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London Museums, Shopping and The EyeMarch 16, 2010 By: Jena Tesse Fox
Shopping at Carnaby Street
Why has America never picked up on the simple, pure, perfect creation that is beans on toast? I mean, it’s baked beans on toast! What’s not to love? We’d be a much, much happier country if we started our mornings with beans on toast for breakfast. Just trust me on this.
After a much-needed night’s rest and a very fortifying full English breakfast, we set off for the Serpentine Gallery (tucked away in the greenery of Kensington Gardens), which is featuring an exhibit of Richard Hamilton’s politically themed artwork. Hamilton has been creating pop and multimedia art for well over 50 years, and the collection traces his reactions to global politics over the decades. Some of the most fascinating pieces include an installation that looks like the “therapy” from "A Clockwork Orange," but with the subject forced to watch video clips of Margaret Thatcher; various versions of Hamilton’s most famous work, "Swingeing London," which depicts Mick Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser hiding from flashbulbs as they are led away in handcuffs; and his tribute to Israeli activist Mordechai Vanunu, photographed in a pose that eerily echoes "Swingeing London."
From the tiny, intimate Serpentine, we made our way past the Albert Memorial to the massive, elaborate Victoria and Albert Museum—one of the world's largest museums, which reportedly holds a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects. We were given one hour to explore. (I know. We needed at least a week to take it all in.) A current special exhibit displays 250 pieces of artwork collected by Horace Walpole at his estate, Strawberry Hill, including paintings by Van Dyck and antique armor. I, on the other hand, got lost in a room of medieval artwork, and was particularly struck by a limestone effigy of a knight. While most of the limestone was a plain bleached white, some original color could be seen in places, giving an idea of what the original statue might have looked like.
Before Stendhal syndrome could set in, we walked down the street to a lovely little French restaurant, Racine, for lunch. My companions praised the bream and the skate; I highly recommend the duck confit or the daube de boeuf—beef so tender it doesn’t need a knife. Exquisite. There isn’t a bad seat in the restaurant.
From there, we had a little more than an hour to explore the city on our own. I caught the Underground (amazing how much easier these things are to navigate after a little practice) to Oxford Circus, where I met up with a wonderful guide who took me on a speedy tour of some of London’s best shopping districts: Mayfair and Soho. From chain stores to bespoke tailors, these two districts are a shopaholic’s dream come true (though as my guide pointed out, the stores here tend to cater to those with champagne tastes. Nothing wrong with that, of course.) While many of the stores could be found on Fifth Avenue in New York, some of the most intriguing and unique shops are located in “arcades”: narrow covered streets that look like something from a P.G. Wodehouse story.
We reunited at the iconic London Eye and, thanks to our hosts, were able to get a pod (or “capsule”) to ourselves. The Eye moves at a snail’s pace—30 minutes to make a complete rotation, in fact. This not only offers plenty of opportunities for pictures, it helps make reaching the extreme height (443 feet!) seem much less scary. You know that horrible dizzy feeling you get on a rickety ferris wheel at a fairground as it creaks up to the top and then begins to swing you down much too fast for comfort? There’s none of that at the Eye. Just amazing views for 25 miles, and all of London—quite literally—at your feet.