Well, everyone, the time has come – I’m leaving Edinburgh and heading out on my mega-trip to Europe! You can expect a lot more blog posting here as I visit England, France, Spain, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ll try to do a weekly post or when I leave a country, whichever comes first (long train journeys = quite good for writing amusing travel prose). So strap in and get ready to live vicariously, because here comes the first post of the trip, concerning my week travelling through England, accompanied by a mate from Melbourne (hence the ‘we’ instead of ‘I’).
York – 17 May
It’s been a long time since I’ve travelled, so let’s just say I felt it hoofing my massive backpack to the station for a 7:07am train from Edinburgh to York. I keep forgetting that though train tickets say they’re from your starting point to your ending point, the train is almost never the same – we took the 7:07 to Plymouth, for instance, rather than York – and so it takes a little creative thinking to find the right one. I was pleased to find the train was adequately furnished with comfortable seats, and our seats had a large table on which to liberally spread all our things; and that there was lots of space on both the overhead bag rack and the larger luggage rack, and nobody tried to challenge our bringing on more than one bag per person. The train trip was about two hours, but it still felt extremely fast, at least compared to the Melbourne Metro, when we were stopping every 20 minutes or so and picking up a decent turn of speed in between. Knowing in advance that we wouldn’t want to carry our bags around in York (only cemented by my walk to the station) but not knowing if there were facilities for storage (having heard they got rid of them in certain areas to guard against terrorism), I was relieved to find there were some, though being stung with a £5 fee to hold my bag for a day wasn’t fun. I have this nifty app on my phone that will allow you to download maps and use them offline, and will even find your vague location without using the internet. It is marvellous but I hadn’t used it before so I ended up getting us a little lost with a few wrong turns, meaning it took us a while to get into the historical centre of York – though I was very happy to part of the extremely well-kept medieval walls of the city just directly across the road from the station.
Eventually we made it to a part of the city that had been on my list of things – a medieval district called the Shambles (it actually turned out to be a single street, and the name was derived from its ancestral function as a butcher’s market). After being amply distracted by a church garage sale equipped with a vast quantity of pretty good books, we made it onto the tourist map. Though there was significant evidence of medieval/Tudory architecture on the upper floors of the agreeably overhanging buildings, little remained below that we could see, sacrificed in favour of twee craft shops, bakeries, tea shoppes and so on. We enjoyed a tea shop that had some hot herbal infusions out for sale, which for once almost tasted like what it said on the tin. On the whole it was a very friendly and forgivable tourist trap, a credit to the genre.
Exiting the Shambles and gradually learning to navigate my offline map a little better, we ended up finding a butcher selling wild boar pie and a market selling the usual collection of odds and ends – crystal wizards, black t-shirts with tattoo-like depictions of pugs in suits, gooseberry pies, counterfeit watches – and exited with a gooseberry pie. From there, we navigated ourselves towards a bank, where I went to change my Scottish money (technically legal tender in England but often not accepted the further south you go, which is not the case vice versa). Note to people trying to do this: don’t try to change large amounts (i.e. over about £20) unless you have or are with someone who has an account with a UK bank, because they need to deposit it into your account and then withdraw it in English money. Though I’ve heard the post office does it without that. Wearied by an arduous wait in line, we repaired to the ludicrously handsome Museum Gardens (on the recommendation of the sunny bank teller, and via the square where we were to meet the free tour later on in the day) to consume our heavily anticipated pies. The pork pie was absolutely sublime. Sold fresh-baked at room temperature, it was the perfect mix of solid meat, fat globules and a greasy, crumbly shortcrust pastry exterior. No gravy in this, just awesomeness. In comparison to this, the gooseberry pie was a bit of a letdown. The novelty of eating gooseberries (which look strangely like a combination of grapes and green olives) was soon overshadowed by the undistinguished standard-berry-pie taste. It did, however, lead to a lively discussion on who would win out of butchers and bakers in a meat pie competition. The garden itself was filled with well-maintained lawns interspersed with yew trees that had been there since Roman times (the Roman name Eboracum means “place of yew trees”) and a variety of other plants, a museum, an observatory, and best of all, the picturesque ruins of a medieval abbey. It also had an old trading exchange – that monastery had held a monopoly on the northern wool trade before the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII – that had been converted into a special events venue, which would be awesome.
