An hour to spare

On Friday afternoon I was in Euston with a couple of hours to spare before meeting a friend for dinner near Kings Cross. Thinking that lingering in a cafe over a single coffee for so long might be pushing my luck, I hit on a fabulous idea – popping in to the British Museum.

I first visited the British Museum in 2000 and back then, barely covered the Egyptian Galleries. Since then, I have been to see specific events or temporary exhibitions but have never taken a look at the other permanent galleries. So brimming with inspiration and purpose, I trotted down Woburn Place, through the dappled shade of Russell Square and in twenty minutes, strode through the shaded museum entrance, dropped some coins in the donation box and collected a map.

With just over an hour to spare before I needed to leave, I decided to follow the ‘if-you-only-have-an-hour’ highlights route suggested on the map. I figured this would do two things.

The first was to get me in front of famous stuff I knew about – like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (I’d only known these as the Elgin Marbles before Friday’s visit) – and some famous stuff I didn’t know about. The second bonus was that it would take me through a range of different galleries so I could take a squiz and decide whether I was inspired enough to pay another, more focused visit.

I got around to just nine of the twelve objects on the map mainly because I kept stopping to look at other amazing things along the way. So the highlights trail* also did a third thing – it almost made me late! Here’s what happened.

As I’d entered from Montague Place, I was in position to tackle the trail backwards which meant making my way to the ground floor. My first stop was at the end of Room 24 to admire this awesome Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananai’a* (below right). I then headed out into the Great Court and took a right turn into Room 4 for the Rosetta Stone* (below left) which proved quite difficult to a) get close to and b) take a decent photo of. Continuing on into Room 18, I found myself surrounded by the Parthenon Sculptures* (below middle) – it’s a huge room and this is definitely one worth coming back to with plenty of loitering time.

Brit.Mus. Rosetta Stone+Parthenon+EasterIs.

As I headed back out of the long, marble-lined gallery, I took another right turn to explore a whole load of these amazing carved Assyrian reliefs* in Room 10.

Brit.Mus. Assyria

With four highlights done, I was feeling pretty pleased with what I’d seen so far.

Next I headed across the Great Court and through the shop at the museum’s main entrance from Great Russell Street. My next target was Room 2a, home to the Waddeson Bequest. This collection is comprised of 300 objects donated to the museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in 1898. I was here to see the medieval Holy Thorn Reliquary* but this was where I started to go a little off-piste, distracted by other treasures like the Palmer Cup (below left) from 1200-1250 BC and a gilt brass hunting calendar from the 1600s (below right). Unfortunately neither photo does justice to the wonderful detail in these two pieces.

Brit.Mus. Palmer Cup + Gold Hunting Calendar

Finally I reached the cabinet holding the Reliquary and I realised why this piece was heralded as a highlight on the map. I gazed open-mouthed for several minutes, awestruck by the extravagant jewels and pearls lavished all over this small gold piece.

Brit.Mus. Holy Thorn Reliquary

I trotted back out to the entrance vestibule and headed upstairs to Room 40. I’d never heard of the Lewis Chessmen*, despite them being billed as ‘the most famous chess set in the world’, and I have to say I was delighted to make their acquaintance upon my arrival.

Brit.Mus. The Lewis Chessmen

I passed into the next room (41) en route to my next highlights stop only to find myself surrounded by all sorts of treasures from Sutton Hoo. I couldn’t resist lingering over the re-constructed drinking horn (below left) and the slightly Muppet-like figurehead from the prow of a Viking ship (below right).

Brit.Mus. Saxon Horn + Ships Prow

I continued on, walking the length of the east wing and paused briefly at the end to admire some Iranian metalwork* before turning left to reach Room 56 and the very old Royal Game of Ur* (2600-2300 BC).

Brit.Mus. Royal Game of Ur

I was walking through the gallery on my way to the next highlight when I was struck by the Homer Simpson-esque countenance on this statue of King Idrimi of Alakah (1560-1500 BC). Then I drew closer to discover the intricate cuneiform etched all over it.

Brit.Mus. King Idrimi of Alakah

I found a lot to admire in this section of the museum and made a mental note to return for a more leisurely nose around. I definitely want to find out the stories that lie behind these glazed bricks from the Throne Room of the palace of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC), this tiny gold chariot (below right) and many of the other things I spied as I whizzed past.

