Saturday, December 20, 2008

London in a nutshell . . .

It has been an eventful couple of days. We have been searching for a car and after talking with (brother) Michael and my cousin Anna here in the UK, we opted for a private purchase. So after trawling the net, we find one on eBay that looks pretty good. It is a 2001 Vauxhall Vectra S1 with only 58000 miles on the clock. Only problem is that it is in Wigan – up past Liverpool. We make contact with the owners and arrange to visit on Friday (today).

So, now we have Thursday at our disposal to do some sightseeing!
Knowing that our time in London is limited this visit, we decide to do a red bus tour in order to get our bearings properly and see as much as we can. So into town on the Underground to Leicester Square and off we go on the Original London Tour. A double decker bus allows us to get a variety of views. Michael is busy with the cameras while Maria records notes. Funnily enough – one of the firsts sights we pass is Eaton Square in Belgravia – the Square used in the filming of Mary Poppins – what a coincidence that there is a link with back home so early in the tour!

With an excellent commentary, we pass iconic sights such as Buckingham Palace and learn that the parade ground is actually the rear of the Palace, Westminster Abbey, Horseferry Road where – you guessed it – horses once pulled the ferries across the Thames. Over London Bridge looking at the Houses of Parliament (where the flag flying from the Victoria Tower showed that Parliament was sitting – the UK House of Commons has 640 members), Big Ben and the London Eye.
Parliament Square is home to statues of famous politicians. Travelling down Whitehall, there are a series of War Memorials in the centre of the road and buildings along here house the operations of the various arms of the Armed Forces.
Outside the National Gallery is a pavement artist – if you think the artists employed at the last Mary Poppins Festival in Maryborough were good – you should have seen this one – except that her works were in paint on a large cloth that could be taken up each day. We continue past Trafalgar Square with Nelson’s Column. Our trip starts to follow the Monopoly Board – The Strand connects the City of Westminster and the City of London. We pass Covent Garden and lose count of all the theatres, and Australia House, filmed as Gringott’s Bank in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone.
We see the Twinnings Store that holds a Guinness World Record for the longest purveyor of the same goods on the same site by the same company. London is a mix of the old sitting comfortably alongside the new. There are any number of small, dark passages and alleys with evocative names such as Hen and Chicken Court. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese claims to be the oldest pub in the world, being re-built after the Great Fire of London. We continue passing names that are familiar to us – the Old Bailey, Fleet Street. Mansion House Street is the shortest street in London with a total distance of 50 yards. The NatWest Bank that extends the length of this street was one of the sites used in Goldfinger of 007 fame. And guess what – there is an Ave Maria Lane in London EC4!
We are told that there has been a bridge on the site of the London Bridge for over 2000 years. The nursery rhyme London Bridge is Falling Down commemorates the battle for the bridge when the Danes were attacking London. King Olaf of Sweden had his troops on the bridge and the british were under the bridge. At the direction of King Olaf, together they pulled the bridge down to thwart the attempts of the Danes – and hence the song!
Tower Bridge and the nearby fortifications are truly a sight to hold. Not only is this the home of the Crown Jewels, but it also house convicted traitors – rowed in through Traitors Gate on the high tide. Acknowledged as the most haunted buildings in London, there were only just 5 executions here.
Sitting alongside the Thames you find Cleopatra’s Needle guarded by two sphinx. This obelisk, in existence for more than 1,000 years before the famous Queen Cleopatra, was presented to the UK in 1819 by Mehemet Ali, the Albanian-born viceroy of Egypt. It was not transported until 1878 as the UK Parliament decided against funding its delivery. The Embankment as this area is known, was constructed to cover the sewer that runs underneath and in to the Thames.
Then we are back into the City and to Michael’s joy, we pass the Sherlock Holmes Pub before we get to Admiralty Arch and Leicester Square and then St James Palace – the London home to Princes Charles, William and Harry where the gas lights are still used in the street.

This tour lasted just over 1.5 hours and showed us the greatest part of London City. As the weather was inclement with patches of rain and a cold wind, we decide to transfer to another of the routes. This time we see the Ritz Hotel – one of London’s first iron framed buildings, past Green Park into Park Lane and Piccadilly (there we go with the Monopoly Board again). We travel through Knightsbridge, down Seville Street into Kensington with street upon street of majestic white 3 – 4 storied stately attached homes – all very similar (wouldn’t do to be drunk and having newly moved there ;-)! ) The Royal Albert Hall was hosting a performance with hundreds of patrons crowded in the foyer. There was an ice-rink set up in the grounds of the Natural History Museum and lots of people skating – young and old – so it is not just an american thing! Alongside the rink was a Christmas Fair.
The Victoria and Albert Museum (known colloquially as the V&A) was built from the proceeds of an early London Exhibition and current renovations are being funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Harrods has an interesting past and continues to be a shopping icon in London. As does the Harvey Nichols Department Store and Fortnum & Masons which started after Mr Fortnum got wealthy selling used candles from the Palace. The Burlington Arcade is of a much higher calibre and dates back to the 1660s.
We finish this tour with a few other impressions – 2008 Christmas in London is predominantly blue and white. Even though it is winter, there are still a number of amber leaves falling from the trees, and the various residential areas close to the City are all distinct, reflecting different construction materials and styles, but all are uniform within each of the precincts.

Although at 4pm it is now dark (and cold) there is still life in the streets. Michael is dying to see the British Museum and so off we set on foot. We have just over an hour to explore and so I encourage him to head for the Egyptian Rooms initially.

The museum is indeed a Cathedral of Wonders! Cavernous, and with adjoining rooms, which provides visitors with an array of interests and amazing visions.
You wander through these corridors of time; Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Lukka people, and finally – Egypt...

“Oh wondrous splendor is in thine eyes Osiris, God of Wisdom. For thy beauty is great amongst the heavens and which bears thee upon their gossamer of stars. By the Lord Thoth, thy light in its brightness is truth.” Papyrus of Ani, Egyptian Book of the Dead

The dimmed lighting and the silent chorus of gazers, enhances the mystery of the Egyptians’ obsession with the afterlife. The overwhelming detail of the sarcophagi is increased by the use of gold leaf; bold ochre’s, reds, blues and greens; elegant hieroglyphs. Delicate alabaster Canopic jars, which still protect the organs of their benefactors, with lids devoted to those gods in judgment; Bast, Maat, Anubis, Horus.

Further into this exhibition, glass display cases illustrate through various mediums the development of the Egyptian language: papyri, stele, and frescoes.

Back in the main hall of the Museum, you can sit and gaze at the building itself. Enclosed within the formal architecture of the building with its Grecian Ionic Columns is the largest public square in Europe (2 acres) under a glass roof. This provides a sense of lightness while the inner workings such as lifts, eduactional and reading rooms fulfil their duties. It allows the looker to better appreciate the beautiful structures of the original building.
So, having barely sampled of the fruits on offer, we leave with the other visitors at the close of the day at 5:30 pm and are thrust into the heady world of London peak hour. Knowing we have an early start the next day, we headback for Earl's Court for dinner at an Indian Restaurant titled Masala Zone before we return to the Mayflower.

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