Eventually leaving the luxurious relaxation of the Gardens, we walked along the outside of the city walls, looking for something interesting to do before 2:15 when the tour we were hanging out for commenced. York is littered with ancient churches which are usually open on Saturdays, so upon finding one with an interesting rock garden that looked fairly quiet, we went and tried the door. Turned out the door was completely unlocked but the building was completely empty. Feeling very awkward, we only stayed long enough for a quick snap and made our retreat (though I did enjoy seeing that it had a portcullis-like door that was completely open to the elements opposite the one through which we entered – gotta love that reckless Yorkshire adherence to history).
Soon we ended up walking along the top of the old city walls, very well preserved due to them not being owned by the city and instead by private houses for centuries (though now all the sections have been gifted back to the city). The wall offers awesome views of York Minster and a sneaky view down into the ludicrously fancy gardens, hotels and restaurants these old private houses of the rich have been turned into. Also, the great gates of the wall (or ‘bars,’ short for barbicans, because they all once had one) feature museums about the great kings of the Wars of the Roses – Richard III and the house of Plantagenet and Henry VII and the house of Tudor. These were quite fun – we particularly enjoyed the Horrible-Histories tent set up like a battlefield with a knights playset and the HH special on the Wars playing on loop. Just please note if buying a combo ticket for the two of them, one is at the top of the city and the other is at the bottom – it’s a good half-hour to forty-five minute walk from one to the other so probably better to pace yourself.
Following this, we came down from the wall and entered the Dean’s Gardens, surrounding York Minster. Conscious that the Minster costs £9 and that it was only half an hour or so until our tour was due to start, we didn’t go in, only walked around and noted with interest the various extremely impressive attributes. Also fascinating was a statue to the Emperor Constantine, who was crowned in York after his father died there, and a Roman column marking the spot where it supported the headquarters of the camp at Eboracum.
Finally we made it to tour time. A small group of, let’s be fair, elderly people, mostly Americans, and us, met the also elderly but very enthusiastic volunteer city tour guide outside the site of the King’s Manor, a former bishop’s palace which was taken over by Henry VIII in the Reformation and turned into a palace. Later it was used as a school for the blind, and finally in 1963 was taken over by the University of York. Mostly the tour went around the places we’d already been – along the wall, around York Minster, through Museum Gardens, through the Shambles and so on. However, being with someone who actually really knew the history and culture of the city meant that things progressed in a much more interesting and logical order. Fun facts included that the Museum Gardens were owned for centuries by a private philosophical society which didn’t allow visitors until the 20th century, and so the stone monuments scattered around the park were not carefully designed exhibits by the city council but fun conversation pieces for the scientists or Roman sarcophagi unceremoniously dumped after an excavation to build an observatory atop a very important graveyard. Our guide pointed out the ancient Roman, third-century Roman and medieval additions to the Multi-angular Tower, explaining the architectural techniques used; showed that the Shambles still contained many signs of its former butcheriness in the hooks and shelves on the windows that were respectively used to hang and display meats. We got to sneakily enter the King’s Manor and would have gone into some other places were it not for it being a Saturday in spring and thus packed with weddings. We saw the oldest row of houses in York, erected somewhere in the 1310s; and had a look at the exterior of the National Trust property, the Treasurer’s House. This was built as the home of the Catholic treasurer of York Minster, and contains a parade of historical rooms showcasing the site’s history from the Roman road beneath through to the Edwardian servant’s quarters. I did really want to go in but by the time we got there it had already shut, worse luck. The final stop was a shrine to a woman who was executed for hiding Catholics during the Reformation, which happens to also be a well-preserved Tudor house, kept as it was by the local Catholic community. I can absolutely and heartily recommend this tour – but try to get there by 10:15 rather than 2:15, then you won’t simply repeat yourself, and you’ll have time to visit all the places the guide recommends – from York Minster, the Castle Museum, and Jorvik (the Viking museum with an actual excavated village) to the shortest street in Britain and York’s only surviving barbican!
