Monday, July 23, 2007

Visiting London

We started our vacation with 3 nights in London, arriving on Saturday morning; the first day and night spent, of course, arriving, and then recovering from the jet lag and the fact that neither of us sleeps well on planes. By the time we got to bed I think we'd been more or less up for 27 hours. This is harder to do than it was 10 years ago.

We stayed in a hotel in Kensington, on Prince of Wales Terrace, a couple of blocks from Hyde Park; we walked over to the park the day we got in, to keep from collapsing and going to bed before it was even dark (which happens much later in London than in Oakland). I can't find Prince of Wales Terrace on Google maps but there are a lot of little streets that aren't labeled. It had rained but stopped; we took pictures of the swans on the Round Pond, and of Kensington Palace and its gardens. The hotel was small and the shower was even smaller, and gave us our first taste of a British paradox: in a country where it rains enough that it's green all summer, the showers generally have very low water pressure. We only found a couple of exceptions. Showers are also (probably because they've all been put in as an afterthought) microscopic; you barely have room to turn around. For that matter, we barely had room to turn around in the hotel room; luggage for a 3 week stay took up enough room that we had to jigsaw everything around to get at our clothes, which were in the suitcases; there was no chest of drawers and no hangers to speak of. And my colleague Penny was right: the English don't seem to use face cloths. With one exception, the only towels we got anywhere were bath and hand.

Kensington is a very urban neighborhood and reminded me again (this was our second trip) that in England, especially in English towns, there are no "front yards". Everything in London is built right out to the sidewalk line, and up at least 4-5 stories, and usually down to a basement too; if there are yards at all, they're in back. There were also (at least in this neighborhood) very few if any street trees. You want trees, go over to the park.

We didn't have a car in London (not being insane), so going anywhere meant walking around to the Kensington High Street station and taking the Tube, about half a mile each way. In fact, walking (and climbing stairs!) was the keynote of this vacation; I thought my feet were going to fall off! I will say that the Tube went everywhere we wanted to go and was reasonably easy to use. Britain in general is not "accessible"; I saw plenty of people in wheelchairs in gardens, but they generally had someone along to help horse the chair up the inevitable stairs.

Sunday was our first functional day, and we spent it touring museums: the Science Museum, and a quick look at the Victoria and Albert. The attraction in the Science Museum was the Babbage Difference Engine, the first attempt at a mechanical computer. The museum has several of Babbage's trial versions, but what they really have is the version they built themselves, from Babbage's design, to see whether it would work. (It does.) The full thing is huge, over twice the height of a man and broader than it is high. It's beautiful, done in machined brass (very Victorian). They also have a huge collection of various mechanical calculating aids, from abaci to a vacuum-tube computer the size of a room, to an old PDP-8 (I worked with people who programmed that thing), plus a large collection of mechanical adding machines. Absolutely fascinating. We also glanced at the section on time measurement, and had lunch in the cafeteria.

We had very little time at the V and A, because we had dinner reservations and theater tickets (more on that later); so we ducked in and I picked a section at random from the directory. Next to the "Medieval" section (always a favorite), they had something called the "Cast Courts", and I erroneously assumed this was some medieval related thing that I hadn't heard of. Was I ever wrong. The cast courts are a Victorian phenom, and they cracked me up: the "casts" are plaster cast reproductions of pretty much any monument, statue, bas-relief, fountain, or tomb that took someone's fancy, all painted to match the original stone or whatever. I mean anything: they had a plaster cast of Trajan's Column from Rome (in 2 parts, to fit it under the roof); an Italian shrine like a weird pagoda, taller than the Trajan pieces; the entire Porticó de Gloria from Santiago de Compostela in Spain (it took up the whole end of the hall; the doors in it, however, were plaster casts of doors from 2 other places). The hall is huge, at least 4 stories high, and it was full of these casts, in no special order, except that the end near the door had a collection of tombs of some medieval English kings and queens (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I and Berengaria, etc.), all together. They had the stone of Offa. They had everything, all jammed together in one room (actually there are two but the other one was closed) where you could come and presumably be edified by looking at all the great art. It was the most cluttered, confusing, hilarious thing you could imagine and so Victorian it practically had side whiskers.

Our evening tickets were a treat: opening night seats at Love's Labour's Lost, in the Globe Theatre in Southwark, with advance dinner reservations at the restaurant in the Globe - all very early (dinner at 5) because the play was not cut and ran 3 hours. The theater is modern but built to match extant drawings of the original: we had seats on the top gallery (Elizabethans must have had very short legs, there was no leg room), under the thatched roof. Fortunately for the players it didn't rain that night. I had a ball watching the play and just being there. The acoustics of the place are amazing, we really heard very well although some of the accents were difficult.

Our second day in London we spent taking a boat down the Thames to Greenwich, where we saw the old Royal Naval College buildings, the National Maritime Museum (very briefly), and the Royal Observatory. It rained on us going but cleared up in the afternoon, sunny and windy. Greenwich is a gorgeous town, elegant curving streets lined with Georgian buildings. We saw the Painted Hall (pure 17th century baroque imagery, plump nudes in classical draperies, winged allegorical figures, Gods and nymphs), and right next to it the Chapel (which looks like it was decorated by Josiah Wedgwood, all precise abstract patterns on pastel blue and green and pink backgrounds). Moving between the two is quite startling. The Painted Hall was originally meant to be the dining hall for the Naval College, but by the time it was done they decided it was too elegant to eat in and started using it as a tourist attraction. They have mirrored tables set around so you can see the ceiling without breaking your neck.

The Observatory stands on top of a steep little hill (thank you, Greenwich, for the motor trolley up the hill!) with a fabulous view of the Thames and Canary Wharf (and a somewhat regrettable view of the Millenium Dome; my, that thing is ugly). They have painted a Line on the ground (with an elegant silver sculpture) to mark the Prime Meridian - Latitude Zero - which is really the arbitrary line established by astronomer Flamsteed in the 17th century for taking star sightings. (The web site says it was established by George Airy in the 19th century, but I'm pretty sure I recall that Airy put his transit circle on Flamsteed's line.) The popular sport there is to have one's picture taken standing on the Prime Meridian; I settled for taking a picture of the sculpture.

The other thing the Observatory has is all four versions of the famous Harrison marine chronometer - you can see how the design evolved from H1 to the final H4 that effectively solved the "Longitude problem". For those interested in mechanical engineering, this is a must-see.

Greenwich was the end of our London stay; next, on to Kent.


  1. cooper7:47 PM

    Absolutely splendid, Karen. Please tell us more. BTW, how did the knee do in that cold, wet climate?

  2. Boggart9:40 PM

    It has been a long, long time since I had the pleasure of being in England. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Please relate more of your trip. The travails and surprises especially!

  4. Wow, this brings back memories of my London weekend in March of 2006.

    But you got to see so much of the stuff I wanted to see! Well, maybe next time...and for now I can experience it through your descriptions. Will you be posting pictures?