Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 13: The Long Way Home

Part 13 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission | Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Deserts | Day 9: Stitches to the Sea | Day 10: City of a Thousand Bridges | Day 11: Past and Present | Day 12: Sutton Who?

7/6 Tuesday

Tuesday we could hardly believe that it was our last day already. We went out and walked, stopped for a lovely breakfast at Patisserie Valerie, walked some more, took another pass through the British Museum, this time viewing the early Middle Eastern galleries- Babylon, Phoenicia and the like. Somewhat to our surprise we realized that we'd actually covered quite a lot of the museum. I should explain: Because the national museums in London (like our own Smithsonian) are free admission, we’ve taken to going in, picking an area, spending a couple of ours, and then when our brains start to hit overload, going and doing something else for a while. We may like museums—and it must be said that the British do museums very well—but the keenest interest will start yawning and thinking more about sore feet than the exhibits if you try to spend whole days trying to take in a something like the British Museum all at once.
Noble Lions of the British Museum

From there we went in search of another favorite bookstore, a mystery specialist, and were dismayed to not find them where we'd last seen them. Hopefully we'll find they've only moved and not gone under (crosses fingers) [We did find later that they have become an online dealer only, they no longer have a store. Sad, but better than disappearing entirely.] Divided between disappointment and relief (that our bags weren't going to get heavier), we proceeded to another planned stop, the Neal's Yard Dairy, to acquire a few samples of their excellent artisanal English cheeses. The proximity of a new Mexican restaurant seemed like a Sign, so we had Mexican for lunch.

Then we wandered down to the Natural History Museum for a last visit there. We finally made it to the new primate exhibit, which had a nice presentation of the uses of morphology in the distinguishing of species. We've actually seen a good deal of that museum as well, now, but we still skipped the still unviewed Creepy Crawly gallery in favor of a new exhibit on uses of geology and earth science in water management, agriculture, energy generation, conservation, and mining. Fascinating and well worth the visit.
Naturual History Museum

We walked through some of our favorite parks one last time, and retrieved our luggage from the hotel. From there we staggered back to Paddington Station under the load of books and cheese, and took the train back to Heathrow. Somewhat to our alarm, when we went to check in, we were directed to a live customer service agent. We were not entirely reassured by their repeated and unsolicited assurances that we were going to get on the plane, there were just a few Issues.

After a non-trivial wait, we were eventually granted boarding passes, but there seems to have been some dislocation of our flight. When we got to the gate, there was no plane to be seen. Eventually they called us, and all the passengers were loaded onto buses and taken for an extended tour of Heathrow. Eventually, somewhere near Camden, we drove up to a lonely airplane sitting by itself and climbed aboard.

Then we took another extended tour, this time in the plane as it taxied for another half hour. We definitely saw the maintenance yards, a number of runways, and quite likely the A4 and Gatwick before finally taking off. (We think we eventually took off from Heathrow, but could not by any means prove it.)

After the somewhat alarming lead in, the flight home was refreshingly uneventful. We arrived home in the middle of the heat wave, and went back to work the next day rather tired and let down, but very pleased with our most excellent vacation.
A lovely street in London

So this is the end of my rather long-winded recap. Thanks for staying with me to the end; I've really enjoyed reliving the trip virtually, and taking my blog friends along. Until the next time! And we now return you to your regularly scheduled crafting content.

Slideshow of British Museum, Natural History Museum and London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 12: Sutton Who?

Part 11 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission | Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Deserts | Day 9: Stitches to the Sea | Day 10: City of a Thousand Bridges | Day 11: Past and Present

7/5 Monday
Monday morning I buried my head under the pillow to shield it from the blaring intercom telling me that the boat was docking, and reminding me that breakfast for exorbitant prices was available at various restaurants and cafes on the boat. We lost an hour coming back from Amsterdam, and it definitely came out of our sleep-time. I crawled out of the top bunk, slithered down the ladder and heartlessly turned on the light while JT groaned in the lower bunk.

I went and had a pricy and inadequate breakfast, and we docked at Harwich. After a short wait and (and some further inspection of the Millenium Tapestries in the terminal), we took a train for Ipswich:

--changed at Ipswich for Melton and walked the last mile and a half to Sutton Hoo. It was (surprise, surprise) another beautifully warm and sunny day. We found that contrary to our research, the site opened at 10:30 instead of the 10:00 am we had thought, so we staked out a shady spot under a tree and waited the half-hour or so while other visitors drove up and variously turned around or waited until opening time.

