Saturday, November 21, 2009

London Favorites

The books I bought


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Sunday lunch in front of the fire

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Indian food at Masala Zone


Strolling through St. James's Park


Poppies everywhere

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Seeing the royals zooming back to Buckingham Palace (too fast for a picture)

Stone curls on the Assyrian man-bull


Extinct species decorating one side of the Museum of Natural History (living species on the other)

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Every trip has to have a little drama...

...and this was no exception. Though all the logistics worked smoothly, we had a few panicked moments. Like trying to find a cab to take us to Paddington and thence the airport, and walking up and down the streets for far too long, until a nice cabbie took pity on us and made a U-turn to pick us up. Or the time Alison feared her wallet had disappeared at the Cabinet War Rooms, only to discover, after we had rushed back, that her string purse had merely worked its way around to her back. Or going through security at the end, where two of Alison's dangerous presents were confiscated, and in the confusion I left behind my silver bracelet and Skye necklace. Run, Lola, Run back to security, where they calmly handed them over. But all's well that ends well.

Two more museums

This morning we visited the British Museum and took a tour focusing on Roman gods and goddesses, primarily in early Britain. A humorless but informative guide chose just a few objects that illustrated her point about the slow melding of pagan, Roman and eventually Christian beliefs over the centuries.

This is the Corbeidge lanx (=tray), a fine example of Roman religious beliefs found in a field by a nine-year-old girl.
Afterwards I paid a ritual visit to the ram in the thicket

("The story of Mesopotamia is the story of mud," a long-ago guide trilled as she led us through this gallery), the Alexander room, which had been closed last time I visited, and my favorite Assyrian, this winged human-headed bull:


I was thrilled to see they were exhibiting a few artifacts from the recently uncovered Staffordshire Hoard.

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The objects were still mud-covered, making it seem that they had just that day been deposited in the museum. It's unknown who will get them in the end - after the hoard is valued, museums will vie to purchase it.

Then lunch at the Museum Tavern - spinach soup and sandwiches of cheddar and chutney - and we parted ways.


Alison tubed to Harrods whilst I continued on to the Natural History Museum and the much-touted new Darwin Centre. What it really is, is much-improved storage space for their millions of plant and animal specimens, but the visitor can now peer into the scientists' working spaces and occasionally interact with them. The exhibits were interactive, too, my favorite being one on how to pack for an expedition. I scored points for the long-sleeved shirts but lost them for choosing alcohol and gloves over old-fashioned pins for impaling my specimens.

The original building is very reminiscent of Oxford's museum


(it even has a couple dodos),

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and Mr. Darwin has pride of place at the top of the staircase.


My feet were worn to nubs by the time I hobbled home to Earls Court. Alison had found a great restaurant for our last night's dinner. Whit's was run by the most friendly and charming woman - we felt as though she had invited us to dinner herself - and featured delicious food. Rabbit with chestnuts and prunes! Souffle for dessert! How will we ever return home to our mud huts?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Catching up

On Sunday morning we visited the Queen's Gallery, but the high point was seeing the Royals returning from the wreath-laying on the Cenotaph, and witnessing the parade of veterans.

In the afternoon we did another London Walk, this one to the Little Venice area. Named by Robert Browning, it was created just before trains took over. Our guide, Shaughan, who sang and recited poetry and jokes at the drop of a hat, told us that you can navigate for miles by canal, as far up as Birmingham.
Here's a view, with Richard Branson's canalboat on the left.

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Today, Monday, we followed a walk through Kensal Green Cemetery, a Victorian-era cemetery, still in use, that includes gravestones from, among others, Anthony Trollope, the accoucheur who delivered all of Queen Victoria's children, and, most movingly, little Marigold, known as Duckadilly, daughter of Winston and Clementine Churchill, who died at age two. The calligraphy is by Eric Gill.

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It was a perfect day for a cemetery walk, cool and grey and damp. The cemetery seems to be falling down in a gentle way, with stones askew or missing. Our guidebook, "TimeOut Book of London Walks," included a rant by Lucinda Lambton against the poor quality of current funerary art, and I must agree.

This afternoon we made our way to the Portrait Gallery for a special exhibit, "From Beatles to Bowie," photos of the Stones, the Beatles, and other ancient luminaries. My favorite was the photo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron who made up The Incredible String Band. Did not know that it had been taken in Frank Zappa's garden... Keith Richards looks remarkably young in the early pictures - hard to believe he turned into the ravaged pirate he is today.

