“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”
Rose D. Kaye
For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.
‘Delays and Clouds’
A chilly start to our first Saturday in England and a late start as well. Ten o’clock came and we finally rolled out of bed staggering to the kitchen for a light breakfast. I checked my email account for any messages from my blogger friend Jo. We had planned to meet today, but her father was being placed in hospice instead and was not expected to last the weekend. She still wanted to meet the following Saturday and I felt sad that there was nothing more I could do for her and her family. I also contacted another friend Rethabile about meeting in Paris, although it appeared Tara would be unable to meet with us there. They were the only two bloggers I personally knew in Paris although an overnight stay doesn’t offer much time to meet in any case. For me, these meetings were actually what I looked forward to the most and all the meetings greatly exceeded my expectations.
By half eleven we were finally dressed and ready to go and Ann escorted us on a brisk fifteen minute walk to the nearest Tube station. Besides a couple of pubs and a few businesses, most of the area along the walk was residential. One thing that hadn’t changed since Brian and Diane had been here last was that cars would stop for you at the zebra crossings. It was an effort to look to the right first for oncoming traffic and all intersections were circles of some kind. Some of the circles were roundabouts controlled by traffic lights and these took several sections to navigate on foot. Being Saturday the traffic was light and the fresh air chased away any lingering malaise. Every day before heading out we always checked the London Transit website for any problems on the system. I cannot stress enough the importance of utilizing the website every time you intend to use London Transit. Don’t get caught out by delays that proper planning can easily avoid. The Central Line was reporting signal delays today but it was only five minutes until a train arrived. There were few passengers at this outlying station and we had our choice of seats and carriage. Before we validated our Travelcards Ann gave us all big hugs and then she walked back home to rest awaiting our return later that afternoon.
Our plans for this first full day in England were to go to Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian Line. The boys (including Brian) wanted it more than Diane or I. That and they wanted to ride as many trains as possible. Little Brian and Bernard are obsessed with trains and would ride them all day long if they could. My first ride on the Central Line and then subsequent transfer to the Docklands Light Railway, revealed a very diverse blend of cultures and ethnic groups. I was quite taken with the lively interactions amongst various groups. My keen eye also quickly discerned that fashion is taken quite seriously here. Looking good is considered normal and no one I saw the entire time was overweight. Although it is impolite to stare in any culture, eye contact was not strictly off limits. I was fascinated by the many young girls; their sense of style that was trendy but not trashy.
Coming from a monochromatic white world with little cultural differences, it was instructive for me to witness people with different backgrounds and heritages meeting out in a public setting. Overheard conversations on the train included football, food and schools. Except for the names involved these could be topics discussed anywhere in the world. I’m not sure if I can get across the atmosphere I felt, but respect for fellow passengers was the norm. It’s not that the conversations were loud, in the tunnels you can’t hear anyway, but having a chat with your mates was considered normal. What is also highlighted in my mind is, despite the packed standing room only trains most of the time during our entire trip, there was very little in the way of tension or stress. Curiously enough, I never got a sense of resignation either, more like a sense of recognition that this was a part of life and there was no need to worry. Perhaps the high gas prices equivalent to eight dollars a gallon at the time played a major role in the volume of riders, but it seemed to me that the quickest way around London was to utilize mass transit.
The Docklands Light Railway is an elevated track linking various shipping docks in East London that have now been converted to business and residential districts. It reminded Brian of the Chicago ‘El’ in the way it curved snuggly around buildings with right angle turns high above street level. The entire Docklands System is orientated in a cross pattern with the center near West India Dock. The west arm ends at Bank in The City thus connecting with the rest of London while the east arm splits into two branches including the London City Airport destination. Commencing at Stratford on the northern terminus the elevated rail, after several stops at various wharves, then dives under the Thames to reach its end several stops south of Greenwich. To see the attractions in Greenwich it’s best you exit the below ground Cutty Sark station where you emerge onto a pedestrian shopping arcade that curves out of sight to the left. It takes a few minutes to get oriented, as there were no clear signs pointing in either direction. Eventually after consulting our handy folding map (another must have when traveling is a good map) we made our way to the left and found King William Walk and then headed south towards the distant trees. Our destination, Greenwich Park, was amazing. A beautiful weekend day with temperatures in the mid-fifties and mostly sunny skies brought out the play in the locals. Walkers, runners and cyclists of all ages occupied the many paths crossing this 183-acre expanse and families were everywhere enjoying their time together. Perhaps an unscientific sampling, but the sense of fun and adventure was very much more noticeable as in stark contrast to the States.
I believe because I am a multiple personality and nearly always in the background, I tend to notice the way people interact. Londoners are brisk but not brusque. They will acknowledge you and go about their business. They do however accept a loss of privacy and civil rights to a degree that many in America would find uncomfortable and intrusive. This however seems to be the way the entire world is trending, as many prefer the illusion of safety instead of the exercise of personal freedom. Yet I also became aware of the fixation towards the crime rate in Britain. Every day the media would trumpet a new stat about knife and gun violence. The perception among the locals seems to be that crime is rampant and many houses are gated and most have alarms. The police seem to rely on CCTV rather than patrols, because we never saw a police officer walking a beat or even driving through a neighborhood. Despite constant entreaties by the London Underground staff to ‘report anything suspicious to a member of the police’, in the eight days and over sixteen hours of riding the Tube, we never once saw a uniformed officer.
