United Kingdom, Part 3

Monday 8 October 2007 -
Wednesday 10 October 2007

Margaret and Rose headed off for London this morning to attend a fund-raising morning tea at Kensington Palace arranged by Elizabeth, wife of the Australian Army Attaché.

Their host was Serina Richards who lives in the apartment where Prince Phillip lived with his grandmother before he married Queen Elizabeth. Two small couches in the apartment previously belonged to Diana.

They got to go into the private chapel which had recently been restored after having fallen into disuse. The removal of a false ceiling actually reduced the apartment by two rooms.

Afterwards the ladies took photos in front of the door to Diana's apartment.

Margaret and Rose bought Christmas crackers which are normally on sale at Buckingham Palace for double the price, but don't let this fool you into thinking that they were cheap! Margaret also bought some Christmas decorations in the form of a crown, just the thing for republicans like us.

They returned home in the middle of the afternoon and we then went in to Swindon to return the hire car that we've been using for the past week.

Late on Monday evening the laptop's screen died - no display whatsoever. On Tuesday about mid-day I finally managed to get through to Dell in the UK and was very pleased with the outcome. They're sending an engineer to the house to replace the screen - I had expected to lose the laptop for anything up to a week!

[Margaret and Rose at Kensington Palace outside the door of what was previously Diana's apartment]


They weren't able to nominate a time, so I stayed home while Margaret and Rose shopped. The engineer arrived at about 11:30am, fixed the computer in about ten minutes and we could then arrange our accommodation in London.

Thursday 11 October 2007

The Victory Services Club (VCS) is a tri-Service all-ranks club for serving and retired military, about half a block from Marble Arch. I used it when I was in London in '89 and rejoined from Australia before we left.

The room we're in is very basic, but considering that it's £57 for a double, we really don't care. Not very far away down Park Lane you could pay ten times that. It's hard to imagine how prices could escalate to this level and even harder to imagine how people would be able to pay this sort of price.

Double-decker London bus

[Above, right - Double-decker London bus]
[Below - London cab (they don't just come in black these days)]

London taxi - they come in all colours these days

We caught the megabus from Swindon to Victoria Street Bus Station, a trip of a little over two hours, then the underground from Victoria to Holbourn, switching there to the Central Line West, alighting at Marble Arch.

The Underground or Tube, is a terrific way to get around the city.

The VCS is only a short way from the tube and we were able to check in, park our baggage and go for a walk down Park Lane beside Hyde Park to Kensington and Harrods. It's a fair step, but worth it from the point of view of the scenery and ambience of the area.

[Below, left - Rear of Australian War Memorial, Hyde Park Corner]
[Below, right - Front of Australian War Memorial]

Rear of the Australian War Memorial in Hyde Park Corner Front of the Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner

On the way we passed a number of car dealers - Lotus, Ferrari, Aston-Martin, BMW and so on, not counting the Rollers and Bentleys parked on the street. Margaret has rather taken a fancy to a red BMW 630i convertible, so I guess we'll have to sell the house and live in a tent on the common.

At Hyde Park Corner where there is a statue of Wellington and Wellington's Arch, we found the Australian War Memorial. It's, well, unique covers it. We quite like it, but can imagine that some might not. The names of Australian cities, towns and villages are etched at random on the stones, with the letters picked out in white. Heavier white highlights on some of the towns then highlight the battles.

Going further along Kensington Road we stopped in at Harrods, as you do, and picked up some souvenirs. Everything is beautifully presented and magnificently priced. Cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would shop there on a regular basis unless they really didn't care about paying twice or three times what everything is actually worth.

We caught the tube back to Marble Arch and then spent the remainder of the afternoon on an open-top sightseeing bus.

The bus took us through Baker Street (of Sherlock Holmes fame); past the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square; and the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus.

[Right - Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square]
[Below - The London Eye]

Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square
The London Eye

We continued through the Haymarket and past the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square; along Whitehall past Admiralty Arch, Horse Guards and Downing Street.

Crossing the Thames over the Westminster Bridge we passed the London Aquarium, the London Eye (that's the big Ferris-wheel thingy), Waterloo Station and recrossed the Thames using the Waterloo Bridge.

