Lit Major Abroad: London Calling (Only We Keep Getting Disconnected)

IMG_0530.2As promised in my last post, I’ve got some juicy tidbits to share from my recent trip to Turkey and Greece. But before I get ahead of myself, I need to finish up the British leg of my journey. I spent an amazing few days in London before Christmas. Of course, not everything I did there was literary-themed. So I’ve decided to write a little recap of my book-related activities, partly because I like to stick to themes and partly because at the rate I’m going now I wouldn’t be done recounting my entire trip until next Christmas. So, here goes:

London, Day 3: The British Library

The British Library isn’t a particularly pretty building from the outside. It’s certainly nothing to the imposing grandeur of, say, the British Museum. But much like one should never judge a book by its cover, the really important stuff is on the inside. The British Library apparently adds about three million titles to their shelves every year, as well as receiving a copy of every book printed in the UK and Ireland. Which is quite a sobering thought when I consider the full-to-bursting state of my Ikea bookshelf back home. Three million books makes my own space-related problems seem pea-sized in comparison.

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Wait for it, it gets better… literary treasures are hiding inside.

The British Library has a free, permanent exhibition which highlights some of the most impressive texts in their collection. Among other things they have a copy of Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. I spent a good fifteen minutes staring at their Literature display, mouth hanging open and fingers grasping eagerly to tug on my sister’s jacket with excited cries of ‘look!’ and ‘wow!’ The other patrons were, needless to say, not particularly amused.

These highlights included a copy of Alice in Wonderland in Carroll’s own hand, a Shakespeare First Folio, copies of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, and early editions of Boccaccio’s work (2013 marking seven hundred years since his birth). My favourite exhibit? Undoubtedly Volume 3 of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, opened on the page where she begins her short story ‘Catherine’. Incredible? I know. But be cool, everybody, be cool.

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The original Alice; just one surprise the British Library has to offer. (Image Source)

After that it was pretty much assured that nothing else I saw that day would quite measure up. We left the British Library, though not before I snapped this little photo, which shows just a small part of their huge collection. I loved the fact, too, that there were students everywhere. Both my sister and I were awed at the idea of being able to access such a huge collection of material; to be able to ‘pop down to the library’ and access millions upon millions of titles as if it were an everyday occurrence. Suddenly our four-floor university library back home seemed tiddly in comparison. (On a side note, does anyone know if this is the correct usage of ‘tiddly’? I’ve heard English people say it so I hope I haven’t just made a tweensy linguistic blunder.)

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My study room is a spaceship….
Actually, it’s the British Museum, which is still pretty cool.

The day finished with us walking toward the British Museum. On the way there I caught a glimpse of the house where the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was first formed.

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Apparently Bloomsbury is simply full of these little blue plaques, but somehow they managed to elude me. Still, never mind! Let’s march on to:

London, Day 4: (Not Really London At All)

Today we jumped on the train bright and early, taking advantage of Sunday ticket prices, and sped away to Cambridge. Because… well, because we could, really. We’d visited Oxford a few years before, and we wanted to see how Cambridge compared. Not to mention that the thought of escaping the big city for a few hours was quite attractive, however much we both like London.

Like Oxford, Cambridge is a lovely old town full of imposing buildings and inspiring history. Many famous names have trod the cobbled streets, including Thackeray, Edmund Spenser, Coleridge, and (more recently) Australia’s own Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White. The best part is that the university offers free guided tours which can be downloaded from their website and listened to on your Mp3 player at your own pace. At the risk of sounding like a walking endorsement, I was thrilled when I learnt this; free tours PLUS you can do it on your own? Touristic gold. So we walked around with our earbuds in, staring up at the buildings and snapping pictures madly.

