“The final scene in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut ‘, was filmed not, as the film suggested, in New York, rather, in Hamley’s toy store on Regent Street”. Sean, our local blue badge guide, continued, “the Apple Store is the most profitable shop in London per square footage”, “Ian Fleming’s Bond was indeed ‘related’ to Sir Michael Bond of Bond Street” and “Queen Anne’s physician’s collection of artefacts formed the British museum”. The fact that Anne suffered 19 pregnancies all of which resulted in the death of her children through various forms, suggests his services were much in demand if not necessarily successful, hence his ability to build such a collection. However, it was the film’s title that struck me the most apt for me, an ex inhabitant of London, in that it sums up how we walk around our ‘own’ cities or countries. Where tourists may swoon at the guard change, or marvel at the Tower of London, most Londoners walk, or rather, dash past, saving their ‘wandering’ for foreign climes.
Although the rise of staycationing has been exponential in recent years, we tend to approach holidays ‘at home’ as if we are all experts. Where we might read a guide book, take a guided tour and study the place we go to abroad, when at home we tend to assume we know it all. And yet, much as teaching English requires much more than just ‘being English’ and where I would go so far as to say that a foreign born teacher has much more to offer in terms of empathising with the challenge, I would say the same for being a tourist at home. Rather than substituting specs for sunglasses, we just need to change the lens. We need to see London through a tourist’s eyes. This became all the more apparent for me when I was crossing the lights at Hyde Park corner the other day, and noticed, for the first time, that the crossing had a third light which showed a horseback rider rather than a green or red man. A so-called Pegasus crossing, with a button higher up for the mounted rider to press. This made me smile and reminded me of the amusement I find when travelling in other countries in noting their own curiosities.
We need to seek out Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a statue unveiled at night in order to surprise the children coming across him the following day. Embrace his childish delight in life. Wonder at the cathedral of St Paul’s whilst learning that it was built by keen astronomer Sir Christopher Wren, 365 feet high in a nod to the orbit of the earth around the sun. Consider the inaccuracies of statues such as that of ‘Poor Queen Anne’, ‘left in the lurch’, with her ‘back to the church’, one of the earliest examples of ‘statue-shopping’. Her coffin would have resembled a cube of sugar, a not entirely inappropriate analogy considering that rather than a spoon full of sugar helping the medicine go down, her medicine was chocolate, prescribed by the aforementioned physician, Sir Hans Sloane, with the consequence it took more than fourteen men to carry her coffin.
Other interesting anecdotes fed to us by Sean, included the fact that St Bride’s Church gave birth to the notion of the tiered wedding cake, as the baker lived nearby and was inspired by the layered formation of it. Martin Luther King stands above the entrance to Westminster Abbey. The aggregate of property in Kensington and Chelsea alone comes to more than the aggregate of property for the whole of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales combined.
There is yet more. Tourists charmed by the ‘Mind the Gap’ might be a little less charmed to discover that in 1952, the number 78 bus trundling across Tower Bridge had to do just that and in fact, had to ‘jump the gap’ as the driver hadn’t been warned the bridge was opening. Music lovers might be surprised to know that Hendrix and Handel were next door neighbours, albeit a few centuries apart. As English children sing about London Bridge falling down, I suspect few of them realise that the English government helped the bridge ‘fall down’, piece by piece in 1966, selling it to an American who had it rebuilt at Lake Havasu City over the Colorado river, making it the largest antique ever sold. Children might be even more fascinated to know that below Cleopatra’s needle on the River Thames, there is a time capsule buried there, from the Victorian period, with idiosyncrasies such as photos of the twelve best looking women in Britain at the time!
Therefore, I would suggest that, rather than leaving the safe harbour in order to dream and discover, we just need to do a little more exploring at home, but this time, with our eyes wide open.