Monday, 22 November 2010

National Gallery, Wimbledon, Cautauld Gallery, Tower of London, Canary Wharf

On Monday the 8th of November I decided to spend a couple of hours in the National Gallery of Art. After nearly 3 months in London I would finally visit one of the great art museums in the world. We've passed the museum several times because it's on Trafalgar Square, though we never entered it.

I exited the underground via a different tube station, St. James Park, instead of Piccadilly Circus or Charing Cross. It's a bit farther away, but I wanted to walk through St. James Park again and up the Mall. One of the first things I saw after coming out into the street from the tube was Scotland Yard or, more accurately, New Scotland Yard. I would have taken a picture, but I forgot to take the camera with me. I didn't know this was its location, and I was kind of thrilled to see it, having read so many English murder mysteries and watched more than few English movies. A few minutes later I was in the park. It was practically abandoned. A cold drizzle must have inspired others to forego any outdoor activities, even walking through the park. Even the many birds that I saw with the German contingent the previous week went into hiding.

I walked across the park to the Mall, which is a grand avenue linking Buckingham Palace with the Admiralty Arch near Trafalgar Square. I walked up the Mall to Trafalgar Square. Because of the cold drizzle, there were remarkably few people on the square this morning, the least number I've seen.

I passed the statue of George Washington in front of the museum and entered on the lowest level. I found the galleries with the oldest paintings and started appreciating. After a couple of hours I'd only made it through the 15th century and I was tired of appreciating. After a bite to eat in the museum's cafe I went across the street to St. Martin in the Fields for a free noon concert. A violinist and pianist played short pieces by Mozart, Bach, Elgar, and several others. Very, very good. The entire concert lasted only an hour. Although the church isn't that big it was almost filled. Perhaps many of them came into the church to escape the rain. Then I spent a couple of hours in the National Portrait Gallery, which is right behind the National Gallery of Art. This is where the major portraits of important figures in English history and culture--various King Henrys, King Edwards, Queen Marys, Queen Elizabeths, King Williams, King Georges, and princes, princesses, earls, dukes, generals, admirals, colonels, etc.--are displayed. When it was time to go home I decided to walk to Piccadilly Circle, but somehow I ended up at Leicester (pronounced 'Lester') Square. Oddly, Italian restaurants bordered both sides of the path toward the Square. And on the Square I found a Mexican restaurant. And an underground station that put me on a train toward Ealing.

The next venture came on Wednesday with a quick trip to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The village of Wimbledon is a leafy, expensive suburb with plenty of people hovering and hurrying around the tube and train station. The pace of London's manic activity proceeded at a slightly more genteel rate here. The houses were much larger and there were fewer immigrants, as far as I could tell, on the streets. A bus dropped my off at the tennis centre and I spent almost two hours enjoying the tennis museum.
This fellow, as I recall (I forgot my notebook), was the equivalent of someone who would run a present day pro shop. Only in his case the shop was, I believe, at Hampton Court some 200-300 years ago. He strung rackets and gave lessons to the royals and their hangers on, teaching them real tennis. Real tennis was played indoors--several people played on the indoor real tennis court at Hampton Court during our visit there--and this fellow was apparently one of the best players. Henry VIII, before he fattened up, was supposed to be a very good real tennis player. Perhaps the king's athletic prowess was exaggerated. Perhaps his opponents feared the consequences they may have suffered should the king lose.
The game as we know it, officially Lawn Tennis, didn't arise until a little after the mid nineteenth century right, invented near this very spot. Visitors to the museum can see how tennis rackets and tennis fashion changed over the years, and how the game in general has changed. Many other paraphenalia dotted the display cases.
These cups were the original trophies awarded to the winners of the tennis championships.

And these are the trophies awarded to player today. The winning women receive the plate while the men get the trophy. I tried to get a photo of the ghost of John MacEnroe talking about the game and its players, especially his opponents, in the men's locker room, but it didn't come out. Still, that was very cool.

Center court. The low-lying sun prevented a good picture. This is holy ground for anyone who has played tennis seriously. The equivalent of Wembley Stadium for tennis fans. What a treat to see it.
The entrance to Center Court. I was too late to take the tour of the grounds, so I was unable to see any of the other courts. The statue under the Centre Court sign is of Fred Perry, the last male UK winner of the Championships who won a couple of times in the 1930s. One of the strongest UK challengers to come along with a real chance of winning is the Scotsman, Andy Murray. I had a bit to eat in the cafe, including the traditional strawberries and cream. The visit was quite a treat.

On Friday I returned to the Cautauld Art Gallery with Erika. I had been there, recall, with Benedict and we rushed through it. Erika took a picture of the staircase in the muesem. We made our way through the various galleries more slowly than in my visit with Benedict. In a couple of hours we were able to see and enjoy almost everything in the museum without feeling rushed or overwhelmed by the sheer number of masterpieces. Since we didn't attend on a Monday morning when admission is free, we didn't have to elbow our way around or feel as if we were in anyone's way. A lovely day.

For lunch we ate at Thai Square. Erika explored some more while I went home to wait for Benedict to get home from school.

After Benedict's football practice on Saturday--by this time it's the 13th of November and I'm catching up to date--we went to the Tower of London. Benedict and Erika missed the trip there with the German contingent the previous week, and we spent a couple of hours there. In addition to the fabulous Crown Jewels we also saw parts of the Tower which served as residences to the kings and queens of England.

Re-enactors gave visitors a clue as to what life was like in 12th and 13th centuries when Tower's construction began. We also visited the White Tower, which held the castle's armoury, including the armour of the kings of England over the past 500 years, the various types of weapons used by knights and infantry, and how to use them. Very, very cool. Henry VIII's armour was huge so one can easily see how obese he was. It looked like two of me could easily fit into it. It's unlikely that he played much tennis when he got to be that size.
 A crossbow resting in one of the Tower's residential rooms. Many people were imprisoned in these walls, and many of them managed to carve messages in the stones. If I heard correctly, some of the prisoners hired someone else to do the actually carving.
We arrived too late to go on any of the guided tours with a yeoman like this, but he graciously posed for a picture. About 150 people, like him, live in the Tower. Undoubtedly this makes it easier to protect the Crown Jewels.

We stayed in the Tower until we were kicked out. After a cup of coffee at the Starbuck's at the foot of Tower Bridge, we then walked across the Tower Bridge to the south bank of the Thames. We walked along there for a bit, eventually finding a place to eat, walked across the Millenium Bridge towards St. Paul, and went back home.

On Sunday afternoon we found Canary Wharf. What used to a major shipping dock in East London has been transformed into a large planned urban space filled with skyscrapers that house offices of some of the major financial players in the world. What was most remarkable was that on a Sunday afternoon the place was practically empty. Bizarre. The first time in London that we didn't encounter scads of people hustling here and there. Despite that, all the restaurants were open, though unattended. Hundreds of tables and chairs set up outdoors--though this was not a good day to have a meal under the skies since there was an occasional rain drop.

The camera didn't work that afternoon, but here are some images of the Wharf. It is truly spectacular.

Our main goal that afternoon was to visit the Docklands Museum, part of the Museum of London. The Docklands Museum main focus is on the development of shipping and the history of the various docks that merchants used for their trading vessels. The exhibits begin with the Romans and move forward. As far as I can determine there are no longer any shipping docks within London, but it was shipping that transformed London into the major trading port of not only England, but arguably of the world. Fascinating history.

We topped off the weekend with a birthday party for John at the Kilfoyle's house near Waterloo Station. He turned 10. We enjoyed ourselves so much we didn't make it home again until very late.

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