Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘London 2010’ Category

British Museum, Sunday 26.9.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 27, 2010

The plan for today was a literary walk through Mayfair, but we thought we’d start with a quick visit to our favourite museum instead.  Four hours later we jettisoned the walk because we were footsore but happy and in need of a rest back at the Montague.

Is it ever possible to do a ‘quick visit’ to the BM?  I don’t think so.  We’ve included visits on both our previous trips and still we find new things to take our interest.    First up we headed for ancient civilisations that Tim learned about in his current Monash course, and then we just meandered about to wherever serendipity took us.  Tim discovered a Roman padlock and shards of ancient glass, while I marvelled at the mosaic pavements from Roman villas here in Britain.

I especially enjoyed reading about the discovery of the various ‘hoards’ found by kids and farmers who stumbled onto treasures buried long ago.  All over the galleries there are cabinets full of weapons and helmets, coins and jewellery found in fields and under buildings here in the British Isles.  There is the Staffordshire Hoard,  the Vale of York Hoard,  the Cuerdale Hoard and others whose names I’ve forgotten.   I’m not sure who ‘owns’ these things when first they are found but one  way or another they’ve ended up here in at the British Museum.  The Sutton Hoo Hoard is my favourite because it shows that the so-called Dark Ages were not a wasteland of empty thought and complacent ideas.  The sophistication of this unknown English king’s burial and the artefacts laid to rest with his body proves that.

It was good fun trying to guess what this ancient gizmo was.  (It’s an adze). We knew it was bronze age because there were shreds of copper oxide on it, and I guessed it was a digging tool because it was a bit like Aboriginal ones I’ve seen.  Tim figured out that the top part was where the handle joined on, and it wasn’t hard to guess what they used to tie it together with: animal intestines!  I think kids of all ages enjoy this kind of game…

My favourite gallery is still The Enlightenment Gallery.  This gallery features the collections of those 18th and 19th century men (and women??) who had the time and the means to collect things from all over the world, but didn’t just collect for the sake of it.  They also had the brains to try to make sense of their collections in a scientific way.  George III features in this gallery too: unlike the present crop of royals he was an intellectual and his library forms the backdrop in the gallery – his books are everywhere.  Not just in stacks on the walls, but also underneath the cabinets.  These ones you can see at left are massive atlases, part of a set of over a hundred.

The thing about George was that he was forward thinking about science in a way that his fellow-collector of scientific instruments and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, was not.  Sloane was a clever fellow, but he collected instruments long past their use-by date just because they were exotic or interesting while George’s were the latest and most useful he could get his hands on.  (I think he commissioned some too.)

The gallery starts off with Sir Joseph Banks presiding over the natural history collection, and then there are the antiquities, of which my favourite is this beautiful fish mosaic. 

There’s a cast of the famous Rosetta Stone which serves to introduce a fascinating series of cabinets showing how these ancient inscriptions were deciphered.  I’ve read about this achievement many times and it still amazes me that they were able to decode the inscriptions.  The chart that shows the correspondences between what’s on the stone and what the symbols mean looks deceptively simple, it’s one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment period…

No visit to the Enlightenment gallery is complete without posing with a statue or two, so here’s Tim with the Lioness Goddess Sekhmet  and Ptolemy I. 

Looking less enamoured here he is in a nearby pub where we foolishly went for lunch.  It’s called The Plough and yes, those are the infamous mushy peas…

I look much happier in my picture because we walked back past the London Review Bookshop where I found some Moleskine notebooks (I forgot to bring some with me, for journalling) and a delightful book called The Shell Country Alphabet, The Classic Guide to the British Countryside by Geoffrey Grigson.  It will be a perfect companion as we set off for the Cotswolds tomorrow.

We finished off a perfect day by meeting up with Kim from Reading Matters at Bea’s of Bloomsbury, which has to be the best tea shop in London. How nice it is to meet up with a fellow booklover like this, thanks to the wonders of the internet!

