Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7: Westminster Abbey & The National Portrait Gallery

The first stop of the day was Westminster Abbey, situated across the street from the Houses of Parliament and the location of every English and, later, British coronation from 1066 on (excepting the 2 rulers who did not have a coronation).  We were originally going to visit the Abbey on the first day of the trip (April 30), but because of tiredness it was put off until later.  This proved to be a mistake.  The Abbey was now home to the 50th anniversary of some kind of flower show, for which it seems every woman in Britain over the age of 50 decided to attend.  

The entire affair was a wall-to-wall experience with any caution to fire code thrown out the window.  Imagine the headlines: "Two Iowans Trampled to Death by Kindly Old Women Escaping Abbey Fire".  I have no doubt that even the trampling would've been kindly.  

The visit was still interesting, if only because I had not been there before.  The price was also half-off (6 pounds instead of 12), which added to the allure somewhat.  Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in the Abbey (similar to St Paul's policy, but interestingly not Canterbury Cathedral where all manner of photography was allowed excepting inside the Crypt), though on this day would've been nearly impossible anyway.  Now, as difficult as I find it to not take pictures in such places, I do obey the rules.  It seems that some people, no matter where they are, cannot.  I wished our guide from St Paul's, Chris, would've been present to wave a finger at those who were not taking heed.  Perhaps, after a few waves of the finger doing no good, he would've simply resorted smashing the camera on the ground followed by a trademark, "I simply love it!"

After returning to the open air we headed up to the National Portrait Gallery, housed right next to the National Gallery, which contains portraits of famous Britons going back to the 16th century.  When it was started, in 1856, it was the first museum of its kind in the world.  In addition the viewing royal portraits, I was extremely interested in seeing the "Chandos Portrait", which is the only portrait of Shakespeare "known" to be painted from life (there is, as with all things Shakespeare, some doubt as to whether the portrait truly depicts him; I, however, remain convinced).  

We spent about 45 minutes at the Portrait Gallery and then headed back towards the hotel for a late lunch.  Following this, it was back to the British Museum for some additional perusal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6: The Tower of London and the Museum of London

At around 10:30, we took the tube from King's Cross/St Pancras to Tower Hill station in order to visit the Tower of London. The tower, which is accessible via a pedestrian stairway running under the street immediately outside the tube station, is one of the most famous and enduring icons of London. Its famous White Tower, built under order of the newly crowned William the Conqueror, was completed in 1078 and still stands to this day. In addition to serving a role in protecting London from invaders, it served an equal function in those early days in protecting the new rulers, the Norman French, from the native population of London.

From this time, the Tower was expanded and today contains 20 towers within its complex. As we entered, we were fortunate enough to jump in on a Yeoman Warder (popularly known as "Beefeaters") tour that had just kicked off, which is an option for anyone who has paid admission. To become a Yeoman Warder one must be enlisted in the British service for at least 22 years, whilst essentially maintaining a spotless record. In addition to providing tours and information, the Warders must also provide for the defense of the Tower should the need arise. To complete these tasks to their fullest, the Warders live with their families inside the Tower compound behind the Tower gates, which are locked every night. Our Yeoman Warder was a former Sergeant Major who, as part of his duties while serving on a British base in Germany, guarded Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess - who was also, somewhat ironically, the last State prisoner to be held in the Tower, in 1941.

The commentary provided was witty and fluid, while also commanding the audience's complete attnetion. Stories, of course, generally centered on the bloody history of the Tower. Before our final stop on the guided tour - the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula - the Warder instructed us, in no uncertain terms, to have all cell phones turned off in the chapel. Naturally, these demands were too simple to be met and two people were publicly humiliated once inside. In the second instance, the Warder said "Sir, are you texting? Because I can go back into 'Sergeant Major' real quick. DON'T text back! Shut it OFF!"

Needless to say, this was quite enjoyable to watch even though the Warder was anything but joking; full attention was demanded and expected. After the colorful commentary, we were off on our own, heading into Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are housed.

