Tuesday, August 26, 2014

London - 8/9/14

I woke up Saturday morning with the whole weekend spread before me.  I spent a bit of time looking at my calendar, realizing that my days here in London are drawing to a close.  Two weeks more.  Funny how when I first began traveling here, I had three days, and those seemed like they contained a lifetime.  Now, three weeks have passed, and the remaining two weeks already seem to be flying past my eyes.

One of those funny adjustments I have to make here, akin to dodging left instead of right, is that the calendar goes from Monday to Sunday, instead of Sunday to Saturday.  I realized... once again... I had written down the wrong item on the wrong day of the week.  There was a tour of the Brunel Tunnel led by London Walks that I was fascinated with.  And it was on Saturday, not Sunday.  So, I threw on some clothes and dashed out the door to make the 10:45AM departure.

Seems I wasn't the only one out and about Saturday morning.  As part of a really cool event, London shut down several of their major roads and opened them up to bicyclists.  Seemed like the entire town was out to view the city at a slower pace on such a bright, blue day.

Despite the peopled frenzy, I found the tour group, we managed to cross the street, and board the boat for a cruise down the Thames.

 Brunel was this brilliant engineer who built several of the bridges in London, including a rather famous one you've probably seen in a picture or two.

(picture from a previous visit.  I was so busy listening, I forgot to take pictures)

Tower Bridge was considered quite the eyesore by the Victorians.  It was both masonry and ironwork, which was just not the way things were done.  But his design was so brilliant, this little drawbridge has been raising and lowering its bridge over 1000 times a year since it was built and it still works.  We were informed that it costs nothing to have the bridge raised, you just have to let the quartermaster know your boat will be coming through and he'll put you on the schedule.

We continued on down the Thames past the Tower proper and got a fish eye view of the Traitors Gate, where Anne Boleyn herself was rowed through so as not to make a spectacle on the street, before she was imprisoned and then became about a head shorter.

We disembarked down by this innocuous stack of logs tucked back on a quiet street by some flats.  Not a car driving on the streets.  A single jogger ran by.  Otherwise, the neighborhood was completely deserted as our tourguide took the stage.

This was where Brunel's Leviathan was built.  The very first ocean liner.  Bigger than any ship ever built before.  Capable of sailing all the way to Australia without refueling.  And it was an utter disaster.


 A massive launch party was organized with press and celebrities, and the boat wouldn't budge from the launch.  It was touted in the papers as the first Waterphobic Ship.  A few days later, it was finally pushed off its skids, but one of the braces broke and impaled one of the workers.  A boiler exploded on the maiden voyage, killing the crew.  But this was an important boat.  It was the boat which laid the transatlantic cable.  But Brunel would never know of this success. He died shortly after her disastrous launch, thinking himself and this last project a complete failure.

We continued walking along the Thames towards Greenwich.

This was the territory of pirates and privateers and the men and women who controlled them.  We saw the steps where Sir Francis Drake threw down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth so that she wouldn't step in a puddle of muck.  We saw where pirates were placed into cages and left to drown as the tide came in.  We were also directed towards the original "Shit's Creek", a tributary of the Thames where all of the public toilets deposited their *cough* deposits and a spot you most definitely did not want to be without a paddle.

But where we were headed was below ground to Brunel's crowning glory...

 Brunel built a tunnel.  A tunnel beneath the Thames.

Brunel's methods building this tunnel paved the way, so to speak, for every subway system on the globe.  At first this tunnel was a pedestrian walk-thru.  People could pay a penny to walk across a bridge or a penny to walk through the tunnel to get across the Thames.  To entice people to the tunnel, little shops were placed in arched doorways, so you could walk and shop.  It was quite the tourist attraction and Brunel tunnel souvenirs were all the rage.


Unfortunately, some of the more unsavory types started moving in, so in order to combat this invading force, the tunnels became carnival centers and party central.  They brought in sword swallowers and tightrope walkers and jugglers.  Everyone was headed down into the tunnels!  Eventually, though, it was purchased by the rail system and VOILA!  The birth of the Underground!

We headed topside and made our way towards the Brunel Museum, pausing for a moment to admire a dismissable mural on one of the walls.

A mural of a train, right?  No big deal?  But this is Brunel's train.  He engineered his trains so that the cars fit between the wheels (as opposed to what we have now, which is trains sitting on top of the wheels).  It was a wide gauge track and provided greater stability and smoothness of ride.  Unfortunately, he had a rival who managed to lay the narrow gauge track across England, and upon Brunel's death, tore up the wide gauge track, destroying Brunel's train system.

(a picture of Brunel and some other passengers)

We continued our walk on down to the Brunel Museum.

We paused by a small brick outcropping.  To the unknown eye, it looked like just some utility access, perhaps to a water meter or a fuse box or a backed up sewer.  But this was not so.

This was the entrance to Brunel's sunken theater.  We had to climb up the stairs, and then around a few metal toe-holds in the wall.  Then crouch through a tiny 4 meter opening...

 Before we emerged into the theater...

Accessible by catwalk.

