Thursday, 28 October 2010

Kingston Serendipity, Franklin, and Tate Modern

Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to allow yourself to go with the flow and see where you end up. Occasionally one encounters some happy surprises. That happened late Thursday afternoon. After getting some chores and homework done and knocking the football around for awhile--oh, and snoozing with the neighborhood cat--Erika, Benedict, and I departed with a vague plan to visit Richmond Park, one of those huge London royal parks--more than 2000 acres this one (The Regent's, Kensington, and Hyde Parks are other royal parks we've visited)--that might turn out to be interesting. A neighbor told me that one can often see deer in the park and that there is an opening through the trees from which one can see all the way to St. Paul's Cathedral more than 10 miles away. Since the park is relatively close, not too much farther than Kew Gardens--or so I thought--it seemed like a pleasant way to spend a leisurely couple of hours before darkness fell.

I had understood my neighbor to say that we should take the bus all the way to the end of its route in Kingston and that at the end we would be near an entrance to the park. Failing to consult the Internet for details may have been a mistake. Some time after passing through the suburb Richmond it became fairly obvious I had misunderstood her as we passed some open space and drove parallel to the Thames for a brief time. And it looked as if we had passed an entrance to the park some time earlier.

At times the street narrowed into a lane barely wide enough to let two buses pass each other. We were in a part of London that was different from what we lived in. It looked like a substantially more affluent area with most of the homes being the detached variety and much larger than the homes in our neighborhood. This didn't seem to affect the congestion of people. Richmond was as crowded as any other part of London, and when we arrived in Kingston it was no different.

As it turned out, we had a pleasant time. After figuring out where the Thames is after getting off the bus, we had an enjoyable little walk along the river. Kingston is really a lovely place, busy with activity, yet it seems a bit less bustling.

The sign must not apply to swans.

As far as I can find, he was a Bishop of Westminster. The site of the Bishop's
Palace is today a multilevel car park and shopping mall.
But here's the gold of serendipity. Off the river a couple of blocks we find this placard. We had stumbled on the spot where seven Saxon kings were crowned in the 10th century.
The Saxon church, alas, is no more, probably destroyed by Viking invaders over a thousand years ago. The current church was built in the 12th century and improved several times since then. When we tested the doors of the church now standing there, they were locked.
Kensington market place

A little more walking around Kingston brought us more serendipitous gold: the coronation stone upon which those Saxon kings were crowned. What a remarkable find for us! Incredibly cool! We would never have come to Kingston for its own sake. We had never known about the crowning of Saxon kings here so we would not have made it a destination. But here we were, seemingly by accident because we went past our original destination.

It was nearly dark by the time we got on the bus, and it was about 45 minutes later when we got off. It was worth it.

The next day, today Thursday, Benedict and I experienced American history. We visited the house in which Ben Franklin rented some rooms during his 16 year stay in London representing the interests of the American colonists. The house, built about 1730, retains it original wall paneling, wood floor, and staircase. It's about half a block off the Strand and literally around the corner from Trafalgar Square, a very popular area in London. But Craven Street, on which Franklin's home stands, is fairly quiet in the midst of the bustling frenzy, and its narrow lane contains historically important Georgian buildings. We had to make reservations for the historical experience, which consists in an actress playing the part of Polly Hewison, the daughter of the house's owner, narrating some of the events and scientific accomplishments of Franklin while he lived in the house, the important political, scientific, and philosophical visitors he received. Adam Smith and David Hume were among his friends. Polly led us through several rooms of the house, each of which had some different multimedia presentation consisting of Polly conversing with various characters, including Franklin, and images of people and events projected on the walls. It was very effective in teaching the important influence Franklin had on science and diplomacy, going to so far as to claim that this house was America's first embassy. We were the only two people in Polly's audience.

Also on exhibit were some human bones found during excavation in 1998. Another renter in the house, a doctor who was to become Polly's husband, ran a school of anatomy while Franklin was in residence. He apparently bought his bodies from grave robbers.

Erika called us after the presentation, and we agreed to meet at the Tate Modern after she ran some errands. Benedict and I traipsed across the river, an overcast day and yet not chilly or wet, to the south bank. It wasn't long before we were at the Tate. It's located next to the Globe Theatre. Its building is a converted power plant. It's huge. After a bit to eat and drink in one of the cafes, we commenced exploring the galleries. There is much about abstract expressionism and other modern art forms I don't get. But there is a nice exhibit of photographs taken by a German named Sanders that I found moving. All he did was take black-and-white photos of ordinary people--farmers, artists, laborers, bohemians, soldiers--in the 1920s and '30s. It was quite affective.

We wandered quickly through the galleries, which was Benedict's favored pace. Tiring after a while, we went to the Turbine Hall where one of the special exhibits was on display: Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds. The floor is strewn with one hundred million 'seeds'. Not real seeds, but pieces of porcelain sculpted and painted to look like seeds by Chinese artisans. I leave all judgment and discernment in your hands, but we thought it was pretty neat. This is where Erika found us.

If you're wondering why so many posts today, it's because tomorrow morning we're going to one of the royal palaces with the SU students--the one near Kingston, it turns out--and in the evening my niece Jenny will drive us to Bristol in a rented car to spend the weekend with the Brooker contingent of the family. Next week a different contingent of the family will be staying with us for several days, Erika's mom and Erika's niece and three of her nephews. I may be bit occupied so I though it wise to catch up on events.

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