Posted in Dining out, England 2010, LitLovers pilgrimage, London 2010, UK 2010 | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Texture Restaurant, Saturday 25.9.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 26, 2010

Ok, if you are not a foodie you’d better skip this post because it’s all about our splendid dinner out at Texture Restaurant in Portland St, Mayfair.

Whenever we go overseas, we always try to go to one really good restaurant in each city, and although we wanted to revisit Rules this time, on Saturday nights they have two sittings – and I hate that! As the song says, I ‘get too hungry for dinner at eight’ but I don’t want to eat early and be chivvied out of the restaurant to make way for the second sitting either. So Tim undertook the quest to find somewhere equally interesting, and so it was that we ended up at Texture, which serves modern Scandinavian food.

It has a Michelin star so we knew it would be good, but I confess to some apprehension. I’m game to try almost anything but I know nothing about Scandinavian food except for the rather unflattering depiction of it in Babette’s Feast! Were we to be served pickled herrings and salted vegetables?

I need not have worried, it was all splendid!  On arrival we were served an interesting appetizer of ‘crisps’ and a dip: paper thin shavings of vegetables with a texture like tempura and an exotic flavour that neither of us could identify.  The bread looked like hearty peasant bread but was light and flavoursome, served with light and creamy butter. 

We both chose the Anjou pigeon for entreé.  It came served with a medley of sweetcorn: sweetcorn popcorn, sweetcorn pureé, and sweetcorn kernels together with caramelised shallots and fresh cress.  It was absolutely scrumptious and went very nicely with the French pinot noir that the sommelier recommended. 

For main course Tim had Cornish skate and Icelandic langoustins served on a bed of barley and tiny little vegetables, while I had venison served with red cabbage, cranberries and chocolate.  There was a very small green vegetable that looked suspiciously like a miniature Brussel Sprout but I smothered it with the parsnip puree and the sauce and pretended it wasn’t there.

Between the main course and dessert there was another discovery: a palate cleanser of sorrel granita with a muscatel sabayon.  Now our sorrel at home is always threatening to take over the herb garden altogether and we are always looking for new recipes to cull it with, so there will be some experimentation going on in the kitchen chez Tim & Lisa when we get back home.

Tim had a white peach with basil and olive oil for dessert but I didn’t think the marriage of sweet and savoury worked quite so well with mine, which was white chocolate, cucumber and fragments of rye biscuit for texture.   Still, with a lovely aged Armagnac to follow, I was prepared to overlook this!

We had an interesting ride home to the hotel.  There were no taxis to be had, so a ‘driver’ was found for us.  No meter, and probably no insurance either.  I must remember to ask the concierge about this in the morning….

Posted in Dining out, England 2010, London 2010, UK 2010 | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Museum of London, Saturday 25.9.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 26, 2010

Our tour of St Paul’s Cathedral had taken longer than we expected so we wasted no time in setting off for the Museum of London.  It’s on the London Wall, and (from St Paul’s) it’s reached by taking some stairs up a building on the other side of the road and across a footbridge.  There’s a cafe at the entrance which we foolishly chose for lunch; nothing there is remotely edible except for the bananas. 

But the museum is fabulous.  It is an urban museum, celebrating the history of the city of London from the earliest days of human habitation, and even before that when there were straight-backed elephants and rhinoceroses in what was then a much warmer climate.   (The weather today was fine, but there was a brisk wind which made me very glad I’d rugged up with coat and scarf.)

Most fascinating were the displays of early human tools.  How inventive those early people were, and how quickly they learned to attach handles to flints so that these tools were handy to use!  Early metalwork was equally sophisticated, and before long they were making jewellery as well as tools.  The archaeologists who work on these finds do a wonderful job of salvaging fragments and reassembling them, and the displays make the progression of human creativity very clear and easy to understand.

