Day 9: A Day of Cultural Highs in London

After hearing about David’s visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum yesterday, we decided to head back there to finish the tour he started. There’s an entrance to the museum right off the tunnel of the Underground and the contrast is staggering. You step from a bland white busy tunnel that smells of tar into a world of elegance. David showed me all the highlights from yesterday and they were exquisite. 

My favorite room was the Cast Room. During the 1800s people wanted to see magnificent statues but most could not afford a trip to Rome or Florence. As a result, these plaster cast reproductions were created.
Lunch today was just down the street from the British Museum. The Museum Tavern was an atmospheric pub with an old world style. We met a couple from Florida who was going on a cruise. They are the first Americans we have met in nine days.

This was our second trip to the British Museum. Highlights for me included the statue of Ramseses II as well as all of the mummies. The caskets were so well preserved that a tourist asked David if they were all reproductions. She was astounded to learn they were all authentic.

The inside of the British Museum

King Ramesses II

British Museum: Egyptian mummies

British Museum- mummy

I always enjoy seeing shabtis who were servants for the afterlife. The museum was so crowded we had to dodge people to see the other side of the display cases.

British Museum- Shabtis

Tourists at the British Museum

The British Museum has an amazing collection of marble statues that once adorned the top of the Parthenon. I often wrestle with the idea that these artifacts really belong back in Greece, but at the time they were taken, it was an opportunity to protect them.

Assyrian Lions – British Museum

Greek Temple – British Museum

Greek statues from the Parthenon- British Museum

British Museum – Children on tour

British Museum- Greek statues

British Museum – Tour guide at Ancient Greece exhibit

British Museum- Roman statues

British Museum- Greek columns

British Museum London

By 7:00 pm we both had museum feet, but we persevered and went to the National Gallery. It had an incredible collection of paintings from all of the masters including Renoir, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and Monet. While studying the paintings I heard some classical music outside one of the galleries. Everyone gathered around wondering what it was about. It turns out it was a 45 minute tour where the guide had put music to each of the masterpieces as a way to help people relate better to the art through music.

National Gallery London

National Gallery- da Vinci

National Gallery London

National Gallery- Renoir

National Gallery- Van Gogh

National Gallery- Van Gogh

National Gallery- Monet

We ended the day with a pizza dinner back by our hotel. It has been an amazing day. Tomorrow we fly to France.

From Dinosaurs to Diana

When I was a child, my sister Susan worked in New York City. When I visited her, one of my favorite places to go was the Museum of Natural History. I remember looking at all the animals displayed in their natural habitat and enjoying it, even if the backgrounds were just painted. Since learning of the Natural History Museum here in London, I have always wanted to visit it, but this morning we were confronted with an interesting dilemma. I wanted to visit the Natural History Museum and David wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. They are both wonderful so since we didn’t have time for both, we went our separate ways and agreed to meet right before lunch.

Walking inside the NHM ( Natural History Museum) the first thing I noticed was a magnificent blue whale suspended from the ceiling. It is a new exhibit which I had heard about, but nothing could prepare me for its massive size. It dwarfed every other dolphin and whale species hanging beside it including the gigantic skeleton of a prehistoric sea creature.  In one display case were narwhal tusks. I could not believe how long they were.

The Natural History Museum is housed in a beautiful old building. In one of the older sections with gleaming wood and old mosaic tile floors was an exhibit about art in nature. As a fourth grade team, we feel along with our science specialist that hand made drawings in science or nature journals are best. 

“Until one has drawn, it is impossible to understand,” (Arthur Harry Church- scientist and botanist (1865-1937). 

This quote was displayed next to some sample nature journal drawings. Sketching at the museum was encouraged and they even had a display of visitor’s drawings changed daily.

Next I headed upstairs to the dinosaur exhibit. A sign at the top of the steps said, “This way if you don’t want to escape from T Rex.” I heard some growls and followed the crowd into a small room where a mighty anamatronic lifesize T Rex was roaring at the crowd.  In another room were two small anamatronic dinosaurs squawking. They were cute, but in real life if you saw them, you would run for your life.

