London dummies

Just in case everything gets all a bit overly rustic and pastorally idyllic, there is always London. London: a city which once was my home and one which I thought I knew well. But its size and scale and – in places – rate of transformation mean that there is always something else waiting to be seen, something else to be done. Particularly when you can relive it all through the eyes of a novice.

lon01Nothing new with the Northern Line, apart from the far more glamorous and airy edifice of Tottenham Court Road station. Nothing new with the rain either, turning the walk around Covent Garden and Soho into an unremitting trudge. Ducking in for cover at Costa Coffee again (sigh) and splashing out on an I Love London umbrella again. Where is that pastoral idyll, again?

But London is not unfamiliar with precipitation and many thousands mill about with their I Love London umbrellas, freaking out at floating yodas, larking about with toys in Hamleys, packing into the galleries and museums and trying to learn something new. Many thousands also learn little in Madame Tussauds, other than how to pose with a plastic reincarnation of Johnny Depp.

lon02Not being naturally inclined to such a place, this was my first time in Madame Tussauds. I guess the dummies were good, I guess they were interesting, I guess I even started to pose with them myself towards the end – particularly when the Star Wars zone appeared just past One Direction and left at the Dagobar System. There was a silly but fun History of London ride and a silly but fun 4D movie. And, in that first day in London, we obviously got to meet the Queen who had obviously come out especially to greet us.

Such wanderings in wax also allowed the rain to finally clear and deliver a bright and breezy couple of hours to end the day in the real world. Cue barges on the Thames, red phone boxes on Embankment, the slow rotation of the Eye, and the bongs of the bell in that most famous of misnamed towers. A walk with squirrels and dogs in St James Park, up The Mall and to Buckingham Palace, where the Queen failed to greet us (still at Madame Tussauds I guess). And then a rush hour crush on the Victoria Line, the truest London experience.

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If only you could apparate between Green Park and West Finchley was not what I was thinking at the time. I was mostly thinking how the hell are we going to get past these people and out of the doors at Euston? Still, apparition was on topic the next day, providing a convenient means to segue between a ride home on the underground and a Harry Potter walking tour. Again, not something I would naturally lean towards, but I have read the books, seen the movies, and now taken a slightly obsessive teenage fan to London.

lon04The walk required memory and imagination, but it did also offer a chance to see some of the sights: buzzing around the bustling lanes of London Bridge and Borough, crossing the Death-eaten Millennium Bridge, getting in the way of wanker bankers in Bank, and running into walls at Kings Cross. All guided, for this most English of creations, by an affable Aussie.

The underground continued to be magically fantastical – that is, not breaking down or being delayed or being on strike – throughout, and delivered us once again to Embankment the next day. Here was a chance to experience another most English creation: a long queue. A staff presence of one for buying tickets on the river ferries – not the most inspired during a sunny day in the school summer holidays. Boris may need to get his privileged upper class whiff-whaff hands on this one to sort it out.

lon06Still, when finally aboard, the ferry to Greenwich was perfectly agreeable, cruising steadily past the many sites lining the wide brown serpentine Thames. And Greenwich was decidedly pleasant, offering expansive views and a palpable sense of Britannia once ruling the waves. The additional wonder of this being a cradle of scientific achievement may have been lost on some (compared with, say, a waxwork of Robert Pattinson), but some of that may lie in my confused amateur teaching, based on half-formed memories of history lessons, QI episodes and Professor Brian Cox saying something on TV in that affable and wistful way of his.

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lon07Confused teachings could have endured around the Tower of London, but even I was over it by then. Something about beheadings, protection of London from plagues of rats, queens eating beefburgers and radioactive ravens. Luckily, nearby Tower Bridge offered an ‘experience’, in which a video projection of cackling cockneys could tell you of the need for another crossing in Landan taaan and sour-faced Victorians go on to outline the ground-breaking design and construction. A more recent addition to the bridge would be the glass bottom walkways, offering a greater thrill for the increasingly daring in the twenty-first century.

For what it’s worth, I would definitely recommend the Tower Bridge experience, particularly as it is much cheaper than most other sights and you get a splendid view thrown in with it. Indeed, the late afternoon in the capital was looking splendid…all blue skies and white fluffs of cloud, glistening buildings, and a marginally less murky river. Friday vibes and mass commuter escapes, for that most English of bank holidays in August.

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lon14Escape was also on the cards the next day, for us, from London, and back to those country idylls and village idiots. Urban density giving way to flashes of affluent countryside and trim Tory towns. A patchwork becoming increasingly rustic finally seeping across into Devon. From Oysters to Roysters in half a day.  London been and gone and now far away.

