Saturday, August 22, 2009

London – Part Four

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Introduction
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Are you serious? Part Four of a series and you still need an introduction? Well, in the spirit of mixing things up, maybe I’ll do a Hollywood-style preview instead:

From a land that time forgot … four intrepid explorers take on a vision quest that will change their lives forever … a legend, and a secret, so powerful it defies explanation … and it just may be the universe that hangs in the balance. From the creator of “Mud Bath” and “Wrecking the Car” comes a new post from albertnet … London Part FourGamma Force.
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Kew Gardens
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The simple word “garden” can be oddly misleading. I think of a garden where you grow vegetables, or at least fail to grow vegetables. Meanwhile, the term has taken on new significance with my kids, because right before this vacation we went to Gilroy Gardens, an amusement park. But to the British, “garden” basically means backyard. In the context of a huge tourist attraction you have to pay to get into, I assumed “garden” meant these big, lavish, manicured things like Filoli in Woodside, California. Of course, not knowing exactly what to expect is half the point of these outings.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Kew Gardens is that it’s fricking huge, despite being in London. Only a monarchy could establish such a massive community garden in a city with such expensive real estate. The second thing I’ll tell you is that it’s teeming with creatures I can only describe as daytime werewolves, that strike all the time, totally regardless of moon phases. You don’t have to look hard to see one ripping a pigeon totally apart, and if you’re lucky you’ll see one dismembering a live, struggling, shrieking Ewok. There, now I’ve got your attention! Look, I’ll be honest, even the coolest garden—with miles and miles of lawn and absolutely massive trees of every sort imaginable—doesn’t make for good reading so I’ll try to be brief here, and cheat when I have to. We’ll breeze through this quickly and I’ll try to get you out a little early.

If you’re hoping to get a good look at a swan, Kew Gardens is the place. This one cruised right up to the girls as if to say hello:


An English fellow we'd been chatting with warned us that the swan might nip the kids. He went on to mention that all the swans in London are the property of the crown. He sounded kind of proud of this. It actually wasn’t news to me: one of the things we’d hoped to see on our trip was the annual ritual of Swan Upping. This is where the river Thames is blocked off and a team of very proper Englishmen dress up in very proper uniforms, go out in little matching boats, gather up the swans, count them, measure them, weigh them, and file a proper report, properly. According to my own non-fact-checked intuition, the authority to conduct Swan Upping may be one of the last, or at least one of the most prominent, remaining vestiges of power the crown has left, other than custody of the ravens at the Tower of London (see http://www.albertnet.us/2009/08/london-part-two.html).

The trees at Kew are amazing—hundreds of years old and just massive. Here, the chilluns take a break on an accommodating branch.

Needless to say I couldn’t get this tree into a single frame:

Size does matter, but it’s not all that matters. Here’s a smallish tree that is just basically groovy—enough so that it transported Lindsay into a magical realm wherein I can actually take a candid snapshot of her smiling. (The name of this tree is the “Magnolia ‘Star Wars.’” My earlier Ewok joke notwithstanding, I promise I’m not making this up.)

That’s about all I have to report about Kew Gardens other than to point out this little bench plaque, one of literally hundreds throughout the gardens that individual sponsors of the worldwide Kew plant conservation effort get to have if they donate what I’m sure is a vast amount of money. Like the menu disclaimer in my last post, you just wouldn’t see this in the States.

Hampton Court

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he phrase “Hampton Court” brings to my mind a chain of cheap hotels, which is totally unfair. I imagine that if the if the English were as litigious as Americans, the crown would have long ago sued the Hampton Inn hotel chain for defiling their brand. Anyway, the Hampton Court in London is the real deal. It’s the palace originally built by Henry VIII, after he got tired of living in the Tower of London. (Perhaps he came to associate the Tower with all the people he’d had beheaded there.)


Dwellings at Hampton Court were originally built in 1236, and then between 1530 and 1540 Henry VIII had it built into one of the most magnificent palaces in the world. It was added onto and rebuilt continually in the couple of centuries following. Don’t worry, that’s about all the history I can offer you. We didn’t have a guided tour or anything, which is a shame, because I'd have liked to hear the story of this tapestry here. If I'm not mistaken, it portrays a circumcision. Check out the dude lining up the plate ... did he have a title? Royal Catcher?


Also of note is the woman in the foreground staring into the camera. She went to some trouble to be in the photo. Naturally, I wanted to get the whole tapestry in my photo, but repointed the camera to remove her face, only to have her creep back into the frame, seemingly with complete deliberation.

My kids didn’t gush about Hampton Court, but I’m sure it made a strong impression. At one point Lindsay said, "Fa-fa, I have to whisper something in your ear.” She went on to whisper, “Do you like me more than you like Henry VIII?” I whispered back, “Yes, certainly!” and she got all smiley.

