London: The City of Museum-ly Love

Before we left China we didn’t have time to research what we should do while we are in London. Fortunately, there is so much going on we didn’t need to. The day we got in we forced ourselves to stay awake until 11pm so by 8am we were cured of jet lag and ready to start exploring.

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Mi’s mother, who was born here and visits at least once a year, suggested that we buy a London rail pass called an Oyster card to help us get around in the cheapest way. We bought two for £5 each and for £35 we also bought a week pass for the National Rail system, the Underground, the Overground and of course, the iconic double decker buses for zones 1 through 3.

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Our first stop was to the financial district of London so Kelly could finish some paperwork for a Canadian study permit. Once we finished we only had to walk a few minutes to find ourselves on London Bridge.

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Right across the bridge is Southwark church, one of London’s many beautiful gothic churches. Right next to the church is Borough Market, a daily food market with incredible options of cheap and delicious foods.

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We decided to split a vegan burger (a heavenly mix of vegetables with humous and a seed bun) and a falafel wrap.

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It has been so long since we have had real bread and food that is not China-fied that our mouths were watering for another bite while we were still chewing our current bite. We had to remind ourselves to savour the moment and chew slowly in order to enjoy it thoroughly.

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With full bellies, we continued to explore.

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A cool thing about London is that everything is relatively close together so it doesn’t take long to walk from one attraction to the next. This boat is a replica of Sir Frances Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind. Right down the street from the ship is another little gem.

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The Clink Prison is thought to be the oldest prison in London. The museum is built right on top of the original dungeon-like prison.

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Inside is a hands-on display of what it was like for the prisoners of this horrific prison. In addition to the torture and disease, prisoners actually had to pay for their shackles and manacles! If a prisoner had more money they could pay for lighter material and/or more links on their chain to allow for more freedom of movement. If a prisoner came into the prison without money, they were immediately thrown into the oubliette to be forgotten.

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Often the Thames river would overflow due to high tide and the Clink would flood. Prisoners would be forced to wallow in waist deep sewage.  The first to flood was the oubliette, but no one in the prison was free from the diseases such as Camp Fever (typhoid), The Ague (malaria), and The Flux (dysentery). Additionally, the heavy shackles always caused open sores which caused even more sicknesses. Even when not condemend by the church to death, most who entered the Clink never left with their life.

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There were plenty of devices used that were not considered torturous in those days. One is called The Gibbett, invented to publicly display a dead or dying body to allow the public to take out rage on a prisoner and/or scare the public into leading an honest life. Only in 1869 was imprisonment due to debt abolished. Before then, if someone was imprisoned for debt, their wife and children had to go to prison with them.

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The prisoners were not provided food. Their family had to bring them food. If they did not have family or money to pay for food they were forced to beg by the prison’s bars. The warden always wanted some of the food  and expected to be paid to give the prisoner their food. The position of a warden was not well paid but could be very lucrative. The warden not only collected food and money from the families of prisoners but also a percentage of money earned by the blacksmith and prisoners begging for money. We spent a couple hours in this museum then moved on for more exploration.

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The Olympic games, while once the most celebrated sporting event in the world, have become tarnished by politics and conflict. The locations chosen for the past few games have put financial strain on the inhabitants of those places and have been boycotted by potential spectators. The upcoming summer games in Brazil and the winter games to be hosted by Russia in 2014 will probably be no different.

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The blue painted trees are an installation to remind people that trees and nature are important. Often, trees become part of the backdrop when we are sightseeing. By painting them blue, we are reminded that without nature, nothing else would exist.

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After 10 hours or so of wandering around we headed back to Blackheath for dinner. We were still a little jet lagged and went to bed early, which isn’t easy because in the summer, the sun doesn’t go down until about 10pm and rises at 4:30am.

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Next was Mi’s favorite place, the Natural History Museum. We decided to go on a Saturday which was unwise because it was so busy. The line outside the museum went halfway around the block and inside the place was packed. Despite going on the weekend, we loved every minute of it. Every inch of the museum was interesting, even the architecture. The arches and walls are crowded with carvings of animals, insects, and shells. Stone monkeys cling to the corners and fish swam around pillars.