This was Brunel's first project.  He created this gigantic concrete, circular theater (1/2 the circumference of the the Globe) and then gradually sunk it into the ground.  This was where the engineering technology was developed to build a structure above ground and then sink it below, technology still being used today.   It served as a theater until it the steam trains started running underground.

That sort of slanted mark around the edge was where the wooden stairs used to be.  With a steam train running below this theater, the wooden stairs didn't seem like such a good idea and were torn out.

This space has been closed for over 150 years.  As the Underground changed its trains over to clean technology, the danger of being burned alive by the steam was eliminated and the Brunel Museum was able to reclaim this theater.  It was opened this year and is now a space for dance parties and lively fun.  We were some of the first people to have access to this space in 150 years.

What is sort of remarkable (aside from being an engineering feat) about this sunken theater was that it flooded several times during the process, killing six workers.  But during one of the floods, while four men died, one man was saved.  The man who was saved was Brunel.  If he had drowned that day, we would not have Tower Bridge, the transatlantic cable, or subways.  It all came down to one guy.

I stayed for a little while longer to tour the museum, and then hopped onto the The Overground (it is like the Underground... except above ground...) when I noticed that one of the places on my "Must See" list was just a few stops away.

The Ministry of Stories is an organization which supports young writers.  They run this fun storefront filled with canned "Chills" and "Night Terrors".  But behind the walls is a hidden writers room, where kids can come for classes and guidance, a cause which is dear to  my heart.

(it reads "Only One Giant in the Shop at a Time", "Beans: Magic or Otherwise are not accepted as Payment", "Angry Mobs Please Douse your Torches before Entering the Shop")

("Customers are Politely Requested to Refrain from Eating the Staff"  "Nocturnal Opening by Appointment for Vampire Customers Only")

As I went in, I was informed that all of the objects on the top shelf were for monsters only, but all other items were available for purchase.  I settled on two cans of Escalating Panic and the Collywobbles.

I had a lovely chat with the shop keepers, letting them know how much I appreciated their mission and how my own writing journey began when I was in the 4th grade, before I headed out and discovered there was a street fair going on.

I paused at several of the tables.  Most of them were filled with Dollar Store merchandise and sweatshop clothes.  But then I happened upon this little table filled with random antiques.  Most of the items were just the junk you'd find left over at an estate sale.  But then I spotted a book.  It was a second edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with all of the original plates drawn by Arthur Rackham.

The book itself was worn.  It was kept in the house of a heavy smoker and the pages are stained with tobacco spots.  But the illustrations were pristine and gorgeous.  I hemmed and hawed, and then the book opened up to a picture of Queen Mab...

...and I knew it had to come hope with me.

So me and my new book boarded the Overground (and then the Underground) back to the dorm room, my brain overflowing with all of the images of the day.  But the day wasn't over yet!  Oh no!  Because I had tickets for the Open Air Theater production of Porgy and Bess.

I stepped out of my dorm and walked the few short blocks to Regent's Park.  What a gorgeous place is Regent's Park.

I am constantly struck during my time in England by the kindness which is infused into the culture.  After having centuries of brutality (heads on spikes and workhouses), it is as if society has made a conscious choice to try and ease the suffering of its people however possible, even if it is to put out some beautiful chairs, free for use, for anyone in the park who might want to use them.

Can you imagine chairs like these in NYC's Central Park?  They would be vandalized and stolen within twenty minutes, covered in graffiti, slashed with razors for fun, stolen and sold out of the back of a van.  Or at least only available for rent and profit under the unwatchful eye of some bored teenager.  England seems a land of grown-ups, people who can be trusted to take care of free chairs.  Is it that the poor are taken care of as part of national policy and so desperation to steal is not a part of the underlying culture?  Is it the lack of youth worship and idolization of the 18-year-old fratboy brain and its destructiveness?  I don't know.  But whatever the root cause, these chairs this night seemed a profound statement of British society, a kindness that I wish we had more of in America.  Why is it that we can't have nice things?

My brain ruminating over all these thoughts, I made my way to the Open Air Theater, a gorgeous outdoor theater in one corner of the park.  There were twinkle lights and tasty treats to enjoy before the show.

And don't tell anyone, but I snuck a picture of the stage from a side aisle.

The production of Porgy and Bess was astounding.  Porgy and Bess is one of those shows that I always thought that I saw, but it turns out I never did.  The songs are such a part of our culture: Summertime and the livin's eeeeaaaasy...  But this musical is a masterwork.  The rhythm changes.  The musical jumps.  It is a monster of a score.  I would imagine a singer's voice being absolutely wrecked by the demands.  But this crew sang and danced their way up this Mt. Everest of notes.  It was a cold night, so I bought a woolen blanket to wrap myself in at the interval.  Upon getting home, I learned an unfortunate truth that one should not purchase tartan in the dark.  It is literally the ugliest blanket I have ever seen in my life.  Who thought lime green threads should go with navy blue?   But I love it.  Because it reminds me of sitting there in the cold, eating my clotted cream fudge, astounded by the talent in front of me to that delicious final note, and the crisp night air as I walked home through the busy streets of a city wide awake.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

London - 8/7/14

After a spirited day at class, I decided it was time to continue the mood and get into some high spirits... and I don't mean the emotional kind.  My favorite tour group, London Walks, was at it again with a ghost tour of the West End!