A highlight of our visit was the opportunity to have our photo taken with Henry VIII himself (and his brother-in-law William). Henry was resplendently attired because a) he’s a king, and b) it was his wedding day (well, his sixth). The astute reader will have realized by now that this couldn’t possibly be the real Henry VIII, who died in 1547. Lindsay also recognized this, and had no enthusiasm for posing with the imposter. Knowing our opportunity was fleeting, I grasped at straws to get Lindsay to participate, and committed this misstep: “I know it’s not really Henry VIII. It’s his ghost!” Boy, that didn't help. I finally had to resort to bribing her with three Smarties (which are basically English M&Ms).

I thought this photo-op was pretty cool. I’ve been to Disneyland twice and both times I was roundly snubbed by every oversized Disney character I came across. Finally, I’m getting some damn respect.

Bath


To some degree, this was a literary pilgrimage for Erin and me; we’d both read (if not enjoyed) “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Meanwhile, Jane Austin lived in Bath for awhile, and though she is said not to have actually liked the place much, a couple of her novels (about over-civilized high society types) take place there.

Bath
made its name as a spa town, probably a bit like Calistoga except for people who are really, really loaded. The baths were originally built by the Romans, and then the Saxons used it, and then the English. It’s about a hundred miles west of London, which meant a long train ride.

Long journeys of any kind can be intimidating to parents, because when the kids melt down there’s no escape for anyone. A Greyhound trip with kids would be a Room 101. But this trip went really well. The train was spacious, fast, smooth, and quiet. Here we are speeding along, watching the lush scenery go by as we have a little picnic.

We got to Bath about an hour before the daily walking tour given free by volunteers, organized through the mayor’s office. It was the first completely sunny weather we’d had in the UK, and really hot. We needed something cold to drink, but first Erin wanted to pop into a Top Shop for just a couple of minutes. None of us knew what a Top Shop was, but Erin said something about Kate Moss and wanting to see what all the fuss was about. For me, the question was answered when I saw this shoe.

Alas, I didn't even have a chance to try it on before Erin was ready to go. One of the great things about Erin is that when she says, “I just want to pop in here for like two minutes,” she really will be ready to go in two minutes or less. And when she says two seconds, she returns in exactly two seconds. It’s almost eerie.

It’s a good thing we had the guided tour, or we’d have missed some of the coolest sights in Bath. For example, we came over a little rise and I suddenly saw all these people sunbathing on this huge lawn, and a second later I saw this giant crescent-shaped building overlooking it:

A flat in this building would go for about £500K to £750K (about $835K to $1.25M). But hey, you’d be living in Bath—a place where, the tour guide said, the phrase “see and be seen” was actually coined.

A walking tour in the heat, especially one with a lot of history and such, isn’t how most five- to seven-year-olds would prefer to spend their day, but Alexa and Lindsay did really well, sitting down on the ground every time the guide stopped to talk, Lindsay getting out her little activity bag and Alexa her book:

Still, they required some attention from time to time, which often kept me from hearing the lecture. So I’ve done my best with this next bit, which concerns a very cool building forming a complete circle around a park.

Some king, or maybe just a real estate developer, back in some ancient time, had some awful skin disorder. What’s worse, his pigs caught it from him (hearing this, was I delirious?), and when he was banished so as not to infect anybody else, he led these pigs to an area right on this very spot. Back then this was a boggy, muddy place, and the pigs wallowed in the mud, and he couldn’t get them to continue their march to—where? I didn’t catch that part. Anyway, he had to coax the pigs out with acorns, and when he cleaned them up (I know—a king? cleaning up pigs?) he noticed their skin was healed.

So, he tried wallowing around in the mud himself, and sure enough, he was cured too, and so he decided there was something salubrious about this area, and built something here, and either he or somebody else generations later commemorated the whole episode with these giant acorns that adorn the building.

But then there’s this other theory is that some king, him or someone else, just really liked oak trees, hence the acorns. Was tour guide wacky on the junk? Or am I just suffering the cumulative effects of trying to follow too many lectures from tour guides? I suppose I could ask Erin if she’d gotten more of this story straight, but on second thought I find I prefer it in its unpolished form.

Towards the end of the tour, our guide singled out Alexa and said, “Now here's part of the tour just for you. This will be the part you remember! Do you like ‘Wallace & Gromit’? Well, this house right here was the home of the man who invented Plasticine. And do you know what Wallace & Gromit are made of? Plasticine!” I wish I could say Alexa's eyes lit up and she asked all kinds of questions, but she didn't. She was hot and tired and bored, and of course a bit shy. (But she and Lindsay still got the ice cream we promised on the condition that they behave exquisitely throughout the tour.)

