Before the pandemic began, I maintained a comfortable habit of visiting Japan and Korea on an annual basis…and venturing pretty much nowhere else. (Not even to other parts of the Philippines outside my home region.) Sure, the occasional family holiday would take me on detours beyond that well-trodden path, but as a solo traveller my world was essentially circumscribed by the boundaries of Japan, Korea, and Greater Manila.
Of course, the Great Hullabaloo of 2020 upended many of my usual habits, including non-essential travel beyond my own backyard. 2021 saw a gradual easing of restrictions, but given all the faff of pre-departure tests and quarantines and whatnot I decided against resuming my footloose ways.
And then 2022 came along.
At last, real change was in the air. Quarantines were falling out of favour. Testing requirements were being eased or axed altogether. Regrettably, in the first part of the year when I was sketching out my plans, both Japan and Korea were still closed to tourists. (Korea has since reopened, whilst Japan remains closed unless one joins an extremely restrictive bubble-type tour group which I have absolutely no intention of doing.) So I set my sights elsewhere, cast my net a lot wider – and as I’ve explained in my previous post, I settled upon the UK.
I’ve recounted the long journey from Manila to London in other posts: a flight to Doha, followed by a long layover (spent mostly in an airline lounge), and then a final hop to Britland. I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport late in the evening on 4th June, which is technically my Day 1 but best described as Day 0 since nothing of substance happened.
And now we come to Sunday, 5th June 2022. My first full, proper day in the UK.
The morning dawned clear, bright, and sunny…
…is what I’d like to say. Then again, this is London-town we’re talking about. What could be a more appropriate greeting than the sight of hazy, overcast skies hanging above the soaring spires of St. Pancras Station?
As is my habit when I’m in a new city for more than a day, I quickly established my “home station”: a nearby railway stop that can serve as a jump-off point for exploring further afield. But beyond mere logistical necessity, the “home station” also offers a mental safe harbour – a place that I can easily turn my thoughts to and navigate towards if the anxiety of being in an unfamiliar city becomes at any point overwhelming.
To that end, I conferred the honour upon King’s Cross St. Pancras tube station, located just around the corner from my hotel near Euston Road.
That overcast Sunday morning, I hopped aboard a Piccadilly Line service and rode it to South Kensington – the nearest tube station to my first major stop of the day.
The stop in question was the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary – more popularly known as the “Brompton Oratory” – where I attended the 9 AM Latin Mass.
If you happen to be in London on a Sunday (or other Holy Day of Obligation), I urge you to attend Mass at this particular church. The incredible beauty, respect, and solemnity with which the priests and community offer the Most Holy Sacrifice is edifying beyond belief, and a shining example of how liturgies should be offered in churches everywhere.
And there is, of course, an added advantage for the London tourist: its proximity to one of the UK capital’s finest museums.
Next door to the Brompton Oratory is London’s famous V&A – or more formally the Victoria and Albert Museum. Self-billed as “The World’s Leading Museum of Art and Design”, this compound houses a staggeringly vast collection as eclectic as the design of its Cromwell Road façade.
Here’s the thing about a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture: you know it’s a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture even before the brain’s had a chance to identify it as a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture. (Must be all those wiggly bits.)
Entrance to the permanent collections is free, although I did pony up an extra £14.00 to see the museum’s Beatrix Potter special exhibition (which runs until 8th January 2023).
As for the free-to-enter galleries which make up the great bulk of the V&A, the collection housed within is…now how shall one put it…
….impossible to pigeonhole.
No, seriously. Walk from hall to hall and you’ll find yourself gazing upon fragmentary architectural elements one moment…
…or staring at an unbelievably humungous and apparently quite famous bed the next…
…before popping into an 18th-century music room salvaged from a long-demolished London townhouse.
This bewildering variety can be observed even within the confines of a single gallery. For example, I visited the Japan exhibition (Room 45) which, predictably enough, showcased a variety of rich lacquerware and elegant textiles and intricate metalwork…
…alongside (less predictably enough) a group of Hello Kitty-branded appliances and a completely bizarre Sweet Lolita costume.
Let’s move on.
My favourite section of the V&A is a pair of lofty halls known as the Cast Courts. Now I can’t be bothered to explain what these are in my own words, so I’ll let the text from one of the signs do the talking:
You are walking into the 19th century. Opened in 1873, the Cast Courts show copies of architecture and artworks from around the world. These historic galleries offer a glimpse of the Victorian museum.
The Courts are the strongest expression of this Museum’s founding mission as a place of art education. The Museum’s collection provided examples to inspire artists, designers and artisans to supply better designs to Britain’s factories. Spectacular displays would also shape ‘public taste’ to help consumers become more discerning in their choices. Copies including plaster casts, electrotypes and photographs were central to this mission, and complemented the Museum’s collections of
original works. Together they offered a 19th-century encyclopaedia of international decorative styles.
Today the Cast Courts take us back in time. For Victorians, they were the height of modernity. In a period when travel was difficult, the Courts brought art and architecture from around the globe together under one roof, making the world feel smaller and more connected in a way that can be compared to the dawn of the internet. A modern fascination with replication, particularly via digital media, has rekindled the relevance of these collections for visitors now.
To put it simply: if you’re a 19th-century Englishman or Englishmanwoman with lofty artistic ambitions but limited means, you don’t need to traipse all over Europe in search of inspiration. Just pop into the V&A’s Cast Courts, where Europe – or parts of it, anyway – has been conveniently brought to you. In the days before the Internet or cheap package holidays, having such a varied collection in one place must have been of tremendous benefit to the many aspiring artists, architects, historians, designers, and people of other fields who passed through these halls.
Of course, at some point they would have felt the need for a tea break – as did I. Time to head for the V&A’s famous Refreshment Rooms.
From a sign posted nearby:
The South Kensington Museum, as the V&A was known until 1899, was the first museum in the world to open a public restaurant. The Museum aimed to provide cultural enjoyment and education for all, and its Director, Henry Cole, recognised the importance of visitors’ comfort. He built three ‘Refreshment Rooms’ at the original main entrance and ensured these were lavishly decorated. Different classes of menus were available, including one for ‘mechanics and all workmen employed at the Museum Buildings and the humble working class visitors’.
Well, they weren’t kidding about the “lavish decoration”. (Shame about the modern chandeliers and cheap plastic furniture, but there it is.)
The price tags didn’t strike me as friendly to “humble working class visitors”, but then again, this was a museum in the 21st century. What could be more museum-y in our own day and age than inflated snack bar prices?
In any event, I was feeling peckish and permitted myself the hallowed British tradition of afternoon tea. Never mind that it was about 11 in the morning at the time – it’s not like the Queen was watching or anything.
Afterwards, I allowed myself a bit of fresh (?) London air in the V&A’s central courtyard…
…before diving back into the building to see more of its collections.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Jet lag was still messing about with my body clock, so I called an early end to sightseeing and repaired to the comfort of my hotel. There, over an early dinner of cold sandwiches cobbled together using items plucked from the shelves of an M&S Food store, I watched the weekend’s last Platinum Jubilee celebrations on the telly before retiring for the night.