St Paul’s Cathedral – a tale almost as long as the Bible

July 30, 2007 at 9:54 pm | Posted in General, London, Out and About, St Paul's Cathedral, Travel, UK | 1 Comment
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Saturday afternoon I walked down to St Paul’s Cathedral. For the second time in three weeks. Last time I arrived on a Sunday when horror of horrors the cathedral was closed to tourists so people of faith could pray. How dare they? Nonetheless, I was now once again on the steps looking up at the clock tower, iconic dome and steps filled with people.

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But wait I can’t go in yet. I need to eat so I cross the street and have a sandwich and juice in apostrophe. Eating in the window seats provides an excellent opportunity for people watching and looking out over (and up) at the cathedral as hordes of tourists get on and off at the bus stop in front of the cafe. In essence this pause provided an excellent chance to regain my sense of awe at the imposing edifices scattered throughout this city.

Is it weird or sad that I need my awe recharged after only a few months?

Imposing with a side of awe is a useful way of describing my reaction to the main hall of the cathedral (before I even got under the dome). With ticket in hand I walk over to the audio tours desk and pick up a tour and begin the listening experience which leads me around the cathedral. The central dome is magnificent with frescos and mosaics galore and it is worth your while to sit for a moment and take it in before heading to the main altar and the American memorial chapel. Again the ornate features are beautiful  and after exploring this part of the cathedral it is time to move up to the whispering gallery via what seems like a few hundred steps.

The whispering gallery is quite cool as you look down on the centre of the cathedral, down the aisles and up to the black and white ceiling paintings depicting the life of St Paul. Apparently it is called the whispering gallery because if you whisper against the wall someone on the other side. Unfortunately this results in any number of tourists clapping and whispering (loudly) to try and test this feature. Although with all of these voices the sound gets drowned out. Now I had wanted to go further up to the outside of the dome but after 3:30 this is closed. While they have plenty of signs about everything else this important point seems to have slipped their minds. I’m not sure why it closes so early but this is good reason to get here sooner rather than later.

Disappointed by my lack of roof access I walk back down the stairs and into the crypt where besides Wellington, Nelson and Florence Nightingale there are an assortment of monuments to notable members of the Empire. Looking at some of their achievements is mollifying and inspiring.

Before leaving the cathedral I return my audio tour and speak with the ticket office and am relieved that they will give me access again on Monday so I can go up to the roof. Unfortunately, this means taking a long lunch. Such a shame!

Prior to returning next week I’ll make a brief comment about the audio tour. Compared to the Tower of London tour the cathedral’s was structurally weak. I found myself backtracking quite a bit (odd given the relative floor space) and constantly keeping my eye out for additional content for things around me that weren’t specifically mentioned in the guide. True the Tower’s was at times condescending and leading but this is necessary to facilitate an efficient and informative experience. What’s even more useful is for the guide to not stop working part way through.

The space is massive and to get the most out of your ticket price a tour is advisable but I suggest trying to get in on a guided tour. I have no idea if it’s any good but it is bound to be better than the audio tour and more concise and organised.

Monday had finally arrived and after getting through a chunk of work I hustle over back to St Paul’s, show my ticket and once again walk up the steps (passing wheezing tourists sitting in the alcoves) and up to the whispering gallery and up more steps to the Stone and Golden Galleries where I experience panoramic views over the city and Thames. I realise that while I love the history of this city, from on high it seems to lack a distinctive skyline (other than Canary Wharf, Westminster and The Eye) which somehow limits the city. Fortunately, I’m normally on street level where everything seems larger than life.

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I can’t say I enjoyed the cathedral per se. It is certainly a worthy experience and one that inspires me to see St Peter’s and the Hagia Sophia but I can’t help but feel I spent too much time running in circles thanks to the less than perfect audio tour.

More photos on Flickr (they’re are even a few that aren’t of the cathedral in case you get confused).

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On the other side of the Millenium Bridge I came onto the South Bank and:

Second hand books for sale under a bridge…
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Walls of graffiti and skaters using this inner urban space to show off their moves…
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Thoughts of Hott Fuzz abound as I walk through a gauntlet of mimes and street performers…
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People playing on …. the beach?
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A completely non copyright infringing picture with a freaky looking closed eye.
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The Harry Potter Experience (no spoilers)

July 24, 2007 at 11:30 am | Posted in books, Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter, London, reading | Leave a comment

Unless you’ve been under a rock you’d know that the final Harry Potter has now been released. Now gentle readers gather round and listen t the story of one fan and his journey to buy the book at Waterstone’s Piccadilly. Late Friday I begin walking towards the West End and the bookshop from Angel.