Well, that’s it for today. I’m on a plane now, heading back to the land of very large stoves and fridges. Thanks for tuning in.

Monday, August 17, 2009

London – Part Three

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Introduction

This post probably shouldn’t actually be called “London – Part Three” because it’s about our first venture beyond London. We traveled fifty miles from London and took a walking tour of two destinations in the borough of Oxford: the Cotswolds and Oxford University. [Note: this post is rated PG-13 for drug references and mild strong language.]



London Walks

We took the underground to Paddington Station and met up with a tour guide from London Walks, which is a walking tour company Erin had found on the Internet when planning our vacation. The idea of London Walks is this: you show up at a train station, give the tour guide a bunch of cash, and then (along with a bunch of other tourists) follow him around for a day. He takes care of all the transportation logistics (including discounted train tickets), shows you the best places, and gives witty lectures about them in a charming English accent.

This is much better than the alternative, which would be to pore over train schedules, take a train to the Oxford station, and then either do an endless death march toward the Cotswolds, wherever they are, and never get there, or rent a car and drive around lost, on the wrong side of the road, until you crash it into a tree. Even if we made it to the Cotswolds somehow, we wouldn’t know where to go or what to do, and our kids would start crying.

The downside of being in a tour group is that all humans are trained since birth to despise the idea of tour groups. In our minds, tourists are all fat and gauche, wearing “I’M WITH STUPID” or “Property of Alcatraz XXL” t-shirts and visiting wax museums and eating at restaurants that are usually “a place for ribs.” For tourists to gather together in a group only intensifies the stigma by bringing the cruise ship ethos to land.

Thus, if you actually join a tour group you have to either a) follow along ironically, silently condemning everybody around you and blaming some other person for your mandated participation in this disgraceful menagerie, or b) suck it up and admit that this really makes sense and better preserves your dignity than sitting by the side of the road crying about your ruined rental car, or fighting all day with your family about logistics. After five or ten seconds of deliberation, I decided to earnestly embrace the tour group concept, and I can now heartily recommend London Walks to anybody. (If you have teenage kids, who would die of shame if they willingly participated in such a thing, you might suggest that if anybody tries to tease them about it they can lie and say they dropped acid beforehand.)

The Cotswolds

What are the Cotswolds? Well, it’s a region of the UK near Oxford. (I’ll bet you never would have put that together.) “Cotswold” comes from the word “cot” meaning sheep and “wold” meaning rolling hill. This region used to be home to what was arguably the quintessential sustainable industry: sheep were raised here, their wool sheared, and the wool made into cloth using river-powered spinning wheels. For many years this industry made the region very important, and it thrived, and it had all kinds of train routes through it.

Then the industrial revolution came around, and coal-fired operations in urban centers lured the textile business away, and the sheep raising business followed it, and the industry dried up. About this time the railway was nationalized, and the routes into this region were all dismantled. I know this sounds like the kind of thing that only Americans would do, but remember, the English industrial revolution predated the existence of the U.S. That said, I’m sure that the bastards that ruined everything here were the same ones that subsequently left for the New World and founded our great nation.



Shed no tears for the Cotswolds, though, because as you can see, the area—being both gorgeous and close to London—is seeing something of a renaissance as rich Londoners buy up old cottages, fix them up, and come here on weekends for little getaways. This gentrification will is bound to spawn wonderful cinematic opportunities for Americans, along the lines of the weekend getaway scene in “Bridges Jones’s Diary,” that will positively sizzle on the silver screen. (Sibilance in this blog is brought to you by Dolby Laboratories, whose technologies can help out with the hissing sound should you read that last sentence aloud.)

To get to the Cotswolds, we took a coach. This is a whole lot better than saying “bus,” or (God forbid) “tour bus.” A chartered coach is a bit of a miracle, actually; you get on, sit around for awhile gazing blankly out the window, and then a miracle occurs and suddenly you’ve arrived at a place that you didn’t even know until now was your destination. As somebody who still takes wrong turns during the bike rides I’ve done for fifteen years, I really appreciated the simplicity. The downside is, I can’t provide a meaningless description of exactly where we went. Suffice to say, we walked around gorgeous places in the Cotswolds.

The Lovell manor house

Perhaps the highlight of our Cotswold walk was the manor house in the tiny village of Minster Lovell. Before I explain about the house, I feel a need to comment on the unfortunate reality of harmless English phrases sullied by American misuse. If you’re like me, the first thing you think of when you hear “manor house” is the low-end Safeway house brand of turkey you see around Thanksgiving. The Manor House turkey is usually alarmingly cheap, like twenty-five cents a pound, or even free sometimes if you spend more than $50 at the store (which is almost impossible not to do these days). This seems backwards: shouldn’t they be gouging us on this, since the Thanksgiving turkey is the centerpiece of the entire meal? And what awful animal husbandry practices did they undertake to get the price down this low?