Thoroughly exhausted by the enormous amount of walking that we had done, we spent the next hour or so enjoying the sun by the River Foss, before heading up to catch a train to Bristol.
Bristol and Bath – 18th May
We arrived in Bristol at about 11pm, having been delayed ‘by a signalling failure at Darlington’ as the announcer continually reminded us. Our accommodation, booked through airbnb.co.uk, seemed fairly close – a moderate 20-minute walk from the station. The host was aware that we would be there late, and was happy to wait up for us. All seemed to be panning out well. How wrong that was. Beginning with a wrong turn, we eventually made it to where the road we were supposed to turn down seemed to be located. We walked up and down trying to find it – there were no roads in one direction for a good five minutes and the adjacent road was both shown on our map as not the right one and it was blocked as a private road. Eventually we concluded that to reach our destination we had to ascend the precipitous staircase that extended up the hill. It was annoying, but looked doable – maybe three flights of stairs, and then it seemed to flatten out. Well, we made it up those three flights – hoisting one heavy backpack and two suitcases – only to see another five or so before a turning. Again, we made it up, and again there was another enormous stretch of stairs. At this point, I left the luggage behind and ran up a little farther, only to see the full extent of the final ascent. It was enormous. Lift, drop, lift, drop, step by step we made it up. Always looking ahead at the final step. Imagine the fun when we found that when the stairs ended it was only because the slope of the hill had reached a gradient that was not 100% certain to catapult innocent backpackers down the precipice should they make the tiniest mishap and allow their backpacks to drag them. I’d say it had dropped to 95%. On our arrival – up another set of stairs, and another – we found out that we were literally staying at the peak of the UK’s steepest street. The staircase was 155 steps. I can’t tell you how nice it was to drop our bags after that, and ascend to the attic room we were staying in – more of an adorable nook – which opened out onto a roof garden with stunning – stunning – views over the city. It almost made the climb worth it.
Having already spent a long day walking in York, we had resolved to kick back a bit in the morning; maybe some light grocery shopping but that would be all. Things were open on a Sunday, but we were happy to just chill out for the morning and maybe hit a museum in the afternoon. Looking at the attractions of Bristol, we found that there was a free walking tour only on Tuesday, so on a whim we decided to go to Bath instead. So we caught a bus – a bit steep for a two-way trip at £6.00, but if we had wanted to go elsewhere as well it counted for the whole day in a 13-mile circle around Bristol, so I suppose the price makes okay sense – stopping right near our home base (at the bottom of the stairs) and dropping us off right in the centre of Bath.First step was to the main bit of Bath – which contains the Roman Baths museum and the towering Bath Abbey. The high price tag on the Roman Baths – and the fact that I had been told it was okay but not amazing – drove me to wait on the decision, so instead we went to try and get a look inside the Abbey. Unfortunately, it had closed just minutes before for choral evensong, to re-open two hours later. I had noticed a National Trust property (of which I had recently become a member and was keen to use the benefits) in Bath – the 18th-century Assembly Rooms – and so we went up there to check it out, on the way passing through several very handsome squares of Georgian houses and one enormous Circus (in the sense of circular street) surrounding a grassy roundabout with three enormous oak(?) trees. The Assembly Rooms themselves didn’t seem very worth the effort or the money – being very grand and meticulously kept but essentially just empty halls that have been used for events through the centuries. We did discover interactive displays in the entrance hall that gave the history of each room and several pictures throughout, but it was still something of a disappointment.
