London, Part 4 (Some sights)

The Thinker by Rodin

A week in London isn’t much time, so we mostly hit highlights. Even so we missed a lot of things you might think would be must sees: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Parliament (although we did pass Big Ben), 10 Downing Street and many other places. That will leave plenty for our next trip but even with another week, London is so massive that we’d still be scratching the surface. Anyhow, here’s places we did see while in London, aside from theaters, roughly in this order.

Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church
Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church

St. Bartholomew the Great Church – This church goes back to the 12th century and still has an active congregation. The Priori Church on the main level shows the influence of the Norman architecture of the time. St. Bart was apparently martyred by the pagans for his proselytizing, reportedly flayed alive. In the back of the church you can see a remarkable gold statue of St. Bart holding his own skin, a fairly recent addition and on loan from the artist Damien Hirst. This less often seen church in entered through the Elizabethan Gate, which is one of the few Tudor houses still around.

Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew's Hospital
Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – England’s oldest hospital it is still in use and not a tourist attraction at all. We didn’t go inside but our guide Helen asked us if it looked familiar. It did, sort of. Here they shot a scene from Sherlock where Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) jumped off the roof to what seems like certain death. Fans of the show left plenty of graffiti on the granite near the street.

Mummy at the British Museum
Mummy at the British Museum

British Museum – The United Kingdom’s human history museum, it makes the Smithsonian’s American History Museum look tiny. It is massive and we only had a chance to see parts of it. The Rosetta Stone is here but so much more, most of it pilfered by the Brits during their colonizing centuries earlier and never returned. We mostly hung around the most ancient parts of the museum, which included a lot of Egyptian mummies, and then we wandered into even more ancient areas like the Sumerian Dynasty. We are looking forward to a few more days to spend exploring it.

Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus – London’s Times Square hosts a hub on the London Underground and offers a variety of theaters and shopping nearby. No circus here, unless you mean what Brits call a circus, known in the states as a traffic circle or roundabout, and it’s a small one. If there is a center to London, it’s here although it’s actually in Westminster, not the official City of London.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square – If Piccadilly Circus is the center of London, Trafalgar Square is its heart. It’s a large open plaza with a huge statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, who is celebrated for his massive victory at Trafalgar off Spain in the 19th century. The epic sea battle led by Admiral Nelson largely destroyed the Spanish Navy and kept Britain from the threat of invasion until Hitler’s time. You can feel Britain’s soul here and probably hear some first class buskers playing on the plaza steps too. We did.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral – It’s worth a walk across the Thames to see this cathedral although St. Paul’s gets more attention. Constructed started in 1106, it’s still an active church, although it is Anglican now. You will find a Shakespeare here, not William, but the grave of his brother Edward. William does warrant a reclining statue and a stained glass window. Restored in the 19th century it’s quite impressive to visit even with so much competition.

Thames River
Thames River

Thames River – The river stretches for hundreds of miles but in London it’s a tourist attraction in itself, with its constantly moving rush of tidal waters and many bridges that carry both autos and foot traffic across it. River cruises with or without expensive dining options are available and are constantly chugging up and down the river. Many prime attractions are right along its banks including the Tower of London, the Parliament and the Eye (London’s large Ferris wheel). We had many opportunities to cross it during the day and at night and it’s always breathtaking.

St. Martin's in the Fields Church
St. Martin’s in the Fields Church

St. Martin’s in the Field – Silly me, I imagined this church somewhere in rural England, but it’s right next to Trafalgar Square. One of many very old churches it is still very active, liberal and caters to the poor. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, known for its exquisite classical music, is based here but mainly it’s a real church, just not terribly ornate. The Crypt in the basement is a good place to get hot, fresh and cheap food.

Tower of London
Tower of London

The Tower of London – Allot most of a day to see The Tower, which is in fact many towers and you can go through most of them. There are few places in London that are older than the Tower, or with a grislier history. You can see the exact spot where many of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded, along with many other noblemen and women like Sir Thomas More. Outside the gates and near its underground you can see markers where lesser-known but still distinguished people met their grisly ends, often by drawing and quartering. If you don’t know what that is, trust me, you don’t want to know more; those were barbaric times. At least those in the Tower sometimes got reprieves and lived pretty well. There is more than death to sell the Tower. It’s primarily an armory and you can tour one building that attests to the how well it was defended. It also houses the crown jewels, and there are many to gawk at (and more at Windsor Castle, as we discovered). The Tower has never been captured. Primarily a pricey tourist attraction, today it’s well worth the entrance fee. After the first bombing of London, Hitler sent a surrender demand to the King. Replying for the King, the Queen Mum (Queen Mary) ordered Hitler to report to the Tower for punishment. The Tower has probably not seen its last prisoner.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey – A totally awesome church that’s more cathedral than church where Britain’s monarchs are ordained and most of the country’s highest nobles are buried. Elizabeth I (Church of England) and her predecessor Queen Mary (Roman Catholic) have coffins side by side in a crypt that you can walk right next to. Around the corner is the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots that Elizabeth I had put to death. You can also find tombs of notables like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Darwin. You can’t take pictures inside which is a shame because it is spectacular. The outside pictures don’t do it justice. This is a must see attraction. The center of the English spirit surely must reside inside. It’s a short walk to Big Ben, the Parliament and Downing Street.

Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum
Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum – Similar to the British Museum, this museum is massively huge and requires more than a day’s visit to do it justice. You’ll find it in South Kensington, which was close to our hotel so we saved it for our final day. Footsore from walking 8-10 miles a day, we made a half-day of it and saw maybe a quarter of it. The earthquake simulator was neat, as was the Dinosaur exhibit and the Darwin Museum. Admission is free and there are plentiful places to eat inside.

London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

The Thinker by Rodin

Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

London, Part 2 (Ancient London)

The Thinker by Rodin

Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.

Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.

Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London
Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.

 

Roman wall in London
Roman wall in London

Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.

For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.

It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.

St. Brides, arguably London's oldest church
St. Brides, arguably London’s oldest church

Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.

Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.

London, Part 1

The Thinker by Rodin

Eleven years ago I made my first trip to Europe. Then it was France, but mostly Paris. Last week it was England, but mostly London. My ancestors came from England, at least those on my father’s side. My father lived 89 years and never saw his ancestral home. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see England. I think my late father would have found the visit as deeply satisfying as I did.

Ah to be in England, now that spring is here! Although it was technically still winter while we were there, spring was in the air. You could smell it in the flowering trees and see it on the flowers of the lawn at Windsor Castle. Yes, far further north it was much more temperate. While we were gone Mother Nature left another foot of snow at our home in western Massachusetts. England, known for endless dreary and often wet days, treated us pretty well. The sun was out most days, highs generally hit the high 50s (Fahrenheit) but the wind was often bracing, particularly on Saturday when a bus journey out of London took us to Stonehenge. There will be more on that later.

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London
London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but until you go someplace you never really quite know whether you will like what you find. London though turned out to be the city of my dreams. In retirement I moved much closer to nature, but in temperament I am more a cosmopolitan kind of guy. London is arguably the best, largest and most prosperous large city in the world. Its major downside is that most of us cannot afford to live there. With prices comparable to living in New York City, it’s not for the monetarily challenged. A decent apartment in one of the nicer parts of the city will run you £3000 or so a month, which works out to about $3700. On the plus side, if you can manage to pay the rent, you shouldn’t need a car. London’s Underground goes practically everywhere, and it does so briskly and efficiently.

Arguably the Underground is the city’s most impressive achievement. You rarely wait more than a minute for a train once you are on the platform. On the major lines you have options on both sides of the track with all trains going in the same direction. The Tube is massive, extremely clean and very well maintained with some lines, like the Piccadilly Line, two long escalator rides belong the primary line. Running almost as frequently as these underground trains are the many double decker buses crisscrossing the streets. This investment in transportation is beyond massive, but it pays for itself in the connections and possibilities it allows. If only the U.S.A. could get this enlightened it would probably be a lot more prosperous.

Overall London is a mixture of old and modern, but it rarely looks shabby. One of my favorite streets in Washington, D.C. when I lived near there was Connecticut Avenue. Yet it’s just one street. In London, most of the city looks like Connecticut Avenue: endless blocks of midrise housing, usually with businesses along the streets and mostly well maintained. Some streets, particularly close to the city center, are much more commercial: hotels, banks, theaters and just enormous amounts of restaurants, most reasonably priced. We never had a bad meal mainly because we had no reason to eat “English” food. But we did eat one dinner at an honest to God English pub, on a “mew”, sort of like an alleyway where the servants usually hung out. It was good dining if a bit peculiar (you ordered at the bar).

London is a great big melting pot, but more white than black and more Asian than Hispanic. I actually saw more people of color back in Washington, D.C. but like D.C. you can hear most languages spoken in London too. For the most part the people look good and seem healthy, thanks in part to their National Health Service. There are homeless in London, but they are actually hard to find. For the most part anyone who wants to work can find work and the wages are generally enough to live decently, even if you may have to commute quite a ways to find more affordable housing. It’s a city that glows and buzzes that is awesomely massive in size. Cranes are everywhere. Scaffolding contractors are everywhere too, helping to maintain the brick facades of buildings hundreds of years old. There are plenty of cars on the roads too, mostly belonging to those with deeper pockets. It’s unclear to me why anyone would want the hassle of a car in London. And yes, cars drive on the left side of the road there, which for me meant mentally checking myself before crossing streets because the dynamics of the flow were the opposite of what I expected.

Obviously this is the most recent incarnation of London. It retains sketchy neighborhoods, but overall it feels and is a safe place to live and work. The opportunities in the city are endless. Every major company has a presence here, but London is anchored by its banking sector in the City of London. Yes, there is a City of London, but it is just a tiny part of the London metropolitan area, which is broken up into many independent boroughs. In the real city you will see little but banks, insurance companies and tall, skinny men in black suits and white shirts doing important stuff that is hard to quantify but must pay very well indeed.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

The Thames River splits the city between its northern and southern sides. The northern side is considered tonier, but many of the prime attractions are on the south side. The Thames really moves, mostly due to tidal forces that push water inland then move it out hours later, creating strong currents. London Bridge is actually on its third iteration and this latest one fields nearly as many pedestrians as cars. Lots of bridges cross the Thames, but Tower Bridge near the old city and the infamous Tower of London is probably the one that you will mistake for London Bridge.

London is a mixture of new, old and ancient. Come along with me on our journey.