The tour eventually led us across the bridge and into a quieter part of town, where we saw the outside of Newnham, an all-female college. Some of their alumni include Germaine Greer and Iris Murdoch; and as an awesome extra, Virginia Woolf once lectured here. Interestingly, the audio guide went on to tell us that when the college first opened the female students were allowed to attend classes and eventually sit exams, but they were not granted degrees from the university. This went on well into the twentieth century; only in 1948 were they finally recognised as members of the university. Amusingly, in one particular year a woman came first in her mathematics exam, beating all the other male students; needless to say, the university was stumped as to what they could do. Seeing the college was a sobering reminder of how little time has really passed since the days when a woman getting the kind of education we take for granted was considered pointless.

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The outside of Newnham College. Ladies only, please.

Grim, but true. Cambridge was a real eye-opener, and well worth the hour and a half train ride to get there. And, finally, while on the subject of trains, I’d like to discuss the train wreck that was…

London, Day 5: Hardly Complimentary, My Dear Watson

Our last day in London did not end well. In preparation for our foray into continental Europe (surely there will be snow, there will be blizzards! cried the inexperienced Australians who neglected to actually check the weather forecast) we thought it would be prudent to buy warm coats and boots. Since we’ve only ever been shopping in London a few times, the only place we really thought about was Oxford Street.

Here’s a little tip when shopping on Oxford Street the day before Christmas: Don’t go. Stay home. Make little angel tree decorations out of macaroni and gold paint if you must, but just avoid it like the plague. We went the evening before and nearly got trampled to death, but decided to brave it again on our last day. A more sensible traveller would have googled less mad places to shop. We aren’t sensible.

So though we got there fairly early, it still took us about three hours of walking up and down the street before we were finally done (admittedly this has less to do with the crowds and more to do with the fact that I am notoriously indecisive when it comes to buying winter coats or, indeed, any piece of clothing larger than a handkerchief). There wasn’t all that much daylight left; after a wander around Notting Hill while rain poured down from every angle and café tables tumbled across the street in the wind, we decided to finish our day early and do one final museum. I voted for the Sherlock Holmes Museum, on (where else?) Baker St.

Unfortunately, when we got there, it looked something like this:

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The photo doesn’t show it, but the line was about four times as long and moving at a snail’s pace. ‘Shall we risk it?’ we asked ourselves. ‘Or just throw in the towel, buy dinner at M&S and go home to sleep for fifteen hours straight?’ Deciding that if there were that many people eager to see it, willing to stand in the freezing rain just to get in, it must be good.

In hindsight, the guy at the door dressed as a policeman should have been a tip-off. Always be wary of places where the employees are forced to dress up in period costume. It usually means you’re about fifteen to thirty years older than the target audience.

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The policeman is to keep the rabid fans at bay.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum is actually a series of rooms done up to look like Holmes’ sitting room and study. On upper levels creepy waxwork figures stare at you while recreating ghoulish scenes from Holmes stories. Personally, I don’t like waxwork figures. You could take the most genial, amusing, lovable person and render them in wax – they’d still come out looking like a serial killer. Something about the hard skin and glassy eyes makes you want to run away and hide behind the nearest sofa.

Overall, the Museum was a huge disappointment. If there had been fewer people and more interesting exhibits – perhaps about Doyle’s life and the publication of the Holmes stories – it might have been better. As it was you were constantly vying for elbow space so you could snap a few pictures of the cluttered rooms and feel like you got your overly priced ticket’s worth.

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It’s a bit of a disappointing note to end our trip to London on, but despite the one setback everything else we saw on this trip was amazing. Honourable mentions go out to the London Walks tour of St Alban’s, The British Museum, and the colleges in Cambridge I didn’t even have time to touch on. It all made us warm up to the Christmas spirit, as well as making us feel cultured and well-rounded. Not a bad result, all things considered.

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2 thoughts on “Lit Major Abroad: London Calling (Only We Keep Getting Disconnected)

    • Thanks, Lee-Anne! I was a little disappointed that a lot of these places didn’t allow photography, but when you look at some of the centuries-old manuscripts in the British Museum, you begin to understand why. The Alice manuscript was one of my favourites – you could tell it had been painstakingly done by hand.

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