London 2012

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While I was in London, I emailed updates to several friends. These are the posts, somewhat cleaned up.


2012-05-06

I brought a couple things with me to the U.K. for which they should've stopped me at the border: one was the common cold, and the other was pink-eye. I told them I was bringing in 375ml of wine, but no, they didn't care about that. I didn't declare the Conjunctivitis, and they looked me in the eye and let me walk right into the country ...

Today I went to the Kensil Green tube station (not exactly a highlight of the London tourist trail), where I joined the local Canal tour. It turned out to include a fair bit of the Kensil Green Cemetery, where our guide named many semi-famous people who were buried there. Oddly, the one that caught my ear was "Blondin": I think I was fascinated with him as a kid.

As the group walked along the canal, I fell into conversation with a woman about photography. And it took me several minutes to realize that she sounded "normal." As in, not British. After all, I don't normally have to notice that people don't sound British ... Where is she from? Hawaii (with ties to the MidWest). I mentioned my stint in Georgia, and she asked what I did there. "Systems Librarian." Well, wasn't that odd - she's a professor at the University of Hawaii - in their Library and Information Science department. Currently on sabbatical and living in London for four months. So after the tour broke up the two of us wandered around the "Canal Cavalcade" as I think it's called, which sees dozens of long boats pack into London's "Little Venice" with a very festive atmosphere.


2012-05-07

I started the day with the free hotel "English Breakfast:" toast, bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and coffee or tea. It'll get old, but it was fairly decent.

I headed to Kensington High Street on a double decker bus. I love those things: I stormed the stairs and went straight to the front of the bus. I could spend a day just riding there: the view is superb. I spent an hour trotting up and down the Kensington High Street looking for a lens cap (I dropped the original in the canal yesterday ...). Fortunately the only specialty photography place on the strip was open despite it being a Bank Holiday. After that I went down to the Embankment and to Somerset House. I was mostly there for the Courtald Collection, but I had a great time photographing the Nelson stairs.

On the way across the courtyard to the Courtald, I saw a guy on a scooter in the drizzle: he's got a clipboard permanently attached above the handlebars (and duct tape holding the headlamp and clipboard together), hand-covers on the handlebars, and a fitting to keep his legs warm. I thought he was making deliveries, but I talked to him as I wanted to take his photo. He explained he was studying for an exam - he didn't say "cab driver," but I think that's what it was: that's a brutal test in London. You don't get a cab license until you know pretty much every road in the city. Someone gets in the cab, says a place - you aren't looking stuff up, you're driving. Anyway, he said it took about four years, and he'd be done in three-four months. I took a couple pictures, should have taken more.

The Courtald collection has some medieval stuff in it, but as usual I was most interested in the Impressionist stuff. To my surprise, my favourite pieces (and photos were allowed so they may appear on my website) were "Cupid and Psyche" by Sir Joshua Reynolds (with its utterly gorgeous use of light), and Peter Paul Rubens' portrait (or his re-painting of a portrait) of Baldesssare Castiglione - the eyes were incredible. I don't think any picture - and certainly not mine - will do justice to the eyes.

Off downtown where I discovered that Rough Guide was - as they so often do - highly recommending a place that had closed since the publication of the guidebook. I swear they have a special talent for it. So I had a sandwich elsewhere. There was a massive line-up for the Transport Museum so I decided that could wait, only to find the Clockmaker's Museum closed because of the holiday. Across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern, one of the highlights of my previous trip to London. Insanely busy, presumably because of the Bank Holiday. Interesting to find that it seems a couple more galleries in the building are now housing paid shows (which I passed on), and I think most of the material in the remaining galleries had changed since I was there eight years ago. I wasn't as enthusiastic as last time, but it remains a very cool place.

And next, a very Giles thing: I jumped on the Docklands Light Railway and rode out to the end of the line and back. Rough Guide had recommended it in glowing terms, and damned if they weren't right: it's mostly above-ground and the views are spectacular (especially from the front of the train - I fought a couple little kids for the seats and lost, had to sit behind them).

I closed the day with a sign of the (technological) times. I had used Google Street View to get a look at Earl's Court where my hotel was, and I noticed a Chinese place on the main road called Dragon Palace. Interesting. How are the online reviews? Good. Let's look up the menu: reasonable prices. So that's where I ate tonight: very good Singapore Rice Noodles and a fine local pale ale, all for £11.