We hadn't been entirely sure what to expect- the excavation is closed up, after all, and all there is to see is the remnant of the burial mound. But it turned out that they had a terrific little visitor center which gave a lot of information on the circumstances of finding the Sutton Hoo treasure, the archeological evidence that was uncovered, and also had artifacts from another local burial that were still on site. (The original Sutton Hoo treasure is in the British Museum.) Also, some good replicas:
replica Sutton Hoo mask

It’s a fascinating story- the land was known to have barrows on it. The owner, Mrs. Pretty was interested in Spiritualism, and had a feeling that this one particular barrow should be dug up. So she contacted the Ipswich museum, and had them send her an archeologist...Basil Brown, whose previous experience had been on Roman sites. Brown insisted on first digging up a couple of smaller mounds, to get some experience before tackling the large mound. These proved to be graves that had been robbed many years previously. The Sutton Hoo burial had a shaft dug down to the ship as well, in a position that would have put it in the center of the mound—the usual position for burials—except that one end of the mound had been plowed flat by farmers. And the boat was very much larger than anyone could have expected. So, in the immortal words of Indiana Jones and Sallah, “They’re digging in the wrong place!”

Brown carefully and laboriously uncovered the boat...or more precisely, the boat-shaped array of rivets that marked the position the boat had occupied before the wood was all dissolved by the highly acidic ground. And when he reached the true center, and realized that he had found the real burial, and it was undisturbed, he stopped work and called in experts, who excavated the crushed burial chamber. Brown’s careful excavation was thoroughly approved of, and he got to dig up the other end of the boat while the experts worked in the middle.

After the treasure had all been recovered, there was an inquest to determine the ownership of it. The crucial legal argument revolved around whether the treasure had been hidden with the intention of recovering it which case it would belong to the Crown. If it were simply lost or abandoned, it belonged to the finder and or the landowner. The inquest determined that as part of a ship burial, there was no intention to recover it, nor was it hidden...they read out a quote from Beowulf at the inquest, describing just such a ship burial in proof that grave goods were intentionally buried with no intent to retrieve them. And so the court awarded the entire treasure to Mrs. Pretty—w hich she promptly donated in its entirety to the British museum. The site of Sutton Hoo itself was left to the National Trust by a later owner. (The two stakes mark the ends of the boat--it was 90 feet long- note the cunningly positioned tourist for scale.)
Site of the Sutton Hoo Burial

We thoroughly enjoyed the visit, right up to the last line of the sign as we left:
We thought that beginning and ending with English was very appropos.
We thought that beginning and ending with English was very classy.

There wasn’t a lot of time to spare if we were to catch the most convenient train back, so we hustled back the way we came along the road rather than exploring any of the intriguing footpaths we saw en route.

On our return to London, we retrieved our left luggage again and then dropped it all at yet another hotel...this one convenient to Paddington, where we’d be catching the express train back to the airport the next day. We walked back through Kensington gardens and St. James Park:
View from St. James's Park

--and found that yet again there was no tea to be had at Kensington Palace (another special event, and no invite for us--I was starting to feel a little rejected.) We wandered by Hatchard's (an excellent independent bookstore in London), and escaped with only as many books as we could carry, and eventually returned to Busaba Eathai for dinner, another restaurant we've enjoyed before.

Slideshow of Sutton Hoo and London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 11: Past and Present

Part 11 of my vacation diary. If you are joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission | Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Deserts | Day 9: Stitches to the Sea | Day 10: City of a Thousand Bridges

7/4 Sunday

Egad! I missed a whole museum yesterday. I completely forgot to mention that we went to the Amsterdam History Museum in the afternoon, after the canal boat tour and before the rainstorm. It’s an excellent small museum, I learned a lot.

Sunday morning, we woke in our hosts' commodious living room and hit the pavement for another busy day of touristing. We did a bunch more walking around Amsterdam...the wealth of canals all looked alike to me, but JT had both the map and his excellent sense of direction, so I left him to navigate and just focused (so to speak) on taking pictures. It was a gorgeous day, even nicer than than Saturday, and the rainwashed city was shown to its best advantage.

I sampled the local version of the doughnut, which was denser than I expected, but very nice. We fetched up at the back of the queue waiting to enter the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s famous art museum. Since we’d forgotten to take Erika’s advice and book tickets online the day before (which would have let us bypass the line), we just waited, me again with my trusty sock.