Turning right, we got onto the Strand with the Royal Courts of Justice on the left, then Fleet Street. From there we drove past St Paul's Cathedral, the Bank of England and then to the south bank of the Thames over London Bridge which took us by City Hall, a modern, strangely shaped building that looks as if it's collapsed on one side.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

[Left - St Paul's Cathedral]

Going back over the Thames for the fourth time, using the Tower Bridge took us past HMAS Belfast, the only surviving battle cruiser from World War II, and, of course, the Tower of London. Following along Upper Thames Street and the Victoria Embankment we passed Temple Street with wall-to-wall solicitors, barristers and other blood-sucking creatures and had a better view of the London Eye from the other side of the river.

[Below, left - The Royal Courts of Justice]
[Below, right - Tower Bridge]

Crossing again over the Westminster Bridge we looped past the Florence Nightingale Hospital and Museum; Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury; over Lambeth Bridge past St Margaret's Church on the left and the Houses of Parliament on the right, and behind the Church, Westminster Abbey.

The Royal Courts of Justice, London Tower Bridge, London

Turning onto Buckingham Gate we went past the side of Buckingham Palace and circuited around the back and past Green Park. We'll go to Buckingham Palace separately, some time over the next couple of days, so it really doesn't matter.

This was the completion of the tour, and it was here that we transitioned onto the next to bus which took us along Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner and up Park Lane to Marble Arch, our start point.

We came back to the VSC and tidied up. I spent some time down-loading photographs and catching up with my notes, and we went out for dinner at about 7:30.

Not far away was an Indian (Pakistani is actually more likely) curry shop, so continuing our plan of eating what the locals eat, we had a dhaal, chicken curry, lamb kofta, boiled rice and naan bread. Very nice and very reasonably priced at £17, given where we are!

[Above - Marble Arch, Hyde Park, London]

Friday 12 October 2007

Being London, there's a fair amount of traffic, so we woke up pretty early and trotted off around the corner for breakfast at the local Pret a Manger (it's a sandwich store) for coffee and baguettes.

Both of us had it in our heads that we would walk down to the Virgin Record Store on Oxford Street. Margaret had a much better idea than me of just how far away it was, and we walked for about 2km, not finding the store anyway! Either it's closed or we're not very observant.

As we were then within a couple of hundred metres of the British Museum, we made that our first stop for the day.

After waiting for a while for it to open, we first visited the Asian wing where there is the most magnificent collection of artwork.

There are fabulous examples of every type of pottery, a collection of jade which spanned a period of more than 6,000 years, wood and stone carvings.

Few examples of fabrics and clothing or metalwork other than weapons and little to nothing of normal household goods. The latter of course are less than spectacular, and while I'm sure that the Museum has many examples of the other items, they are simply not on display at this time.

Many of the South-east Asian stone reliefs and carvings have clearly been looted - ripped from the temples and buildings which they adorned. While that's not something that we would ever condone, the fact is that in places like Cambodia, Burma even Laos and Vietnam, if they hadn't been removed, they would no longer exist at all.

I was aware at the time that I was taking the photos that I couldn't use the automatic mode, as this would use the flash which would then reflect off the glass and destroy the images. I had to balance this against the fact that the range-finder and therefore the focus also used the glass cases. Many of the dozens of pictures that I took are therefore out of focus and I have had to remove them. Some, luckily, and for reasons which I am unable to explain, were perfect.

Ming blue and white ware at British Museum Bas-relief stone wall panel

From the Asian section we moved to the Assyrian, Babylonian and then Egyptian. The stone carvings of the Assyrians, include huge gate pieces, doors and bas-relief panels which are very detailed and finely finished.

The scale on which the Egyptians worked is amazing, and I suppose that this is why a lot of it has survived through to this time. This section was very crowded, with crowds of Brits as well as wagon-loads of Japanese tourists. We try to avoid them wherever possible, as they are absolutely relentless! Well-mannered and polite as individuals, Japanese tourists they are pushy, bad-mannered, planting themselves firmly in front of the objects they are supposed to be viewing in order to be photographed obscuring something that others are interested in looking at!

