Europe 2010 Travel Log — London: Day Three
Our last day in London meant accounting for travel back to Holland, and while we were taking one of the last flights out of Gatwick, we still had to leave the city around 3pm. Thus, with a shortened day we targeted our sightseeing on what some might call the Crown Jewels of London: The British Museum. Bet you thought I was going to say the actual Crown Jewels…but those are kept in the Tower of London which we had already visited. After the museum we did a bit of light touring and shopping and said our final goodbyes to the city.
Monday Morning in the Underground
The past two days in the underground were both fairly subdued, in terms of crowds. Oh sure, we had standing room only on a few trains, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But today was a work day, and our trip began at Victoria Station, a serious transit hub for our area of London. The consequence is that there were people, so many people, crushing into each other in order to get into their train. But here’s where London surprised me. Once we had all pushed through the pay-gate choke points, the mass of humanity rarely, if ever, was an issue.
Even when we got down to our platform, the trains came so frequently that there was rarely a pileup of people worth commenting about. In fact, there was a large billboard extolling the virtues of a particular energy company which I started reading just as an earlier train was leaving…and I was only able to get through the first half of the copy before the next train arrived. Now, I don’t do a lot of SF MUNI travel during rush hour, so I can’t speak to that situation in San Francisco. But I sure can say that on the weekends there are plenty of times when the mass of people waiting for a train outstrips the eventual train’s carrying capacity. Someday it would be great if SF could learn a thing or two from London transit.
The British Museum
Two subway lines later and we had arrived at the British Museum. Like so many of the cultural centers in London, admittance is free. That’s great if you don’t want to spend much money to see amazing things, less great if you don’t want to see amazing things while being surrounded by dozens of school groups. But I had long since mastered the avoidance of such children during my time in Washington DC where the school groups run thick through the Smithsonian.
In truth, I’m not really sure how to do justice to the British Museum. We spent nearly three hours there and entered only a small fraction of the rooms, and spent only a fraction of the time one could spend looking at each room. You could easily spend every day for a month looking over the collection and still have more to see. I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a colonial power who brought stuff back for its citizens to view.
Sarah and I had a good conversation about the topic of historic preservation. Seems that Greece, as well as several former British colonies, has requested their stuff back, a request with which I can certainly sympathize. The problem is the claim seems to be presented as “you stole this stuff from us,” which, in a certain literal sense, is true. But the British retort boils down to “no, we saved this stuff from you.” And, again, that’s not entirely untrue either. Several of these countries have had a great deal of political and social strife and what artifacts and installations were left behind have not fared well. My understanding is the British have been returning some items, but is otherwise taking a bit of a paternalistic stance. It’s all very interesting.
Anyway, if ancient stuff is interesting to you, take a look through the photos from the museum I posted online. I will mention two highlights of the exhibits we saw.
- Clock Exhibit: While hunting for the room on the Roman colonization of the British Isles, we stumbled upon a random room dedicated to clocks. Clocks of every size and type, from pocket watches to giant grandfather clocks. But the coolest part of all was a macro-sized display showing the basic elements of a mechanical watch. I was finally able to understand how my pocket watch works and how it is not all that different from a grandfather clock. Totally awesome to figure stuff like that out.
- Rosetta Stone, perhaps one of the most symbolic artifacts of all archeology, to say nothing of completely unrelated fields like cryptography. Perhaps most surprising, when I took a close look at the stone, is just how much of the hieroglyphic section is missing. Compared to the other two sections, demotic Egyptian and classical Greek, the hieroglyphic chunk is probably only a bit over 50% complete. But still wicked cool. The Rosetta Stone: I probably would have missed this if Sarah hadn’t pointed it out, because the exhibit was perpetually surrounded by little children. But there, in the heart of the Egyptian gallery, resides the
Leaving the museum we headed back into the more youthful areas of London for a quick look at Neal’s Yard near Covent Gardens. Apparently Sarah used to come here to read and drink coffee… now a days it is home primarily to a large salad bar, as well as Neal’s Yard Remedies and a glorious cheese shop. It was one of the more colorful places I saw in London.
Next we finally entered a Caffè Nero. I say “finally” because Caffè Nero, an Italian-style coffee chain, is freaking everywhere in London. Think of it like Starbucks in Seattle… there were times when two Neros would be but a block away. And wherever you found a Caffè Nero, a Pret-a-Manger could always be found close by. It became a sort of a game for me, whenever I saw one outfit to see how long it would take to spot its complement.
Anyway, after poking fun at Nero for three days straight, I figured it was time to try out London’s answer to Starbucks. Incidentally, London does have Starbucks, just far, far fewer than your average American city. I ordered a white chocolate mocha, as is my customary “coffee” drink in the States, and Nero made a perfectly acceptable version. I did take a certain measure of delight that Sarah, an independent coffee aficionado, claimed a chain like Nero as her cafe of choice in London. Interesting how different sides of an ocean (and an Italian-style cappuccino) can change a person’s perspective….
After coffee we headed back to Princi, which I have since reviewed on Yelp so you can read all about it if you like. After a lunch of wood-fired pizza slices, Sarah and I shared an Italian-style chocolate chip cookie best dipped in coffee and an amazing ricotta and cherry dessert there that was freaking outstanding. Delicious.
Our final activity in London was to attempt some jeans shopping for Sarah (who has dropped a dress size and thus everything she owns is too big)…but there’s something about jeans shopping in a super trendy location like London that is quite off-putting. Perhaps that’s why places like the GAP are so successful. The boutique stores have such an air of judgment that you feel the only way to go in is to already meet their “standards”. Suffice to say, we didn’t buy any jeans.
We also stopped into the Apple Store in hopes of catching a glimpse of the new iPad, but sadly the iPad has not yet crossed the Atlantic. Also, don’t bother to try and purchase a power cord for your Time Capsule with a European plug on it… or really any plug-style for that matter. Apple does not sell replacements. Apparently it’s okay to move your iPhone across the ocean, but don’t plan on taking your backup system with you.
Finally we made our way back to the hotel, picked up our luggage, and boarded the Gatwick Express, engendering another set of jokes about the Hogwart’s Express. We arrived at the airport with tons of time to spare, so we ended the evening in a French style café as a means to begin the transition to Parisian food. Thankfully, this was before the Icelandic Ash Cloud of Death descended upon European airspace, so our flight was entirely uneventful. Next up: two weeks in the Netherlands plus the Weekend of Beer + Wine. Let’s hope I write those posts before I board the train for Paris.