The Rijksmuseum is only half open at the moment—large sections of it are closed for renovation. But for our purposes this was actually an advantage. The area that was open had been filled with all the best pieces in their collection, and they were truly dazzling. No modern art here—we walked around slowly and feasted our eyes. It made me wish I was more knowledgeable about art, but even to my untutored eye, these were simply amazing paintings.

Afterward we walked some more, and wandered into the Vondelpark, the largest city park in Amsterdam. It was a beautiful day, and it seemed like the whole population of the city had gone there.
All of Amsterdam is enjoying the sun.

We sat on a bench for a while and people-watched, or perhaps bicycle—watched, though there were so many riders it was practically the same thing. We had previously noticed that bicycles were regarded far more as basic transportation than as a piece of sports equipment...people hopped on wearing whatever they happened to have on, be it a dress, flip-flops, or a suit. There many bicycles with large bins on the front, which were filled with groceries, children or dogs. Many bikes had sturdy luggage racks on the back—heavier than you usually see in the US. We saw people riding pillion on the luggage racks—sometimes children, but often adults as well. Hardly anyone wears a helmet. And nearly all the bikes had extra-long chain guards, clearly meant to protect riders from the greasy chain. A great idea, I thought. (I have a number of pairs of pants with grease-stains on the inside of the right pants-leg.)

We had some lunch and went to visit the Anne Frank house. Another long line—the Anne Frank house is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. They had a very good audiovisual presentation, with all materials available in English. The rooms were bigger than I’d imagined, but still very small for eight people to live in. It was impossible to see it and not feel angry at the incredible waste of the war. I was impressed by Anne’s father, Otto, as well. The only survivor of the family, he pushed for the preservation of the house and its conversion to a musuem. But not just a museum or a memorial to the past. It was his desire that the center be focused on the future, on educating people, on human rights for all people and all religions. The site hosts not just the museum, but a youth conference center that focuses on current social issues.

We left the museum soberly and went back to have dinner with our hosts and collect our luggage. We reversed our incoming journey, starting with the train station and ending with catching the overnight ferry back to England.
Channel traffic at the Hook of Holland

Slideshow of more Amsterdam photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 10: City of a Thousand Bridges

Part 10 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission | Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Deserts | Day 9: Stitches to the Sea

7/3 Saturday

There was no chance of oversleeping in the morning as all cabins had a loudspeaker broadcasting a wake-up call. I went and had a roll with ham and tea in the coffeeshop while we were coming in to dock, and we were ready to disembark with everyone else. We caught the train to Schiedam right outside the ferry terminal and changed there for Amsterdam with no difficulty. Since neither of us speak Dutch, we had been a little concerned about this, but JT had been practicing a collection of useful phrases during the earlier part of the trip, and train schedules proved not too hard to decipher. We were interested to observe that the people on the platform would get up and move to the edge a few minutes before the train was due – unlike the British, the Dutch expect trains to be on time.

JT’s cousin Erika met us at the station. She’s an expat American who has lived for many years in Britain, and is currently in Amsterdam for reasons of employment. On the walk back, she gave us some tips for navigating around Amsterdam. “You might think that because the Dutch drive on the same side of the street as Americans, that will help you,” she said seriously. “But it won’t. The bicyclists ride on the right, the left, the street, pretty much anywhere they feel like it. If you’re in their way, they’ll ring their bells and expect you to move.” We smiled, thinking this might contain a hint of exaggeration. “No, really,” she insisted. “I’ve been knocked down twice. And-“ she added with a dark look, “the scooters are worse.” She also warned us about the electric trams, which move quietly enough to surprise an unwary tourist.

This proved nothing less than the truth. We had expected to see a lot of bicycles, and even we were astonished at how many there were. There was a multi-story bike park at the train station.
Multistory bike park in Amsterdam

We quickly acquired the habit of cautiously looking in all directions at once and then scurrying across the bike lanes, and breaking into a run at the sound of bicycle bells. We walked with Erika to her and her husband’s apartment, a lovely high-ceilinged space in a building fronting on a canal. We made plans to meet for dinner, and then were rapidly provided with keys, an excellent street map, and a recommendation to take a canal boat tour, which was already on our list. We were offered bicycles, but after our harrowing walk from the station, we opted to start with a walking tour of the city center.