The Elgin Marbles, abstracted from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin are the subject of a claim by the Greek government, and I've no idea of the status of that claim. The marble statues are in very poor condition, missing limbs and entire pieces, but again it's a question of whether they were in that condition when they were taken, or whether the taking resulted in their current condition. The former, I think, given their age.

The carving which has survived is simply marvellous, whether in the round or bas-relief. I don't think any other civilization really reached the same heights in statuary.

[Right - Gigantic Egyptian head]
[Below, left - Head of Apollo, right - Statue after Diana]

Egyptian head, British Museum, London
Head of Apollo, British Museum, London Statue after Diana, British Museum, London
Gold torcs, British Museum, London

The European section was very interesting, particularly the excavations at Sutton Hoo. Unfortunately my photograph of the helmet was blurred due to the problems noted above.

The jewellery was spectacular and one piece in particular caught our eyes, where the central gem was suspended from two gold chains which crossed over the shoulders to support a similar adornment in the centre of the back. Two similar chains fell to the hips below.

The gold neck and arm torcs were also a spectacular display of wealth. They also ranged from the massively simply to intricate twists and adornment.

[Left - Gold torcs, British Museum]

There has been some modern reconstruction of weaponry such as swords which have blade decorations created by twisting and piling the metal then adding a cutting edge. The process is known as 'pattern welding' and differs from processes such as damascening.

Most of the swords of the earlier periods have only been recovered through archaeological work and are rusted and destroyed through burial. Burial, particularly in peat bogs, has been kinder to the bronzes,fabrics and other organic material. This celtic shield is a good example of the preservation of bronze and copper.

Leaving the museum we stopped for a bite of lunch and then caught the tour bus to Buckingham Palace where we got off to have a look around and take some photographs.

[Right - Celtic shield, British Museum, London]

Buckingham Palace, London
Queen Victoria Memorial with gilded statue of  Victory

[Above - Buckingham Palace. Left - Queen Victoria Memorial]

The Palace is the most incredible magnet for tourists, but as a building, it's not terribly special, just big!

The gates and fences are very ornate, as is the Queen Victoria Memorial, complete with gilded statue of Victory, bronzes and pools.

We had a temporary problem with the camera which we solved, took some pictures, strolled across into Green Park and had an ice-cream then cut through the Park to the start of the Big Bus Company's tour which took us to Marble Arch and the VSC.

We'd walked a long way during the day, and both of us were feeling our age, plus another handful of years thrown in for good measure

After resting up from our exertions, we went to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. It was actually an Italian restaurant when I was here in '89, but under a different name, I'm sure, as it is now a part of a chain.

We had a nice dinner, a couple of glasses of wine and retired for what we thought would be an early night. It didn't turn out like that, because the traffic noise was absolutely horrendous all night. It finally toned down a bit, but by then it was 4:00am!

Writing this about 30 hours later, we now know that midnight on Friday night was the end of Ramadan, and we are right on the edge of one of London's Middle Eastern areas.

Saturday 13 October 2007

We started the day a little later than we had intended, but needed to get some sleep

It appears that the weekend is the time for repairs and maintenance and it took us a while to get to the Tower of London because the Underground's Circle Line was completely out of service all day.  We stopped off at St Paul's Cathedral and transferred to the tour-bus using the the tour-bus tickets which we'd purchased earlier, and which have a 48hr life.  It's been quite useful actually and we were also able to buy admission to the Tower from the same people and thus bypass the multiple long queues.

There were literally hundreds of people buying tickets and in the general environs. We decided to bypass the tour-guides and made our own way through,to the green where the executions took place.

One of the ravens was on the lawn - they're huge!  Three or four Australian crows would have to get together to mug one of these birds, and even then they'd be liable to lose some feathers in the process.

 There have been a lot of changes to the layout to see the Crown Jewels, I think were made in the early nineties.  The jewellery itself and the regalia are a most spectacular sight.  No photographs of course, but I might later put in some images.  Margaret, I think, was most taken by the crown which Queen Victoria wore as the Empress of India.