Brit.Mus. Lion tiles + golden chariot

Back on the highlights trail again, I headed around to Room 70 in the west wing to check out the Portland Vase* (below), the Roman inspiration for the iconic Wedgwood design.

Brit.Mus. The Portland Vase

After a short walk around the display cabinet, I about-faced and headed back towards the north stairs. I was intent on getting up to the Japanese Galleries to pick up the trail again but could not help but pause at the sight of the stairwell full of Roman mosaic floor tiles (below).

Brit.Mus. Roman mosaics

I headed up to the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries on Level 5 to eyeball this Samurai armour* from medieval Japan (below right) but got waylaid – I know, again – by this strange-looking clock (below left). Seeing these two exhibits side-by-side in the montage below makes me think of Star Wars.

Brit.Mus. Japanese Gallery

Glancing at my watch, I realised that I needed to get going to ensure that I didn’t leave my friend waiting. So I kept my head down and my eyes averted as I walked down the stairs again – but to no avail.

Brit.Mus. Large standing buddha

This is the Amitābha Buddha and she stands almost six metres tall in the lower portions of the north stairwell. She was spectacular. I had to stop.

And then I was coming down the final flight of stairs when my gaze fell upon these glorious glazed roof tiles which would have adorned the ridges of a temple complex in northern China during the Ming dynasty period (1400-1600).

Brit.Mus. Ming Dynasty Roof Tiles

And with that, I finally made it out the door and, with a bit of legging it, got back to Kings Cross just in time. Prosecco is a fine motivator indeed.

Phew!

So that was my hour of highlights at the British Museum. It has definitely inspired me to return for a meander around Assyria, Mesopotamia, Japan and the Parthenon when next I have an hour to spare.

After all, I already have the map.

The carnival is over

After an end to August that was bathed in glorious sunshine, Autumn has arrived under a bit of a cloud – literally. For several days now I have been pricking my ears at the sound of rain spattering on the kitchen skylight and have been caught in a few unexpected downpours (only to find myself sweating it out in my mac when the clouds lift ten minutes later). Suddenly layers – and umbrellas – are the things I need to be thinking about.

I was walking back from East Finchley on Monday afternoon – the sky drab with cloud and the air heavy with humidity – and decided to pop into Long Lane Pasture.

It’s been two months since I first discovered it during a geocaching exploit with stepmum-B. On a warm summer day back in July, we had plodded curiously along the grassy pathways, stopping to admire a bright flower, taste some small golden plums or wonder at an unusual plant. Profusions of ripening blackberries, just a few short weeks from plump purple readiness, lined the paths and we had been delighted to find a patch of cool relief under a draping willow tree by the railway fence.

LLP July montage

Since then, the blackberries have all but gone and with things having been mowed and generally tidied, it was clear that the volunteers had been hard at work.

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LLP Sept (4)

LLP Sept (2)

This grass circle (above left) contains 17 different species of native grass which, apart from being hand-weeded, are left to grow wild.

And speaking of native, the middle picture below is a Guelder Rose (viburnum opulus), native to the British Isles and named for Gelderland, a Dutch province. It grows in hedgerows and still grows wild in the London Borough of Barnet although this particular shrub was planted in the Pasture. Birds love the berries but they are acidic and slightly poisonous for people.

LLP Sept (1)

I also got a gander at some rose hips (above left) – which I’d only ever experienced during my childhood as ‘jelly-in-a-jar’ – and all to the accompaniment of bees buzzing away industriously. On the way out I put some coins in the donation box by the gate to support the efforts of the volunteers who tend this little patch for the community.

I continued on towards home and as I passed Victoria Park, I noticed something unusual on the grass.

Victoria Park

No, the aliens have not landed. Rather over the last ten days, the park has been playing host to a kiddies’ carnival – rides, bouncy castles, you know the sort of thing I mean. I’d grown used to it on my morning walks. But on Monday it had vanished leaving nothing but the marked grass as testament to their stay. With the rain, it will no doubt green up even more quickly than usual but I was astonished at how much of an impact the ten days had made.

And speaking of astonished, the garden at Gidday HQ continues to surprise and delight, particularly given the absence of green-coloured-thumbs. Small sprays of roses keep bursting forth, the insects continue to buzz busily and a flourish of striking red poppies has cropped up along the garden fence.

ChezGiddayFlowers Sept17

I did not plant any of these but most days I wander out to visit them, enjoying their delicate freshness and vigour and wondering what other surprises might be in store. I’m also flabbergasted at their undaunted survival and the unequivocal claim they have made at the home of one so horticulturally-challenged.