After being led through three queues involving short films - including Queen Elizabeth II's coronation - pumped up with increasingly regal music (which frankly set up expectations for some kind of royal theme park ride which was presumably just around the bend), we were allowed to view the most prized items from a slowly moving walkway. It was certainly impressive to see them outright, including the Sceptre of the Cross, which contains the second largest polished diamond in the world - the Great Star of Africa - weighing in at 530.2 carats. In addition to this, my favorite item was the oldest surviving piece in the collection, a golden spoon dating from the 13th century. It is the Anointing Spoon (upon which the "anointing oil" is poured which is then used to anoint the new Sovereign by the Archbishop of Canterbury), spared from Oliver Cromwell's psychotic decision in 1649 to destroy the Crown Jewels by the intervention of a Yeoman of the Removing Wardrobe, Clement Kynnersley, who bought it for 16 shillings before the Jewels were destroyed. One of the greatest items destroyed by Cromwell was reputedly the crown of Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871-899 - such a pity.

From here, it was on to the White Tower where an exhibition of Henry VIII's armor - in honor of the 500th year since his ascension to the throne - was on display and was also included in the admission price. Essentially, this exhibit allowed one to watch, in increments, the increasing size of Henry's frame. From a fit young ruler at age 18, to the extremely obese and unhealthy man from age 45 onwards, Henry VIII's armor tells the tale. Needless to say, it was a fascinating exhibit.

We followed this with a trip through the remaining towers and, in total, spent about 3 1/2 hours at the Tower. From here we hopped on the tube from Tower Hill to Barbican station to visit the informative, though significantly smaller than other London museums visited previously, Museum of London. Smaller is used somewhat lightly here, as there were still a very wide range of objects emanating from the London area going back to at least 2500 BC. The most impressive and interesting were the collections from Roman London, including a full mosaic floor.

Tired now, we headed back to the hotel to wind up the day eating the evening meal at Callaghan's where I had, once again, the prized fish & chips.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: Coach Tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover

This morning began earlier than others as we needed to make it to Victoria Coach Station by 8:30 in order to board an Evan Evans coach tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and Dover.  After some bit of confusion between the Euston Square underground station and the very nearby Euston underground station, we made it intact to the coach station at around 8:15.  We boarded at 8:45 and were off slightly before 9.  Our guide, the extremely enunciated Marc, and our driver, the quiet but good Martin (who I nicknamed St Martin at the Wheel - echoing the church by Trafalgar Square, St Martin's in the Fields) led the way as we disembarked London.  

Marc provided interesting and witty commentary for most of the journey from Victoria Station to Greenwich with additional bits as we approached the stops.  Whilst driving through Greenwich, he mentioned we would be passing the Prime Meridian, heading, for the first time in my life into the eastern hemisphere.  "Don't worry, you won't feel anything", he reassured.  

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, built in 1119 by Robert De Crevecouer.  In 1278, the castle became a royal palace for King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile.  It remained a royal palace through the days of Henry VIII and was used extensively by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Later, the castle was owned by the Culpeper family (who, in siding with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, allowed the castle to escape destruction) and finally, 300 years later in 1926, it was purchased by Lady Baillie who redecorated the castle and set up the trust that ultimately led to it being opened to the public in 1976.  

The picturesque castle, set partially on a lake-island amidst rolling hills of green, was very accessible and well-cared for.  Most rooms were viewable on the self-guided tour and were furnished as it was upon the death of Lady Baillie (in addition to many items left in place over the centuries, namely, the walls).  In addition to the castle, the grounds hold spacious gardens, an aviary, a golf course, a maze, and, strangely, a dog collar museum (which was not visited by us, but, in retrospect, should have been).  

