Monday, March 27, 2006

Final Remarks on London

The weather has warmed a bit - still need a jacket for travelling about, but its no longer really cold. The last 2 or 3 days have started with sun, but clouded by afternoon with off and on showers for the remainder of the day. The rain is hard enough that you'd use an umbrella, but not so hard that you get soaked if you walk without one which I was doing. I did bring an umbrella on the trip, but for whatever reason, I keep forgetting to put it in my day bag.

The walk through Chelsea was nice - the book did a good job of pointing out interesting locations and giving some history and context to what you are seeing or who the individual was that lived there. Over the course of a mile or so, I passed by places where Mark Twain, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, AA Milne, James Bond (yes, I know he's not real), Oscar Wilde, Mick Jagger and a whole host of others lived. What was remarkable is that all the houses were so unremarkable. Most were similar to town houses from Boston's Back Bay. The walk finished on Kings Rd which is a lot like Newbury St in Boston. On this shopping road, there were very few chain stores and a lot more boutiques giving the street a very nice feel. There were also ample coffee shops and cafes to stop in at many with tables on the wide sidewalks to watch the abundant foot traffic go by. Even though I didn't do any shopping, I much preferred this area to the Bond St/Regent St/Oxford St shopping areas.

A block or so from Kings Rd is the Victoria & Albert Museum (which is next door to the natural history and science museums). The V&A is the "thing" museum - rather than paintings, its collections are mostly objects. This museum is enourmous - it would take many days to fully appreciate all that it holds. The cards for each of the objects is packed with information in relatively small print. This makes it difficult to "browse" the collection as you truly need to stop and get close to even see what an object is. I enjoyed the samurai swords (probably because of some of the movies I've seen that make such a big deal out of them), the plaster casts of ancient structures (because of their grand scale) and the Raphael cartoons and the room in which their displayed is quite impressive. The lobby and entrance way was also quite grand.

As the line for the Natural History museum was quite long (this was the first day I encountered any crowds so I would recommend visiting on a weekday if possible), I headed off to the British Museum to catch the guided tour. The British Museum is something like 20 acres, so it too is quite an impressive (intimidating?) collection. The tour was nice as it cut to the chase - taking you to the rosetta stone, some of the ancient murals, the sculptures from the Parthenon, Ramses II, up to the mummies, the Portland vase and the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Of course, by this time I've been on so many walks and have seen so many objects that retention rate is a bit of a problem.

After the museum I wander through Covent Garden (which is very crowded today) and down the strand a bit, stopping in at a coffee house. I was joined by a mother and daughter that live in the city and was sharing the details of my journey. They couldn't believe that I had taken a tour that included Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath all in one day - apparently, this is quite a feat as their is quite a bit of distance between them all. I simply flipped through a brochure picking the tour that included the places I wanted to see. They also asked if I was nervous travelling because of the bombing (a gentleman on one of the walking tours asked the same thing). Apparently this is still front of mind here (though I'm not sure why as it seems bombings have been a part of London for a while with the IRA being the problem in the past). I told them I hadn't even considered it (I was keeping an eye on the bird flu before leaving) though the gentleman commented that the number of American tourists seemed to be very low recently (more likely cause of this is that its very expensive because of the soft dollar policies).

The evening involved a book guided pub tour through the west end in and around Covent Garden. Though not as densely packed with pubs as Ireland, its possible to visit many different pubs with extremely different atmospheres without walking too far. There were also some interesting old streets and alleyways to explore. The wandering took me to Chinatown where picking a restaurant is not easy. All have the menu on display, but looking at a menu in Chinatown is of little use other than to find out the price of the entrees as every menu has the usual selection of Chinese meals. I ultimately chose New World which was mentioned in two of the books I was carrying. The meal was decent (crispy shredded beef) though I probably should have ordered something with a bit more meat or vegatables to get a better sense on how good a restaurant it is.

I walked back to the hotel, stopping at a few more pubs along the way. In general, the locals and other tourists were friendly but were engaged in their own coversations so not a lot of interesting exchanges through the night.

I skipped breakfast Sunday (wanted a bit more sleep and we lost an hour to daylight savings) and then headed out to join the tour to Greenwich. I saw a group of people gathered outside the tube station, so I assumed this must be the group and attempted to pay my fare. The gentleman indicated this wasn't London Walks but a free Jewish history walk that was much better than London Walks which he claimed didn't show up. This certainly had me puzzled and a bit confused. I stood with this group for a bit, but kept edging to the back of the circle and finally spotted another group beginning to assemble. This group was for the London Walks trip to Greenwich so I quickly switched groups.