Nature is a marvellous thing isn’t it?


As I type this, my feet are tucked into my cosy sheepskin slippers. The lounge room is noticeably darker without the sun streaming in and while the desk lamp illuminates the keyboard under my fingers, the floor lamp in the corner behind me casts soft light across the room. The days are already feeling shorter.

Yes peeps, the carnival is definitely over. Long summer days are already yielding to brisk autumn nights. The kids are back at school and daily commutes are crowded with the busy and the anxious again. The steady march of annual comfort telly – the flurry of The Great British Bake Off and the flounce of Strictly Come Dancing – has begun.

Nevertheless I’m hoping that it’s not quite over yet. A bit like the roses at Gidday HQ, just when I think they have finished their annual flowering, their scented petals burst forth again, enchanting me one last time.

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So if you are looking for me, I’ll be the one still smelling the roses…and keeping my eyes peeled for a late burst of summer.

Pastures new: Blackberries and plums

Here we are in July. That means we are into the second half of the year. Can you believe it? Time is just flying by.

This month began in earnest with visit from Down Under in the form of my stepmum, B. Originally from Kent, B emigrated as a young adult and built a life in Australia before meeting and marrying Dad over thirty years ago. So at far-too-early o’clock on July 3rd, I collected her at Heathrow Arrivals and brought her back to Gidday HQ for a few days of rest and recuperation.

To pass the time we spent a few hours at the Museum of London and a day playing tourist on one of London’s Hop-On-Hop-Off buses – as well as eating some delicious ice-cream in Green Park – before deciding to do some exploring closer to home. Dad and B are committed geocachers and B was keen to add a London badge to their treasure-hunting travails. The geocaching app told us there were two caches near Gidday HQ so with the sun shining hotly overhead, we set off.

The first was a relatively easy find in Victoria Park just a five minute walk away. The GPS on B’s phone pinpointed the approximate location and the clues led us straight to the cache itself. Bingo!

Bev - Victoria Park Jul17

All smiles after finding B’s first London geocache nearby

Inspired by our success, we decided to head to another cache a little further away. We made our way down Long Lane to where the North Circular passed overhead and followed an unassuming footpath up to the right behind the row of houses.

This is how I found out about Long Lane Pasture.

Long Lane Pasture is a meadow in the middle of North London suburbia that is chock full of local flora and fauna. It covers 2.6 hectares running parallel to the busy North Circular on one side, the Underground’s Northern Line along its south-westerly border and a host of allotments to the north-west.

LLP Map

We entered via the gate located at the south-east corner and wandered along the grassy paths. We passed blackberry bushes and plum trees swathed heavily in almost-ripe fruit, trees cast their intermittent shade on our shoulders and butterflies flitted busily between the wildflowers ignoring, or simply oblivious to, our passage. The busy North Circular Road faded from our minds as we immersed ourselves in this wonderful patch of nature busily getting on with ‘its business’.

Long Lane Pasture

LLP Redcurrants and plums

With exception of a short period during World War II, Long Lane Pasture has remained uncultivated since 1912 when the Mayor of Barnet planted an oak tree here to commemorate it as a recreational community space. In the early 1980’s it was closed to the public because of proposed roadworks and the meadow lay unattended until 1999 when the Council decided to sell the land for housing development. This prompted a public campaign to keep the pasture as a green space and the Council’s decision was finally overturned in 2006.

The Long Lane Pasture Trust was formed to replace the pressure group originally set up to prevent houses being built on the land. The Trust was first granted a licence to access the land in 2005 and then in the following year, was granted a 25-year lease to protect, restore and manage the Pasture, safeguarding the land for the benefit of the community. In 2012/2013, Long Lane Pasture was awarded a Community Green Flag for high quality management of public green spaces, one of only 43 awarded across London at the time.

For two hours each Saturday morning volunteers gather at the pasture to help maintain the meadow – weeding, trimming, mowing and clearing rubbish (shame on those who leave it!) – and also support school visits and special event days.

We grew more and more delighted by the minute as we wandered around with one eye on the GPS (after all we had a geocache to find) whilst drinking in everything around us. We found some shade beneath the leafy drapery of a gorgeous willow tree at the far end of the Pasture and spent ten minutes or so wallowing in this welcome respite from the heat. Then it was on with finding the geocache before heading back out into the sun.

