Navigating World History and Culture in London

Punting the River Cambridge, Cambridge, England

I first traveled to London, Stratford-on-Avon, Bath, and Scotland in the early 1970’s during my vagabond days.  It was a tour on the cheap, moving from hostel to hostel via hitch-hiking, trains, and bicycle transport.

In 2002 I returned with my daughters to tour the highlights of London and Paris. I continued to imbue them with the tour bug while they were still quite young with snorkeling trips to Mexico, Jamaica, and Sanibel Island, and of course included the Disney worlds. As Europe was their initiation into cultural travel, my daughters were inspired to study there while in college. The older daughter went to Prague during her junior year abroad, and the younger to Beijing.  They were seasoned travelers by this time.

A British Museum of Kente cloth native to the Akan ethnic group of South Ghana.

In February 2015 I returned with family for 10 days in London to take in the fabulous art treasures and antiquities gathered from Britain’s colonial period and preserved at the National Gallery, Tate Modern, the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Imperial War Museum, the British Parliament and the Tower of London.  All but a few are free of charge.  The vast scope of artwork, architecture and tradition is breathtaking!

Travel around London is comparatively easy.  The underground is superbly constructed, relatively cheap and easy to use with a prepaid Oyster Card.  It helps offset the high cost of hotels, although we stayed in the South End so prices were around $120 per night with free breakfast, which is a good rate.  London is an eminently walkable town for however long your legs will take you, and there is always an underground station close by.

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II in the British National Museum

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II in the British National Museum

The National Gallery exhibits range from the 13th century (Botticelli)  to the 16th (Michelangelo) the 17th (Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer) and the 18th-20th, which features Western European artists such as Goya, Turner, Monet, and Van Gogh.  The museum was built in Trafalgar Square where it would be accessible to both the wealthier West London crowd as well as the poorer communities in the East End.

The British Museum houses the largest collection of Chinese ceramics outside of China and also includes many Islamic, Egypt, Rome and Greek objects. There is a colorful African art collection, a fascinating exhibit of money from ancient to modern times, and a stunning selection of clocks and watches. There is something for everyone!

 

A large colorful kite in the trendy Tate Modern

A large colorful kite in the trendy Tate Modern

The trendy Tate Modern is housed in a huge converted power station, consisting of 4.2 million bricks overarching huge display spaces.  Over 50 million visitors have come to see the structure in its first 10 years. Exhibits range from abstract modern art to performance and photographic art. Its four shops, espresso bar, café and gourmet restaurant seem to be filled to capacity day and night.

Every English sovereign has been crowned in Westminster Abbey beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066, and most of the monarchs and other notables are buried here.  It is a fine example of early English gothic, nonetheless jammed with chapels, monuments, crypts and statutory.  Most recently, Prince William and Kate were married there.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

I particularly liked the Poet’s Corner, a section of the South Transept where a high number of poets, playwrights, and writers are buried and commemorated, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer in 1556.

Although the British parliament was not in session, we opted to visit the Houses of Parliament to learn the history of this legislative body and how if differs from its American counterpart.

The Tower of London, while it houses the royal crown jewels, is primarily known as a former prison and site of execution, including two of Henry VIII’s wives.  The royal armories displaying magnificent suits of armor and mail for men and horses is worth a visit as well.

London is a haven for theatre lovers, from Shakespeare at the Globe to spectacular staging from the National to West End Fringe productions.  We saw shows from two books I have enjoyed. One was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a drama about an autistic boy and his struggles. The other was “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers,” a drama about the underbelly of Mumbai, India.  Both were fantastic!!

A Storefront in Cambridge, England

A Storefront in Cambridge, England

I was not as impressed with the shopping.  It seems that all the American fashion chains have laid their claim to Regent Street.  I was hardly going to buy a so-so sweater from Burberry for $300!  You’re better off in the neighborhood pop up markets where, if you are very selective, you can find some vintage wear to suit your tastes.

A Classic Pub in Cambridge, England

A Classic Pub in Cambridge, England

We opted to take the rail to spend a day in Cambridge, where bicycles rule the streets and small flat bottomed boats called punts rule the river.  It is a very charming college town.

British food is a mixed bag, and in transition. Pub fare is ubiquitous and the quality is variable.  I won’t miss the meat pies, fried fish, heavy roasts, and the mealy ‘chips’ which are heavy, soggy French fries.  However, some of the nouvelle British cooking is quite good in that they creatively use a lot more vegetables such as beets, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, squash, and rhubarb.

One such nouvelle British establishment boasted fare “from snout to tail.” a place where you could share a roast fetal piglet or enjoy cuttlefish (squid) cooked in ink.  It was really quite rich.

Overall, beef, rabbit and cod and haddock are staples. Succulent desserts are sherry trifle, toffee bread pudding and “winter crumble,” similar to a fruit crisp.

Given the long, grey and cold Minnesota winters, this cultural trip was a wonderful respite.  I cannot think of another city in all of the 40 countries I have visited that has such a vast, well-preserved trove of art and architecture.

 

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