Great Britain Green Bogey Walking

Journeys

If I was Alain de Botton I would have a superbly incisive sentence about journeys with which to begin this piece. Nothing like ‘a journey is the means by which one moves from A to B, whereby A is the current position and B the intended or end position’. [1] Of course, it could become more scholarly when we propose that A equals birth and B equals death, or less so when A is North Finchley and B is Golders Green. Both can apply, for as well as being like a box of chocolates, surely life is one big journey with lots of little trips, some of them circular, others there and back again, over hills, down dales, up side streets and along back alleys. And we are all passengers on the choo-choo train of happiness that is life.

Like everyone on this planet I have been on thousands of trips within my bigger life journey, many of them unremarkable, others slightly more interesting. It would be impossible to relate them all, almost as impossible as discussing 27 trillion topics at a rate of one topic a day (over a four day working week) for one hour [2]. But I’d like, in this potentially rambling expedition of words, to give you a flavour of the mundane and the spectacular that is involved with a journey.

When I think of mundane journeys my mind instantly arrives in London and a world of commuting. I was not unique in this regard, obvious when I was to look around at the number of people squished onto one carriage of a Northern Line underground train doing the same thing. I’m not sure so many people were travelling from Finchley Central to Hanger Lane via Tottenham Court Road, but odds are there was someone else enduring this madness. It was a long trip, there and back again taking around two and a half hours out of my day. The plus sides were the opportunities to read, complete the Sudoku in Metro, and stare in the middle distance trying to avoid eye contact with anyone whatsoever (as etiquette dictates).

Often by Archway I was bored and ready to get off, to breathe the, ahem, fresh air of inner North London. I had stared at the underground map and memorised the order of stations countless times already. I knew when the very proper automated voice was about to utter something informative like ‘the next station is Tottenham Court Road, change here for the Central Line’. And, when she did, I knew where to get off so I would have the shortest route to make the connecting Central Line train, and to position myself on the platform where I would stand the highest chance of getting a seat. On this train, things livened up again after Shepherd’s Bush, where the underground would go overground and you would learn whether you had made the right choice to leave the umbrella at home today. Or not. [3]

It is a journey that sounds rather boring and often it was. But that glosses over the sheer diversity every day: different people getting stuck in the doors in a last minute dash to board (and thus not to have the indignation of waiting 2 minutes for the next train); cancellations and shutdowns due to adverse weather [4]; automated announcements enlivened by a surprisingly witty retort from a bored driver who happens not to be on strike for a change; the occasional good (or bad) fortune that you might bump into someone you might know; and the quest of listening to music before an era of noise-cancelling headphones.

In truth, the tube is anarchy masquerading as mass transit and it becomes a riot at the stations. I love the labyrinthine network of tunnels where people stride purposefully in different directions (or bumble along and get in the way when you want to stride purposefully yourself). I love the adventure of seeking some mysterious portal and having to cut through an endless flow of suits and briefcases to plunge into it and down a spiral staircase to a cavernous tunnel where an archaic train might or might not turn up. I love watching people run frantically for the train, and like it even more when they miss it. I love it when people don’t stand clear of the doors to let people off, simply because I can tut in moralistic superiority. And I love the rumble of a train approaching, and the warm or cold air it thrusts before it like in some soot-laden Dickensian wind tunnel.

It sounds like I love the underground but it’s more a rollercoaster romance. At first, the novelty of using the tube and living the big city dream makes it seem fresh and exciting. After a while, it’s more of a routine, with good and bad days. Before too long, familiarity begins to breed contempt, accentuated by something unfortunate like the Central Line being closed for track work for months on end. Sick of this, you begin to dally with others…alternatives like the admittedly dreadful amalgamation of two buses navigating the North Circular and interchanging at Brent Cross. Bizarre combinations of bus, overland train, walk, bus just to mix things up. But you end up coming back and, with a little distance and history, appreciate the marvel of the underground that still somehow manages to work today.

If we are talking about transport systems that work there is an inevitability that the word Switzerland will come up. Through the power of language I can try and take you on a journey to Switzerland, using multiple forms of transport to get to one particular high point. It actually starts in Slovenia and its capital city Ljubljana, which boasts a fine old town surrounded by the best in 60s socialist tower block architecture. View both from the castle if you can, and go on a boat trip along the river if you fancy a sedate snooze.

A hire car out of here and a circumnavigation of ring roads takes me to the airport, a place that is small but nicely formed. Airports are fun places hey. I used to quite like airports when a holiday was involved, as it was the first chapter of a vacation, a place where anticipation could bubble and good moods spread. Maybe I’m more desensitised nowadays; a touch middle class blasé about it, scarred by 5:30am flights out of foggy Canberra and transit walks at god knows what hour through Bangkok en route to London. Going off on another sidetrack, am I the only irritating global jetsetter who struggles to distinguish between Bangkok and Singapore and Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur international airports? Perhaps it’s the jetlag haze but they are all so marvellously big and white with shiny glass and sweeping curves and tropical house plants and long, long travelators peppered with pharmacies and electronics shops.

