it again. I do own a facsimile they sell in the gift shop, so I’ve got that going for me. There was nothing else for us at the library so we were about to head off on our next adventure, but decided to ask at the information desk about it first. We’d heard about these book benches being placed around town and figured the library was the best place to ask about a map or guide to finding them. Unfortunately, the girl at the desk thought we were referring to the singular bench they have in their lobby, a bronze book with a ball and chain attached. When we explained what we were actually looking for, she looked it up on line and proceeded to print out two of the four trails for us to follow and sent us on our way to find them! She couldn’t have been nicer and if anyone from the British Library is reading, your information desk staff is the best!
We headed out on the Bloomsbury Trail in search of benches and whatever else crossed our path. Along the way, we stumbled through the campus of the University of London, which was a big surprise to Rasa. The campus, even in the middle of the city, was an actual campus. When we were there, it seemed there was a food fair on, or a farmer’s market and it was crowded with students buying all sorts of lunch foods.
Our bench hunt turned the corner and all of a sudden we were right next door to the side entrance of the British Museum. Since we weren’t on any type of schedule it made sense to stop in and see what there was to be seen – specifically the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. We wandered a bit more before heading out the front entrance (you have to see the British Museum from the front – the edifice is amazing) just at the right time for it to start to rain! Thankfully, we’re from Lithuania so we had our umbrellas with us (during the course of the week, I would check the weather app and dutifully announce “No Rain today” and Rasa would dutifully pack the umbrellas anyway – and yes, more times than not, she was right). The rain was light until we got to the park with the Peter Pan bench at which point the thunder started pealing and the sky opened up with buckets of water. This seemed like the perfect time to grab a light lunch so we went to a little stand in the park, protected from the rain by a slapped together fiberglass roof and uneven tables with mis-matched chairs. It was great! The people working (probably a family) were incredibly friendly and helpful, the food was good and our timing was impeccable. The worst of the storm passed by the time we finished eating so we were refreshed and ready to go into relatively dry weather (the ground, however, was saturated and it was still raining enough to need the umbrella, just not enough to warrant gathering animals up in pairs).
This time, though, we actually had a destination in mind. We had pre-purchased this thing called the London CityPass which offered free or discounted entry and other benefits to top attractions. Since we knew a number of attractions we wanted to see, we had done the math and figured if we didn’t dawdle, it would actually make financial sense to buy the pass for two days. Only problem is when you pre-order, there’s only one place in town to pick them up and that place is in Charing Cross – and we wanted to pick them up before we wanted to use them on Monday, since they were good for only two calendar days and we wanted to make sure we got the most out of them we could.
So off to Charing Cross we trundled. Now, Charing Cross Rd. is known for its rare and antique (and just plain regular) book stores so as we avoided puddles, we were looking in windows to see what was on offer. I immediately jumped into a shop when I saw a History of Playing Cards for 4 pounds! Pulled it right out of the window display and bought it. In and out in less than 3 minutes. Of a book store! I was impressed with myself, for sure! We were almost at the place to pick up the cards when we saw a kiosk for discounted theatre tickets – with a big ad for Wicked! I went in and asked. The guy behind the counter was a character in his own right, a bitchy theatre queen who, if you weren’t a serious customer, couldn’t be bothered with you. Since we were, he helped us. We ended up with fairly inexpensive tickets for Wicked on Monday night and almost got seats for Matilda on Sunday matinee, but didn’t because the Hugo ceremony was that night and we wanted to make sure we were back in time.
With Monday night tickets in hand, we headed off to get our CityPass cards and then were about to take a bus to the river when we passed by the National Portrait Gallery. It was free, we were wet, so in we went! We skipped the old stuff and focused on the more modern portraits as well as one of the special exhibitions – the BP Portrait Award. These were several dozen of the top portraits this year (all painted, ironically) and some of them were phenomenal pieces. Of the permanent collection, it was kind of interesting that all of the really original and unique portraits, the ones which grabbed your eye from across the room and looked nothing like the stuff you see in most galleries and museums… those pieces were the ones which had a little sign explaining you couldn’t take photos due to some sort of copyright restrictions. Fascinating, really. The only ones you’d want to capture are the ones you’d have to buy a print or a postcard of from the gift shop… maybe not so fascinating after all.
