During the day, London seems short to me. Have you noticed? Maybe the grey skies make the city look like your short plump uncle or aunt. I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel this way. But, on a clear day when the skies are ocean blue, I’m still underwhelmed by the majestic city that melds together and doesn’t look so grand.
Don’t get me wrong. I love London at any time during a twenty-four hour period, and even 363 days a year. I reserve two days to loathe the city, especially when I need to walk Oxford Street.
There is an infectious energy in the capital city, no doubt. London is busiest during the day. Hordes of people casually mill about or rush from here to there. Some people are wandering tourists who can sometimes be annoying; others are quasi-Londoners who feverishly commute in and out of the city for work. Then there are the actual residents who take the city in stride and at their own pace. Did you know London’s population swells nearly 60% during the day and decreases after working hours? It’s true. It’s also true since the financial crisis, people’s patience waned and gentle manners fell by the wayside. There is stress and it shows.
I remember years ago walking out onto the street only to get a whiff of diesel fumes. The pungent aroma was unmistakable and most noticeable after I’d been away from the capital for an extended period of time. I often felt like PigPen from the Peanuts cartoon as if there was a cloud constantly hovering around me. London’s air has improved since the fume days though it still has a long way to go.
Traffic is still an issue throughout the day. No matter how much of London is pedestrianised, snarled traffic only seems to get worse. I used to take black cabs because they were quick and convenient. Overzealous street traffic changed my habit. And down below, commuters pack like tight cello wrapped McVitie’s for long stretches of time. Crowded Underground trains are not reserved for rush hours anymore. London Underground carries up to five million passenger journeys per day. The annual passenger numbers per year are 1.37 billion people. Let that sink in. What a remarkable operation London Underground is, but I tend to pass on public transportation.
These days I prefer to walk no matter how far I need to travel. I’ve got the calves to prove it. The exercise is agreeable to me in any London weather, dreary or not. Walking allows me to learn how London is connected, and it’s seldom I’m lost unless a gradual curve takes me west instead of east. The truth is a former taxi driver taught me how to navigate Central London. His voice is always in my head when I explore.
I’ll often plan my walk to avoid high traffic areas during the day. Luckily, I don’t participate in the daily grind, so I discover London at my leisure and whatever peaks my curiosity any given day. I’ll explore unfamiliar neighbourhoods, gardens, art and photography galleries or find a new place for lunch. Jermyn Street and St James’s is always a favourite for this gentleman.
I’ve also been known to view a historical photography exhibition then retrace the steps of the photographer. My mind drifts as if I’m in a time machine imagining the sights, sounds and smells from another era. Discovering London by way of the past is enlightening, not to mention the activity makes me grow fonder of the capital city. I think those who came before us were wiser and more aware that we are today.
Sometimes I’ll venture into the crowds at Trafalgar Square just to take in everything around me. Admiral Lord Nelson’s statue seems tall, but maybe it’s because he’s standing alone on his imposing column. Perhaps London seems short to me because the buildings are so tightly packed together nothing’s set apart from the others. Almost every structure is the same height so there’s nothing to impress. In that, there is a bit of respect I have for London. 90 story buildings aren’t needed to make London spectacular, it’s all of the diverse bits and pieces spread throughout the landscape that make her special.
I’m still pondering height, though people watching in Trafalgar Square is enjoyable. All sorts of people pass through at any given moment. The pigeons are gone thank goodness. There are imaginative buskers entertaining the crowds. Buses swirl around the square in sync and a piercing sound of sirens is a given throughout the day.
From Trafalgar Square, you can see firsthand that London is always on the move. The commotion is exciting and makes you feel alive. Even if you’re alone in the city, you’re never really alone even if you’re not engaged in conversation with a companion. If you want to have a congenial conversation with yourself, it’s ok because you’re in London. Sometimes moments are more meaningful when you’re brave enough to talk about it.
Despite the swarms of daytime Londoners and tourists, I love popping into the National Gallery. I’ll weave my way through the admirers of Impressionist art for a brief glimpse of Monet, Renoir or Van Gogh. A savvy wink is all I need to satisfy my desire for calm colours meshed together to resemble a familiar scene I know. The language of colour jumps from the paintings to convince me there are harmony and balance in the gallery room despite being bumped into numerous times. This reminds me; I very much enjoy Seurat as well. Dot. Dot. Dot. Georges Seurat. Bathers at Asnières is one of my favourite post-impressionist paintings at the National Gallery.
The earlier the art periods, the fewer people there are to negotiate in the galleries, and the calmer the National Gallery becomes. Why is that? I always find myself in awe of Peter Paul Rubens painting of the biblical story, ‘Samson and Delilah’ with few others around. I admire the painting for an hour undisturbed. The storytelling, use of colour, light and textures Peter Paul Reuben utilized for this masterpiece never cease to amaze me. Viewing the painting is a calm moment. If you’ve seen the painting and think it’s the perfect size to hang over a fireplace, you’re right. ‘Samson and Delilah’ was created to specifically to hang above a fireplace in the house of the mayor of Antwerp.
Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 – 1640 Samson and Delilah about 1609-10 Oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm Bought, 1980 NG6461 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6461
The National Gallery hosts a series of talks about various paintings in their collection throughout the year. You can learn more about Peter Paul Rubens painting of ‘Samson and Delilah’ in the video below.
There is much, much more to discover in London despite my perception of her being short. It’s safe to say there is more happening in a small corner of London on any given day than most cities around the world have in a year. London may lack height but the city is wide and deep. I’ve visited enough cities on all the continents to certifiably make the statement.
I always think of London in the daytime as a time to learn. The city is like one massive open book full of knowledge that it’s willing to share. Choose your interest, prepare to use your imagination in overdrive, then trundle the streets until your curiosity is satisfied. There are layers of London. Once you uncover one layer, you discover there’s another layer with even more splendid adventures waiting for you. And, another layer after the first two with other layers after that.
You know the line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’ – “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…”? The same is true of London except you may need to pay an entrance fee at most places.