If a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday in Germany, or at least in Bavaria, there is a tendency to use the day between the holiday and the previous or following weekend as a “bridge” day in order to create a four-day weekend with just one vacation day. Normally, such a weekend is spent in the Allgäu, storming summits and chasing contrails. This year seemed wetter and most weekends were busier than normal, so a good number of trips fell over those deceptively-short weekends. On one such weekend, maybe the warmest one this year, I ended up in England instead of the Allgäu.
I arrived in London just shy of midnight, losing a full day because I accidentally chose the wrong departure date. Most of the time, flying out of European airports with status is more pleasant than it is in the US, as priority boarding is even more prioritized and lounges even more exclusive, but one missing policy in Europe is that of standby flights. Despite free seats on earlier flights, I had to sit it out at the airport, so again I became well-acquainted with Lufthansa’s non-Schengen Senator Lounge. I used the time to plan what I would do in London; with work kicked fully into high gear, my trip planning had been slipshod of late.
I grabbed breakfast en route to my first stop, which was to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I knew I needed to arrive early, but my definition of early apparently needed tuning as two hours prior was still too tight. Most of my shots had other tourists’ limbs or heads in the way, so it wasn’t until the ceremony itself had ended that I got a better glimpse of the palace and the changed guards through the fence.
Despite the claustrophobia, I ended up staying a good two hours longer than I had intended. I wandered away from the dispersing crowds for lunch, snapping a picture of London’s iconic taxis while leaving St. James’ Park. I didn’t know it at the time, but all the flags were on prominent display to celebrate the Queen’s “official” birthday the following day. Apparently, I missed even bigger crowds and even warmer weather — and a RAF flyover. A coworker who happened to also visit London that weekend happened just as coincidentally to go to the Changing of the Guard that day and got to experience all three.
Although it was extremely warm, I happened to walk in front of Shoryu Ramen while I was looking for places to eat, and seeing a light crowd I took the chance to try it out. It was beefy, brothy deliciousness, and I headed out into the afternoon heat fully satisfied. Across the street from Shoryu I found a Pinarello store, whose recent reviews state that it is never open. I suppose I was lucky, as the store was certainly open when I walked inside. With prices more expensive than my entire camera kit, it didn’t take me much time to walk out, however!
I headed back past St. James’ Park to visit the Churchill War Rooms. I won’t go into the significance of the room here, but looking back at the museums I visited, this is probably my favorite. It is one without free entry, but seeing the underground maze used over half a century ago to manage a war is eye-opening. It’s hard to imagine fighting a war without the immediacy of today’s devices or while being dozens of feet underground. Seeing the quarters personally was, in a word, awe-inspiring.
By this point, I was many (well-spent) hours behind schedule so changed my plans to squeeze in one more museum before dinner and grabbed a burger for dinner, heading to the Tate Modern afterwards to burn it off. It was a gorgeous evening with a light breeze, and the north lawn of the Tate was full of people taking in the allegedly rare London sunshine.
Open late on Fridays, I thought I could pop in for a couple hours and try to get some rest. Instead, I was drawn into endless exhibits. A model of the Burj el Murr in Beirut greeted me as one of the first works (Monument for the Living, Rechmaoui). Construction on the tower began in the 1970s, but it remains unfinished and vacant, used only as a sniper post in the Lebanese Civil War. Its height prevents it from conventional demolition and its structure renders it too dense to implode, so it has become, perhaps unintentionally, a symbol for Lebanon’s unresolved internal conflict.
Not all the works were so sobering. Joseph Bueys’ Lightning with Stag in its Glare, a floor-to-ceiling sculpture showing “the natural energies of the earth.” The different elements on the floor symbolize various animals, a dominating element in many of Bueys’ works. When I walked through, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it.
As I walked around the Tate that evening, there were subtle hints that the museum was getting ready for a big event, but I didn’t put two and two together until the next evening, when the whole museum was closed.
Admittedly the primary reason I was keen on returning was for the free observation platforms the Tate offers. One is on the tenth floor of the Blavatnik Building, its walkway affording 360° views over London. This terrace is one reason my visit Friday night took me as long as it did — the views are phenomenal (and, in line with the rest of the Tate, free!).
I was excited enough by the views, the museum, and the city to excitedly text my colleagues back in Germany despite the sunset not being particularly fiery. Like Paris, London is a city I could see returning to.
Other works awaited me inside, however, so after what was probably a good 45 minutes of circling the tower I headed back to the primary raison d’être of the museum. The Tate owns nine of Mark Rothko’s works, which were featured in a small room, lit dimly to evoke solemness and contemplation.
A few rooms down, the mood lightened with Bridget Riley’s To a Summer’s Day, whose title references Shakespeare’s famous sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Compared to the weather outside, this seemed… strikingly fitting.
The Tate Modern has plenty of abstract art, but one calming work was Koshimizu’s From Surface to Surface. I know nearly nothing about woodworking, but seeing various planks showing the different textures the same piece of wood can have was almost soothing — it reminded me how few of us work with our hands in today’s capitalistic society. This used to be an industry, a lifetime; today’s it’s simply a means. Has our understanding of the past changed, or has our understanding of what is meaningful and productive changed?
