Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 11 - V&A, a crowded Dickens Walk, Rules and the 39 Steps

Good Friday 6th April 2012

Good Friday. Today we figured we’d take the opportunity for a guided walk of the V & A.  This doesn’t meet up until 10:45 at South Kensington. We have a leisurely morning journaling and so forth before heading out.  The underground is PACKED. Seriously a lot of people out and about this morning. We’ve arrived about 15 mins early and take a wander in the surrounding streets. Lots of French boulangeries, a creperie and a very busy place called Muriel’s Kitchen full of diners.
Margaret meets us and the tour heads off through the underground tunnel where buskers are playing with their “hats” out.  Heads turn as we spot the natural history museum, but our V&A content commences with some consideration of the exterior of this grade 1 listed building.  We get a run down on the style of architecture – known as South Kensington architecture the whole area was previously occupied by market gardens.  The great exhibition was held in Hyde Park and it was such a success the proceeds were used to establish this museum for the purposes of educating the people.
Entering the lobby we consider the enormous glass chandelier which I recognize as the work of the American glass artist Dale Chihuly.  It was originally much smaller than it is now. When he designed the original commissioned piece he was provided with specifications of the space but did not appreciate the scale of the location and was bitterly disappointed that he’d make the piece too small. This larger version was installed in 2009.  In the evening the whole room is sprayed with light and shadows from the chandelier and creates quite a feature.
Our next stop is the Syon Cope and we learn about the history of opus anglicanum, how the embroidery was done and how to interpret the designs and images on the cope.  We wander through the various corridors marveling at beautiful objects that we pass by and finally arrive in a huge space that is used to display things that were designed for the outdoors.  On the wall is a huge roundel or plaque called a stemma.  This enormous and magnificently detailed example is made of terra cotta and is by de la robbia.  It displays the heraldry of Rene of Anjou, ruler of Florence at the time and incorporates de la robbia’s own around it.  The fruit around the edge is full of religious symbolism. The smaller later examples are by his son, after the process was mechanized.  We learn about the context of the piece and what it meant and how it was made and more recently acquired by the V&A.
Stop number three is at the Mazarin Chest.  This is export laquer ware from Japan in the 17th Century. We learn how it was made and how the lacquer is made and coloured, why it was made, how we can tell it is for export, what the images refer to. How lacquer ware was used by the Japanese at the time. It’s hard to imagine there may be something to know about how to appreciate that item that we didn’t hear about.  We move a short way along to consider a lacquered writing desk that was commissioned for Marie Antionette.  This is an example of the recycling of the expensive Japanese lacquered pieces after they were no longer fashionable.  We learn about the context and process for producing these pieces too and the difference between Japanned lacquer and the Japanese lacquer work.  It’s all quite fascinating and far far more detail is provided that what is displayed on the signage provided.
Another fairly brisk wander through galleries of stunning pieces before we pause on a bridge between two last spaces known as the cast courts.  These rooms are full of huge and hugely detailed pieces. Columns, archways, the statue of David.  We learn about why the casts were made, how they were made and their current importance.  It’s all fascinating.  If you’ve never really appreciated the work of Prince Albert, the V&A should go a long way towards helping you see him as a visionary and his contribution as very significant in world terms. Amazing.
We pause at a gas light that still works.  The V & A was the first gaslit museum.  They wanted people to be able to visit on their way home from work.  The intended audience for the V & A was not the wealthy but the ordinary working people of Britain.
Next we’re off to the room that houses the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.  They are named that because they were donated by the direct descendants of Bess of Hardwick who acquired these 15th Century tapestries to decorate her bedroom. Again we learn how to read the images in the tapestries, how they were made, why and a huge amount of additional detail.  There is no way we could appreciate the tapestries as well just by wandering through.
Along the way we stop to consider an area that is currently boarded up because the museum doesn’t have the funds to restore and open it, and in another place we look out over the courtyard and hear about the original entrance to the Museum which was just a small doorway.  Every working man and woman in Britain were given 4 days paid leave to travel to London and visit the exhibition.  There were three restaurants just inside then. One for breakfast, lunch and tea. The idea was that people would come and make a day of it.  The current café is still in that space were it was originally intended.