Amsterdam has pretty parts but also a lot of graffiti. Did I say a lot of graffiti? It has a lot of graffiti. The city center has all the usual shopping chains and dirt and grime you’d expect in a major tourist area, and then some. We were a surprised and a bit dismayed, we'd expected more pretty and less grittiness.

However we also saw a lot of really nice architecture, and as soon as you got away into the side streets there were many nicer parts to the city, with tree-shaded streets, lovely old buildings and lots and lots of canals. (Warning- I took a *lot* of photos of canals. Even after we weeded out the ones with blurry bicyclists and scooters in the middle, there are still a lot.)

After the initial survey, we had some lunch—Asian food, as it happened—and then found ourselves a canal boat tour. We were amazed and impressed by the number of English-speakers. Although JT tested out his useful phrases with some success, most of the people we met spoke excellent English. It turns out it’s an unofficial second language in Amsterdam—it’s a required course in secondary school. Restaurants had bilingual menus, many signs were in English and we found later that museum exhibits were labeled in a variety of languages, but most consistently in Dutch and English. Erika told us later that due to the proximity and greater availability of English programming, that many people in the Netherlands watch English television.

The canal boat tour was fabulous- we learned that the city literally has a thousand bridges, that historically houses fronting on the canal were taxed by their width (which led to a lot of narrow but deep houses being built), that there are a huge variety of decorative gables, and that they all have a sturdy hook at the top for a block and tackle, allowing for furniture to be moved in and out via the windows, rather than carrying bulky items up narrow staircases.

The tour took us up and down canals lined with houseboats—a popular living arrangement:

—and we watched an enormous amount of water traffic go by. We took a turn through the harbor, where we saw many enormous container ships shuttling goods in and out of Europe, and we saw a floating pagoda, which rather threw us until the guide explained that it was a Chinese restaurant. (Also after the tour we saw a figure of an elephant with a flowered hat and blond braids. We can’t explain it—we have no idea. We’re not even sure we want to have an idea.)

After the tour, we walked some more, until we were caught in a brief rain shower—which I think was the only rainy weather we experienced on the whole trip. We ducked into a bookstore for a bit, and then when it slackened headed back to meet Erika and her husband for dinner. Dinner was Indonesian, and simply amazing. I have no idea what it was, but it was all delicious. Definitely a cuisine that warrants further exploration. We finished the evening in our hosts' courtyard, talking until well after dark.

Slideshow of more Amsterdam photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 9: Stitches to the Sea

Part 9 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission | Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Deserts

7/2 Friday

The next morning we set off for the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has been running an exhibition of British quilts. The quilt line was enormously long, so we browsed through the galleries for a bit instead, including one of our favorites, the decorative ironwork collection:
The V&A has a fabulous collection of ironwork

—and viewed a number of installations in their ‘modern architects designing for small spaces’ exhibition. While we couldn’t find it in ourselves to dislike the tower of books, and the treehouse was kind of neat, in general we concluded (not for the first time) that modern architects have been hanging out with the modern artists smoking crack.

At noon we took walk back to a restaurant we’d spotted early and so can confirm that the gourmet burger trend has indeed hit London.

After lunch we Tubed over to the British museum to hear a gallery talk we’d marked out earlier as looking interesting, on the conservation of the Sutton Hoo treasure. This turned out to be fascinating, in part because the treasure provided a history of conservation techniques, as different pieces had been conserved and repaired at different times, and sometimes new information would be incorporated as archeologists changed their views on what various bits meant. For example, they had some scraps of maple which they had several competing theories as to what they might have been, but which they now think are the remains of wooden bottles. And as the theories changed, the way the scraps were displayed also had to change.

Then we returned to the V&A—we’d been dissuaded by the line in the AM, by the imminence of lunch, and the plan to attend the gallery talk, but in the afternoon, with no immediate deadline, we could take our time over the quilt exhibition. There was still a line, but I waited in company with my trusty sock-in-progress, and soon had tickets in hand and husband in tow.

The selection of the quilts was interesting because they were chosen not only for their workmanship but to illustrate the level of social engagement among women, particularly in periods when women did not for the most part participate in public discourse. Some of the quilts showed scenes commemorating historical events, like battles in the Napoleonic wars and the coronation of Queen Victoria. Others illustrated opinions on comtemporary politics or social issues. In most of the older quilts, the workmanship was excellent, and in some it was absolutely stunning. I looked at one quilt that must have had nearly twenty stitches to the inch, beautifully hand-quilted.

