Looking for Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes-style


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LONDON -- Long before Google Maps, there was "London A-to-Z," a detailed pocket map book showing every street in the British capital.

When I purchased my first copy many years ago, I went to the index to look up a familiar address. But there was no Cherry Tree Lane. Which meant there was no No. 17. I would have no easy road map to the home of the bickering Banks family and their nanny with a flying umbrella, Mary Poppins.

With the new Disney movie "Saving Mr. Banks" in theaters, the question of London locations in "Mary Poppins" has returned. In "Saving Mr. Banks," Tom Hanks as Walt Disney is frustrated by the intransigence of writer P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, to allow her children's books to be made into a movie.

If you go
Mary Poppins' London
Regent's Park and Primrose Hill. Chester Road, London. royalparks.org.uk.
Bank of England Museum, Bartholomew Lane. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays. Free admission. bankofengland.co.uk. Note: The museum is closed Jan. 1-March 28 for renovations.
St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Paul's Churchyard. stpauls.co.uk.
Book: "Once Upon a Time in Great Britain: A Travel Guide to the Sights and Settings of Your Favorite Children's Stories" by Melanie Wentz. This 2002 book is a guide to many British sites, including those of the Beatrix Potter tales, "Peter Pan," "The Railway Children" and others. It includes a speculative section on "Mary Poppins," suggesting that the kite-flying hill might be in Hampstead Heath. It's out of print but is available at some secondhand bookstores and online booksellers.
Online: The website marypoppinslondon.wordpress.com says a new book, "Mary Poppins' London," is to be published in spring to mark the 80th anniversary of the first "Mary Poppins" book and the 50th anniversary of the Disney film's release. More details are to come. The only portion posted argues for Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath as the site for the kite-flying, saying it looks much like the inspiration for panorama in the opening of the film -- which was actually a set built by Disney in Burbank, Calif. Those interested can sign up for email updates about the book.
Walking tour: VisitBritain.com,the official tourism website, notes a two-hour, "Poppins"-themed walking tour among the offerings by americantourguideinlondon.com. The guide has certificates from local government tourism groups to vouch for its quality. Prices start at 10 pounds (about $16) for adults. Packages are available.

I'm frustrated that Disney and Travers left so few clues about locations of the movie that shaped my earliest ideas about England and the English.

"In every job that must be done there is an element of fun," someone once sang. So I would have to turn investigative reporter and follow leads and clues. Opting for a chug of coffee over a spoonful of sugar, I set off to see what I could find of "Mary Poppins" in London.

Travers is unspecific about most locations. But just as Jane and Michael Banks first looked inside Mary Poppins' magical carpetbag and thought they found nothing, there really is something there.

The first page of the first "Mary Poppins" book begins with a wink by telling the reader looking for Cherry Tree Lane to ask a policeman for directions, who will send them on a series of lefts and rights to the address. The best Travers will do is tell you the lane is where "houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other and the cherry trees go dancing right down the middle."

OK, they live across from "the Park." Upper case. It has to be one of the big ones, the Royal Parks.

Like Mary Poppins hovering high above the city with her umbrella, I stood outside Charing Cross station and looked at a fold-out map of the city. Richmond Park was too far west. Greenwich Park was too far east.

Mr. George Banks, Jane and Michael's father, works in the City, then as now the financial center of London. When he leaves home, giving his wife, Winifred, a chaste kiss, he walks. So it has to be close to London's center. Travers writes "the afternoon began to die away behind the park." So the Banks family would likely live on the east side to watch the sun set over the park. Mayfair, east of Hyde Park, seemed too expensive an address for the frugal Mr. Banks. Unless they are secretly royals living in St. James's Palace, the area east of Green Park doesn't match up well either.

That left the Regent's Park in north-central London. Into the Tube I went, winding up on the Bakerloo line.

I exited at Regent's Park station and picked up a George Banks-worthy stride. This was a stroll with purpose, no lollygagging. I tried to put myself in his mind-set as I looked at the homes.

"It's grand to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men!" he sang in the movie version.

Where might an upper-middle management banker have lived in those days? It's hard to imagine, because the London real estate market is so overheated in recent years that the George Bankses of the world with a large family would no doubt be riding the train in from some suburb in Sussex. But London was different then, and the smaller homes might be Banks-worthy.

I made my way north along the Outer Circle on the east side of the park. There were a few spots -- Gloucester Road and Village Park West with tall, narrow colonnade-fronted homes. Still, a bit too grand. I passed the famous (and famously expensive) Chester Terrace, designed by John Nash in 1825. One of its 42 houses was the setting for the 1965 film "The Nanny," with Bette Davis portraying a murderous anti-Mary Poppins.

