We woke up on our second day in London to a torrential downpour. Never ones to be deterred by rain – no matter how much there is – we made our way from Queensway to the Liverpool Street Station in the northeast corner of London. While the station was not our destination (obviously), I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how darn pretty it is. It also has a pretty important history.
During the First World War Liverpool Street was a target of one of the deadliest daylight air raids by fixed-wing aircraft; the attack killed 162 people. In the build-up to the Second World War the station served as the terminus for thousands of child refugees arriving in London as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission. (Source: Wikipedia)
Based on a recommendation from a co-worker of Alan’s, our destination was Old Spitalfields Market. We walked out of the train station and somehow found ourselves on a side street where vendors were setting up for the day despite the wet and cold. Based on the location, I think it was the Petticoat Lane Market.
Petticoat Lane Market was not formally recognized until an Act of Parliament in 1936, but its long history as an informal market makes it possibly one of the oldest surviving markets in Britain. In Tudor times, Middlesex Street was known as Hogs Lane, a pleasant lane lined by hedgerows and elms. It is thought city bakers were allowed to keep pigs in the lane, outside the city wall. … By 1608, it had become a commercial district where second-hand clothes and bric-à-brac were sold and exchanged, known as Peticote Lane, which was severely affected by the Great Plague of 1665 … From the mid-1700s, Petticoat Lane became a center for manufacturing clothes. The market served the well-to-do in the City, selling new garments. About 1830, Peticote Lane’s name changed to Middlesex Street, to record the boundary between Portsoken Ward, in the City of London, and Whitechapel, which coincided with the Lane. But the old name continues to be associated with the area. (Source: Wikipedia)
I’m not a big clothing shopper, so this didn’t hold too much interest for me. I was happy though that many of the vendors had umbrellas for sale so that we could at least attempt to stay dry. We finally made our way inside Old Spitalfields Market, which at first seemed somewhat underwhelming to me. I don’t know if it was still too early, but I felt like it didn’t live up to anyone recommending we visit there with only a week in London. As we walked around, however, and explored deeper into the market, things became a bit livelier and many of the stalls caught my eye.
There has been a market on the site since 1638 when King Charles gave a license for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold on Spittle Fields, which was then a rural area on the eastern outskirts of London. After the rights to a market had lapsed during the Commonwealth, the market was re-founded in 1682 by King Charles II to feed the burgeoning population of a new suburb of London … The existing buildings were built in 1887 to service a wholesale market, which moved in 1991. The original Victorian buildings and the market hall and roof have been restored and Old Spitalfields is now one of London’s major markets. The market square is a popular fashion, arts and crafts, food and general market, open seven days a week, but is particularly busy at weekends. (Source: Wikipedia)
There were several hat vendors – I love a good hat! – shoes, jackets, and other miscellaneous accessories. After stopping for some really good vegetarian Caribbean food, I ended up buying a cape from one of the first vendors I had stopped to check out. I’m sure I was supposed to haggle, but I’m a terrible haggler and so we paid him full asking price. (I can see you shaking your head at me.) Between having to carry a too warm coat the night before at the Christmas market, and then walking out into the rain sans coat, the cape was a perfect addition to my winter wardrobe and I ended up wearing it the majority of the trip.
Wanting to stay out of the weather, we decided it made sense to make Sunday afternoon our museum day so we made our way across town to the Victoria & Albert Museum, also known as The V&A, one of the world’s best museums devoted to art and design. With over 145 galleries covering over 5,000 years of art and design, the museum’s collection of objects ranging from ceramics to textiles, ironwork to sculpture, and furniture to prints is one of the most thorough in the world. I was excited to go to the V&A because there were several items within the museum that I was especially interested to see – Shakespeare’s first folio, among them – but also because there was a special exhibition devoted to wedding dresses through the ages.
