Monday, September 20, 2010

London Trip ... Part Two

I loved London. For the sights, the sounds, the smells...everything. Above all, it's the sustaining sense of history. People have been here through hundreds of years, and some of those places have been in continuous use till present day.

Mayfair Walkabout

The London Walks is a marvelous way to visit places. It's just not something you'd want to do with kids. You meet outside designated tube stations and pay when you meet (so if you change your mind, that's OK). Be warned though, the guides talk and walk fast. There's almost no time to click photos, much less take notes. Also if the crowd's big, hearing the guide talk can be a challenge. The Mayfair walk was especially interesting, because they give you juicy historical on dits that you wouldn't find in most guidebooks or research guides. Walking down the streets, staring at the building façades while a voice in your ear tells you something naughty about its famous residents is a lot of fun. We saw Brummell's house, Handel's garrett where full-blown operatic vocal rehearsals were held (often times not to the delight of the neighbors), Shepherd's Market, a club that Lady Diana Spencer loved, and so on. Seeing the poky entrances and dingy kitchen quarters gives you a renewed sense of how hard life was for the ones belowstairs. Seeing those ancient trees in Berkeley Square gardens were a great lift. People I'm writing about walked through the same lanes I was now treading on.

British Museum

I mainly visited rooms 40 and 41, which were the medieval rooms. Gawked at the sheer number of bright, yellow gold jewelry and household items. Unsurprisingly, gold was also used in warrior-ware, such as sword fittings, surcoats, and horse buckles. Was surprised to see so much glass objects in daily use in the early middle ages: cups, beakers, footed bowls, and serving bowls. Case in point was a brown glass claw beaker from sixth century Kent. Lesser metals, such as silver and bronze, and woods, such as burr walnut and maple, were also used to make bowls, ladles, spoons, cups, and other household goods. Poorer folks made do with lead alloy jewelry (especially brooches) in lieu of more expensive pieces made from gold, silver, bronze, and precious and semi-precious gems. Horn, cowrie shells, bone, crystal, amber, and glass beads were also pressed into service for elaborate pieces.

I readily confess, this was the first time I had clapped eyes on a real sword. This was a battle sword, but one of the more agile ones (not a longsword or a broadsword). I laid my arm against the case glass to measure how long it was (full arm length plus eight inches). I stood there for a while trying to work out how my adventurous heroine could get this out of her stolen scabbard attached to her waist. Her arm would simply not have been long enough to pull it out all the way. I tried moving my body and arms in various poses and angles, only to realize I was attracting considerable amused attention from others around me. *sheepish*

National Portrait Gallery

Visited the Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian, and Regency rooms. The highlight was seeing Cassondra's sketch of Jane Austen. Bought a postcard of it. She was beautiful! (I didn't have time, but if you have ten minutes to spare, you can get an 11 x 14 poster printed on site of any picture in the Gallery.) Of course, Prinny was there in full portly glory, the overhang very visible given that I was viewing his picture from below. The Elizabethan room was for Ms. Wee, because she adores dresses with panniers and she adores Amanda McCabe whose heart was captured by Queen Elizabeth I in college.

Tower of London

I'd been told that this was a highly visited tourist spot. So I applied Michelle Willingham's Disney World principles: Buy tickets online beforehand, get there when it opens, and do the heavily visited bits first. As a result, there was no line for the crown jewels. We went around the displays from the front and back twice. It was exciting to see the various coronation and daily crowns. Two of the notable diamonds that the British Empire stole and fitted into a sceptre and crown respectively are: The Star of Africa was 530 carats of perfect clarity and the Kohinoor Diamond of India was 186 carats of perfect clarity. The Kohinoor was added to their treasury when they annexed the Punjab in 1849. The Kohi of Noor (Mountian of Light) was said to be unlucky for men and thus was only set for queens, so it was fit into the crown that Queen Elizabeth II's Queen Mum wore. (Aside: Visited the famous Ravens of the Tower. I hadn't realized ravens are so much bigger than crows. I was hoping to see jackdaws (even bigger), too, but no luck there.)

The Beefeater Warders' tour gave a great overview of the history of the folks unlucky to find their way within the walls. Our warder's crowning comment to the Americans in the crowd: "See, if you'd only paid your taxes, this history could've been yours." Hah! We skipped touring the prisons and locations of the more gruesome events. The Fit for a King exhibit in the White Tower was a fun look at armors and weaponry through the ages. It was great to see how plate armor evolved and became more ergonomic, so if a knight fell, he didn't need couple other people to hoist him upright and back up his horse. Here, Ms. Wee proved especially helpful, because she'd memorized all kinds of details about chainmail and armor and served the voice in my ear as we moved from one station to another. We even had a much ewww-inducing look at the garderobe. Walked out to take pictures of the Tower Bridge.

Noticed three animal duos used on shields at various times in the past millennium: the lion and the unicorn, lion and lion, and hart and lion. Two commonly used mottos on the shields were: "Dieu et Mon Droit" and "Honi soit qui mal y pense."

