Monday, 4 October 2010

Quiet, but not too much

Last week was a fairly inactive one for us, but still notable for some of the activities we enjoyed. Monday we didn't do too much outside the house, but Tuesday we did have a busy afternoon and evening.

Tuesday after lunch Benedict and I visited the Natural History Museum for the first time. The museum is only a few blocks from where Erika teaches and is next to both the London Science Museum and Imperial College. In the August when we arrived in London the lengthy lines outside the museum discouraged us from visiting. However by late September most of the tourists, especially families, were gone. As were the long lines.

Entrance fee: zero.

The museum is massive, an example of the German Romanesque style designed by Alfred Waterhouse. It needs to be massive because it holds about 70 million items in its collection, making it the largest natural history museum in the world. The design of the interior is as spectacular as the exterior and worth exploring for its own sake. The museum opened the day after Easter in 1881.

The first specimen we encountered upon entering the Central Hall of the museum is the skeleton of a large dinosaur. We then spent the next three hours pleasurably and leisurely exploring the dinosaur and the human biology galleries. There are several other galleries that we must return to examine, especially the brand new Darwin Centre. As well as being a museum displaying many pieces of its collection, the scientists at the museum also carry on several research projects.

After several hours of scientific study in the Natural History Museum, we flew off to meet Erika at the Barbican Centre for a bite to eat and an evening of music and drama. We joined Susan and Sarah for dinner prior to watching a performance of Les Miserable. The Barbican, recall, is in the area of London completely destroyed in the Blitz. Many in the audience were obviously repeat customers and they were not disappointed. The musical itself combined Victor Hugo's social commentary and romantic melodrama in a fantastic production. His idealism shone through and the audience lapped it up, perhaps pining for a hopeful beacon in an otherwise dark age of cynicism. I'm not familiar with the songs, and only a couple seemed worth remembering. But the performances and stagecraft were uniformly excellent. For me the most moving scenes involved the masterfully enacted scenes of the revolutionary students' predictable defeat and death at the Parisian barricades. For most of the audience the ending was more emotional. Sales of tissue must increase every time there is a performance.

Still, a stirring evening and an education in stagecraft, music, history, and psychology.

The next couple of days were fairly quiet. On early Friday morning we embarked on a bus to Cambridge. This was one of the CAPA-organized tours for the students that we hitched along with. Our tour guide this time was Clarissa. She had some things to say about the sites we were passing on our way through the city. She turned out to be an excellent guide with much to tell, most that I don't have time to repeat here.

Getting out of London on drizzly gray day took almost an hour, and in only another hour we reached Cambridge. The motorway taking us out of London passed by the site of the 2012 Olympic games. The builders looked like they were making great progress in preparation for the games. The arenas and stadiums are well along and look as if they'll be ready in a couple of summers.
The back of the Great Hall of Kings College. Its most famous
members were probably E.M Forster, A.M. Turing, and J.M.

Clarissa gave us some history of Cambridge (here is a less tongue-in-cheek version), noting that William the Conqueror built a castle there shortly after his successful invasion. What is left of the castle is a large dirt mound. Under Henry VIII, Cambridge Protestant preachers meeting at the White Horse Inn provided the theological underpinnings supporting the Reformation. One of them, Robert Barnes, preached the first evangelical sermon in England at St. Edwards, King and Martyr in the center of Cambridge. Most of these preachers were later executed by Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the downfalls of taking religion so seriously as to deny toleration of contrary beliefs.

Today the area around the city is known as Silicon Fen for all the high tech companies who've made it their home. A fen is land that is marshy and flat. The population of the city is about 100,000.
This is called the Mathematical Bridge because Isaac Newton
allegedly built it without nails, screw, bolts, etc. As our
guide said, "Tosh!" The bridge was built with ordinary
means 22 years after Newton died. It spans the River Cam.

Peterhouse College, the oldest of Cambridges colleges.
Famous graduates.