Anyway, Ljubljana International Airport is not like that. But it does have a flight that leaves fairly early for Zurich. Here begins a procession of train journeys that operate to the minute and connect with each other in perfect unison, a process that has probably been described once or twice as being like clockwork. The timings even allow sufficient chance at the station to grab a giant, salt-spotted, shiny pretzel with melted Raclette cheese oozing into its folds and crevices. And then forever I was in love with Pretzel King.

With pretzel relief, an hour or so passes quickly along the pleasant green valleys and slightly industrious-looking towns on the way to Bern, where an eight minute transfer across the platform puts me on a train heading to Interlaken. Now the hills loom higher and rocky peaks approach in the distance, while the valley alongside narrows and begins to fill with deep turquoise lakes. Interlaken sits between a couple of these lakes (hence its name [5]), and awaiting here is a smaller and older proud red train that is somehow going to find a route through the land mass that rises to the south.

It does so of course along a valley, this particular one the Lauterbrunnen Valley. But a mere crevice in the massive massifs of Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and Schilthorn, its sheer walls provide countless opportunities for waterfalls to plummet fast and furious, even in September. The only way up these is to walk along the few accessible folds, or connect across the street to a cable car, which is still part of my one way ticket from departure to destination. With each metre in ascent, the cable car provides an increasing sense of the scale of the land, as the higher valleys and mountain plateaus open up, dotted with clusters of wooden chalets, spewing with bright green fields and dark coniferous forest. And all the time, huge peaks dominate their way up into a white meringue of snow and clouds.

Atop the cable car there is somehow another single track line that has been built along a plateau, and a one carriage train awaits. It starts to seem a bit bizarre dragging my luggage on wheels as day trippers and sightseers jostle for prime window positions. Where on earth am I going? The train seems to know, and it chugs its way intermittently through forest and meadow, revealing snatches of the three mountain sentinels capped by Jungfrau now to the east, terminating where I terminate, in the small mountain village of Muerren. Finally it seems Swiss public transport can take me no further, and the sound of my luggage wheels as they negotiate the narrow roads and concrete pavements inform the whole village of my arrival.

You venture all this way, on this wonderful journey, and it comes as a little surprise to be greeted by a cheerful British woman with a well-to-do clipped accent and general air of welcoming bonhomie [6] who is to put you up in a quaint loft room, provide you wifi, and feed you ample breakfasts over the next few mornings. She also offers tips for extending this particular journey on this particular day, so remarkable that it is to end with a flourish.

There is one final train ride, this time upon a smart funicular rising up several hundred metres to Allmendhubel, primarily just a nice spot for a small pension to provide food and drinks and gaze out at the panorama. Those several hundred metres upward are handy though, saving legwork for a wonderful, looping descent back to Muerren, dipping into and out of a couple of smaller valleys, as the omnipresent peaks impose closer and closer. Out of their large shadow in the warming afternoon sun bask the grassy green valleys, dotted with wildflowers, small wooden chalets and happy cows, offering a soundtrack of cowbells essential to any Swiss idyll. As I stop and stare and have the urge to throw my arms up in wonder and sing The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music, I remember that a bag of bacon Frazzles has accompanied me on this journey today. Puffed up with altitude, a gift from Britain via Ljubljana, they are munched to supreme satisfaction.

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Trains, planes, automobiles. But some of the very best journeys can only be capped off by foot…and a bag of crisps.


[1] Such insight reminds me of Sir Ian McKellen’s secret to acting as outlined to Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) in an episode of Extras. See http://www.wimp.com/goodactor/

[2] For details of such madness, see http://www.hamishandandy.com/topics/

[3] Moral of the story: NEVER leave the umbrella at home

[4] Any of: flooding rain, ice, snow, wind, too much sun, drizzle, fog

[5] Just goes to show, it’s not just the Australians who have a penchant for place names that state the bleeding obvious.

[6] The surprise not being a cheerful Brit, but just that it was a Brit.

Links

London Underground: http://www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx

Mind the Gap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxJKvYBNgo8

Ljubljana: http://www.visitljubljana.com/

Swiss trains, the catchy multilingual SBB CFF FFS: http://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html

Muerren or Murren, it’s all the same: http://www.myswitzerland.com/en/muerren.html

If you’re frazzled: http://www.britishsupermarketworldwide.com/acatalog/Smiths-Frazzles-Crispy-Bacon-Corn-Snacksx48-BOX.html

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