The British Museum is one of my favorite places to visit in London, and that was where we chose to spend a rainy Friday. The museum dates back to 1753 when Sir Hans Sloane died and bequeathed his natural history collection to the British nation. It has been located on the same site in Bloomsbury since it opened to the public in 1759.
The museum’s collection chronicles culture and civilization from every continent. There are now over 8 million items in the collection with perhaps the most notable being the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles.
The Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The black granite stone is engraved with a decree from King Ptolemy V that is inscribed in three languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (top), Demotic (an ancient Egyptian script — middle), and Ancient Greek (bottom.) By working from the Greek and Demotic scripts, linguists were ultimately able to understand hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone dates back to about 200 BC but was only rediscovered in 1798 by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt. The stone came into British possession when the French forces in Alexandria capitulated to the British in 1801.
The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures from the Parthenon that were brought to England by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, in the early 1800s. The Parthenon was built between 447 and 438 BC with white marble and it contained a giant gold and ivory statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the helper of mythological heroes such as Odysseus and Jason. In the fifth century, Athens was a part of the Roman Empire and the statue was removed when the temple was converted to a Catholic church. In the fifteenth century, Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Parthenon was converted into a mosque. In the late seventeenth century, the ruling Ottomans were using the building as an ammunition dump when it was hit by a bombardment from the Venetians and destroyed.
The Parthenon’s two pediments contained classical Greek statuary. In the east pediment, statues depicted the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head. In the west pediment, sculptures portrayed a battle between Athena and Poseidon. Seventeen of the sculptures from the two pediments are in the British Museum. The museum also has 15 (of the original 92) panels depicting a war between the Lapiths (humans) and the Centaurs (half-man, half-horse creatures) as well as 247 feet (of an original 524 feet) of a frieze that shows a ceremonial procession. The life-like detail and beauty of the Parthenon sculptures are, by themselves, worth a trip to London.
We spent nearly six hours at the museum and probably saw about two-thirds of it before we called it a day. We went back to the hotel to refresh and then we met one of Theresa’s nephews and his girlfriend for dinner. He is living in London quite near our hotel, so it was very convenient for all of us. We had a fabulous meal and truly enjoyed their company.
Saturday (New Year’s Eve)
Saturday was cloudy but not rainy, so we went walking through London’s major shopping areas. We left our hotel (point A on map below)and headed down to Bond Street (point B), arguably one of Europe’s most fashionable retail streets. Retailers on Bond Street include Cartier, Dior, Tiffany, Prada, Gucci, Armani, Vuitton, Dolce & Gabanna, Hermès, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Ferragamo, Burberry, Ermenegildo Zegna, Yves Saint Laurent, Bulgari, Harry Winston, and Chopard. It is also home to Sotheby’s. If you need something with which to carry your purchases home, we found the Bentley and Rolls-Royce dealers down nearby Burton Street on Berkeley Square. After walking the entire length Old Bond Street and New Bond Street, we are able to report that Target has yet to establish a store here.
When we reached Oxford Street, we turned west and walked down to Selfridge’s flagship store. This high-end department store was founded by an American, H. Gordon Selfridge, who was born in Wisconsin and who moved to Chicago as a young man to work at Field, Leiter & Co., the precursor to Marshall Field’s. Selfridge’s Oxford Street store was designed by Daniel Burnham, an American who also designed the flagship Marshall Field’s building on State Street in Chicago’s Loop.
From Selfridge’s, we walked back along Oxford Street to Oxford Circus (point D) and then down Regent Street; both streets are lined with retailers on both sides. We left Regent Street to walk through Carnaby Street (point E). In the mid-1960s (almost ancient history, I am afraid), the Carnaby Street boutiques defined the Mod or Hippie style that came to the states along with the Beatles and the rest of British rock ‘n roll. Carnaby Street still has a cutting-edge feel to it, and the boutiques carry items that would seem to be difficult to find in more mainstream shops.