The gentleman, Richard, leading this tour was one of the best so far. His accent was wonderful, told great stories with a good mix of humor (often role-playing during the story) and his voice was loud enough to hear very easily even with a relatively large group. The boat to Greenwich was a bit late, but it did arrive and we made our way down the Thames to Greenwich. Unfortunately, there was no narration during the boat journey and our guide wasn't allowed to provide one. An interesting bt of history of Greenwich is that it was originally the site of a palace but the rebuilding of a bigger palace was abandoned after the plague and fire, with the buildings ultimately being handed over to the Navy. The tour covered a good deal of ground and he was able to have us all assembled in view of the rising and dropping of the ball on top of the observatory at precisely 1pm. The town itself is relatively small, with a few nice shops and restaurants and a few different market areas (flea and antique). I had cod & chips for lunch. After reading the book "Cod" which talked about how the British much preferred cod as the type of fish in their fish & chips, I wanted to make sure I had the "authentic" version. I also had a chocolate flapjack from the market. I have no idea what this was - it was brownie sized and looked like it was made from oats - but it was delicious. It was all I could do to keep from going back and having several more.

The maratime museum was a bit disappointing (very much geared towards kids), but as with most in London, it was free (though they do make you get a ticket for some odd reason). A short hike up the hill brings you to the observatory and the prime meridian. Entry here is again free (though ticket required) and the museum and exhibits much more interesting. The focus is on navigation and time keeping and the relation between the two.

Calculation of latatitude had been understood for a while by measuring the noontime suns elevation over the horizon. But longitudinal navigation was not perfected until the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to this, ships would sail north or south along their own coast until they reached the latitude they wished to cross at and then sailed directly east or west sticking to that latitude for the entire journey. Longitudinal navigation required accurate timekeeping which was problematic on boats for a number of reasons (portability, the rocking of the boat interfering with the swinging of a pendulum).

I of course stood with one food in the eastern and western hemispheres, as were many many other people.

The journey home was by rail through the dockyards which was an interesting area. Lots of converted warehouses surrounding old docks and waterways. I walked through the downtown area which was truly desterted on the weekend with just about all the stores closed as well. The walk took me past Somerset house but the major exhibit was closed. I continued to meander on the way back to the hotel, which brought me to St James Park in front of Buckingham palace. The flowers were just coming into bloom and all the ducks and other waterfowl were out making this an extremely enjoyable walk.

Around the corner from the hotel was a self-service launderette that I noticed when I arrived. I stopped in to check prices and was amazed that doing a load of laundry would cost over 5 pounds (about $10!). Well, I needed to do some laundry so I continued on to the hotel to gather up my things. When I returned only about 15 minutes later, they were closed. Would have thought the attendent would have mentioned that when giving me the prices. No problem I thought - I'll just go get some soap and launder in the hotel. Turns out this was easier said than done. After returning to the hotel to drop my clothes off I headed out for the soap. Well, being a Sunday, everything was closed. I ventured to Victoria station thinking there had to be something in that area that would be open and ultimately found an open store - but was forced to buy enough soap to do about 20 washes. The next thing I learned (though when I started the wash, I suspected this would be the case), is that it takes more than one night for clothes to hang dry when they aren't in the sun. So, this morning, I packed a lot of damp clothing which I'm sure added another 5-10 pounds to my backpack. And, I couldn't fit the box of soap so I was forced to leave it behind.

I stopped at a Thai place that was recommended and near the hotel for dinner. It was quite good - probably the best meal I've had on the journey thus far. The only thing I didn't like was the Australian accent of the waitstaff. It was rather harsh and definitely not as melodious as the British or Irish accents.

Some parting thoughts on London. It is extremely large. There are many different neighborhoods and they do truly have their own character. There is no shortage of places, parks, museums, plays, restaurants or pubs to keep one busy for a very long time. I was able to do much that I had hoped, but there were I few things I had wanted to do but didn't get a chance (going to the zoo, Kensington Palace & gardens, going by 221b Baker St, going back to the science museum, visiting the Tate Britain, exploring more of Soho). The hotel location turned out to be very convinient. There was a large market and a number of restuarants very close by. And Victoria station was only a 10 minute walk. The price was also reasonable as far as London goes - 70 pounds / night (~$120) which included breakfast.

Off to the train station this morning to catch the Eurostar through the Chunnel to Brussels. This is my second passage (last time took it to Paris) and once again paid the extra for first class ($150 one way). The service and food have been wonderful and the seats are roomy and extremely comfortable. Definitely the most enjoyable ride so far. Even better was that when we went into the tunnel it was overcast with showers and when we emerged about 20 minutes later, it was bright and sunny (though it has become overcast again).

Enduring image (seen from the train ride today as well as several times earlier in the trip) - a person walking through the countryside with a long jacket flowing in the wind, a walking stick and a dog at their side or playfully running ahead. It definitely is a tranquil sight.

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