The Painted Hall

SGMT | Painted Hall, London
SGMT Fb London reflecting mirror

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Exactly a year ago, at the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, London.

It was our first day out and about in London. Our friends had asked us where we wanted to go and we’d said we’d like to see their favorite places in town, so Adam took us to Greenwich. The Painted Hall was one of our first stops. Originally conceived by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor as a dining hall for naval pensioners, the Painted Hall has since been described as “the Sistine Chapel of the UK,” and its painted walls and ceilings by Sir James Thornhill are indeed a sight to behold. Mirrors, such as the one pictured above, are strategically placed around the building, enabling visitors to examine Thornhill’s masterpiece without having to keep their necks in perpetual hyperextension.

Fast forward a year later. I haven’t traveled overseas in a while — and I haven’t written much lately either. There’s just been so many things going on, responsibilities, old and new. Travel while you’re young, they say; travel while you can, before life’s commitments start weighing you down. But oddly enough, I don’t feel chained by my responsibilities at all. In a way, I’m glad that there’s more to my life than just me, than just what I want. I’ve said travel is the food of my soul, and it still is, and it always will be, but now my spirit draws sustenance from many other things too. And just like a simple dining hall can end up being a grand work of art, the little things in life, if you pour your heart and soul into them, can turn out to be a greater adventure and give you greater joy than any trip in the world.

Mirror

Finding yourself (and sucking it up) on the road

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Travel doesn’t just show you the world; the best kind of travel also shows you yourself.

Portnalong_LSS_Northloom

By that standard alone, I may have just had the trip of my life. On my recent sojourn to England and Scotland, I learned many things about myself, some of them trivial, and some a bit uncomfortable to accept or difficult to acknowledge. Things could change — we’re all a work in progress — but here are some of the realizations I had:

I’m just not a museum person. Just. Not. I realized this when my friends and sister and I were at Trafalgar Square — they were going inside the National Gallery when I said, “I think I’ll just hang out here by the fountain.” And one of them said disbelievingly, “You don’t want to see a Van Gogh?” I shrugged and said, “Well, I’ve already been to the Van Gogh Museum…” Which is true, and the VGM was probably the only museum I truly felt a connection with. But the truth is, right then and there, I liked staying outside. I would rather stay outside. I can soak up more joy and energy and inspiration from sunlight and water and strangers doing their thing than from an entire museum full of masterpieces. My heart swells bigger from watching a brightly colored wildflower by the roadside than from examining an utterly brilliant painting of that same flower by, say, Monet.

In “My top 9 travel tips” Paulo Coelho wrote: “Avoid museums. This might seem to be absurd advice, but let’s just think about it a little: if you are in a foreign city, isn’t it far more interesting to go in search of the present than of the past?” As I’m not really a Paulo Coelho fan, it feels kind of opportunist to be quoting him in support of my indifference towards museums, but as far as I’m concerned he hits that particular nail on the head.

But I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to museums — far from it. If you are a museum person, then I think you should go. Absolutely: go. You definitely shouldn’t not go to a museum just because of what Paulo Coelho thinks. If you’re really interested in something, or even if you just feel like doing it for no particular reason, then you should pursue it no matter how others feel about it or what they may think of you. I think the bottom line here is that people are different — we have different tastes, we are inspired by different things — and what’s important is to respect that difference. I’m not a museum person, and maybe that makes me a bit of a bumpkin, but that’s fine. There are worse things to be.

I am less obsessive-compulsive than I used to be. Well, duh, I missed two trains! I’ve never ever done that before. And the Seven Sisters in Sussex was to have been my One Place — somewhere I’d go that nobody I knew had ever gone before. I missed the train by a few minutes and on-the-day tickets were too expensive (nearly £30 to replace a ticket I’d bought advance for £5!) so I gave it up as a bad job. The funny thing is — further proof that I’m no longer so OC — I wasn’t even upset about it. Okay, at some point, I was praying so hard that we would make it. But when the time came and I realized there was no way we were getting on that train, I actually thought, “Oh, yay, a free day.” And we went to Hampstead Heath instead, which I loved. So that ended well.

The lesson here could be not to buy Advance tickets, but they are so much cheaper than Off-peak or Anytime, I think I’m just gonna take the risk again next time and simply improve my time management. 😀 I think the real lesson is that you can’t always choose what happens to you but you can choose how to react to it. I think I’ve been more cool about stuff since I learned the very important life lesson that s–t happens no matter how much you try to do the right things and to do things right. So many things are beyond our control and there are much bigger problems in the world. Obviously, if something major happens, I’m going to get upset about it, I’m not a robot. But a missed train, heck even two missed trains, less than £100 wasted and, more importantly, nothing I can do about it? I could spend an entire day upset — add that to my losses — or I could shrug and say, well, s–t happens. Let’s go to Hampstead Heath.

