Guest post by Russ Viola. Edited by Anita.
I remember arriving in London, as a young backpacker, off to see the world for the first time. After my initial bewilderment, I got out of the city ASAP and spent my three “English” weeks near Stonehenge, in Salisbury. I day-tripped to Stonehenge repeatedly, as well as, Sherwood Forest, Glastonbury, Avebury and Silbury Hill. One night, I even climbed into a gigantic hallowed out tree stump in Sherwood and spent the night. I swear I had an encounter with the spirit of “Robin in the Hood” in the wee hours of morning twilight. But that is a story for another time.
Many years later, a much older, but not necessarily wiser, Russ lived and worked in London, specifically, the borough of Harrow, for a little over two years. The experiences of commuting to work on the Tube, pop-up stores, street performance art, museums, the constant motion, the ebb, flow and press of so many people could often be humbling, frustrating, maddening, and awe inspiring, largely depending on my state of mind.
I saw a lot more of the city when I lived there, compared to my backpacking days. This is a list of my top ten experiences in the order of most to least important. This list will be a conglomeration of my experiences on the island as a young man and an older one. For this reason, it will not be limited to the city of London.
1. “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king…”
When you go to London, you must go to the Globe Theatre. I’ve been three times. I took my Mom when she came to visit. If we had stayed longer, I would have become a regular patron and got season tickets. They’ve rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe as it looked originally, right on the Thames (pronounced ‘tems’). These actors are not mic’ed, and there is no sound system. The whole delivery of the play is through the acoustics of the building. Hence, the theatre crowd is remarkably quiet, as everyone is enthralled by the play. If you can catch a play…any play…the experience is 100% worth it. If you can’t catch a play, at least take a tour of the Globe. And you’ll be right on the Thames within easy reach of great restaurants, like The Swan; and walking along this river is so romantic and beautiful…it’s a win-win. I’m not a big theater guy, but this experience is not to be missed.
2. “Anál nathrach, orth’ bháis’s bethad, do chél dénmha.”
My first trip through the UK, I spent a bit of time in Glastonbury and its monumental Tor. The town is refreshingly hippie and new age without being too commercial. The magical springs and greenery everywhere leave a “Lady of the Lake” fingerprint on everything. Seriously, the well at Glastonbury is magical and you can drink the water. Just writing about Glastonbury makes me want to go back and fall asleep on her green hills.
Stonehenge is one of only two A-list sites I’ll talk about. What I can say here, this is my list, and if I’m near Stonehenge, you can damn well bet, I’m going to go and cast some spells. Remind me later to tell you about the time I broke in and did a right proper ritual.
4. Portobello Market
A day of souvenir buying or window shopping and noshing is a must. Open every day of the week, but busiest and filled with the most vendors on the weekends, Portobello Market is “the place” to pick up that perfect souvenir. We spent a few lazy Sundays wandering the nearly endless vendor stalls and eating street food here. London has a lot of great areas to do this. I think this is the best one. If I want a souvenir that screams “original”, I go here.
5. Catching some tunes and hip vibes in Camden
If Janis Joplin had created a London Borough, it would be Camden. This is a hip, boho little borough filled with cool shops, cafes and music. The Roundhouse is an excellent little concert hall usually hosting some really awesome headliners. I went to see Mumford and Sons here. A concert at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, after some wandering and noshing in Camden, is a must-have London experience.
The place where the magic happened! A tour of this Warner Bros. Studio gets you into and onto all the actual sets where the Harry Potter films were shot. This is the only place you can go to walk through the actual Great Room at Hogwarts. You’ll see Dumbledore’s study, the huge swinging pendulum, the potions classroom, as well as, the door to the Secret Chamber and the Night Bus. Oh, and butter beer! I’m not a ‘Potterite’, but I still had a blast here.
7. Museums “Ferris Bueller” Style
My two favorite museums are the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum. During my trip through the National Portrait Gallery, I was definitely thinking about Bueller and his peeps and the museum they went through. It was very intense.
This cute little English town is quite literally in the center of a gigantic stone circle complex. While at Stonehenge, you can only view the stones from afar. In Avebury, you can hug them. This alone makes it worth the trip. On top of that, it’s a cute little town with some decent pub grub, making it easy to make a day of it.
9. The Nobel Knights take their Rest
Temple Church is a little round church, showcasing burial stones of long-deceased templars, which have featured in just about every action adventure movie I’ve seen since childhood. The space is surprisingly small and very peaceful. I’m glad I went and I felt better for it, in some subtle way.
10. “Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore…”
The ravens at the Tower of London speak, if you listen carefully. And, while you’re there, you can ogle at the Queen’s Jewels…it’s some mad bling. This is the second A-list site I’ll talk about. It is said that the kingdom and the Tower of London will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. I love ravens. I would definitely recommend making the trek through camera clutching, gawking tourists to see these guys. The genius loci of this place is thick.
The Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street.
Jack the Ripper Tour: If you’re into the exploits of the Ripper…getting a guided tour around London, with a graphic recounting of each victim is quite the experience. My mother, surprisingly, enjoyed the hell out this tour.