Feeling somewhat ambivalent, we exited, with a brochure offhandedly grabbed in the Assembly Room forecourt that listed a number of places where discounts could be had upon its presentation. Ignoring the places that offered “benefits” like 30% off the souvenir guidebooks, we gravitated to an obscure little property – free – called the Georgian garden. Tucked away in the back of the circus we had passed through earlier and accessible through the adjoining park, it was a restored version of a landscaped garden that had stood behind number 4. It was pleasant, and I liked how it was completely placed in the original context – the garden was re-created with the original plans – but was not particularly large so we went out into the park, but not before taking a quick look at the famous Royal Crescent, an enormous arc of Georgian houses that were protected from the throng of tourists by a hefty iron fence. The busyness and fame of this particular stretch made it far less appealing than its more cosy and equally architecturally satisfying cousins in the aforementioned Circus. The park, which was the usual complement of green lawns and trees and many, many locals out enjoying the sunshine, still left us with an hour to kill before the Abbey re-opened, but then we found the mini-golf course. I must say it was not a particularly ostentatious course, the obstacles being wholly composed of scattered rocks, but it was fairly enjoyable nonetheless, and after a vociferous battle I came out the victor by one stroke.
At this point we returned to the original square, and the moment we arrived I knew that I was going to go into the Roman Baths. They are the iconic Bath attraction, and, no matter how low my expectations were, I had seen abbeys and cathedrals before but I had never seen a Roman bath. My travelling buddy, having seen them before, decided to not go again. Determined to get my money’s worth, I took one of the audio guides that was included in the ticket, and resolved to listen to every single station and get all the goss possible. There was a standard track, a children’s track and – a signal of the excellence to come – some recorded thoughts from none other than British-American travel author, and one of my favourites, Bill Bryson! With that to look forward to, I took my first walk out onto the landing overlooking the bath. What you might not realise is that to get to the Roman bath in its original setting, you actually have to go down about seven meters – so where I stood at street level became a grand terrace built over the top of the excavated bath by its 18th-century restorers. They built the terrace in Romanesque style for easy viewing from street level, and festooned it with statues of Roman emperors and governors who had a particular involvement in the conquest and occupation of Britannia – Julius Caesar, Claudius, Vespasian, Hadrian and Constantine – along with the head of Roma with SPQR, the Roman motto (Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome).
Now, my expectations were still not too high. I could see people on the area below – including a centurion, with whom I was pretty keen to reprise my Edinburgh Castle-military history-photo – so I assumed I would be heading down there; and I had heard murmurings of a museum of some kind. I don’t want to spoil it, but seriously: the museum is amazing. It starts out small, with little models of the old bath-temple complex and some diverting artefacts, well-peppered with engaging extra info on the audio guide – but as you go through (I had to be hurried along by an attendant so that I wouldn’t miss the best bits) things get more and more involved and interesting: a room filled with artefact after artefact, the whole upper façade of the Temple with a very unusual face atop it, a room filled with tombstones and implements that tells you an enormous amount about daily life, and then you descend into the ACTUAL EXCAVATED TEMPLE AND BATHS. My jaw literally stayed open and opened farther and farther the farther I went in. Room after room of successively better-preserved ruins into you emerge out of the underground dimness (perpetuated to preserve the stone and also produce a more authentic rendition of the lightlessness inside these stone buildings) into the blazing sunlight of the bath above which you entered. Being a Roman bath, it is surrounded by numerous bathing rooms with different purposes.
Fun facts that I picked up along the way – Roman bathing was lost in the Western Roman Empire, but was preserved in the East, and now survives in a slightly altered fashion as Turkish bathing; the museum contains the only known example of written British Celtic (Brittonic) in the world (despite being written in the Roman alphabet, it currently cannot be translated, with nothing to compare it to); and though the water in the main pool, bubbling up from hot springs way under the earth (considered sacred by the Romans, hence the Temple to Minerva and the name of the town as Aquae Sulis, or the waters of the goddess Sulis) is completely undrinkable (shouldn’t even touch it), you can drink a slightly purified version from the tap at the end of the museum. It smells like sulphur (that’s farts, kids) and tastes rather like blood, being so filled with iron that it stained the rocks it has poured from for millennia bright red.
