London is a city of flowers and monumental stone, of great words and heroes.
I arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport in the morning on August 20 after an overnight redeye flight having had just one or two hours of sleep. Some members of our walking group were with me and together we found our way to our hotel via the Heathrow Express train and the Tube. We had to immediately figure out the ticket machines for the Tube but it wasn’t so difficult.
After storing our luggage at the hotel, Leslie and Kathy and I took a walk to Hyde Park. To get to the park, we walked through the higher-end Earls Court neighborhood with rows of townhomes and through commercial areas with shops and stores. We specifically noticed the Ferrari dealer as an indicator of affluence. At the park, we started by admiring the Albert Memorial with its beautiful sculpture and golden statue of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s much loved husband. Prince Albert died of Typhoid Fever, an infectious waterborne disease common in the 19th century, in 1861 at age 42. Victoria remained in mourning and wore black the rest of her long life. The memorial was completed in 1876. Across Kensington Road from the memorial, we admired the Royal Albert Hall, the large round concert hall, opened in 1871 and constructed mostly of red brick with neoclassical architecture and friezes. It too, was dedicated by Victoria as a memorial to her prince.
It was a nice, partly sunny Sunday and there were many people in the park. I noticed that in portions of the park the grass was mown but in other areas it was left in a more natural, unmown condition. We walked through the South Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens and enjoyed its beautiful flowers. We continued on to the Serpentine Lake where it was crossed by the stone Serpentine Bridge which was constructed in the 1820s and then to the Princess Diana memorial fountain, a roughly circular stream of moving water, in which children were playing on this warm Sunday.
Next, we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the way, we passed the Royal Geographic Society with its sculpture of Ernest Shackleton. Leslie and I agreed that he was likely our favorite explorer with his unsuccessful trip to Antarctica but with his incredible adventures and success at saving his team. We didn’t explore all the exhibits at the V & A Museum but instead enjoyed its public spaces and architecture. Mostly it is a late nineteenth century brick building with industrial and neoclassical motifs but also with some interesting postmodern structural elements added on the front. The large courtyard was full of people with children playing in the parabolic water feature. We rode the tube back to the hotel and that evening we had our first English meal at Lilly’s near the hotel. I had a vegetable pastry with Yorkshire pudding and gravy and, of course, a nice pint of cask ale.
On Monday, we rode the tube to the Hampstead area of London. Adam, a friend of Kris Ashton who lived in London, met us and walked with us through the neighborhood describing what he knew about the area. We walked through commercial areas comprised of shops, restaurants and pubs in old buildings. Adam told me that Hampstead was originally a separate village overtaken by the growth of London. We passed a very old pub and arrived at a central square where, on the corner, there was a coffee shop which had once been a book shop where George Orwell had worked. There was a marker memorializing Orwell. Kris had cleverly given us each an assignment of a person’s name to research and talk about briefly when we arrived at the appropriate location. I had drawn Orwell’s name and talked at this location a bit about the great essayist and novelist. I provided some aphoristic quotes which seemed appropriate given the situation at home.
A people that elect corrupt politicians, impostors, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.
In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
We continued to walk into the residential portion of the neighborhood with its Georgian, nineteenth century and older homes. We came to the Keats house and Kris had assigned a couple of people to talk about Keats. They talked about Keats and read some excerpts from his poetry. Keats was one of the great romantic poets who lived in the house from 1818 to 1820 and composed some of his best poetry while living there with his friend Charles Brown. In the summer of 1818, Keats and Brown walked through northern England, Scotland and Wales but had to cut the trip short because of a severe sore throat. He died in 1821 in Rome of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. Keats is known for his sensuous and monumental poetry, but he also wrote:
Give me women, wine and snuff
You may do so sans objection
Till the day of resurrection;
For bless my beard they aye shall be
My beloved trinity.
During those two years, this house in Hampstead must have been an interesting place to visit.
We walked on to Hampstead Heath, which is large open space park famous for its high hill overlooking the city. It was another large park which, like other London parks had natural areas with in it, including large areas of unmown grass and forestland. We walked by the lovely Hampstead Ponds which reflected the old townhomes beside it and then climbed Parliament Hill. From the top of the hill, we had a grand view of old London down to the Thames. In the center of the view, stood the postmodern Shard with Saint Paul’s Cathedral next to it with its grand dome. It was hard not to notice all the construction cranes in the view. London gives the impression of being vibrantly prosperous.