Under the willow tree (LLP)

Feeling absolutely thrilled to have discovered the Pasture, that evening I jumped on-line and registered as a supporter. I’ve also put the annual blackberry picking event – just three weeks away – in my calendar. Mmmmmm I do love blackberries.

So this unexpected adventure has reminded me that delightful things happen when you venture off your regularly beaten path – and it doesn’t need to be very far off either. It has me wondering what other delightful surprises are just waiting to be discovered…

ps…speaking of delightful surprises, the birthday countdown continues in earnest with just 17 sleeps to go. This in itself is not surprising if you know me at all but it would be uncharitable of me not to remind you of how much I love to be surprised and delighted – *hint* *nudge* *wink* and all that…

The intersection of humanity

There is so much to do and see in London. I love living here and am so grateful for the many reasons I find to be delighted on a daily basis. Most of these moments happen when I go slightly off-piste – when I take a variation of my regular route or sit on the other side of the bus or just look left instead of to my regular right. Sometimes something unexpected crosses my usual path and recently I came across some old photos that reminded me of just how delightful it is when this happens.

Back in 2015, I’d been going to the V&A Museum every couple of months (for exhibitions, talks and a rather fabulous book group). The building sprawls grandly on one corner of the intersection of Exhibition and Cromwell Roads opposite the gingham brickwork of the Natural History Museum and the wedding cake pillars of the Science Museum. During the day, taxis zoom past with gusto and excited school groups are herded about in seething clumps. On weekends and school holidays, a human tide of families – with their flotilla of pushchairs and strollers – ebb and flow through the four crosswalks.

It’s an intersection I’d come to know well – a place devoid of monument yet thrumming with humanity, anticipation and movement. So imagine my surprise when I turned up one November evening to find this…

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A brush with art

I had an hour to kill between meetings near Pall Mall today and as I braced myself against the cold (it was -1 Celsius for most of today) and crossed Trafalgar Square, the imposing pillared facade of the National Gallery and the promise of its warm – and free – galleries looked pretty inviting.

In the thirteen years that I’ve lived in London, I have never been to the National Gallery (I know, the shame!) so once inside, I followed the signs up to the paintings galleries and began to wander. I had such a lovely time that I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.

Let me pause here and say that I am in awe of the skill and talent required to paint. But I know diddly-squat about art and on the rare occasions that I go (like to last year’s Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy), I tend to stroll around and stop whenever something takes my fancy.

And I was only just inside the door when I was taken by fancy number one.

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The joys of Spring

After last weekend’s blast of ‘summer’ and a weekend spent topping-up my vitamin D levels, I was all set to embrace a week of glorious weather. I had a rummage through my ‘clothes-not-in-season’ wardrobe in the back room and wore dresses twice…which also means I got my bare legs out. (Disclaimer: no passersby were blinded by said bare legs.)

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A pretty frock always makes me feel like Spring has arrived and the week continued to deliver splashes of sunshine-y colour.

On Thursday, I was walking back to the office after popping out to the bank. The sun was dipping in and out behind the clouds and I was enjoying the warmth on my shoulders every time it emerged. Suddenly, I saw this appear on the footpath in front of me…

I let out a ‘wow!’ – yes, I said it out loud – and started looking around to work out where it all had come from – much to the amusement of the less excitable people sitting nearby. I finally looked up to see the coloured panels on this building’s roof…

Coloured awning (360x640)

…and thought how clever and delightful this was. It really made my afternoon.

Then Friday saw three of us skipping our regular supplied-at-work lunch to purchase some vittels for an impromptu picnic in the park opposite the office.

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Sitting on the grass in Victoria Tower Gardens – a pretty nice view for my part.

There were clusters of people scattered everywhere and sitting on the grass, enjoying the sun and admiring the view was a great way to cap off a truly Spring-like week.

Inspired by all of this Spring-iness, when I got back to my desk I made an appointment to have some new nail polish applied on Saturday…but by the time Saturday rolled around, Spring appeared to have ‘unsprung’ with the expected top temperature dropping to just 11C. So while I got my paws prettified as intended…

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This is O.P.I.’s Flamenco Pink for anyone who feels inspired to follow suit

…afterwards it was off for a) a bowl of soup and b) a scrumptious cappuccino to ‘warm me cockles‘.

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A real treat: an hour in my local cafe to read – I’m really enjoying Ferney by James Long at the moment – and sip excellent coffee.