In short, I absolutely loved the Roman Baths. Though you should probably not raise your expectations too high, because then you might not have as amazing a time as I did! Definitely listen to all the audio guides – you can probably stand to miss the kids’ ones, though they are delivered by a fun host of Roman characters, but the main ones and Bill Bryson’s are totally different and absolutely worth taking time on. And try to finish before 5pm so that you can catch the centurion before he heads home 😛
I don’t know whether it was the enormous glow of being super-excited by the Roman baths, or if the riverfront at Bath is just exceptionally beautiful in the late afternoon, but I was absolutely content to spend the next hour before the bus back to Bristol came just wandering along the river Avon, finding new enjoyable buildings to look across at, an enormous kind of revese-fountain that sunk into the river, and stooped old willow trees on the opposite bank. Overall, in my view, Bath is a very handsome city. Quite unified in its residential composition (of cream-coloured Georgian stone work), quite cosmopolitan with a number of upmarket shops, filled with diverting historical attractions (most of which come at a price, but some which do not), and with an exceedingly beautiful waterfront. I’m very glad I went.
Cardiff – 19th May
This was a trip we had already booked in advance – I figured that somewhere over an hour away was worth getting together beforehand, and not having on the first or last day, so placed it in the middle. The bus was scheduled for 8:25am, and not at the reasonably close train station we came in on but farther along, so we ended up having to leave about 7:40 – not looking forward to that walk with a heavy pack on the way to London, but it was fine this time. Apart from a slight delay in Newport, there was no hassle at all getting into Cardiff. Having done some research earlier and some more the night before, it was a tossup whether to stay in the CBD and visit Cardiff Castle, which is meant to be pretty good but also costs a lot, or try to head out to St. Fagan’s Welsh National History Museum, which is free and number one on TripAdvisor but also according to Google Maps pretty difficult to get to (something like a 30-minute bus ride and equivalent subsequent walk). A trip to the very helpful and well-staffed Information Centre in the city centre clinched it – a ringing endorsement from the Cardiff resident and a hitherto unknown bus link set us going for St. Fagan’s. The bus was a little over an hour away – we’d just missed one – so to fill in the time we went through to the Cardiff Story – a little but very modern and interactive museum in the back of the Information Centre, with audio-visual displays about the history of Cardiff back to pre-Roman times and artefacts from various periods. Certainly good enough to spend half an hour on.
St. Fagan’s itself was an absolutely awesome place. Essentially what they did was take an estate – which already held a 16th-century manor house and a working dairy farm – and fill it up with something like 45 buildings of different ages physically lifted from all over Wales, rebuilt and restored into the condition of either the period of its construction or its heyday, complete with period furniture and all the trappings. There was everything from a rebuilt Celtic village to a Tudor trader’s house to an 18th-century landscaped garden; and in many of the places they had actual craftsmen creating wares in the style of the appropriate time (blacksmith, clogmaker, potter, weaver). In every building you could go in and walk around, touch things a lot of the time – it was eerily like the family that lived there had just stepped out – or in the case of the craftsman’s workshops or working farms, like they were still there! Every house had an attendant in it, ready (actually, extremely keen) to answer any and all questions you might have about a place – I had a long and lively discussion with a gentleman in an old coal miners’ institute, which contained a large library, newspaper stand, ballroom, billiard room, and a 650-seat cinema, all for the (alcohol-free) benefit of the miners, who essentially crowdfunded the endeavour. The whole thing was like a less aggressive, more widespread (both in terms of time and in physical space – about 100 acres) and more natural version of Sovereign Hill. Also, it was totally free! It cost a few pounds to park a car or to get the bus there, but otherwise nothing. I cannot recommend this museum enough – we spent a happy four and a half hours wandering around every part; and since we came on a Monday during a period of refurbishment, a couple of the sites as well as the inside galleries (displays on clothing and Welsh identity, small but quite different part of the museum) were closed, and many of the craftsmen weren’t on duty. A lot of stuff seems to be closed on a Monday across this area – it’s partly because they’re more busy on weekends, but also because it’s not a peak-peak period (in July and August things are open all the time, but they rapidly decrease as you go farther towards winter).