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This statue was one of Mi’s favorites because it is a statement about poaching and violence against animals, which Mi finds especially reprehensible and often overlooked.

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Mi posing with a personal hero, Charles Darwin.

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The exterior of the museum is guarded by a host of prehistoric gargoyles.

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For the past two Sundays, we have filled our bag and then our bellies with delicious fresh delights from the Blackheath Farmer’s Market. Although we ate as well as we could in China, we are so glad to have access to a wide variety of fresh organic foods again. In China, we rode our electric motorcycle to the market twice a week to load up on vegetables but we often found the food to be on the verge of going bad and the market was a health inspector’s worst nightmare. This farmer’s market, though, is clean and smells like summertime.

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Kelly embracing the first kale, chard, and spinach we have had in a year.

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Our host has a kitchen that is equipped with everything we need- including sharp knives and flavor infused oils.

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Mi pondering all the possibilities for our next day of adventuring. This is the view from our host’s house. The church in the background stands on the corner of the heath, which is actually a medieval burial pit. Apparently, the grass (which is now a sickly brown from the lack of rain) grows over the unmarked mass grave of thousands of plague victims.

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This is the first of many gorgeous salads we have enjoyed so far. That is also fresh bread, spicy pico de gallo from the farmer’s market, homemade tahini/garlic/lime salad dressing, and Meteor beer, which the French guy at the wine shop called “crazy good.”

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After lunch, we took a walk through the heath to Greenwich park in search of the Prime Meridian, where time starts. Although we got to the Maritime Museum too late to see the placard that marks the line, we crossed over it a few times as we wandered around the park and Greenwich village.

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We wandered around the park for a while trying to find the Prime Meridian and found the University of Greenwhich, which is situated on the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College.

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The next day was July 15th, our 2 year anniversary. To celebrate, we went to Kew Gardens where we admired the greenery and enjoyed a picnic of sandwiches, incredibly juicy strawberries, olives, chips and salsa, and the best ginger beer we have ever tasted. ❤

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After lunch, we enjoyed a couple of games of Bananagrams.

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Kelly paying a visit to a badger’s house.

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Kew Gardens has a variety of attractions that enable visitors to appreciate nature from numerous perspectives, including this treetop walkway high above the ground.

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This is how Kelly makes Mi feel. Happy anniversary!

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We were both intrigued by this bird’s feet.

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Pineapples!

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There is something prehistoric about these giant leaves.

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The next day, we got up bright and early to get to the Hunterian Museum when it opened. This is one of the largest collections of anatomical specimens and surgical instruments in the UK, based on the collection of famous anatomist John Hunter. This museum houses some of the first specimens used by early surgeons to teach students about the body, as well as anatomical anomalies like the twisted spine of a scoliosis victim below.

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This shows the life cycle of a frog- from egg to tadpole to adult.

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John Hunter’s elder brother William was less famous but also a gifted anatomist who conducted extensive studies of bones and dentistry. William was educated at university which shaped, and ultimately limited, his creative vision. John’s formal education, on the other hand, was limited by his dyslexia, but his intelligence and ability to think outside the box enabled him to make significant strides in the field; thus, he became the more famous brother.

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Early surgeon’s tools used for amputation. In the days before anesthesia, surgeons would have to work quickly in order to minimize pain and struggling during an operation. The most practiced surgeons were able to remove a leg in under a minute, with the patient awake and feeling every slice.

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This is one of the museum’s most famous, and most controversial, exhibits. The huge skeleton on the left is that of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant,” who stood 7’7” tall in life. He was a curiosity in the 18th century, especially to John Hunter who considered this skeleton the ultimate trophy for his collection. When Byrne passed away, at age 22, Hunter won the body at an auction, despite Byrne’s clear instructions to be buried at sea. Many of Hunter’s specimens were obtained in similar ways, often from grave robbers. 230 years later, there have been attempts to have the bones released from the collection so Bryne’s final wishes can be met.

