The Little Review (littlereview) wrote,
The Little Review

London Calling II

Another update from the U.K. Happy Passover to everyone else celebrating it and a good Easter week to anyone celebrating that!

Tuesday we took the train to London Bridge again, this time so we could walk from there to the Tower. There was a twenty-minute queue outside, but within the crowds were manageable and even the hugely popular parts of the tour like the Crown Jewels were easily approachable (the Disneyland style people-movers past the crowns certainly helped in that regard!). The kids were most impressed by the site where the scaffold used to be, though the program guide did not contain a single illustration of an actual scaffold, let alone a beheading, which disappointed them. Paul and I were most impressed by the restored Salt Tower and the now-waterlogged Traitor's Gate. Most of the Bloody Tower is now an exhibit devoted to Sir Walter Raleigh, whom we have read far more about as the founder of Virginia than as a suspected traitor, and I had almost forgotten about the story of the dead princes until we were on our way out. We didn't take one of the all-day tours given by the beefeaters but the kids did ask them a bunch of questions about who owns the jewels now and what happened to all the stained glass windows.

We ate lunch on one of the picnic benches within the Tower walls, walked through most of the exhibits (the DeBeers diamond collection was most informative but we were mostly curious to see the parts of the Hope Diamond that did not end up in the Smithsonian) and did some reading about Edward I. I found I had a hard time imagining Princess Elizabeth or Thomas More within the walls filled with modern tourists, but it was still a neat lesson in history.

Then we headed out and took the Tube to St. Paul's, which we had seen from the outside the day before. The interior of the cathedral is undergoing a massive restoration so much of the ceiling is hidden from view, but I was more interested in the tombs in the crypt and in seeing William Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' which is on display there. As a Pre-Raphaelite worshipping spot, St. Paul's is spectacular; Millais, Hunt, Leighton and Alma Tadema are all interred there, and it was a thrill to see Wellington's and Nelson's graves as well. But I am always ambivalent about Christian churches, particularly big historical ones where who knows how much anti-Semitism and other prejudices have been institutionalized, so the ornate crosses and chalices only impressed me on an artistic level. Despite a chamber group practicing Easter music in the main chapel, I did not feel very spiritually uplifted. Unlike Glastonbury, this ancient church mostly made me think about ancient religious conflicts.

From St. Paul's, we walked across the Thames to the dock near the Globe, where we caught a boat to Greenwich. We had a very amusing tour guide who taught us a great deal about the architecture and history of the waterside sights, including Captain Kidd's place of execution and the Millennium Dome. He also told us that the oldest observatory in England had been at the top of one of the White Tower turrets, so we knew before arriving that the great observatory in Greenwich was not the first. The weather remained spectacular and it was a wonderful afternoon to be on the water; I felt as if I still hadn't seen typical London, as we had mostly seen it under clear, sunny skies without even much morning fog.

We met up with the legendary viva_gloria below the prow of the Cutty Sark. To my surprise she is almost as short as I am; I had a mental image of someone tall and intimidating. *g* She led us through the park to the ruins of a Roman temple and past the fallen hollow oak where Queen Elizabeth I used to sit in the shade. There were many other great old oaks growing around the park and the boys tried to climb most of them. (I am fearful that before we leave Britain they will have managed to destroy something that stood for hundreds of years before our arrival.) It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and we were all happy to be outside, though unfortunately the maritime museum closed before we got there so we didn't get to stick our heads in. We took the obligatory photos on either side of the prime meridian and walked through the gardens nearby before going out for Indian food.

Gloria and I discussed slash and fan politics in hushed tones while my kids went on loudly about what they wanted to eat. They also insisted on imitating Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins," so she may be calling the child care authorities to report me and Paul as far too geeky to be acceptable parents. Afterwards we snapped a few photos that I will upload when I'm back on a cable modem, and took a train back to Catford where Paul took the boys for a brief swim while I recharged the camera batteries.