After re-boarding the coach promptly at 12:45 (Marc: "If you are not on the coach at 12:45, a taxi could come collect you and take you to Maidstone where there is train service to London.  People think I'm joking when I say this; I'm not."), we headed for Canterbury to see, primarily, Canterbury Cathedral, built in 1077 on the site of  2 former cathedrals.  The first of these was founded by St Augustine in 602 after being sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons.  

Once the coach arrived in Canterbury, Marc took great repetitive and enunciative pains to make sure we knew to return to "the Bus Stay-shun" for our coach and not the coach station which is evidently somewhere else altogether.  All together now: the Bus Stay-shun.  With these pertinent details firmly engrained, we headed towards the cathedral, clocking in at 297 feet at its highest point and composed of Norman and Gothic styles, set just off the city center.  

In addition to being the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion), the burial site of Henry IV and his wife, and also that of the Black Prince, it is probably most famous for being the site of the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, Thomas Becket.  Becket was murdered by 4 knights who interpreted, literally, Henry II's supposed utterance:

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"  Or, variously:

"Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

"What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

Regardless, the knights set off and shortly before Evensong on December 29, 1170, Becket's head met with the blades of the knights' swords (for more on this, including an eyewitness account:  The exact spot of the murder is marked by a hanging sword sculpture in an area of the cathedral known as the Martyrdom.  

If all this wasn't enough, according to Marc, the cathedral is home to around 1/2 of all surviving medieval stained glass in England, which was viewed with immense pleasure.  After about 2.5 hours in Canterbury, including a pause to eat some terribly bland fish & chips (me) and equally tasteless chicken (Dan), we headed for our final stop, Dover, home to the imposing White Cliffs and Dover Castle.  

We arrived at Dover around 30 minutes later, de-coached, and took to the stony beach for a brief 20 minute stretch.  The views were very nice, though France decided to pull down the shades and was not viewable across the Channel.  After indulging in a vanilla ice cream cone and throwing a couple of stones into the sea, we re-coached and headed back to London, arriving around 6:30.  

In all, it was an enjoyable trip through the countryside of Kent and to the coast.  We arrived back at the hotel somewhat tired and decided to take in some football (Manchester United vs. Arsenal) on the tele whilst perusing the internet on our respective laptops.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4: Abbey Road

Today's schedule was tackled in an incredibly relaxed manner due to a number of factors.  First, there was no hot water in the hotel for the morning and this wasn't resolved until 2:30.  Since it was a bank holiday, many things were closed, which is presumably why it took so long to fix the water.  After waiting around until 11, I decided to go ahead with a freezing cold shower (in reality, the water was probably in the low 50s, which sounds better than it really is, but this may as well have been freezing).  

After this, Dan & I set out for Abbey Road, taking the tube from Holburn Station to Bond Street, and then switching to the Jubilee Line to St John's Wood.  The studios were very easy to find, just down the street from the tube station.  We perused the wall outside the studios and read fan graffiti for a bit and then headed about 5 minutes away to 7 Cavendish Avenue, Paul McCartney's home from 1965 onwards (he presumably just owns the home today, rather than living there full time).  It was a somewhat interesting excursion as we could see some of the house over the security gate.  At the house next door, the security gate was open with an Aston Martin parked in the drive.  

From here it was back to the hotel as we were both feeling inordinately tired (for doing practically nothing).  This was followed, later, by some very good fish & chips at Callaghan's, the nice pub which is part of the hotel.  Nothing much else to report on this day.  

Cloudy all day.  Much windier.  Colder.  

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 3: Hyde Park, Changing of the Guard, National Gallery

The morning started with a tube ride from Holburn Station to Marble Arch, where we proceeded to walk across Hyde Park, a royal park first set aside by Henry VIII in 1536 and populated with deer for hunting.  We proceeded from Speaker's Corner (where individuals are allowed to exercise their freedom of speech about, well, anything - Sunday afternoons only) to the Grand Entrance at Hyde Park Corner, where I purchased a hot dog and a Coke to tide me over.  From here, we walked in the general direction of Buckingham Palace which was quickly confirmed by the throngs of people present as the specific direction.  