At the gift shop they had a lot of dodo bird items. I read an interesting article in the New Yorker several years ago so returned to the galleries to find it. Following a map, I was rewarded with two full size dodo birds. I was really struck by the size and shape of their beaks. There are very few places in the world where they have been preserved so this was amazing.

After meeting up with David, we shared our experiences. David said the VA (Victoria and Albert Museum) was beautiful with art at every turn. There were many highlights. One was a magnificent chandelier that greeted you upon entry. It was truly unique. 

Another highlight was the Becket Casketn with relics of the 12th century saint, Thomas Becket, and statues by Rodin.

A third highlight was Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook from 1490. The museum had photographed every page so you could scroll through it digitally.

In the Cast Room were plaster casts of Renaissance statues such as Michelangelo’s David. There was also a replica of the Baptistery Doors in Florence.  All in all it was an elegant and wonderful museum.

From the museums we took the Underground to Covent Gardens to visit Courtauld Gallery. Outside were amusing street performers.

The museum was started by a group of people who put their valuable collections together and is named after Samuel Courtlaud who donated his collection of paintings which included Van Gogh and Manet. We followed our Rick Steves’ guide to see the highlights. The Courtauld is especially strong on the Impressionists including Monet, Renoir, Gaugin, Degas, and Van Gogh. For many visitors of the museum the highlight is Van Gogh’s self portrait after he had mutilated himself in Arles a year before he took his own life. 

Outside in the courtyard was a fountain that became very playful once every hour. People took turns running gleefully through it while their friends snapped photos.

Feeling ready for some “retail therapy” as they say here, we took the Underground to Piccadilly Circus. 

Gone are the old neon lights it is famous for. Instead we saw giant poster style ads covering buildings. Our first stop was Fortnum & Mason which was established in 1707. It is a beautiful old world store with gleaming wood and polished brass. They are famous for the elaborate teas they serve, but we could only afford a small box of candy and a box of chocolate biscuits. This store was featured in Howard’s End, a movie with a setting in the early 1900s which I have always enjoyed. Outside the shop is a commemorative clock that honors the two founders of Fortnum & Mason. The characters bow to each other once every hour.

Just next door is my favorite store of all, Cath Kidston. Those of you who know me, know this store is like a pilgrimage for me. If you loved Laura Ashley, you would be in heaven in this shop. It smells of fresh roses and is always updating itself with new wonderful floral or animal patterns. I always have to circle the store several times before deciding what to buy I love it so much. 

Checking our watch, we noticed it was 5:00 pm. My feeling that I had museum feet was confirmed on my Fitbit which registered 7 miles. Since we do have a daily budget and had gone shopping, dinner was a grocery store picnic back at the hotel which can be a lot of fun. We purchased our dinner at Waitrose. We love visiting the grocery stores in other countries. Some supermarkets here sell everything from food to clothes and even small stoves, washing machines, and dryers.

Tonight we took the Underground to Trafalgar Square. 

The city was alive with people heading toward pubs, the theater, concerts, or just strolling around, Walking past The National Portrait Gallery at 8:30, we noticed it was still open. Inside was a festive atmosphere so we joined in and toured several of the portrait galleries. There was an enormous hologram portrait of Queen Elizabeth. She had her eyes closed and I didn’t really care for the depiction of her, but as art it was amazing. There were portraits of countless figures in British history from the height of the empire to present day. Some noted individuals include Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, Judi Dench, and  Jeremy Irons.

We ended the evening at Trafalgar Square just enjoying the view. I checked my Fitbit and found we walked a total of 9.5 miles today.  We are tired, but it has truly been a culturally rewarding and fun day.

We’re Off to London

This morning on our drive to the train station in York, the rolling Yorkshire moors seemed almost dark purple. Looking closer, I noticed they are covered with thousands of plum colored wildflowers. 

