Tuesday 27th October 2015
starting point: Westminster
end point: The Garden Museum, Lambeth
A tourist walk, beginning with a national landmark and ending with a museum devoted to a typically-English activity.
I think it might be impossible to have a personal experience here. As soon as I exit the tube a small crowd has formed, reacting to the view of Parliament so immediate. I can’t do anything other than loiter here, only able to move forward with the movement of others. At the lights I remain one of many, my autonomy compromised by people pushing to cross the road, despite there being no green man, the presence of a car near my leg snaps me back into the reality of the road.
I stop on the bridge to try to see the Houses of Parliament for myself, actually look at it, but moments after I stop I am jostled by another tourist walking backwards to get Big Ben into shot. I pull out my sketchbook, to start recording. I look up. “Excuse me, can you take my picture with Big Ben…?” a man in a suit pulling a small wheelie bag asks. The light is wrong and it’s either him or the tower in darkness, I opt for the tower. As he thanks me I pull my pen out of my pocket and notice a plank of wood in the water, moving with great speed under the bridge. My impulse is to play pooh sticks and chase the plank across the bridge and downriver. But there is no way to safely navigate this traffic.
I start to walk down some steps, joining the snake of the southbank but suddenly I don’t want to be here, on “the sunny side”. So I return to the bridge and walk past the hospital. Within 25 metres there are no tourists, this is a workaday street. The perimeter of the hospital is marked by cigarette smoke and the clinical waste bins tessellate pleasingly down below.
I take off my coat. I do not hurry, but remind myself to feel the sunshine, to hold it if I can. I know that soon all this will be grey and damp, glorious browns and yellows no-more. The road has transformed, bounded on both sides by tall brick walls. Doorways appear but are bricked up, their doorbells long gone, no one to call, where do they go? Lambeth Palace is ahead. I am sure I should know something about its history, but I can’t think what. Is it wrong that I enjoy the architectural collage of its building materials, and feel no need to find out more?
I smell toast. I’ve heard it can be a symptom of having a stroke. This doesn’t seem like a bad place or time to have one, if I’m honest: a hospital down the road, on a pleasant October afternoon. But it’s too quiet here, away from foot traffic. Who will find me? The tour bus drivers? Would they stop? I rejoin the river path and the other tourists.
St Mary’s, Lambeth holds its collection lightly, these wooden walkways and walls could be whipped down leaving barely a trace that this church has had a second life as a museum. I get invited to draw, and I cannot in good conscience say no, when I have been this person entreating casual visitors to get involved. Now I have to look at the temporary collection display, I’m expected to produce recognisable sketches of its contents. No just absorbing the atmosphere or getting distracted by how they’ve constructed the display cabinets.
In selecting my objects I discover that the founding of the museum can be traced back to a woman in the 1970s searching for the graves of the Tradescant family in this church’s cemetery. I worked at another museum that can credit its existence to that family and instantly this place becomes comfortable and familiar, like an old jumper found at the back of the wardrobe. A small connection and this place is now included in ‘my’ places. I am not a tourist anymore.