August 10: Chelsea Physic Garden
If you'd asked me at twelve-thirty how the day was going, I'd have said, "It stinks!" But some scattered sunshine, a visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden, and a supper of jacket potato, apple and tea at the Marks & Spencer cafe improved my outlook.
I began the day intending to visit the Serpentine Gallery and then mosey on toward Oxford Street. But it was such an ugly morning--cloudy, windy, perhaps 60 degrees--that I thought maybe I should visit Oxford (the town) instead. At least then I'd have two train rides of about an hour each to sit inside, warm and able to read or watch the scenery, as well as seeing the sites of Oxford. But at Paddington Station they told me the train wasn't going all the way to Oxford this week and I'd have to make part of the trip by bus. Ugh. Better to wait for the train next week. So I decided to do the long walk to Chelsea. On the way I stopped at the little cafe near the end of the Serpentine "River" in Hyde Park for morning tea and snack. Just about the plainest thing I could find was pain au chocolat (not "pain de chocolate" as I typed yesterday--my French is much less good than my Spanish), which is basically a croissant with chocolate inside, fortunately not much in this case. Then I carried on, aiming toward a Marks & Spencer which my map showed on King's Road in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. My plan was lunch there. But no!
First of course I had to get a bit off track, not exactly lost. If you haven't visited London, or done much walking there, what you need to know is that, except for a handful of very major roads, no road is straight or continuous. Small veers can send you WAY off track is you aren't checking your map at almost every intersection. Not to mention that very few roads keep the same name for more than a few blocks. This is my fifth trip to London, but I still get lost, especially when I'm heading into an unfamiliar neighborhood, like Kensington and Chelsea. Metropolitan London is actually an accumulation of 30 (I think) boroughs, one of which is "the City," i.e. London proper. Almost all of my time in London is actually spent in Westminster, which is quite large and contains the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament (including Big Ben), the shopping districts along Oxford Street, Carnaby Street, and others, Buckingham Palace and many of the most famous sites of London.
Well, once I discovered I was off track and making my already long walk longer, I got straightened out and made it to M&S. Big disappointment. Despite the fact that King's Road is a shopping area, this is not a full service M&S. No cafe (with jacket potato), no snack area in the "food hall" (grocery section) where one might sit and enjoy ready-to-eat items from the food hall, and NO FUNCTIONING TOILETS. Pitiful. A kind woman told me there were a pub and a couple of coffee shops just down the street, so that was good information to have. Toilet wasn't an immediate need, but food was. A packet of sliced ham and potato chips, it was. Now right across the street from M&S there happened to be a square, what we would call a neighborhood park. Cool, I thought. I can sit down there and have my little lunch.
No! It's a fenced, locked park for residents only. But the map showed another square just a couple of blocks away.
But no! It too is a fenced, locked park for residents only. But just another block or so was what looked like a sports fields park. Surely I could sit and have my lunch there.
But no! It's fenced and locked and only for the "Chelsea Pensioners," who I'm assuming are pensioners living at the Royal Hospital across the street. So I sat on a bench near a bus stop and had my little lunch while watching traffic pass by. I'd forgotten to buy a bottle of water to go with my lunch, so after eating I went back up to King's Road to find one of the coffee shops the woman had mentioned. I found a Starbucks, which suited me fine, and ordered a venti black tea and sat at the counter drinking tea and reading an ebook on the iPod and even posting a couple of photos to Facebook via the wifi. By the time I was ready to leave, the clouds were beginning to allow peeks of sun from time to time, but it was still chilly.
I set off for the Chelsea Physic Garden, down near where I had had my lunch. It's a cool place. It was founded in 1673 for apothecaries to get their herbs from. I'm not entirely sure if it was always in that exact location because the information said that one of the early members of the society which operated the garden bought the land in the early 1700s, and since 1722 it has been leased for the princely sum of five pounds a year to the original society or its successors. The benefactor, Sir Hans Sloane made the lease in perpetuity a part of his will. Now the land is worth millions but his heirs, despite attempts to wriggle out of the lease, have not been able to do so. As long as the operating society is charitable, conducts educational activities, and does something else I can't remember, the terms of the will are met. Heehee.
In its early years, the apothecaries who made use of the plants grown there had their offices near St. Paul's Cathedral. The tour guide told us that London was so dangerous to travel through in those years that they used barges to go back and forth from the garden to their offices.
The garden now has plants from all over the world, some poisonous, some edible, some medicinal. They have a tea plant, as well other herbs people make hot drinks from; plants used in various alcoholic drinks; a male and female pair of ginkgo trees; a cork oak; a fernery; periwinkle from Madagascar which looks to me exactly like what we call vinca; a cannabis plant, which the guide pointed out is a very weak strain (apparently at one point someone "harvested" the entire plant), and which is illegal in the UK as in most of the USA. As we toured, we began to get bits of sun and began to warm up a bit. Before the tour started, I was cold, especially my hands. These three days have been among the chilliest and cloudiest three days in a row that I have spent in London, even though I've been here as early as May 9 on another trip. Certainly not the weather I hoped for. March this year in Dallas was warmer and sunnier!
After leaving the garden, I went just a couple of blocks down to 16 Cheyne Walk, a private residence which had been, in the nineteenth century, a home at one time or another for both the poet-artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and for the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Then I started the long (LONG) walk to Oxford Street for supper at one of the big, full-service M&S locations. I tried to find the address of one of the houses the artist Edward Burne-Jones lived in, but had no luck. The street was very short, so I'm guessing his residence got swallowed up into the "Sloane Terrace Mansions"--or maybe in the nineteenth century there was another Sloane Terrace.
Moving along I walked by the US Embassy here, the first time I've done so, and visited Grosvenor Square right next to it. There are statues of Eisenhower and FDR there, and with something of an actual outbreak of sunlight after 4:30, I sat on a bench and made a sketch of the FDR statue. But since I can't post photos here from the iPad, you'll have to look at Flickr. Or maybe I'll post it to Facebook.
Finally I made it to M&S and made a great discovery--they now have jacket potatoes even at supper time! So I ordered one for my supper, along with an apple and a pot of tea. I also read from an International New York Times I bought earlier and rested my legs. After supper I browsed a bit, looking for a couple of small gifts, but didn't buy anything yet. I saw one possibility, though. Then the long walk back to the hotel and beginning to collapse for the evening.