“To be alone among the confusion is perhaps the single most piercing emotion of any stranger in the city.” – Peter Ackroyd, London: A Biography
I stepped outside the dry cleaners into the cold London morning, accompanied by a small plume of starchy-smelling steam. A few yards in front of me, rush-hour traffic moved slowly down the wrong side of the street in Battersea Park, a suburb south of Chelsea across the River Thames, over which I had just comfortably and affordably glided in a huge red double-decker bus, accidentally getting off two stops too early. I consulted my small black moleskine notebook, which contained detailed scribbled notes and directions for my self-suggested three-day itinerary for London. Out of the dry cleaners, I had instructed myself to turn right, then right, then right onto Prince of Wales Drive. My destination: a ridiculously inexpensive $66-a-night Airbnb flat located inside the opulent-sounding Albert Palace Mansions in Lurline Gardens.
I found it easily: a red brick-faced building, four stories high, embedded in a stolid bank of similar buildings fronting a narrow one-way lane lined with cars, with inset courtyard entrances spilling over with shrubbery and overwintered flowers. It is an apartment complex today, but like everything in London, Albert Palace Mansions started life as something else, and, like everything in London, has an interesting history. These buildings, I later learned, were once part of a massive late nineteenth century indoor/outdoor amusement complex, the centerpiece of which was the famous Albert Palace, a magnificent iron-and-glass structure originally built to house the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865, and then dismantled, shipped to London and rebuilt on the edge of the gardens next to Battersea Park (which actually is a giant, municipal park). The central part of the palace comprised a 473-foot nave for a permanent orchestra, with a giant organ and concert hall at one end and a tea room at the other. Indoor attractions included exhibition booths, an aquarium, picture galleries and bars, as well as an “Indian village” featuring silk spinners, a sitar maker, singers and snake-charmers; there also were cat, bird and flower shows, and the Viennese Ladies Orchestra had a standing gig. Eventually though the enterprise went under and the land and buildings were sold to developers; over a century later, this vestige of Victorian recreation is filled with middle-class Londoners living in two- and three-bedroom flats, such as the one I now trudged up four flights of spiraling stairs to temporarily occupy.
To my relief, the apartment was just as advertised: clean, neat and bright, high-ceilinged with large windows and transoms over thick wooden doors. There was a tiny but functional modern kitchen, a tidy tiled bathroom, a light-filled living room occupied by a piano, comfy couch and a large TV, with some handsome antiques scattered about. My bedroom was cozy with comfortable goose-down bedding and a large armoire, carpeted and quiet. That’ll do, pig, I thought to myself. Hmm yes, for three days in London, that’ll do quite nicely.
It was only 9 a.m. and though I had just traveled 24 mostly sleepless hours from East Africa, taken a long train ride from Heathrow and then a bus to find a dry cleaners and lodgings, my adrenalin was pumping. London. London! Rapidly, I unpacked my backpack, containing just enough clean clothes for three days (I had previously checked my big suitcase at the Britishly-named “Left Baggage” concession at Heathrow) plus my laptop, iPad and toiletries. After a shower and change of clothes, I was back outside, having consulted my moleskine, along with a detailed London map left for me in absentia by my thoughtful Airbnb hosts, both of whom were at work. There were no Tube stops close by, but an overland rail station, accessible to me with my Day Pass, was just up the street and would get me to Victoria Station just one stop away, from which I could access the Underground. First though: food.
Just across the entrance to the rail station, a whiff of fried sausage drew my attention to a stream of fluorescent green and orange-jacketed police and workmen heading in and out of a tiny diner tucked under a dingy brown trestle. Busting out my Sherlock, I made a deduction: police and workmen = always hungry + usually in a hurry + budget-minded = high probability of cheap and tasty food, fast. By Jove, I was not disappointed. For under five British pounds, I soon found myself scuppering a lake of English breakfast food that made the Grand Slam at Denny’s seem like a foul bunt. Twenty minutes later, after a few baked bean burps washed down with the last sips of an OK café-au-lait, I was on my way, re-provisioned and ready.
Above: a working man's breakfast at Bridge the Gap, Battersea Park. Below, the always-bustling Victoria Station.
First stop: the British Red Cross Thrift Store. With my sub-Saharan wardrobe of tee-shirts, thin cotton dress shirts and summer-weight trousers, I was ill prepared for London in late winter. Research revealed a number of highly-touted second-hand clothing shops in the vicinity of Victoria Station. I lucked out at the Red Cross store, where, after trying out a Rod Stewarty full-length black leather trench, I found a thick, down-filled parka with enormous snapping pockets and plenty of room to secret an iPad Mini, moleskine and ballpoint pen, sunglasses, wallet, fat London street map and a digital camera, in just the right size. Yes, it smelled a bit like another man, but not in a bad way, and it only cost me 40 pounds, or about $61 USD – a little more than I’d wanted to spend but hey, this is London and proceeds would theoretically go to a good cause. And on Saturday, I was scheduled to be sitting and/or standing outside for hours, exposed to the natural elements and potentially, showers of soda launched by hooligans in the crowd at the Chelsea match disappointed in the performance of one squad or the other, and I was sure I’d be glad then of my 40-pound purchase.I stopped next at a touristy knick-knack shop and picked up a cheap knit hat and pair of fleece gloves, unaware until that evening when I emptied my pockets that the cheeky storekeeper, who cleverly pegged me for a dumb American, returned my change in Mexican pesos. At the time, though, I felt extremely satisfied with myself for successfully locating the dry cleaners, checking into my Airbnb flat, finding a good local breakfast dive and obtaining inexpensive winter wear, all before lunchtime on my first day in London. Congratulating myself on my adroitness as a traveler on the cheap, I jingled pesos in my coat pocket as I walked to the Tube station in advance of my next adventure: a behind-the-scenes tour of the clandestine conservation laboratory at the world-famous British Library in St Pancras. I was about to meet the global rock stars of book conservation in their seldom-seen command centre, and it wouldn’t cost me a peso.
Above: The BL's Centre for Conservation: the Langley of the secret world of book and manuscript preservation and restoration