From the hill, we walked through the dense deciduous forest with its great diversity of tree species. We walked through a large, open park area to arrive at the Kensington Mansion where we stopped for refreshment. We walked from Hampstead Heath to the old Spaniards Inn where we had lunch. The Inn was built in 1585 on a tollgate boundary and the old tollgate building is still located across the road. It is sometimes said that Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale at the Spaniards Inn and Dickens wrote about it in the Pickwick Papers. Kris read the section of the Pickwick Papers describing the Inn and we had a nice lunch of well-prepared pub food.
From the Inn, we rode on top of a double decker bus to another commercial area and walked steeply downhill to Highgate Cemetery, and walked through the stone gate and between chapels to a courtyard where we met Neal, our guide for a tour of the cemetery. With Neal in the lead, we began climbing into the cemetery. The cemetery is a place of mournful celebration with sometimes elaborate and beautiful death monuments engulfed in intense vegetation. There are many stone angels in Highgate, some are sculpted as in mourning while others are shown joyful for the entrance of the soul into eternal life.
Most of the graves are from the Victorian era although new graves are still being inserted among the densely packed burials. Neal described the cemetery telling stories in a very entertaining manner with jokes and laughs and winks. He explained that cemeteries were places you could laugh in celebration of the lives of those whose bodies were now interred in the graves. Neal described the symbolic nature of the monuments: the many urns partially covered with carvings of fabrics represented the release of souls contained within. The stone wreaths represent eternal life. Highgate celebrates life and death as the solemn monuments gradually decay and are swallowed by never ending green riot of life.
Neal told us many stories about the graves. At one mausoleum, he told a long story about a lesbian writer and her two conflicting lovers. Despite her inclinations, the writer had written disparagingly about gay and lesbian practices. Neal said he didn’t favor such disparaging terms, but didn’t mind being called and “old queen,” which he said he was. He also told us that he was against Brexit because he favored immigration to Britain as long as the immigrants worked hard. He showed us the graves of immigrants who had worked hard. Today, as in the past, you have to be wealthy to be buried in Highgate. He said that today a grave in Highgate cost 20,000 pounds.
After the tour, we visited the newer portion of the cemetery and found the grave of Doug Adams, the author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Kris had assigned Leslie and Stacy to talk about Adams and Leslie talked while Stacy cleverly acted out the narrative in pantomime. We next found the boldly monumental grave of Karl Marx and the assigned people talked about Marx. In bold gold letters, the grave read “Workers of All Lands Unite,” and there were a number of flower bouquets and tokens left on the grave of Karl Marx.
On the tube ride home, I left the group to visit Camden Market which a guide book had said was the top “alternative” tourist stop in London with its large outdoor market. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the outdoor market was closed. Generally, in Britain I found that, except for restaurants and pubs, commercial activity stopped by 5:00 pm. The commercial area and shops in Camden were obviously geared toward the interests of very young adults and many of the young folks there were relatively outrageous with their punk tattoos and fashions. I immediately escaped and walked a half a mile to Regents Park which was another lovely, very large park. I visited flower and sculpture gardens, found the nearest tube station and managed to find my way back to the station near our hotel. I ate dinner with some of the group at the Atlas which was a Mediterranean restaurant, with its façade covered in Ivy, where I had a nice, spicy penne dish.
On Tuesday, August 21, we took the tube to Westminster Abbey. This grand, gothic cathedral is one of the great religious buildings in Britain but also a key center of English culture and history. Under overcast skies, we spent some time admiring the details of the building. Like most great cathedrals, one views it a section at a time without necessarily grasping the totality from the outside. It is easier to see it all from the inside and we entered the enormous space and used audio headsets as our guide. The inside was highly ornate with its gothic arches and gilded sculptures. The primary activity in the Cathedral appears to be viewing the graves of kings and queens and other heroes and artists. I located the graves of the great scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. I found the tomb of Elizabeth I to be particularly grand and was interested that she was entombed above her half-sister and rival Mary I. I enjoyed seeing the grave of George Frederick Handel who wrote Water Music, one of my favorite compositions, well designed outdoor music with bold statements and flowing movement, composed for George I so that there could be fitting music for a royal celebration along the Thames River. Handel’s grave was in the poet’s corner where a number of writers were buried including Chaucer and Dickens. I spent some time finding the grave of Edward I whose castles I would be visiting in Wales. After visiting the Abbey, we boarded a train for Bath.