Hamleys (point F), the famous British toy store, was next on the tour. Hamleys has been in business since 1760 and its flagship store on Regent Street has seven floors of toys, games, and dolls. What I find most compelling about the store is the large number of staff demonstrating new items. I was impressed by the folks showing some of the magic illusions that they sell, particularly their seeming ability to pull lights out of potential customers’ pockets, ears, and hair. The staff seems to enjoy their jobs, and they are helpful but not pushy.
From Hamleys, we headed into Trafalgar Square for some daytime photos of the Lord Nelson column (point G) and then up to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an Anglican church on the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square (point H). The church dates back to the early thirteenth century while the current church building dates back to 1542 when it was built under the order of Henry VIII. The church has been expanded and enlarged several times since then and the most recent renovation was completed in 2008. In the downstairs of the church is a crypt dating back to the 18th century. The crypt currently contains a cafe and a gallery, that contains many headstones from people buried at the church. There is also a whipping post that dates back to 1572 and that was used up until 1837 to mete out punishment for drunkenness, blasphemy, vagrancy, slander, forgery, bigamy, and petty theft (major theft was punishable by hanging.) Many of you reading this should be thankful that the whipping post is no longer in use.
There are lunchtime and evening jazz and chamber music concerts that are performed in the church almost every day. Perhaps the most well-known ensemble is the Academy of St Martin in the Fields that was founded by Sir Neville Mariner. While we were visiting the church, we bought tickets for a chamber music performance on New Year’s Day evening by the Festive Orchestra of London.
A short walk further east brought us to Covent Garden Market (point I), a shopping center in the former home of London’s fruit and vegetable market. Covent Garden today has many restaurants, small shops, and street performers and it reminded us of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Some quick research shows why — Covent Garden Market was built in 1830 while Quincy Market was built in 1826; Covent Garden was converted to a shopping center in 1980 while Quincy Market was converted in 1976 as part of the Faneuil Hall redevelopment.
A trip to London requires a trip to Harrod’s, so after we left Covent Garden Market we took the Underground (point J) to Knightsbridge. A short walk down Brompton Road brought us, and what seemed like thousands of others, to Harrods. The crowds entering this iconic department store were unbelievable. With so many people entering at once, we simply went along with the flow of traffic until we were far enough inside to be able to choose which we wanted to go.
If Selfridge’s is big, then Harrod’s is huge. Harrods has over 1 million square feet of retail space housing over 300 departments and 32 restaurants; it is twice the size of Selfridge’s. Harrod’s motto is Omnia Omnibus Ubique or All Things for All People, Everywhere, and the store clearly lives up to its promise. As we rode up the Egyptian escalator, we were serenaded by an opera singer in a formal gown who was singing on one of the balconies that overlook the escalator. I do not recall a similar experience at Macy’s.
From Harrod’s, we headed back to our hotel. Along the way, we briefly stopped in Harvey Nichols, another up-scale department store just a few blocks from Harrod’s. As we continued down Knightsbridge on our way to Piccadilly, we detoured into the northwestern corner of Green Park to see the Wellington Arch. The arch was built between 1826 and 1830 to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. On the top of the arch is a statue showing the angel of peace descending on the chariot of war.
After a shower and change of clothes at the hotel, we headed back to the West End for a pre-theatre dinner and then to the evening performance of Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece opened in Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1986 and it is now in its 26th year. After a long day of walking around London, it was great to sit back and enjoy the wonderful music and special effects of this production. When the show was over and the cast had taken their bows, the actors serenaded the audience with Auld Lang Syne.
We left the theatre and walked along Haymarket and Regent Streets through Piccadilly Square and up to Oxford Circus. The roads were shut to traffic for the New Year’s Eve celebration and were full of revelers getting ready to ring in 2012. Christmas decorations were lit above the thoroughfares and it was a truly festive atmosphere. By the time we reached Oxford Street, a light rain had begun so we took the Underground back to Green Park and then had just a short walk back to our hotel. Although our hotel was about one mile from the London Eye, our room on the top floor gave us a bird’s-eye view of the eleven minute firework display that announced the New Year in London.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.