You’d think that after living here for 12 years I’d not be so surprised by this meteorological u-turn but there you go…in any case I spent a delightful hour ensconced by the window, reading and people-watching.

One of my regular weekend chores is meal planning – aka how many quick meals I can prepare for during the week to prevent snacking on cheese and biscuits the minute I am in the door – so as I left the cafe, I decided to pick up some fresh veg on the way home.

There are a few Eastern European-type grocers on my way but I always visit the same one. I like to buy local, these guys were there when I first moved to Finchley and I like to be a regular customer. And as the quality is always good, I’ve never seen any reason to defect to any of the others that have opened (and for some, closed) over the last five years.

Anyway, I was unpacking my purchases at home and picked out the receipt from the bottom of the bag. I normally just throw it away but something made me glance down the list and I laughed out loud.

tomatoes

Now that’s my kind of tomato!

And that brings us back to Sunday again. The sky is blue and although it’s not the dizzying heights of the 26C we had last weekend, the patio is flooded with sunshine so it’s out with both the washing and my good self to soak up whatever Spring has deigned to offer.

Until next time, here’s wishing you all the joys of Spring.

Bitter Sweet

It’s been over a month since my last historic meander so I am pleased to report that yesterday I spent a couple of hours weaving through the City’s streets in an effort to discover more about London’s connections with slavery.

We all know it happened and movies like 12 Years a Slave and The Butler have raised the public consciousness in recent years. But these have been portrayals of slavery in America and the Caribbean. When you look at these depictions and think about the inter-continental trading relationships that underpinned this industry…

…a picture of Britain is noticeably absent.

So yesterday I met with Museum of London guide Mike (yes he of my Roman fort tour earlier this year) and along with about twenty others, embarked on Sugar and Slavery, a two hour walking tour around the key British institutions involved the slave trade.

Here’s how it went.

From our meeting point at the museum, we walked down Noble Street, pausing opposite the Goldsmith’s Company for Mike’s introduction to the slave trade, before heading down Gresham Street to Guildhall Yard.

The Guildhall Yard (site of Roman ampitheatre (640x360)

Entering Guildhall Yard from Gresham Street – the Yard is built on the site of the old Roman amphitheatre.

The guilds were organisations that represented the wide variety of trades – and as such controlled the various industries – operating in the City of London. In the 17th century, Guildhall was the central seat of justice for the guilds and many a legal battle was fought in Guildhall itself.

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The Grade 1 listed Guildhall

Guildhall continues to be the administrative and ceremonial centre for the one square mile that constitutes the City of London. I remember watching Stephen Fry’s Key to the City a couple of years ago where he explored what it meant to have been awarded the ‘Freedom of the City’. He also attended a banquet here – it still seemed full of tightly-held traditions and much pomp and ceremony.

We headed out onto Lothbury Street, turned down Princes Street…

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The Bank of England, taken from the corner of Lothbury Street and Princes Street

…to reach Bank Junction where we stopped outside the Royal Exchange. The Threadneedle Street entrance to the bank loomed above us on one side and Mansion House, the official residence of the Mayor of the City of London stood across the traffic circle in front of us.

Mansion House (360x640)

Mansion House, official pad of the City’s Lord Mayor. No that’s not Boris Johnson – he’s the Mayor of Greater London which does not include the City. The current – and 688th – Lord Mayor of the City of London is Jeffrey Evans.

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A pause outside the Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange, founded by Thomas Gresham in 1565, operated much like today’s stock exchange – albeit without the technology – with traders and the city’s financial pundits going at it hammer and tongs from the opening to the closing bell. However, there was a point when it was suggested that business dealings should be negotiated outside the Exchange and so the emergence of coffee houses began.

You may be wondering what this all has to do with slavery – well, everything.

Slavery underpinned the British economy and pretty much allowed rich men to get even richer. Mike told us about one such man, David Lyle, an ‘absentee’ plantation owner who was also, by all accounts, a cruel master. It is recorded that Lyle pistol-whipped one of his slaves, Jonathan Strong and left him for dead on a London street. Strong was found by Granville Sharp – one of the first campaigners in Britain for the abolition of the slave trade – who nursed Strong and offered him work.

Legal battles ensued between Sharp and Lyle (once the latter learned that Strong was alive) with the Lord Mayor eventually pronouncing that Lyle had no claim as Strong was not ‘property’. This was the very same institution who legislated that slaves on ships could be thrown overboard – like possessions – should the captain believe his crew were in danger (eg. of starving due to provisions running out) and also supported the traders’ insurance claims to redeem losses from such activities.