At about 11PM I am standing in front of the shop looking out at the beginning of the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the costumed fans. Standing around me are other passers bys and numerous members of the media taking photos and conducting interviews. I see Weasleys and witches galore.

Now I begin the walk to the back of the line. About 20 minutes later I was at Pall Mall and the last one. For all of 5 seconds before another dozen people were standing behind me. On my way I had seen too many witches and wizards to count but on the whole there were more ‘regular’ people. I wish there had been a greater concentration of fandom and costumes but at any rate I was now in line. Ready and waiting. Emphasis on the latter.

In line I whipped out my DS stuck in my iPod earphones and began the long wait. Occasionally watching some of the street performers who came past. What I never saw were street vendors selling coffee or food to the waiting masses. Surely they would have made a fortune?

Eventually I got bored and started paying more attention to those around me and found that I was fortunate enough that the group behind were a jovial lot and we got along well trading jokes and theories. At around 00:30 we got word that Tim’s sister (one of the guys in the line) had bought the book already at Tesco’s after they basically dumped the book out the front. At this point we became aware of the people behind us – an American family – who other than their child were not at all into the queue. For a brief period we found ourselves looking after their 12 year old son while they went off somewhere. Shortly thereafter one of the group left to try her luck at Borders in Trafalgar, later ringing her friends to say there was a short line but few books. This is how we lost another.

I admit to considering leaving as well but wanted to go inside the largest bookshop in Europe to see what they had on offer.

At the corner and every 5 minutes we were subjected to Father talking to son about the line and wanting to go home so he could sleep. Meanwhile son, Solomon, was insistent on staying. “After all it is the experience!” To which Father replied “this isn’t an experience, it’s a line!”. I can appreciate this line of thought but was still hopeful of seeing something interesting in store.

Perhaps about 2:00 we spoke with a Waterstone’s employee managing traffic and he advised that the in store experience was no done and it was only about purchasing the book. I’m quite disheartened by this and so apparently is Solomon’s Father who after hearing tis quickly takes this news as a chance to take his kid and get out of the line and head home. Knowing things had wound down I would have preferred to purchase my book elsewhere but unfortunately any other shop is likely closed.

So with a stiff upper lip I and my remaining 2 companions stuck out the line until the end as we witnessed hustlers trying to sell the book at £50 as we waited. I don’t think they had any takers. There were also any number of people yelling out alleged spoilers. Lastly, of course were all the people who walked past us as we waited with their Waterstone bags carrying their precious cargo.

Oh wait precious is another book altogether.

At long last we were almost inside the building and were met by some surprisingly cheerful staff and upon entering we even got a clap! Now that’s an experience is it not? Worth the wait.

On the ground floor I’m offered a copy of the book and quickly cross the small space to the cashier. Again the staff member is friendly and attentive. I’m surprised by their attitude given the hour. After all I’ve only had to stand for 3 hours, whereas they’ve done this plus serve a few thousand customers. Kudos Waterstone staff.

I said my final farewells to my line buddies and began the walk home and at last arrived just after 4:30. Went to the local 24hr supermarket, gathered up copious amounts of junk food and got cosy in my room and read for about an hour.

Crashed for a few hours, woke up at 9 and then read most of the day.

At long last I finished the book. Without spoiling I’ll say simply that it was a a good book and ended the series in a reasonable manner. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation of the last two novels.

I’ve been told I’m a fanboy and a geek for going through all this trouble. I admit it. I am. And it was worth it.

Museum of London – mark your diaries for 2009

July 24, 2007 at 5:30 am | Posted in London, Museum of London, Out and About, Travel, UK | 2 Comments
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On a rainy and dreary Sunday last week I found myself at the Museum of London, situated in a walled circle at the centre of a roundabout (hence the circle presumably). Well that and its location near the old city wall and perhaps the design is inspired by a medieval turret.

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The museum, as expected from the name, covers the history of the city through the political and not so political figures who have made it their home. Beginning with a background of the land and its stone age past you begin to get a sense of the long association this area has had with human activity – albeit not always a constant presence. By the same token you become overwhelmed with repetitive displays. How many similar looking stone axe heads does any one person need to see to appreciate that ancient humans used tools? While chronologically this provides a linear experience to the rest of the museum it also dulls the senses and makes one wish the museum were over already.

