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London #3: Palace of Westminster

October 23rd, 2007 2 comments

From Tommy’s notebook. Photo link: London – Westminster

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When: Saturday 29 September 2007, 11am-12:30pm

Blurb: The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament, is the site of the two houses of the United Kingdom parliament.

My thoughts: The Houses of Parliament are open for guided tours during the summer recess, and for public observation during sittings. The former gives you wider access and more information, but the latter is free, and lets you see politicians in action.

While the intricate (fiddly) carvings and Gothic towers give the building the image of a relic of a bygone era, it is very much a living organism still full of vitality. At the entrance to the House of Commons, for example, the hall is ringed with busts and statues of great prime ministers, and not just Winston Churchill or Benjamin Disraeli – Margaret Thatcher launches forth, fingers pointing, from her pedestal. Several pedestals and alcoves remain bare, a reminder of the future.

Ceremony and symbolism is everywhere, and much more palpable than at, say, Buckingham Palace. At the same time, there is a marked contrast between the Lords’ section, and that of the Commons. The tour enters from the sovereign’s entrance. At the end of a long corridor is an ante room filled with busts of Prime Ministers who have come from the House of Lords – unlike the equivalent colleciton at Commons, there doesn’t seem to be provision for any future additions. This part of the Palace is decorated in red from head to toe. The architectural design aims to facilitate the monarch’s procession. The art focuses on the glories of the British nation – Waterloo and Trafalgar, King Arthur, other great kings of the past.

As one moves towards Commons, the theme changes. A series of paintings around Saint Stephen’s Tower, the central tower that separates Lords from the Commons, reminds the visitor of the violence and turmoil that lead to the uneasy truce between Parliament and Sovereign. The House of Commons chamber is significantly smaller than the Lords – apparently as a result of Churchill’s

The division between the Commons on the one hand and the Lords and Sovereign on the other extends outside. The courtyard outside the Lords’ section features an equestrian statue of King Richard I, while the much smaller space outside the Commons’ section features a standing statue of Oliver Cromwell. On the other side, Westminster Bridge, which crosses the Thames at the Commons’ end of the building, is painted in a green theme, while Lambeth Bridge, at the Lords’ end, has a red theme.

Tips:

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London #2: British Museum

October 3rd, 2007 No comments

 

From Tommy’s notebook. Photo link

Where: Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG

When: Saturday 29 September 2007, 3-5 pm

Blurb: Established in 1753, the British Museum is one of the world’s greatest museums of human history and culture, with a collection of more than 13 million objects.

My thoughts: Depending on your view, the British Museum is either a spectacular gathering of human achievement, or a painful record of imperial aggression. I certainly felt a bit of both. It is enlightening and exciting to see the evolution of civilisation brought together under the one roof; but looking at the lone Egyptian pillar, the transplanted whole Lycian temple, and the more famous Elgin marbles, I wandered what they would be like in situ, and what had happened to the places from which the artefacts were taken. I think I would be more relieved if the temple was ruined without a trace. The more uncomfortable thought is if the temple is ruined but standing, missing its pillar like an amputee.

There was a little pamphlet in the Elgin Marbles gallery, putting forward the British Museum’s case for retaining the scuptures, and a summary of the Greeks’ argument for seeking their return. I was surprised to learn that while Athens and London each hold about an equal share of the Parthenon’s scultpures, there were significant bits in lots of European cities. Now while I’m not entirely sure whether the London marbles should stay or return to Athens, I’m pretty sure there is no excuse for Parthenon scultpures to be in Copenhagen, where hardly anyone can access them.

Like all national museums in Britain, entry is free. This means that the forecourt and lobby are as crowded, messy, and dirty as any street market.

Once you head past the entrance section, however, the majestic collection of antiquities make the crowds barely noticeable. The “wow” factor begins with the Great Court, a recently refurbished courtyard surrounding the round Reading Room (which every victim of Communist indoctrination will know as the place where Marx researched and wrote Das Kapital), and topped by a giant glass canopy. The courtyard houses information, ticket offices, and other amenities.