Now, obviously this is not exactly something that Alan was jumping for joy over, but he humored me and paid the entrance fee for the two of us. There is limited space within the exhibit, so only a certain number of people are allowed it at any one time. We were told to come back at 1 p.m. which gave us about 30 minutes to kill beforehand. I was elated when I realized that the museum had created a whole other exhibition of clothing from Regency and Victorian England, two periods of history that I’m quite passionate about. I think I probably spent more time admiring the ladies’ frocks in that throw away exhibit then I did in the actual wedding dress exhibit. In that one I would have loved to see more time spent on some of the older periods and more attention given to educating the viewer about the various customs of the day. It had elements of that information, to be sure, but I felt like it was just a primer for the main course which was located upstairs and was a gallery of famous wedding dresses, including those from Gwen Stefani and Kate Moss. Alan found a seat while I wandered around and then we made our way back downstairs and I did one more round of the Regency outfits before we made our way into the rest of the museum.
The remainder of the museum exploration was interesting, but I think I was more attentive to the rooms of the museum itself, and the general décor and artistry of the building than much of what was housed inside.
After about an hour or so of exploring the museum we realized that we were hungry. Rather than going out, we decided to eat in the museum café and I’m very happy we did. The food was delicious and the rooms where patrons dined were impressively beautiful. We tried to replicate our dining experience at The V&A at the National Gallery later in the week but we weren’t as successful that time. Not only would I say the food is good at The V&A, but I’d actually recommend you eat there.
Leaving the museum we inadvertently stumbled on the ice rink at the National History Museum but there was no way I was going to attempt to ice skate and risk blowing out my knees on vacation, so we just watched a couple of people for awhile while we laughed at how waterlogged the rink was. I think there was more water than ice due to the rains that had been steadily falling all day.
We were close(ish) to our hotel so we made our way back for a rest before heading out to Oxford Circus to take in some sights on Regent Street. In hindsight I should have known that Sunday evening would likely be a bust, but I figured that with London being such a vibrant, international city, and with it being so close to Christmas that the shops would be packed and the atmosphere would be more jolly and festive. My first impression was that the place was overly adorned with ads for the moving Night at the Museum 3. Never in my life had I any intention of seeing parts one or two, but after a week in London and being inundated with ads for the movie, I now kind of want to know what all the fuss is about. Mission accomplished for the advertisers and marketers? My second impression was that the area is pretty much just a giant outdoor mall with many of the same stores that you can find here in the U.S. with higher prices. I don’t know what I expected … maybe more independent retailers? Given that I’m not really a clothes shopper (not a lot of options for plus size women from major retailers), it’s somewhat surprising that we spent so much of the first day of our vacation in shopping areas. Comparing the two, I vastly preferred Spitalfields over the Regent/Oxford Street area.
We turned off the main street and found ourselves wandering a side area called Carnaby Street, which is another major shopping area that has its own famous history.
By the 1960s, Carnaby Street was popular for followers of both the Mod and hippie styles. It featured many independent clothing boutiques, as well as several underground bars for live music. With bands such as The Who and Rolling Stones playing there, many people came to listen to music, shop, and socialize, and eventually Carnaby Street became one of the places most often associated with the Swinging London of the 1960s. (Source: Wikipedia)
Today there are still several independent boutiques that you won’t find on Oxford or Regent Streets, but because it was Sunday night many were closed and so the street was somewhat deserted. This made it much easier for us to find somewhere to stop and get food, however, and so we found ourselves sitting upstairs in a pub munching down bangers and mash (and trying to drink a really foul cider). After eating we went downstairs for a pint – or three – where we were treated to the table next to us talking about how loud and obnoxious Americans are, while they proceeded to be both loud and obnoxious. We decided we were willing to give the loudest of them a pass because he said how much he loved San Francisco and how on a flight back from SF to London he decided to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Their gathering was somehow a celebration of that, despite the fact that it was late November and he had told us his flight had been in February. I’m not entirely sure how the logistics of that one work out, but there you go.
All in all, it was a very good full day in London, and it definitely whetted my appetite for more to come in the following days.