We learned last year that booking a 2-3 hour train to London at the last minute can cost a fortune ($400 in coach for two).  By booking a Virgin train in advance, we were able to get two first class tickets in a quiet coach for a total of $75. Our tickets even included table service with a hot meal. “Mind the gap between the train and the platform,” said the train manager at every stop. 

When we arrived at King’s Cross it was raining. We took a taxi across London to our hotel with the most interesting taxi driver. He was a retired private detective who had worked in London. As part of his job he even visited the Oval Office and had a private tour of the West Wing when Clinton was president.

We are staying in the South Kensington section of London. We booked a basic double at our hotel, NH Collection Kensington, and they upgraded us to a suite with two levels connected with a spiral staircase. The neighborhood is beautiful with embassies and white washed houses. Dinner was at Wagamama. It specializes in pan-Asian cuisine. We have eaten at their restaurants in other places in the U.K. and at the one at the Prudential Center in Boston. I love their Asian noodle and rice dishes. We made friends with the waiter who was from Italy and used to live in Milan. He told us stories about himself and drew illustrations to go with them. Most of the time we had no idea what he said, but it was a nice cultural connection.

After dinner we walked around Kensington Palace. Kensington Palace was the home of the Royal Family before Buckingham Palace became the official residence. Queen Victoria was born and raised there, Diana lived there before and after her divorce, and most recently, Kate and William lived there. Prince Harry lives in a cottage behind the palace. Not far from the Palace is an enormous gold statue of Prince Albert. It’s located behind the Royal Albert Hall. It’s over 175 feet tall and was opened in 1872 by Queen Victoria. 

Back at the hotel tonight, we are just enjoying the ambience of the hotel and look forward to visiting some museums tomorrow.

Exploring the World of James Herriot

Down at the harbor in Whitby this morning I noticed the cutest scene. A line of children with plastic buckets were catching tiny crabs with nets and tossing them back into the sea. “Ahoy mate. Fancy a harbor tour?” said a pirate in front of his packed pirate ship.  Everyone was in such a summer holiday spirit that we knew it would be a great day in Yorkshire.

We headed out over the barren rolling moors with no trees or farms in sight.  They looked like a scene right out of James Herriot.  Our first stop was Eden Camp: Modern History Theme Museum. The museum is located on the site of a 1942 POW camp and at one time  held 1100 prisoners. Each barracks featured a different theme: women in the war, air raid shelters, rationing, or small businesses that existed during the war. There were airplanes and weapons on display and it was packed. Some of the rooms had simulations of bombing air raids complete with smoke.  One 10 year old boy tried to coax his little brother in, but he was too scared of the darkness and scurried out the door.  I cannot imagine what it was like for the people who lived through the war.

Our next stop was a happier kind of place: The World of James Herriot in Thirsk. I have read all of his books several times, have seen every episode of the BBC series, and use the children’s versions of his books in my fourth grade class. We got to tour his house, the surgery, and a recreation of the BBC set for the series. I loved every minute of this tour. They even had an interactive area with a Chutes and Ladders game James Herriot style, and an operation game for kids where a wooden dog barks joyfully if you remove a metal piece he had eaten.  You even get to try your hand at calving by grabbing the hooves inside a life sized plastic cow which was an unusual activity to say the least. Everywhere you looked in his house you could feel James Herriot’s love and respect for animals. When I get home I am going to read all of his books again and rewatch the series too.

David really wanted to visit Rievaulx Abbey, but getting there was a white knuckle ride down a 5 mile winding one lane road where the branches from the hedgerows snap at your car and the stones bounce off the undercarriage. I honestly wasn’t convinced this car journey would be worth it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The shell of the Abbey built in 1132 was massive and looked stunning against the backdrop of the rolling hills and sheep grazing in the field. At one time in history over 500 people resided there. The Abbey was closed in 1538 by Henry VIII and for hundreds of years crumbled apart until the 1800s when people became interested in antiquities and excavations began. They gave us a very informative audio guide, but I abandoned it part way through. Sometimes it feels best to let a setting in nature speak for itself in silence.

