Monday, May 28, 2012

England, Part Three

I spent my last day in London at the British Library, Westminster Abbey, and walking the West End. The British Library, sadly, does not allow photography in their manuscript viewing room, so I can't show you any of the fabulous illuminated manuscripts or other historically interesting books I saw. (I also can't show you the Chaucer manuscript, but that's because it wasn't on display. Hmph.)

Things I learned at the British Library:
  • Handwriting hasn't changed substantially in the last several hundred years, because I can still make out words penned centuries ago.
  • 200 years ago, they were still writing in chicken scratch rather than proper handwriting
  • I've always thought illuminated manuscripts got touched up for their scans, much like fashion models. This is not true. The colors really are still that vivid and solid.
  • Gutenberg Bibles were BIG. Also printed without initials so purchasers could personalize their books with the local art styles.
  • Medieval drawings of humans look less stilted and stylized in person.
  • There are some phenomenally well-preserved books from the Middle Ages.
  • Everyone illustrated manuscripts, including the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and, of course, the Muslims.
  • The Chinese were block-printing way before anyone else was.
  • The Beatles wrote lyrics on some very strange things.
  • Bookbinding is beautiful, but not nearly as interesting as illumination.

Then it was on to Westminster Abbey, which also doesn't allow photographs inside. I definitely recommend going, especially if you have a historical bent, and also recommend getting the audio tour. It points out things you wouldn't necessarily notice otherwise, because there's no map or guidebook available. First off, though, the exterior!

I've been in some really dark and oppressive Gothic holy buildings, and in some light and airy ones. Westminster Abbey is definitely light and airy—and, like any regularly used historical church, full of more recent architectural styles as well. In this case, those styles are mainly for tombs, but I've seen mashups in central Europe where parts of the church were actually rebuilt. I'm very glad that didn't happen at the Abbey. Still, the massive amount of baroque and Victorian tombs and memorials (and the occasional Tudor one) were a bit jarring. The highly worn medieval ones fit a lot better into the aesthetic.

I found the tombs interesting, though. A lot of political and military leaders, and nobles, are either buried or remembered in Westminster Abbey, to the point that it's hard to see some of the statues in detail because there are three or four other statues in the way. A lot of the gravestones in the floor have also been worn down by foot traffic so are hard to read. The Tudor royalty were big on elaborate tombs of the "I need a better tomb than my dad" variety. Absolutely gorgeous work, though. Intricate. Lifelike statues.

I was the odd one out in the respects I paid to the memorials too, I think. Most people seemed to be there for the nobility, clustering around Queen Elizabeth I's tomb, or Henry V's. Poet's Corner was pretty crowded too (not that anywhere wasn't), but I got the impression that people were there just to say they'd been, rather than to see specific memorials. And, of course, there were the handful of people who'd actually come to Westminster Abbey for religious reasons. Me? I paid respect to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Handel, Darwin, Newton, Clementi, Addison, Blake, the Bront√ęs, Watt, and a host of other literary and scientific figures I recognized. I was more excited to find Blake than I did to find Cromwell, who's also buried there.

All good abbeys have a cloister, which I sat in a while because my legs were tired from walking. It's cool and calm, and, wonderfully, allows photography because it's outside!

Those are medieval limestone coffins with holes carved for the head.

The back of the cathedral has a row of statues of 20th-century religious martyrs:

Opposite the abbey are, of course, the Houses of Parliament:

I headed for the West End next, because of Forbidden Planet, because I wanted to see the theatre district a bit, and because there was a ghost walk meeting there that evening. Forbidden Planet was more like a department store than I'd expected, but definitely cool. The theatre district was also neat to see, but also tempting. I almost didn't go on the ghost walk after all. 

The walk itself was more history and fewer ghosts than I'd expected. There can't have been more than six or seven ghosts for the two hour tour. I'd thought a city as old as London would have been more haunted, but maybe the guide only picked the highlights. He was a good storyteller, if a bit of a ham and overly fond of invading personal space for dramatic effect. Most of his stories followed the urban legend formula—an unnamed friend or client just the other week had seen a ghost right there…. 

None of the pictures I took on the walk have ghosts in them, but they're still good.

After the walk, I hopped the tube back to the hostel. I caught a plane out the next morning. I have to go back someday, no question. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

England, Part Two

The Victoria and Albert Museum! Art and design through the centuries! Highly recommended! I spent the whole day there, just about, and by the time I was done, my brain was ready to melt, I'd absorbed so much information. As I mentioned in the last post, a lot of the photos I took here were blurry. Low light levels and no flash will do that, unfortunately. I've left most of the blurred ones out because I can't show you all the cool bits of detail if they're not there, but also because 100+ photos is probably too many. I'm pushing it as it is.

The earliest street lighting was not gas, but coils of burning rope, in the Tudor era:

Famous statues!

