As with most days here, this afternoon I headed for the Tube with the intention of going for a long, wandering trek around London. I wasn’t sure where I’d go; I figured I’d decide on the train. I walked down the road past the station to a little bakery around the corner and grabbed a croissant and stuffed it into my camera bag. The blue eyed blonde Polish girl wasn’t working today. I crossed back to the station, pulled out my Oyster card and set it against the sensor. The light went red, the gate didn’t open and “SEEK ASSISTANCE” lit up on the display.
Twenty four pounds (and twenty pence) later I had a renewed weekly travel pass. It’s essential to have this in London if you are aimlessly traveling because you can hop-on, hop-off anywhere without ever having to worry about the fares and how much money you have left on your card or in your pocket. Still, for my simple TTC inspired ways the price is a major sticker shock. Then again, the London Tube is refreshingly free of TTC Union assjacks and it’s worth paying more for that privilege.
On the Jubilee Line, somewhere near Baker Street, I decided that I would get off at London Bridge and venture eastward along the Thames. The farthest I had been along in this direction was the Design Museum a block east of Tower Bridge, where the throngs of tourists start to thin. Many people are quick to point out that galleries and museums in London have free admission but if you want to see anything remotely contemporary or non-institutional–and you’ve already been to the TATE Modern–then you have to pay. This is true for the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Hayward Gallery and the Embankment Gallery (in the Somerset House) and, of course, the Design Museum.
I’m unsure if this is true for the Whitechapel Gallery. I ventured out into urine-smelling Aldgate last weekend to see it only to discover that it’s undergoing renovations and won’t be fully open until 2009. The auditorium was open, showing a film shot in an abattoir, and there were a few scattered locations showing stuff around the neighbourhood but after going to one space on Bell Lane and seeing nothing but a cardboard box, I skipped most of them. Granted, it was a very large cardboard box and the lady there tried to tell me about the artist’s motivations and inspirations for the work but, still, it was a cardboard box. That trip was a complete bust.
The area east of the Design Museum, along the Thames Path, is quite nice and suitably quiet. After you pass the last tourist and the last riverside restaurant and pub you enter a meandering path of riverside walks and silent side streets that takes you through miles of wharf lands. Amongst many others, there’s the Chambers Wharf, the Hope Wharf, the Ivory Wharf, the Canada Wharf, the Lavender Wharf and so on. Some of them sit there, decaying. Most have been converted into residential spaces, studios, pubs or an mixture of all the above. On the other side of the narrow streets upon which they sit are row houses, apartments, manors and all sorts of quiet residences. The traffic here was non existent, the pedestrians few and, refreshingly, no tourists to be seen except yours truly. To experience a city you have to go through these kinds of areas.
After a while I sat down on a bench overlooking the Docklands, the steel and glass skyscraper new city development, across the river. I ate the croissant I bought earlier while I watched planes fly by towards one of the many London airports. The Docklands is the most un-London-like part of the city. It’s overly planned, commercial, full of chain restaurants and retailers and it all has little character because of it. It mostly reminds me of North American cities and makes me homesick, to a small degree, for the small town charms of Toronto.
Several side streets and pathways later I found myself near Surrey Docks and the Greenland Lock, where I was crossing the road as a blue car approached from my left. “Excuse me.” A grey haired woman was sticking her head out of the car’s window as it rolled to a stop in front of me. She spoke with that old English woman accent.
“Excuse me, do you know where I can find the Wibbly Wobbly?”
In a self-conscious-of-my-Canadian-accent manner, I replied that “I have no idea.” She smiled, said “alright” and drove off.
I finished crossing the street and was shortly riverside again. In the corner there, next to the lock, a shirtless fat man was fishing. I continued down the path and, once I was at a point where he was no longer visible, I sat down on a piece of marble street furniture. I stayed there for fifteen minutes, dumbfounded, wondering what the hell the “Wibbly Wobbly” could be. I am, truly, in Britain.