But I digress.

The buying and selling of slaves moved out of the Royal Exchange (officially) and into coffee shops.

Jamaica Coffee House

The Jamaica Wine House (nee Coffee House) stands on the site of London’s first coffee house.

The importation of raw materials such as coffee and sugar flourished with this rise of informal ‘trading houses’ and a young West African could have his or her horrific fate sealed over this bitter brew sweetened with sugar.

We paused on Lombard Street near the Church of St Mary Woolnoth to hear about John Newton who, after years of trading and torturing slaves, reformed and became rector here in 1780. He gets a mention from me because along with poet William Cowper, he composed a book of hymns in the 1770s – the most famous of these ‘Olney Hymns’ was Amazing Grace…and I cannot tell you how many times I played that as a child when I started learning each of the recorder, clarinet, flute and violin.

We headed on past the Monument (that’s the one to the Great Fire of London) and down to the riverside by Old Billingsgate, Mike continuing to paint a picture of the sickness and fear that these men, women and children who’d been torn from their loved ones, faced firstly on-board the slave ships then upon their arrival, where they’d be poked and prodded like animals before being sold, and finally in being ‘seasoned‘ on the plantations of Barbados and Jamaica.

Our next to last stop was Lloyd’s of London, a towering metal edifice of power and money.

Lloyds of London

The original Lloyd’s of London was a coffee house in Lombard Street and as well as playing host to the wheeling and dealing of London’s businessmen, became known as a place where one could obtain marine insurance – much like it is today. That the slave trade was conducted across the Atlantic suggests that Lloyd’s too has its roots steeped in the horrors of human trafficking.

Just down a nearby alley stands the Gilt of Cain, a memorial to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 that was erected in 2008. It was a fitting way to end the tour.

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I walked thoughtfully back to the tube station, comparing what I’d seen in movies with the stories of the people who perpetrated, fought and suffered that I’d just heard. There was so little humanity and dignity in each of the different stories that Mike had shared. Some of this I recalled as I walked but in essence, it felt like a fraction of the full story.

There’s a part of me that wants to learn more. While I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave – and found it viciously confronting – somehow each tale told over the two hours of the walking tour left more of a mark. I’m travelling to Liverpool next week, the largest of the old slave trading ports and home to the International Slavery Museum so it is a perfect opportunity.

But it also feels a bit raw – I feel appalled, my belief in the human spirit dented a little so while I will make the most of the educational opportunity that Liverpool will afford, it may be a little while before I venture into anything more.

Finding Wonderland

It was wet and grey in London yesterday and if it hadn’t been for some existing plans I would have been perfectly happy to curl up at Gidday HQ on the comfy couch. But the British Library beckoned and so just after lunch, friend Aussie-K and I stepped out for some literary loitering.

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It was our first visit to the library. Yours truly has been here twelve years and until yesterday, had only managed a passing acquaintance last year by way of a talk at the conference centre next door. Given how much I love literature and reading, I am delighted to have ticked this visit off my London bucket list and to have moved from ‘I must’ to ‘I have’ at long last.

And what, I hear you ask, made me get off my backside and go?

Well, Wonderland of course!

2015 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a story that’s been told in a myriad of formats and iterations over the years, its other-worldly characters and trippy plot making it the subject of much interpretation and debate. I saw Robert Douglas-Fairhurst interviewed about his biography on Carroll – The Story of Alice – last year (which I am currently reading) and the Library has been running a temporary free exhibition which closes in April. So we entered the fray and hustled – with what felt like hundreds of half-term families – along the cabinets and displays.

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The front part of the exhibit was taken up with a series of twelve (or was it thirteen?) decorated mirrors featuring quotes from Alice in Wonderland whilst in a rather cramped section at the rear, there was an opportunity to learn about the author himself, his real-life Alice (who happened to be a brunette rather than the blonde we’ve come to know and love) and see the ways in which this famous story has been communicated over the last 150 years. It was interesting – however the area was poorly-lit with little opportunity to linger and I found it difficult to read all of the information and look at the details of the books and manuscripts on display. I’m not sorry that I spent the time to shuffle through and see it but it’s just as well it was free otherwise I might have been a little put out!

It seemed a shame to leave after such a short visit and as it was still raining outside, we meandered across to the Library’s permanent exhibition, Treasures of the British Library.

