Friday, September 23, 2011

From the Clink to the Bunker

There will be no sleeping-in on this fine day in Bermondsey. Rich is definitely feeling better, as he has performed his exercises, run his run, and stopped at the local bakery for goodies for us. Very considerate indeed. One of the things we have noticed (as compared to other holiday destinations we have enjoyed) is that everything seems to take longer than we expect in London. And some of the signage makes us wonder. We're used to deer crossing signs, and had no idea that there were humped (or un-humped) zebras running around the metropolis of which the average motorist had to beware. Not complaining, just observing.

Friday - September 23, 2011 - London, England

Wheels-up at 9:00. Our apartment is a short bus ride away from the Canada Water underground station and that is the route we decided to take to get to the Southbank of the Thames (the side with the Eye). It is surprising to us that no matter where we go in the city, it takes 45 minutes to get there. Are we doing something wrong?

Our target this morning was the Globe Theater, purported to have a cracker-jack tour. It was a great morning to walk and we enjoyed our promenade past the docked (and smaller than imagined) Golden Hinde, the English galleon that circumnavigated the globe with Sir Francis Drake at the helm. Even though a replica, it's pretty impressive, not only because of it's little size but the fact that they found a place to park it right between two buildings. There are lots of little diversions on this walk, past some very old structures and the Clink (prison - if you wondered where the name came from). We arrived just in time to have missed the first tour of the day, but another would begin in one half hour. That gave us almost enough time to explore the first rate exhibits in the little museum.

You get a wonderful behind the scenes look at the building structure, the costumes, and more printed archival material than there is time to absorb. There was a placard that we found extremely interesting. It cleverly displayed many of the common use phrases that found their way into our vocabulary thanks to Sir William. Didn't know he originated the idea of being "in a pickle." It was great fun and informative. Click on the picture below to enlarge.

Right on cue our tour was called and we were whisked away to the seating that surrounds the open air stage. We were left under the direction of what we consider the best guide we have ever had. He is one of the actors who had performed many times in this theater and you could tell he loved every minute of it. With a booming perfectly enunciated presentation he brought the Globe to life for us. He made it easy for us to imagine the all male casts performing 3 or 4 different plays over the course of a single week. Shakespeare wrote for this theater (no matter what anyone in Stratford-upon-Avon says) and this is the only place he worked. He wrote in words everyone understood, from the Lord(ed) under the eaves to the groundlings that stood surrounding the stage. Because the props and sets were so limited Shakespeare set the stage with words instead. The 45 minutes we had with our "player" flew by.

We headed west along the river, stopping occasionally as the BBC blocked our way to film a scene, and for me to take a few minutes to play in the sand of the Southbank Riviera beach. Got to give it to the Brits to import tonnes of sands just for the fun of it. Heading toward the Eye the embankment was lined with open air food stalls that filled the air with the sublime aromas of baking bread and grilled meats (we hadn't really eaten yet). As we walked vendors offered us samples ranging from Champagne to Chorizo. There were a number of beer stalls each with it's own specialty brew and I knew Richard was in heaven. Kathy and I had an agenda (modest as it was) so we decided to split up and agreed to meet back at the apartment that night (after dinner).

Kat and I really wanted to get to Kenwood House, home to Vermeer's "The Guitar Player", but we were also hungry. The solution was to grab something on the way and just ahead of us was a stall (to be accurate, more like an old converted Citroen van) where made to order crepes were cooking. Kat ordered the ham and cheese, I the spinach and cheese from the husband-wife-daughter trio that ran the establishment (Crêperie Nicolas). What had been a 3-day-a-week something to do in retirement gig had turned into a full time summer job for them and they clearly enjoyed it. They seemed as interested in us (and what we thought of their country) as we were in them. We talked about our plans, asked advice ("Was Hadrian's wall worth the drive?" - "Definitely - the Northumberland area is usually overlooked and is beautiful."), and chatted about the weather - a staple for every discussion with a Brit. Plus, our lunch was delicious.

