London: The Victoria and Albert and British Museums and Dicken’s Pub

London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Harrods’s Department Store. We walked to the Victoria and Albert and strolled through the medieval section. The artwork and jewelry of the time were far more detailed and beautiful than I imagined. We even saw Saint Tomas a Becket’s Bishop’s hat that had been preserved from 1170. It is almost incomprehensible to us Americans that anything could be that old. There is also an entire collection of Queen Victoria’s artifacts.

At the British Museum in the Greek exhibit

We also spent the better part of a day in the British Museum. The British Museum is one of the best museums I have ever visited. So far, I have visited the Smithsonian, the Vatican, The Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Asian Museum in San Francisco. I loved the British Museum because there was such a wealth of treasure there to view, starting with the Rosetta Stone. There were artifacts from the Anglo Saxon Period, but also India, China and Japan. There were incredible exhibits of Greek and Roman statuary and molds of the Parthenon before it deteriorated. The great part of the British Museum was that not only was it free to visit, but we went while the children were still in school so it wasn’t crowded. We weren’t hustled through the exhibits, nor were we fighting crowds to see the exhibits which fascinated us most. There was a large, centrally located cafe with lots of seating, so when we wanted to sit down and take a break, we could have a sandwich or tea and a scone. The British Museum allowed us to take in as much incredible history as we could and still take comfortable breaks. For me, history became not just something to be read in books. At the British Museum, history, in all it’s glory, wonder, scars and bloodshed suddenly surrounded me.

We couldn’t resist a break from the museums, so we took some time to visit Harrods’s Department store, the late Princess Diana’s favorite. It was much different than our American department stores, with prices to match a royal’s purse. It seemed like a mall of designer shops. Any and every famous designer has a shop at Harrods. In addition, Harrods has its own high end food court including a tea shop and a bar. Jim texted my parents back in the States to send help because I was on the loose at Harrods’s. What can I say? I have good taste.

We were able to take a tour of Lloyd’s of London in the middle of the modern, high tech financial district of London not far from the Tower of London. Lloyd’s is not open to tourists, but we got a personalized tour and a history lesson because my husband has business associates who work there. Lloyd’s of London is the world’s original insurance company dating back to the 1600s. Even though the company is housed in a modern skyscraper, they still have a special ship’s bell dating from the 1700s, the wooden stand, and the ledgers that recorded insurance agreements for centuries in the center of the building in keeping with the traditions they used since their origin. As we left the building, we were told we could have lunch at the oldest pub in London, or one of Charles Dickens’ favorite pubs, The George and Vulture. That pub has it’s origins in the 1200s. We were told that it had been nearly demolished but Dickens fans begged the city to save it. The pub was in a medieval section not much more than a crooked alley preserved in the middle of the skyscrapers of modern London. Jim and I even got permission to go upstairs and look at the apartment Dickens lived in. His descendants still get together there at Christmas each year. The Victorian era stove is still there, and it is preserved much as it had been during Dickens’ time. We had a pint to toast Dickens and split a lunch of bangers and mash, mashed potatoes with sausage, onions, and gravy on top. We also had sticky pudding for dessert, which we had never tried before. It was delicious!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_2792.jpg

Indeed, British cuisine has a bad reputation among chefs and foodies, but that assessment is patently unfair. The bangers and mash, and the sticky pudding we had at the George and Vulture was delicious, savory and tasty. We tried meat pies, mine with chicken and Jim’s with steak at another pub. They were rich, savory, and delicious. My favorite dinner was fish and chips. I loved the fried fish and homemade fries. I ate fish and chips several times because it was so delicious. Fish and chips and meat pies are a must when in England. We also enjoyed the tea shops. When we first arrived in London, we passed a couple shops with rows and rows of the most beautiful pastries and cakes I have ever seen. Jim and I finally looked at one another, giggled, and decided then and there to have dessert before dinner. We don’t have bakeries here in the States like the tea shops in London. I loved them! We tried three different tea shops and all were decadent and delightful. If I lived in London, I would be at a tea shop every day.

Visit London for the history and the literature, but enjoy the cuisine too, especially the fish and chips and the tea shops. Jim and I found ourselves looking at the listings in a real estate office window wondering if we could move there. I would love to live in London!

Greenwich and Great Britain’s Maritime History

In an earlier post, I wrote that I have a love of history stemming from my studies in literature and music and the history surrounding the arts. The arts have certainly influenced me, but long before I went to college, my father, Daniel Barton, was my first influence. He loves a good story, and historical adventures. He is a treasure trove of British and American naval history and raised my sister and I on sailboats. Understanding the history of Great Britain, particularly England, means understanding naval history. The British have always been a nation of sailors. It is their skill in sailing and naval warfare that propelled them to the position of being a world power with Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The British went on to colonize and influence much of the world. Tea, spices and textiles, were much sought after as luxury goods. Natural resources such as lumber provided a means of continuing Britain’s shipbuilding industry. Britain’s colonial history is complicated, messy, and controversial, especially in places such as India and Africa. Not all those who were colonized wanted or needed to be colonized, and colonization has had long lasting implications. When I visited India and London, I observed a very complicated relationship between modern Indians and the English. The Indian people saw the English colonization through the East Indian Tea Company as an affront to their ancient culture and traditions. Still, I noticed in India that the English tradition of tea time in the mornings and afternoons is observed, only with chai tea and English shortbread cookies. In London, Indian restaurants are bountiful and Indian spices are frequently used. It makes me wonder, who influenced who?