Meanwhile, some British proper nouns strike me as more subtly maligned by the common American practice of contriving Old World place names to appropriate their impressive aura; for example, the underground station here called “Earl’s Court” makes me think of a trailer park on the outskirts of some down-and-out American town, while the station name “St. John’s Wood” sounds to me like a gated community in some California suburb.

Anyway, the manor house we looked at here, though in ruins now, is very impressive, as you can see. It was built in the 15th century by the Lovell family, who in addition to (obviously) being very wealthy were in good with the crown. This wasn’t always such a good thing in those days, though; the Lovells got into really hot water when the throne was overthrown (I propose a new “word, “overthrone,” to encapsulate both concepts, though it’s admittedly a little late for this) and had their property confiscated. (I think it was when Oliver Cromwell lead a revolution against King Charles I, but it’s been a few days since our tour and I can’t remember for sure and am too lazy to do any research.)

The house was eventually passed on to another rich family, who I think lived in it for a few generations, then passed it on another rich family, who did a bunch of renovations but never actually lived there. Their plans went awry due to a tragedy at a wedding there. The bride got involved in a game of hide and seek and was never found. Months passed, and she never turned up, and kidnapping was suspected, and finally the widower gave up. Understandably, he no longer wished to live in the house, and moved out. The moving crew, hoisting a large lead-lined box used for storing food, noticed that it seemed oddly heavy. Sure enough, they found the corpse of the bride in there; apparently she’d decided to hide there, and the lid fell on her head and knocked her out, and she suffocated. (Lindsay hated this story.)

The name of this village, Minster Lovell, gets its name from the little church very near to the ruins of the manor house. Here it is. This church is in fine shape, and services are still conducted here.

Other village attractions

Here’s a little three-bedroom cottage that was restored and sold recently, for the very reasonable price of £700,000 (about $1.14 million).



Everything in this village seems especially pretty and charming, even this bird:



It’s not a chicken. I can’t remember the name. It’s actually more closely related to a penguin. Okay, I made that up. If you know what this is called, post a comment or e-mail me (feedback@albertnet.us).

Here is the little family in front of a little cottage with a thatched roof. These roofs are made of straw, or (if you pay a little extra) reeds. Until recently, when a fire-retardant chemical coating was introduced, these roofs were a big fire risk so you couldn’t get homeowner’s insurance. Meanwhile, they are incredibly expensive to maintain; replacements are done one half of the roof at a time, because it takes six men two months just to do a half. I think the cost was like £15,000 (about $24,000) for the half-roof. So why would you have one? First, they look great, don’t they? Second, they really do work. Third, they last like forty to fifty years. Finally, due to zoning regulations you’re not allowed to get rid of a thatched roof if the house had one when you bought it.

Burford
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We had lunch in the nearby village of Burford. This is a great word. Say it a few times. Try to sound British: “BUUUUH-fuuuuud.” (I have no idea if this is a proper British pronunciation; perhaps you should try it on an English friend and see how hard he laughs.) I dreaded the prospect of rolling up in our coach to a restaurant with a giant parking lot specifically designed for tour buses, but in fact Burford is very pretty and authentic and quaint, if (inevitably) a bit touristy. We parked in a cul-de-sac and people walked to the restaurant of their choice. (This would never work in America, where we’re too fat to walk and too disorganized to make it back to the bus at the appointed time.)

Having no idea where to go in Burford, we ate at the restaurant recommended by our tour guide, Huffkins. It was a cute place … so cute, in fact, that I was wary of it. Though established in 1890, it was so polished I wondered if it were a chain. Checking the back of the glossy menu, I was reassured to learn that there are only two Huffkins locations, quite close to one another. I read the menu’s fairly predictable combination of life story, philosophy, and mission statement (“we enjoy preparing freshly made food using our wonderful local Cotswold suppliers,” etc.), and then was shocked to come across this disclaimer:


I love the English. If such a statement were ever to make it onto a menu in America, which of course it never would, some employee would sue for seditious libel and/or emotional trauma, and the place would be driven into bankruptcy, and some new law would be written prohibiting any such slander in the future and the big hotel college in Las Vegas would use the case as a cautionary tale and eventually all restaurant managers would all be castrated as a matter of course.

Oxford

During our drive back to the Oxford for our campus tour, our guide talked a bit about the University. This interested me a lot, because I’ve for years I’ve associated Oxford University with a general sense of having let my mom down. During my teen years she often mentioned that she’d like me to be an “Oxford road scholar.” I had always pictured this as a young intellectual guy hitchhiking on some area highway, his backpack full of books. I had a vague sense that he wasn’t allowed to attend classes, but could sort of hang out in the area and do the assignments, sort of like a correspondence course. This didn’t seem that attractive to me, and (being less than resourceful), I never even investigated the matter. Eventually I became aware that it was “Rhodes Scholar,” and that they were looking for the likes of Bill Clinton, not just some directionless kid with decent grades. Still, I felt like I never even tried.