When the Romans turned up, there was an infusion of new ideas and technologies, and there were terrific models of all kinds of structures including a water mill from the 1st century AD.  Lots of Roman coins, of course, but also small fragments of exquisite glassware, glorious mosaics and even a wall  fresco in excellent condition (from Bath, I think.  I forgot to write anything down in this museum.) 

After that came medieval London, with costume displays, beautiful pottery and all the chivalric stuff you’d expect.  Kids could try on silly clothes here for photo opportunities, and indeed the whole museum is a delight for both the young and young-at-heart because there are things that can be touched and fiddled with and there are electronic displays as well, like this one about the history of London transport.  (There was even a little underground with trains for small children to play with!)

After that it became history we were more familiar with, starting with the Elizabethans and the Restoration.  Somehow we skipped the 18th century and found ourselves in the galleries of modern London, with exhibits from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and of course the Swinging Sixties.  It was all very impressive and a credit to the curators.

Time to stop writing – we’re off to dinner at Texture, a Scandinavian restaurant!

Posted in England 2010, London 2010, UK 2010 | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

St Paul’s Cathedral, Saturday 25.9.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 26, 2010

Last night we had dinner with Tim’s niece Georgia (who’s an occupational therapist based here in London until she ‘stops having fun’) and this morning we had breakfast with my niece Cressida, her husband Marc and their two dear little girls.  They live here in London too now, and it was lovely to meet my grand-nieces for the first time!   

After that, we set off for St Paul’s Cathedral where, as part of the admission fee, we chanced upon one of the best tour guides we’ve come across.  His name was John and he took us through all sorts of interesting parts of the cathedral that tourists can’t usually access.  We went, for example,  into the Chapel of St Michael and St George and sat down among the pews, which are decorated with small individual plaques commemorating various military heroes.  The plaques are beautifully crafted in enamel, with coats of arms in vivid colours, and quite large, especially for chaps with many letters after their names.   We knew only one of them: Baden-Powell, who started the boy scout movement and after whom my grandfather Baden Powell Hill was named in admiration of the hero of Mafeking.  On the wooden carvings on the chapel walls we noted that St George was ready for battle but appeared to have lost a dragon to joust with – while St Michael had seven (representing the Seven Deadly Sins).  John (who had a rather droll sense of humour) said that he thought St George’s dragon was probably lurking among them.   

From there we went downstairs to admire Christopher Wren’s amazing staircase which has steps which seem to float in space.  Alas photography is not allowed because St Paul’s is a functioning place of worship, but you can see what it looks like from this link – which also shows a contemporary art installation called Flare II, by artist Antony Gormley.  This is not the only example of somewhat incongruous modern intrusions: there is also an exhibition of modern paintings down in the crypt which just looked silly there.   

From the choir, one can look up and admire the mosaics properly.  Apparently when Wren was commissioned to design the cathedral his brief was to avoid any of that un-Protestant florid popery beloved of those European Catholics, but it wasn’t long before there was consensus that British power and prestige would be well served by some extravagant mosaics and carvings and whatnot with which to impress those same Europeans.  So now there are magnificent golden mosaics of angels and so forth, and some of the carvings in the choir stalls are enchanting.  Above the altar the mosaics are even more impressive and I was pleased to be able to buy a souvenir book with close-up photos of these mosaics to browse through when we get home.   

Source: Wikipedia


Amongst the many plaques within the building, one of the first beside the entrance is a reminder of the bravery of the men who defended the cathedral against German bombing during WW2.  Night after night they climbed up onto the dome to protect it from the incendiary bombs which would otherwise have started fires in the roof.  They were not able to protect the cathedral from explosive bombs, one of which destroyed the altar entirely, and whereas repairs to other bomb damage in the cathedral are faithful reproductions, it was decided to replace the altar with Wren’s original design which was rejected at the time of building as being too fancy.    

