WITH just a few days left of the holidays, a getaway was urgent. Not for peace and quiet, but for pavements and people.
I set out for London – a hop away, they say, but more like half a day when you take a taxi, bus, train and plane into account.
Well worth it, though! As soon as I landed in Gatwick, I knew I was somewhere faster, hotter and vaster. Even a Ryanair glitch was manageable.
The airline had forgotten to mail me confirmation of the bus to Victoria. Despite assurances from Ryanair staff at Dublin Airport, on the flight and from staff at Gatwick that I could sort it at the Ryanair desk once I landed, it wasn’t so.
For starters, Gatwick has no Ryanair desk. The bus company did – but they couldn’t help without a voucher.
I was told this had happened to other Ryanair passengers, and I wondered if they, like me, had finished up having to forgive, forget and shell out for another bus fare.
Anyway, thanks to an Oyster card for bus and Tube (an absolute must), I arrived in the city in one piece with an open mind and just three overall aims for my stay: drink at least one pint of real ale; eat English fish and chips; and use the bus, whenever possible.
Shepherds Bush, my weekend base, is serviced by the Number 94, which got me direct to Piccadilly Circus – an ideal starting point for sightseeing.
The place was heaving; the air brimming with snatches of bizarre conversation – just what I was looking for.
At Trafalgar Square, I stood before the fourth plinth and took stock of Katharina Fritsch’s startlingly blue Hahn/Cock, recently unveiled by City Mayor Boris Johnson.
“Of course it’s blue,” said a fellow tourist. “He’s a Tory!”
On the other side of Millennium Bridge, I began a happy stroll through South Bank, nipping into the British Film Institute, browsing through more books piled high on old-fashioned trestle tables, and listening to a Pythonesque guitarist on a lounger far below on the Thames’ muddy banks, serenading us manfully; and then on to the Tate Modern at Bankside, which was bursting with exhibitions, visitors and shops.
I had to drag myself past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, because it wasn’t on the itinerary – but next time, next time …
Next day, at the Riverside Studios, I sipped a pint of real ale looking out over Hammersmith Bridge.
And it was a novelty, being invited to bring the remainder into the cinema (£12) for the film, Wadjda.
Shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it’s the first feature-length film written and directed by a female Saudi director, Haifaa al-Mansour. Was I glad I’d missed it in Dublin!
What London visit is complete without getting to an open air market? I boarded the Number 31 from Shepherds Bush, and went on an odyssey through Holland Park, Notting Hill Gate, Kilburn, Chalk Farm and on into Camden – the low point of the trip.
Camden was nothing more than a horrible frenzy of buying and selling, mostly of junk. I was glad to head home, and grateful that I never had to wait longer than five minutes for any Tube, train or bus. London, transport wise, is a well-oiled machine!
A first visit to the Natural History Museum remedied the Camden vibe. Outside the remarkable building (which took about an hour’s queuing to enter), I passed the remains of a two-thousand-year-old tree – older than the Pyramids, so the sign said – and heard someone remark on how minute and insignificant we humans are.
Inside, that idea was reinforced a hundredfold by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Selgado’s Genesis exhibition (£12) – the purpose of my visit.
Selgado describes the show, which is sponsored by Brazilian mining multinational Vale, as “a call to arms. We cannot continue polluting our soil, water and air”.
Entirely stripped of the cityscape, these black-and-white images are breathtaking and many; a prolonged reminder of the planet’s beauty and our dependence on it.
Selgado urges us to consider how our actions affect the earth – and at a time when the Balcombe fracking protests were taking place, it was a timely urging.
And – suddenly – the weekend was over, without a chip in sight! I hopped back to Dublin with a promise to myself that it wouldn’t be another 25 years before the next visit …