I feel bleary-eyed when my plane arrives at Gatwick Airport in the morning. With the difference in time zones, I’ve lost track of exactly how late we are. As I munch on one of U.S. Airways’ stale pastries for breakfast, I begin to mentally revise my plans for the day. I will not have as much time in London as I had hoped.
Thankfully, the lines at the airport move quickly through passport control, and after a quick stop at a cash machine I am sitting aboard the Gatwick Express heading for Victoria Station. With the morning rush hour over, I consider dragging my luggage on the Tube for the three short stops it will take to get to Gloucester Road, but I sink into the back of a comfortable cab instead. When I arrive at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel (the base for my adventures last year), it feels like coming home. I check in and find, unexpectedly, that my room is ready and waiting. I look at my watch and sigh. Yes, we really did arrive that late.
My first stop is the Paul’s patisserie across the street. I pick up a bottle of water and a chicken sandwich and head to Berkeley Square for a picnic lunch. I want to find a house nearby and this is a good place to stop and check my map. Plus, it gives me a chance to turn on my iPod and listen to Bobby Darin croon about nightingales.
The address I’m looking for is close by at 5 Grafton Street. It was once the home of Margaret Alice Byron, a distant relative of the poet Lord Byron. When he died, the peerage passed to his cousin, Alice’s grandfather, George Anson Byron, who became the 7th Baron Byron of Rochdale, followed by her uncle (who died childless), and finally her brother, Frederick. I know this because I own the diary she kept from 1879-1882. She records her travels to places like Thrumpton Hall and Worksop Manor, but she considers London home. When I find the house, I am surprised by its simplicity. It is a stately, but understated, Georgian townhouse.
I stroll back to Green Park and pick up the Piccadilly line to Holborn. Sir John Soane’s Museum is just a short walk away at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is a quirky and cluttered place, preserved as it was at the time of Soane’s death in 1837. There are Hogarth paintings hidden behind folding screens, and a tombstone outside the Monk’s parlour that reads “Alas! poor Fanny!” As a tour guide explains, it does not commemorate the death of his wife, but instead that of her beloved dog. It’s a nice touch.
After leaving the museum, I wind through the streets of London to the “Old Curiosity Shop,” a 16th century building said to be the inspiration for the Charles Dickens novel. Further on, I come to the home of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary. He, too, loved his pets. Among them was “Hodge,” who he once described as “a very fine cat indeed.” A bronze statue of Hodges, sitting on the famous dictionary with an oyster at his feet faces the house in Gough Square.
It seems only fitting on this day spent following in the footsteps of English writers that I should eat at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. I catch a glimpse of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral before ducking into the darkness of the “Chop Room.” I see the long oak table where Dickens ate, the chair where Johnson sat, and a stuffed parrot named Polly, whose death was so grieved that an announcement was made on the BBC. As for me, I sit in the “Cozy Corner” and eat a chicken entrée finished off with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. I am happy, indeed, to be back in London.
I arrive back at the hotel just in time to change for the theatre. Jet lag is starting to set in, but so is adrenalin. It will be interesting to see which wins out as I head to the Apollo Victoria to see “Wicked.” In the end, it is adrenalin by a nose. I yawn here and there, but not because of boredom. “Wicked” is fantastic and Kerry Ellis brings the house down. My seat in Row M of the Stalls is perfect, and so too is the night.