2012-05-08

Some small things about London. Subway ("Tube") trains run on the wrong side: "ah, I hear the rushing sound of a train approaching from my left, our train is arriving ..." no, it slides into the platform opposite. Your train comes from the right. Like the cars - and the pedestrians. People tend to drift to the left side of the sidewalk. Like the trains, it's mildly disconcerting. Also strange is that some train stations have curved platforms, occasionally even double curved (perhaps only Torontonians will find this odd).

Another oddity, this time at my hotel - they're using a European convention I haven't quite got my head around, which is the bedding consisting of one duvet in a slip cover. End of story. No sheets, no blankets. It gets cold at night, but not cold enough for a duvet of this weight, so the thing to do is to stick a limb (or two) out from under to cool down.

I started today at St. Paul's Cathedral. I'd found a discount card that got the price down from £15 to £12 (about $20) - I mention this in part because my main reaction to the place was that it was A) overrated, and B) overpriced. And it's a reminder of why I prefer Rough Guide over other travel books: they refer to St. Paul's as "a soulless but perfectly calculated architectural set piece," and I agree entirely. It's impressive, and yet it doesn't really inspire. It's a damn big church full of military monuments to long forgotten generals. At least you can climb up inside and outside the dome - that was cool.

Next stop was the British Library, which was much more interesting. The outside is an architectural conundrum: it's brutalist, but it's made of brown/red brick. Stuff in that style is usually done in concrete, or at least in cold grey stone: it's very odd to see it done in a warm colour. The inside is nicer: there's a large central column cutting through four floors called "The King's Library" because it consists of glass facings over bookshelves filled with the library of George the Second (don't quote me on that: I'm not totally sure of which King).

They have a large collection of illuminated texts in their "Treasures" section, representing a millenia or so of history and several continents. While Britons are possibly most impressed by the library having one of perhaps three copies of the Magna Carta, I was more easily pleased by seeing one of the Gutenberg bibles. They figure he printed about 180, and it was the only thing he ever printed.

I met a librarian friend I first met at a conference in Toronto back in September in the lobby, and we went to a pub for lunch. The next stop was Lambeth Palace - London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury - where the library has a display on "Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer." I particularly liked the book they had defending the Roman Catholic anti-divorce stance on which Henry the Eighth had written "this is rubbish."

The next stop was the Tate Museum, the more old-fashioned brother of the Tate Modern - although the Tate turns out to have quite a bit of Twentieth century art in it. I enjoyed some of the pre-Raphaelites.


2012-05-09

Small things: the London Tube system is incredibly complex. 12-13 lines versus Toronto's four. 306 (not including another 47 London Overground) stations vs. 69 stations. Travel is charged by zones, and you have to swipe your pass/ticket both to get on and to get off. I have an Oyster pass with unlimited travel in Zones 1 and 2 ... with the added complexity that I had to add money to get back from Zone 3 this evening. Not actually difficult, but it was very nice to have the assistance of a local in getting that sorted. The whole thing reminds me a great deal of "Moebius," a film I saw recently with Pippa and Drew, in which the Buenos Aires subway system had become so topologically complex that they had lost a train because the train had shifted over to another dimension ...

I started the day at Brompton Oratory, which was one of the high points of my previous visit to London. I didn't take any pictures then as there were people praying. Now they have posted "No cameras" signs, which I have to admit I chose to ignore when I found a version of Saint Cecilia - the Brompton sculpture is essentially identical to the one in Rome, although somewhat smaller. At least I'd chosen a better time - there was no one praying. I've seen a lot of churches since my last visit, and Brompton Oratory is no longer as impressive. But it was nice to see it again and get a chance to compare what I thought of it.

My friend joined me for the next place, which was right next door, the Victoria and Albert Museum (the main branch). That place is MASSIVE. And it is by no means the only massive, fantastic museum in the city. I blasted through a number of exhibits I would have loved to see, except ... I was just doing highlights because otherwise I would have been in that place alone for two solid days. Sculpture: several Canovas and Rodins, one Bernini. Two different Samsons slaying Philistines with the jawbone of an ass (not kidding), one by Giambologna, didn't record the other. A whimsical and light-hearted garden sculpture of ... Apollo flaying Marsyas. Wouldn't that be just the thing you'd want depicted in your garden? A spectacular gallery full of gorgeous glass, spanning centuries.

