Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Adventures in London

As a sort of new years treat we headed down to London for a few days - Erador and his friend Steve had an Education Technology showcase thing to attend, and as a self-respecting archaeology graduate I felt that I really ought to visit the British Museum.

We zipped down on the train on Wednesday, and by tea time I was in a bookshop in Covent Garden, waiting for the boys to finish mooching around the first day of conference. On reflection, a bookshop was probably not the best place to have left me, but I certainly enjoyed myself (THEY HAD A WHOLE POETRY SECTION!) and brought back several books that I've been after for a while, including Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Canterbury Tales (in the words Chaucer wrote them, too, not a translation), The Tower (a history of the Tower of London) by Nigel Jones and The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. Ooh - and a book of Norse Myths to go with my Icelandic Sagas :)
We even got to go to Carluccio's (he's one of mine and Erador's very favourite chefs), which was excellent.

The next day Steve went back off to the conference for a good look around and I dragged Erador off to the Natural History Museum (actually, it didn't take that much dragging), where we both had a really good time looking around. I got to say hello to the blue whale (my old friend) and see the replica of Australopithecus sediba, which I'd read about in National Geographic before Christmas. I was particularly impressed by the minerals collection (being something of a closet geologist) and the giant sequoia, which I know must have been there when I went to the museum as a child, but I can't remember at all. I was probably more interested in the dinosaurs then, anyway. That shows how much I've grown up, actually - when I was little I loved the dinosaur bit, with its interactive displays and giant roaring T-Rex, but now I'm much more interested in the architecture of the building :)

It really is stunning, and I was quite annoyed at myself for forgetting my camera that day (though it was quite nice to have the freedom to look at things without constantly wondering what would make a good picture, and being annoyed that really, my camera just won't do it). I read a fascinating book about the Natural History Museum a few years ago (Dry Stone No. 1 by Richard Fortey), and it was really interesting to walk around the building with those stories in my head. I particularly loved the different species of trees painted onto the ceiling of the entrance hall, and the way that in some of the rooms each window sill was made of a different type of marble; it was fascinating to see all the details that went into the planning of the museum as a building. I really liked the fish bricks in the Minerals Gallery, too.

We were intending to head to the Victoria and Albert Museum that afternoon, too, but after a cursory glance at some very beautiful sculpture we discovered that we were all museum-ed out and headed to Harrods instead, to see what all the fuss is about. I have decided. on reflection, that Harrods is one of the weirdest and most unpleasant places I've ever been to, with the exception of the food hall, which was magnificent (the chocolate section reminded me strongly of Honeydukes). We got lost for an hour on a floor of the building that could have held my entire street that was filled with nothing other than overpriced handbags - and we escaped (hah) into the perfume section, in which neither of us could breathe.

Eventually, we found two bits that we were actually interested in (though not to necessarily buy anything from): I lost Erador near the cameras and spy equipment (there was even a one man submarine!) and he lost me to the roving Harry Potter shop, which looked just like Diagon Alley and was full of Lego. It was a little bit like finding nerd-vana. I may have bought a Marauders Map... as soon as I got it home, me and Bones spent a good half hour poring over it and deciding that we needed to improve it (I suspect a long-running craft project in the making) since not all the floors, classrooms or secret passages were on it, cool as it was.

We caught up with an old friend from my masters course that night, Jenny (the only one of us with a proper job, and a really cool one at the NHM, at that), in a really good pub that none of us had heard of before. We were tempted to classify it as one of those magical shops that moves whenever you look for it. Anyway, the fish and chips were great, I have it on good authority that the mulled cider was excellent, and much giggling was had :D

Friday was definitely BM day. I really can't believe that I've never been before, given my interests and (attempted) profession, and the fact that my Dad lived in London for years. It was spectacular - I loved every minute of it, and I can't wait to go back again! Admittedly, there were bits that I was much more interested in than others, like the Portland Vase and the Lewis Chess Men. I loved the Medieval rooms, and the Japanese ones on the top floor (the Samurai armour was amazing), and the Elgin Marbles, and the Mayan carvings, and the turquoise snake, and the statue from Rapa Nui, and the Assyrian wall sculptures, and there were these enormous gates that I can't remember anything about other than that they were awesome, and... well, you get the picture :)

It was odd seeing the Rosetta Stone, having heard so much about it... a bit like seeing something out of a fairy story. Actually, the whole of the trip was a bit like that - it's as if all of these places didn't seem at all real until you were on the same page of the map of them. I kept finding myself going: 'oh, that's Whitehall, I didn't really think it was a real building', or 'Covent Garden? Gosh, that's in stories...'.

I loved seeing the statue of Ramses II, which inspired Percy Byshe Shelley to write my Grandad's favourite poem - he'd always be wandering around the house quoting a bit of it:

My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!

I even found things that I was interested in in the Roman and Greek galleries (though admittedly I was more interested in the pre-Greek and pre-Roman bits), and I hate classics (I think there's just so much surviving material that my mind gets swamped with it): Erador and I loved the giant wooden water wheel that would have been used to pump water out of a Roman mine, and the really rude 'lucky' windchimes, which I won't go into details of here...

The only part I didn't really like was the mummies. I hate mummies. It's not that I think they're going to pop up and chase me or anything (though admittedly the fact they were in hermetically sealed glass cases helped a bit), it's more that I think they're a bit too close to being corpses to be on display - and we make a complete circus out of them. They're dead people, and we should respect that, not get all flashy about them. We're a lot better about skeletal remains, and I know it's awesome that their organs, skin, hair, nails and even eyeballs have survived several thousand years, but - when you get right down to it - they're still dead people. It's weird, for an archaeologist, I know. Anyway, Erador made me go in, and some of the sarcophagi were pretty cool, but I don't really feel the need to revisit that particular section.

The only thing I didn't get to see that I wanted to was the Bronze Ife Head that featured in the Radio 2 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor (which if you haven't downloaded from the Radio 2 website I would encourage you to go and find). It's such an interesting and beautiful piece, but unfortunately it was on loan, so that will have to wait until next time. I really liked that things were travelling around the world, helping people to find out their own stories all over the place.

That evening we met up with two more old friends, Tiggs and Alex, and had a bit of a wander about London in the dark. We saw the Golden Hinde (a 1/3 replica of a Tudor ship), the remains of Henry of Blois' palace, the Southbank, St Pauls, Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and the Tower. We had a fabulous time catching up, and found lots of things that we're looking forward to doing next time we come down.

We spent Saturday morning roaming around Covent Garden Market while we waited for our train, and saw lots of very odd people performing street theatre, magic and mime (*shudders*). It does make for a vibrant place... but mimes? Really? Anyway, I found a great shop that sold interesting maps, and I got a nice one for the office wall that has the literal translation of every place name - including one in Mexico that simply reads 'Here are people!'.

We stayed in a hostel converted from an old prison and courthouse (the one where Charles Dickens got some of his inspiration to write Oliver Twist) - the building was awesome, and the hostel facilities were more than adequate. Well, except for the showers, which could have done with a temperature control, really. The beds were comfortable, even if the boys were referring to our room as 'the nuclear bunker', and the breakfast was ace.

All in all, it was a brilliant trip - and we can't wait to get back!

(Pictures: The London Eye and a view over the Thames; Horus and Erador; Ramses II; St Pauls and the Millennium Bridge; the 'Nuclear Bunker')

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