Now THIS was my Wonderland and I spent quite some time poring over…

…drawings & notes from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo…

…musical scores from as early as 1050 and from geniuses like Mozart, Debussy, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach (just to name a few) as well as a page of Puccini’s scribbled stage directions for his opera Madame Butterfly and a touch from the modern era, a burst of scrawled lyrics for The Beatles’ hit ‘Help’…

…pages and pages of penmanship from literary giants: 16th century greats like Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, acknowledged classics like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and even a little something from Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond – who you could argue is one of the 20th century’s most iconic literary creations – and his short story, The Living Daylights…

…sacred texts, beautifully illustrated, from as early as the 4th century and from a  variety of religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and Buddism…

…and one of the four Magna Carta documents dating back to 1215 which was sitting right alongside the original papal bull that annulled it just 10 weeks later.

It was absolutely awesome – in the true sense of the word – and these were just the highlights.

And after such a deluge of inspirational history, it was time to venture back out into the real weather, make a damp and concerted dash past St Pancras Station…

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…and around to the YumChaa Cafe in Granary Square for a warming hot chocolate and a slice of apple and apricot loaf…

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All in all, it turned out to be the perfect way to spend an inclement February afternoon in London.

The wall

Last September I ventured below London’s bustling surface to visit the site of a 4th century Roman bath and house. Back then the Museum of London were opening these archaeological sites as a trial to see if there as enough interest from the public in  getting up close and somewhat personal with London’s history.

There are now a whole raft of opportunities listed on the museum’s website so it would appear that the answer was yes.

Yesterday I spent an hour visiting another site from Roman London, the ruins of the fort lying underneath the busy city street of London Wall that runs outside the museum itself. I had seen this view from Bastion High Walk on previous museum visits…

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…but had never dreamed that there was any more to see. After spending an hour with Museum of London guide Mike, I was proved wrong.

Here’s what happened.

We started up on Bastion High Walk just near the museum entrance with an overview of the site. This is Mike…IMAG4093 (360x640)

…and here are a couple of pictures from our handout. The left-hand picture shows the fort at the top left within the wall surrounding the City of London. The right-hand picture is the layout of the fort itself – the area we explored is in the middle of the outside left wall.

We headed down the stairs and along the slip road to examine things more closely. I love how these old sites are tucked in between London’s more modern buildings. IMAG4096 (640x360)

Up close we could see more of the detail – the soot blackened walls, the wear on the steps from the boots of the soldiers.IMAG4097 (640x360)

Mike pointed out this line of Kentish ragstone running along the front. This is the oldest part of the structure dating from the 4th century AD.
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Can you see the two parts of the ragstone wall? The lighter-coloured part at the front would have been built first with the darker grey section added afterwards for additional fortification.

The rest of the site dates from about the 14th century when, in typical London fashion, new buildings were simply built over the top of what was already there, the previous city being abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century. I wonder what will be built on top of us?

We then headed through a non-descript door next to the London Wall car park to visit the fort remains that are kept under ‘lock and key’ by the museum. Here’s a model of what this site – the West Gate of the Roman fort – would have looked like in its ‘hey-day’.

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Mike explained that this gate was probably more administrative than military. Gates around the wall – Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate to name a few – aside from being defensive usually served as revenue-raisers, collecting taxes from those passing through. That this gate was un-named suggests it was less likely to support such functions.

Here are a couple of photos of the site discovered by William Grimes in 1956.

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North turret and guard room.

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The north gate

The area we visited covered only the left-hand section of model I showed previously – the guardroom and north turret, and the north gate – from the 14th century. Mike spent about 15 minutes helping us visualise the way the site would have looked, pointing out various details which archaeologists have used as the basis of their assumptions about life at the fort hundreds of years ago.

The official tour drew to a close after about 40 minutes but there was more to come. Mike mentioned that there was a piece of 4th century wall in the public car park next door that we could take a look at. I envisaged something quite small but after a brisk 10 minute walk, I was absolutely astonished to see this.

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The detail was extraordinary. You can see in the photo how the wall has been constructed for strength, stepping inwards with each row of levelling tiles (these tiles are the red lines you can see). You can also see the difference between the dressed stone on the outside and the rougher packed stone behind it.

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In London, archaeological sites are the responsibility of the land owner. Rather than being owned (and looked after) by the Museum of London, the car park is owned by the Corporation of London. It is a public space and so this historic site is at the mercy of exhaust fumes, human hands and unsympathetic modern additions.