I just can’t handle alcohol. And, no, I don’t mean I easily get drunk and do stupid things. On the contrary, I never get drunk because I could never get myself to like alcohol. I don’t have a moral objection to it — Jesus drank wine, didn’t he — and I know a reasonable quantity of red will do my health worlds of good. But, I don’t know, I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. And I’ve tried, I swear, but I could never get past the first sip. For me, it’s like learning to eat okra. I suppose I could really try, if it was the only thing left in the world, but otherwise: ugh.

And I’ve tried to think of excuses to escape drinking: I’m pregnant (rotten idea). I’m allergic to alcohol (can be easily disproved). I’m a recovering alcoholic (not very good for my reputation). Even if I could come up with a good excuse, there’s still another problem: I’m about as good at lying as I am at drinking alcohol.

Which is all really unfortunate as I was in Scotland. Scotland, for the love of God. Faced with the ordeal of drinking alcohol versus the ungraciousness and uncoolness of declining a drink from a cute guy, I actually chose the latter. It was embarrassing. I think the only thing that saved me was that I acknowledged several times that I was a loser. 😀 But let me get all John Lennon-y for a second and say: imagine a world where you can drink your wine or whisky and I can drink juice. That’s not very hard to imagine, is it? It’s easy if you try…

Trivial stuff:

  • My clumsiness finally found its match: Timberlands. Hurray for never slipping, sliding or stumbling once in two weeks! While camping once, my friends actually gave me a certificate proclaiming me “Disaster Queen” because there was no patch of mud I would not fall in, so an accident-free two weeks is quite an achievement for me.
  • I just can’t be bothered to wear makeup. I have tinted lip gloss but that’s about all I have the patience for. I actually brought two lipsticks with me — I figured if I’m going to start wearing makeup, it might as well be in London — and I used none of them.
  • I’m a cheapskate but I would willingly spend on the Caledonian Sleeper again. Best. Sleeper Experience. Ever.
  • I am immune to James Reid and Enrique Gil and Coco Martin.
  • I’m a sucker for tall guys with broad shoulders in church. (Well, they don’t have to be in church but…)
  • I’m a hopeless dreamer.

What have you learned about yourself from your recent travels?

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Finding Yourself (And Sucking It Up) On The Road | © Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

The London List

There are so many things to see and do in London that doing research on them tends to turn rather quickly into travel planning quicksand. The secret, they say, is to not even try to do everything in one visit. This list is less about ticking off the “must-sees” and more about immersion — trying to live like a frugal local, experiencing time-honored traditions, and indulging in personal whimsies (like seeing MI6 and Scotland Yard headquarters, just because!).

Parks

Hampstead Heath‘s magnificent views of the London cityscape, coupled with extensive grassland and ancient woodland, has everyone singing its praises.

Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath | VisitLondon.com

Hyde Park, considered one of the greatest city parks in the world, is centrally located and boasts magnificent trees, a royal palace, and a chance to go boating. Also, the beautiful Kensington Palace and Kensington Gardens are right next door.

VisitLondon.com

Hyde Park | VisitLondon.com

Richmond Park is “home to 650 deer” and has a “pastoral landscape of hills and woodlands set amongst ancient trees, with plants, animals and butterflies.” (Visit London)

Richmond Park | Airwolfhound / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Richmond Park | Airwolfhound / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Bushy Park is a “parkland with grassland, ancient trees, woodlands, ponds and streams” that is “home to around 320 free-roaming deer.” (Visit London)

Bushy Park | VisitLondon.com

Bushy Park | VisitLondon.com

Markets / Shopping

Borough Market, a gourmet food market with numerous stalls selling meat, cheese, bread, coffee, cakes and other prime eats, has become a little too crowded and touristy in recent years but is still probably worth a visit nonetheless.

Borough Market | travelstay.com

Borough Market | travelstay.com

Maltby Street Market is a less-known, cozier version of Borough Market and is beloved by locals.

Maltby Street Market | Graham Jepson / homesandproperty.co.uk

Maltby Street Market | Graham Jepson / homesandproperty.co.uk

Portobello Road Market — antiques, secondhand clothes, and whatnot.

Portobello Road Market | Cristian Bortes / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Portobello Road Market | Cristian Bortes / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Camden Markets — bric-à-brac, food, clothes, and, yes, whatnot.

Camden Market | Misterzee / CC-BY-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Camden Market | Misterzee / CC-BY-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Primark, a well-known budget department store, had seriously good wares in Zaandam — to be honest, it was one of the highlights of my Amsterdam trip — and I really want to visit the London branch, as this may be the only store in London where I can afford to buy something. (Or maybe not even?)

Primark | VisitLondon.com

Primark | VisitLondon.com

Fiction in Real Life

221B Baker Street — home of the greatest detective that ever lived.

