A courtroom might not be an ideal location for a fairytale wedding, but a yearlong sabbatical from work is definitely the stuff dreams are made of.
My very able, recently converted-to-student-hood husband had promised me that after the hasty court proceedings I was to accompany him as a dependent while he finished his MBA. The icing on the cake was that we were to spend an entire semester in the city of London, England.
Our budget was tight, but my excitement to explore the city with my childhood friend-turned-life-partner more than made up for it. I must add that London was not just another city—it was the city. We had grown up reading literature that was born in London. The Globe of Shakespearean plays, the streets of Dickensian England, the sinister fog that enwrapped many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries, the awkward charm of Bertie Wooster—the list can go on and on.
London lived in my bookshelves for years. Now I was going to actually live in it!
We were being hosted by my husband’s wonderful cousin. This meant we were blessed with family and local guides in a new city, and that our shoestring student budget was getting some relief. The only flipside was that we were stationed in Zone 5 and my husband needed to travel to central London, Zone 1, each day for classes. London is divided into six main zones, and though well connected by public transport we had long hours of travel ahead of us.
I planned my London exploration first in and around my husband’s business school. It would make sense to leave home with him and explore around while he played the diligent student. At 7 a.m. one morning, as we got off the London tube, my still sleepy eyes were greeted with the classic silhouette of our favourite detective on the tube station. We were at Baker Street, and Sherlock Holmes pretty much ruled it.
Outside the station stood the statue of the famed fictional detective, with his infamous pipe, smoking out the grey skies. I turned to look at my husband.
“I have a feeling I am going to be spending a lot of time around your school,” I said.
For a couple who had started bonding over exchanging The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlett, London at seven in the morning easily transports you back in time—this was the best wedding gift from the city.
We walked by the Sherlock Holmes Museum and took turns photographing each other outside the famous door. In the days to follow, I was to realize the stroke of luck the early hour brought to us, as we managed to avoid serpentine lines of tourists that generally grace the place designated as 221B Baker Street at more civil hours.
Baker Street plays a good host to fans of the detective. You can visit the museum, which recreates his study and Dr. Watson’s room, along with other elements from Conan Doyle’s books. A room was even dedicated to the wax figures of his most notorious foes and crime scenes.
At the time, when the stories of the detective were first published in the late 1800s, Baker Street did not have a 221B. Well, technically, there still is no 221B—the museum is actually located at 239 Baker Street, though municipal authorities allow the museum to display the fictitious address.
And today that address and its resident means real business. You can walk into neighbourhood stores and pick up memorabilia from magnets to T-shirts, or just a good book on or about the character himself. We picked a few during our stay; my favourite was the one that explored the real London during the era of the books. You can also pick up a deerstalker cap, or inverness cape, or simply dine in one of the neighbouring cafés.
If you love English authors, I also highly recommend reading them—or rereading them!—in one of London’s public spaces. Take the book outdoors, and London will add another dimension to your reading experience. I discovered London’s legendary Royal Parks—there are eight of them, they are quite grand, and feature largely in English literature.
It’s quite an experience to “park” yourself on one of their many benches, and to delve into a book that features the city. Time travel to the sights, sounds and smells that the writers must have experienced on a daily basis. To get hooked on Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, where around the corner stands the statue of J.M. Barrie’s favourite boy, was a never-before experience. I happily allowed the tick-tock crocodile to swallow up my entire day.
At Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, I read aloud one of George Orwell’s essays—no, this one I just made up! But it would have been an interesting thing to do, don’t you think?
I reread Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Regent’s Park. I know Lewis Carroll has no apparent connection with the park, but I liked the park and the book. To be in Wonderland with swans, geese and herons all around, is the real deal. At one point I felt like I was shrinking, only to realize it was just the winter chill.
Of course, these parks have a lot to offer, even if you choose not to be a bookworm. Most of them have lakes where you can take a boat out during the summer months, a wide range of flora and fauna, and fresh breezes. Regent’s Park also has the London Zoo and my favourite place of all, Primrose Hill, on the northern end. It provides a panoramic view of the London skyline.
Parks are also a great way of observing Londoners. Joggers and dog walkers, bicyclists and pedestrians, from people who grew up with the books of Enid Blyton to the generation that swears by the works of J.K. Rowling, you will meet them all.
Walking through London also is a little treasure hunt for the artistically inclined. Buildings and homes are marked with the glories of their former inhabitants. Look out for the blue plaques commemorating writers, painters and actors, among many others.
