Monday, August 1, 2011

Day Seven: Great Heights

This is the latest entry in a series of posts on my vacation trip in May. The prior posts were:
Prologue:  To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Day One: The City of Dreaming Spires
Day Two: Eccentric Ramblings
Day Three: A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Palace
Day Four: A Day in Alfred's City
Day Five: Déjà Vu - In a Good Way
Day Six:  Artists and Patrons and a Walk by the River

Thursday May 26
The plan for the morning was to return to St. Paul's and take the tour we'd missed earlier in the week. We took both the guided tour and the audio tour and regretted neither.

My first impression on entering the church was to think that it looked nothing at all like I remembered from the brief visit on our first trip over ten years ago. I remembered it as being large, dim and subdued, much like many of the other large cathedrals we had visited. But now it seemed much brighter and more highly decorated. And there turned out to be a good reason for that. For most of the intervening decade, St. Paul's had been undergoing a massive cleaning and restoration. The details of this were simply astonishing. The cleaning had been carried out by quite a small crew—less than two dozen people—and they had done it in the most painstaking manner- mostly with cotton wool and q-tips and occasionally very mild detergent on the dirtiest bits of the mosaics. The area to be covered was immense, and the results- utterly spectacular.

They don't allow photos inside, but there is an online virtual tour if you'd like to see for yourself.

The audio tour guided us around the sights—we spent some little time figuring out the locations that appeared in Connie Willis' latest books (Blackout and All Clear), as well as seeing for ourselves William Hunt Holman's famous painting 'The Light of the World'. But it also showed us images of the cathedral from various points in history, provided portraits of some of the personalities described, played music from the cathedral choir, and provided footage of some of the famous historical events that happened there. It's a quite excellent tour, we highly recommend it.

And the verger's tour was also excellent and different. We got to see several of the chapels that aren't open for people to wander into and we saw the famous oval staircase which has been used in many films- most recently one of the Harry Potter films (Prisoner of Azkaban, I think).

After finishing the tours, we climbed up to the dome. The dome has three galleries- the Whispering gallery, an interior balcony running around the inside of the dome, a slightly higher exterior platform with views of the cities, and then for anyone who still has any breath left, there is a third balcony around the top of the dome itself. We'd discussed climbing up to the dome during our first visit, ten-plus years ago, but at the time JT had been getting over a cold and doubted he had the wind for the climb, so we'd gone and done other things. This time, I wanted to go up.

The first bit is a wide spiral stair, with shallow steps and occasional landings. It went on for quite a ways, but 259 steps later, we reached the gallery. It was high. It was really, really high. Terrific views down to the cathedral floor, and it is the best place to view the mosaics in the dome. But it was really high. JT took a quick look out...and down...and quickly averted his gaze and said, "I think I'd better go back down." Not a unexpected problem—he's not fond of heights generally. And it's worse after a stiff climb because the exertion seems to amplify the vertigo reaction. He turned back to the door—and the guard said, "Sorry, sir, this is the entrance." He pointed out the exit—about a third of the way around the dome. They use one set of stairs for people going up, and a different one for people going down. JT gulped and steadfastly not looking at the big drop, worked his way around to the exit and escaped.

I admired the view for both of us, and regretted that I couldn't take photos. Then I headed up to the next level, the Stone Gallery, another 119 steps. Ironically, I think JT would have been fine on that one- there was a broad stone platform and a stout high fence that hid the edge. The views of the city were amazing:
The Gherkin from St. Paul's

At this point I was pretty short of breath, but I decided that I couldn't stop there. So I tackled the last 152 steps up to the Golden Gallery, the highest point of the dome, 280 feet above the ground. Here it helps to know something about the construction of the dome, or rather domes. The architect (Christopher Wren) wanted the dome to look proportionately right from both the inside and the outside of the cathedral. That's harder than it sounds—high enough to look right from the outside would mean the interior of the dome would be too high above the cathedral floor to see the decorations. So St. Paul's has two domes- an interior dome of stone. Then a cone-shaped brick support structure, and then a lightweight (relatively) wooden outer dome. So the stairs to the top of the outer dome go up between the two domes, winding around the brick cone. The stairs are quite open—iron gratings for steps and landings, and even I, sometime acrophile that I am, kept a tight hold on the railing and avoided looking down.

I lost count of the flights of stairs as I panted my way up, and stopped to catch my breath on a stone landing where one of the cathedral staff was posted. "Only twelve more steps," he told me encouragingly. I laughed breathlessly. "I think I'll catch my breath first." I looked over at him—a young guy, very fit-looking. "I bet you run up and down these all day and think nothing of it." He smiled and courteously assured me that no, they never got used to it. He looked very fit. I'm not at all sure he was telling the truth. But he was certainly very polite.

