I will omit retelling the tale of our canceled flight at length – they canceled it entirely, for a fog that lasted only an hour, and we had to rebook on a flight that nevening instead. Suffice it to say we lost an entire day. Of 40th-birthday vacation. In London. Yes, steam still rises from my ears when I tell the story.
I’m all the more ticked about this because I’d just booked a flight with the same airline back to London in May, when I meet my Mom there.
We did some errands during the day, trying to enjoy having in effect an extra ‘weekend’ day. The evening flight went without a hitch, and we took the Standsted Express to Liverpool Station. Perhaps it’s because the train goes there and not to Kings Cross, but I was disappointed to find no Chocolate Frogs or Pumpkin Pasties on the cart. We cabbed to our hotel, the Hotel Russell in Russell Square. Excellent location, very comfortable, extremely picturesque, prices outrageous by most standards but quite reasonable for London. Don’t eat there though: the prices for food are ridiculous. (It’s best in London to just not think about the exchange rate, anyway – but this was high even by local standards.) Good play to stay otherwise, though, and there are lots of restaurants nearby plus a cafe just across in the park which was perfect for breakfast.
We got two-zone bus-tube passes Friday and Saturday, which worked very well for what we want to do. The first day, we took the Tube to Westminster, then booked a boat ride to Greenwich (our passes got us £3 off the price). They narrate al the sites on the river on the way down, which is nice if you don’t know the city well.
At Greenwich, we started with the Royal Chapel and Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College. The latter, especially, is magnificent. They built it originally as a dining hall for Naval pensioners, but twenty years later when the painting was done, it was decided that it was too magnificent for them. (It was already a tourist attraction.) After those, we headed to the National Maritime Museum, beginning with the Queen’s House, where the museum’s art is shown. It’s a very lively art collection – all ships naval battles and shipwrecks, as you might expect. Our kind of place – we do much better with that than with modern art. (The last time we visited a museum of the latter, some of the art was quite literally not distinguishable from trash thrown on the floor.) The building itself was also quite nice; apparently James I was one of those who liked his queen, whomever else he might have liked more.
After that we hiked up a steep hill to the Naval Observatory, where ted was enthralled as I knew he’d be. We got to stand across the 0° meridian and to see all kinds of telescopes and star-charting instruments, as well as an exhibit on the development of the sextant and the accurate watch, the two intruments essential for figuring longitude. (I bought the book Longitude while we were there, so will have more knowledge on the subject henceforth.)
We finished with the Maritime Museum itself. We’d been discussing which boat to take home, but the museum was compelling enough to make us opt for the latest one. The parts on Antartic explorers were touching, when you’ve read a bit about all they went through; the barge of I-forget-which-king with 21 rowers and benches instead of sliding seats looked horrible to row for long, and there were exhibits on for lovers of O’Brian or Hornblower, or of the science of navigation, or of ecology – everything possible to do with the sea.
We got back in time to check and catch a bus head to Covent Garden for The Tempest. Patrick Stewart was, as expected, magnificent. He carried the play, though the actors playing Caliban and Ariel were wonderful as well. Miranda was patchy. She did a very convincing gawky 15-year-old, and her comedic timing was perfect – it was a much funnier play all around than I’d realized. I just didn’t find it all that believable when Ferdinand fell in love with her, or even vice versa, though at least the situation made it more believable on her part. The scenery was very minimalistic, but the first bit was fun. They play was done in 1930′s clothing, and we saw the shipwreck though the speaker-hole of an old marine radio that broadcasted the storm warnings first. This was an arctic island rather than a tropical one, and the Ariel was made up as more of an ice-spirit. He had three “goddesses” (as described in the program) to help him with eerie harmonies, though they were (fortunately) fairly unobtrusive except in the betrothal scene, which was dramatic if bizarre. I’m certain it wasn’t what Shakespeare had in mind, but not sure at all that he wouldn’t have liked it. The play had a dark feel, but he performance was faithful to the original in general – the only change I’ve spotted was transferring a speech from Prospero to Miranda – the one about teaching Caliban to speak, which does make sense to establish their former relationship. So that was really my present to myself, and I’m indebted to the person who told me about it.
Saturday was our busiest day. After breakfast, we headed out to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We got there about 20 minutes before it opened and I didn’t feel like standing around waiting, so instead we walked through Hyde Park (Hyde Park! Rotten Row! The Round Pond and the Long Water! It’s really preposterous how many London streets and landmarks are familiar to me – at least their names) to Kensginton palace. We saw rooms of Royals from William and Mary to Princess Margaret, the dress Queen Elizabeth II wore in France in 1952, and exhibits on just what went in to a court presentation and what the final outfit looked like. I’m not a big fan of Princess Diana, but there was an exhibit of photos of her that was really stunning, along with a few of her dresses. By the time we’d walked the kilometer-plus back to the V&A, I was feeling I’d seen enough period rooms and dresses to last a while, so we just took a quick look through the England 1500-1760 Hall and the Fashion exhibit, then paid a similar quick visit to the Science Museum because Ted loves it, but it was a zoo that day – a very noisy one.
We walked out to the other end of the park in hopes of having lunch at a place called Paxton’s Head, but unfortunately they’re renovating and it was closed until the end of the month so we picked up a quick lunch at Harrod’s instead. We folloed signs to the Food Court, but most of it was food to be taken home rather than eaten there. When I asked a uniformed staff person (they were everywhere – probably everyone does get lost and need to ask) if there was a sit-down restaurant and how to get there, he said, “Well, which one? We have 28.” We ended up at a sandwiches and light-food place near the ladies’ luxury clothing, where Ted had a sandwich on a bagel and I had a baked potato and a sense of homecoming – they don’t really do baked potatoes in the Netherlands.
We were tied y then but decided to tube just one stop past our hotel to the new British Library. Frankly, I was disappointed, at least with the outside. The building looks more like a train station (a very nice one, admittedly) than a great library; the library it reminds me of most is that one at ASU. On the other hand, the exhibit of its greatest treasures could never disappoint, and the best part was seeing how many people were absorbed in peering at each item. (Not too many for us to be able to see, fortunately.) After walking back to the hotel (with very sore feet by now) we consulted with the concierge about dinner ideas. He wasn’t able to offer much advice, but from a magazine he had I picked out Konstam at the Prince Albert, whose conceit is that most of their food is source from insde the M25, within the six zones of London. I’d agree with the reviews that the appetizers and desserts were better than the main courses. We both began with purple-and-yellow sprouting broccoli in a lemony sauce with some tasty but unidentifiable crunchy stuff with bits of nut and we’re not sure what else, but it was good. Ted had a venison and rabbit pie he wasn’t thrilled with; I had a roast chicken with potatoes and roasted chicory (because it amused me to leave the Netherlands and still be eating witlof) that was good but a bit heavy on the melted butter. He finished with gooseberry sorbet, and I with goat cheese and local honey. It’s a good combination; either can be overwhelming alone but they tone each other down.
On Sunday morning, we took a quick peek inside the British Museum’s Great Hall, before heading off to meet some online friends of mine at the Railway Tavern, near the Liverpool Street Station. My burger was overcooked and a bit tasteless, but it was a real burger without the funny taste Dutch ones have, and it was one more chance to have ale instead of the lager that’s all we can get in the Netherlands. About six people showed up to meet us, including one from Finland who’s working in London at the moment, and we talked about mutual acquaintances, books, rowing (one’s an Oxford cox!), and the differences between countries. The train back to Standsted let us get a look at a bit of the country outside London, since it was daylight this time, and we got back early enough in the evening to have time to eat and unpack without missing any sleep.
We did skip our workout this morning, though.