Wednesday we went to Leeds Castle in Kent, which is on magnificent grounds with acres and acres of ponds, gardens and sheep grazing on hillsides. We walked through the duckery (which also contained swans, geese, pheasants and huge peacocks) to the castle, which is decorated downstairs as it looked in the Renaissance but upstairs as it was restored in the last century by Lady Baillie. I liked the lived-in feel, quite different from Windsor where the parts of the castle that are not a museum are off-limits to visitors, and it was interesting to see later artwork hanging on ancient walls, rather than only Renaissance tapestries and portraits.

The views out all the windows are spectacular -- huge green fields, gardens of both cultured and wildflowers, and water everywhere as the moat is still intact. The outer ruins look much older than the interior of the castle, which has been restored several times and is now used for conferences and banquets. My favorite room (no surprise) was the library, though I also enjoyed the cool, cavernous vineyards as it was an uncharacteristically hot day; I ended up buying a souvenir t-shirt for utilitarian purposes as I had not brought a single short-sleeved shirt to Britain with me.

We walked through the aviary, which has dozens of parrots and toucans, and into the hedge maze where we promptly got lost and Daniel and Paul had an argument about who was most likely to be able to lead us out. Daniel successfully navigated us back to the beginning of the maze, from which we cheated and entered the grotto from the exit. But I'm glad we did because it was the highlight of my visit to the castle -- an underground waterfall through the mouth of a Green Man-type face, and even though the guidebook identified all the fish and deer imagery in the stone tiles as stemming from Greek mythology, it had a very Celtic pagan feel.

It was quite a long walk back from the far side of the castle, where we had ice cream and the kids ran though a simpler ground stone maze to a metal replica of the castle, to the car, winding past fields of sheep with lambs and ponds with ducks and ducklings. There were tulips, daffodils and roses in bloom everywhere, and peacocks showing off their plumage in the middle of the paths. We ate lunch in the car as we set off for Dover, encountering some heavy traffic headed for the tunnel before we could see the cliffs.

Dover is an interesting mix of ancient history and modern industry; the cliffs are nearly obscured at sea-level by dozens of huge ships and storage facilities, but the castle high on the hill overwhelms everything in the city below and can be seen from nearly everywhere. We walked down to one of the rocky beaches for a few minutes to stick our toes in the Channel, then wandered into town to glance at some of the older buildings before driving up to the castle. The grounds of Dover Castle are nearly as extensive as those of Leeds Castle but its centrality as a strategic location has made it far more spare in its décor, inside and out; there are tunnels from the Middle Ages and from World War II that have hidden prisons and hospital facilities, and the walls are ringed with artillery weapons left over from World War II.

We took a bus ride up the steep slope from the parking lot and went first to an exhibit on the siege of 1216, where visitors wear earphones and walk through an audio-visual presentation that shows via films and sound and light effects what it was like when Louis nearly took over England, leaving Dover Castle to defend against the French invaders. It was really well done, engaging without being Disneyfied, and parts of the films were oddly reminiscent of the preparations for battle in 'The Two Towers' which made it relevant for the kids, who were also excited about the trebouchet in the keep. We went through the medieval tunnels, some of which date back to the 1200s, and climbed on the parts of the outer wall that were open to visitors so we could take pictures of the white cliffs and the Channel.

Back at our apartment I took the kids swimming while Paul went hunting in the store for matzah and grape juice for our makeshift seder, which lacked a shank bone and eggs but had quickly-made haroset, bitter herbs, parsley, and microwaved honey mustard chicken. Between us we managed the Four Questions and a brief retelling of the Passover story, though we had forgotten to pack the haggadah with the seder plate, Kiddush cup and candlesticks so we kept the Hebrew to a minimum. I had hoped to get together with viva_gloria and ladymoonray but they were pretty fried after work and were headed out of town for the weekend to a convention, so I could hardly claim not to understand! They did have lots of advice for our travels to Stonehenge and environs tomorrow, so I will file another report afterwards...
Tags: britain 03

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