Europe By Train: London #1: Reborn again

Always a trading city, London is undergoing yet another resurgence, a safe haven for the developing world, digital lockbox for hard and soft assets. Property values are soaring, red cranes angling across ancient spires. New captains of industry are rising, new fortunes being created.

London’s pulsing artery remains the River Thames, its banks and quays lined with marble palaces and steel bank towers, old wharves and warehouses interspersed with new developments. 

Close your eyes, you’ll see great sailing ships laden with sugar and tea and indigo cloth: bounty of the Empire’s colonies. Open them, you’ll see JP Morgan, Citibank, and HSBC, twentieth-first century power barons. 

The river is alive with barges, yachts, and tour boats, its quays lined with ancient castle walls incorporated in old brick foundations reimagined as caf├ęs and art galleries. 

In one I see a powerful exhibit by artist Claire Phillips inspired by Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist targeting child slavery. (For more, see

The bridges connecting the banks also connect past and present, the Tower of London most famously.

Also noteworthy is Blackfriar’s with its rose stone and gold trim. Here in the 1980s, a financier who crossed either the Vatican or the mafia – or both! – was found hanging.
A thriving second-hand book market is tucked under Waterloo Bridge just east of the Old Globe. There we found a wonderful book bench, featuring Mr. Shakespeare, of course.

The British Literacy Council has commisioned a series of these benches, honoring several well-known authors and books. On display all summer, these painted sculptures will be auctioned for charity this fall. For now, they may be discovered by following four routes, the Greenwich, City, Bloomsbury, and Thames trails. The Mystery Playground blog asked me to investigate.

There is nothing like a mission to focus your (jet-lagged) mind. The route maps are not exact, artist renderings really, so our explorations lead us through back lanes and riverside walkways. We get lost, ask directions – thus informing others of the project – find comrades engaged in the same quest…and have moments of great discovery.

Paddington is further up the River, in the shadows of London Bridge. 

Nearby we discover Dickens’ Great Expectations. 

I find a secret bench in the basement of Stanford’s Travel Bookstore, est. 1863.

Then it is on to the Bloomsbury Trail, beginning at the famed British Library, a universe in itself. Here we find perhaps the first book bench. 

There is a moving WW1 exhibit of photos and posters, a few exhorting women to do their part.

Another exhibit, Treasures of the British Library, has displays ranging from the Magna Carta to handwritten Beatles’ songs. It is hard to leave but we have our investigation to pursue. 

And so it is on to Bloomsbury, the vibrant creative neighborhood centered around London University. Here we find Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Dalloway.

Here is another angle on Sherlock with the glimpse of Baker Street. (I love this woman so engrossed in her own book.)

On this fine day everyone is enjoying their parks and squares, so I have to shoot around them. Below we see Bond…James Bond.

And across the way, Agatha Christie and Poirot….

We are lucky to have tickets to Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace. 

Having seen the movie, I was not prepared for the emotional power of this production – nor its raucous fun. See this play if you can. In high spirits, we return by Tube to our great hotel, Villa Kensington, cozy, and close to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There are lovely walks in the neighborhood. On our last morning, I discover my own secret garden.

I almost get locked inside, but that is another story.

For more on London book benches and a special artist I “met” on Twitter:

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