Thus, I was heartened on this trip to learn that the notion of me attending Oxford was far more doomed than my mom or I had even imagined. The undergraduate program is mainly built around the school system in England. If you’re a high school student and want to go to Oxford, you apply before you even take any general college entrance exams. The university then checks in with your current school, whose staff predicts how well you’ll do on the exams. If their prediction is lofty enough, Oxford has you in for an interview. If that goes well, you’re in, unless you end up botching the entrance exam. It’s a weird system, and its validity has been debated for decades.

As we drove through the town, I saw something remarkable out the window of the coach: a vintage Ford Country Squire parked in front of a very fancy hotel.

I really want to know what this car was doing there. What is it even doing in this country, when the government will pay you £2,000 (over $3,000) to trash a ten-year-old Toyota? And how did the guy get such a sweet parking spot, right out front? Fortunately, I’m of the generation that is resigned to the fact that Google cannot answer all our questions, that I’m not just a few keystrokes away from the solution to this strange riddle. I will just ponder the matter in vain, probably indefinitely.

Speaking of strange, and getting back to my original thread (you in the back there, wake up your neighbor), Oxford seems like an odd school in general. It was established in the 12th century as a way to educate devout Catholics. They learned Latin and Greek (to better understand ancient scripture) and then French, because the French duke William the Conqueror (also called, I kid you not, William the Bastard) became king and required all laws to be written in French. It was a very Catholic place until Henry VIII created the Church of England, at which point the University changed literally overnight into an Anglican institution.
Now, you’d think these presumably pious young men would behave themselves, but the University had all kinds of problems with its students raising hell in the town and being generally drunk and disorderly. Thus, Oxford created all these smaller colleges (today there are around forty) so that their tutors could keep an eye on them. Originally these were just living arrangements, with the tutor onsite like a den mother, but then they started teaching classes there as well, and now a student’s individual college is where he spends most of his time, though the year-end exams are given by the University.

Okay, enough blathering on. Here are some photos. This first one shows the Sheldonian Theatre, where they have the ceremonies in which students matriculate (i.e., are formally admitted to the university—to me, this is one of those stalagmite/stalactite words and I had to look it up) and graduate. It’s also used as a theater and for lectures and certain conferences. Also in the picture is our tour guide, Richard, whose red hat is pretty much the only thing that prevented my family, several times, from losing contact with the group.

This next photo is the Radcliffe Camera, which is a building, not a camera. (The word “camera,” as I’m sure any Oxford student could tell you, is from a Latin word for “room” or “chamber.”) Oxford students call this the “Rad Cam” for short, as if this makes them cool or something—as if they’re not complete eggheads. At UC Santa Barbara, there was a park that we all called Dog Shit Park, because it was. Nobody even knew the real name. That, my Oxford friends, is cool. Now, get back to your studies and stop wasting your time on this highly non-educational blog.


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This next photo is of where Bill Clinton lived when he was an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. In fact, our tour guide informed us that this very building is where Clinton famously did not inhale. I can picture him in there, puffing on a fat spliff just to cleanse his palette, and then blowing out the smoke without it ever touching his lungs, so that he could study later, and be President one day.

There are gobs of gargoyles in Oxford, and I can see why: it’s the only place in England where we’ve been rained on so far. And in these gargoyles we once again see that irrepressible British humor asserting itself: as serious and stately as this university is, they couldn’t resist making gargoyles in the image of various Oxford dons. This one looks a lot like my first Latin instructor.



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Each college has its own chapel, and they’re very impressive. It’s hard to photograph stained glass windows; I did my best. Speaking of which, here’s another anecdote from our tour guide. During the English Civil War, Oxford supported the sitting king, Charles I, with the University serving as his home base. When this regime lost out, the new leader, Oliver Cromwell, punished Oxford for its loyalty to Charles by smashing out a whole bunch of its precious stained glass windows. Cromwell went on to become Chancellor of the University.
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Oxford is famous for its “dreaming spires.” I’m not exactly sure what this phrase means, but it doesn’t take an Oxford grad to know that spires are best viewed from above. Early in the tour our guide pointed out a great vantage point for photos, atop a tower in the Saint Mary the Virgin Church, which is this (look for the observation deck railing above the clock):




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When the official walking tour was over, we had forty minutes or so to wander on our own before being guided to the train station. While Erin and the kids checked out a bookstore, I headed over to the church to climb the tower. Here’s a closer view of the church.
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After paying a small fee, I headed up the tower. It’s funny: in two and a half years at UC Berkeley, I never did the climb up Sather Tower (aka the Campanile), but in one afternoon in Oxford I got around to doing this.