The highlight for me was seeing the monuments and resting places of Britain’s best and bravest.  John Donne is there, looking remarkably pious for one who wrote such raunchy poetry, but judging by the respectful looks of my fellow-tourists when John talked about Donne’s religious poetry and ecclesiastical career, I was the only one who knew that.  Donne’s statue is the only one to have survived the Great Fire of London which destroyed the original St Paul’s.    

Wellington has a very impressive monument complete with a statue of the great man on his horse – apparently there was some to-do about the appropriateness of having a horse in a house of worship and even when it was agreed that it was okay, there was another fuss about which direction the horse should face because it wasn’t respectable to have its rear-end facing the altar.  Then as now, some people don’t have enough to worry about and so they create a fuss about nothing…   

In Artists’ Corner there are stone burial plaques over the bones of Joshua Reynolds, William Turner, William Blake, Van Dyk and British-born Randolph Caldecott after whom the American award for children’s book illustration is named.  In the Medical Corner there is Sir Henry Wellcome and Alexander Fleming, credited with the discovery of penicillin – though as Australians all know, it was Howard Florey who developed a method of manufacturing sufficient quantities of it to be useful, thereby saving countless lives during WW2.   

(Actually, it was quite interesting to see the extent to which the American contribution to WW2 is acknowledged, while that of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa seems to be completely ignored.  The Americans have a whole stained glass window, carvings and memorial reminders, but there is nothing to be seen to remind anyone about how the dominions rallied to the cause.  Tim thinks that perhaps this is because it was just expected that the Empire would turn up to defend the Mother Country whereas the Brits feel they have to be grateful to the US.  Two other Australians in our group were rather peeved about this neglect, muttering about how Australia had been there from the start of the hostilities whereas the American contribution was belated to say the least.)   

Whatever about all that, by the time we’d admired Nelson’s monument, we’d had enough of military heroes and sloped off to browse for souvenirs and have a cup of tea.  Yes, bizarre as it may seem, right there in the crypt there’s a cafe and a shop!

Posted in ArtLovers pilgrimage, England 2010, LitLovers pilgrimage, London 2010, MusicLovers pilgrimage, ScienceLovers pilgrimage, UK 2010 | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Hampton Court Palace, Friday 24.9.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on September 25, 2010

Today we got down to the serious business of being tourists.  We took the tube to Waterloo and then a train to Hampton Court to see the palace we’ve seen so many times in films about  Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives.  There was light rain falling as we arrived and a brisk wind, (the first time we’ve ever had bad weather in England) so it looked less cheerful than it looks in the movies…  

If you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful historical novel Wolf Hall, then you know that it was Cardinal Wolsey who built Hampton Court with a view to currying favour with Henry, but alas, it all came to grief because he failed to inveigle the pope into granting the annulment that Henry needed to marry Anne Boleyn.  Henry was none too fastidious about bumping off his old pals, and bumping off Wolsey not only gave Henry a more amenable cardinal but also Hampton Court.  In the end, however, it was Katherine Parr who made it her home, and it is she who parades through the palace today with Henry in re-enactments of her wedding day.  (BTW Like any other groom, Henry is amenable to photo opportunities with his guests, even ones from Antipodes not known to exist in the 16th century!) 

Hampton Court is not as ornate as the continental palaces we’ve seen.  Henry VIII’s apartments are full of deer horns and whatnot, very masculine indeed, and the wood panelling is rather sombre.  The tapestries, though, are truly beautiful, even though they have faded from their rich reds and blues with time.  Many of them are allegorical, and they were commissioned by Henry himself to impress his visitors especially the French.  (Who were probably a bit put out when they saw these tapestries because they are bigger and more impressive than any we’ve seen in chateaux in France so far).  

This detail from one of them caught my eye because as usual women are being exhorted to be obedient (though it seems to me that it might have been prudent for everyone to do King H’s bidding). After all, it was Wolsey who started the tapestry collection at Hampton Court, amassing about 600 of them according to the guidebook, and Henry got the lot of course, though not all of them have survived to this day.  

