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.

Paintings, Pumpkins, and Parks

This week is half-term, what the English call fall break. That means no school for Benedict. Given the opportunity, I took him to the Courtauld Art Gallery to see their small but important art collection on Monday. There is no entrance fee to the museum on Monday between 10am and 2pm.

While their collection spans several hundred years of European art, their Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection is especially superb. The museum takes up a small portion of the large and impressive Somerset House, a neo-classical palace built in 1550 by the Duke of Somerset (and Lord Protector of the son of the late Henry VIII) who, unfortunately, was executed before he could move in. Located near Waterloo Bridge, its address is on the Strand and its rear abuts the Thames. Recently it was used as a set for the film 'Sherlock Holmes', an appropriate location because, as Dr. Watson tells us in 'A Study in Scarlet', it was in a hotel on the Strand where Dr. Watson lived prior to meeting and sharing rooms with Holmes on Baker Street.

We spent only 45 minutes in the gallery. As mentioned, the collection is fairly small while a young man's attention span for such abstract pleasures is short. Besides, due to the free admission the number of people in the museum by 11:15 began to distract from the enjoyment of the art.

This Degas painting of Two Ballerinas is a
companion to the painting of the Three
Ballerinas we saw in Scotland.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Edouard Monet

Autumn effect at Argenteuil by Claude Monet

Self-portrait with bandaged ear by Van Gogh

The Conversion of St. Paul by Rubens

That afternoon the Kilfoyles came over for a pumpkin carving party and dinner.
Sarah, Benedict, and John busy at work.

Cleaning out the innards.

Sometimes moms are scarier than jack o' lanterns.

Franz and Jim discussing the influence of Halloween on
philosophical and literary studies. (Actually, Jim is shuffling
and about to deal Uno cards. We're not THAT obsessed.)

The next day, Tuesday, proved to a chilly and wet day. A perfect day to meet Susan and John in Kensington Park to allow the boys to frolic at the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Playground.
But first we had to explore the park a bit. Here's the gang at the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain, which is in Hyde Park adjacent to Kensington and really resembles a concrete brook more than it does a fountain. All this is part of the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Walk. All this Diana stuff is here because the late Princess of Wales lived in Kensington Palace.
And here they are appreciating an art installation of stainless steel sculptures created by Anish Kapoor.

There are several of Kapoor's sculptors in the park on temporary exhibition guarded by young uniformed men to prevent people from touching or getting too close. Not a problem for this piece sitting peacefully in the Round Pound. Too cold and drizzly for anyone to wade out there.
Finally, the playground. On a nicer day it would be crawling with children. Susan and John have been to the playground, which is pretty big, when scads and scads of kids and their parents choked the passageways and fought over the equipment. Good for us that almost all Londoners and their kids preferred indoor activities this day.

The center piece of the playground is this grand pirate ship.
Our last bit of pilgrimaging took us to the opposite side of the park from the playground where we enjoyed this wonderful statue of Peter Pan. Note all the characters crawling up to join Peter at the top.

By this time we were near the Lancaster Gate Underground Station on Bayswater Road, the same road our bus took on Sunday. Susan and John took the bus to their home near Waterloo Station, and Benedict and I took the tube home, after a detour to Wimbledon where we promptly got back on the tube when it was obvious that the Tennis Centre was a bit too far from the station to visit that day.

Primrose, Regents, and Consulting the Detective

Map of Primrose Hill Park and Regent's Park.

Late Sunday morning promised a day of chilly sunshine. We don't know how many more such days we will be blessed with while we're in England. The obvious course of action for the day was to spend it outside. Our plan of action was to go to Primrose Hill Park at the northern edge of central London. There, we'd been told, we could get a panoramic view of London from the top of a hill.

And so we did. The photo doesn't do the view justice since this view is facing the south, more or less into the sun. Towards the right upper corner you may be able to make out St. Paul's Cathedral.
Many people showed up in the park for the same reason we did, to catch the view, and as you can see quite a few of them brought their dogs along.

Erika had hoped to go to Camden Market, but I wasn't in the mood to go shopping among tons of people. I preferred to stroll through The Regent's Park, one of several royal parks dotting London.
Statue carved from wood in The Regent's Park.

This is known as The Hub. It stands in the middle of dozens of football pitches. Volunteers from the football clubs using the pitches serve sandwiches, pizza, and drinks in the cafe perched atop the mound as you see above. The view allows diners to watch football games from all over the fields. Under the cafe are
changing and excercise rooms.

The Honest Sausage, a bit of German gemuetlichkeit in the park.
A gate looking out from Queen Mary's Garden. While primarily a rose garden, this part of The Regent's Park also contains a small Japanese garden.
As you can see, the sun was shining brightly on the roses that day. The roses bloomed and scented beautifully.
This little guy, one of several statues in the garden, wants to do something harmful to the vulture.

Black swans swimming in the Garden's pond.
Part of the Japanes garden.

'Can we play some football now? This is getting boring.'

A grey heron squatting on a branch.

The mayor of London introduced this idea to get more Londoners out of their cars. People can rent these bikes, first half hour free, to cycle around town. They simply leave them at another bicycle stand. They are all over central London. They have not made it out to the outer boroughs such as Ealing.

Between the rental bicycles and the Boating Lake we wandered through the campus of Regent's College. One doesn't expect to find a major college in the middle of a premier park, but there you have it.

London's main mosque as seen from The Regent's Park

The Boating Lake in the park
We spent quite a bit of time in the park strolling in Queen Mary's Garden, smelling roses every now and then. The Boating Lake, outside of the Garden but still in the park, attracted many people seeking, like us, some contact with nature in an otherwise intensely urban environment. There were few people renting boats on a chilly day, but hundreds took advantage of the sunshine.

A couple of blocks from the park we visited 221B Baker Street, the former residence of Sherlock Holmes. You can take a virtual tour here.

Nothing gets past her. Nothing. Trust me.

Dr. Watson regales his guests and me in Holmes' study with
accounts of his many adventures with the analytic detective.

As you can probably imagine, Holmes' former residence is filled with memorbilia relating to his life and famous cases. There are also scenes re-enacted by wax figures and in drawings to bring those cases alive.
In Holmes' own hand.

We had a lot of fun in this museum, and in the gift shop we bought a graphic novel of Holmes' first case, A Study in Scarlet, as recorded by Dr. Watson.

Eventually it was time to go home. Instead of taking the tube, which has a station on Baker Street, we decided to take a bus and see where it took us. By this time, unfortunately, the camera's batteries had run out of juice. We got on the bus going to Oxford Circle in the middle of prime London shopping, and we rode it to its end. Humoungus crowds of people jostled each other on the sidewalks. Christmas lights were already strung over the streets. The streets were congested with cars inching along.

When we reached Oxford Circle we saw a bus heading for Acton Green, not too far, we thought, from our house in Ealing. After exploring the large Apple store with a large herd of other people, we found the right bus stop and got on the Acton Green bus. Because of the heavy traffic, the bus moved slowly and stopped at nearly every bus stop to let out and let in more riders. We passed the Marble Arch in Hyde Park and then drove along Bayswater Road, the street bordering the north side of Kensington and Hyde Parks. The bus passed through Notting Hill, Shepherd's Bush, and after a lengthy time we arrived at Acton Green. The Piccadilly Line of the underground passed nearby. Rather than take the tube, we walked up to High Street, almost a mile, to catch the bus that goes by Benedict's school and on to Northfield Avenue. While it took a lot longer to get home by bus than by tube, we did get to see parts of London from the bus that we might otherwise have ignored.