London, United Kingdom
Two years since we first experienced the majesty of London, we returned in full exploratory force. We weren't going to waste a moment of our two and a half days, so made good use of the metro to get around. Wanting to flee from the youth hostel we were staying at, as it was literally full of youths (13 to 15 year olds - what were they doing at a hostel?), we purchased two Oyster cards and caught a ride to Big Ben. Boy, was Big Ben big. It was attached to the impressive parliament building that we wandered around.
We popped across the street to see Westminster Abbey, and spotted a statue of George V looking suspiciously like a bemoustached Tim Curry.
Some clever chap thought it might be a good idea to preserve the underground bunker that was used by Churchill and his team during World War II. The War Rooms was born. All of the maps, telephones and sleeping quarters were left untouched since the last light was finally shut off in August 1945. It was a well laid-out museum with a fascinating audio guide, and the museum on Churchill himself inside was a great insight into the prime minister. I especially enjoyed the velvet suit that was made for him so that he could sleep if needed, while still remaining decent in case he needed to be present for an urgent meeting. He spent a considerable amount of time down there. A memorable anecdote was when his wife instructed him to go to bed as he had been working too much. He got into his pyjamas, prepared for sleep and laid down, but then continued to work from his bed. He justified this by saying he did follow instructions but could not cease work.
We had spent longer in the War Rooms than intended, and missed the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. No matter, we thought, well just go anyway. But it turns out we were right on time and the two sources that told us the earlier times were out of date. Enormous crowds gathered to watch the pomp and ceremony, and policemen on horses had to gesture to rowdy civilians whenever they got in the way of the procession. Some spectators ran along the road to take photo after photo, doing a strange grown-up run that looked like it should be called 'capering'. Madness takes its toll.
Popping out of another Tube station to see London Bridge, we found out it is decidedly unimpressive. Tower Bridge just down the Thames is considerably more awestriking. London Bridge even had the audacity to wedge the song about its falling down in my head, just by thinking about it!
On the way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, we found the Royal Albert Hall and across from it was a giant gilded statue of Prince Albert. At each of the four corners were representations of different cultures with princesses riding camels, oxen, bison and elephants. This statue was apparently representative of Asia.
Once at the museum, we found a statue we liked from circa 1760 showing the celebrated quack doctor Joshua Ward. While he took people's money, he gave back by opening two hospitals for the poor. A plaque told me that his bulky figure suggests prosperity while his hand gesture indicates generosity. What a character.
The cast rooms contained enormous plaster recreations of famous Roman sights such as Trajan's Column. Apparently casts were the most popular section of the museum during a time when people wanted to see the wonders the world had to offer before travelling became widely available. This evoked an image of artists going abroad and painstakingly crafting moulds on the outsides of buildings to be carted back to England to be filled with plaster and put on display. Now that we're actually able to see these things in the flesh or go to museums with Roman artefacts, I can't say this was all that interesting. After all, it is only painted plaster. Instead of focusing on the casts themselves, I was more intrigued by why people came to see them, and it became interesting from a historical perspective.
One of the most curious pieces was the Great Bed of Ware, which was made as a tourist attraction in 1590 by an inn. It's reported to have capacity for four couples, and is referenced in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Visitors carved their initials in the bed which can still be seen today.
Taking the Tube to Piccadilly, we ate our way through pastries at the Nordic Bakery. Their specialty was a cinnamon swirl. More dense than non-Nordic swirls, it was also more flavourful and wonderfully spiced.Chinatown in Piccadilly was intriguing, as old brick English buildings were coupled with Chinese lettering. Restaurants and massage parlours were in abundance.
A recently opened Jamie Oliver Italian restaurant on a nearby street was stumbled upon and we made a reservation for that evening. The fare was decent, but I can't say it was much better than other restaurants, and certainly didn't compare to dining in Italy.
Before leaving the capital for France the next day, we ate our customary breakfast of grapes and yoghurt in the Rotherhithe park before heading to Camden Market (post to follow) and the National Library. Inside were housed such treasures as original Beatles lyrics scrawled on the back of a birthday card, a joint letter in the hand of both Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and a Gutenberg bible. The free exhibition room was small but very worthwhile, yet the Magna Carta was at the time in a separate exhibit which required payment (usually it's part of the free section). Photographs weren't allowed, however, so you get this chunk of text instead. Joy of joys!