So, so amazing.

We had lunch at the previously mentioned Chinese place in Earl's Court. Their dim sum is so good that I'm being forced to seriously reassess the dim sum I eat in Toronto. I need to find a better place.

The afternoon was devoted to shopping: the spectacular, amazingly tacky, and expensive Harrods, and the very SF-oriented and entertaining Forbidden Planet. Wish we had that in Toronto.

And then the bus journey to the suburbs. Which I might not mention except for two things: it was on a double decker bus, and we saw Princess Anne. Three or four flashing motorcycles came toward us, then a Mercedes(?), followed by the Land Rover security detail. The main car didn't have tinted windows, and my friend was able to identify Princess Anne. Princess Anne didn't wave.

Dinner was haggis with mashed turnips and mashed potatoes, courtesy of my friend. What can I say, I love the stuff and Ontario's only provider makes it with beef (which I don't eat, and isn't the right animal anyway). After we got back to my friend's apartment, I pulled the haggis out of the bag and read out the first ingredient: "sheep's lungs (33%)." my friend's brother, who was visiting, promptly said "the first rule of haggis is we do not read the ingredients." I said "I suppose it's the second rule too?" "Yup." It was delicious, and I had a really great time talking with both of them.


2012-05-10

Earls Court to the Cutty Sark DLR station (the previously mentioned Docklands Light Railway) is quite a haul, a bit over an hour. The Cutty Sark is perhaps one of the most famous clipper ships to ever sail (if only because of the whisky named after it), and has recently (April 25th) re-opened after a couple years of refitting. Its current setting is quite bizarre: it's beside (not in) the Thames, and held up in the air over the pit where it sits. And the pit is covered over with an almost geodesic glass plating up to about the ship's waterline so you can wander around under the ship's brassed hull. Unfortunately, I felt the visit was otherwise wasted: if you've ever been on a big sailing ship, unless you're a hard core fan of ships I'd say they all pretty much look alike. They have a number of video presentations and the like, and they're somehow all uninteresting.

I sprinted up the hill above Greenwich, detouring around the under-construction Olympic venue (which is making a mess of an otherwise lovely park), to reach the Royal Observatory. Because I had to be back in town at 1330 to meet my friend I didn't have as much time there as I would have liked, but I did get to see both the Prime Meridian (i.e. the location of zero degrees longitude) and all four of John Harrison's chronometers. The latter are, I freely admit, a very geeky thing: Harrison spent most of his life devising a chronometer accurate enough and durable enough to provide high precision naval longitude measurement. If the Observatory is to be believed, Harrison actually invented the bimetallic strip as a side effect, a way to manage changes in clock speed caused by temperature extremes. There's a book called Longitude by Dava Sobel which was the basis of the TV movie I saw on the subject: it traces two stories, one of Harrison building and testing chronometers, and the other in the 1950s of a man trying to reconstruct Harrison's originals. It sounds dull as dishwater, but they did a good job and I found it mesmerising.

After my friend and I met up at the British Museum, we walked to a nearby University of London square where they were having a small market. One of the stalls was selling Venison burgers, which I immediately pounced on. We both had one, and they were really delicious.

We went to visit Jeremy Bentham's skeleton. Bentham wanted to attend University College of London (right next door to the University of London) board meetings in perpetuity, so he bequeathed his skeleton to the University and there it stays. But it was rather a let-down: not only is he fully clothed, he's wearing gloves and has a wax replacement head so there's no bones showing at all - just a slightly shabby seated figure. The plaque pointed out that apparently they really needed the wax head because his real head is elsewhere on campus ...

The British Museum was having some sort of partial strike today (a bunch of staff simply didn't come in), and as a result the upper floor was closed. Missed some things I wanted to see, but did see the Enlightenment section, which was wonderful, largely based on appearance. Huge long gallery of beautifully maintained old shelves and display cases, groaning under the weight of samples from all over the world [a friend emailed to say "'groaning under the weight of treasures looted from all over the world' -- there, I fixed that for you"] - and a huge library of books. There's also the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, the Assyrian reliefs, and (coolest to me) an Easter Island sculpture. (Yes, the Rosetta Stone - I fully understand its importance, but somehow I don't find it as interesting as chronometers, go figure.)