On Friday, August 31, after visiting Bath and walking the Dales Way, we returned to London and the rest of the group left for home or other places. I spent a sunny and warm weekend on my own as a tourist in London. On Sunday, I started by going to the British Museum which was another large, neo classical building, but on entering, I found the large, dramatic hall of postmodern design spiraling around the central structure. At the morning opening, tour groups were already crowding the beginning, Egyptian exhibit featuring the Rosetta Stone, so I went to an exhibit on family associations in Polynesian and Australian cultures and down into the African exhibit where I was impressed by the intricately carved art and designs which have had such an influence on modern art and design. Then I toured the South and East Asian exhibits and was impressed with the varied collection of Buddhist art.
Then finally, I toured the Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek sections with their uniquely monumental art. I found the Assyrian section to be particular unique because I had never seen such a large collection of art from ancient Mesopotamia. The sculptures were very large, intricate and representative of the gods and kings they depicted. There were also large guardian statues, winged beasts with human heads. I blitzed quickly through the Greek collection with its sculptures from the Parthenon. I suppose much of this collection probably came to the museum in a legitimate manner, but I couldn’t help but think that these were the spoils from the conquest of the British Empire.
I found the exhibits on ancient Britain to be the most interesting and most relevant to my trip. They included artifacts from the Bronze and Iron ages and from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. The Sutton Hoo exhibit was particularly impressive, whose items were from an Anglo Saxon ship burial from the 6th or 7th centuries. The famous Sutton Hoo helmet is particularly beautiful.
I next took the tube to Trafalgar Square which was full of people listening to some talented street musicians. After photographing the square and St. Martins in the Field Church, I went into the National Gallery where I saw several nice Botticelli painting and one by Leonardo. The collection of low country art was quite large and again was something new for me. I particularly liked the Vermeer paintings with their special light and clarity. I also enjoyed the dramatic Turner seascapes.
Back out in the square, I went into the large Waterstones bookstore which was very well stocked and I walked from the square through the Admiralty Arch and onto the Mall which was closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and to the lake in St. James Park. The park was full of people on this sunny Sunday. I walked on to Buckingham Palace, which was surrounded by a tall, ornate fence. In front, there were many people on the steps of the Victoria Memorial with its gilt bronze angel and large statue of Queen Victoria. From the palace, I walked into Green Park with its carefully arranged, large trees. I rode the tube back to my hotel and my small efficiently arranged, “ethical” room and then ate fish and chips at an old pub around the corner.
But my peak day in London was certainly Saturday, September 1. I took the tube to a stop near the Millennial Bridge and after asking for directions, walked onto the pedestrian bridge across the Thames. From the bridge, I had a great view of the Thames water front in the morning light including views of St. Paul’s Cathedral. I arrived at the Tate Modern Art Museum for its 10:00 am opening and toured the free galleries which contained art from Monet to abstract expressionism, avant-garde sculpture and electronic art. I enjoyed the surrealism including Breton, Dali and Magritte and the pop art, including Russian pop art.
I had a ticket to see the Picasso 1932 exhibit and entered the rooms with a headset with an excellent descriptive program. The exhibit included all the work Picasso did in 1932 when he was fifty-one years old. During that year, Picasso was preparing for a show and worked in a range of styles and media, including oil painting, sculpture, charcoal line drawings and ink. He created series of works following themes like the woman in the red chair. As the series progressed, he experimented with styles. There was so much production in so many styles it felt like the work of a team of artists. It gave me a new appreciation of the artist and his enormous imagination and work capacity. It was quite a trip into the mind of a master.
After the Tate Modern, I had a vegetarian pizza for lunch which was very nice with its Italian-style fresh crust and while I ate, I admired the view of St Paul’s and the northern shore of the Thames.
