Thursday, October 06, 2016

London's Multiple Personalities

One attraction we all agreed that we needed to put on the London agenda was the British Museum.  We slotted it into our first full day of sightseeing and planned on spending the entire day there.  We knew that the sheer magnitude of the treasures on display would be more than we could manage to see in just one day, but we planned on seeing as much as we could.  We also figured that the long day of traveling and the skipping around town we had done on the day of arrival would make a single focal point a nice change of pace, especially since the next day was going to be a long one with many different sights to see.

We walked into the museum a few minutes after opening time and we left a few minutes before closing time.  We didn't begin to see everything, but what we did see was amazing.  The building itself is awe inspiring, with huge hall after huge hall covering every part of the world, with exhibits on Africa, the Americas, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, Asia, Europe (10000 BC to the present), and the Middle East.  Some of the wonders they have on display are the treasures from Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen, the Parthenon Sculptures, and the Rosetta Stone.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg.  One of the last things that David and I stumbled across was the Enlightenment Gallery which was initially created to house the library of King George III.  It was a fascinating place and I wished we had discovered it earlier in the day.

The British Museum

The interior courtyard of the museum.  Just up that curving
staircase was the delightful Great Court Cafe where we
enjoyed an elegant lunch.

The Anglo-Saxon helmet from Sutton Hoo, the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is a major destination for visitors and it was difficult to get close enough to it to take a photograph, and even if you managed it, the glass case was so reflective that a clear picture was impossible.  I went back several times and it was always 3 people deep all the way around.  To get this photo, I just had to be stubborn and push my way through the crowd.

David in a corner of the library of King George III.  The
sheer volume of books contained in the Enlightenment Gallery was
mind-boggling.  I really missed my calling; I should have been
a librarian or at least an archivist.  Being in this kind of
exhibit makes me downright giddy.

In contrast to King George III's book collection, I found the
Ashurbanipal Library (the oldest royal library in the world on
cuneiform tablets, dating to about 630BC), absolutely
If you ever have a free day in London, I highly recommend the British Museum.  Your jaw will drop repeatedly.

The next day was packed full of activity and highlighted many different sides to London.  We began by walking to Westminster Abbey, which meant we walked right past Buckingham Palace where we had to stop and take some photographs and ooh and ahh over the magnificent gates and the monument to Queen Victoria.  (That will all get covered in the next post.)

We were running a bit early, so we decided to take a detour through St. James's Park.  This was our first experience with London's green spaces.  There are several parks in central London and when you enter one, it isn't long before you are completely surrounded by tree lined walkways and you totally forget you are in the middle of a huge city.  You don't even hear the traffic noises.  St. James's Park even has a large lake running through the center.

A display we passed in the park appealed to the reader and
the miniaturist in me.

Crossing the bridge over the lake, we had a beautiful view of the Eye
in one direction...

and a beautiful view of the Palace in the other direction.
Leaving the park, we strolled past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and David and I got the requisite photos of ourselves with the iconic red phone boxes.

Big Ben

I include the next photo to point out another of London's personality quirks.  To the right of David and Karen you will notice a pile of litter on the sidewalk.  As clean and neat as the green spaces are kept, we were continually seeing piles of litter on the sidewalks.  Our hotel had a small pub/cafe on the opposite corner and every morning there would be a fresh pile of litter where the late evening crowd just dropped their trash.  I found it an odd contrast to the orderly way local folks seem to live their lives.  Every day we were there it seemed there was a garbage collection made and most of the houses put out their garbage in small plastic bags rather than bins.  It made for a somewhat discordant note in an otherwise pleasing environment.

David, Karen and Big Ben
I had been looking forward to our visit to Westminster Abbey and it certainly lived up to my expectations.  Interior photographs were not allowed, but you can find a virtual tour here and a picture gallery here.  Every church we visited on our trip was breathtaking inside.  Westminster Abbey was the ultimate in breathtaking beauty and history.  Almost every square foot of the floor and walls would contain a memorial or tomb.  Several queens and kings have elaborate crypts in antechambers, including Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Henry VII.

Outside the entrance to Westminster Abbey
The highlight for me was when we reached the Poets Corner where many of the early poets and writers I admire are entombed or memorialized.  I managed to behave myself as I had toured the Abbey and had not touched anything...but I was unable to resist touching Chaucer's crypt.  It was the first time that day I would remember my classes with Professor Hutmacher at Mary Hardin-Baylor.  He was a Chaucer scholar and I clearly remember the day he launched into old English as he introduced us to The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
  And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
  Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
  Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
  The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
  Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
  And smale foweles maken melodye,
  That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
  So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry lindes;

But I digress.

We decided we had to lunch in the Cellarium Cafe near the Abbey's cloisters and I think the picture of me there is my favorite from the entire trip.  (The food was excellent and I was envious of the tea service taking place at the table next to us.  We were tempted to grab some of the untouched leftovers when the ladies left.)

Next on the agenda was a visit to Trafalgar Square.  I was not really prepared for the hub bub of activity that is Trafalgar Square.  There were people everywhere, even though we were experiencing off and on shower activity by the time we arrived.  We spent some time getting photographs of the lions on each corner of the monument to Lord Nelson.  (They are a whole lot bigger than you would think they are.)

Lord Nelson's column, Trafalgar Square
The skies suddenly opened up, so we dashed inside the adjacent National Gallery.  We had hoped to get an hour or two to visit here, but weren't sure we would be able to fit it into our plans for the day.  The rain did us a favor because it would have been a shame to have missed seeing this wonderful place.

National Gallery
One of the galleries inside

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

I made sure to see the Van Goghs in their collection, which included "Sunflowers", an old favorite.  There were paintings from nearly every old master you could name and the building itself was a work of art.  The National Gallery is another place I would like to return someday for a more leisurely visit.

We had to speed through the galleries quickly because we needed to head to an early supper, since we had theater plans for the evening.  A short walk from the National Gallery brought us to the Church of St Martin in the Fields, where we ducked inside for a quick look before heading to the Cafe in the Crypt where the food was very good, even though served cafeteria style, and the dining atmosphere was amazing, located as it was in the under passages of the complex.

Our last adventure for the day was to attend a performance of MacBeth in the reproduction of Shakespeare's Globe that sits on the banks of the Thames.  The theater is open air and performances are held rain or shine.  We got lucky that the rain had dissipated by performance time and our seats were excellent.  It is a unique venue, with attention to authentic detail, so the benches are wooden gallery style and leg room is limited.  The "cheap seats" (which aren't) are on the floor surrounding the stage and you either sit on the floor or stand throughout the performance.  Our seats were in the second gallery and almost center stage, so we had a perfect viewpoint.  The performance was outstanding, although some modifications that had been made to the original play still have us scratching our heads a bit.  (Again, I found myself wondering what Professor Hutmacher would have had to say about the unique interpretation.)  There was no denying that it was a powerful experience even so and a highlight of our London stay.

David, at right, just before the play began

During intermission later in the evening.
Our long day came to an end about 11pm.  We got lucky and caught a taxicab just outside the theater who had had his scheduled fare canceled, so we were home and in bed quickly.  Tomorrow would be another busy day.  We were scheduled to have tea at the Palace.


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