Monday, 27 January 2020 The British Museum and the Hidden London Exhibit at the Transportation Museum. Today we went to the British Museum, or as it has become known in our house, the Museum of Colonial Plunder. It has some of the world’s premier collections of ancient Greek, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Pacific Islander artifacts. So it’s an incredible opportunity to see all of these ancient cultures in one place. But, as you can imagine, there are cultures around the world clamoring to have their historic, and often sacred, artifacts returned. To which the British government’s official response is “Well, no.” You can read more about it at britishmuseum.org.
Because we all in the Smith-Brennan clan appreciate different things at different paces, we divided up. The boys were given a list of six questions to find the answers to and we met back at the incredible reading room rotunda for lunch. The British Library used to be located in the museum, with its central reading room where Karl Marx famously wrote Das Kapital. This is unfortunately closed to the public these days. We saw the original Parthenon friezes, or Elgin Marbles, named for Sir Thomas Elgin who brought them back to England in the early 1800s. The west side frieze is the only part of this vast collection that has been returned to Athens. We saw dozens of Egyptian mummies from all periods. And Michael took in an exhibit on time that he might bring his students to. The Rosetta Stone is also located here and is a bit like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in that you have to fight the crowds to get close enough to appreciate it. I have a much greater appreciation of stone carving and the detail these artisans where able to achieve!
After lunch we headed back to the London Transportation Museum. Where else can you spend an hour practicing driving a Tube subway car into various stations? We also discovered an exhibit we missed the first time called “Hidden London.” It is about the uses of the Underground tunnels through history, as well as the stations that have closed. Did you know that during WWII they dug eight more tunnels underneath the Northern Line (the one we live on) that were used as bomb shelters, and an airplane factory? In 1944 up to 10,000 people slept in the underground every night. (And it’s easy to see why when you look at this site that has mapped every bomb to fall on London during the war.) There were 8,000 bunk beds, specially designed toilets, and linen stations for bedding. Today some of the abandoned tunnels house businesses such as a hydroponics lettuce-growing operation. Below are some photographs from that exhibit.
While we’re on the subject of the Underground, Covent Garden, the stop nearest the Museum of Transportation is so deep that is has 193 stairs going down to it. It also has elevators, but as you enter a recording plays, “This station has 193 stairs, the equivalent to a 15 story building. Please make sure that you are fit enough before attempting to use the stairs.” Elephant & Castle, another stop on our line, has 111 stairs! There are 75 stairs to get out of Colliers Wood, so I have vowed never to take the escalator up. You can get a good 20 flights of stairs in a day without even trying.
Wednesday, January 29, 2020: Elephant & Castle and Brixton. Today Samuel, Isaiah and I went in search of a new wallet. We decided to try out some of the historic street markets and began at the East Street Market in the Elephant & Castle neighborhood. The market is several city blocks long, and the cheapest place to buy fresh fruit and veggies that I’ve seen yet. I will be making this a regular weekend stop! The neighborhood is vibrant with store from all over the world. This is one of the three or four neighborhoods that also has a large Latin population. Unlike markets in other places I’ve been in the world, everything is quite polite and there is no haggling or even hawking of goods. Fruit and veggies are organized into one kilo bowls on the tables and you have to buy a who kilo of most products. These are conveniently prices at 1 pound each, making the math easy and the transactions stereo-typically friendly. Almost none of the vendors are native English speakers, so perhaps it came as a way to get around the language issues.
“I’m going to rock down to Electric Avenue,” sang Eddy Grant, so that’s what we did. Pictured below is the street made famous by that song, the Electric Avenue Market in the Brixton neighborhood. In the 80s and 90s Brixton was a poor neighborhood plagued by police violence. The Clash song, “The Guns of Brixton,” makes reference to this part of town too. Today it is still heavily populated by immigrants, but not noticeably more than many other areas of town. Both markets have more stores selling food from the Caribbean and Middle East than from Europe. If you need cassava, spices for Jerk Chicken, fresh fish or freshly butchered meet, this is the place to go.
The Kia Oval. A cricket ground is typically called an oval, and this historic one is located on our underground line. We accidentally got on going the wrong direction after our marketing and had to switch directions here. We popped above ground to take a look around. Not too different from a historic baseball stadium, but much smaller.
Thursday, January 30, 2020. The Museum of London and Piccadilly Circus. Today we took a first pass at the Museum of London which tells the history of this place from prehistoric times right through to the present. It is a lot to take in, but some of the highlights were the section on the plague years, the movie recreating the London fire of 1666, 18th century dresses that were at least 4 feet wide, and the Caldron from the 2012 Olympic torch-lighting ceremony. Since we weren’t allowed to take photographs, you can check it out here if you’re interested. There is also a section of the original Roman wall enclosing the fortress-city. Seeing a map of the Roman walls, you realize how many of today’s locations get their names from that period. Almost anything ending in “gate” was the location of one of these early entrance gates.
Picadilly Circus is called the Times Square of London, but it is really nothing as flashy or over the top as New York. The original Piccadilly Circus was a circular road built with 4 story Georgian townhouses that were thought to resemble a piccadil, a stiff white collar worn in the 17th century. And, of course, circus is the Latin word for round, or circle.