In an act of complete accident, we had stumbled upon the Changing of the Guard, which takes place around 11 AM.  We were able to get some shots of the proceedings, which was a more positive experience than a lot of the guide books made it sound; typically, the books indicated that it was so packed that one rarely gets much of a glimpse of what is going on.  Certainly, it was crowded; I suppose it also helps when one is tall.  As we tried to leave, before the ceremony was finished, we were stopped at a cross-walk at which we had the good fortune of watching the musical unit of the guard march immediately past.  We had to wait here for about 10 minutes with no crossing allowed from either side.  While we had no problem heeding the MP's command of "Off the road, please", others were evidently deaf, stupid, or answer to some higher road crossing authority than the Metropolitan Police.  Soon, the "please" was dropped from the command.  Towards the end, after the band had passed, 4-5 more people crossed about 50 feet down the road from us.  Dan and I both shook our heads in disbelief, to which the MP responded off hand, to us directly, "Well, you win some, you lose some".  

From here, it was on to a walk by Big Ben and Parliament, then across the bridge to walk along the south bank of the Thames beside the London Eye, the 434-foot-high Ferris wheel which moves at 1/2 mph and makes 1 revolution every 30 minutes.  I had this on the agenda for the trip, but at $26 per person I realized why the climb to the top of St Paul's (experienced last Friday) could be referred to as the "poor man's Eye" (even though the views from St Paul's are over 200 feet closer to the ground).  We'll see what the following days bring; there may be a ride on the Eye yet.  

Immediately past the Eye, walking east, the sidewalk was divided amongst 15-20 street performers of different profession and levels of talent.  An elderly man, hunched over slightly in a grey jumper and white long-sleeve shirt playing a harmonica with vigor while stamping his left foot to the beat; a silver-painted man dressed in a silver wizard suit whose principal talent, it seemed, was bobbing slightly left-to-right whilst wielding a silver stick; a copper face-painted man in a copper suit with 8 foot long arm extensions; an entirely blue man playing a blue guitar though not playing the blues; 2 people dressed in lizard suits...riding stationary bicycles; a bassist and a drummer jamming out.  

We crossed another bridge down river to head to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.  After visiting the V&A, the British Museum, and the British Library and being continually impressed with their scale and content, one might think that it stops somewhere.  I thought it might stop at the National Gallery; surely this museum cannot be as impossibly huge and complete as these other institutes?  Wrong again.  The National Gallery houses over 2,300 paintings from the 13th century to 1900 laid out over two floors and contains at least 2 works of nearly every painter of significant note.  In addition to my general appreciation of art, my primary destination in the gallery was Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, one of two paintings of the same name (the other is at the Louvre) which were painted sometime between 1483-1486 (Louvre) and 1495-1508 (National Gallery).  As I rounded the corner into the room which housed, amongst other things, 2 Da Vinci works including the Virgin, I noticed an empty space.  In the space was an informational plaque which read: "The Virgin of the Rocks is temporarily off view for restorative purposes".  Well that figures.  Oh well, I'll be back someday.  The rest of the Gallery was consistently complete and contained many redeeming (in the sense of redemption for lack of Da Vinci) pieces including a number of works by Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh.  

From here, it was back to the hotel for a fairly relaxing evening with Bank Holiday Monday just around the corner.  

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May 2: Sir John Soane's Museum and the British Museum

The day started late again today with time adjustments still taking place.  At around 11:30, we departed for Sir John Soane's Museum, another free museum and former home of the eponymous Sir John Soane (1753-1857), an English architect who specialized in the Neo-Classical style.  Unfortunately, Soane's work was not truly appreciated until the late 19th century, by which time many of his works were already demolished.  The nearly total replacement of his most notable work, the Bank of England, was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (a noted German-born British scholar of architecture) as "the greatest architectural crime, in the City of London, in the 20th century".