I cut into the park, walking briskly up the Boardwalk along with the midday dog walkers and even a nanny or two pushing along a pram. The route went past the London Zoo, which has a merry-go-round with horses and other animals, much like the one in the movie whose animals magically fly off with their riders. I felt close but not quite there.

I took St. Mark's Bridge over the Regent's Canal, then crossed busy Prince Albert Road, full of red buses, Fullers beer trucks trundling in from the brewery in nearby Chiswick and the famous London black cabs, although many now are painted over with advertisements. I remembered once seeing a white one with black spots, advertising "102 Dalmatians" -- another Disney film set in London.

North of the road, the topography suddenly felt familiar. Albert Terrace and Regent's Park Road had just the right sweep, although no cherry trees for a Cherry Tree Lane. But I was sold that I'd found the right area when I crossed over onto Primrose Hill, the small northern bump of Regent's Park. It's a trendy area today because it is home to Mayor Boris Johnson, and it has been the address of current agent 007 Daniel Craig and rock star Gwen Stefani.

But in its day, this was a more sedate neighborhood. Children ran about, there was a small playground, and on a windy day, it would be a perfect place to fly a kite, just like in the movie. Somewhere along this stretch was the home where Mary Poppins cared for Jane and Michael Banks (and in the books, the other Banks children, who were deleted from the Disney movie).

From Regent's Park it's a long walk or a short subway, bus or taxi ride to the City, where Mr. Banks worked in his namesake trade. I took the Tube to the aptly named Bank station and popped into what was, in George Banks' time, the economic heart of the world. The area was hit hard by German bombers during World War II and rebuilt in a combination of styles loved by some but loathed by Charles, Prince of Wales.

"You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," Charles said in a 1987 speech, "when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."

George Banks' claim that "a British bank is run with precision" would bring scornful laughs from Brits who went through the financial roller-coaster that led to the last recession and has yet to fully stop. What would Mr. Banks think of Bruno Iksil, the infamous "London whale" trader for the City branch of venerable JPMorgan Chase & Co. who lost $6.2 billion of the bank's money in 2012? Hardly the "prudently, thriftily, frugally invested" credo of Mr. Dawes, his employer.

But the City is a much showier place in recent years, its landmark now the sparkly, glass-sheathed, pickle-shaped "Gherkin" skyscraper. It took the place of the stolid Baltic Exchange that stood on the site at 30 St. Mary Axe since 1903, when George Banks would have worked nearby. The exchange was blown up in 1992 by a 1-ton truck bomb set off by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Two men and 15-year-old girl were killed.

There's still more than a bit of the conservative banking tradition of Banks' fictional employer, the Dawes, Tomes, Mousley, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Its spiritual home is, no doubt, the Bank of England. The famed "Old Lady of Threadneedle Street," the bank's headquarters exude the attitude of muscular rectitude needed for a strong, steady British sterling pound.

It's easy to imagine George Banks striding up the steps of the Bank of England. But the current bank dates from just before World War II, when the magnificent bank building erected by John Soane that Mr. Banks would have known was demolished as too small for running the financial side of an empire.

Inside, there is a museum that tells the story of the Bank of England from its start in 1694 to its place as the United Kingdom's central bank. Visitors can touch a gold bar and see old, huge, foldable bank notes and coins with various kings and queens going back centuries. Mr. Banks would no doubt approve that the museum keeps bankers' hours: If you try to visit on the weekend, you are out of luck. It's open weekdays only, excepting, of course, bank holidays.

Nearby is the only recognizable landmark from the movie -- St. Paul's Cathedral. At least four cathedrals have stood on this spot, the highest hill in the City. The current cathedral is a masterwork of England's great church designer, Christopher Wren. It opened in 1697 and has survived Reformation and Counterreformation, fires, Zeppelin raids, the "Blitz" and centuries of soot from millions of coal-burning fireplaces.

It's most famous in recent times for the opulent wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer. St. Paul's hosts an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration for Americans, with a Marine color guard from the U.S. Embassy taking part.

It was in front of the cathedral that Michael Banks saw the old woman singing "Feed the Birds" and chose to spend his "tuppence" on the pigeons instead of putting it in the bank to amortize into investments in African railways, tea plantations, canals and ocean liners as his father wished.

While this charitable act and its fallout were the linchpin of Mary Poppins' hoped-for transformation of George Banks and his family, it would now be difficult and anti-social.

You can still get a bronze-colored coin worth two pennies -- the "tuppence" of the song. But the city considered the pigeons to be disease-carrying vermin whose droppings were a blight. In 2003, a citywide campaign was launched to stop pigeons congregating in large numbers at public venues. Seed sellers were shooed away from St. Paul's and visitors discouraged from feeding the birds. In Trafalgar Square, once teeming with pigeons, it's now illegal to sell seed or feed the birds.

George Banks would have heartily approved -- at least before Mary Poppins came along.



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