The view really is good. The observation deck winds around three of the faces of the tower so you can look out in three directions. I will let the reader decide for himself which are the dreaming spires in these photos. For that matter, you can work out for yourself what buildings are shown here, as I really have no idea.









Whether or not I report on any more of our London outings, watch for my report on English food. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

London - Part Two

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Introduction

Don’t worry, I don’t kid myself that you care as much about my London vacation as I do, and I know I don’t have the luxury of a captive slide-show audience, and that you can alt-tab to any of a number of different PC applications the second your interest begins to flag. So I’ve tried to keep this post relatively brief, interesting, funny, macabre, and pictorial throughout. I also refrained from using the phrase “across the pond.” A word about the photos: I tried out medium size, which I'm not that happy with; you can click on these to zoom in for a better view. [Note: this post is rated PG-13 for described violence and adult themes.]

Jet lag

Jet lag hit us hard. The first few nights saw Erin and me waking up, bolt upright, variously between 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. This led to some atrocious sleeping in when we should have been touring London. We have come to dread bedtime, and Alexa, having come across a Magic 8-Ball in the house we’re staying in, has made a tradition of asking it, every night, “Will we sleep well tonight?” So far it’s been pretty accurate (e.g., “Don’t count on it,” “Better not tell you now”).

For me, the worst jet lag came on my third night, when I got so desperate I started counting sheep. Just counting, of course, wouldn’t be counting sheep, so I try to picture them jumping over a fence, but this can get complicated. The first few sheep were cartoon sheep. Then they morphed into these stuffed sheep toys my dad bought one year to give to certain women back in the mid-‘80s. They were almost completely round sheep, with four perfectly cylindrical legs all clustered together. Then my mind swapped these out for pretty realistic sheep, which was fine until it hit me—could these be lambs, or goats? In other words, am I doing this wrong? What’s the difference between a sheep, a lamb, and a goat, anyway? A few bearded billy goats jumped over the fence and increased my doubt. Then I got back to wooly, lamb-esque sheep jumping over, but my under-stimulated mind contrived all these crazy camera angles, and the super-slow-mo effects from “The Matrix.” Meanwhile I absolutely couldn’t keep a straight count. Despite two hours of this I never broke a thousand, even though I’m pretty sure I skipped a few hundred here and there.

Ealing

The house we’re staying in is in Ealing, which is a suburb of London. (One person here said that all of the UK is a suburb of London.) But it’s not just any suburb; it’s the Queen of the Suburbs:

We haven’t yet seen any of the sites on this postcard. The official website for Ealing notes, of the Hoover Building, that an architecture critic called it “perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories.” (I love this English self-deprecating impulse.) Anyway, Ealing is a fine place, and located very strategically, about halfway between the Heathrow airport and the center of London.

Mass transit

The London subway is the oldest in the world, and with around 300 stations and 250 miles of track, it’s one of the largest. We paid a bunch of money for week-long all-u-can-eat Oyster cards, and we’ve been taking it everywhere. It’s got a good website, and (my early struggles described in my previous post notwithstanding) I’d say it’s pretty easy to use. The longest we’ve had to wait for a train has been about five minutes, and usually it’s been shorter than that. (My only complaint is the cost, which is about $55 a week, compared to $45 a month for the San Francisco equivalent. Part of this is our anemic dollar, which has dropped almost 20% against the pound since March.)

Of course, the underground, being pretty utilitarian, doesn’t thrill the kids like the double-decker bus does. The bus is all Alexa talked about the first day, and we promised her we’d get home on one after some grocery shopping. When the bus that arrived wasn’t double-decker, poor Alexa wept. So the next day we fixed that, by taking the underground to Kensington Gardens and then riding double-decker buses all around the area. Here, the girls about to take their first trip:


Note how the woman in the movie billboard on that bus is juxtaposed with what appears to be a severed head. As you shall see, beheading will be a theme throughout our London visit.

We boarded the bus, swiped our Oyster cards (all the mass transit in London uses this contactless card, something Bart is just now beta-testing), and headed upstairs. I’m sure tempted to write “found my way upstairs and had a smoke,” like in the Beatles song, but I don’t smoke, and I don’t think they allow it anymore on the buses anyway. Here are the girls enjoying their front-row seats (and pretending the yellow bar is a steering wheel).


















