Sunday, January 18, 2009

Christmas in London-1 of 5

I am finally getting around to posting about my trip to London last month. Photos are available via my Picasa online photo album here.

There are three drawbacks to spending Christmas in London. The first is the basic hazard of traveling in winter, which is that plans need to be fairly flexible to accommodate delays caused by the weather—that is, snow. The second is that pretty much everything is closed on December 24, 25, and 26, and even the Tube is shut down on Christmas Day. The third is that, thanks to the shortness of the days (sunset at around 4:30) things shut earlier than in summer and the darkness makes sightseeing (and photography) fairly difficult.

That all said, our recent trip to London went off very well—once the weather let us go off at all. We were scheduled to fly out (Albany to Newark, then Newark to Heathrow) in the late afternoon of December 21—those of you in the Northeast will recall that this was the day we got rather a lot of snow. Needless to say, the Albany flight was canceled. Ultimately, we had to reschedule the departure for 6:30 a.m. December 23. We arrived at Heathrow at about midnight local time. Everything was pretty much closed, and we took a cab to Bayswater where we were renting a flat. Happily, since last April, AT&T had added international roaming so my iPhone actually worked, which was a great help.

The next day, Christmas Eve, most things were closed, son we took that day to simply wander around the city, mostly Westminster, Parliament Square etc., and investigate a variety of pubs. (The fourth drawback to traveling to London at Christmas was that everything was very crowded.)

One of our missions was to find 50 Berkeley Square, which is said to be the most haunted location in London. After wandering through Piccadilly Circus (the name was apt, given how completely nutsville it was), we wended our way through Mayfair and found Berkeley Square. What hauntings have happened at Number 50?
Charles Harper in Haunted Houses, published in 1907 stated that “… It seems that a Something or Other, very terrible indeed, haunts or did haunt a particular room. This unnamed Raw Head and Bloody Bones, or whatever it is, has been sufficiently awful to have caused the death, in convulsions, of at least two foolhardy persons who have dared to sleep in that chamber…” One of them was a nobleman, who scoffing at tales that a hideous entity was residing within the haunted room, vowed to spend the night there. It was agreed, however, that should he require assistance he would ring the servants’ bell to summon his friends. So saying, he retired for the night. A little after midnight there was a faint ring, which was followed by a ferocious peeling of the bell. Rushing upstairs, the friends threw open the door, and found their companion, rigid with terror, his eyes bulging from their sockets. He was unable to tell them what he had seen, and such was the shock to his system, that he died shortly afterwards.
I’ve stayed in hotels that have had rather the same effect. But wait, there’s more:
Strange lights that flashed in the windows would startle passers-by; disembodied screams were heard echoing from the depths of the building; and spookier still, the sound of a heavy body was heard being dragged down the staircase. One night, two sailors on shore leave in London, were seeking a place to stay, and chanced upon the obviously empty house. Breaking in they made their way upstairs, and inadvertently settled down to spend the night in the haunted room. They were woken by the sound of heavy, determined footsteps coming up the stairs. Suddenly the door banged open and a hideous, shapeless, oozing mass began to fill the room. One sailor managed to get past it and escape. Returning to the house with a policeman, he found his friend’s corpse, impaled on the railings outside, the twisted face and bulging eyes, grim testimony to the terror that had caused him to jump to his death, rather than confront the evil in the room above
Indeed, it is said that the fabric is so charged with psychic energy that merely touching the external brickwork can give a mild shock to the psychically inclined.
Yeah. Anyway, the house remains the location of Maggs Bros Antiquarian Booksellers, which has been there for more than 50 years.

By this time it was getting very dark (but still only 5:00), so we found a nearby pub and hung out for a while. Then we decided to walk back top Bayswater, which wasn’t a bad walk. One very cool thing about Bayswater is that it is very ethnically diverse so there are all manner of restaurants. We tried a Lebanese takeaway place and it was fantastic.

The next day was Christmas, and we were due at Steven and Amy’s in Hackney/Homerton (because there’s no place like Homerton for the holidays) at 3:00, so we had some time in the morning to do...something. Trouble was, here was nothing open. So we set out in the direction of St. Paul’s by foot. The Tube and buses were no running, and I hate taking cabs (long story), so we walked down Oxford Street and picked up the Strand which then turned into Fleet Street. We ambled into St. Paul’s, but it as closed for touring, just services, so we got out of there pretty quickly. It was about noon/noon-thirty, so we looked for a pub or something, but the two open restaurants near St. Paul’s were mobbed. So on a whim we walked over the Millennium Bridge to Southwark and found a Young’s pub open! Huzzah! So we sat on the patio (it wasn’t that cold out) overlooking the Thames. Finally, we decided we should probably head out to Hackney, so we walked back over the bridge and grabbed a cab at St. Paul’s. One of the myriad reasons I hate taking cab is that drivers never seem to know how to get where I need to go, and since I usually take cabs in cities I do not live in, that means that I never usually know how to get there either, which leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Fortunately, London cabbies do have to pass that geography test—and now they have GPS devices. (Although GPS didn’t seem to help the driver of the car service we took back to Bayswater, and it was a stroke of luck we made it back in our lifetimes; I think we went through a part of London the Romans still controlled.) After a very pleasant dinner with the Hackney lot, we did make it back to Bayswater, and found an open pub a few blocks from our flat so had a few nightcaps.

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