Exploring England 2012 - London

Wednesday, Jun 27, 2012 at 20:47


Heathrow at 6.00am saw us rather bleary-eyed but buoyed by a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The anticipated customs delays did not eventuate, and after trundling our luggage for what felt like miles we were eventually in a cab and on our way to Pimlico in central London, and our son Rob’s flat.

Now Rob has done a fair bit of plane travel and knew from experience that the best way to avoid jetlag was to get adjusted to local time as quickly as possible. So he had a plan, and as soon as we were freshened up he had us out on the streets walking around to get our bearings, hailing a cab, using the Tube. By late morning we emerged from a black London cab and invited to “Look up” and there we were, gazing up at Big Ben. It was a surreal moment. For the next few hours we wandered around a surprisingly quiet central London taking in the sights: the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, the Abbey, Whitehall with mounted Horseguards patiently on guard, Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery. We had lunch in St.James Park, then wandered up the Mall to join the small crowd at Buckingham Palace where a band was playing as the guard was changed. Finally we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral with its astonishing and lavishly decorated interior, and the crypt where we saw the tomb of Nelson and Wellington. We stayed for Evensong to hear the choir and the organ – a marvellous sound in that huge space. What a first day!

On the way home our induction to travel on the Tube began in earnest. Fortunately it was not busy as we negotiated the stairs and long passages, followed the signs and rode the huge escalators – where you keep to the right. Fortunately we got the hang of it fairly quickly and were soon able to navigate ourselves around fairly confidently.

The next day was Sunday, and – welcome to an English summer - it was cold and heavily overcast. A trip on one of the big passenger boats took us downriver past docks and naval ships to Greenwich, our destination for the day. There was a jostling crowd at the big information centre where we saw displays outlining the history of the area. Outside in cold drizzle we were keen to look at the “Cutty Sark” a restored tea clipper ship that in the 1870-80s carried tea from the East Indies and wool from Australia in record fast times. However long queues persuaded us that we should go for our first English pub meal, so we jostled our way through the narrow cobbled streets to find a pub with a vacant table, not easy as every pub was packed. Eventually we found a table and enjoyed some excellent fish and not-very-cold beer. Then it was time to walk uphill to the Royal Observatory at Flamsteed House. There we stood astride the Greenwich Meridian or 0 degrees of longitude, and in the museum saw the 3 astonishing Harrison clocks that made the calculation of longitude easier and navigation safer. Walking back downhill we marvelled at the expanse of parklike grounds and huge trees, saw areas being prepared for some Olympic events and enjoyed the classical elegance of the old Seaman’s Hospital and Queen’s House. We caught the Tube home, footsore but well satisfied.

The next day was Monday and Rob was not able to accompany us. So he got us on to the Tube at Victoria Station and hoped that we could find our way home – which, fortunately we did. So we spent the day at the Tower of London and managed to see almost all of it – and there is a lot to see as its mostly one big museum but spread throughout many buildings. The Crown Jewels (no photos allowed) would have to be the highlight but to see them we queued up to go past them on a crowded moving walkway so there was very little time to take it all in. As well as the crowns and ceremonial swords, there was much gold and silver plate used for ceremonial occasions, including an ornately decorated punch bowl about a metre across. In the Fusiliers Museum and in the White Tower there were displays of weapons and armour, all quite fascinating. But perhaps of most interest were the buildings themselves, commenced by William the Conqueror after 1066 and added to and modified over the following centuries. The thick high walls, intricate stonework and massive oak beams and floor slabs speak of strength and endurance. Endless stairs, their treads worn by the passage of countless feet and the many narrow, dark spiral stairs had us wondering how ladies in voluminous skirts would have negotiated them. Rain fell steadily as we tried to find a dry spot to eat our sandwiches, and at last, footsore and with images of Beefeaters, rooks, Traitors Gate and much more whirling in our heads we eventually made our way home.

