It’s just occurred to me that my trip to London was four weeks ago but I haven’t managed to post any photos or a travel narrative. Must get organized, or someday I’ll just be saying, I know I did stuff on that trip but can’t recall exactly what…
The weather was rather wet, unsurprisingly, but at least there was very little snow. Which was a plus, since I left home during a lull in historic snow falls for the area, and I understand that there was a lot of snow in southern England this year. Without going to look at my travel journal, here are the things that stand out in my memory.
Had planned on visiting Oxford but not the first day. Thank you, National Rail employee who refused to read the small print on my London Plus BritRail Pass, insisting that the train trip from the airport activated the pass for the day, rather than counting separately. (No, it didn’t, according to the fine print on the back of the pass.) Anyway, the train ride to Oxford was unintentionally entertaining, as I was seated directly behind a young woman of very decided opinions who shared them with her companions for the entire trip and eventually sucked them into her jaunt to Blenheim Palace. I was tempted by the thought of the gardens and grounds, but wasn’t sure my boots (sturdy but not Wellies) would be up to that much rain. Instead, I wandered around Oxford, enjoying the glimpses into the different colleges and the busy streets. Climbed Carfax Tower just off the high street — up was fine, but coming down made me nervous. At Market Square, I watched cakes be decorated and fondant-ed; admired leatherwork; chatted with a clerk in the butcher shop; and window shopped at a lovely jewelry shop. Had lunch in the cafe in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, can’t remember the name, but the food was organic, served homestyle, and quite delicious. Enjoyed the tour of the Bodleian Library, especially of Duke Humphrey’s library and what I believe was the original lecture room of the divinity school, which can be seen in the Harry Potter movies as the library and infirmary, respectively. (Photo is of Christ Church College, taken from War Memorial Garden.)
Woke up the next day and saw that the sun was out! Last minute change of plans: took the tube to Wimbledon. Well, tube and bus. The tour and museum were a little spendy in comparison to other museums and entertainments, but I would recommend it to anyone who is a tennis fan. We had a chance to sit in Court #1 and Center Court, which absolutely rocked my socks (also, all the seats in Center Court were just replaced, and each has its own individual cover, unlike any other stadium I’ve been in). (I am TOTALLY going to the Championships at Wimbledon someday, even if I have to
sell my soul take out a second mortgage on my house to do so.) Anyway, learned all kinds of odd and random things interesting probably only to tennis enthusiasts, such as: the two largest courts are regrassed every September (rye grass); it takes 9 months to build a new stadium but a year for the earth to settle, which is why building is going on now for a new court to be used in the 2012 Olympics; the two largest courts are open enough that local foxes sneaking in to use the grass is a problem…hence electric fences. There is a temporary exhibit on Fred Perry in the museum that was interesting, and I loved the display on women’s tennis kits, especially the video that showed the 10 kilograms of clothing that women used to wear!
Seemed a shame to go to a museum or anything that would leave me indoors on such a nice day, so I went to Kensington Gardens and people watched. Lots of material, especially around the Round Pond and Prince Albert Memorial. (And, hey, Depeche Mode was playing Royal Albert Hall later that week!)
Despite a rainy and dreary day, Hampton Court Palace was a nice day trip. The kitchens of Henry VIII were fascinating, especially the bits of the tour when experimental food historians talk about trying to recreate recipes, utensils, and cooking methods. Food as status — what you are served, how you are served, when/where you are served — isn’t something I’d ever thought about before. Stood next to a huge fireplace for a few minutes to warm up, and was given the chance to turn a spit. Even empty, it took muscle, and I couldn’t imagine trying to turn it when half a cow was on the spit. In one of the galleries upstairs, I looked out over the Fountain Court and noticed the carvings over the arches — are they gods and goddesses? The nearest one was horned, which made me think Pan or Bacchus. Checked with one of the museum guards/docents, but she wasn’t certain — no one had ever asked her about them. Lovely galleries of paintings – especially Kneller’s Hampton Court Beauties and Lely’s Windsor Beauties. The garden probably shows better in fair weather, but I still enjoyed the Maze.
