Sunday, September 06, 2009

London, Day Three

Unlike Twickenham, it’s almost impossible to get lost on the way from the Hampton Court train station to the Palace – even without the sea of rugby fans, one can easily find his/her way over the bridge and into the palace’s entryway.

The front of the palace, while unimpressive by, say, Versailles standards, is still impressive for its age. Having been constructed in the Tudor era, it also more closely resembles a medieval castle than anything; the rest of the palace was spruced up in the 1700s once word of Versailles had gotten around, though it was left incomplete, leaving the place with one foot in two different eras of architecture. The most interesting aspect of Hampton Court, however, is one of its famous residents: Henry VIII. Yes, the wife-murdering, religion-creating, rotund king of England whose greatest achievement was probably fathering Elizabeth I. As you can tell, I’m not a huge fan of Henry, but it’s hard to deny that he’s a fascinating character of history.

As we walked in, it was like being transported back to the early late 15th century: narrow passageways and stone courtyards are everywhere within the outer palace, with a few Roman emperors sculpted into the walls for ornamentation. It was a bit funny to see mad Emperor Nero staring proudly over one of the arched entryways; he seems a particularly appropriate guardian for Henry’s palace. Many of the rooms also still contain framed antlers from Henry’s various hunting exploits, reminding us that he was actually pretty spry in his youth.

Many of the rooms within the palace are designed to give the impression of life during their medieval heyday. Most of the time this was interesting, though it was a little disturbing when we took a stroll through the medieval kitchens, where we were confronted with rooms full of faux raw meat waiting to be chopped or cooked in enormous cauldrons. One room also had a few Tudor-era board games, one of which Rob and I immediately sat down to play. It was called Fox and Geese, and I chose to be the fox, thinking that it would probably have the advantage in that matchup. Unfortunately, it turns out that 20 geese can corner and kill a single fox in this game (which is not entirely inaccurate, given my experience with geese), and Rob’s geese managed to do just that to my fox in under 10 minutes. Next time, geese, next time.

One of the jewels of Hampton Court is the Chapel Royal, designed by architect Christopher Wren, who is also responsible for St. Paul’s cathedral in London. The Chapel has a kind of quiet elegance about it, and I can appreciate that about a religious space; rather than trying to “wow” worshippers, Wren seems to have been aiming to create a place of quiet reflection, at which he succeeded admirably.

In case you’re wondering, the picture is a bit askew because it was taken surreptitiously; you’re not allowed to take photos in the chapel. Val and I have nearly perfected our “bait-and-switch” technique, however: I play the role of the obtuse American tourist, taking out my camera and aiming it around, drawing the attention of guards away from Val, who snaps a few key shots from her vantage point across the room. Works every time!

After exiting the palace, we were greeted with some of the most beautiful gardens I recall seeing in England. I originally visited Hampton Court with my parents many years before, and only the back of the palace and the gardens had lingered in my memory all this time.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering the grounds, and even attempted to walk the palace’s famous hedge maze, said to be one of the largest in the world. Unfortunately, we didn’t make much progress before time started to run short, though we were thankful when we found ourselves right back at the beginning of the maze, where we could exit in shame through the entrance rather than subject ourselves to another hour of wandering into dead ends and other frustrated tourists.

Before we left, we also took a moment to stop by one of Hampton Court’s other attractions: an enormous grape vine which is said to be the oldest in the world. Diane got a great picture of the vine itself, which is hard to capture in its entirety:

We were just in time, too, because when we walked in they had put on sale the grapes which had been picked that morning. Not wanting to wait, we bought them and ate them on the train ride home. They were indeed excellent; I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten grapes which had been picked that morning, but it goes a long way to making one feel like royalty.

After our return trip, we walked over to the Imperial War Museum, which houses the most extensive collection of World War I and II artifacts that I’ve ever seen in one place.

We managed to get a picture of Val in front of her namesake tank without too much trouble, which was good because I could not properly explain to passersby why my wife was growling and clenching her fist in front of that tank other than to say, “Well, she’s a Sherman!” The other museum-goers might not get it, but those who know her would understand.

Aside from the horrors of war, which the museum goes out of its way to make apparent alongside the typical “oh, awesome” factor with all military arms, it also really makes it clear just how involved Britain used to be in daily affairs all over the world. One thing I’ve noticed about London this time is that it seems to still be the center of an Empire, even if the Empire is now long dead. The streets around our hotel are littered with statues of its great men and women. The Britons have taken great care to erect monuments to all the things they’ve accomplished and endured over the years.

In some ways I’ve begun to think that Britain never really recovered from the World Wars, and the War Museum reinforced that impression. While Britain the nation is still just as sharp and has a long, proud memory, it seems like it was too badly wounded to live as it once had, and now spends many of its days mourning its brilliant youth. America would do well to pay attention to Britain’s story, I suppose; we can’t be the biggest kid on the block forever, and it’s only too easy to find yourself suddenly past your prime, spending your time dreaming of the days when you were stronger. It was a sad thought, but somehow appropriate for the War Museum: for all its talk of weapon specifications and battle strategy, at its heart it’s simply honoring a vast loss that can never be recovered.

From the War Museum we tried and failed to grasp the London bus system and ended up hailing a cab for the Tate Modern. We don’t normally take taxis because of the expense, but everyone enjoyed taking one of the distinctive London cabs.

The Tate is a retooled warehouse building with a giant chimney which overlooks the Thames. It’s not terribly impressive from the outside, with its gigantic smokestack as its most prominent feature.

Unfortunately, I got surprisingly little out of many of the works inside as well, having never studied modern art or kept up to date with contemporary trends. There’s not much that’s worse than feeling irritable about viewing modern art – you might as well admit to being the worst of low-brow tourists. But for me, there just wasn’t much that was accessible in the halls of surrealist paintings and sculptures of writhing metal shapes, often resembling various types of knots.

There were some highlights, though: for instance, a bright yellow Mark Rothko painting and a whole room of Gerhard Richter’s “scraped-into-color” works that Val turned me on to long ago. And there was the Jeff Koons exhibit of cute colored mirrors shaped like Disney animals, of which we took several illegal pictures

We had enormous fun contextualizing this exhibit to Rob and Diane by describing some of his other work, some of which included some rather explicit photographs of him with his wife, an Italian porn star. That exhibit at the Art Institute was certainly interesting, but I think it made me more than a little a bit frightened of Mr. Koons himself.

Reeling from the Tate, I took the reins and led us – via several detours and dead-ends – first to the reconstructed Globe Theatre...

... which was worth a picture, if nothing else. Then it was on to the George Inn, just south of London Bridge, where we drank ales not too far from where Shakespeare and Dickens did (or so they told an enthusiastic and thirsty English major). The pub was first placed on a London map way back in the early 16th century, and has since burned down (and was subsequently rebuilt) at least six times, though apparently some of the original structure, presoumably some miniscule board in the foundation, remains. Val and I capped off the night with a lovely meal at “Masala Zone,” which quenched, at least temporarily, our crazed desire for British Indian food. Sunderland was where I first learned to love Indian food – thanks, Luke, for the introduction – and that relationship has definitely flourished over the years.

We covered a lot of ground today, but one of the highlights of our trip is coming up tomorrow: Buckingham Palace. Every August and September, the Queen goes on her yearly trip to Scotland (because, well, she can), and the Palace's state room are opened to the public. I've seen a lot of defunct castles and palaces over the years, but I've never been to an active one (not even the White House). Given what London and the monarchy have shown us so far, I expect it will be nothing short of magnificent.


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