Monday 25 March 2013

Tales of my London Trip: Part I

It's taken me a while, but I've finally gotten around to sorting out my photographs from my trip to London last weekend. I wanted to celebrate my birthday but I prefer weekends away to nights out, and there was an exhibition I wanted to see at the Museum of London, so the destination choice was fairly obvious...

Gemz and I travelled down on Friday, and we were staying in the Gloucester Road Holiday Inn. How's this for a creepy corridor? I put the photo on Instagram and a lot of people had visions of the Overlook. We were also amused by a 'what to do in an emergency' sign that included the line 'Do not panic'. Well that's us told, isn't it? What made the corridor especially weird was how low the ceiling is - I'm only 5ft 6ins and even I felt like I was having to duck.

Anyway. The whole reason I'd wanted to go down was for the Doctors, Dissectionists and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London up in Barbican. (We couldn't take photos in the exhibition so Gemz took this photo of the sign in the entrance). It was a fascinating exhibition, split into three areas. Bodysnatching came first, along with the tale of London's own bodysnatchers, known as Burkers (named after Burke and Hare). The bodysnatchers operated in the years prior to 1832, when bodies for anatomy lectures were scarce and difficult to come by through legal means. The next part of the exhibition was dedicated to the doctors, followed by the art of dissection. It was an interesting exhibition, featuring skeletons uncovered during excavations at the Royal Hospital in Whitechapel, and it left you aghast at the practice at bodysnatching, but aware that without such sordid acts, medical science might not have advanced the way that it did.

The Museum of London is a fascinating place to visit, telling the story of the city from its prehistoric origins, through its occupation by the Romans, and then through the Plague, the Great Fire, the War, and on into the Sixties and Seventies. There isn't much evidence of London's medieval past, let alone anything earlier, and much of their Jacobean architecture has even been demolished, but the museum does afford a good view of a section of London Wall, part of the defence wall built by the Romans to protect Londinium. Apparently the wall dates to the late second or early third century, between 190 and 225 AD.

Next up was the Science Museum, where I wanted to see an exhibition on alchemy (as you do). We also visited Google's Web Lab, where they were running various experiments where visitors could try out things in the exhibition, and other experiments were controlled by online users. It was predictably busy, and half of those experiments available for use within the museum seemed to be out of order, though I'm not surprised having seen the way a lot of people were just hammering on the machines with no idea of what they were supposed to be doing. The Science Museum isn't my favourite of all of the museums in London but they do have some pretty cool stuff, and considering it's free entry, it's always worth a visit.

On Saturday night we headed off to the Bank of England to do a ghost walk around the alleyways of the City of London. The photo on the left is the plaza outside the Royal Exchange. I used to work on the edge of the City, and the pub where I DJed is on Cannon Street, just along from the Bank of England, and I've always found the City to be a fascinating place. It's pretty much deserted after about 7pm, and it's surprisingly quiet on a weekend, and it's a place where the old brushes up against the new within the confines of the medieval City.

Our guide led us down Birchin Lane and into Birchin Court, where we saw the alleged sight of Ebenezer Scrooge's counting house in A Christmas Carol. The streets in this area are very narrow, running between tall buildings and giving you a sense of what our fair capital must have looked like in Dickens' day...albeit without as much sewage and filth in the gutter. So many tiny pubs and other gems are tucked away down these alleys and in these back streets, and it often makes me wonder how people come across them, unless it's by accident. If that's the case, what else could you accidentally stumble across?

We ended up in Fredericks Place, off Old Jewry, which was the site of a story about the Cripplegate Ghost. According to our guide, Alice Gilliford was living in this court when she died, and she was laid out for burial in her wedding dress, wearing her wedding ring. The sexton of the church decided to make off with the ring before she was buried...except the wife came to life just as he dug his knife into her finger. It turns out the woman was narcoleptic and was not dead, merely in a death-like coma, and the pain brought her round. She fled home through the streets carrying the lantern discarded by the terrified sexton, and became known as the Cripplegate Ghost even in her lifetime. She lived many more years and even had four more children before she finally passed away.

The walk also took in Guildhall, a fabulous building on Gresham Street that is the home of the City of London Corporation. Built in the fifteenth century, it's one of the few remnants of medieval London, and it's now a Grade I listed building - it's the only stone built building not owned by the Church to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. Lady Jane Grey, the famed Nine Days Queen, was tried here for treason in 1553. The faƧade is beautiful enough on its own but what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that Guildhall stands on the site of Londinium's Roman ampitheatre. You can see the remains of the eastern approach to the arena if you descend into the basement below Guildhall Art Gallery, something I did a couple of years ago when I was in the area. Coming from the north east where we have Roman ruins aplenty, I'm never particularly phased by seeing them elsewhere, but I have to admit, seeing part of an amphitheatre is still rather impressive! Thing is, the area still feels thick with something, as those who fought and died in the arena haven't quite managed to pass on. It's definitely a very weird place, and the combination of a fairytale frontage and a Roman amphitheatre make Guildhall a great place to visit.

After the tour, we took a walk across to Leadenhall Market on Gracechurch Street. The market site dates back to the 14th century, providing another link to London's medieval past, and was originally a game, poultry and meat market. Now it sells all sorts and is even home to aPizza Express and Ben's Cookies. The current design dates to 1881,  and has appeared as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, and was also used in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. It was restored in 1991 and is now a Grade II listed building. I've been in before, a few years ago at Christmas, but the only time I think you can really appreciate it is actually at night when it's deserted.

Here's me posing by one of the pillars. I absolutely love Leadenhall Market, and I've got a bit of a thing about covered markets. They're just such a good idea, and the fact that they're covered gives them a feeling of permanence denied to regular markets. We used to have two covered markets in Newcastle, but the Green Market was turned into an extension for the main shopping centre, leaving just the Grainger Market, which has seen something of a regeneration in recent years. Places like Leadenhall Market become tourist attractions, not to mention fashionable, and it's an easy way to preserve little slices of history.

After Leadenhall Market we took a ride in the lift up to the roof of One New Change, the shopping and restaurant complex beside St Paul's Cathedral. Our ghost walk guide told us that one of the planning conditions for the complex was a viewing area, so they decided to use the roof, giving you amazing views of the Cathedral, and across the river to the likes of the Shard. I absolutely love St Paul's, designed by Christopher Wren after the previous cathedral was gutted during the Fire. Due to the cost of entry, I've never actually been in, but one of the days, I will have a look inside. Anyway, it was dark and very windy when we went up onto the roof of One New Change, and it was also raining, but I'm sure the view is astounding on a clear day.

The hour was growing late and the weather increasingly wild so we headed back to west London, and a truly horrendous late night trip to Tesco Express. If the zombie apocalypse had broken out, I don't think we would have noticed the difference.

I'll post the photos and write-up of our Sunday activities tomorrow...


Katherine Hajer said...

Sounds like it was a great trip (and happy birthday! ) I love all this sort of stuff, so this was great to read about. Looking forward to Part 2.

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