Alas, in their effort to use a media to span time, the curators included a number of modern quilts. Not modern in the sense they were made recently, but modern in the sense of modern ‘art’. I’ve already acquainted you with our views on the subject, so let’s just say I don’t find it any more appealing because it’s rendered in fabric.

By then it was time to leave, because we had a train to catch. We had checked out of the hotel earlier, but asked them to hold our bags, so we collected them, hauled them over to Liverpool Station, and promptly parked the largest (containing things we wouldn’t need over the weekend) in Left Luggage. (We’d left the same bag at Paddington earlier in the trip while we were walking over the Cotswolds, as we hadn’t wanted to haul everything with us in backpacks.) We secured sandwiches, and boarded the train for Harwich. The trip was pleasant, and we fell into conversation with an English woman, and a young lady from Australia who were interested in my knitting. The English woman was having difficulty with her bicycle light—the bit of the switch that protruded outside the case was broken—so I loaned her a knitting needle to poke in and turn it off. (My husband shook his head mournfully—not for the first time—and said, ‘if only I’d known that knitting was the way to meet women back when I was wanting to meet women!’. He’s continually astonished at how often I strike up conversations with strangers when knitting in public.)

The countryside flew by and gave way to gently rolling fields as we neared the coast. The shipping terminal at Harwich wasn’t much of an attraction—an ugly building, surrounded by railyards and shipping containers. But it was dwarfed by the giant container port at Felixstowe, visible across Harwich Haven, the estuary of the Rivers Stour and Orwell. We went straight to the terminal, which had a vast and charming mural done in embroidery, apparently for the millenium, showing scenes from local history. (Alas, I can't find a link to it online.) We found customs formalities brief and easy, with no lines, and boarded our ferry.

The ship was a brand new addition to the Stena Line, and much larger than we’d pictured. It was as if we’d boarded a city block, that would cast off and sail us across the channel. The two lower decks were dedicated to cars and eighteen wheelers. Then there was a deck of restaurants, shops, cafes and a casino. And then a deck full of small but comfortable cabins. We liked it a good deal, and crawled into our bunks knowing when we woke up in the morning, we’d be in the Netherlands.

Slideshow of more London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 8: From Hampstead Heath to Our Just Desserts

Part 8 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace | Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present | Intermission

7/1 Thursday

Thursday, we dealt with an increasingly pressing (or possibly un-pressing) problem and took our accumulated laundry to a laundromat I had spotted the day before which offered a wash and fold service—or in other words, you give them your dirty clothes and come back later in the day to get back clean ones. (In this particular case, I also got back a pair of socks that weren’t mine. Pity they didn’t fit.) However it did finally resolve the ‘wash or buy new clothes’ debate we’d been having since the trip started. We’d deliberately packed light, but we didn’t actually want to take the time to do laundry ourselves, nor did we want to spend time shopping! After all, we had a city to go experience. Cheap at the price.

After dropping laundry, we walked up through Kensington and Notting Hill—both lovely neighborhoods:
Elegant streets, Notting Hill
—and through Holland Park, which was enchanting, with beds of gorgeous roses, neat paths and a peaceful Japanese garden which was signed as a quiet area.
Holland Park, Kensington

We then took the Tube out to Hampstead, to walk through Hampstead Heath. We didn’t see any horse-drawn carriages or dastardly highwaymen (as routinely appear in romances of a certain type) but rather a lovely wild park with many walking paths through old growth forest.
Hampstead Heath

It was beautifully quiet, with only an occasional glimpse of the taller buildings in the financial district of London to remind us how close we were to one of the world’s largest cities.
Hampstead Heath

We Tubed back down to the British Library, to see a fabulous exhibition of antique maps—many of them incredibly beautiful. It was also interesting that they had considered not just maps as artifacts in and of themselves, but the uses to which maps were put—political, decorative, status symbols and sometimes propaganda. By the time we finished it was past noon, so we had lunch at the library’s cafe.

From there we walked to the river via the Inns of Court, and discovered that either someone had it in for tourists, or else was maybe a little confused:
Obey the text? Or the arrow?

