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England Day 2 – Take me to the River

An ugly American tee-shirt.Below is one of a series of posts that document a week-long visit to England in 2006. “Lifebird” posts are published separately. This post’s bird-nerdy companion piece is Lifebirds #89-100 – England Day 2. Links to all England 2006 posts are found at the end of this one.

Friday, July 20, 2006: Hanging around

Peter Pan sculpture in Kensington GardensJet-lagged or not, we were up early to explore Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. This was largely a birding excursion (recounted separately), but we saw stuff too! After showing a sweet old lady a Blackcap (a bird) near the Garden’s iconic Peter Pan sculpture (pictured), we walked east through Hyde Park to its northeast corner, Speaker’s Corner, passing a quaintly attractive small structure (click through the photo gallery for a peek) near the boundary between Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

PlaceholderLondon's Marble ArchA monument along the park’s north edge marking the site of the “Tyburn Tree”, where over a period of more than 400 years (ending in 1783) many unfortunate subjects were “stretched,” was ghastly. Oliver Cromwell was hanged from the gallows there, but being predeceased, his hanging was strictly ornamental. He did not dance the “Tyburn jig” (Tom Waits fans, take note).

PlaceholderAcross from Speaker’s Corner stands the Marble Arch. We marveled at it, photographed it, and briefly perused Oxford Street before descending into the London Underground to buy “oyster passes,” good for one week of subway rides on “The Tube.”

Breakfast and dead poets

The Tower Big BenAfter a quick ride from Marble Arch station to what would be our “home” station, Queensway, we breakfasted at our hotel. The highlight, if my rough contemporaneous notes are reliable, was that “one [could] drink as many thimble-sized glasses of OJ as one [wanted].” My complaints about food and portion sizes is a theme running through my notes. More on this later.

So, having sated ourselves on hotel food rivaling anything available from a Days Inn in Iowa, we jumped on the tube and emerged in the shadow of Big Ben. “Eng-a-land swings,” to borrow from the Kansas City Star! I hope we didn’t exude “hayseeds!” as we gaped at it and the Parliament building, the Thames, and our early-afternoon destination…

Above the entrance to Westminster AbbeyWestminster Abbey
There is no way to truly convey my awestruck experience at Westminster Abbey. As a long-time unabashed Anglophile I was gobsmacked. Joann enjoyed the visit, I know, but I suspect she was mostly happy for me. Photography was not allowed inside of the church, so snapshots of its ornate entrance and of part of its yard are all I have to show here. Photos of it are easily found. (Wikipedia’s informative page is a great jumping-off place).

A shot from the yard of Westminster AbbeyIt is a fairly old church, existing on the site from 970 C.E. on. Edward the Confessor started a rebuild in the mid-11th century and had St Peter’s Abbey consecrated in 1065, whereupon he proceeded to die a week later. Henry III rebuilt it in c.1450 and made the tomb of his hero Edward the Confessor its centerpiece, and it was this imposing ~550-year-old monument where our visit began. The extra four pounds each we paid a verger for his tour was well-spent. His narration was full of fascinating color, and he was a joy to hear.

Traveler's rough notesThe Abbey is England’s most prestigious boneyard. We gazed upon, and sometimes walked upon, the final resting places of some of the realm’s most notable persons. Not a few of whom were scoundrels of the highest rank. I was impressed by the effigies of Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots (click to see enlarged image), Henry V, and others from the pages of Shakespeare and Alison Weir. Better, we saw and stood in “Poet’s Corner,” hobnobbing with Chaucer, Spencer, Milton (who, I recently learned, is my ancestor), Handel, and Dickens! Elsewhere Herschel, Lyell, and two of the greatest scientists to ever live, Newton and Darwin. Even Joann’s knees might have gone weak among these icons. (Oddly, we found playwright Ben Jonson billeted with the scientists.)

Of all of the grave markers and memorial plaques, only the one memorializing the Unknown Warrior is not to be trod upon. So I tried to stand on the markers of as many of my favorite dead English white guys as possible.