The White Tower, London
Armour, Tower of London Horse armour, Tower of London
94 Pdr gun, circa  1607

There have also been some major changes to the way in which the displays in the White Tower have been arranged, with many of the arms and armour being transferred to a new armoury, leaving room for interactive displays for the children.  This is a terrific idea, and it gives them some idea of the weight and substance of the weapons, arms, armour and accoutrements worn over so many years.

[Left - 24 pdr Low Countries cannon, circa 1607]

There are still some remnants of the Roman walls of Londinium , but the construction of the White Tower was made by William the Conqueror as the first part of his subjugation of England after 1066.

 [Below - Remnants of Roman Wall in the grounds of the Tower]

Exiting the Tower of London on the river bank, we had a terrific view of the Tower Bridge.

After finishing our inspection tour, we rejoined the Big Bus Company (not to be confused with the Megabus Company which provided our transport from Swindon to Victoria Bus Station), getting off as near as we could to Parliament House and Westminster Abbey.

After the world-wide bombings and Islamic terrorism, the protection which has been put in place means that the entrances to Parliament are almost a maze of ugly metal and barriers. It's a reminder of the times in which we live I suppose.

Big Ben and Parliament House, London

I've been able to determine that St Margaret's Church is not actually named after Margaret because the church is older than she is. However this hasn't in any way decreased her enthusiasm for canonisation (or is it beatification?) or her belief that it is fully deserved. If I continue with my present attitude of denial, it's likely that I'll end up in the dungeons.

We walked along Whitehall, past Downing Street and the Horse Guards to Trafalgar Square. On the way we passed a memorial to the women of World War Two. I'd not seen this memorial before.

The Horse Guards, those on foot as well as those who are mounted, are about 14 years old, as you can see. I know what they say about policemen getting younger, but .... 

[Above - Big Ben and Parliament House]
[Right - Horse Guard at Whitehall]
[Below - detail at the base of Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square]

The horses are most patient, and I wouldn't want to think about how much training that takes.  People simply race up and throw their arms around the horses so they can have their pictures taken.  Perhaps they should train the horses to stamp on the feet of those who bother them!

The entrance to the National Gallery is off Trafalgar Square, so we thought we should have a bit off a look around, despite our aching feet. Couldn't take any pictures of course, so descriptions will have to suffice.

It was mind-boggling to be in the presence of paintings by so many legendary artists.  Goya, Guardi, Longhi, Pissaro, Canaletto, Renoir, Seurat, Signac, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rousseau and Degas, just to name a few.

The paint on Sunflowers is so thick!  You don't really get the sense of this when you're looking at reproductions.  Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings were oil on millboard, but looked to be pastels - again a surprise. Cezanne's landscapes are almost cartoons - in the sense of them being simple representations of something complex.  Like John Olsen's fish, the brush strokes are as simple as they can be to deliver the sense of fish or tree.

There is simply so much to see in London that it is difficult to take it all in, process it and make sense of it all.  It's somewhat overwhelming, and those who know me understand just what it takes to do that!

Returning to the VSC we went out later for dinner.  Fish and Chips at the Tyburn a modern pub, across the way.  They also had wine on tap, so we attacked a couple of glasses of Chardonnay and finished up with a modicum of Pinot Grigio. 

The only down side of the whole evening was the England Rugby team which, after a fairly lacklustre and grinding match, managed to snatch a last-minute victory against France.  There were a couple of young ladies near us who were also barracking for the French, but Margaret ascertained that the reason for this was that they were French.

Actually, the British fans were fairly subdued, so there was really very little risk of being kicked in the head for supporting the wrong team!

In looking for a place to have dinner we strolled down Edgeware Road, into what appears to be the Arab Quarter.  We were somewhat taken aback by the men and women smoking hookahs (no, not the women, the water pipe thingies) outside the cafes. The smoke was very sweet and cloying, with a sort of apple smell to it, so whatever they were smoking obviously had quite a low tobacco content.  Most of the men smoke, and quite a few of the women.  I'd imagine it would be a bit of a problem trying to smoke a cigarette through veil though.

