Signs and Wonders

What do we ‘see’ when we travel?

This is the question I asked myself last week as I began labelling photographs taken during several sojourns in the UK. The labelling task seemed a useful occupation during bound-to-base, COVID-19 days.

My first experience of overseas travel didn’t come until I was in my mid-50s, quite an august age for an Australian of my generation, and something that made me unusual among my peers.

I’ve never had an urge to travel. I recall sitting at a wedding reception with a group of strangers a decade or so ago. The conversation started with ‘Where do you live?’ (a guest from Sydney) and ‘What do you do?’ (a guest from Canberra). There were no guests from Melbourne so we didn’t ask ‘Who do you barrack for?’ or ‘What school did you go to?’ Eventually, the questions shifted to family and children. One of my children had been living overseas for a couple of years at that stage so the inevitable query was ‘Have you been to visit?’ When I answered in the negative, the follow-up question was inevitable: ‘When are you going?’

Home and Away

At that time, I hadn’t considered going at all.

I like home. I am content with the mundane and averse to people en masse. As the years passed, however, it became clear that my son in the UK would not be returning to Australia. It was time to arrange a passport.

Being an Australian of Anglo-Celtic descent, I carry images of London in my DNA. Big Ben, Tower Bridge, the Palace of Westminster, the River Thames. There is a sense in which I had known the English metropolis before I ever set foot there.

But imagination is not the same as reality.

Looking back at the photos from my initial visits (and, yes, there have been several now), I am interested to see what captured my attention, what it was I chose to record.

Certainly, there are pictures of renowned sites – Lord’s Cricket Ground, Royal Albert Hall, St James’s Park – but there are other, perhaps less expected, snapshots. The latter fall mostly into three types: places that put flesh on the bones of my imagination, sites that offered a connection to home, and unexpected oddities.

Here is a sample…

Flesh on the Bones of Imagination

  • Cheapside

As long-term readers of this blog know, I have a fondness for the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a certain London district is spoken of with derision and disdain.

One evening at Netherfield Park, the conversation turns to the Bennet family’s relations. Mrs Hurst reveals that there is an uncle (Mr Gardiner) ‘who lives somewhere near Cheapside’.

‘That is capital’, replies Miss Bingley and both sisters laugh heartily at the Bennets’ ‘vulgar relations’. Mr Darcy compounds the sisters’ scorn by declaring that, for the Bennet daughters, having relatives living in such a place ‘must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’.

My pleasure was great indeed when I accidentally found myself wandering into this formerly unsavoury part of London.

  • The Inns of Court

Another of my literary favourites is C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. The series’ protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a lawyer who conducts his legal business at the Inns of Court. Shardlake’s offices are at Lincoln’s Inn, but he also petitions at Gray’s Inn and Clifford’s Inn.

No doubt I missed some of the erudite narrative presented by my London Walks guide as I strolled among the buildings where the fictional Shardlake had walked before me.

In Cheapside and around the Inns of Court, I took photos of signs that authenticated the mental pictures formed through reading.

 

Connections with Home

I never suffered a moment’s homesickness in the course of my UK travels. But that’s not to say I didn’t recognise, and welcome, connections with home.

  • The Cutty Sark

On three separate occasions, I visited the Cutty Sark, the famed tea and wool clipper now preserved as a museum in Greenwich.

After my first visit, I became so enamoured with the ship that I spent hour upon hour in the National Library of Australia researching the clipper’s voyages to the Australian colonies.

As with Cheapside and the Inns of Court, it is the interpretive signage on board the Cutty Sark that features in my photos.

 

  • Captain Bligh House

In a stroke of good fortune when searching for accommodation options in London, I came across a self-catering B&B in Lambeth. It’s a quirky establishment that reflects the flair of its artistically minded owners.

And the connection with Australia?

The house was once home to Captain William Bligh, infamous for the mutiny on the Bounty, and only slightly less infamous for his ill-fated governorship of the colony of New South Wales.

 

Curiosities and Oddities

You’ll have noticed by now that I like taking photos of words – interpretive text, street signs, wall plaques, you name it. If there are words in public spaces, they will likely be recorded on my camera … especially if those words reveal the unfamiliar or the unusual.

Private Gardens

On my first stay in London (when Captain Bligh House was, alas, already fully booked), I spent a few nights in a small hotel in Victoria, very close to genteel Warwick Square and its leafy arbour. My only previous knowledge of private communal gardens came from the movie Notting Hill where Anna (Julia Roberts) and William (Hugh Grant) execute a successful night-time ‘break and enter’ over a wrought iron fence and into Rosmead Gardens.

Prior to their illegal climb and drop, William points out that ‘only the people who live around the edges are allowed in’.

Signage at Warwick Square’s garden reinforces William’s claim.

An entry in my diary indicates the status of those likely to be admitted to the lush green plot: ‘The price of real estate here is suggested by the make of cars parked on the street alongside the garden fence: BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and four Porsches.’

  • Street Crossings

Another English novelty was the Humped Pelican crossing.

I am familiar with Zebra crossings, a name clearly referencing the white stripes on black bitumen, but a ‘humped pelican’? Nothing at the crossing site offered a clue to its meaning.

It was only after searching the internet that I discovered ‘Pelican’ is a portmanteau derived from ‘Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing’.

(In addition to both Zebra and Pelican crossings, the UK also has Puffin, Toucan and Pegasus crossings.)

 

What Did I See on My Travels?

I saw signs and wonders!

I travelled into an unknown land (albeit one with cultural similarities to my homeland) and I was alert to both familiarity and curiosity. The first reinforced my own sense of self and my known place in the world, the second exposed me to difference and a wider understanding of ‘the other’.

And, as is so often the case, literature bridged the two.

Waterstones, Piccadilly (photo taken with permission)

 

Links and Sources

Photo credits: this blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.

4 thoughts on “Signs and Wonders

  1. Brilliant! Great interlude on a very wet afternoon. You have forgotten your first overseas trip to Papua New Guinea … did you need a passport? So glad we have visited some of the places you highlight.

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  2. Hi Tessa,
    My London is also from my reading – Noel Streatfield mainly. But I don’t think I ever did go to the Cromwell Road down which the Fossil sisters (Ballet Shoes) went on long rainy walks with Nana in the 1930s. My first visit was all theatres; my last was following Ada. I would love to go again – just to London. Want to go to the Chelsea Physic Garden and Brick Place. Also have a secret desire to go to the Chelsea Flower Show. Actually would just like to live in London for 6 months. May go in my next life.

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  3. I just might join you! I think we would agree that, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, ‘when a woman is tired of London, she is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’

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