St Paul's Cathedral

That magnificient dome, that's part of London's skyline, remained standing despite targeted runs by the Luftwaffe. The staff was smart to remove all the stained glass and store it away in the basement so none of it was destroyed as it happened all across the city. The current cathedral, the fourth to stand on the same site, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675, after the former one was destroyed by the Great Fire of London (started by a careless baker). There're three walkways that are higher and higher up the dome, and while the walk up the 400+ steps to the very top is a hike, the close-up look at the carvings and paintings plus the views across the city from the very top are worth every huff and puff and pant along the way. Take a strong pair of binoculars if you don't wish to make the hike up. And do thank Queen Victoria for this beautification of the interior—she complained that the dingy, dreary interior was most undevotional. The thrill for me was in looking at the tombs of some of the most famous residents of the city.

In August, choirs across the city take holidays. Some churches, like St. Paul's, don't have alternate choirs and offer recited prayers in lieu of Evensong (usually 5pm). While we waited for the service to start, we heard the magnificient organ in play, the very same the 1695 organ which Mendelssohn once played. Diana and Charles were married there in the rotunda under the dome where we stood. And William, when he chooses to marry his Kate, will be married there, too.

Westminster Abbey

We took another London Walks tour for the Abbey. Westminster was founded as a Norman church by Edward the Confessor in 1065. The white stone of parts of the Abbey is the expensive stone versus the cheap yellow Cotswold stone. The Dark Cloister that leads to the the living quarters of visiting clergy is the only remnant of the original medieval structures; it's squat with pointy arches. The Dark Cloister has rooms to the right. The left side that looks into the central courtyard, known as the Cloister Garth, has tall window arches without shutters or panes and a long-running stone bench under the arches. The rooms on the right include the Muniments chamber for housing legal church documents, the Pyx chamber (which formed the undercroft of the monks' dormitory) for chests of documents, the Chapter House chamber where everyone went in the morning for their daily chores list (aside from regular assignments), and the relics (pieces of the true cross and the Virgin Mary's robe and the stone Christ stepped on before climbing up to the cross). A door within the vestibule dates from around 1050 and is believed to be the oldest in England.

Part of the thrill here, too, were the tombs and plaques in place of tombs for some. Some of the tombs are adorned with life-like death masks. Darwin is buried there—perfect irony: reject the man, accept his fame. However, not all the clergy was against Darwin. In the memorial sermon the Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, preached in the Abbey on the Sunday following the funeral, he said, "I think that the interment of the remains of Mr Darwin in Westminster Abbey is in accordance with the judgment of the wisest of his countrymen…It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr. Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and belief in God."

Some of the entombed denizens include, Edward the Confessor, Henry III, Elizabeth I and Mary, Mary of Scots, Chaucer, Henry Purcell, Newton, Handel, and even Laurence Olivier. Plaques are in place for Austen, Byron, Samuel Johnson, Milton, Wordsworth, and other poets, writers, scientists, musicians, architects, and actors.

Among the many treasures of the Abbey is the Coronation Chair. The Stone of Scone, stolen from the Scots, is currently at Edinburgh Castle, and will be returned to the Abbey for the next coronation. We walked through the Great West doors of the Abbey, through the nave, past the quire (with the choir seating), and stood under tall square ceiling opposite the Great North doors. It's a path walked by all the kings and queens have taken, since Duke William of Normandy, for their coronation. William, when he ascends the throne, will be crowned there, too.

(Aside: On 17 September 2010, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to set foot in Westminster Abbey.)

We went there one evening for their Evensong service (5pm except Wednesdays). The choir was on holiday but were replaced by the visiting Ely Cathedral Choirs of Girls and Men. Imagine voices accompanied by the grand pipe organ raised to the 100-foot-high ceiling of the Abbey. Those soaring high As and Bs. It's indescribable. I was in tears. This was our last evening of the trip. And it brought this trip and my previous trip to England in full circles. In my previous trip in 2002, I had visited Lindisfarne and St Aidan's Church in Bamburg. The Evensong service was in memory of Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne in 650. The service was also in memory of Princess Diana (that's how they wrote it). The choir's final piece was a traditional American spiritual from A Child of our Time by Michael Tippett (1905–1998).


Victoria Janssen said...

Sounds like you had a great time!

Anna Campbell said...

Lovely, Keira. Really brought back memories!

Keira Soleore said...

Victoria and Fo, I really had a marvelous time. What it must be like to be a part of such history, to have ancestors who did all that, and to be walking in their footsteps (literally).

Sally MacKenzie said...

Great report, Keira. I think you learned a lot more than I did!

One of my favorite things was climbing up to the tippy top of St. Paul's. The passage got so very narrow at the end, didn't it? And don't forget to "mind" your head, eh? There were two women stationed almost at the top--though I really don't know what they could have done if someone took ill.

Loved the wind in my face as I stood at the top looking over London.

Keira Soleore said...

Sally, sounds like your itinerary was fairly similar to mine. And yes, I chuckle at all the admonitions for me to mind this and that (mind my head, mind the gap, etc.).

Those warders at the top, yeah. It's not like there's an elevator that you can speed someone down and out. Perhaps they have hefty footmen stowed somewhere who can hot-foot it up and down with sick person strung over shoulder.