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The device above is the first antiseptic machine, which was invented by John Lister. Before antiseptics, doctors wore their own clothes while working on patients and for richer patients they made home visits. Initially, doctors were very apprehensive about antiseptics- first because they weren’t convinced that germs existed and second because carbolic acid was to be sprayed on the patient, the doctor, the tools, room and bed. It smelled terrible and stung. After a few years of a few doctors using Lister’s antiseptic in a surgery theatre which proved that infection rates were dramatically reduced, these practices became standard.

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John Hunter was particularly interested in medical anomalies and his collection is full of them, like this enlarged foot and the bones below. The skeleton is that of a calf with such severe curvature of the spine that its head is inside its ribcage. The human skulls are conjoined.

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After the museum, we were in need of a pint.

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For dinner, we made vegan nachos. This is one of our favorite dishes and we do it properly with homemade nutritional yeast “cheeze,” kale, peppers, salsa, rice, guacamole, and red lentils.

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The next day, we went to the Royal Geographical Society to see an exhibit of travel photography.

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There were photos from all over the world, including a few from Burning Man like this wedding picture.

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This picture of a farmer tending to his garden in Mali is especially moving. Those aren’t rocks around him, it’s a huge pile of garbage, mostly plastic.

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Next, we went to the Science Museum, where we spent about 5 hours.

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We found the agriculture section especially interesting. Kelly is admiring a display of plows. Below is one of the many models showing the development of tractors.

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The figures above may look like they are painted on the white wall but they are actually wrought iron outlines.

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We also liked the exhibit about the history of telecommunication. Above is a reproduction of a ship’s radio room.

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The exhibit about energy was one of the most interactive. There were computer games and displays about alternative energy, including this funny one about using “poo power” that suggested that in the future children may have to carry these innovative lunch boxes to collect their poo at school to bring home to use for energy. We may also have to give gift wrapped bags of poo as birthday presents.

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This is a fantastic exhibit about the history of flight. This huge room, designed like an airline hanger, was crowded with small and life-sized models of early attempts at flight, as well as modern planes.

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Kelly found her dream car.

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After the Science Museum, we walked up Exhibition Road to Kensington Gardens, past the RGS and Royal Albert Hall.

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These are delicate carvings of elves on the Elfin Oak, a 900 year old stump that was brought to Kensington Gardens in 1928, then carved and painted over the next two years by Ivor Innes.

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The next day, we visited the V & A (Victoria and Albert) Museum of art and design, a huge museum showcasing gorgeous pieces from all over the world and throughout time. This is a ship carved from ivory.

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Japanese inro boxes for holding items like medicine, tobacco, or seals. Traditionally they are tied to the sash of a kimono to carry small objects because their clothes lacked pockets.

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Japanese netsuki, while originally created in the 17th century to serve utilitarian purposes, evolved into art forms. The netsuki were used to secure the inro to a belt.

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Our tour of medieval and renaissance art was a fascinating hour.

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It was so cool to see pieces from parts of the world that we have visited, like Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and China.

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The theatre exhibit included costumes like this one, a breakfast worn by Dame Edna.

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There was a small corner with a cupboard of costumes to try one, so, of course, we did.

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After another long day of exploring and learning at the local museums, we went to dinner at Kelly’s friend Sophie’s house. Sophie and Kelly’s older sister, Sarah, served a year together at Bosch Baha’i School in the mountains of Santa Cruz 14 years ago. They have been best friends ever since, talk to each other often and visit each other when they have the time and money to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Over the years Kelly and Sophie saw each other about 5 or 6 times. The last time they saw each other was in NYC 4 years ago. Sophie and her husband, David, had a baby 13 months ago named Aoife, who is a very adorable baby. At first she was quiet and pensive but very welcoming. By the end of our visit she was giving us presents (crayons and our socks that she had found tucked into our shoes) and showing us around. When we decided it was time to go, it seemed like she didn’t want us to go, but she did not cry at all.

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Fortunately for us, most of the museums we have been to in London so far have been free which is great because they are all so huge that they would take multiple days to explore. We wish that we had more time to spend in London because there is so much to see and do, we are only scratching the surface. At this point, we have decided to spend more time exploring the city as it is, rather than looking at objects in a museum that have been removed from their original places.

Stay tuned for further exploration in and out of London!

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