After ancient Britain I walked into the not so chronological exhibit dealing with the Great Fire of London. I found this exhibit informative and yet frequently playing too much to child visitors. Finally through the fire I begin the museum in earnest as I bizzarely have gone from Stone Age to 1666 and now to back to the Roman era.

The Roman display is informative as you look through recreations of the homes, diorama and maps before moving into medieval London. On this particular day there was a woman dressed in period garb discussing medicines of the day. This worked out well becuase next is the display dealing with the Black Death. More displays follow and I admit my usual enjoyment of museums and history has fled. I’m bored and don’t feel like I’m getting a true appreciation for each of the periods as what content there is seems related solely to whatver artifact they can find. With the above in mind had I seen longer texts I’d at least acknowledge that there is the opportunity to delve deeper should you so wish. Regretably this is not the case.

I made my way downstairs to the Tudors and was barely in when met by a sign saying that the rest of the museum (and London’s history) was closed for redevelopment and I should come back in 2009 when it re-opens. This at least explains why one of their most popular exhibits (the Fire) was so out of place at the beginning.

Until it reopens the museum might be worth a look (particularly as it is free) but if you can wait till ’09 it might be better to postpone until then. Otherwise if there’s bad weather come and check it out (again: free) but there are other opportunities to see London’s history through these historic periods, for example the Tower of London.

Banking! Money! Gold! Interest Rates! What more could you ask for on a Saturday?

July 23, 2007 at 8:47 pm | Posted in Bank of England, General, London, Out and About, Travel | Leave a comment
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Quite possibly a lot more but not for your intrepid traveller journeying (a few weeks ago now) to the desolate streets of the Square Mile to take a tour of the imposing Bank of England – which is not the Exchange building as many might think.

 Not the Bank…The Exchange.
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 The Bank.
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Perspectives of the Bank.
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My understanding is that the Bank normally does not run tours except during the London Festival. Otherwise on any other day the only option is visiting the free museum. At the entrance I am greeted by a security guard wearing top hat and salmon coloured tails. I wonder if this is the de jour wear or just while they offer the tours. Given that many look ill-fitting I suspect the latter. After entering the foyer and pass my bags through the x-ray machine (the operator and some of the other guards inside are sadly only in suits). Myself and the other tourists wait through the usual don’t touch anything instructions before getting underway on the tour.

Followed at a distance by a minder…

Because the Bank (or “Old Lady”) is nothing if not all about security. After all they have raised their own volunteer corp from the ranks of their staff. Banker’s doing battle reminds me a bit of Monty Python and the Meaning of Life skethc skethc on corporate raiders.

We get a brief history of the bank’s 17th century beginnings as a fund for the English war effort in France (at 8% interest) before we moved onto the construction of the present building. Most of the modern building (despite looking reasonably old) have only been around since the 1920s when they tore down the interior to increase the number of floors (above and below ground). One of the remaining remnants of the old construction is the outer wall (about 8 feet thick and considered impenetrable).

Now we move onto the sacrilege.

The Bank received by Act of Parliament first the right to acquire a neighbouring church under the proviso not to build on the church ground – being holy and all – but wanting architectural uniformity they built on it anyway thus precipitating another Act of Parliament. The new church yard is a garden in the centre of the complex and generally only used by the Governor.

So just remember if ever being chased by demons and seeking sanctuary in the Bank of England don’t go to the courtyard trying to find holy ground.

Through the Governor’s office (scrupulously empty of paperwork I assume because of the tours and not because s/he is a giant slacker) and into a parade of various rooms outlining the pomp, prestige and power of this establishment. If you ever wanted to look at chandeliers and gold then this is the tour for you.

We’ve now finished the tour and enter the museum. This is the something of a downside as we enter at the back of the museum thus missing the introductory panels. Although upon walking through (all of the museum) you will find much was covered in the tour anyway.

Without the tour (and/or if you get the audio tour) you’ll presumably get about the same amount of information as the guided experience. The museum is free so you might as well stick your head in here and check it out as an opportunity to appreciate this instiution. Taking the tour adds an extra flavour to the building and its history but as it is only rarely offered you may have to content yourself with the self guided exploration.

At the end of the day it is about finance and ultimately what you can get out of the museum is going to be based on how you stomach the development of the banking sector.

Photos at Flickr (sorry you can’t take any on the tour).