Kenwood house is a 17th century home that was donated to the British people by Lord Iveagh, a member of the Guinness family. It's located in or on (I never know which is correct) Hampstead Heath, a bucolic northwest suburb of London. A little tricky to get to, it's worth the time and travel investment. (We made the mistake of walking from the underground stop rather than taking the bus - it's about a mile and all uphill). The manor house sits at the highest point of a very large tract of parkland and manicured gardens. It's easy to understand why this house has been used as a setting for some major movies. The entrance is free - there is a collection box for donations.

The Guitar Player is beautiful in her elegant fur-trimmed yellow morning jacket (we've seen this same piece of apparel in some of his other paintings), and it's clear she's not playing the latest Country and Western number. We had read that in some of his later works (of which this is one), he became a little more abstract in his style dabbing paint on the canvas. It is remarkably similar to what the impressionists would do 200 years later. This is clearly evident in the treatment of the gilded frame and the top of the guitar just above the woman's hand. The young man stationed in the room filled us in on the mystery surrounding the disappearance and reemergence of the painting when it was stolen by IRA sympathizers who demanded the release of a pair of their members from Brixton prison. The authorities refused and soon afterward the painting was found in a London churchyard, out in the cold, leaning against a gravestone. Wow. We took a peek at the other very famous painting in their collection: Rembrandt's final (maybe) self portrait. He painted about 40 over his career, apparently never getting tired of the subject and there is a question whether this was his last. Whatever, it's a great, bold, painting, clearly the master of his craft. It is a little unsettling that he was about the same age at his death as I am now (64). He did not age gracefully.

Timing is everything, it is said, and on this day, our timing was a little off. Perhaps it was our taking of the wrong bus back to the underground station, or our wandering through the courts with our map held upside down that denied us entrance to Temple Church (of The DaVinci Code fame) which closed 5 minutes prior to our arrival. It was worth the walk though as it's still pretty impressive even from the outside. Next time.

Barely a half hour walk from the church was our last stop of the day: The Churchill War Rooms museum, the entrance of which is hidden on the backside of the Treasury building in Whitehall. There are actually two museums in one; the bunker and war rooms themselves, and the Churchill museum which is filled with original artifacts and ephemera relating to the great man who had the courage of a lion.

We had allotted an hour and one half to our visit and realized soon after entering that twice that amount of time would barely do it justice. The audio guide is excellent and allows you to pace your visit to the time you have available. Little signs were used to let the inhabitants below know what kind of day it was above. It seemed a little claustrophobic with dimly lit corridors and rooms, and one can only imagine what it was like when filled with staff planning the war and tracking it's progress in this little hideaway. The other thing that probably filled the space was smoke from the 6-10 (usually 7 inch 47 ring gauge Romeo y Julieta) Cuban cigars that Winston enjoyed each day. In the map room which was manned 24 hours a day, there is a desk with different colored telephones, each connected to different war fronts. Information was plotted in near real-time on the wall maps using colored pins. With bombs bursting above we could really appreciate one of his most often quoted expressions:

At the end of the war in 1945 everyone got up from their desks, shut off the lights, and locked the doors, leaving everything as it was. That is part of what makes it so fascinating.

They shooed us out at 6:00 so off we went in search of food. This sightseeing makes you hungry. We headed off to Piccadilly Circus to see the lights, the so-called Statue of Eros, and grab some food in Soho.

The statue is really what's left of a large and beautiful fountain (after the politicians got done arguing) proposed by Lord Shaftsbury (who the abutting street is named for), and it's not Eros on top but a more Christian and less erotic representation of love. Note that there is no arrow in the bow. Could this "shaft" be "buried" in the street? Anyway, it's a popular hanging around place for the young. It was too early for the lights so we headed to the new and it appears, popular Thai Tho restaurant where we sat on the third floor watching the area come to life. The food was fine, as was the beautiful evening that greeted us as we left. The Circus has a totally different feel to it than Times Square (to which it has been compared). It seems compact, comforting and a little cozy to us.

In no time, well in the standard 45 minutes, we had trained our train to Canada Water, bused our bus, and negotiated the shortcut arriving at our apartment at 21:45 to share our day's stories with Rich and Lu, and plan our Saturday. If all goes well it should be a "Wicked" good day.

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