I headed down to the London Transport Museum at Covent Garden. The entry fee is an impressively hefty £13.50 (up considerably from the £8 listed in the guidebook). They have one each of every type of tube car that's been used, the last two types of double decker buses (and the front end of a current one), a double decker electric trolley ... you get the idea. It was enjoyable, but the entry fee still kind of pains me.


2012-05-11

I managed to get out relatively early this morning and get to the Clockmaker's Museum at 0930. The "museum" consists of one medium-large room with lovely displays of watches and clocks. In the half hour I was there, no one else set foot inside. The displays are lovely, but the descriptions are highly technical ("frictional rest escapement with diamond pallets, equipped with a remontoire") with no introductory explanation anywhere for those who aren't already clockmakers: this is a museum by and for clockmakers. The rest of us can admire the pretty, but we aren't going to learn much.

My next stop was St. Lawrence Jewry church. Nice piece of stained glass honouring Christopher Wren, Grinling Gibbons, and Edward Strong. Not sure who the latter was, but Wren was the architect of this and many other churches and buildings, while Gibbons was a sculptor and woodcarver who did the fittings in many of the same churches. This was followed by St. Margaret Lothbury church, the Bank of England Museum, and St. Mary Woolnoth church. All the churches are relatively small, and all are in the "Bank" area (which gets its name from the Bank of England). Next stop was the mighty Selfridges department store, where I discovered that the food hall wasn't much of a place to sit down for lunch (more for buying fancy foods to take home).

Just up the street was the impressive Wallace Collection. It's in a really lovely old building with period (and occasionally appropriately outrageous) decor in each room. There's a very large collection of paintings, stuffed in edge to edge up the walls in old European picture gallery style. There's a collection of really beautiful snuff boxes. And there's the armory - several rooms worth of guns (nothing later than flintlocks by the look of it), swords, and armour - from three different continents, and all magnificent, finely crafted stuff. This guy wasn't interested in peasant armour, this is the stuff the noblemen (the rich ones at that) wore into battle or into the lists.

I had lunch at Comptoir Libanais, "Fattet Kofta" - lamb drowned under hot yogurt with bits of crispy pita (initially crispy ...) and a bit of fried onion. Quite good.

I visited St.-Bartholemew-the-Great parish church next. As they're quick to point out, many movies have filmed there - among them "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves," "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Elizabeth: the Golden Age," "The Other Boleyn Girl," "Sherlock Holmes," and my favourite, "Shakespeare in Love." I know the movie so well I was able to picture the scene even before I entered the church - although as it turns out, they lit the church better than normal daylight allows. A middle-aged, hyperactive (and very kind) verger let me (without any request on my part) up to where the organist sits. He did it so I could get good photos, but I derived as much entertainment from the drifts of musical scores on every horizontal surface, obviously not meant for public consumption. Nevertheless, the view from up there was very good.

I took the tube from there to London Bridge and the Borough Market. The latter was pure serendipity: it had been on my list of things to see, but I was headed to City Hall and didn't even know I would be passing the market. Fortunately there was a sign, and I followed it. It's a weird location underneath several rail bridges just in from the Thames, and it's become (despite the constant rumble of trains) one of the main culinary markets in the city. Cheese, chocolate, bread, veg, it's all there.

I was heading to City Hall because, according to my guide book, it closed at 2000. They put me back out on the street at 1730 - fortunately not before I'd seen what little there was to see. Basically spiral ramps, the council chamber, and the cafeteria. It's a very funky building - new and weird, but kind of elegant in its own way. I tend to associate it in my mind with the Gherkin (officially "30 St. Mary Axe") for their similar sleek rounded all-glass exteriors. As it turns out, this similarity is unsurprising: they share an architect, Norman Foster.