The Tower, like most of the places that we visited in London would require numerous visits to see and absorb all the objects and history on display there. Most visitors like us can only skate over the surface and get some impression of what is set out on display and what it means in terms of our history and civilisation. Certainly we became very aware of the huge disparity between our 200 years of Anglo/European history here at home and the layers of English history stretching back over thousands of years.

And so we continued to soak up history. Westminster Abbey even from the outside is a breathtaking structure, with flying buttresses and masses of delicately carved stone adornment. There were audio guides and an explanatory pamphlet so we could do a self guided tour at our own pace. The interior is crowded with memorial statues and tombs, and the eyes are inevitably drawn upwards, especially in the Ladychapel with its exquisite carved lacework ceiling. In Poets Corner are memorials to artistic greats including Shakespeare, while scientific luminaries Newton and Darwin are buried in the Nave. There is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and, as in all the cathedrals that we visited, the huge books listing the dead from WWI were particularly poignant.

All this sightseeing required a degree of stamina, but determination to see as much as possible kept us going despite aching feet and backs. The Banqueting House, dating from 1619 has elegant proportions and a wonderful ceiling painted by Reubens. We had the whole space to ourselves for a few peaceful minutes. By contrast the Albert Memorial seemed gaudy and extravagant, at odds with the dour little Queen who had it built after Prince Alberts early death from typhoid fever.

A completely different time and set of circumstances was to be seen in Churchill’s War Rooms, the secret bunker in the heart of London from which the progress of WWII was directed. Much of the bunker has been left exactly as it was when the war ended, but there is also an extensive collection of WWII and Churchill memorabilia on display. Most striking was the spartan, cramped quarters where Churchill and the military leaders lived and worked. This is another place that warrants a return visit in order to fully comprehend all that is to be seen there.

Our time in London was interspersed with trips out of town. This arrangement worked well, allowing us to inwardly digest at least some of our London experiences before coming back for the next course. After a week near Cambridge we returned to London to find preparations for the Jubilee celebrations in full swing – scaffolding, cleaning, putting up flags and bunting and security were all around us.

We did a tour of the Royal Mews where all the royal vehicles – cars and coaches – are on display, including the Australian coach which was a Bicentenary gift from Australia. Most impressive and in its own building is the State Coach, loaded down with so much gilt that it weighs in at about 3 tonnes. The mews are also a working stable although all the horses were elsewhere when we were there.

One night we went to see a West End show at the beautiful Theatre Royal. We saw and enjoyed “One Man, Two Guvnors” which was very funny and very well done. Ice cream in a paper bucket at interval, something we haven’t had for years. Afterwards we strolled down Regent Street doing a spot of window shopping and admiring the elegant buildings there. In a pleasant little pub decorated with displays of butterflies in glass cases, we reaffirmed our recently acquired taste for cider before heading home.

By now we were ready to tackle – or at least have an introductory visit to - some of the big museums and galleries. The National Gallery was one of the few places where we had to queue to get in – security was tight and bags were being manually checked, so it was a slow process. An audio guide was again worthwhile and we were able to locate many of the highlights quite easily. We were surprised that all that separated us from masterpieces of art worth millions of dollars was just a low cord a couple of feet out from the wall (presumably there were plenty of security cameras too!). This meant that it was possible to look closely at the brushwork, or sit back on any vacant seat for a wider look. What a thrill to be looking at a real Michelangelo or da Vinci, though it was the Turner seascapes that really delighted us. He is such a master of light and movement in the sea that later we also visited the Tate Britain gallery where there was a big display of Turner’s works.

The following day we visited the British Museum, and this time Rob accompanied us so he could show us some of his favourite things there. He has a very good knowledge of history and has been studying archaeology so he is a very informative guide, but even so we could only see a tiny fraction of what was on display. We chose to go through some of the Egyptian galleries, complete with ancient writings on stone tablets and ornate mummies. The crowd around the Rosetta Stone was so thick we had to be content with viewing the replica that is also on display. The Greek galleries hold marvellous statues, and we wondered about the rights and wrongs of the museum holding onto the wonderful Elgin Marbles (marble sculptures removed from the Parthenon in 1801) displayed in their own magnificent gallery. Bronze age items including swords, jewellery and pots rounded out our visit.