In a small and sparkling display among a larger collection of snuff boxes, is a group of four snuff boxes owned by Frederick the Great. Among them is one of Frederick’s favourites, an elaborate mother of pearl snuff box that stopped a bullet for him and was then restored.  Frederick was known for enjoying drilling his troops and he would wear a shabby army great coat to do it. But what wasn’t obvious was that the great coat had pockets lined with softed chamois because that was where he kept his snuff box.  From time to time as they drilled Frederick’s hand would sneak down to his pocket to touch his snuff box. We also learn about snuff and how it was taken, and why it became popular.  It seems that there is a small indentation on the back of your hand between your thumb and forefinger and down a bit towards your writst. This called your “snuff hole” even today. A small spoon of snuff was placed in the snuff hole and you snorted it.  Snuff became popular because smoking had been banned in coffee houses due to the unpleasantness of the environment for non-smokers, so the people had to come up with a way to get their tobacco fix without smoking. Hence the development of snuff which is powered tobacco.
Our final gallery stop is in at the Raphael cartoons.  How and why they were done, relationship to the Sistine chapel and the tapestries.  The colours, the techniques. Charles II.. so so much that enhances our appreciation.  This has been a very worthwhile tour. Margaret is a legend.   A fabulous way to take a dip in the V & A.
Naturally we decide to lunch in the café on site. Everything looks yummy and the whole place, this whole museum, everything about it, lives and breathes the ethos of quality.  Hubby opts for the British Pork roast £12.50 and I have the Aubergine, courgette and pepper gratin £8.50. There were also a range of delicious looking paninis and lighter meals at appropriately lower prices.  No surprise that I grab a Chegworth Valley Cox and Bramley apple juice. Hubby goes for the coke. Not that we need it but we also try a Chelsea bun and a piece of Victoria Sponge.  We’re certainly not hungry when we leave!
What next?  We had been thinking of doing the afternoon walk with London Walks at the National Gallery, but as hubby loved the Lanes in Norwich and we are going to be visiting the Charles Dickens exhibition at the museum of London, we decide to change tack and get outdoors with the London Walk – Dickens London which leaves from Temple underground station at 2:30 pm.  It’s a lovely day and when we arrive there is a small group of people waiting.  Our guide, Richard III arrives about 2:30 and we spend a while as people pay.  People are emerging out of the woodwork left right and centre and we have a very large group as we move off into the embankment garden nearby.  It’s a very large group and Richard is shouting at the top of his lungs to be heard, but so far we’re managing. Here we hear about Dicken’s childhood.  Born in Portsmouth, as a small child the family moved to Chatham, Kent which was of course a large naval centre. Dicken’s father was a pay clerk in the navy with an income of about £350 per year. This was around the time that my 3rd great grandfather was born in Chatham.  Later of course, Dickens father was imprisoned for debt and the family moved to live with him. Other than his older sister who was at the conservatorium (fees paid in advance) and Charles who was found a small room on his own and a job in a factory filling jars with industrial blacking.
We move on in a long long string along a fairly narrow (for the number of people) roadside. We are passing by the Royal Courts of Justice.  When we catch up with the beginning of the ridiculous column, the talk has already started.  I do my best to make sense of what he’s now saying, which I can just hear by manouvring myself a bit closer.  I think he’s saying that the Temple Bar Arch which we learned about on the Blitz tour, was originally situated here.  Something about the dragon atop the pillar in the middle of the street protecting London (??).  I’m getting pretty annoyed actually.  This tour group size is beyond a joke.  Shortly thereafter we are obliged to walk through a narrow doorway into the Inns of Court. Dickens writes a lot about these Inns of Court..  It’s narrow enough that it’s one at a time.  I count 73 people, though that may not be precisely accurate. It’d be very close.  The land of the temples was originally owned by the Knights Templar. Hence the name. Middle Temple Hall was where the first performance of Twelth Night was given. In the garden nearby it is reputed that the Yorks and Lancasters respectively picked the white and red roses that became their symbols.  It’s still a lovely garden today.
Across in the buildings adjacent is where Dickens had Pip live in Great Expectations and Magwich was put up in those attics next door where Pip could watch and see who was coming and going.  We hear of Dickens time in the Americas.  The actual content of the tour is excellent. It’s just the volume of people that so significantly detracts from the overall experience and I increasingly found it hard to engage with the content as a result.