Once back in Cardiff, entertainment became a bit harder to find. It was late afternoon and most of the other attractions were closed for Monday – even the National Museum! The Information lady had suggested we go have a look at the harbour, but as it was raining we had some food in a pub first. It was a hefty walk down to the harbour, down one of two parallel roads running down opposite sides of the railway link. The first side was pretty sketchy, but at least there were some people about – at the harbourside, despite the brightening weather, adventurous modern architecture and open spaces, the place was almost completely deserted. Walking back up the other parallel road, the surroundings were much more luxurious, but even more empty (think disused Olympic village). It stank of a failed port town desperately trying redevelopment, but not succeeding in producing anything but a pretty desert. It was a shame, being so close to the city and with a number of big venues and the Welsh National Assembly all out there, it could have been good. Maybe in a few years. In the meantime, Cardiff Harbour, so not worth visiting.
To kill the last bit of time before the bus, we walked through Bute Park, which stood next to the Castle. With venerable oak trees, an ornamental Celtic stone circle and the ruins of Blackfriars Abbey, it was a handsome place. Unfortunately, it was getting dark and so we had to hustle through, but I can tell you it would be a nice place to have a picnic. So that was Cardiff! Would have liked to see the National Museum, and just above it Cardiff Uni and a nice-looking park, but only had so much time and St. Fagan’s was absolutely worth spending it on. I definitely enjoyed the Welsh accents and how every single bit of official writing – street signs, information points, museum pamphlets – had Welsh and English written together. It legitimately felt like a different country – even in the Scottish Highlands Gaelic wasn’t anything like so ubiquitous, and Scotland being a more mobile country the accents aren’t nearly so homogenous.
Bristol – 20th May
This was the last day staying in Bristol, but the first day of actually trying to get out and explore it (as opposed to just climbing up and down the UK’s steepest street on the way to buses or Tesco). We went into the city centre for what was supposed to be a free walking tour, but the guide never showed up; so instead we went straight to the Bristol M Shed. This is essentially a museum about the city of Bristol, with a gallery about the development of the town from the first century to the present and different areas of the city (Bristol Places), one about various movements and social changes that occurred, from slavery to protest movements (Bristol _____) and one featuring different stories of people who lived in, came to or came from Bristol (Bristol People). This museum was really good for showing things that you wouldn’t normally see in a museum – social history, intimate details of otherwise anonymous people – while also giving a sense of the wider movements surrounding the city. There were loads of little things – every one of the hundreds of toys and tickets and tools were labelled, there were little stories and quotes written on the display cases – but also big things like an old double-decker bus you could get inside (and, in our case, encounter a bunch of 14-year-olds who were both trying to avoid the obligation to enjoy the museum as part of a school trip and also bored enough to instigate a chat with a couple of random Australians climbing in to get on the top deck for lols). This meant that you could spend hours perusing everything or a few minutes just looking around and still enjoy both. There were also interactive computer displays liberally scattered around which would give more detail on key artefacts, and activities for the young at heart on every floor. Quite good, worth the couple of hours we spent in there.
As in Cardiff, it was low season and that meant some of the more obscure museums were closed even on a Tuesday – there are several free historic houses scattered around the city centre that looked really good but are only open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. This being the case, we adjourned to Cabot tower, an ornate edifice atop an extremely steep park with awesome view across the whole city (it looked like it was pretty much the highest point around). It had those fun things that point out the direction of landmarks and say how far they are, and we could see in the distance Isembard Kingdom Brunel’s famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, which, despite its fame, was too far away to be worth going to.