I was really delighted to be able to see such an amazing piece of history up close (although at Mike’s request, we did not touch it – after all it is 1600 years old). But I felt irritated by its casual treatment.

A group of young skateboarders were gathered right next to it and several times I saw them lean on the wall, with some actually running into the wall itself. Granted they probably don’t understand the historical importance of this pile of stones or even if they do, appreciate it. When I think about my fascination with history, I realise that I’ve become more awestruck and humbled by it – in equal meaures – over the years. This is probably a result of my own ‘maturing’ in combination with moving to London from Australia (with its relatively shallow roots in European history) over a decade ago.

However, there was no excuse for the rubbish strewn around it by car park users and seeing the steel girder that had been inserted left me both sad and horrified.

To this end, I posted…okay, had a little rant on Instagram as I was reflecting over a post-tour coffee back at the museum. Paying for the tour itself (£5 is pretty amazing value given the expertise people like Mike provide), buying a book at the museum shop afterwards and even my new Friend membership feels like a tiny drop in an enormous ocean. Hopefully as I continue to explore what the museum offers, I will find more ways to support their work.

In the meantime, all I can think to do is to encourage you to visit these extraordinary sites – if not in London then wherever you are – to reflect on the history of humanity, how our society has evolved and perhaps consider how the story of our time might appear to the future generations.

Cruising London: Photo tour

Last Saturday I spent a leisurely three hours on the Museum of London‘s Frost Fairs cruise along the River Thames.

Frost Fairs are a rare occurrence in the pages of London’s history. They were held when a combination of winter-y elements meant that the River Thames froze over and created a lot of excitement for Londoners. Our Museum of London host told us that the earliest Frost Fair was likely to have occurred in 1114-1115 between Westminster and London Bridges when all sorts of activities  – shopping, drinking and eating, and games like skittles and ice-skating – were at the disposal of those who dared to venture out onto the river’s icy surface.

But it was a double-edged sword as while many entrepreneurs and well-to-do celebrated this rarity, a third of Londoners depended on the river for their livelihood and so were left destitute when they could no longer ply their many trades.

The last Frost Fair occurred in 1814-1815: Once the old London Bridge was demolished and the new bridge – constructed by John Rennie and opening in 1831 – was in place, a more free-flowing river was created, giving little opportunity for ice to “dam up”.

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Cruising under Rennie’s London Bridge

So last weekend I made my way along the embankment to Westminster Pier, boarded the Pride of London and took my place on the upper deck. It was one of those grey London days – not as pretty as a crisp blue-sky day but it did lend something quite atmospheric to the usual view. Here’s a little photo tour of my time on board.

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Boudicca vs Big Ben – looking up from Westminster Pier gives you this great perspective.

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Blackfriars Bridge – trains stopping at Blackfriars Station actually stop on the bridge.

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No Thames cruise photo tour would be complete without a shot of Tower Bridge

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I loved this row of old bankside houses – the two building to the left of the row stand like sentries at the entrance to one of the many channels that branch off the river.

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The cruise took us all way downstream to the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsula, the latter being home to the Millenium Dome (or as it’s now known, the O2 Arena). It does look like some sort of alien ship has landed.

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This is the Royal Naval College in Greenwich – you can see the Royal Observatory in the background (which by the way is a great place to visit.)

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And this is the famous Cutty Sark, just a hop step and jump away from the Naval College

Along the route back, the daylight had started to fade and I spent most of the time just watching the bank glide by, the wake from the various river craft creating foamy ripples along the shore. Before long, we were cruising past the modern shapes of London’s City Hall and The Shard…

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London’s City Hall is the curved building on the left and look how the tiny white-lit Christmas tree mirrors The Shard that overshadows it.

…and London’s lights glowed in the dusk as we continued to cruise back towards Westminster.

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Southwark Bridge

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The London Eye

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Passing under Westminster Bridge gave me this atmospheric view of the Houses of Parliament’s Victoria Tower

Soon it was a quick under and back again with Westminster Bridge, a gentle drift towards Westminster Pier and with my head full of what I’d seen and heard, I disembarked and headed home.

I am a big fan of the events put on by the Museum of London and this was such a great way to spend a few grey and blustery hours on a Saturday afternoon. So I hope you enjoyed this little photo tour a fraction as much as I enjoyed for real.