We limped gallantly home, getting ready for the BM and Darwin tomorrow.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

We ran into more Remembrance Sunday events this morning. We left the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace to find crowds of people lining the roads. It turned out that the royals were returning from the wreath-laying at the Cenotaph. We saw Prince Philip and the Queen speed by, then Harry, then some government folk.

Proceeding up the Mall, we ran into another commemoration, filled with veterans, some being pushed in chairs, others held up by colleagues, others marching briskly along. The crowds clapped for them all as they filed by the Old Admiralty Buildings, with the London Eye in the background.


These three look as though they could have been found in England any time over the last three centuries. The man in the middle was shaky, and the other two were holding him up. Are they naval people? My ignorance is showing.

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This is the setting for the gathering of the veterans.


I don't know how they do it, but the English make these ceremonies very moving without being belligerent or maudlin - at least so it appears to an American. We were lucky to be here on this day.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Westminster and Remembrance Day


Breezy, sunny and cool, a gorgeous fall day after last night's pouring rain. We tubed to Westminster and walked along the Embankment to Trafalgar Square, then back across the pedestrian bridge and Westminster Bridge to meet Karen, leader of our London Walk of Old Westminster. Like all the guides we've had on these walks, Karen had an actor's voice and told lively stories about everyone from Cromwell to Winston Churchill to William Wallace (let me know if you're curious about what it actually means to hang, draw and quarter someone, because now I know - ugh).

This walk, from Big Ben to the Jewel Tower to the Thames, Parliament Square and Dean's Yard, was very much about power, history and tradition. Although we're both still a little mixed up about the differences between Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, we both enjoyed it.

It was a great day to wander around outside, looking at historic buildings. St. Stephen's Bell Tower (inaccurately referred to as Big Ben, we learned) sparkled in the sunshine.


And off Smith's Square was a neat little Georgian street that still held traces of World War II and the Blitz.


At the end of the walk, we ran into a Remembrance Day celebration along Victoria Street. The pipes and drums were very stirring, as were the widows (or veterans?) in black. We crowded up to watch and listen. The Brits do this so much better than we do. Note the dirk in the piper's sock, just in case...





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Everywhere we go are people selling poppies and all kinds of people wearing them. I have managed to lose first the pin, then when I got a new pin, the poppy itself...

After a quick pub lunch in St. Stephen's Tavern, said to be a favorite watering spot of MPs, we made our way to Churchill's War Rooms. These were built underground to keep Churchill and his ministers safe during the war. The lights stayed on for six years, until V-J Day, when everyone turned out the lights and went home. Many of the rooms were left just as they were on that last day until being transformed into a museum some forty years later.

After this, a leisurely walk through St. James's Park, featuring the Queen's pelicans along with the geese, ducks and swans. The plane trees (sycamores to us) are shedding their leaves, and they litter the ground in great piles. All of London was out strolling, jumping in the leaves and taking pictures of each other in front of famous landmarks, like these:


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Weary, we headed home via Green Park tube to our stylish little room.


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Friday, November 6, 2009

Hijacked to London

The garden blog has been hijacked again, this time to London. My great plan of sleeping on the plane was derailed by an evil baby in the seat ahead of us who screamed with rage on and off for a couple hours. I know just how she felt.

However, we arrived on time to cloudy skies and cool temps. Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and breakfast there by 9:00. Here's the industrial ceiling of the station,


and here is Alison's first cup of tea.


From here we cabbed to our hotel, then on to the tube - here is Earl's Court's ceiling -


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and the Victoria and Albert.


We avoided total confusion at this enormous museum, housing everything from medieval Islamic art to some of Diana's dresses, by taking the general tour with a most exuberant and enthusiastic guide. The Great Bed of Ware, Dale Chihuly's remarkable hanging (imagine trying to dust this two-ton behemoth - they do it very carefully, on scaffolding, and not often),


a carved jade bowl belonging to Shah Jahan, the great cartoons by Raphael, and the largest and oldest "oriental" rug known, which is housed in a special gallery and lit for only ten minutes each hour to preserve it.

Here is a favorite from the sculpture gallery, Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt, by a sculptor with the improbable name of Hamo Thornycroft.

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Time for soup and the tube back to the hotel.

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The room is small but modern, with free Internet and a flat screen TV so we can watch the weather each morning. We are both wiped out, but looking forward to more tomorrow.