What Soane did leave behind, which has thankfully not been destroyed, in addition to some of his works, was his home at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, Holburn, London which contains various works of art, pieces of architecture, and other historical miscellany collected by Soane during his lifetime and arranged, in the words of a caretaker, "in the exact placement they were in the day he died".  This seemed to be a reasonable thing to accept as we stepped from the queue into the museum, checked our bags at the door, and walked amidst the hodge-podge of antiquity which inhabits the home.  It is fortunate that upon Sir John's death he didn't, say, fall into a collection of his vases or sculptures, which would have evidently been left in pieces on the floor.  It was quite an interesting excursion.  It really feels as if Sir John is just out for a bit and that we, the lucky impostors, are allowed to peer into nearly every nook and cranny.  The centerpiece is the sarcophagus of Seti I, son of Ramses I and father of Ramses II.  It was purchased by Soane in 1824 when the British Museum refused to pay the £2,000 requested and is quite a site.  

Following this, I purchased another take-away sandwich at Pret a Manger and we headed for the British Museum for an introductory visit (a longer visit is set aside for Thursday, May 7).  Disregarding the general pilfering that went on to fill the museum with some of its most impressive pieces (the Elgin Marbles which were removed from the Parthenon, the Benin Bronzes, the Rosetta Stone to name some of the notables), the museum is an amazing site to behold.  Divided into periods from ancient to modern, the museum covers 2 miles of exhibition space, making it impossible to take in on a single visit, regardless of length.  

After visiting the museum, we headed back to the hotel for a brief rest and then ventured out once again, this time so I could pick up some clothes at Marks & Spencer (colloquially known as Marks & Sparks or simply M & S).  After adding 4 shirts and 1 pair of jeans to my bag, I was approached by a woman wishing me to use her "£5 Off" coupon in order to return her £5 in cash.  I was paying with a card and wasn't about to just hand over a £5 note.  So I inquired, just for fun, if they would return £5 to me.  Naturally, they wouldn't and I gave her the coupon back.  

"Why wouldn't they do it?" she asked.  I should've immediately thought of the "No Cash Value" that is typically printed on American coupons and directed her attention thusly; instead I stated "I don't know but I assume they know what they are doing", implying very evidently that she did not.  Immediately after which, we left, leaving her to attempt to get something for nothing from someone else. 

May 1: St Paul's, Tate Modern, and the V&A

After a well deserved night's rest (Me: 10 Hours, Dan: 13 Hours), we left the hotel around 11:30 (I don't think I've ever been in a hotel this late in the morning before) and headed towards Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral, with hopes of taking a 1:30 guided tour. Built on a site that has housed a church of some sort since 604 AD, the current structure was built over 35 years from 1675 t0 1710 to replace the former St Paul's destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Though the magnificence of the cathedral is impossible to deny, the £11 ($15.50) admission fee seemed a bit steep and coupled with the presence of a cafe and a large gift shop in the crypt, there was no mistaking this for a money-making operation (though from the upstairs the only notice of commerciality was the admission queues). In contrast, church services are still performed here regularly (4 per day), with around 100 regular Sunday-service parishioners. We inquired about the 1:30 tour (another £3, though certainly worth it) after our entry to the cathedral at 12:30.

While waiting, we grabbed a bite in the aforementioned cafe and then headed up to meet with "Chris", our guide. Chris, a 60-something BBC-voiced Brit gave us and around 8 others a wonderful hour and a half tour. The tour was informative and humorous and when it was over, we were eager for more. Here were some of the particularly enjoyable moments:

As we were sitting in a "court" area (once inside, immediately to the south of the entrance) adorned with tall wooden carvings and benches, Chris was giving a talk about the general age and creation of the space. He paused for a moment as he'd been dealing with a direct beam of sunlight pouring through the window above our heads. He quipped, as he moved out of the beam, "Well, I'm not that righteous." And he was correct; his name was lacking a "t" at the end.