The motif of capitalism played heavily in Fougeron’s Atlantic Civilisation. An artist associated with the French communist party in the 1950s, Fougeron expressed his displeasure with the Americanization of Europe through his works, using caricature especially heavily here to share his view of post-war Europe.
London is surprisingly far north, and the announcement that the museum would be closing in fifteen minutes came while there was still light outside. I had been there for nearly four hours, and I could have stayed for another four and still not studied all the works. Exhausted from the long day on my feet, I made my way down the stairs and back to the main building before heading down the escalators and outside to the Thames.
The Tate Modern is more or less across the river from St. Paul’s Cathedral, with the Millennium Bridge forming a link between the Thames’ two banks. It was a delightfully warm and pleasant evening — strictly from a weather perspective, it might even have been the most enjoyable evening of the entire summer.
And I was not in the mountains, which was okay. Every so often I do miss the conveniences of a big city, whether it be open Stores on Sunday or a meal comprising something other than pork and potatoes (or carrots, for an exciting twist!). London was a almost unexpectedly comfortable place to kick back: a language I was comfortable with, breathtakingly modern, and in the week I was there, warm. During my walk back toward the Underground, I came across a photo session; St. Paul’s is farther inland from the Thames than photographs might first convey!
I would be remiss if I didn’t post a picture of London’s ubiquitous bus here, and they are definitely everywhere. Much like the vaunted London Taxi, the buses have been revamped, but they still resemble very closely their two-floored, slab-sided forebears.
By the time I got off the Underground, raced an elevator from trackside to streetside (I won), and arrived back at my hotel, the minute hand and hour hand were just about on top of one another. I had underestimated how much there was to see and do in London, with the endless list of free museums not helping my time crunch. I set my alarm for the morning and dozed off. I woke up to plan the next day, checking the weather and simultaneously grimacing at the temperature and grinning that there would be no rain. It was perfect window washing weather, evidently.
My first stop was New London Architecture, an exhibit not unsimilar from Singapore’s City Gallery and meant to showcase what London was doing about its population growth and how the city might look in the decades to come. Not among the exhibits on the ground floor but equally intriguing were the restrooms, individual rooms with their own toilet and sink rather than a large room with many toilets and many sinks.
The exhibit was much smaller than the City Gallery, but the display of the London metropolitan area was animated, showing different areas (such as parks or waterways) to illustrate the various facets of London’s development. A college friend of mine founded an innovative startup, Lightform, and I wondered as I watched all the videos describing London’s future light up the map on the table whether his augmented reality solution would have made the lighting process any simpler.
If projection mapping is cutting edge, London also offers historians a means to study what has already been done in the form of its massive British Library. Much of the library permits photography, but I couldn’t manage to distill so much knowledge into a single photograph. Having been astounded by the size of the collection, I headed out after an espresso for my next visit, the day getting ever warmer.
My destination for that afternoon was The Crystal, which showcases sustainable development. I didn’t realize that the tram that should have brought me there wasn’t running, however, so by the time I showed up at the ticket desk, sales had stopped for the day. I snapped some shots of the exterior, took a gondola ride back across the Thames, and made my way back to Big Ben, which I didn’t stop at the day before.
I timed my afternoon in order to meet up with the coworker I mentioned earlier, so I took just an exterior shot of the north entrance to Westminster Abbey and headed up to grab drinks. This was no slight on the church — its architecture is exquisite — I just figured I reached my quota on stereotypical London pictures by this point.
I thought the sunset looked like it had potential and decided to head back to the Tate, not realizing the setup I saw the day before was to close the whole museum the day after. I didn’t miss much since the sun ducked behind some clouds, so after some night photography along the wharf I retraced my steps back to the hotel from the day before, stopping again to take a picture of the National Firefighters Memorial just before St. Paul’s. The deployment was certainly different, but the tone still somber: the Grenfell Tower fire broke out the day I flew into London.
After another Underground ride, run up the stairs, and walk back to hotel, I headed to bed, tired again from all the walking that afternoon. The next day I wanted to be up bright and early to make it to the Royal Observatory as it opened, largely to beat the crowds but also because I had another full day ahead of me. This time, all the public transport was running correctly, so I had breakfast in Greenwich a tick after 9:00 and made my way through the sleepy town toward the Observatory. It was still cool as the market stalls began to come alive.
The Observatory hadn’t opened when I arrived, so I waited outside with the arriving busloads. When the gates opened, I jetted over to the Greenwich Mean Line — there’s a real, metal line on the ground there! — before the crowds filed in, then slowly made my way through the museum itself. I hadn’t expected so much information, and much like my experience with the Tate found myself wanting to come back. The official charter of the facility is as an observatory, and this also reminded me how small we (both as a planet and as a race) are in the overall universe — a universe whose elements I barely recognize. Part of being a photographer means knowing the subject, and astronomy is certainly among my weaknesses.