Later in our stay we paid brief visits to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of which are housed in opulent buildings in Kensington. At the NHM we saw the famous blue whale model, with a complete skeleton suspended above it, along with the skeletons of other whales and the closely related elephants and mammoths. We just had time for a quick look at some of the dinosaur fossils, fully articulated skeletons that emphasise just how big these ancient reptiles were. These museums are like reference books and would require repeated visits to get the most from them. Hopefully we will be able to make a return visit sometime.

A museum of a quite different kind is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on the outskirts of London. The gardens occupy the grounds of Kew House a former royal estate where the landscaping was done by the famous Capability Brown. The original botanical collections were begun in the late 1600s, and now there are over a hundred hectares of grounds, numerous huge glasshouses as well as the herbarium and library, so once again we were only able to see a tiny portion of what is there. Glasshouses are crammed with ferns, palms, giant Amazon waterlilies, alpine plants, succulents, carnivorous plants…the list seems endless. There are also endless outdoor plantings including numerous beds of grasses from all around the world. In among all this we were delighted to find a King Fern (only found in the wild on Fraser Island and in Carnarvon Gorge in Qld), a Wollemi Pine complete with some young cones, and a big Tasmanian Blue Gum.

All the time we were in London preparations were continuing for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in early June. Flags and bunting were going up, souvenirs from the tasteful to the tacky were on sale everywhere, and the weather was deciding whether to co-operate or not. We joined in by attending a celebratory concert at the Albert Hall and by standing among the crowds lining the Thames to watch the river pageant.

The concert at the Albert Hall was an all Elgar programme played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Rob had booked seats in a box so we had a wonderful if somewhat cramped vantage point from which to see that magnificent auditorium that can hold 5000 people, although on the night there were about 3000 in the audience. We shared the box with some English folk, who like most of the many locals that we spoke to have family or friends now living in Australia. The finale for the concert was “Land of Hope and Glory” and as an encore the conductor had everyone on their feet and singing along in cheerful patriotic fervour – for a time past and glories remembered.

On the morning of the river pageant we went towards Vauxhall Bridge before lunch. Finding the crowds already building we thought that we had better stay there if we wanted to see anything. So we stayed and the crowd steadily and patiently built around us. We had a good spot right behind the big wall that runs along the river – a wall just low enough that we could see over it- and beside one of the many big screens erected for the occasion. People were mostly good humoured and as always happy to talk to Aussies.

Finally the action started – the gilded barge rowed by very fit folk, the barge carrying peals of bells, boats carrying the flags of all Commonwealth countries then boats of all shapes and sizes, and means of propulsion. We spotted occasional Aussie flags out on the water. Then at last a ripple in the crowd – the Royal barge was coming; and there it was resplendent in gold and scarlet. But that was about as much detail as we could see – was that white flash the Queen or an attendant? In the end it hardly seemed to matter to the assembled throng. Being there seemed to be what it was all about, like the women next to us who had been in the crowds lining the streets for numerous royal weddings and funerals. And then the weather had to have its say and the rain that had held off all day started to fall, gently at first, more steadily as the afternoon wore on.

And so we sampled London. There was much that we did not see as time and energy levels simply did not stretch that far. London seems in some ways to be the summation of the country, where the threads of history are drawn together, the past remembered, and frequently glorified. For all of that it still has a human scale despite its vast sprawl. To get more a more balanced perspective on England and its history we needed to get out into the country. And that is what we did, going to 3 distinctly different locations. We will tell you about that in following blogs.

Did you know? By clicking the pictures you can supersize them for a better look!

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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