Saturday, 11 September 2010

Maps, Covent Garden, and more of the City.

Friday early afternoon. Destination: The British Library to see the exhibit, closing next week, of maps.

The Victorian gothic splendor of St. Pancras Railway Station
The British Library is in the northwest corner of central London, that part of London where all the action is. It's just around the corner from the King's Cross Underground and National Railways Station and the St. Pancras International Railway Station, where scenes from Harry Potter movies were filmed. Several underground lines also converge here. As may be well imagined, hordes of travelers congested the immediate area. The stations are a couple of spitting distances away from the British Museum and Bloomsbury, and University College of London is also nearby.

This branch of the British Library, of which there are several, is probably the most significant. The Library, with all its branches, is the largest library in the world in terms of items, possessing over 150 million items: books, journals, paintings, maps, prints, recordings, diaries, etc. Until 1997 the holdings of the library were even more scattered. That is when this library at St. Pancras was finished. The Queen dedicated the building in 1998.
British Library. From the web

The two images reproduced here are both from the web. (I hope I don't get into copyright trouble.) The two buildings contrasting styles may seem at odds, yet the architecture of the library also picks up on some railway station themes with the radically slanted roof, bell tower, and long nave that could be hiding the high-speed Eurostar chunnel train before its departure for France. (In fact, the Eurostar originates in the St. Pancras station, portions of which British Rail completely renovated and modernized to handle the new train.) The British Library building fits into the neighborhood less anachronistically than might first appear though St. Pancras and King's Crossing, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation and rebuilding of its own, are very different from it.

The maps at the museum were fantastic. The oldest map was a small portion of an ancient Roman wall. An artist finished the newest map just recently, a whimsical map of London depicted as an island (you can play with the map London by zooming in and out; ditto for the other 3 maps--of the Americas and the two world maps). The point of the exhibit was to show how leaders used maps as propaganda and as evidence of their dominance. One map I studied in particular, a 1753 map of the area around the Rhine River. I looked for Erika's home town, Oberkochen. It wasn't on the map, but the nearby towns of Aalen, Konigsbronn, and Heidenheim were.

We hopped back on the tube when we were finished examining the maps and got off at Covent Garden. Formerly the site of the largest fruit and vegetable market in England, today the market specializes in tourist dreck. Within the market are numerous street entertainers and many pubs and restaurants. The area outside the market contains a large number of London's theatres and is part of the West End.

 A couple of street entertainers.

The greatest redeeming feature of the market are the large number of outdoor cafes and pubs. Though the day had earlier threatened rain, by mid afternoon the day had turned quite pleasant for afternoon coffee and hot chocolate.

The Lion King is playing in the theatre behind the coffee shop.

Erika wanted to visited a modern building called the Gherkin. A gherkin is a cucumber-like vegetable, and the building supposedly resembles one. I wouldn't know because I had never seen or even heard of a gherkin until coming to London. I have yet to see the vegetable.
Notice the sweaters. Not yet mid September. Afternoon. Jealous?

You can see the Gherkin in the distance to the left of me, and St. Paul's Cathedral is building with the large dome. We were standing on the Waterloo Bridge just across the river from Waterloo Station and the Kilfoyls' home. To get a closer look at the Gherkin we hopped on a bus that seemed to head in its general direction. The building is in the City. Remember? That square mile part of London that used to be walled in and now has ultra-modern office buildings mixed with old survivors of the Great Fire of 1666 and, especially,  the Blitz? So for the second day in a row Benedict and I entered the maw of the capitalist beast.

The bus drove past the dragon guardians of the City and past St. Paul, and by this time the buildings of the City were disgorging their suited workers for the day. Masses of quickly stepping well-dressed men and women smothered the entrances of all the underground stations in their mad rush to escape and cram the trains carrying them away to their homes. Only 5000 people live in the City, but 350,000 people work there, and most of them left the City at the same time.
Here is the Gherkin (read a bit more about it here) behind the Royal Exchange, once London's stock exchange and today a mall filled with luxury stores and expensive restaurants. Have you ever seen such a shopping center? This juxtaposition of the old and the new occurs frequently in London, but never more often than in the City which was largely destroyed in the Blitz despite the survival of St. Paul's Cathedral, a few other churches, and some of the important financial and historical structures. The war-time disaster gave city planners and architects a largely blank canvas on which to rebuild. The stock exchange, for instance, now flourishes in a gleaming modern building just a couple blocks away. The statue in front of the Exchange--can you see it seemingly atop the bus?--is of Wellington, the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo. There are scores of restaurants and pubs in the City, and bankers and stockbrokers and other office workers not rammed into the underground trains stuffed themselves into the pubs to the point where they flowed out into the alleys and streets. Gossiping, no doubt, about the latest mergers and acquisitions. Though you can't see it in this photo, the Bank of England is across the street to the Exchange's left, and the residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London--a largely ceremonial position (he only has 5000 constituents!) and not to be confused with the mayor of greater London--is off to our right. (Future photos promised. Really. We are unaccountably attracted to the City; does all that wealth draw us unconsciously?)

The Gherkin sits adjacent to a street called Bishopsgate and sits just south of the old London Wall. Bishopsgate is the ancient name for the street. When the wall still stood, Bishopsgate was one of the openings in it. It was after working hours by the time we got to building, and Erika and Benedict went into the foyer (sometimes I'm a slower walker, especially when my feet hurt). The security guy promptly threw them out. The building's owners must not be concerned about public relations. Makes one wonder what they've got to hide.

Web photo of St Helen Bishopsgate with Gherkin behind it under construction.
We bought a couple of sandwiches for dinner since we didn't want to go home during the height of rush hour. We ate them in the courtyard of a medieval church across the street from the Gherkin called St. Helen Bishopsgate. Click on the link to read about its history, but if you don't have time it let me just tell you it dates from the early 13th century and has been altered several times, survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz, only to be severely damaged by two IRA terrorist attacks on nearby targets in the early '90s. By this time rush hour waned enough for us to find our way home.

Dragon holding the standard of England's patron, St. George, on a lamp post outside the Royal Exchange.

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