The Chapel Royal is gorgeous.  The entrance is just a mundane wooden doorway which opens into what is still a functioning church in continuous use since Wolsey built it 500 years ago.  It was Henry who installed the magnificent vaulted roof painted in rich turquoise and gold, and there used to be an impressive stained glass window with images of him, Katherine of Aragon and Wolsey, but it was destroyed and the gap bricked up during the Commonwealth by those bolshie republicans.  That must have looked rather ordinary so it’s a good thing that Queen Anne had it covered by the wooden carving behind the altar (it’s called a reredos). 

Queen Anne’s apartments are the most impressive, but alas Tim’s camera card won’t talk to my net-book so the photos he took will have to wait till we get back to Australia.  It’s a shame because the rooms are gorgeous, with more stunning tapestries, brilliant chandeliers, and painted ceilings designed to impress.  These apartments were built over the top of Anne Boleyn’s rooms by Queen Mary II, (1689-94) then by her sister Queen Anne (1702-14) and finally by Queen Caroline (wife of George 11) so they are all a bit different in style.  My favourite was Queen Anne’s bedchamber which has Anne on the ceiling with gods Britannia and Neptune and assorted members of the royal family, including one I had marked out as rather sulky – who turned out to be her husband Prince George.  There’s another one of him looking even less appealing – he’s naked and podgy and riding on a dolphin which makes me wonder a bit about her artistic choices.   (There’s also a rather unfortunate painting of her sprawled on a sofa in one of the other rooms…the palace guide who was stationed there told me she was also known as Brandy Nan because after 14 children she tended to drown her sorrows a bit.  It’s the sort of picture I’d delete straight off a digital camera but Anne, for reasons known only to her, kept this picture in pride of place. ) 

The Mantegna series of paintings celebrating The Triumph of Caesar were a surprising enhancement to the day.  I knew a bit about them but I wasn’t expecting them to be as superb as they are.  They were bought by Charles 1 in 1629 from an impoverished Italian nobleman and they survived the Republic because (according to Wikipedia, where you can see images of all the paintings) even Cromwell wasn’t game to destroy such famous paintings and perhaps liked the idea of celebrating the exploits of a military fellow like himself.  

Source: Wikipedia


The paintings are displayed in a long gallery along with some sculptures of various emperors, and show different aspects of Julius Caesar’s Triumph after the Gallic wars.  They depict everything from the standard bearers and musicians to the elephants and the captives.  (The captives is the only one in poor condition because it couldn’t be restored when all the others were because it didn’t have as many layers of paint.)  It would be worth visiting Hampton Court Palace just to see these paintings alone… 

Next stop was Henry’s kitchens and we could see why George IV, (son of the George 111, the one who was mad)  was so proud of his kitchens at the Brighton Pavillion.   Henry’s are rudimentary by comparison and rather a jumble of rooms, though I suppose the risk of fire in those earlier times meant it was not a bad idea to spread things out a bit.  Tim, seen here with pewter plates and wineglass) was most interested in the set-up but I bet he wouldn’t really like cooking without all his fancy equipment that we have at home! 

We had plans to check out the gardens, but the rain began pelting down and it didn’t look like any fun and as it was getting a bit late anyway we shelved plans to go to Kew Gardens as well.  With any luck the weather will be fine by the weekend and we can go then. 

Dinner tonight with Tim’s niece Georgia here at the Montague, which has an excellent restaurant called the Blue Door.  They have a great range of international wines (last night we tried an American sauvignon blanc from a winemaker called Hess, which was excellent) and a good, interesting menu.  One of the reasons we came back to this hotel again was because it’s nice not to have to go out to have a good dinner, especially on a rather bleak night!

Posted in England 2010, London 2010, UK 2010 | Tagged: | 6 Comments »