There is a checklist in my London guidebook: London Eye (a ferris wheel), The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Carnaby Street, etc. Guess how many of these I have checked off? Very few. I’m not much of a sightseer.
I do describe myself as a tourist, though. I am an aficionado of the museums and shops in Londons. Are there any museums better than The National Gallery and The National Portrait Gallery ( the latter is, sadly, closed for “a facelift”)? And the bookstores! I recently visited John Sandoe Books, 10 Blacklands Terrace, which must be the best bookshop in the world: there is a magical system of sliding bookcases attached to the front of other bookcases, so that there are literally layers of books as you slide the shelves. I also recommend Foyles (an enormous bookstore with a brilliant selection of books), Any Amount of Books (a used bookstore curated by geniuses), and Hatchard’s, a beautiful store founded in 1797.
We see some sights, and we find ourselves getting better at stairs. Where’s the lift, I wondered at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I kept coming across glass elevators with crime scene tape exed on the doors. Was there actually a crime, or were they simply out of order? I climbed the stairs. (Great medieval sculpture on the ground floor, by the way!)
Finally I made it to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I felt such joy. How could Christopher Wren have designed this fantastic cathedral and so many other gorgeous churches? He began to design it in 1666, and construction began in 1675. It took 35 years to finish it. Hard to imagine all that time.
But talk about stairs: there’s no way I would climb up to that balcony around the inside of the dome, even on a guided tour. It gives me vertigo to think about it.
The first time I saw St. Paul’s, it was a slushy winter day. I shivered as I sat in in the beautiful nave, consulting a multi-media guide, and later wandering around the crypt with my coat zipped up. This time I was happy to appreciate the exterior on a warmer day.
I am more comfortable in Christopher Wren’s smaller churches. His own favorite of his churches was St. James’s Church, completed in 1684. And I love it, too. It’s cozy, almost Barbara Pymish, I think, and according to the guidebook, “it contains one of the finest works by the master Grinling Gibbons…, an ornate limewood screen behind the altar.”
The relaxing thing about smaller churches is that you can sit down with your shopping bags and take a break from the hubbub. There sre so many exquisite yet comfortable old churches. As you rest, you will feel like a character in an English novel, perhaps the woman in Monica Dickens’ “The Winds of Heavens,” though she probably rests at Harrods or perhaps somewhere less fancy over tea, come to think about it.