19-21 Nov: London, England (part 2)

This narrative covers the second half of our time in London, England. I'll post a link to the photo page on the next entry, covering our return home and a reflection on the trip as a whole.


Bridge to Queens' College at Cambridge University

Bridge to Queens' College at Cambridge University

This was an excursion day for us. We caught an early train up to Cambridge so we could visit the university. Our guided tour took us through Queens' College (spelled since two different queens helped get the college started) and King's College, ending in King's Cathedral.

One thing that makes Cambridge (and Oxford) different from other universities is the colleges are separate entities from the overall university. They're responsible for enroling undergraduate students, housing them, and sports. Another interesting thing is while lectures can be very large, Cambridge and Oxford students have close contact with one instructor (two students during the same weekly one hour session) where they can ask questions about things they don't understand. The universities are proud that they are able to offer such individualized help for everyone.

After our tour we looked at Trinity College, and Wren Library in particular. We saw original copies of Winnie the Pooh as well as Isaac Newton's Principa.

The Ardabil Carpet at the Virginia and Albert Museum

The Ardabil Carpet at the Virginia and Albert Museum

When we got back to London we headed to the Virginia & Albert Museum, which is open late Fridays. However, not the whole museum is open late, so there were several sections which were closing as we showed up. We were able to still see a lot of things, including a huge 500 year old Islamic carpet (very intricate, having about 300 knots per square inch), casts of many great sculptures including Michaelangelo's David, and a Chihuly glass sculpture. It was a very impressive collection, and it was too bad we only had time to hit highlights.

Back at the hostel I broke down and paid for wireless access since we weren't having much luck finding free access. Fortunately the connection was very snappy. Since I didn't get a connection from the room, I was hanging out down in the lobby area, and Melody had just fallen asleep when the fire alarm sounded. Having no jacket, I went out anyway, but fortunately it wasn't too cold. It's not clear what triggered the alarm, but we were soon allowed back in. Not long after, I went up to the room and a German guest was telling Melody that he was embarrassed that he had gone down in his pajama bottoms. Ah, German integrity.


The walk for the morning was along the South Bank. While the walk the first day was along the north side and ended on London Bridge, we started this one on London Bridge and worked our way across and saw, among other things, a set of panels describing the Frost Fair. When London Bridge was first installed in 1169 it slowed the river enough that it started to freeze over in the winter. Starting in 1564 people started doing things on the ice, creating the first Frost Fair. One of the panels even showed someone on the ice cooking over an open fire, which doesn't sound like a great idea. The last frost fair was in 1814, since a new London Bridge restored the river's flow and stopped from freezing over.

We made our way to the Globe Theatre, which is a recreation of the original where Shakespeare's plays were performed. The  current theatre is a recreation not only in dimensions, but in materials and building techniques. The theatre seats about 1,500 people, about half on the floor area in front of the stage. In Shakespeare's day, people on the floor were packed so tightly you couldn't move, so essentially you had to stand there during the whole play, which could be several hours.

Our last stop on the south side was the Tate Modern Gallery, which houses art from 1900 to present day. Some of the pieces we saw were a Picasso sculpture where he used common household items (including part of a drapery) to create a cubist interpretation of a dining table, a Pollock (whom one critic called "Jack the Dripper") which instead of having many thick coats of paint had a more rhythmic feeling to it, and Rodin's "The Kiss".

Millennium Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral on the far side

Millennium Bridge, St. Paul's Cathedral on the far side

After we were done at the Tate Modern we walked across the Millennium Bridge, designed for pedestrians. When it was first installed, it was apparently very wobbly, but the bridge felt quite solid to us.

We worked our way back to the hostel, but since it was only a block away we went to the British Library to take a look at their special collection, which included an original copy of the Magna Carta, a note from Ada Lovelace describing the concept of a computer program, an original manuscript of Handel's Messiah, and some notes jotted down by various members of the Beatles.

All during the day we were wondering if planned closures of London's Underground would affect us, but we didn't think it would be a problem, and as it ended up, we were indeed fine.


We headed out early enough to get to the British Museum when the Great Court was open but before the museum itself opened. We sketched out our plan for the visit (we were following an audio guide) and prepared to check Melody's bag. Just before 10am people started pouring in and a line quickly formed for the coat check, so we were glad we had gone nearer to where the line would be. Unlike other museums, there's an actual fee for checking items rather than a voluntary donation. In addition there was a strict size and weight limit for each item; they were weighing bags that looked heavy. One couple had one bag that was heavy and another which was fine, so they were asked to redistribute the weight to equalize the bags. Apparently lots of people go by the British Museum on their way to the airport, since we saw lots of people checking actual luggage.

People taking pictures of the Rosetta Stone

People taking pictures of the Rosetta Stone

The first thing we went to see was the Rosetta Stone. We and lots of other people; every time we walked past it there were quite a few people around it, most taking pictures. As we worked our way through the museum, however, the crowds evened out. There were groups of people around the Parthenon artifacts, but for the most part it's amazing how many people the museum can handle while seeming not full. I can imagine how crowded it gets during the high tourist season, however.

The Harry Potter movie was showing at the Odeon

The Harry Potter movie was showing at the Odeon

Done at the museum, we went down to the west end to do a walking tour. We started at Leicester Square which includes a sort of walk of fame, including the hand prints of many actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger's are huge!) and the Odeon, the largest movie theatre in London. We went through Covent Garden and poked our head in the market there, through Soho, then to the shopping areas of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus.

While we were doing our walk we saw a Whole Foods Market, the first one we'd seen on our trip. What was interesting about it is while many restaurants were encouraging people to arrange for Christmas dinner (even in Bristol at the end of October), this was the only store advertising Thanksgiving dinners. In England. We figured it's for the expats living in London.

The last tourist activity of our trip was to go back to the Tower of London to see the Ceremony of the Keys which has happened in the same way at the same time every night for the last 700 years. Our Yeoman Warder host for the night explained that the one time they were late was when the Tower got bombed during WWII. They moved the rubble out of the way and carried out the ceremony a few minutes late. They called the King to let him know and apologize for being late.

Anyway, we had to work out different Underground and bus routes to get to the Tower due to the weekend closures. We made it well in advance, in time to have a relaxed dinner. Unfortunately the restaurant closed at 9pm but we weren't due at the Tower until 9:30. We wandered over and saw only a few people, so thought we'd be able to warm up in the Starbucks right next door which seemed open (even though we saw many in every city, this was the first time we'd actually been in a Starbucks during the trip) but they too were about to close. We wandered around to try to keep warm, and 9:30 rolled around soon enough.

We were led in past the two gates and the ceremony was explained to us. As the ceremony started, four Escorts for the Keys came out of the central part of the tower. The Chief Yeoman Warder brought the keys and a lamp to the waiting escort and they all went to the outer gate. Our guide was already there, and the outer gate was locked, followed by the inner gate. As they worked their way back to where we were standing, another sentry challenged them, and after the proper responses, the sentry backed down and we followed everyone to well within the inner walls, where a bugler played.

You can probably guess that we were now locked within two sets of gates. However, each of the gates has a small door which let us pass through while the gates still stayed locked. We went to find our bus, then the underground, and made it back to the hostel to start packing for our return home the next morning.