Friday, 10 December 2010

A taste of London

After more than five weeks of gadding about at a furious rate, it has been nice to slow down for a couple of weeks while staying with friends in London. What with Sunday roast lunches, afternoon teas in the country and (for the first few days at least) snow-mayhem that brought the country to a standstill, I've grown positively lethargic!

Nevertheless, I have managed to get into London a few times (we are staying in the outskirts) to do some museums (snow = freezing = indoors desirable). My first expedition was to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a museum dedicated to the decorative arts, and covers a vast and diverse array of trades and crafts and art. There was no possible way to see all of it in a single afternoon, but I gave the 3rd floor a pretty good stab. I found myself lingering over an eclectic mix of displays:
Ironwork - Of particular interest for me, as a former metallurgist, was the decorative ironwork display, which encompassed intricate wrought iron artifacts, cast iron objects, engraved pieces, and locks/padlocks with keys (and more).
Beatrix Potter - I was fascinated by the original illustrated letter containing the original story of Peter Rabbit.
Micro-mosaics - Tiny tiny pieces of glass used to decorate furniture, snuff boxes, etc in beautiful designs. Accompanied by an impressive snuff box collection (all from the amazing Gilbert Collection).
Tapestries - Only one gallery, alas. Three massive medieval tapestries showed various hunting scenes.
Portrait miniatures - Originally painted on vellum, later ivory, these exquisite portraits were beautiful (despite involving inhumane treatment of animals...).

On another day, we visited the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum -- an underground maze of bunkers that were used during WW2 by Churchill and his ministers (and multitudes of other men and women, both civilian and otherwise) as a subterranean HQ. The rooms show how the living and working quarters were furnished and the types of equipment they used, while an audio guide explains how it all went down on a daily basis. A highly technological museum devoted to Churchill's life is also to be found down there, complete with interactive light displays, plus all sorts of other memorabilia. I came out knowing a whole lot more about this remarkable man, who lived enough for ten men!

London has so many museums that it's difficult to choose which ones to visit. We ultimately decided to go to the relatively new Museum of London, which focuses on London as a city from the dawn of civilisation (hunter gathers in the Thames valley), the Roman founding of Londinium and its subsequent abandonment, the arrival of the Saxons . . . Normans . . . Black Death . . . the Fire of London . . . all the way to the current day. In fact, it even peeked into the future, with a remarkable exhibition of digitally-constructed images showing what London could become as the result of environmental pressures (St Paul's with rice paddies . . . Buckingham Palace surrounded by immigrant shanty town . . . Piccadilly Circus underwater . . . etc). It is a fabulous museum, with all sorts of fun interactive displays, lots of diversity -- once again far too much to take in all at once. I would have liked, however, a bit more cross-referencing with politics/government/monarchs etc (which weren't covered to large extent, except for Oliver Cromwell). Nevertheless, it was great to have it all laid out from woe to go; it really helps with perspective.

The rest of my time in the London CBD (when not lounging around sloth-like) has been spent shopping! I spent yesterday in Regent and Oxford Streets, and today at the new Westfield London shopping centre. I was definitely ready for some retail therapy!

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