The British Library…I took a tour of the library and was the only person on tour. Marta, the guide, was very helpful and informative. I got to see the mechanical system used to ship books from the underground stacks (8 stories!) to the different reading rooms, and to admire the very modern reading rooms. The BL receives 4,200 items per week. And cannot cull the collection, unlike the average lending library, since its job is to archive materials. Many materials are stored offsite in Yorkshire, and if requested, will be available for viewing in London within 48 hours. Didn’t realize that they were part of the British Museum until recently. The building is lovely and rather naval, which I mentioned. Marta smiled and told me that the architect was a retired naval fellow, and the resemblance was intentional, from the exterior cruise ship-like profile to the round, porthole-like windows on all doors. The collection of George III is front and center, as required by the bequest, light and temperature controlled. More than 35,000 volumes collected by a magpie king who didn’t actually read many of the books, but had an agent on the continent whose job was to acquire them for the king. (Hmm, I can only imagine that my TBR pile would be of equivalent size if I had an unlimited budget and an agent whose sole job was to acquire books that I might be interested in for my collection.) The temporary exhibit was of editions of the Rubiyat by Omar Khayyam, and the permanent exhibit includes all kinds of things, ranging from the oldest known Beowulf manuscript and one of the original duplicates of the Magna Carta to handwritten Beatles lyrics. Was blown away by the Turning the Page (TM) technology and ability to view virtually some incredibly delicate and valuable books, manuscripts and documents. The new library was supposed to have three phases of building, with this first building followed by more, but the funding has been cut for the other phases, so this is it. Marta said that if they’d known, likely a lot of the open space in this building would have been used differently, but that would be a shame — it is a gorgeous building, very open and welcoming. (My brain was quite full after leaving the library.)
On the next sunny day, I had a dilemma: day trip to Canterbury or Dover Priory. Fortunately for me, the same train went to both destinations, so I had a while to make up my mind. Ended up picking Canterbury, which was a happy choice. After exploring the pedestrian-only area and window shopping, I went to the Cathedral. Christchurch Gate is a little creepy, frankly, with the blue figure hovering over the gate. Is it copper and the blue is corrosion, or is the color intentional? Anyway, the cathedral is majestic, even partially laddered with scaffolding and netting. While wandering inside, I paused to take note of an interesting memorial (the fellow seemed to have led an interesting life, governor & commander of Hong Kong, ambassador to China) and was asked if he was an ancestor? No, just someone to look up. But the lady (a guide in training) kept me company for the rest of my visit, and chatted with me about the cathedral cats; the daily Great War memorial — recently relocated due to falling masonry from the Great South Wall; the Red Dean of her youth; the pea fowl that the new, young dean kept; the speculation that Thomas Becket’s body had been moved by the monks before Henry VIII sacked the shrine in 1538; and how, if I’d come a little earlier, I would’ve seen the gorgeous altar cloths and flowers that usually decorated the cathedral but which had been put away for Lent. Walked to the Roman Museum, and had a hurried visit, then back to the cathedral for Evensong (beautiful). Far and away, the thing that most impressed me was the fan ceiling of the Bell Harry tower. Gorgeous. None of my photos came out well, so I’ll just link to a pic here.
Let’s see, what other stuff? Walking tour of Legal & Illegal London, which included the four remaining original Inns of Court. Aside: I didn’t realize that the bells John Donne referred to in Meditations XVII arose from the bell tolling the death of benchers. I thought it was much more generic. The insight into the legal history of England was entertaining and informative, and drove home how very different our legal cultures and communities are, despite the fact that much of American common law is based on English common law.
Saw "The Misanthrope", which I enjoyed but is not my favorite work by Moliere; I’m supposed to scorn Alceste for idealism and naivete and his unwillingness to engage in hypocrisy even when it would be to his advantage, but he’s my favorite character and I am frustrated that he’s essentially dismissed as a Cassandra. In this interpretation of the play, Damien Lewis played Alceste, and Keira Knightly played Jennifer (Americanized and modernized Celimene). Both were very good, although I found Knightly’s American accent to be not quite right — I’m not sure I can explain it, other than to say it was a little too nasal and the consonants too hard…plus, she lost the accent almost entirely whenever she had to pronounce a word ending in -ing, like "anything".
The 100 artifacts exhibit at the British Museum is worth seeing, as is the temporary exhibit of medieval York artifacts. The Sherlock Holmes Museum? Eh, if you are a huge, huge fan, it’s probably worth your time. I went primarily to take photos for the Holmes fan in my family, so I enjoyed it, but probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Plus, I was a bit out of sorts since it was snowing and the wind turned my umbrella inside out, and a French brat kept asking me to move despite the fact that there was no place to move to. [I'd've happily moved just to get away from him if there had been any room to spare.]
While standing in front of the National Gallery, a squad of red-coated soldiers on horseback came trotting up the street. Not sure where they came from or where they were going (are the Horse Guards nearby?), but it was certainly a sight to see.
Hmm, my unthreatening-factor remains in effect: I was asked for directions no less than four times. And was able to help twice!
Took a lot of pics that I’ll eventually label and upload to FaceBook. I guess. Here’s one last photo. I loved the huge buttresses with the tiny, tender buds of spring flowers.