London and Travel
Weird and Macabre London
My trip to Europe in the summer of 2019 was my first stab at truly traveling alone (save for a few days in Hamburg with my dad), and it was the first time I’d put together an itinerary myself.
I’d be flying into London and would have two days and one night there before flying to Hamburg — not a lot of time. But after weeks of online searches and playing with alternate itineraries, I had a plan.
No, I wouldn’t make it to every place I would have liked to, but I’d be doing a lot of walking, crisscrossing the city to stop at every strange place I could fit into less than 48 hours.
I arrived at Heathrow Airport early the first morning and took the train toward the center of London, passing what looked to my uneducated eye like the countryside — cute cottages and everything I associate with UK crime dramas.
Soon enough though, I was in the city.
Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre
My first stop was at the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, although, by the time I’d gotten there, I couldn’t remember why I’d put it on my list…
Nonetheless, I journeyed through some of my favorite exhibit areas, namely, the history of early man, the dinosaurs, and other prehistoric life. There were some cool things on display, but in truth, I got antsy quickly.
Luckily, I then stumbled upon the attached Darwin Centre and remembered that this had been my intended destination all along. (I was more than a bit tired and addled from the overnight flight from New York.)
The Darwin Centre is this giant concrete ‘cocoon’ that houses not only the museum’s plant and insect collections but is also “where scientists extract, process, sequence and analyse the DNA of plants and insects.”
You ride up to the top of the cocoon in an elevator with a view of the main Victorian-era museum, and then walk a wide spiral path down to the bottom, passing each displayed collection and the windows behind which scientists work.
I think bugs are sort of cool. They’re these weird, generally tiny aliens that live alongside us here on earth. (Imagine if those things were just a bit bigger…) Fish, especially those that live deep in the ocean, strike me much the same way.
The Darwin Centre was cool, but I made my way through it quickly — quicker than I felt like I ‘should.’
It was a nice little stop, but I didn’t need all that much time. I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that I was and am done with these sorts of natural history museums for a while. (Can we just admit that they’re all pretty similar?)
The Postal Museum
My next stop was an entirely different kind of museum: The Postal Museum.
No, I’m not a stamp collector, and yes, the idea of a museum on the history of some postal service sounds boring but I promise, it really was a cool stop.
The museum itself houses 500 years of British postal history with all the antiques and displays you might expect, but the real draw is riding the ‘Mail Rail.’
This tiny little passenger train takes you past the “unchanged station platforms” and through the tiny railway tunnels “that once kept the mail coursing through London for 22 hours every day.”
As you ride the small train, videos covering the history of this old underground postal system are projected onto the tunnel walls. I loved it.
Royal London Hospital Medical Museum
After my postal stop, I took another train and walked to the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel, which is housed in the crypt of a nineteenth-century church.
It wasn’t a very big museum or particularly a must-see, but everyday artifacts from the past are always interesting, and I for one think medical history is endlessly fascinating.
One of the museum's highlights is the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man,’ which is always on display. (I think I’ll refrain from commenting on the appropriateness of this and leave that for you to decide.)
Another big draw is the museum’s showcase on forensic medicine that includes original material on the Whitechapel murders committed by ‘Jack the Ripper.’
Speaking of which, because I was staying nearby in Whitechapel, I was able to stop at one of the sites of the aforementioned murders on my way to drop things off at the Airbnb.
Of course, there wasn’t anything to actually see there, and I was certain the construction workers nearby thought I was nuts. Or lost. Or both.
Cereal Killer Cafe
After stopping at the Airbnb and changing into something nicer, I needed a snack, and there was no way I was not going to go to a place called the Cereal Killer Cafe.
I got a marshmallow cereal with ice cream and marshmallow milk, and it was perfectly deliciously childish.
Museum of Childhood
From the cafe, I walked to the V&A Museum of Childhood, which “cares for the nation’s National Collection of Childhood [with its] 33,000 objects and 61 archival collections that span 400 years, from 1600 to the present day.”
Let’s be honest, I had hoped it would all be a little odder, but once I was there, it became clear that kids were a big portion of the target audience. Ah well.
Still, they did have toys from my childhood, and yes, there were several strange and disturbing dolls.
The Last Tuesday Society
After the (mostly boring) toys, I walked to The Last Tuesday Society, a darkly atmospheric cocktail bar and curiosity shop.
My cocktail was unbelievably good, and the oddities just down the stairs in Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities were exactly what I wanted to spend my evening being amused by.
Hello, “skeletons and scientific abnormalities, erotica and ‘celebrity waste’, shrunken heads and exotic souvenirs.”
As you’ll see below, there were at least two mummified ‘mermaids’ and something I think was meant to be a preserved alien.
This was my favorite stop of the day, and yes, I will be visiting all possible curiosity shops in the future, particularly those with attached cocktail bars.
On my second and last day in London, I wanted to do as much as possible before heading to the airport to fly to Hamburg.
But first, I was bound for my most highly anticipated stop — the True Crime Museum in Hastings, a bit South of London.
Although I spent no time in Hastings besides at the museum, by all appearances it was a very cute seaside town that I wouldn’t mind visiting again.
True Crime Museum
Okay, so the True Crime Museum wasn’t as big as I had hoped. Still, it had cool exhibits and was absolutely worth the visit.
Yes, it was morbid. No doubt some people would question the appropriateness of display prison-made weapons, a lethal injection bed, the bathtub someone was killed in, and so on.
I am not one of those people.
I visited each of the exhibits on forensics, gangsters, specific killers, ‘Jack the Ripper,’ and so on, and then I sat in the “cinema cave,” to watch clips from interviews with some of the most notorious serial killers in history.
I’m hoping, given the current popularity of true crime that they’ll eventually expand their museum for my future visiting pleasure.
The Clink Prison Museum
From Hastings, I caught a train back into the center of London, and my first stop back in the city was in some ways the earlier history version of my previous true crime destination.
The Clink Prison, now a museum, dates all the way back to 1144. It was the oldest and most notorious prison in England and is where calling prison ‘the clink’ comes from.
I wouldn’t call The Clink Prison Museum a must-see attraction, but it was relatively interesting as a walk through horrible criminal ‘justice’ history and as a showcase of all sorts of old torture devices.
(Don’t worry; I didn’t include any torture device pictures here.)
My last stop in London was the London Mithraeum, the remains of a Roman Temple of Mithras found in the early 1950s during post-war construction.
It’s now housed in a large modern space, along with a number of other artifacts, right where it was originally found.
One of the highlights of a visit is “the immersive, multisensory experience,” a sound and light show meant to make you feel like you’re visiting the temple as it once was.
Someone who’s interested in Mithraism, the Roman mystery religion, would surely love the place. My dad would probably be into it.
Admittedly, it isn’t something I’d go out of my way to see, but as an on-my-way to stop to the train back to the airport, it worked out well.
One of the underappreciated aspects of traveling solo is not just the ability to go do and see whatever you feel like, but also the requirement that you figure out what that might be.
As I planned my trip, I was consistently torn between what I felt I was ‘supposed’ to do and what I wanted to do, and I often had a hard time distinguishing between the two.
If I were to plan some sort of trip today, I think I’d find it a little bit easier, in part because of having had to make the choices on this one.
At the end of the day, this trip to London wasn’t just a good time. It also gave me valuable insights into how I like to travel and what I’m really into.
(I think we can tell I’m all about hitting those strange, historical, and potentially morbid stops. I’m also going to be constantly in motion!)
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