Our visit happened to occur on the Duke of Wellington's 240th birthday. After being informed of this by Chris, he declared as we passed the Duke's massive tomb, "So, Happy Birthday, Duke (which of course sounded like dj-uke)."

At a number of stops, Chris would add that he "just simply loved" whatever object we were viewing, which was pleasing to watch someone get so giddy over structural objects as I certainly have an excitement for these kinds of things as well. It did make one wonder what Chris "just simply hates", though this never became apparent. At one of the simply loved stops, an abstract white-marbled sculpture of mother and child whose stone had a number of natural indentions throughout, Chris urged us to cop a feel. He then quipped, at once seriously and tongue-in-cheek, "Sometimes we give tours to the blind and they really love this."

And finally, as we were standing in front of Lord Nelson's (he of Trafalgar, of course) tomb, Chris conveyed to us that upon Lord Nelson's death, his body was placed in a cask of rum. While stopping in Gibraltar, on the way to transfer the body back to England, the cask was found to be empty of rum as it had been presumably consumed by the sailors. To this day, particularly among members of the Royal Navy, rum is often referred to as "Nelson's Blood".

Following the tour, we departed and, as we were waiting to cross the street, saw Chris heading away from the church, apparently absolved of his duties for the day. We almost approached him with the hopes of him giving us a tour of, well...anywhere he'd like. But we didn't and the informative Chris vanished into anonymity in the distance of a busy sidewalk.

From here, we crossed the Millennium Bridge, a foot-traffic-only bridge which crosses the Thames and leads from St Paul's to the Tate Modern, housed on the south side in a converted former power station and presently Britain's national museum of international modern art. Admission was free and the galleries were displayed over 4 floors of impressively laid out space. As with much modern art, in this viewer's opinion, certain areas of the contents lack almost everything to be desired. To wit, one piece of "art" consisted solely of a thick old rope laid upon the floor. How does one even approach this? For that matter, how does one approach the Tate Modern with the hopes of it adorning their floor?

Artist (or Finder of the Rope): "So, I found this old rope in a barn and laid it about thusly. Whaddya think?"

Tate Modern: "I think we've got just the floor."

As we approached another consisting of cast bells (similar to those adorning the California missions) strewn upon a table at the end of a 40-foot room, I thought, "I hope this one is titled "Embellishment". It was not to be. This artist, it seems, not only could not produce art, he also lacked the artistic vision of even coming up with a name for the non-art. It was listed as "Untitled", in addition to 3 other different (and non-bell related) pieces of the same name. Such inspiration.

After viewing things of this nature in many of the galleries, I decided to create my own art which I hope will be displayed in the Tate Modern one day. It will fit in well amongst some of the more tiresome peices; you may have even viewed it in a museum before. It shall be titled "Exhibit Temporarily Closed". Now that's art.

To finish out the day, we rode the Underground (for the first time) from Mansion House to South Kensington to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum, described in the literature as the "greatest museum of applied art in the world". We arrived, and so it was. And it was also free(!). This space is truly amazing. Occupying 4 floors and a total of 7 miles of floor space (of which around 4 miles housed objects from all around the world), the V&A, as it is popularly and self-evidently known, contains over 4.5 million objets d'art. The favorite room, of both Dan and me, was that of the Cast Courts, which contained plaster casts of various items, including Trajan's Column from the forum in Rome, the entire portal of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and a number of effigies of royalty and other dignitaries from the 12th century onwards amongst many other items. Honestly, everything in the room looks as good as real and I was as pleased as punch to be viewing such inspired "genuine" forgeries. The rest of the museum was impressive as well, with sights too many to recount. Here's a link to the contents:

We followed this with a sandwich, crisps, and Coke at Pret a Manger, the UK fresh-sandwich retailer. Supper was had for less than £5 and was very tasty at that. After returning to the hotel and having a Skype conference call with all members of my extended family, I was off to bed at around 1 AM, though didn't make it to sleep until 3.