We rested our feet on a short riverboat ride. It was the first time we’d actually seen London from the water, and something we’ll have to try again when we’ve more time. We were amused to note passing the London Eye that there was a spare carriage floating on a barge in the river—it looked very much as if it had fallen off!
London Eye with detatched pod on barge

We walked back through Victoria Station and around the block so I could visit a yarn store—iKnit, which I’d read about online. It was small but had an excellent assortment of yarn. I found some lovely Shetland wool there, for my ‘souvenir yarn’—I’ve already got a project in mind for it, so I’ll show it to you when I cast on.

We hit the Tube yet again (gotta love the Tube pass) to go back to Kensington, where we found that we could not take tea at Kensington Palace because they were closed for a special event. (And they somehow failed to invite us. Gracious.)

We did collect our clean laundry, however, and then set off for Chimes, another favorite restaurant specializing in English food and featuring an extensive selection of English ciders. I succumbed to the lure of the bread pudding for dessert, which came with a little creamer full of vanilla custard sauce. They have very advanced ideas about dessert at Chimes, and not are definitely not stingy with their custard! We took a leisurely stroll back to our hotel (because that sounds so much better than ‘waddled due to being so full’), and paused just long enough to admire the excellent air conditioning before falling into bed.

Slideshow of more London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)


So, is all that walking making your feet tired? Me too. Let's put them up for a moment and I'll introduce you to FO#45:
Gray/pink hiking socks

These are another pair of nice warm hiking socks in Patons Kroy FX. I started them on the trip and finished them today, while my adorable husband was cooking (in a very manly fashion):
Genius at Work
Tonight was pork in an improvised German cream and paprika sauce with egg noodles. Yum.

The socks only took this long because I had to make up with the Fair Isle hat, which I also finished today:
Gray Fair Isle Hat

I think my color choices could have been better, but there wasn't a whole lot that I could do about the gray, except using less of it. And part of the point is to use the stuff up.

This was experimental in several ways- first the i-cord cast on, which I hadn't tried before. I like that and thought it worked well. Then the top construction. While I think the four point construction is better than just sewing across the top (another hat construction I've seen around), I think I really prefer to decrease down to a rounded top. Though I have certainly seen goofier-looking hats on the ski slopes. And then I finished with a three-needle bind-off, which I have tried before and not liked, but I think it worked fine for this.

I also had to make a deal with my model--if I posted a photo of him, he got to take one of me. So here are the two modeled shots:
The model is not amused.
Fair is fair,.

And now, we return back across the ocean to resume our travels!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Day 7: Uncovering the Past, Cataloguing the Present

Part 7 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury | Day 6: The Enchanted Palace

6/30 Wednesday
Wednesday morning we walked around South Kensington and out to Earl’s Court. I chose an attractive-looking bakery more or less at random and had a pastry while JT went off and visited an ATM. We wound up at the Natural History Museum just as they opened. The building is quite improbably beautiful, and everywhere you look there are delightful little architectural details reflecting its purpose.
Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum detail

We went first to see the new Darwin Centre which opened last year. The Darwin Centre provides storage for many of the museum’s collections, and also open up the Museum’s activities to the public view. A fascinating self-guided tour introduces visitors to the collections, explaining what scientists do there and why it is both interesting and important. In various areas, the labs have viewing windows so the scientists can be watched at work, with an intercom so people can ask questions. We were very impressed, and thought that while it was a display that promised to teach the casual visitor a great deal about the work of the museum, it was also absolutely guaranteed to enthrall budding young naturalists and help steer them into a science-bound career path.

They also have a daily schedule of films and live presentations, and we thought the afternoon lecture, on an archeological dig in Morroco, sounded quite interesting, so we ventured out to find lunch nearby. We found it at a restaurant called Pain Quotidien, which in keeping with it’s name had excellent bread. They also had English cider, which proved to be quite strong. Since it was also a large bottle, and I was quite thirsty, I finished lunch feeling both refreshed and somewhat intoxicated. (I did not lose my memory or do anything embarrassing, no matter what JT tries to tell you, however.) By the time we reached the museum again, I was feeling quite myself.

The afternoon lecture was on an expedition which had uncovered very early human remains in a cave in Morocco. The cave had been occupied at two different periods in history, one much more ancient than the other. They showed slides of the excavation, and the archeologist talked about the history of the site (which had been partially excavated decades ago), and their discoveries. We were fascinated.

Next up was another London tradition, the bookstore crawl. Well, not much of a crawl this time—we stopped in one store, and then walked to St. Martin’s-in-the-Field for evensong. A new experience for JT who aside from an occasional wedding or funeral had never been to a religious service before. I found the Anglican service to be not all that dissimilar to the Catholic masses of my youth, though many of the usual prayers were sung rather than spoken. The choir was outstanding, and the whole very beautiful indeed.