221B Baker Street | Cezary p / CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 / Wikimedia Commons

221B Baker Street | Cezary p / CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 / Wikimedia Commons

King’s Cross Platform 9 ¾ — the closest us Muggles can get to Hogwarts.

Platform 9 3/4 | Bert Seghers / Wikimedia Commons

Platform 9 3/4 | Bert Seghers / Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge Circus — the intersection that lent its name to John Le Carré’s fictional nickname for MI6.

Cambridge Circus | Stephen McKay / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Cambridge Circus | Stephen McKay / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

MI6 — actually, the Secret Intelligence Service — headquarters is at Vauxhall Cross, a mile or so from Big Ben down the Thames, and is known as “Legoland” or “Babylon-on-Thames” for not-so-secret reasons.

SIS HQ | Peter Trimming / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

SIS HQ | Peter Trimming / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Scotland Yard — that is, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service — is now known as New Scotland Yard, after the Met moved from its headquarters’ previous location, which was known as Great Scotland Yard. In 2015, the headquarters will move to another location on the Victoria Embankment, where it will then be known as just Scotland Yard, and the current New Scotland Yard will, I guess, be known as the old Scotland Yard. #It’sComplicated. Trivia: New Scotland Yard houses the Met’s crime database that “uses a national computer system developed for major crime enquiries by all British forces, called Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, more commonly referred to by its acronym HOLMES.”

Scotland Yard | ChrisO / Wikimedia Commons

Scotland Yard | ChrisO / Wikimedia Commons

Churches

Westminster Abbey
The site of royal coronations, funerals, and weddings, including that of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Admission £18. Free to attend services.

Westminster Abbey | Wikimedia Commons

Westminster Abbey | Wikimedia Commons

St. Paul’s Cathedral
The old cathedral was burned down during the Great Fire of London and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Filming and photography is not allowed inside the cathedral. Admission £16.50.

St. Paul's Cathedral | jedyooo / Wikimedia Commons

St. Paul’s Cathedral | jedyooo / Wikimedia Commons

Landmarks

These attractions are so iconic, they don’t really need further description.

London Eye
Admission (standard ticket) £20.95 (£17.96 if booked online)

London Eye | Lee Kindness / I, Wangi / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

London Eye | Lee Kindness / I, Wangi / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Big Ben

Big Ben | Karrackoo / GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Big Ben | Karrackoo / GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Tower Bridge
Admission £8

Tower Bridge | Myrabella / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Tower Bridge | Myrabella / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Tower of London
Admission £20 (with voluntary donation: £22 / £20.90 if booked online)

Tower of London | IncMan / CC-BY-SA-2.0 and GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Tower of London | IncMan / CC-BY-SA-2.0 and GFDL / Wikimedia Commons

Museums

At the risk of sounding like a hick, I’ll go ahead and admit it: I’m not a museum person. I’ve been to a number of them and genuinely enjoyed the experience but I usually don’t have the attention span required to fully appreciate everything inside. That said, museums are weatherproof and many London museums are free! Here’s a quick list:

  • National Gallery — Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, Claude Monet’s The Water Lily Pond, Johannes Vermeer’s Lady Seated at a Virginal, Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers and A Wheatfield with Cypresses
  • British Museum — Round Reading Room, Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles
  • Tate Modern — Monet, Picasso, Dali, Warhol
  • Victoria & Albert — “The greatest museum of applied arts in the world”
British Museum | Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

British Museum | Andrew Dunn, http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Other items in my personal London bucket list

  1. See the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace (or Windsor Castle).
  2. Join a free tour by the Yeoman Warders (known as Beefeaters) and attend the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.
  3. Walk along Regent’s Canal.
  4. Have high tea at the Ritz and/or buy food/stuff from Fortnum and Mason. (But, um, I have to check if I can afford it. Which means I probably can’t?)
  5. Listen to a free lunchtime concert in St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.
Ceremony of the Keys | SpitalfieldsLife.com

Ceremony of the Keys | SpitalfieldsLife.com

Day trips to consider

  • Rye
  • Oxford
  • Bath
  • Windsor & Eton
  • Brighton
  • Canterbury
  • Dover Castle

I’m pretty sure this list hasn’t covered even half of the sights worth seeing and things worth doing in London. For a traveler with limited time and an even more limited budget, though, this will probably have to do. (In fact, for the same reasons, I don’t intend to go up the London Eye or go inside St. Paul’s or the Tower Bridge. I’m just going to take a look at them and — alright, I admit it — take the requisite selfie.) Do you have a personal favorite that hasn’t been included here? Let me know what and why in the comments section.

Next up: let’s try looking for accommodations. Couchsurf at Buckingham Palace — ah, there’s one for the bucket list.

The London List” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.