Strolling on Sunday

July 4, 2007 at 10:26 pm | Posted in Anime & Manga, Comics, Gaming, London, Out and About, Pop-cult, Procrastination, UK | Leave a comment

On Sunday I met and chatted with Amy at Green Park before going geek and walking around the inner city to some of potential haunts in my new home.

Green Park and St James Park are lovely and relaxing scenic spots near the Mall and Buckingham Palace. Perhaps the rain kept numbers down but the wet weather didn’t deter us as we wandered, chatted and munched on snacks. On the edge of Green Park (Piccadilly side) is where you’ll find numerous vendors selling artworks that cover the park fence and foot path. I had momentary thoughts of a Mary Poppins style chalk drawings but this was quickly dashed by the less than stellar pieces.

I now began my solitary walk through the city to check out a number of geeky and specialist shops I’d found on the net. As normal I got lost any number of occasions, with plenty of backtracking and circling around. Let’s ignore those distracting and tiring details for the specifics.

First stop was Europe’s largest bookstore – Watertone’s at Piccadilly – and Wren’s 17th Century St James’ Church next door. The church while old didn’t look overly impressive so I skipped a more thorough inspection and headed into the bookstore, spread out over several floors and featuring a couple cafes. Oh and plenty of books. Floors and floors of them. The shelves are largely along the walls leaving a sizeable amount of available space where, if they chose, they could have more shelves. At any rate for any booklover you’ll no doubt find a worthwhile distraction.

Next onto the Japan Centre. It features Japanese food, groceries, travel, books and homeware. I thought the floor space and range were limited but the supermarket was popular so perhaps I’m missing the point. Now I moved to the famed Piccadilly Circus with its neon lights and statue of Eros and down towards Trafalgar Square and the centre of London, Charing Cross.

After lunch and a reduction in the rain I moved into Chinatown and finally found a place selling Bubble Tea (a rarity in London). I asked the shop assistant and apparently there are no chain/ franchise shops in London selling one of my favourite drinks. Shame. From Chinatown I made my way to the Trocadero centre with its limited shops, cinema and fantastic arcade complex – Funland. I’m looking forward to coming back here in the future trying to build some skills. Of course if you’re not into arcade games then why not try dodgem cars, pool, air hockey, slot machines or any other fun game. I wonder how they can make much money given the amount of floor space they cover and the small number of people inside.

Walking past Virgin Radio I came to Arigato a Japanese supermarket for those needing some Asian food stuffs before moving onto Chapel street. Unfortunately I couldn’t find either of the two recommendations: Octopus – funky items and ACE – gaming, but on the plus side I got to walk down this iconic street.

An unsuccessful walk down Berwick street followed (most of the allegedly good coffee shops seemed closed) led me to Oxford Street and Games Workshop. Filled with lots of people (guys) checking out model kits. I felt completely out of my depth as it is something I’ve never been into but thought I should pop my head into anyway. Next Computer Exchange where there is a supply of second hand computer games and DVDs for you to peruse. I managed to pick up a PC version of Final Fantasy VII (probably paying too much for it) and was eager to try and play this game out of nostalgia. I realise that trying to get an old game to play on modern equipment would be a challenge and this turned out to be the case. Despite consulting numerous forums, downloading many patches (including how many viruses?) and tweaking all manner of settings I failed to get the game running. In effect wasting my money but it is nice to have and perhaps one day when I have a week to spare I’ll get it working.

Around Computer Exchange, Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road are a number of other computer shops that might be worth your while to inspect. Also on Tottenham is Casino Leisure Centre, a small arcade centre near Goodge St Station but nothing compared to Funland. Of course if you get bored with games and culture you could step into the Scientology centre next door.

Walking down towards the British Museum, particularly along Great Russell Street you’ll find several comic shops. Gosh! looks quite good. Down on Oxford Street is apparently one Forbidden Planet but I failed to locate it instead going to the other? Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury with its massive collection of collectibles, comics, anime and mange, dvds and books. Definitely check it out.

The nearby Orc’s Nest was closed on Sunday but looks to have models and the like. Further down on Charing Cross Road is Murder One a book shop for crime and romance novels – because these two go together? Being a specialist shop if either of these pique your interest it would be worth checking out. Also on Charing Cross Road is meant to be Comic Showcase. I found the sign but no clear way to get into the shop. Assuming it still exists.

Besides the above mentioned there were numerous other book shops and the occasional comic store as well to keep you interested as you walk through the city. If you get bored there is always a pub, coffee shop, musical or movie theatre nearby.

The main places I’ve listed here can be found on my Google Map.

Next week some actual real sightseeing!

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