At 2:00 pm I had a ticket to see Othello performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a wooden structure built like the original. I sat on the second level balcony and watched the performance which was energetic and passionate in the old style with simple props. At several points, the cast broke into singing and dancing. This great tragic play really has a simple and somewhat absurd plot. With my hearing limitations, I could not hear everything that was said but could easily follow the story and could appreciate the depth of the words. Mark Rylance, a highly regarded stage actor, recently seen in Dunkirk and Bridge of Spies, gave an amazing performance of Iago, highly mobile and very entertaining. Tony and Oscar winner André Holland played Othello with great strength.
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
The theatre was open to the sky and much of the audience was standing in front of the stage. As they likely did in the Elizabethan era, the actors interacted with the audience shaking hands or pointing or winking. Late in the performance I sat in the sun and became quite hot. At the end of the play the cast came out singing for their final bow. It was clear the audience greatly appreciated the performance, and not completely realizing the intensity of the experience, at the end, I was surprised to discover tears running down my face.
After the play, I walked on the Thames through the postmodern reconstruction of the commercial riverside and across the old Tower Bridge and by the ancient Tower Castle to the Tube. All along the way there were crowds of people enjoying the beautiful day by the River.
On Tuesday, August 21, after visiting Westminster Abbey, we rode a train to the World Heritage City of Bath. We visited the main square next to the beautiful Bath Abbey. Small stone angels climb the ladder to heaven while a few go the wrong way. With some spare time, I went to the Henrietta House where we were staying, a guesthouse in an historic Georgian townhouse with lovely antique rooms, built in a curved row of townhomes, which with the other three quadrants formed a circle. To get there I crossed the Avon River on the Pultney Bridge, an old stone bridge with the crossing enclosed by small shops. Leslie and Cathy and I walked through the old mansion containing the Holbourne Museum and into the Sydney Gardens, a lush park with a beautiful canal running through it.
We next visited the Roman Baths. The Baths were built by the Romans between 60 and 70 AD on the site of thermal springs which were likely sacred to the local Celtic people, who at this site probably worshipped the mother goddess Sulis, possibly the goddess of the sun. The Romans combined Sulis with their goddess Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. The Romans dedicated the Bath temple to Sulis Minerva. One of symbols of Minerva is the owl and around town we saw colorful, modern owl sculptures.
The actual baths are surrounded by various English structures including a museum built in 1889. We toured the modern interior of the museum with a good audio program and viewed a great variety of Roman artifacts from the site and the area. There were many coins which were often offerings to Sulis who was known to help recover stolen objects or curse the thieves. Tablets have been found with requests of the goddess.
Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple
Hot water rose up from the limestone aquifers below and into a main pool which we saw bubbling. The Romans did not bathe in that pool because it was a sacred place of the gods. Instead they engineering an intricate plumbing system which brought the water into the bathing pool and into hot, lukewarm and cold water rooms. The site includes ruins of the Roman temple and a sacrificial altar, and the museum displayed portions of the triangular pediment from the top of the structure onto which the museum projected color to show how it originally looked. The temple originally had a roof which was 100 feet high at its peak.
That evening we went to a pub known for its pies called The Raven and I ate a nice chicken pie.
On the Wednesday afternoon, after visiting Stonehenge in the morning, a group of us walked all over Bath. We started by visiting the Austen house where Jane Austen lived and wrote for a period of time. We saw a presentation on Austen and toured the site with various period furnishings and artifacts from Jane’s life and a life size figure interpreting what she may have looked like. Then, we climbed further into Bath and visited the circular structure of townhomes at the Circus and the long, curved structure of townhomes called the Royal Crescent. Bath is known for its beautiful and livable urban fabric with narrow streets and simply designed buildings of two to three stories. The Royal Crescent and most of the buildings in Bath are constructed with honey colored limestone called Bath Stone. Most of the buildings were built in the 18th century in the Georgian style and in all, there is a pleasant uniformity to the city broken by the hillside topography and the beautiful Avon River. From the Crescent, we continued to climb looking for views and then descended to a pub for pints and through the Royal Victoria Park and down to the central commercial area where I ate Pad Thai at a fancy Thai restaurant.