My husband and I spent quite some time in the small lanes of Mayfair, before we successfully completed our pilgrimage to the home of P.G. Wodehouse. My husband is his biggest fan, and finding the abode of the master of wit and humour brought him immense happiness. In the world of Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster would attribute his valet Jeeves’s solution-finding abilities to a deep interest in the works of Dutch philosopher Spinoza—and to eating lots of fish. In celebration of our little scouting that day, we tried to honour the tradition. Not that my sleep-deprived husband studied Spinoza; we just dined on fish!
Through our stay, the literary gods were very kind and even played our invisible guides. It wasn’t just on Baker Street where our London travel crossed literary aisles. We would frequently change trains at Paddington Station—the name is synonymous with the cuddly fumbling bear “from deepest darkest Peru.” We even spent our first Valentine’s Day as Mr. and Mrs. watching the antics of Paddington on YouTube while heading into the station that “bears” his name.
On our way back, my husband did the cutest thing by buying me a stuffed toy of the little bear in the blue coat. Such mush and romance from the love of my life was totally unexpected. He generally—and vehemently—opposes the commercialization of love and other things. My best guess on his change of stance is either that the hard stare of the bear really works, or London charmed him more than he would care to admit.
A large part of our London library tour (as we like to call it) was purely accidental, like the chance visit to King’s Cross Railway Station to receive a friend, where Platform 9¾ of Harry Potter fame almost appeared magically in front of me. (A tip for Muggles: please plan it better, as lines of people trying their luck at 9¾ are long, and no amount of wizardry can compensate for factoring in the waiting time.)
“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” the Bard once questioned.
From the day we arrived in London the city was more than kind to us—but our appetite was growing. We had the good fortune of being there for the 400th-anniversary celebrations of the death of Shakespeare, and so experienced the legacy of the Bard of Avon in more ways than one.
Festivities took place all over the city—plays, adaptations and exhibitions. We sampled some to our great relish. A sightseeing excursion to Windsor Castle led us to the display of a rare First Folio. We ended up spending more time in the Shakespeare exhibition than in the castle’s magnificent state apartments, even witnessed the London theatre scene with a modern adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that featured a live rock band on stage.
Yet the real feast happened when we reached London Bridge Station and made our way to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The original Elizabethan playhouse of 1599, where William Shakespeare staged his plays, is long gone of course. Yet its current incarnation is not only very close to the original site, it’s also closely modelled on the original structure. The brainchild and lifelong project of the American actor/director Sam Wanamaker, who made London home in the 1950s after being blacklisted in Hollywood during that infamous time in America, it is the only existing thatched-roof structure in the city today and takes you back to a bygone era.
As it was still winter, no performances were being held (summer is its season). But a new production was rehearsing and we were allowed to take a guided tour. Despite a student discount it seemed steeply priced, and we fought the eternal battle of student life—“to spend, or not to spend”—before willingly giving in.
Once inside we did not regret the decision. Wood, mud and hay married with a state-of-the-art sound system, safety harnesses and a modern backstage, it was a beautiful amalgamation of old and new. We were also lucky to get glimpses of the rehearsals in between a well-guided lesson in history, when plays were often heard more than seen—that is, when words were enough to transport audiences to the streets of Venice (The Merchant of Venice) and the castles of Denmark (Hamlet), and plays were staged with few or no props.
It’s amazing in how many ways Shakespeare’s works touched and continue to touch lives, even today. It should be of no surprise, therefore, that we ended up emptying what remained in our pockets at the Globe’s gift shop after the tour.
Once outside, it took some time for us to get back to the present, as we walked past street artists performing against the backdrop of the River Thames and majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral, which stood on the other side of the river.
Being in London was surreal. From Big Ben to Tower Bridge, museums and theatres, even a walk along Regent’s Canal, everything linked us back to our childhood—some to lessons in school, others to nursery rhymes in kindergarten.
The winter of 2016 will always be very special for me and my husband. It was a few months before Brexit, and 69 years after Great Britain had exited my own home country of India. Yet here lies the power of the written word that it can outlive an empire: two young people from an idyllic town nestled in the Himalayas felt connected to a land far, far away.
London felt like home, and at the end of four months when we had to leave, it wasn’t easy.
Walking around St. Paul’s Cathedral we came to know that the poet John Donne was laid to rest there. He too was part of poetry lessons in school, and our own goodbye to London rings in his words:
Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hope the world can show
A fitter love for me.
Till we meet again, my dear London, keep inspiring the written world.