Thursday dawned, but we could scarcely tell because it was, surprise surprise, raining again. We felt just a little thwarted, because we had planned another leisurely trek through London’s parks and charming neighborhoods before meeting Ben and several of his friends for dinner.
The rain minimized our desire to wander about London, but maximized Ol’ P’s desire for to obtain a waxed cap. I had finally broken down and bought a cheap umbrella, but he was set upon a more stylish means of keeping his head dry. So we went shopping in Windsor.
Folks, I don’t blame you if you think that we’ve made too big a deal about this cap. After all, it’s only a hat. However, in my mind, it also represented a major transformation in my psyche. For most of my adult life, I have been a baseball hat and jeans type of guy, and have enjoyed the image that combination projects: casual, sometimes sloppy, and depending on the logo on the hat, occasionally immature. I have relied on the baseball hat to promote an image of youth, and now I was about to chuck it all by donning a head covering more fitting to my chronological age and theoretical state of respectability. What would I do next: grow the fringes of my hair to the length that would allow for a wispy white ponytail? (Oh, dear God, no!)Parade about the house in a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers while spouting sonnets? (Interesting, but unlikely) Abandon ESPN and “Modern Family” for PBS and “Downton Abbey”? (Never happen)
Despite my misgivings about my acceptance of accoutrements of the aged, I charged into the void (well actually, the Windsor shopping district), visited every outlet featuring men’s apparel, and at the last possible moment, ducked into the local Barbour shoppe … and purchased a waxed cap! Because I really wanted that damn cap! My now dry head luxuriated in the warm comfort, a sensation that helped ease the thoughts of selling out to a senior sense of style.
After lunch, the “occasional showers” seemed to be dwindling, so we decided on a compromise. We would take the train to Paddington, then hop on the Tube to Westminster so I could have my yearly fix of Big Ben. Our son was not named after a clock, but people might be forgiven for thinking he had been, because I am hopelessly enamored of the sight and sound of what is really the bell atop Elizabeth’s Tower. (The clock tower was renamed in 2012 in honor of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee.) For most of my Anglophiliac life, Big Ben had been the visual embodiment of London and all things English, and to stand looking up at it “in person” will always makes me tear up. Hokey, but there you have it.
From Paddington it was a fairly quick tube trip to Westminster, or would have been had it not been approaching rush hour. I assured Ol’ P, who is not fond of the underground, that it would be a mere 5 or 6 stops, and we’d be home free. I strode confidently off to the entrance to the underground, confidently inserted my ticket in the turnstile, and headed for the appropriate line. I could almost hear the gritting of Ol’ P’s teeth as he stoically followed.
What can I say, I don’t like being underground any more than most inhabitants of a cemetery do. But given that it was wet and damp aboveground, and mostly warm and dry below, I acceded to Elizabeth R’s plan,though with some trepidation. We would be taking on the Tube right about rush hour …
I love the London Underground. Exactly why is a mystery to me, and to Ol’ P, who emphatically does NOT love it. I hate crowds, I hate being squished together with random strangers, and I’m not too crazy about being far underground where there are no windows and it doesn’t always smell nice. I would sooner die than attempt the New York City subways. But the London Underground – I understand it. My Journey Planner app tells me exactly where to go, and I can actually read and understand the cleverly color coded diagrams that are everywhere. And for a slight surcharge on the train ticket that I buy in peaceful Windsor, I can go anywhere in the whole city of London.
So we crammed into the already overcrowded and overheated car, and made it for a few stops when Ol’ P had had enough and suggested, strongly, that we get off and walk.
Let me first say that the tube wasn’t all that horrible. Chivalry still exists in England and Elizabeth R was allotted a seat while I was allowed to hover by the door. However, it was now full fledged rush hour, and I noticed a disturbing trend: at each station more people got on than got off. As I knew from experience that each station before our theoretical destination would continue that trend, I decided that we should exit while we could, rather than run the risk of being hemmed in until the hinterlands. Besides, I wanted to test my waxed cap in the rain.
Rain be damned, he had his waxed cap and I had my brolly. I had to admit that squishing would be preferable to squashing, so we emerged at St. James Park and walked to the Thames and Big Ben. The rain held off, and I stood gazing reverently up at Big Ben just as it struck 5. Serendipity – there is no other sound quite like it.
Be it serendipity or karma, the rain also stopped with the last stroke of the chimes. The spreading white underside of the clouds gave hope that the storm had passed, and that led to a time for a decision. It was now 5:00, and we had to be at the restaurant by 6:30. If we took a cab, we would be much too early. If we took the tube – no wait, we WOULD NOT take the Tube. So, how could we kill an hour and a half and still make it to the restaurant on time. I know! Let’s walk!
I thought this was a fine idea – even I had had enough of the Tube, and I knew that all I would have to do was follow the bouncing waxed cap as I took in the sights of some previously unexplored part of London.
Unable to resist my persuasive argument (I promised to hail a cab if we faltered), Elizabeth R agreed, and I whipped out my map. We were now pacing the Victoria Embankment, and our ultimate destination was on Wharfdale Road, in Islington. To further mollify the Mrs., I plotted a path that would use Tube stops as landmarks, though silently swore that I would not descend into one again this day. Finally, appealing to sentiment, I informed Elizabeth R that the beginning of our route would be very nearly the reverse of our very first walk in London, six years before, when we strolled from High Holborn to Waterloo Bridge.
I cannot believe he remembers that. All I remember is walking and sighing in bliss at finally being in London. (Elizabeth R may be the Anglophile, but I am the kayaker, and I just had to see the Thames.)
Though our route was similar to that first route, it wasn’t exactly the same. Nor was it the same as our jaunt through Soho the week before, though we would pass within blocks of those streets. Once again, we blazed a new trail. I decided to use Charing Cross Station as our jump-off point, and opting for fewer streets over a shorter distance, aimed to move mostly north and a little bit east. Just as hikers using trails through the woods are reassured by trail markers, we received the same reassurance from the ubiquitous “You are here” markers, and the much more noticeable train stations.
These are ubiquitous and ever so handy. However, they tend to underestimate walking times. Especially at rush hour.
Once we passed through St.-Martin-in-the-Fields and found Charing Cross Road, it was merely a question of moving to Tottenham Court Road and turning right onto Euston Road at the University College Hospital. From there it would be a piece of cake. Besides, I had my map.
Our urban hike had probably taken a good deal longer than a more rural counterpart would have – hikes in the boonies don’t have the pedestrian version of rush hour to contend with. It was even more chaotic than in an American city, because in London it seems as if half the pedestrians follow the driving/walking on the left side of the street/sidewalk, and half – don’t. We passed a baby girl being pushed in her pram by mom as gramma walked beside the little girl. She had a death grip on gramma’s finger, and her eyes were huge with terror. I could sympathize. But, lo and behold, we came upon the restaurant at precisely 6:25.
We ducked inside, found Ben and a couple of beers, and sank gratefully onto an unoccupied bench.