How’s THAT for a compelling title!
Monday, 21 July. My last full day in England. I had a lot for us to still see and do today, but otherwise, I didn’t really have any regrets. Sure, we hadn’t seen Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey, or even Hampstead Heath or Abbey Road. But I never had that feeling of doom, of “OH GOSH I HAVE TO DO ALL THE THINGS BECAUSE I’LL NEVER BE HERE THIS AGAIN”. Call it optimistic, but I don’t think that’s true. I have my entire life ahead of me, and (barring any unforeseen incidents), I will go to London again. I will see all those things and more. And it’ll be awesome.
Please, hold your applause.
The morning was somewhat gloomy, but I awoke feeling more prepared than I had the entire week. I had Tube schedules screenshot, information saved, and electronics fully charged. We both woke up bright and early, and pockets and purses stuffed with pounds and glorious purpose, we set off downstairs for our final Great British Buffet Breakfast.
I haven’t really talked much about that, because, well, it’s just breakfast. But if you’re reading this because you happen to be staying at Hilton Paddington and also bought the buffet option, I can tell you it’s pretty worth it, if only because of unlimited food and not having to worry about eating in the morning. This breakfast (when we ate it – I think we skipped twice) kept us going all day, and part of that may be due to the fact that I’m frugal when traveling and don’t like spending money on silly things like lunch, and that we were pretty busy, but the truth is, when lunchtime came round, we weren’t that hungry! It wasn’t exceptional food, but it got the job done. I liked that there were baked beans and grilled tomatoes. And Weetabix! Those wacky Brits. And the tea was, naturally, stellar.
We tucked in, and then headed for the nearest bus station. Why not the Underground, you ask? Well, despite yesterday’s good Tube travel, Mom was still not very fond of it, and our first stop was only a few blocks away.
C’mon, how could a Anglophilic bookworm like me go to London WITHOUT seeing one of the most famous fictional addresses in the city? 221b Baker Street! (I tried to find the mousehole beneath, but there were too many people.) Actually, I totally forgot about it, and was reminded at the last minute by a friend. In any case, it was a good start in trying to cram in as many last-minute Britishy things as possible today.
We did not go to the museum located there (and wow, that website needs an update), because we had a limited amount of time, and also it cost monies. Not that much, admittedly, but enough that I was fine with bypassing it, and just going into the shop next door. Also, the queue was tremendously lengthy, not unlike that of Platform 9 3/4 yesterday – funny how the fictional places seemed to be the most popular.
The shop was pretty interesting: it had Sherlock memorabilia from the TV shows, both new and old, and pipes and other such memorabilia. It was all decorated to look like a Victorian-style sitting room, complete with appropriately-attired clerks.
The coolest thing was just being there. A place that could have conceivably been the home of a famous detective. The movies and television shows just don’t have that same sense of magic of seeing what you only imagined when reading it.
After pottering around in there for a bit, we popped into a shop next door that had caught our eye.
I sort of realized at this point that we hadn’t seen anything Beatles-related. The most iconic would have been Abbey Road, but despite the relaxed atmosphere of the album cover, it’s a fairly busy street, and in true hipster fashion, I didn’t want to take a picture walking across because it has been done ad nauseum – and I also didn’t trust myself nor Mom’s photography capabilities to get it right the first time. I have a great book on Beatles locations in London, so I figured we must have seen or passed something in the past few days, and this shop would otherwise cover our bases.
It was of course filled with band memorabilia and loads of touristy souvenirs. We looked around for something for my grandfather, a Beatles fanatic, but nothing specific caught our eye, and we left for the Underground and the British Museum.
If you recall from our first couple days in England, I had wanted to go to the Natural History and Science museums and had consequently given up on those when the schedule had to keep being rearranged. But I was determined to keep the British Museum on the list because 1) it was British, and 2) there was truly only one of it in the world.
The exit from the Tube was actually quite a distance away, and we walked through the busy, yet pleasant streets (following the always-convenient corner maps) to the museum. Despite its size, we almost passed right by, hidden by the surrounding gates as it was.
There were tons of people there already, though it was about 10:00 on a weekday morning. Tourists mostly, but also families and what looked to be summer school groups. It was actually rather gratifying to see so many kids there, most of whom who looked quite happy instead of bored. The place, both inside and out, can be overwhelming with so much to see and do, but that guarantees that will be something for everyone to enjoy. And it really is so lovely that this and other museums are free, not just for the pursuit of knowledge, but that we were able to just walk right in, no need to stand in line for a ticket.
(One quick sidenote: like the restroom = toilets thing, England doesn’t have “exit” signs, but ones that say, “Way Out”. I actually first noticed this at the Museum of London when we were – you guessed it – looking for the way out. Mom and I both found this to be extremely amusing, and it’s one of the stranger things I miss most about London. “Way out” is just so much more friendly than “Exit”, y’know?)