By mid-afternoon, it was food time, featuring the Wooly Cactus, a Mexican food truck we had passed by several times that week. I had a large and delicious freshly-made burrito with all the trimmings – starting with yellow rice and black beans in a tortilla and adding slow-cooked steak, salsa, onion, chipotle sauce, and cheese. Even better was taking this delicious burrito to adjoining Castle Park, which housed the extremely overgrown ruins of Bristol Castle as well as a roofless gothic church that was bombed in the war. It made a pleasantly historical and relaxing end to our time in the city.
London – 21st May
We did two main things today – visit the Wallace Collection and see a show in the recreated Globe Theatre. The Wallace Collection was a free museum, comprising an enormous old townhouse (in the sense of ‘house in a town,’ not terraced house) just up from Bond Street Station filled with a carefully-presented gallery of thousands of items of art (paintings, miniatures, sculpture) from the last 1000 years that had been collected by the Marquesses of Hereford, along with several enormous rooms filled with antique arms and armour from all over the world (I particularly enjoyed the Mughal/Saracen armour, and the ludicrously lengthy Turkish muskets). It was all presented as if in a house, in the restored and extremely fancy original mansion rooms. You can even try on the armour in the basement. If you’re into art, armour, fanciness or free stuff, the Wallace Collection is a fine place.
The Globe Theatre was booked in advance, to see a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. Essentially the Globe is a recreation of the Shakespearean original, built in 1599 and burned to the ground by a stage cannon blast in 1613, recreated in 1614 and closed in 1642. This third Globe opened in 1997. Going inside actually looks like all the representations I’d seen of the original theatre, and it felt really real. Everything is made of wood and there’s a big open area for standing punters, or groundlings (for £5.00 a ticket, obviously that was us). The stage is enormous and covered, with elaborate galleries and painted pillars. As for the show itself, it was excellently done – especially considering their leading man had fallen ill the night before without an understudy and they had to draft in a replacement who read from the book which rarely affected his excellent performance. The staging was minimal – a few cushions, a rotating backdrop – but the costumes were sumptuous and varied (I particularly enjoyed the colour-coding of Augustus and Antony’s forces, and how they put them in different periods of Italian style) and different props were wheeled on and off – a table to confer matters of war, a long dais for Cleopatra to sprawl on, and an enormous wingéd throne for her to elaborately debate the matter of killing herself with a snake and then actually do it. Standing as a groundling was an exceptional historic experience, but after a week of walking around a lot, standing still for three hours really takes its toll. One thing I was really surprised about was the contradiction of my expectation that everyone would engage in the modern form of heckling (as opposed to the Tudor shouting and throwing things) and get their phones out the whole time, but absolutely nobody did! And we hadn’t been carefully cautioned not to, like you might expect. Anyway – the Globe Theatre itself was absolutely worth going to, and the experience of getting to see excellent Shakespeare put on in the original location (ish) and in the original fashion (ish – they did use women rather than boys for the female roles, but I did have a chuckle at the same actor playing a falsetto eunuch and a deep-voiced lieutenant) for just £5.00 makes the whole thing and absolute win.
London – 22nd May
Once again today we did two main things, this time the British Museum and British Library. The British Museum is famous enough that I probably don’t need to say much about it, except that it’s really really big and comprehensive across an enormous amount of world history and has some seriously important historical relics (I particularly took note of the enormous stone lion-men that guarded the gates of the Assyrian capital of Nimrud – arranged with a replica gate as they would have been seen striking awe in the hearts of arriving visitors/captives, a cuneiform pillar that shows one of the earliest written mentions of the nation of Israel, and the very interesting rooms on Amerindian and Mesoamerican cultures). I would advise asking at information about talks that happen in various rooms throughout the day – we always seemed to arrive at a place just after the talk had finished – though I did get to see a trainee presenter giving a very precise talk to her examiner (it was word-for-word written down on the examiner’s clipboard, I had a look) completely unobserved by the many passers-by, so I got a taste of what they’re like along with a very detailed snapshot of the intricacies of Olmec statuary.