Aside from colonial controversy, I inherited an appreciation of all things related to boats from my father. I simply had to go to either Greenwich or Portsmouth when Jim and I visited London. Dad voted for Portsmouth, but Greenwich is just a short boat ride down the Thames from London. Jim and I took the Underground from our hotel in South Kensington, not far from Buckingham Palace and Harrods’s, to Westminster Pier. We boarded a boat from the pier and enjoyed views of London from the water while listening to a tour guide’s description of how the Thames has played a part in London shipping and trading as well as stories about the buildings we passed.

Once we got to Greenwich, it was a short walk to the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory lie at opposite ends of a large park. The end of the park that houses the Royal Observatory is on a hill overlooking the town of Greenwich. In dry dock by the National Maritime Museum is the most fascinating attraction for those who love ships, the Cutty Sark, the famous clipper ship whose likeness decorates bottles of Cutty Sark Scotch. The Cutty Sark was part of the tea trade, and later, the Australian wool trade. She is the last surviving clipper ship of England’s glory days in the tea trade. She was built in 1869, and spent a few years sailing trade routes before she and her sister clipper ships were superseded by steam ships that could use the Suez canal for a shorter route East. Like other clipper ships, she was built with taller masts, a slimmer hull and a whole lot of sail in order to sail faster. She was the racer of her day, and the pinnacle of clipper design. Today, she is preserved in dry dock, masts standing tall and proud, with docents ready to tell stories of her adventures of sailing to Asia and back again. Boxes of tea are aboard with placards to explain how the tea trade worked. The Cutty Sark is raised, and there is a cafe below her, so you can see her gleaming hull. Fascinating!

At the wheel of the Cutty Sark. What I wouldn’t give to have stood here when she was under sail.
The hull of the great ship and the cafe underneath her.
The Cutty Sark, the last remaining clipper ship

We went on to the National Maritime Museum near Cutty Sark’s dry dock which included much of Great Britain’s proud naval history. An entire room was dedicated to Lord Nelson’s death aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It also included a barge from the reign of the Hanover Kings. As a music scholar, I remember the stories about George I and his court composer George Frederick Handel floating down the Thames on barges while Handel’s orchestra performed his famous composition, Water Music. The barge in the museum had been preserved much as it would have been in 1717 when Water Music first debuted.

Tourists reading about the barge the Hanover Kings used for leisurely travels down the Thames. It was on a barge such as this one the composer Handel debuted his timeless Water Music for George I.

After the National Maritime Museum, we walked out through the park to the village of Greenwich. The section of Greenwich near the park looks exactly like what I pictured an old English town to look like with quaint old storefronts and pubs, so Jim and I stopped at an old pub for a pint and a plate of meats, cheeses and bread.

After our break, we went back to the park and hiked the hill to the Royal Observatory. If you have ever been a sailor, or been aboard a ship, you may have heard the term, Greenwich Mean Time. If you have, that means that Greenwich keeps time for the world. It is 0 time. If you have ever heard of the Primer Meridian, it is here. We get our time standards from Greenwich. The astronomers who were appointed by the reigning monarch stayed here with their families and not only studied the stars, but explored new ways to aid navigation.

During our time in Greenwich, I wished my father was with us. As an old salt with time in the United States Coast Guard, time as First mate aboard the Halve Maen, the replica of Henry Hudson’s ship that explored the Hudson River in 1609, and many, many days of sailing our own family sloops ranging from 12 to 40 feet, he understands navigation far better than I do, or ever will. I love to write and I love history and music, but math was always my nemesis. I won’t attempt any more than the most elementary explanation of navigation and what we saw at the royal Observatory here. Suffice it to say that in order to figure out where they were with more precision, mariners needed to time how far they were from Greenwich. Every hour they sailed away from Greenwich equaled 15 degrees longitude on the charts. This is modern longitude. Problem was, not only only did they need clocks which were precise, but which could also withstand the motion of the ships and ocean. A prize was offered for the invention of a maritime clock that could keep accurate time even aboard a rocking (and sometimes rolling) wooden ship. Trust me. I’ve been aboard the Haeve Maen. Those wooden ships do rock and roll. John Harrison puzzled over 5 variations of his maritime chronometer until one worked. He finally was awarded some prize money from George III before his death in 1776. You can still see his chronometers, or maritime clocks, when you visit the Royal Observatory. They are exquisite time pieces, beautifully fashioned unlike anything clock makers produce today. There are placards and docents available to explain navigation and the part that the clock played as navigation aids.

My husband, Jim, standing on the Prime Meridian. One foot on the Southern Hemisphere, and one foot on the Northern Hemisphere.
Part of the old Royal Observatory in the front with the modern observatory in the back.

After we spent the day between the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, we decided to head back to London. My advice is to get right back on the boat to Westminster Pier. Yes, you can take the Underground, but we couldn’t find a station nearby and ended up walking for the better part of an hour through places that were not as pretty as the park or the section where we had lunch to finally get to one. The boat is a far easier and more pleasant option, even if it is a little more expensive.

For the mariners in your life, Greenwich is a must. Visiting the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, and the Royal Observatory sheds light on Britain’s proud maritime tradition.

The masts of the Cutty Sark.