When it stopped raining we again ventured outside… this time hoping to get out to see Tower Bridge. The bus we wanted was No 15. We literally walked up just as the cool, old fashioned double decker was pulling away, so we grabbed the next, more modern double decker and headed out. Now, the last time I was in London we took one of those hop on/hop off tours and I remembered a thing or two so I was playing tour guide a bit. Then we heard the people behind us explaining that the bus we were on followed a lot of the same route as the tour busses so I felt pretty confident in what I was saying. Before we could get to Tower Bridge, though, we looked at our second book bench trail and realized it was mostly on the other side of the river from where we were, and started at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
So off the bus at St. Paul’s and headed down to Millennium Bridge. Going across we saw someone taking a picture of a miniature piece of art embedded in the grooves of the walkway. It looked like a sticker or something so we didn’t think anything of it – as if someone had been handing out stickers and this one got trampled in. Then we saw more, but they were all different. then they were almost everywhere. Eventually we came across a guy scrubbing at one and found out the story. The guy’s name is Ben Wilson and he found a loophole in the laws against art on public property – he was painting on the gum and detritus on the bridge, not on the bridge itself. And when he’s done and bored, he cleans it off and starts over again.
On the South Bank of the Thames, we found the Shakespeare bench right where you’d expect it to be – in front of the Globe. We found several more benches (including Alice in Wonderland) as we headed east along the Queen’s Walk. At one point though, it moves slightly inland, away from the water’s edge, and there we found The Clink, a museum dedicated (and in the location of) the notorious London prison which gave its name to all other prisons. Since it wasn’t part of our London Pass (which we would have had to wait for Monday or Tuesday anyway) we decided to check it out. It’s a fun, if cheesy attraction. Not nearly as scary as the London Dungeon is supposed to be but creepy in its own right. There are also rats hidden throughout the walk-through exhibit and if you correctly spot all of them, there’s a prize. Yes, I know the answer. No, I’m not telling you. You have to keep your eyes pealed!
Exiting the prison, our day had once again turned rainy but we soldiered on, continuing to find benches in the rain. Soon enough, Tower Bridge came into sight, something else Rasa had been excited to see. We already knew it was on our CityPass list of ToDo attractions so it was cool to see finally see it. We decided to walk across and get the full experience and ended up walking directly to The Tower of London, another on Monday’s list. The crowds were light, due to the moisturized air so we pretty much had the walk of the walk to ourselves. We could see the poppies, which are mind-blowing.
At this point, we were hungry, and it was raining so we ducked under a covered walkway and got ourselves an English favorite, fish and chips, and ate them sitting on the concrete while waiting for a break in the weather. It was a traditionally English thing to do, to be sure. Eventually, the rain did settle down a bit so we were able to get back on the road. Like our first night, we had no destination in mind so we wandered, crossing streets with the light, whether we had been going that way or not. Pretty soon, we spotted a few more benches and I realized we were in the City of London, which is the financial district. This is a place where the signs pointing to interesting tourist sites only lead one to the bus and tube stops and where seeing gray haired men in tailored suits, falling down drunk seemed to be de rigueur. In fact, in one spot, a tidy little courtyard where there was an interesting sculpture which equated the stock market and slavery, I spotted a young businessman with his back towards us. Judging by his actions and the position of his hands I assumed what he must be doing then immediately rejected that idea.
I was right the first time. I just watched a guy in a suit worth more than I make in a month, taking a piss in a well-manicured garden in full view of anyone who might be looking out the windows. He shook himself off, zipped up and walked off. Needless to say, we were flabbergasted. One of the oddest things I’ve seen in a while. When we completed our circle and reached St. Paul’s again (home to more benches) we decided to walk along the north bank instead of catching a bus back to the station. This turned out to be a slightly painful choice as the resultant walk to get back to a tube station to get back to the hotel took another couple of hours walking through wet streets. The experience, though, was great. We made it home exhausted and happy, ready to hit the convention the next morning.