Greenwich Central Market was very interesting. A shopping arcade filled with booths from Thursday to Sunday selling all sorts of gifts and crafts. Reasonable prices on the majority of goods and Diane found a crafter selling handmade greeting cards and gifts. She bought several after exclaiming how inexpensive they were compared to the high quality and creativity to which the seller ruefully replied, ‘That’s Greenwich’ the implication being that she could charge more elsewhere. Nothing else caught our eye and it was apparent that the throng of shoppers on the sidewalks agreed. Only the restaurants were full, a theme to be repeated constantly throughout our stay and few people were carrying purchases. Despite the lack of commerce the stores were not offering any sales or discounts.
Overall Greenwich left me with the impression of being middle-aged. There was a sense of quiet satisfaction and pride in the solid stone blocked buildings built for the trade and for the advancement of science. There was, in truth, very little in the way of promotion or hype. Only small signs atop black lampposts guided you to the major sights. I would have thought the Prime Meridian Line was worthy of more notice, instead of just being an understated and dignified low-key exhibit at the Old Royal Observatory. Perhaps I have been jaded by the theme park atmosphere at even the most mundane of tourist attractions in America, but straddling the line between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres brought home to me the past glory of the English Empire in a way that no amount of flashing lights or thrill rides ever could. The panoramic view from the heights at the Observatory was spectacular. The crystal clear blue sky bathed the buildings of London to the north of the Thames. From the Millennium Dome to the east, the eye was drawn west and down to the Queen’s Palace at the base of Greenwich Park and then up. Up to the University of Greenwich and Greenwich Hospital and jumping back across the river to the compact skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. Still a poor area despite the rampant development, the Isle of Dogs has a long history of commerce. Continuing west you see The City buildings before the river curves out of sight.
I hadn’t realized when I’d written ‘The World Is Made Of Paper’ that my very first day in London would show the very proof of my essay. When the shipping had gone away and the docks closed; left behind were the laborers with no way out. The fiercely insular and independent communities that had grown with each new dock constructed had no recourse once they all closed. To help alleviate the deep poverty and spur new commerce, The London Dockland Development Corporation controlled the overall plan from 1981-1998 and laid the foundations for much of the new growth. Dogged by controversy from the beginning, it is an inescapable fact that the sight of luxury high-rises next to dilapidated estate housing shows that this remains one of the poorest parts of England.
So what did I learn from my first day in London? I learned that a tourist floats through side by side with the ordinary daily lives of citizens. With but not part of the local culture. The clothing, the language, the cultural stamp; what stands out the most are the stark differences in terms of attitudes and lifestyles. No matter your own personal beliefs, as a tourist you are most drawn to the priorities chosen marking the soul of a society and creating the particular social compact. That compact has flaws, as all countries have when dealing with the complex issues of social programs.
“An excellent chapter Rose, well thought out and filled with interesting tidbits. What stands out to me the most is your description of Greenwich as ‘being middle-aged’. What exactly do you mean by that phrase?”
“Nowhere in London and certainly throughout Great Britain as well can you escape the past Dewy. This is an ancient island and humans have subjugated the deep bones of the very earth. Yet here in Greenwich despite the long history and travails, to me, the town felt satisfied, the comfortable and well-off residents enjoying the fruits of their labors in middle-age.”
“You sound disappointed Rose that Greenwich wasn’t more historical and less commercial. Was this part of the unease you felt before you left?”
“I didn’t think it was commercial Dewy, only that my impression was that the material goods of the English Empire had created a town devoted to the enrichment of a select class of merchants. Gentlemen after all didn’t dally in ‘The Trade’ but lived off the land and property. Thus the buildings erected looked away from England and towards Europe, the Americas, India and China. Science and reason were the paths to success in trade and to the creation of new wealth.”
“That path to success would have to include the railways as well. I want to ask all of you about your impressions of the London Underground. Rose, you seem quite taken with your experiences.”
“I was Dewy. I’d done quite a bit of reading before the trip and it seemed that tourists have a much higher appreciation of the Tube than do Londoners. Having ridden it now, I can understand both feelings. I know Ann certainly has strong opinions.”
“That’s very true Rose, I don’t particularly like the Underground, even though it’s the best way to get from A to B and it’s preferable to driving into town and paying Ken Livingstone’s Congestion Charge or the exorbitant parking. Dewy, the Tube is nothing novel for me and I used to ride it day in day out when I worked in The City. I’m getting old, I don’t like being squashed up close and personal next to some smelly commuter and I need a seat and that hardly happens. I hope you all see where I’m coming from!”
“Oh I don’t know Ann. You’re not old and I loved riding the Tube.”
“Of course you did Brian, you’re all guys! Well, except for Rose, sorry dear.”
“That’s all right Ann. I like trains as well. How about you Diane?”
“I loved it too Rose, it was always entertaining and I especially loved riding underground in the tunnels. It was always a mystery seeing the next stop and whether it would be aboveground or not. The theater in the surroundings seats was brilliant and it changes at every stop.”
“Once you got to Greenwich, what did you like and not like Diane?”
“Walking up that massive hill to see the meridian line and realizing there was a handicapped route on the other side pissed me off Dewy. Plus I was not impressed at all by the metal bar in the ground; it is more for the scientific minded to enjoy. I’d have been better off staying at the bottom and enjoying the fall scenery.”
“Rose, were you able to see anything else of Greenwich that day after they finished eating?”
“After they had a picnic lunch Dewy, we walked down to the Thames and along the river walk for a short distance. On the return to the station we did our shopping at the Central Market. We didn’t go into any of the museums, I think both Brian and Diane were still feeling a bit tired and didn’t want to overload on the first day. Anything else you want to add Brian or Diane?”
“It’s very true Rose, Diane and I were a bit weary. We never did adjust to the time difference and stayed up late every night and slept in every morning. It was just as well though because we got to spend more quality time with Ann that way. I would’ve liked to have spent some more time exploring Greenwich and the various museums and historical homes, but maybe next time.”