The Great Court was designed to bring order to the maze of galleries of the British Museum. To that, I would say that it brings a sense of order, but a sense is all it is. It acts as a central focal point, from which you can easily navigate to the entrance, and by which you can reference your location from signs. However, it is no easier to get to a specific gallery. To do that, I frequently had to walk the length of exhibition rooms, up and down stairs, and backtrack from dead-endds.

The British Museum is big, and I had left myself just 2 hours on my first visit. I decided that I would aim for the Elgin Marbles, passing through Egypt, Assyria, and Lycia on the way. One highlight along the way was the Rosetta Stone. Remember how I said you barely notice the crowds? Well the crowds are emphatically brought to your attention at the Rosetta Stone, contained in a glass case at the junction of two galleries. It was surrounded by a 5-deep crowd, all craning to see (and photograph) the famous stone. Not only was I stuck behind a tall, burly fellow, but he stood there staring at the stone for about ten minutes. I can only guess that he could read hieroglyphics and was appreciating the style of the prose.

I went back a few days later – this time at night, to take advantage of the Museum’s late openings (Thursdays and Fridays). There was a Mid-Autumn Festival-themed event, complete with Chinese music performances and moon cake eating. On my way to the Asian galleries, I noticed that the Rosetta Stone was relatively free by 8pm – the crowd was only 3-deep.

Still have to go back to see the other galleries.

Tips: Don’t try to see it in one day, much less a couple of hours. Ideally, spread your visits over several days, every time concentrating a discrete portion. If you don’t have the luxury of time, aim for the highlights.

Entry is free, so it can be quite crowded on weekends and in peak season.

Website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/

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London #1: Westminster Abbey

October 1st, 2007 3 comments

Westminster Abbey - western door

From Tommy’s notebook. Photo link

Where:  Dean’s Yard SW1, London.

When: Saturday 29 September 2007, 1:30pm-3pm.

Blurb: The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, originally and almost invariablly known as Westminster Abbey, has been the site of royal coronations and burials since William the Conqueror in 1066.

My thoughts: From the outside, Westminster Abbey is as magnificnet as you might expect, especially the Gothic exoskeleton formed by flying buttresses on a grand scale. The walls of the church has an interesting patchwork appearance, though – some of it unintentional, due to new, lighter stones replacing old, darkened ones; other bits are deliberate. The Northern Entrance, for example, features alternatively yellow and grey coloured statuery and other adornments – either coloured terra cotta or painted stone.

The church advertises with a byline “From 1065 to Today”, no doubt designed to remind the visitor of that moment of beginning in English history of 1066, for Westminster Abbey was an integral backdrop to that turbulent episode. It was built by Edward the Confessor, whose death triggered the race for power of 1066, and who is buried at the heart of the church behind the high altar. It was consecrated shortly before his death. Within the next year, it saw the coronation of both of the major contestants of the throne of England – Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror.

Ever since then, the Abbey has been intertwined with English history. Its role as a funerary Hall of Fame of the nation has meant that for the most part it is an exhibition space for tombs and monuments. One particular striking monument is located in Islip Chapel (“A” on this plan of the abbey) – two marble figures start back atop a pedestal, while a grim reaper emerges through a metal door in the pedestal, reaching to strike the main figures with a sword.

The sense of history is palpable, not just by the names on the graves and monuments, but even more so by the chiselled out coats of arms and missing effigies that hint at turbluence over the centuries.

Henry VII’s Lady Chapel presents a bright and airy contrast to the Gothic gloom of the rest of the church. An interesting monument to look out for is dedicated to a master mason. It consists of a mirror set at waist level, that allows the visitor to see, without straining the neck, the elaborate fan vaulting on the ceiling of this chapel.

Tips: Photography is not allowed in the abbey itself.

Check last admission times. On Saturdays, last admission is 1:45. If you gamble and get in around last admission, you should finish the tour just in time for evensong (3pm on Saturday, 5pm other days).

Admission is £7 for students, but worship on Sunday is free.

Follow the specified route in the introductory pamphlet. Certain parts of the church are not accessible from other parts unless you follow the prescribed route, so if you miss one part (as I did) you would have to trace your stelps all the way back.

Website: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/

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