I spent a little while in the Hay's Galleria, a converted, filled-in dock area that's now got a huge glass cover on it and is essentially a shopping mall. Then I set off on foot for the Black Friar's Pub. The walk was educational. It became apparent that Londoners do one of two things at 1800 on Friday (possibly every other day of the week too): they go down the pub for a pint or they try to get on the Tube. I say "try" because sometimes at rush hour they simply close Tube stations. There are so many people on the platform that they stop letting more people in. The incredible mass of stationary people around the entry gates at Cannon Street Station suggested that they had reached that state. And the pubs ... well, every one I passed had people out drinking on the sidewalk: literally dozens of people, standing about with their pint glasses. The laws are different here and the weather is the best it's been all week. Black Friars had about 70 people outside, so I went and got a coffee at Costa (a coffee chain) around the corner just so I could sit down. 45 minutes later Black Friars was only slightly less packed. It's a lovely pub, with big marble friezes of inebriated monks, but - having walked all day - I wasn't in the mood to fight my way to the bar or stand to drink my pint, so the day ended with a whimper as I returned to the hotel.


2012-05-12

This is the last full day of the trip. There have been a couple times I've been happy about that: returning after six months in Asia (I loved it but I was getting homesick), and after my trip to Istanbul - possibly my least favourite trip. Not that it was "bad," but I had exhausted the things I wanted to see in the city and I was tired of the hawkers. But I am very sad to be leaving London.

I started the day at the London Eye: I was there at 0900 for their official 1000 opening (they have notoriously huge queues). Not much was happening, so I wandered along the Thames and took pictures, and queued up for real at 0920. The ticket office opened at 0930, and I was on the Eye by 0940. It's a half hour ride on a ferris wheel that's over 100 meters in diameter. Great views, interesting bit of mechanics.

Next stop was way out at the Colindale tube station, the Hendon RAF Museum. They have four large buildings full of airplanes - more historic planes in one place than I've ever seen before in my life, and believe me, I've tried. Having been a fan of Donald Jack's Bartholomew Bandy books (start with Three Cheers for Me) since I was a kid, I was extremely enthusiastic to see a Sopwith Dolphin in the flesh (apparently my timing was good: it went on display in March assembled from parts of three planes). As World War I fighters went, they were a dream to fly - that is, when they flew at all. The geared Hispano-Suiza engines were notoriously unreliable. It's a particularly freaky looking plane, with the back-staggered wings and the pilot sitting way up above the top wing.

That wasn't the only Sopwith they had either: they have a Tabloid, a 1-1/2 Strutter, a Pup, a Triplane, and of course a Camel. At this point several of you are probably yawning, so I'll try to dispense with the specifics quickly. Bristol Beafighter, Mosquito, SE5a, Fokker D7 (in proper purple-green-black colour scheme), autogyro, several helicopters (some very large), something like five different versions of the Spitfire and perhaps four different Hurricanes, Tempest, Typhoon, Me262, Fw190, Me109, He162, Vampire, B-17, Avro Lancaster, F-35, Mew Gull, Tiger Moth, Chipmunk ... even I'm getting bored and I'm nowhere near done. But it's really exciting to see them in person.

That took up the majority of the day. My next stop was Westminster Cathedral (note, "Cathedral," not "Abbey"). Roman Catholic, eminently Victorian, and unfinished after 115 years. Not that that's all that unusual for large churches ... and this is a large church. The walls are done in marble - Rough Guide claims over one hundred types of marble from all over the world. The colours are incredible, and it's been sliced and placed to beautiful effect. Unfortunately, while some of the side-chapels have been completed, in the main church the beautiful finish stops about three meters up and from there on it's blackened brick-work. Lovely place though.

The last place of the day was the Burlington Arcade, a glassed-over Victorian shopping walk-way, home to a number of places that I couldn't possibly afford to shop at. Most were packing up for the day, and the one I noticed had row after row of antique Rolex watches, most in the £10,000 range.


2012-05-13

At Gatwick on the way home, I visited World of Whisky where I was able to sample Laphroaig PX Cask. Sometimes I sample several things before deciding, but sometimes (as this time) the decision is clear on the first sip. "PX" is "Pedro Ximenez" Sherry casks - I didn't ask, but the usual procedure is that the whisky would spend the last couple years of its maturation in those casks. My suspicion, which I voiced to the staff member serving me, was that the Laphroaig flavour would take the PX addition into a dark alley, beat it into a bleeding heap, and just go back to tasting as it always had. Happily, I was proven wrong. If drinking regular Laphroaig is like being punched in the face (don't get me wrong, I love Laphroaig, but even its most ardent fans have to admit it's an overpowering flavour), then this is like being punched in the face with a velvet glove. If you can imagine it, I think the aftertaste (that brilliant lingering taste of smoke and seaweed) lasts even longer than the regular edition.

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