We depart the way we came in back out through the little door.  We wander through the LSE to Portugal Street and hear of the stocks that were still present there in the 1820s and wander past the old curiosity shop once owned by Ben Mendolsson’s forebear (if memory serves.. that’s not noted on the tour!).  Then I notice we are actually following the route I had planned to walk but that we abandoned last night in favour of a taxi.  Up along Fleet Street and the Strand.  I note to hubby the Queen Ann church in the middle of the road, it was built under the same program as St George's in the East.  I’m enjoying this section of the walk.   We wander up into Covent garden and note the headquarters of the blacking factory where Dickens worked in the window and which lead to his father sending him back to school. We pass by Rules and hear about it’s impressive history and of course above the building where dickens lived. Dickens loved the theatre and we pause to hear about his participation in productions for charity. Finally our tour ends with some directions to the local underground stations and Covent Garden area.  We are happy to escape the group and decide to check out Covent Garden.  It’s absolutely packed. We’re a bit footsore, but we head down to check out a few shops but all in all we done pretty quickly.  
A few minutes to watch a street performer. A few to avail ourselves of the facilities.  We wander back past Rules. Only a little nudge and hubby goes in to see if we can eat there tonight. Yep. No worries. We can dine at 6pm but have to out by 8pm.  Hubby suggests we head to the underground and duck over to Hyde Park Corner to visit the various memorials.  En route we pass a half price ticket office.  Oh what the heck. We decide to see if we can get tix to the 39 Steps. Yep No worries. Good tix in the stalls. We’ll take them. Done.  Advice received that we’re better off walking down to Picadilly Circus from Covent Garden. Still an hour to kill till 6pm.  We decide we’ll still nick over to Hyde Park Corner. As we walk along we can hear some bad trumpet playing.  A busker. I figure there’s got to be a gimmick to be playing like that here. I look for who it is.. some guy is sitting on the cobblestones playing an orange witchs' hat!!
We jostle with crowds coming in and out of Covent Garden station. Queue for the lifts. I head for the stairs.  “You know there’s 192 stairs” says hubby. “They say to take the lifts”.  We head down the stairs.  Yep. A lot of stairs. Lots of people coming up the stairs, huffing puffing. Asking “are we nearly at the top”.  A lot of stairs.
Down on the platform we note the time. We decide to line up for the lift to get back up. No time for Hyde Park Corner.  We queue.  The queue moves quickly. It’s a slick one way traffic operation.  As we stand in line I smile. The London underground is collectively quite an eye opening experience.  This is like a cross between the Time Machine and 2001.  The doors ding open on the lift as it arrives I hear the soft smooth female underground voice say in my mind “Enter the lifts Hal”…. We’re back at ground level.
OK only 5:40 but lets just lob up to Rules now. Give ourselves extra time to get to the show.  No worries. We are welcomed and seated.  Awesome. Rules is Awesome, capital A. Love the booths. Love the velvet. Love the suited waiters and old collection of artwork and memorabilia around the walls.  Hubby orders a Meantime Brewery Company Pilsner. “It was good”.  I splurge and opt for the Kate Middleton “royal 29” cocktail £13.95.
Then hubby calmly proceeds to blow me out of the water on the meal selection front.  I get waylaid by what I have decided is a borderline obsessive apple mania.  Not that my meal isn’t nice enough, but I really should have had the quails on toast. .. anyway.  For me: Caramelised Cox’s Apple Salad with hazlenuts & Cropwell Bishop Stilton followed by Breast of Suffolk Duck with black cabbage celeriac and sour cherries. Both very enjoyable Hubby shrewdly goes for the Potted Shrimps with Granary Bread followed by Ox Cheek braised in red wine with parsley mash.  Both extremely delicious. Sigh. Now we just need to know if he can get the hat trick.
We collectively decide that I will indeed have the one I lean towards. Golden Syrup Sponge Pudding with custard. Hubby also stays traditional with the bread and butter pudding… Hah! I won a round.
We finish up and pay our bill which is something like £128.  Hah! Still cheaper than a high end meal in Sydney!
We have plenty of time for a leisurely walk down to Piccadilly circus. There are SO many people about.  This is what we expected to find in Chicago but didn’t.  The sort of crowd you see in Sydney on New Year’s Eve.  I guess it’s to be expected with so many theatres to fill.  All of a sudden we’re in Piccadilly circus. The huge advertising signs dominate the area but also create an incredible atmosphere with the crowds around the fountain.  We can only stop a minute for a quick snap and it’s into the Criterion and the show. 
The 39 Steps has four actors playing all the parts in a humorous rendition of the Hitchcock classic with nods to other classics along the way. Great fun and very very well done.  Our seats are just fine with a good view. Though not as comfortable as we’ve had in other theatres.  All in all a very special spur of the moment night.  Home and in bed 10:30 ish.

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