Here we are in front of Kensington Palace (which we didn’t tour because it’d have been like fifty bucks):















Tower of London

The next day we toured the Tower of London, a famous fortress, palace, and prison built during the 11th and 12th centuries. We arrived just in time for a guided tour by a guy in a Beefeater costume. We were forbidden to photograph the tour guide, who was an ornery, funny former military man (twenty years in the service being one of the requirements for being a Tower tour guide). His lecture focused on the executions that went on in the Tower and on the adjacent Tower Hill. I hope my kids weren’t paying attention, because here is my best stab at rendering his most interesting tale:

ooooo“How many of you have heard of James Scott? Nobody? Good. You will, after what I’m about to tell you. He led the unsuccessful Monmouth Rebellion, attempting to dethrone James II, and was sentenced to be publically beheaded. Now, in London in those days, a public beheading was considered entertainment. All the schools were closed and families would pack a picnic and head out to Tower Hill to watch. It was a grand day out for all but one person.
ooooo“The executioner wasn’t actually paid anything for doing this job. His pay normally came from the person being executed, kind of like a tip paid in advance. It was thought that this payment ensured that death would be swift and merciful. But James Scott, being a nobleman, refused to pay anything. Whether or not this was the reason, the execution did not go well. Normally, one blow of the axe took the head clean off and that was it—it was stuck on a spear and paraded around and the thing was done. But in this case, the first blow came down on Scott’s shoulder blade. He turned his head and said to executioner, ‘If you miss again, I cannot guarantee I will remain still.’
ooooo“Unfortunately for him, the next blow landed on his head. The one after that hit the neck, but only went in about two inches. All told it took about half a dozen blows to finish him off. And for some reason, instead of putting his head on a spear they sewed it back onto his body and paraded that around. Probably all your children will have nightmares now. By the way, I’m available for babysitting.”

I won’t go into the vivid description of the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise should you decide to rent the DVD.

Not all of the tour focused on executions, of course. For example, our guide described how Sir Walter Raleigh spent thirteen years imprisoned at the Tower, and was tortured daily (“by having his wife in there with him, and all she wanted to talk about was feelings”). And there was this tidbit about ravens: for superstitious reasons, Charles II issued a royal decree that the Tower must always have ravens. Specifically, it must have six at all times. Today, perhaps as a response to 9/11, it has nine. We saw a couple of them.

We went through a breathtakingly long line to see the crown jewels. There were loads of scepters and crowns and whatnot, encrusted with so many jewels they looked fake. The jewels must have been much more impressive before little toy-vending machines and Cracker Jack prizes came along.

Then we went to the “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill” exhibit. From this picture, you can get an idea of one of the more surprising features of his armor:
They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, which is a real shame, because the, uh, athletic cup feature of the armor was extraordinary. The armor itself was very interesting and sophisticated, but couldn’t help taking a back seat to the, uh, generous endowment provided for Henry VIII’s junk. Was he known to get, er, stimulated during battle?
oooo
Finally I realized what was going on. This was a guy who must have had a pretty big ego—after all, he created the Church of England, breaking all ties with Catholicism, just so he could marry Anne Boleyn—and was certainly ruthless, having had two of his wives beheaded. If I were building armor for him, the last thing I’d want to do is appear to underestimate the size of his, uh, packet. And once the armor was ready, I’m sure Henry VIII wasn’t about to say, “You made the cup too big. I don’t need that much room.” Anyhow, the best I can do for a photo was this one, taken in the gift shop, of some lesser man’s armor. Note that the, uh, pouch in this armor isn’t nearly the size of what Henry VIII’s armor had. Note also how this other tourist seems to be admiring it.

The other noteworthy thing about this exhibit was the last suit of armor built for Henry VIII, when he was in his forties and looking to wear it in a tournament of some kind. All the dimensions were given for each suit, so we know that his waist had gone from 36 inches to 48. Not that we needed the numbers: the suit was astonishing in its girth. Jack Black would have been swimming in it. It was really sad, actually, looking at the giant belly section, immortalized in steel. That poor king. And what’s worse, he was so dissipated and slovenly by this point that he never even wore the suit. Ah, "th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame” (to quote a decidedly more slender 16th-century Englishman).

It’s hard to guess how much attention my kids were paying to the Tower tour. I can tell that Lindsay did grasp something of Henry VIII’s importance, because last night she said to me, “Fa-fa, it’s time to ask the Henry the Eighth Ball if we’ll sleep well tonight!”