A number of the restaurants and cafes had titles that included the word Maroush, so our guess is that it's a sort of generic term, or perhaps a Mr Maroush is very big real estate here.

The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
Margaret with a sterling silver wine cooler, V & A, London

Sunday 14 October 2007

Another pretty noisy night unfortunately, but we weren't planning on having an early start.

We thought that we would being the day with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).  Like the British Museum and the National Art Gallery, entrance is free, although we made a donation.

Somewhere I'd seen something that said that the V&A was the nation's attic.  The items on display fill in a lot of the gaps in the British Museum's collection, especially the fabric, pottery and household items that show how people lived.

[Left - Margaret with a sterling silver wine cooler, V & A, London]
[Below - modern carving in the Statue Gallery, V & A, London]

The Asian section has a fabulous display of kimonos, robes, embroidery as well as pottery, metal and household items.  The weapons too are fantastic, with a big section on Japanese swords which was of particular interest to me.

Again, not many photographs due to the glass cases playing havoc with the focus, but of course much of the material is available on the internet anyway.

There are some fabulous Middle Eastern carpets from the 14 and 1500s.  One of them is absolutely enormous and it is only under lights for ten minutes of every half hour in order to protect it.

The  silver  section is huge, with a representative sample of silverware from every era and all types of things.  Margaret now agrees with me about the Victorians having a utensil for every possible use being so specialised that many of the utensils would be used only rarely.

Just off the Silver Gallery is a gallery for "Sacred Silver" and stained glass.  The stained glass was magnificent, and actually provided the facility for some wonderful photos.

We also enjoyed the Statue Gallery with a number of sculptures by Rodin and some more modern pieces that  withstood the comparison quite well.

It's been a big few days and both of us were getting very tired, so we decided to go back to the VSC and have a rest.

Statue Gallery, V & A, London
Stained glass window, V & A, London Stained glass window, V & A, London

[Above - stained glass windows, V & A, London]

It was a good decision, and we felt a lot better in the evening when we went to a nearby pub for dinner, which turned out to be a bad decision. The beer was good, the food very ordinary, but we finished off with an icecream from Baskin-Robbins on Edgeware Road and rang the gauntlet of the hookahs all the way back to the VSC.

Monday 15 October 2007

After a much quieter night, we checked out after breakfast, leaving our bags in the box-room to be collected later.

It was much easier to get around now that the Underground lines were all back in business after the weekend repairs and we didn't have to dodge around certain sections which were out of service.

We thought that we might go to the Virgin Superstore in Oxford Street and located it right off Picadilly Circus.  I'm positive that it's not the same seven story store that was further up Oxford Street last time I was here, and the internet shows all of the Virgin stores labelled "Superstores".

We found a couple of CDs that we liked, including one by John Tam who appears as Daniel Hagman, one of the riflemen in the television series "Sharpe".

We also took the opportunity to stroll down Regent Street.  The English do shoes and tailored suits (both men and women's) very well.

What they don't often do is wear their suits well.  Most of the businessmen we saw looked like spivs or bags of manure tied in the middle.  (Nothing personal people, but with that sort of raw material you should be looking a lot better than you do!)

As you can see from the picture on the right it's really easy to navigate the Underground.  The plan of the Underground received a well-deserved design award and is really functional because it shows not the physical layout, but the relationship between all of the lines and stations.  Each line has two platforms labelled either North and South or East and West, together with a list of all of the stations between that station and the destination.  Coloured boxes identify where lines cross and travellers can transfer from one line to another.

We found that rather than doing two or three transfers which involve stairs, escalators and so on, it's quicker and easier to identify where the two lines cross and transfer once, even if you have to travel further.  Because trains are so regular, you actually tend to lose less time doing it this way.

After a very late lunch we picked up our bags, and after some dramas with the bus ended up getting back to Swindon at about 10:20pm.  We were very grateful to see Rose and the car.  We really enjoyed London a lot, but found it very tiring at our age to be continually on the go.

Underground station list, London

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