We had dinner at another restaurant we’d been to before. Though the name had changed since our last visit, it was still Caribbean and very tasty. We walked back to the hotel and were pleased to note the John Snow Pub, not too far from the famous pump. (Dr. Snow had the pump handle removed to prevent people from drinking contaminated water during the last great cholera epidemic in London—it was his work that proved that cholera was caused by contaminated drinking water, not 'miasma' and his famous map that proved a landmark in the development of epidemiology as a science. Steven Johnson wrote an excellent book about it, called The Ghost Map.) We also made a stop at Harrod's, which we had never been to before. Not that we actually bought anything, but the building is simply gorgeous, and more than a little over the top. But then we like that kind of thing.

Slideshow of more London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 6: The Enchanted Palace

Part 6 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country | Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury

6/29 Tuesday

Tuesday morning, we were packing up and heading back to London. We delayed to take a photo of the Birmingham library, which we felt represented an archetype of Brutalist architecture.
Birmingham has the world's ugliest library

Birmingham in general is a mix of old and new, lovely and awful buildings side by side without any particular order or plan. They've done some nice things with pedestrian areas of the downtown, but they don't seem to have anything iconic about the city. A pity, as it seemed in many ways to have a lively and active street scene. Sometimes too active...we were there during the World Cup, and the lead in to England’s last game involved more police than I’ve ever seen on the streets of a British city.

We walked to the station and took the train for London. The contrast with Birmingham was immediately obvious. If Birmingham was lively, then London was frenetic. Many more people, all bustling. The contrast to our last trip--at the height of the recession and before the real start of the tourist season--was quite striking.

We checked into the London Regency Hotel in Kensington, which I mention mainly because we liked it very much, more so than any of the other places we have stayed at. This is partially because they upgraded us to a suite- a pleasant sitting room and a short stair up to a bedroom with skylights tucked under the eaves. Not only was it pleasant, very quiet, in a neighborhood full of restaurants (just down the street from Baden-Powell House, a Boy Scout Hostel and conference center) and very comfortable. Given that the English had kindly scheduled a heat wave so we'd have good weather, we also appreciated the excellent air conditioning.

From there we walked out to take the tour of Kensington Palace.
Kensington Palace

The Palace is still being renovated for public viewing but at the moment they're running an 'Enchanted Palace' exhibition. The exhibition consisted of a bunch of modernistic art installations representing the seven princesses who had lived there. Now, we’re pretty reactionary about art—which is to say we’re all about realism and tend to regard most modern art as the quote goes, as a “product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”. So, the art per se didn’t do much for us. But it was interesting and quite unusual to have an exhibition centered around women, and the various princesses who had lived at Kensington were a varied group. For each woman there was a piece of poetry, which tried to capture their emotions and inner feelings about the place, which was another unusual touch. On the whole we found it more interesting than we at first expected. Though I don’t see it as replacing the more traditional Informative Plaque any time soon.

From there we repaired to Wagamama (an Asian chain which has jumped the pond to the American market in recent years) for lunch- it’s practically tradition by now, since we first discovered them on our second trip to England, and have returned there many times since.

We strolled across Hyde Park, enjoying the continuing sunshine, trees and gardens, and then went to the Museum of London. We’d been there on our first trip in 2001, but they have since opened a couple of new galleries that we wanted to see. The new galleries included several bent on presenting a more multiculturalview of the city, and a more candid and critical overview of Britain’s imperial history. And they also added an amusing audiovisual representation of Regency era Covent Garden, beloved to many a reader of Regency romances.

At this point we realized that we were about to be late. It being a Tuesday, we had planned to go to the Cecil Sharpe House in Camden, where the English Folk Dance and Song Society was having their weekly folk music sing. We hustled to a Tube station, acquired sandwiches at high speed and JT led us from memory back to the music venue, where we thoroughly enjoyed the singing. (My knitting got quite a lot of comment as well, and thanks to all the lively music I knit almost half a sock there!)

