Day 02 – Wed 27 Apr 2005 – The British Museum

Out of Hong Kong, the aircraft is now very full of passengers, so no more stretching out over the adjacent seats. I’m in the same seat as before, next to two Brits returning to the UK from Hong Kong. A very long flight over China, Mongolia, Russia, some Baltic states, Denmark, the Netherlands and across to the UK.

My tummy finally starts to come good about an hour out of Heathrow, much to the relief of some cabin crew who seem to be getting a little worried about me. The two Brits confirmed/suggested some places to visit in the UK, but warn me off going to Liverpool as it’s an ‘awful place’ (advice which, happily, I choose to ignore).

A VA A340-600 landing at London Heathrow (Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)

Arrived at Heathrow at about 0600 (local). The terminal seems specifically designed to force you to walk long distances, then funnel lots of people into very long queues. There was a long wait for Passport Control, along with numerous US citizens who had also just arrived on a series of trans-Atlantic flights. In contrast Customs is a non-event; joined the ‘nothing to declare’ line and walked straight through with no questions or checks.

Had a quick shave then (after more walking) caught the Heathrow Express bound for Paddington Station. It’s a nice train, albeit a bit expensive, running every 15 mins, very fast and comfy, with lots of luggage space and video display terminals giving a safety briefing followed by news bulletins. It travels underground for a bit, then surfaces for the run into Paddington. Except for the different architecture (more regular and drabber) the suburbs give a similar impression as some  inner city Sydney areas.

Alighted at Paddington Station. It seems strange having such modern trains in such a grand Victorian building. It’s exactly the sort of station you see in farewell scenes in old British movies. Years ago it would have been filled with steam engines, and I think I can still faintly smell the residual soot.

Walking onto London streets for the first time is a bit of a de jevu experience. It’s all so familiar, yet strange at the same time. Probably it’s because you’ve seen it all so much before on films and television. The streets are full of red buses and big black cabs. Paddington looks slightly down market, but not seedy or unpleasant. Buildings are cramped together, in a similar way as those in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. But they have that familiar ‘solid’ look about them that also exists in Oz, but sometimes not in the USA.

Everything is much as I expected; the heavy Police presence, the often gorgeous girls, the sort of traffic, and the ethnic mix. However in London that mix is more Anglo-Saxon, African, Indian and Pakistani, whereas in Australia it is more diverse but mainly Anglo-Celtic, Asian and Middle Eastern. I notice the Brits refer to Indians and Pakistanis as “Asian” whereas I’ve never heard an Australian call them that. In Oz, “Asian” generally means Oriental (i.e. people who don’t play cricket).

The hotel in Paddington is just near the parked truck.

I walked a few streets away to the hotel in which I am booked for the first five nights. I’m not due until 1400 and it is still early morning, but they are able to take my large bag off my hands.  Odd that I don’t feel all that tired after such a long flight. Went for a walk up to Euston Station over about 90 minutes and stepped in for a coffee. It’s similar in size to Paddington but quite different in layout.

The girl in the coffee shop keeps calling me ‘sir’ with a slight cockney/southern mix accent. I thought it was only Americans who indulged in that. It really shits me, but she genuinely means to be courteous and probably doesn’t realise it’s a sure thing to annoy an Aussie; or maybe she does. (Background for those not familiar with Oz culture: Calling someone ‘sir’ implies a class distinction or a suggestion of subservience, which egalitarian-minded Australians generally find grating. Even military officers would be a bit suspicious if one of their underlings called them ‘sir’ with special emphasis, as it means “I’ll obey you on this occasion, but I think you’re a dickhead’.)

Caroline A mentioned how impressed she was with the British Museum, even though it’s not a pub. It’s not far away so I decide a visit might be just the thing. The weather is clear and cool, with a cold wind blowing at times. People are dressed for cold weather, even though to me it is fairly mild. Maybe they know something I don’t?

Walked down Gower Street past lots of beautiful restored terrace houses. Many have plaques on them indicating their historical significance (i.e. ‘so and so lived here’). One in particular records the place where anaesthetic was first used. The terraces border the university hospital, with schools of anatomy and so forth along the road. Turning into Montague Lane, the huge stone columns at the front of the British Museum come into view.

Left my day-pack (a.k.a. carry-on bag) at the cloak room and started what was supposed to be a ‘quick look’ at the Museum. Actually stayed there seven hours and barely scratched the surface. It’s easily one of the most mind-blowing places I’ve ever visited. What a tremendous resource this must be for firing the imaginations of students. It indicated to me just how much modern education and culture owes to British explorers and scientists of the past, in spite of any colonial excesses. It was eerie to see the Rosetta Stone (actually I think it’s only a full scale replica) and was surprised at its relatively small size. I could go on forever about the exhibits, but you really have to go there.

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

I walked back to Euston Square, the nearest tube station on the Circle LIne, about 400 metres from Euston (mainline) station. By now the weather is colder, and it’s raining and windy. Rather than a shivery walk back to Paddington I venture for the first time onto the London Tube. The tube trains are quite small and work off a third rail power supply. They run quite close headways; trains every two minutes being quite common. They’re more modern and cleaner than I expected; and not very crowded, though it’s not mid peak hour just yet.

Got back to the hotel and booked in. My room is small; in fact it’s so minuscule that it’s not much larger than a Countrylink sleeper cabin, but quite comfy nonetheless. I reported the shower door was mis-hung and missing a roller, but reception didn’t appear even faintly interested and it was never repaired. Went out shopping for essential supplies: oranges, cashews and, of course my chief addiction, chocolate. It surprised me how many familiar brands of confectionery and other goodies are in London shops. Humpf! Copycats.

Checked out the local bank to ensure my Australian bank debit card would work – all OK. Modern technology is incredible, I wonder how much they just charged my account to do that? I’m carrying a few travelers cheques as an emergency money supply if needed; they’re even more of a rip-off. Got back to the room and lay down ‘just for a quick nap’. Woke up at 0100 (the jet lag was finally catching up with me). Back to sleep with some initial difficulty until breakfast time. Zzzzzzz.

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