Lunch, dinner, and a new old theatre

ParliamentThe GlobeBack to the underground for a quick trip “home” for a nap. First we stopped for a light lunch on Gloucester Road, just around the corner from our hotel. Chicken strips, tortilla with salsa, and what I described as “Lilliputian Diet Cokes.” To liven things up, Joann left her purse–passport, credit cards, cash, etc–at the table as we left. Halfway back to our hotel she remembered it. Adrenaline! We rushed back and met our Russian-English waitress halfway. We couldn’t have been happier to see her again. I thanked her with a poorly-pronounced but sincere “spaceeba!” Giving her an additional tip might have been even better.

Our Frommer’s guide called our Bayswater home base quite diverse, with significant Arab and Russian populations. Later, I learned that the Russian Embassy was not far from our hotel. We found it to be an interesting and exciting area. I wish I remembered how I chose the place, but I don’t think I could have done better.

London's Globe historical markerFed, rested, and showered, we were ready to go again. The Central line took us from Bayswater to St Paul’s station. Our views of St Paul’s Cathedral were spoiled somewhat by the refurbishment efforts underway. Blimey! We were short on time anyway, so had a quick look around before walking the sleek new pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge to the Southwark area south of the river. Here Elizabethan theatre and its associated bawdy entertainments were situated just outside the capital proper, where the Queen left all (relatively) free to misbehave.

We did have reservations for 5PM at a Greek restaurant near the Globe, but when we arrived at the bustling place it was clear we wouldn’t be served quickly enough to make the play. So we informed the host and left to pursue other options. There were almost as many restaurants in the area as there were buskers of all types working the south embankment crowds. In the end we chose to try the Globe Theatre’s own restaurant. A poor choice. But we managed to scarf down something, and headed in to the venue.

The playhouse is the thing

An interior shot of the theatreThe play we saw was Coriolanus. It is one of four of Shakespeare’s plays set in ancient Rome. It is not very popular, which doesn’t necessarily mean it is not very good. But, it is unpopular for a reason, and that reason might be that it’s not very good. But we saw it in a very special place–a recreation of an iconic, Elizabethan theatre on the approximate exact spot (oxymoronic!) where it burned to the ground in 1613–and were predisposed to be generous with our assessment of the performance.

Thumbnail of a PDF copy of a review of the production from The Guardian.We really did enjoy the play, and maybe we weren’t wrong. A review from The Guardian praised the production and lead actor Jonathan Cake’s performance. Click on the thumbnail at right to read a PDF copy of it.

Still, the venue and the setting in Bankside where Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Elizabethan actors, performers and impresarios of all sorts worked, and where bawdy and drunken revelers, and most everyone except puritans and the Queen herself played as an escape from poverty, plagues, and their generally short, difficult lives? A thrill! We were lucky to be seated above the “groundlings” who stood packed together in the heat and humidity, undoubtedly smelling of an earthier time.

After buying souvenir tee-shirts (mine never really fit–my U.S. large corresponds to an extra-large in the U.K. I guess) we headed back to our hotel exhausted and smiling after a long day.
This promotional poster hung on the Globe's outer wall. (July 20, 2006: London, England)A view of the theatre's balcony. (July 20, 2006: London, England)Prior to the start of the play, the 'pit' is only starting to fill with 'groundlings.' (July 20, 2006: London, England)I am dripping with perspiration as I perch in my seat high above the peasant groundlings. (July 20, 2006: London, England)

England swings, 2006
England Day 1 – London’s Burning
Lifebirds #87-88 – England Day 1
England Day 2 – Take me to the River
Lifebirds #89-100 – England Day 2
England Day 3 – Brighton Sunny
England Day 4 – Sweet Swans of Avon
England Days 5-6 – Cambridge and Bath
Lifebirds #101-105 – England Days 3-6
England Days 7-8 – Parks and the Tower
Lifebirds #106-115 – England Day 7: MBS!

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