Once outside again, I began making my way back toward town, noting that it had become warmer as the sun inched closer to directly overhead. As I walked downhill from the observatory, I saw a sight that I hadn’t seen since 2015. Germany might be home, but certain parts of “home” are missing there. One of those is frisbee, as in my area it’s virtually nonexistent.
Between the heat and not having cash I decided on sushi for lunch instead of the market. It was a good choice not to get anything warm to eat, as in the hour since I left the observatory it felt like the mercury climbed ten more degrees. I looked up directions to get to my next stop, my interest piquing when I learned I could walk under the Thames rather than cross it above. A second perk: a stairwell leading downstairs meant the next ten minutes were the coolest of the whole day, as the underwater tunnel was probably around 60 °F. Relief!
It didn’t take long for things to warm up again, though, and warm they stayed for the rest of the afternoon: my second stop of the day was the British Museum, large and un-airconditioned. There was a long line to get in, mostly due to the security checkpoint, but the crowds inside certainly kept the temperatures up as well, while also blocking most views to the Rosetta Stone. I was fortunate to have my polarizer on me — most times I’m happy to have it for landscape photography, but I had never used it to cut glare inside. It worked like a charm to be able to see through the glass, as the lighting caused reflections from every side of the stone.
Someone clearly noticed that I wasn’t through with timepieces in my visit to the observatory earlier, as the British Museum had its share, too.
That day also happened to be Father’s Day, so I called mine to wish him a happy special day. My eyelids had begun to droop from the long days of walking and the heat, so after a much needed power nap (don’t tell the museum!) and an espresso I continued my visit. Like at the Tate two days prior, I shut down the British Museum, too, seeing one stairwell go from a moving cacophony of chatter to a vault of silence in the hours I was in the museum.
I chose Asian food for my last meal in London, sitting down at Bó Drake after the long hours at the British Museum. I was alone; surprised, I asked when the locals ate — like in Croatia, apparently 8:30 PM is a normal time for dinner in the summer, when the sky stays bright until 10:00 PM or after. The food was delicious, and the company behind the bar was delightful.
It was nice to have a restaurant to myself, but the photographer in me got me on my feet before the evening crowd arrived; if I can make it to London again, I’ll make sure not to tie my schedule to photography as much. My final stop for the day, and final visit for the trip, was to Hampstead Heath, which has good views over London. I wanted to find something slightly different from the views I had from the Tate while avoiding any extreme walks to satisfy my growing interest to just relax. I wasn’t the only one with the same intentions, and for good reason: it was still warm, but the intolerable heat had mellowed into a soothing summer’s evening. Weary from days of nonstop action, I called it an early night and headed back to the hotel. My head hit the pillow before the sky turned dark.
Three days of nonstop destination-seeking was not entirely my idea of a restful vacation before a busy summer of work, but London is that much to handle (and then some). I gave myself plenty of time to get to the airport in case of disruptions with public transport, arriving at the terminal with a good two hours before my flight boarded. Terminal 2, out of which Lufthansa operates, happens to be the Star Alliance terminal and contains no fewer than four of their lounges. Time aplenty, I visited the Lufthansa lounge first. It was standard fare, painted in the same colors and accessorized with the same furniture I was familiar with from Munich. I hopped out after a cursory look around into the Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge. It was warmly decorated and even housed a scale model of their 787, albeit in their old livery.
My third visit was to the Singapore Airlines Lounge, the nicest of the three. It offered views out to the apron and the construction going on there, and inside its food options ranged from western to Chinese. One of Singapore’s goals for their lounges was to create a little bit of home, and although I’m not Singaporean I have to admit I felt most at east in their lounge (potentially also because it was the quietest of the three). I grabbed a plate for breakfast and finally found my chance to relax.
While staring out the window at the shrinking but still sprawling city below, I reflected on how much I had seen in three days, my brow furrowing slightly when I realized how much I still had not seen. In the Alps around me, I imagine there are possibly over a thousand peaks, the majority of which I won’t summit and even more of whose names I don’t even know. I don’t always regret that, but climbing out of Heathrow into clear skies I felt pangs of a hunger to explore more, to learn more, all before my “time runs out” when my contract is up. That hunger was over-satisfied in college or high school when the opportunity to learn came too easy, but rather than explore the unknown, life after university seems to present more opportunities to reaffirm the known and strengthen old habits rather than form new ones. Leaving London, I was reminded more strongly than I had remembered on previous trips to get out and, if nothing else, observe. Out across the wing, for the umpteenth time that elegant crane leered back at me, taunting me for not having done anything about it.
2 thoughts on “A Summer without the Alps”
I spent more than a week each time I visited London so did not “rush around” as much as you did. Living in seasonally hot and humid South Carolina, I perhaps would have coped differently with the heat. Glad you got around to see so many sights. Another delightfully diverse view of a great city. Thanks!
Hey Chuck! I was happy my hotel room had AC… was a blessing at the end of each day.
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