Slideshow of more Birmingham and London photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 5: Ironbridge to Shrewsbury

Part 5 of my vacation trip diary. If you're joining the trip in progress, the prior entries are:
Day 1: Standing Stones | Day 2: Cotswold Way | Day 3: Don't You Know There's a War On? | Day 4: The Black Country

6/28 Monday
Monday, we had a small dilemma. We were visiting the Ironbridge gorge, and the area has a complex of ten different museums, spread out over several miles. We did not have the same level of interest in all of them, however even the ones that we wanted to see were some distance apart, and the bus that connects them only runs on weekends and holidays. And the museum hours were only 10 to 5. So we took a train to Telford, and a commercial bus from there to the town of Madeley, which is actually between several of the museums, and walked from there to Blists Hill, arriving at opening time. After seeing Blists Hill we could walk to another museum where we could rent bikes ('hire cycles') to expedite seeing the other museums.

Blists Hill was a Victorian village, filled with all of the businesses you would expect- a baker, a candlemaker, tinworker, a turner (woodworker). They have an iron foundry and a brick works, as well as a clay mine and the usual shops.
Blists Hill Victorian Town

The dentist's office had a somewhat sinister message on the door:
Step right in!

And it really wasn't reassuring to see inside it!
Victorian dentist

The clay mining was especially interesting- there were various clays that were suitable for different purposes- bricks and porcelain, firebrick (brick used to line chimneys and furnaces, capable of withstanding very high temperatures) and architectural ceramics (tiles and terracotta used in buildings) which was shipped to factories and brickworks up and down the river. We walked out along the weedchoked canal to see how they'd gotten boats down to the river. Not a lock, as it happens, the change in elevation was considerable. No, they used an inclined plane- cradling a fully loaded boat, and then letting it slide down the hill while using it as a counterweight to pull a boat from the river level up to the canal.
Inclined plane for canal boats

Being a weekday, there were several groups of schoolchildren. (We heard one supervising teacher firmly instructing her charges, 'No, I don't think we need to go into the pub now!') and saw another group undergoing a Victorian school lesson (all dressed in costume) at the schoolhouse. One of the staff there mentioned that most of the people in the schoolhouse were retired teachers, which seemed rather apropos!

From there we went to collect bicycles and went to see the famous Iron Bridge. Completed in 1781, it was made of cast iron, and arches gracefully over the gorge- its reflection in the water makes a perfect circle.
The world's first iron arch bridge

We crossed it- it's still in use as a pedestrian bridge- and went up to the Museum of Iron and the Museum of the Gorge. The history is fascinating... a man wanted to make cheap iron cooking pots, so he figured out how to use coal as fuel--prior to that iron was made with charcoal, and firewood was getting scarce. But coal was cheap and plentiful, and once someone had done it, others came on board. And after that it was only a matter of time before they found out how to make iron of a quality suitable for wrought iron. In addition to the usual metal products- nails, pipe, beams, the museum has an excellent collection of gorgeous decorative ironwork.
More beautiful ironwork

After that, we biked back down to the riverside and returned the bikes- we reflected that the way one ought to do it is to stay over, and rent the bikes for two days. Then you'd have transport, be able to see all the museums in detail, and also would have the bikes after the museums closed. As it was, we had to return them before going to the Tile Museum, to be sure they'd be back in time.

Ironbridge Gorge was a center of tile-making for all kinds of industrial ceramics, including printed and encaustic tiles- many of them very beautiful. The museum had many excellent examples, along with preserved fireplaces, walls and entire rooms showing how they had looked installed.
Tiles in the Jackfield Tile Museum

We left when they closed, at 5 pm, and caught a bus from Ironbridge back to the train station. (There was a brief hiatus involving ice cream while waiting for the bus.) The schoolteacher we'd chatted with at Blists Hill had told us that we really should see Shrewsbury, which was only a few stations up the line. And since we had flexible railpasses, and Telford did not appear to be a hotbed of exciting restaurantage, we said, "well, why not?". So instead of going back to Birmingham, we took the train to Shrewsbury to find dinner.

Shrewsbury is *very* pretty- lots of good old architecture, a fascinating-looking castle, and many intriguing restaurants. It also had a piece of modern sculpture that looked remarkably like Klingon bat'leths. We have no idea why.
Klingon weaponry in Shrewsbury?

It was actually not all that lively being a Monday evening, but we found an excellent Italian restaurant. (Called Ask, we've seen branches in other places as well.) We thought that Shrewsbury looked like a very interesting place, and definitely worthy of a return visit- perhaps on some future trip when we visit Wales.

Slideshow of more Ironbridge and Shrewsbury photos: (You can click on the show to see it with larger photos.)