It all started over by the Embankment Tube station, which, color me a tourist, I had never stepped above ground to see.  Look!  Thriving city!  People!  We met up with our tour guide who was an absolute doll.  This guy KNEW. HIS. GHOSTS.  No "wink-wink" nudges.  No "let me give you a historical tour that happens to mention some ghosts".  This was a GHOST. TOUR. and he was ON. IT.  He knew dates.  He knew names.  He had eye witness accounts.  Just the kind of guy you want leading you into the night.

It started with a stroll down the Thames to our first stop.

And where was our very first stop?  Cleopatra's Needle!

You're probably not as excited as I am.  Listen, when we were learning about acid rain in elementary school, it was all about how Cleopatra's Needle was being destroyed.  We learned all about this thing and how important it was.  And it is still here!  And I saw it!  So melt away all you want now, you historical rock dug up from the Egyptian desert, you!  I have seen you!


The views were also really nice.

What's that you ask?  Is that a swing set 1/2 the size of a building?  Yes, my friends.  Yes, it is.

So, we learned that when a person gets a wild hare to throw themselves into the Thames, they tend to do it off of Cleopatra's Needle.  EGYPTIAN CURSE YOU ASK!?  Now you're just talking crazy.  But speaking of crazy, there was a police report from the early 1800s that a bobby was walking the bridge and a woman came running up to him saying someone was about to jump and he needed to go stop her.  Well, he hightailed it over and sure enough, there was a woman standing on the platform.  He grabbed her and saved her, but when he turned her around, SHE HAD THE SAME FACE AS THE WOMAN WHO GAVE HIM THE WARNING!  OoooooOOOOOOooooo!

We then headed up to the Savoy to learn about an old superstition.  Evidently, one night, thirteen people were seated around a table and one of the women became concerned.  She was a superstitious sort and said the first person to get up would die unnaturally.  Well, one of the fellows said that was a lot of rot, got up, and wouldn't you know, a few weeks later he was found shot dead in South Africa.  OOoooooOOO!  So, Savoy, not wanting the bad press, constructed a statue of a black cat.  They named him Caspar, and if you ever have dinner for thirteen, they will always seat Caspar at your table so you have a 14th.  Rumor has it that Winston Churchill really liked that cat and would book dinner there all the time.  The restaurant is called Caspar and that's why the topiaries in front are of cats.

One of the hotel rooms is also supposedly haunted by an opera singer and she'll try singing you to sleep if you aren't careful.

We then headed up this alleyway which flanks one of the oldest theaters on the West End.  There was a theater owner who was stabbed in the back by one of his actors.  Unfortunately, this time it was literal.  He went indoors and died in the arms of his leading lady.  There are old reports of his ghost walking through the bricked up stage door, women using that dressing room have heard him knocking, seats have flipped up one by one in the theater, and other spooky goings on.

We then headed over to Covent Garden which, believe it or not, originally was a convent garden.  A young Bob Hoskins (yes, of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame) used to work here in one of the vegetable stalls.  According to his biography, he was down in the basement when the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on appeared.  He was overwhelmed with a  sense of peace and tranquility.  He went upstairs to tell his boss there was some bird hanging out in the storeroom and his boss said, "Oh!  You saw one of the nuns!  They say if you see one, you're marked to have a lucky life."

While not haunted, we snuck down a back alley and discovered THIS adorable alley.  Evidently, it was an inspirational spot for JK Rowlings as she came up with Diagon Alley.

We turned the corner and heard stories about the strangling jacket which choked all the actress who tried to wear it.  We heard about those who perished in WWI who came back for a final goodbye.

We paused in Trafalgar Square to hear about a headless king who likes to show up from time to time, as well as pause for a moment to enjoy a gorgeous night.

We also paused by the Royal Haymarket where Patrick Stewart himself saw a ghost standing in the wings during one performance of Waiting for Godot.

And then continued on into the schwankiest neighborhood in town where all of the ol' boys clubs used to be.  There was a little ghost dog haunting the old German embassy, and we paused to pay our respects at his grave.

This place was an old hangout for Charles Dickens and a whole club devoted to studying the spirit world (which one can still join today).

We made our way to St. James Park and had a fabulous view of Buckingham Palace at night.  We saw some ramparts where Anne Boleyn is said to walk around, although she is one of the most frequently spotted ghosts in London.  The girl gets around, if you know what I mean. 

And finally, we ended up on a street where every August 1st, it is said that the ghost of Queen Anne makes an appearance.

It was an absolutely wonderful night with a great tour guide, fabulous stories, and inspiring sights.  If you ever are in London, DEFINITELY check out London Walks.  This tour was a winner.  There was a metric ton more stories, but must leave you with some surprises in case you go.