In contrast, the British Library may not seem like the first choice to visit in London – you could easily be forgiven for thinking that it is just another state library, filled with many dusty archives and no fun fiction. While it is those things, it also houses a number of exhibitions throughout the year, the crowning (and permanent) glory of which is the Treasures room, which I can enthusiastically recommend. It holds possibly the greatest collection of documents in the world (certainly the best I have heard of), arranged according to various themes. These include Music (autograph editions of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Lennon and McCartney), Art (letters and notes from Da Vinci and Michaelangelo), History (letters from Newton during his nervous breakdown and Queen Elizabeth I during her childhood), and Religion (foundational texts from Christianty, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism) along with several others; and an area dedicated to ‘the art of the book,’ which examines in detail the beauty of written words, as well as illuminations, painting and sumptuous bindings across every corner of the world. Highlights for me were trying to work out exactly when the handwriting and language of English became completely comprehensible to me – couldn’t read the Wycliffe Bible, for instance, but could manage Queen Elizabeth I and definitely Newton; finding some signed copies of the 14th-century works of Catherine de Pizan, the world’s first professional female writer and a person I had studied in history last year; and, above all, the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century version of the Old and New Testaments, the earliest of its kind that we have and as such possibly the greatest biblical document discovery in modern history (alongside Codex Vaticanus in Rome – the superior of them is fiercely debated, as the Sinaiticus is earlier but parts of the Old Testament are damaged). As a long-time devotee of biblical history (including two of the six subjects I am taking over this year at Edinburgh) this was absolutely amazing to see. Even if you aren’t that interested in the documents themselves – you can only look at so many different bits of sheet music or beautifully painted pages in Arabic or Sanskrit, after all – the signs that go with each and every piece give accessible and broad information that meant I came out feeling like I had learnt an enormous amount about a whole load of different areas; I would say more even than I did from spending considerably longer in the British Museum. It is excellent.
London – 23rd May
On our last day in London, I met up with an old friend coming through London from Melbourne. They didn’t feel like going into a museum or anything, so instead we took a tube down to Greenwich, which is reputed to be an excellent place (I had exactly zero idea what to expect, except for the prime meridian, and it no longer being called Greenwich Mean Time – I just found this out, apparently now it’s called Co-ordinated Universal Time/UCT, what is this). The tube doesn’t really go there, and apart from something called the DLR which I also had no idea about, nothing seemed to, so we agreed to meet at North Greenwich, which seemed to be the closest place and maybe half an hour walk away in the spring sunshine. Medium bad move. North Greenwich was a very long way from where we wanted to be, in the midst of enormous vacant lots and long wide streets that ended up hitting enormous highways without warning. It was like being on the wrong side of the outside of an airport. Anyway, eventually we made it to Greenwich, which is both an enormous and very pretty park, filled with agreeably fancy buildings, and a lively little village (feels outside London because of the aforementioned airportiness but isn’t at all). The park offered awesome views from the top of the hill, as well as the famous Greenwich Observatory and its museum. After walking around the park for a while, and looking for some reputed ‘Roman Remains’ – which we concluded was a closed drain pipe in the side of the hill, in my opinion clearly Roman – we went down into the town. Not really knowing what to do in Greenwich, we had a look inside a little vintage shop (it’s called Retrobates Vintage, in a building called the Beehive which is what’s written enormous above it), with a hilarious selection of Hawaiian shirts, corduroy bell-bottoms and excellent music choices. It also contained a shop assistant named Deborah (I think?) with whom we had a very engaging conversation for a really long time about all sorts of topics – from the silliness of youths and their smartphones (she was mid-twenties, by the way :P) to comparative voting systems (my favourite topic) to the relative benefits of London and various other places. Excellent. I do recommend.
Well, that’s about it for my time travelling through the UK! For those who’ve made it through the 7021 words preceding this, I salute you. Except now it’s 7027. Argh, now it’s 7030! Well, anyway, that’s a lot! So now, leaving the UK, it’s time to leave things for a while. Next up, my days in Paris!
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