The seaside town of Whitby where we are staying lies in the shadow of Whitby Abbey. We were too late to visit it, but walked the perimeter of the wall around it.

Back in town the children were still crabbing by the water. We had dinner at a new restaurant in townThe Star Inn, located in a former tourist information office and dined on halibut steaks. We played a few arcades and headed back to the room. We will miss Yorkshire. Tomorrow we take a train to London.

Of Yorkshire Elegance and Salty Charm

The sun was shining brightly this morning in Whitby and by 9:00 am people were already fishing or lining up for sightseeing boats. A particularly popular boat was a small pirate ship complete with a crew in costume. 

This morning we toured Castle Howard which is an elegant stone manor house built in 1699. It has remained in the Howard family since then and underwent considerable restoration in the 1960’s after a fire gutted  it in 1940. Although the family still lives in one of the wings, you can tour many of the other rooms. The Howard family has traveled extensively and their paintings and artifacts are tastefully displayed in every room. Chatty docents are stationed throughout the house to tell interesting stories about its history.

Castle Howard was featured in the popular 1981 mini series Brideshead Revisited starring Jeremy Irons and then again in the 2008 feature film. ‘See those feathers on top of the canopy bed?” said a docent disdainfully pointing them out. “They are not authentic. The BBC put them there!”

Outside on the immaculately maintained grounds, we toured the walled in rose garden. I love rose gardens. They remind me of my childhood. Our white picket fence in West Hartford was covered with roses. 

Each garden was separated with fences made of branches. In several gardens were miniature apple trees known as dog’s snout apples. They are old fashioned Yorkshire cooking apples. Huge bumblebees buzzed about. We saw one on the radiator in the castle that was so enormous it didn’t look real. ‘My goodness. He must be stuffed with pollen!” exclaimed a docent when everyone gasped at the sight of it crawling around. 

Last Friday when we were visiting the Roman ruins in Northumbria, we met a man who told us an interesting story. In the highly touristic seaside town of Scarborough is an old world hotel high on a cliff above the beach known as the Grand Hotel. He told us his wife had seen it as a child and dreamed of going there so he booked a room in early July.  “It was rubbish!” he said. “The first room they gave us was below ground level with no windows and when we complained, they moved us to a room in considerable disrepair with seagulls roosting out the window.”

We had seen this magnificent hotel in old movies and had read the Trip Advisor reviews. It ranks 28/28 in the town with a rating of 2 out of 5. Stopping in Scarborough on the way back to our hotel, I wanted to see if this place could be that bad. It was, only worse.

The once elegant old world lobby with a grand staircase is now decorated with bingo posters. Gone is the elegant hotel shown in the black and white photos that decorate the walls. The massive terrace with a sweeping view of the beach was littered with trash and seagull droppings and was outright hideous. Picnic tables were falling apart and the seagulls roosting everywhere all over the hotel were positively Hitchcockian. I don’t know if a hotel of this size can ever be brought back to its glory days. I felt sad for the unsuspecting pensioners the coaches were dropping off.  It’s times like this that make me feel thankful for what we have in life.

Following the coast on our way back to Whitby we stopped at Robin Hood’s Bay.  To get to the waterfront you follow a steep winding road on foot through a pretty seaside village with tiny stone houses with brightly painted doors. Arriving at the beach, we walked out on a rock shelf which is only exposed when the tide is out. Ancient fossils have been found in these rocks. It was such a  pretty place to stop to appreciate the beauty of nature.

No trip to Whitby is complete without eating fish and chips. The locals recommended Trenchers and it did not disappoint. We ordered a small portion. It was haddock fresh from the sea with hand cut chips (fries) and “mushy peas” (pronounced with a long u). It was delicious. It was a great ending to a fun and busy day.