Tower environs

After leaving the Tower, we had lunch and then walked around the area. (A note about the food in London: this will get its own blog post in the next week or two.) First we checked out the Tower Bridge. This is a much bigger deal than the London Bridge of the children’s song. (They’re very close together, both crossing the Thames.) The Tower bridge has a drawbridge for the taller ships. Photos:








From there we found some groovy church with a rock sculpture. The way the kids flocked to that rock, you’d think they’d been starved of play, which I guess they actually had:

In any other place this church would probably be a pretty big deal, and maybe it is, but there are so many groovy churches in the London area I can’t keep them all straight. From here it was a short trip to the replica Globe theater, built on the original site where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. Tours cost money and we didn’t go in. We proceeded to the Tate Modern to check out some modern art. Actually, we went there because it was free and we badly needed a restroom. We did check out some of the exhibits, but the really cool-sounding ones cost money. Photography is not allowed in the Tate so I have nothing for you to look at except its Orwellian exterior. If you grasp that Alexa’s evident enthusiasm is ironic, then you will doubtless agree this would make a good album cover:

Buckingham Palace

The next day we set out to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. We’re not huge fans of the royalty, nor of quasi-military procedure; rather, this was more of a literary pilgrimage, based on our love of the A.A. Milne poem:


oooooThey’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
oooooChristopher Robin went down with Alice.
oooooAlice is marrying one of the guard.
ooooo“A soldier's life is terrible hard,”
oooooSays Alice.

(If you have kids and haven’t read this poem in When We Were Very Young, you need to go get that book, and its companion Now We Are Six, before I report you to the authorities.)

We waited in line for over an hour at the gates of Buckingham Palace, among vast throngs of other tourists. Had they opened the gates at any point, it probably would have been like the concert stampede scene in “Pink Floyd – The Wall.” But at no point did they open the gates. At the appointed time, a lot of soldiers in funny hats arrived, many of them playing instruments, others carrying machine guns with bayonets, others comprising a marching band. They paraded around out front and then entered through a side gate.

The actual changing of the guard was very complicated, with no play-by-play from anybody, so we had no idea what was going on. It lasted for a really long time, and it was hard for Erin and me to see anything. Our kids had a great view from our shoulders; Alexa got this shot:

About the only other thing of note is that the band played the song “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. At that point, exhausted, we left. After lunch, we headed over to Westminster Abbey:



It cost fifty bucks to get in, so we didn’t. (Note that the coolest museum in the U.S., the Smithsonian, is free. Just sayin’.)

Across the street was the House of Parliament. The tall tower is where, according to Erin, all the paper copies of the laws are kept. Of course these could all fit on a single DVD, but that’s not the point. Anyhow, this is a huge complex of buildings that was really hard to get into a single photo. Between the first two, you get the idea. More about the third photo later.






















Here’s a close-up of Big Ben, which you doubtless recognized in the previous two photos:





















The London Eye

From here we walked across the Westminster Bridge and headed down to the London Eye (originally called the Millennium Wheel), which is basically the world’s largest Ferris wheel, if you could call it that. According to the official website it was built in 2000 “as a metaphor for the end of the 20th century.” (Based on how much it cost to ride—about $3/minute for our family—I’d say there was another motive as well. By my rough calculations, I’d guess it brings in about $500,000 per day.) Until about a week ago I’d never heard of this thing. I have to say, it’s pretty dang cool. It took seven years to build. It weighs 2,100 tons. It takes you about 450 feet up. It takes half an hour per revolution. And what’s especially impressive is that passengers, 25 to a pod, get on and off without the wheel having to stop.

Before our “flight,” as they call it, we watched a “4-D” movie promoting it. (Why they promote the thing after you’ve already bought tickets is beyond me.) The 4-D technology involves a special, enhanced version of 3-D glasses:

What’s special about the glasses is, obviously, that they look so good. But they’re not actually involved in the 4-D aspect of the technology. Here’s what 4-D is all about: you watch a movie that has several 3-D elements, like a seagull flying in your face or bubbles swarming at you out of nowhere, and the bubbles are—get this—real! So what you think is a super-hi-tech illusion is actually, well, what you’re really seeing. (I cheated by removing my glasses at a key moment.) For some reason you also get splashed with water during the movie. Maybe this is a sanitary way of conveying the idea of seagulls defecating on you.

Anyway, to focus solely on the 4-D bit is to fail to appreciate the real cinematic integrity of the film. It pays patent homage to “The Red Balloon,” using a non-narrated, dialog-free story of a little girl going on the London Eye with her father. What we see is from her perspective (if she had a helicopter for parts of it), and at the end she gives her dad a big hug: a stark contrast to her reserved, almost Germanic coldness at the beginning. The message is not hard for an experienced, insightful moviegoer to interpret: if you take your daughter on the London Eye she will love you a little more. Does it work? Yes, I think so. My children do seem to love me more, now that they’ve been on the London Eye and I’ve answered their questions about the movie.

But with no further ado, here are the photos. One London Eye photo you’ve already seen: the third House of Parliament photo above.













If this were truly a full-service blog, I’d include all the photos I took, annotated to show the great many points of interest. But I pay for server space on this blog, and besides, I’m tired, and you’re tired, so let’s just wrap this up. Stay tuned for my next installment, Oxford & the Cotswolds, coming soon to albertnet.