The first thing you see when you walk through the doors is the Rosetta Stone. Which I unfortunately didn’t get a picture of, as it was surrounded by people. I actually took quite a few pictures, which I’m a little hesitant in posting, because, well, museums and the contents within them are some of the things I consider to be unique and something that people should experience for themselves. You’ll’ve noticed I rarely took any photos in the other indoor places, and not only because most of them restricted camera use. But in this case, the British Museum is so large and so open, it seemed almost a waste to come here and leave without having some sort of mementos of what I saw.
The giant inner courtyard (two pics above) was the central hub for the whole place, with corridors and staircases leading off to the various exhibits. I immediately bought a map, partly for a souvenir, but mostly because our time was limited and I wanted to be sure we saw at least the most important bits. Again, I’d’ve loved to have taken the audio headphone tour and examined anything and everything, but I was quite happy doing the condensed version.
I tried to start us off in the earliest time period and work our way down through the ages, but it turned into a matter of, “which room is the least jammed with people”. After the Greeks, we found ourselves in an special hallway of currency throughout history, which meant going from looking at antique bits of metal to examining modern day credit cards. It’s actually quite a fascinating subject, and I’d always been curious to know more about how the whole money thing got started.
After looking at more bygone civilizations, Mom got a little overwhelmed by the crowds and went to sit in a foyer type area, just outside the main exhibit rooms. I kept going, trying to maintain an even pace as I went, to best maximize sightseeing. I particularly liked the enormous stone pieces, as they seemed so absurdly out of place. (I’m an advocate of returning stolen artifacts to their rightful countries, but hey, while it’s here, I might as well enjoy it.) I also liked anything that had to do with how people lived back then, whether it was jewelry or clothes or any other records about lifestyle. It all seems so removed from us now, but back then, it was just normal life.
One of the most fascinating things was the Lindow Man. I’m not going to post a picture because some people might consider it to be gruesome and/or disturbing. You can read more at the link, but basically, it’s “the body of a man discovered in August 1984 when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in north west England. The conditions in the peat bog meant that the man’s skin, hair, and many of his internal organs are well preserved, and radiocarbon dating shows that he died between 2 BC and AD 119.” Scientists also learned how old he was, whether he was rich or poor, how he was killed (which was obvious by the violent nature of the cause of death), and even what his last meal was. A truly amazing discovery.
And now for something completely different.
I continued to explore, passing through myriad periods of history, from Vikings to Celts to Egyptians. That’s right, MUMMIES.
I’ve always had a fondness for mummies, being rather taken by the wild story of the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb when I was little. Being Christian, it amazed me that he had so much stuff in his so many rooms that he wouldn’t even use in the afterlife. But that’s what they believed, and much of it, like animal mummies and canopic jars and realistic figurines, surrounded the main attractions that were the sarcophagi and linen-wrapped corpses.
After I had filled my mummy quota for the day, I continued on, vaguely wondering if Mom was alright. I started to head back to where we had split ways, but even with my map, it was confusing, and I wound up near a special Japan exhibit.
I was somewhat uncomfortably aware that I hadn’t seen any displays featuring countries other than Western ones or those accepted into mainstream Western culture. The Japan exhibit was on the fifth floor, and I hiked up a flight of stairs to find a gorgeous, but sadly mostly empty room. There were many murals and posters depicting lovely Japanese art (photo restricted), and I spent a good 15 minutes there before remembering Mom.
I finally found her, and she was understandably upset with me for ditching her. Communication had crossed wires yet again; she thought I was checking out only one room, while I had been under the impression she wanted to relax instead of walking around. She led the way for awhile, lest we became separated again, and I told her about some of what I had seen. She was not at all interested in the Lindow Man.
Going back down to the first floor, we found another special exhibit that I think was about the Enlightenment, with the room made up to look like a well-to-do library. We didn’t linger long, as I wanted to complete our worldly exploration, and so we found the section on the Americas.
I’m only partially sorry to say that this reminded me of The Road to El Dorado more than anything else.
The Latin American part was a bit small, but hopefully that means there are much more artifacts in the native countries. The United States was unremarkable, but only to my overly familiar eye. The last bit we saw was a sort of highlights exhibit, with contributions from volunteers all over the world. The most fascinating was Cradle to Grave, a pharmaceutical look at the average life cycle: “The piece incorporates a lifetime supply of prescribed drugs knitted into two lengths of fabric, illustrating the medical stories of one woman and one man. Each length contains over 14,000 drugs, the estimated average prescribed to every person in Britain in their lifetime. This does not include pills we might buy over the counter, which would require about 40,000 pills each.” It was startling to realize how much medicine most of us ingest over the years, and even more so to see a typical human life condensed in such a way. Though the description helpfully points out that “it also contains family photographs, and other personal objects and documents. The captions, written by the owners, trace typical events in people’s lives. These show that maintaining a sense of well-being is more complex than just treating episodes of illness.”