Cambridge University isn't simply one school but an intimage association, if you will, of 31 separate colleges. If you wish to attend, you apply to the particular colleges though your degree is from the University of Cambridge. You can apply to 3 colleges, according to Clarissa, in order of preference and hope you will get into one of them. The competition is pretty fierce. Students may attend lectures by anyone at any college. The University became an offshoot of Oxford University when in the 13th century students at Oxford University (founded by King Henry II in the 12th century) engaged in some violent encounters with the good citizens of Oxford and consequently some students went off to Cambridge in 1209.  Eventually Cambridge as a university became established and the rest is history. Oxford, however, doesn't let Cambridge forget its 'inferior' status.

Clarissa explaining the influence of scientific discoveries at Cambridge.
For centuries Cambridge, even before Newton, has been an important place for scientific discoveries. Since the Nobel Prizes began to be awarded in 1901, Cambridge leads all other institutions in the number of prize winners, the vast majority of them in the sciences.

Charles Darwin studied theology at Christ's College (John Milton is another illustrious graduate of the college). Darwin has the distinction of having one of the Cambridge colleges named for him.
The Eagle Pub, the hangout of scientists.
The most famous of the colleges, which according to Clarissa is also the largest and possessor of the biggest endowment, may be Trinity College, founded in 1546 by Henry VIII. The list of eminent alumni and fellows of this college is absolutely staggering. Newton, Bacon, Byron, Tennyson, Russell, Wittgenstein, Maxwell, Nabokov, and on and on. 
Clarissa and some students near Trinity College.

Punting on the Cam.

An old fellow and future Cambridge fellow? On the steps
of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

We spent a few minutes hanging out in the bookstore.
By lunch time Clarissa's tour was over and our time was our own. The first thing we did was visit the Wren Library, part of Trinity College. Designed by the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, the library houses rare manuscripts, some of which they display in glass cases available for view to the public. The manuscripts we saw included an 8th century Bible, a 12 century bible with brilliant illuminations, a copy of Shakespeare's first folio of 1624, Newton's copy of the first edition of his Principia Mathematica with annotations for changes for the second edition, Wittgenstein's philosophical notebooks that were eventually published after his death, a manuscript by Bertrand Russell, a poem in Byrons hand. I wish I could remember the others. Fantastic.

Wandering around town brought us to the Round Church, which was supposedly built by the Knights Templar upon their return from the Crusades and dates from 1130. The church is a copy of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It is one of four remaining Round Churches in England, and reputed to be the oldest of the four.

We set our sights on the Fitzwilliam Museum about mid afternoon. The entrance fee is zero. For a fairly small museum in terms of space, it holds an astonishing variety of artworks and artifacts. The knightly armor collection alone is truly astonishing. I've been reading Once and Future King to Benedict, T.H. White's take on the Arthurian legend, and seeing the armor (this is the only image of armor the museum has online, and it isn't a knight's armor; but you get the idea) makes the story more concrete. The ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses and other ancient pieces were stunning. The paintings, portraits, furniture, sculpture, ceramics. One could easily spend all day in this museum and not tire. But we only had about an hour.

We wished to see at least one of the colleges, preferably Kings College, more closely, but the college had closed to the public by the time we were ready to admire the interior of the Great Hall/chapel. Will we have time for a return visit to Cambridge, to spend more time in the Fitzwilliam Museum, visit the other museums in town, pretend to be fellows or dons in a Great Hall of one of the colleges, and check out what's left of William the Conqueror's castle? We'll have to see.

The bus took even longer to wind through London's rush hour traffic. Our driver had to take a roundabout way to CAPA, but we finally got there. Clarissa's next tour assignment was to guide the LA Lakers on a bus tour of London the next day. The Lakers are in London to play an exhibition game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. She knew nothing about them. Well, Clarissa, to begin with they're really, really tall...

1 comment:

  1. I had a chance to combine my two loves in life recently and had a two weeks' holiday in wonderful France, to which I had been before, and had loved so much. I took a little Renault rental car and headed off from Paris, to the Palace of Versailles, to Chartres then southward to sunny Provence, via the Auvergne region, with the Songs of the Auvergne playing repeated on the CD player.
    Magnifique, comme toujours. I saw many art galleries and followed the footsteps of artists, like poor Vincent Van Gogh.
    Back home all too soon, I ordered a canvas print from, choosing this painting by Cézanne,, to remember my trip by.