I made my way up the last dozen steps to the Golden Gallery, where I discovered that "Gallery" was something of an exaggeration. "Ledge" would have been more descriptive. And the railing was waist high, barely. And like the Whispering Gallery, the stairs were one-way. You had to go around to the other side to come back down. I settled my buttocks very firmly against the stone of the dome before freeing both hands to wield the camera. The views were even better from the height:
view from St. Paul's
view from St. Paul's

And then I edged cautiously around the top of the dome. In places the 'gallery' was only about eighteen or twenty inches wide and I had to squeeze between the rail and the irregular stone wall of the top of the dome. I felt even more sympathy for JT then than I had earlier. But I made my careful way to the exit and then descended. And descended. And descended. And eventually made it back down to the Cathedral floor, and we departed for the British Museum.

The British museum was hosting a special exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan that our friend Gary (the one who works in Afghanistan) had highly recommended to us. The items in the exhibit are from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, and their recent history is as remarkable as their ancient origins. Between the Soviet invasion in 1979, the war that followed, and the destruction inflicted by the Taliban, much of the museum was damaged or destroyed. But Afghani officials and museum staff risked their lives to spirit away artifacts and conceal them safely in vaults, cellars and their own homes to prevent their destruction. Other pieces were stolen and sold abroad, but have been identified and returned to the collection. One art collector actually recognized a piece when it was put up for sale and bought it for the express purpose of returning it.

The artifacts came from four sites, and the signature piece of the exhibit was a gold crown found at Tillya Tepe in the 1st century AD. The crown was found in a nomad burial, and was designed to fold up so it could be stored in saddlebags. Amazing!

And while great glittering gold jewelry is always an attention-getter, there were many other notable items. Gorgeously carved ivory statues and long reliefs that originally graced pieces of furniture. A painted glass goblet over 2000 years old. A Chinese mirror, and various other items in stone, pottery and bronze. It was quite fantastic.

I was also fascinated by a computer model made of Ai Khanum, a Hellenistic Greek city on the Oxus river and on the modern border with Tajikistan. From the ruins and artifacts they found, they had extrapolated what the area might have looked like when it was in use and represented it in a 3D model. The degree of cultural mixing and evidence of trade links was considerable. It provided both a tiny glimpse of the complexity and culture of the ancient world, and a heartwrenching contrast to the current war-scarred condition of Afghanistan.

We left the British museum and walked up to Euston Road to see the Wellcome Collection. As we walked, we glanced up at the sky, which was clouding over and JT commented on how quickly the weather seemed to change in England. That must have been the wrong thing to say, because raindrops started splashing down with rapidly increasing enthusiasm. I paused under a bus shelter and pulled out my rain poncho, while JT shrugged off a little wet. I had just managed the surprisingly difficult task of getting head and arms through the appropriate holes when the sky opened up and the rain came down in absolute torrents. JT opted to put on his own rain poncho at that point. We splashed soggily up the street and found more cover in a tube entrance for a few minutes until the rain slacked off a bit, then continued to the Wellcome Collection building, which was running an exhibition on dirt.

Nope, not a typo, dirt. I'd actually been hoping for something about soil composition etc, but the exhibition turned out to be more about trash and the history of cleanliness and sanitation. Still, it was interesting and also dry, which was itself appealing just then.

Both the collection and the Wellcome trust (Britain's largest private foundation for biomedical research) were the legacy of American-British pharmaceutical magnate Sir Henry Wellcome, collector of many quite odd things medical. Wellcome's company, originally founded in 1880 as Burroughs Wellcome continued after his death and eventually merged with Glaxo. The Wellcome name finally disappeared in 2000 when GlaxoWellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham and became GlaxoSmithKline.

We had time to also take a quick turn through the standing exhibits from the Wellcome collection. I'm a bit too squeamish to want to look closely at 19th century medical paraphernalia so I wasn't sorry it was so close to closing. (I also chose not to linger over the collection of sex toys from around the world, though I'm willing to believe it's generally popular.)

When we left, the rain had almost completely stopped and we quickly walked around and located a burrito restaurant for a quick bite, and proceeded to St. Martin's-in-the-Fields for a quite excellent concert.
St. Martin's and Trafalgar Square after the rain

During the intermission, we took a quick turn around the rainwashed streets before returning for the second part.
rainwashed street

A lovely evening in all, but we did not wander far off our path back to the hotel, as we wanted to catch the early train to Dover in the morning.

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