Back at the entrance, I felt we had done a pretty good round of the place, and we headed out for our next destination. I hadn’t entirely given up on finding the Book Benches, and I knew there was a one very close by, in a small park.
Because I clearly hadn’t learned my lesson from last time.
It really was just down the street, and though I nearly got ran over by a bicyclist, and was soundly cussed at for my folly (really, the only instance of rudeness we’d come across this whole time), we found it without any trouble.
I shouldn’t’ve been disappointed to see people on it, like most of the others I’d seen, but I guess I had pictured them as sculptures, to be admired, and not as actual benches for actual sitting.
After that, we headed toward the Tube, but Mom had rather enjoyed the bus from this morning, and asked if we mightn’t just take that instead. I hadn’t planned for this, and had no proper directions saved, but the timetables on the bus stops were pretty easy to figure out, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the right one.
The buses are slower than the Tube, but you do get to see more, and I rather liked that, especially on our last day. Trafalgar Square, where the National Gallery is located, wasn’t that far away in any case, and we got there around 1:00.
We had already passed by Trafalgar Square twice on our various Big Big Tour routes, but it was much more impressive up close and personal.
The base of Nelson’s Column had people sprawled all over it, and with only slight doubts of my physical prowess, I climbed up as well.
The lions are actually anatomically incorrect; they were either based on the sculptor’s dogs or cats (the tour guides differ), as at the time of sculpting, there were no real live lions for him to reference.
The heads are alright, as the artist had skins and drawings to look at, but for the body, he turned to his pets.
I kinda wanted to just stay up there forever, but Mom was looking impatient, and the National Gallery was the one thing she had been pretty excited to see. So with one last pic for posterity, we headed across the square.
The front of the place is quite impressive, and there were quite a few performers hanging around. To my comic-convention-going eyes, they looked like elaborate cosplayers; there were even Disney costumes and other characters. One was dressed as Death, and in a tricky illusion kind of way, looked as though he was hovering around his giant scythe. There was also a demonstration of some kind going on in the center. At first, I thought it was a political speaker, but there were kids in the surrounding audience, and the speakers seemed to be doing some sort of performance. We didn’t stick around to see the details, but it was clear that Trafalgar Square was hip and hoppin’. (That’s what the kids say nowadays, by golly.)
All the lonely people… Where do they all come from?
The first thing I noticed was not just the fewer people that were inside, at least compared to the British Museum, but also the age difference. These were mostly older adults, though there were a few college-aged looking peeps around. I guess greats like Turner, Rembrandt, Rubens, Claude, Seurat, and Monet require a certain type of audience. Now, before y’all get too excited, there were no pictures allowed in the National Gallery.
I didn’t dare risk doing that again, not desiring to incur one of the guards’ wrath. I also made sure to keep my hands clasped behind my back, because I have a bad habit of pointing out details of artwork with my finger and also gesturing wildly, and I got told off by the lovely guards during a trip to The Getty for nearly touching a particularly amazing painting.
Our journey through this museum was rather leisurely, and I mostly just followed Mom around. She was particularly interested in the religious paintings, and we both found it funny that everyone Biblical was apparently white and blue-eyed, according to most of these artists. That’s not a putdown on their skill, of course, but still rather amusing.
I don’t particularly favor any one art genre, I like anything that looks amazing in some unique way. There was one giant painting of a horse with a plain background. It was a nice horse, I suppose, but there was nothing spectacular about it. It’s when artists utilize creativity over technical skill that I really admire (which is why I don’t understand the hype over modern hyperrealistic painting – it’s a brilliant skill to be sure, but not much else).
It was also here that I learned Mom knew a lot more about famous painters than I did, and would point out Monets and Manets and Turners to me that she liked. Van Goghs were apparently somewhere, too, but even though I’m fairly certain we hit every room, we didn’t see one. A section was closed off that day, which is possibly where they were. We know they were somewhere, because when we went at the gift shop, Van Gogh stuff was all over the place.
Mom picked up a Manet poster for the house, and I got some postcards of my favorite paintings we had seen that day: The Fighting Temeraire (a new favorite), Lake Keitele, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (I liked their expressions), The Gare St-Lazare, and Bathers at Asnieres (I adore Seurat).
We then left the National Gallery, feeling much more edumacated, yet slightly subdued after that intimidating display.
Next, it was finally time to hit up the shopping districts.
[Author’s Note: Hey everyone! I’m not trying to drag this whole trip summary out longer than necessary, but I didn’t have much time to write posts this week, because of multiple car troubles. I might make a post about that later, because I made some pretty big mistakes, and perhaps my experience can help someone else not make the same ones. But for now, I’m going to split this post up into two parts so you guys get SOMETHING instead of nothing. Hooray for more witty titles!]