A late-medieval German Madonna and Child:

A medieval cowl, photographed for the embroidery:

Early Korean bronze mirrors (polished side facing wall):

Chinese ritual drinking vessels, Bronze Age on left, 19th-century (?) on right. Photographed out of delight at how much the design didn't change.

An early pottery horse, from China:

A comparatively recent pottery camel, photographed for his expression:

Two suits of samurai armor

A plaster cast of Trajan's Column, in two parts:

And in close-up:

Various Scandinavian works, mostly from the Viking period:

One of four Tudor flag holders (there's a proper name for them, but I can't remember). This is the one that caught my eye first.

A circle of flattened brass instruments, hanging from the ceiling.

You know those cardboard cutouts you can get of your favourite actor or movie character? Apparently they were cool in the 18th-century too.

And then my camera battery announced that it was seriously low and would like to be recharged, please, so I stopped taking photos at the V&A and went to the Science Museum around the corner, which had…

Difference Engines!

Among the many, many things I didn't photograph at the V&A were an impressive jewelry collection; an exquisite collection of jeweled snuff boxes; all sorts of Tudor and Jacobean artifacts, from clothes and cushions to furniture and weapons; many more statues and religious artifacts; a timeline of Japanese pottery; and an Islamic exhibit I skipped because, as I said, my brain was melting. I didn't see anything else in the Science Museum because there wasn't time and not much else looked interesting anyway.

By the time I was done with these two museums, I'd decided that I wanted nothing more than to sit down for the next century, and that I'd seen so many artifacts that going to the British Museum the next day would be overkill. Unfortunately, because I did really want to see the Anglo-Saxon stuff and I think they have bog bodies? Maybe? Ah well, next time. Incentive to go back. :)

Part Three (and Last) will largely consist of pictures of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliment. You've been warned.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

England, Part One

I got back from England a couple days ago. It was kind of a spur of the moment trip, which meant a lot of scrambling around the two weeks beforehand, getting everything in place, and therefore not a whole lot of blogging. So, if you've been wondering why I haven't posted much in the last while, that's the big reason. I'd have said something about the trip, except you're not really supposed to tell the internet about your travel plans. 

But I can share pictures of the trip after the fact, so here goes. Easy blog posts ahoy!

Here's the Dutch coast, about half an hour after my transfer in Amsterdam: 

And here's a mostly-Victorian graveyard in Manchester…

… that contained an intriguing gravestone. I'm voting time travel.

Make that two intriguing gravestones. I'm not sure what the symbolism means here.

I was in Manchester for my sister's wedding. I'd post pictures, except she'd probably kill me. It was good, though. Nothing to complain about and everything to rejoice over.

The day after the wedding, I hopped a train for London. I had big plans to stare out the train window and absorb the many variants of England as they rushed past me, but it turns out that the only variant of England along the rail lines is the farmland-and-stone-village one out of James Herriot and Beatrix Potter. That got kind of dull, so I stuck my nose in a book pretty quickly. Sixty-One Nails is absolutely fantastic British urban fantasy—it's blurbed as "Neverwhere for the next generation" and they're right—and I completely struck out finding the sequel in the UK. It's not out in North America yet.

Anyway, London, Day One!

Saint Pancras Station, on my way to discovering the British Library wouldn't allow my duffel bag inside and I'd have to come back a different day.

King's Cross was on the other side of the street, but I didn't get a picture of Platform 9 3/4. I didn't want to push through the crowds to find out if I had to buy a ticket or not.

After dropping my bags at the hostel, I headed downtown again. I hit The Clink museum first, which was interesting but not nearly as much as I'd hoped. Would be good for kids who didn't know much about the early British prison system, but didn't have a lot of advanced material or artifacts to keep a knowledgeable adult engaged. But! in the same neighbourhood there were:

the ruins of Winchester Palace (1100s),

Southwark Cathedral,

and the Golden Hind (replica):

There are lots more pictures of Southwark Cathedral, but I thought I'd spare you. :) After that, I crossed a bridge and saw this:

On a building I found a (18th-century?) notice, proving that prosecution signs go back a long way. I can't read the whole of this, unfortunately, but am assuming it's for loitering, because it amuses me to think so.

Also spotted were a church showing damage from the Blitz…

… a baroque water fountain …

… and, of course, St. Paul's.

I've always heard about the beauty, majesty, and perfection of St. Paul's and said, "Ha! No building could live up to that hype! I don't believe it!" Except that this one does. It's flawless and tasteful, in a baroque sort of way, and in the early evening, took my breath away. I have a lot of photos of St. Paul's.

And then my legs were really tired and it was late, so I went to the hostel again.

Next up, the Victoria and Albert museum! In which I went overboard with the camera again and a lot of the photos are blurry!