London: Nov 24: Yes, Prime Minister

I felt sick on Wednesday, November 24, 2010, and hence stayed home most of the day. For lunch, I ventured out to my nearby high street near Queens Park to eat at a decent cafe, Jack's, that I've previously visited but didn't photograph. This time I had my camera and took three pictures.

In late afternoon, I headed down to the office to meet some coworkers for dinner. I had bought Di Yin and I tickets weeks before to join a theatre club outing to see a stage version of Yes, Prime Minister, a 1980s British comedy about politics and civil service.

Some of us decided to have dinner together before the show. We headed to Chinatown, which is in the West End (the theatre district) conveniently close to the theatre, Gielgud Theatre. The restaurant we ended up at was perfectly bleh (typical unflavored "Americanized"-Chinese food for people with no taste and no idea of the alternatives). I wasn't surprised given my impression of London's Chinatown from walking through it before. Nevertheless, dinner was fun, with interesting people and conversation. I was surprised to see that none of my dinner companions were British despite the show being distinctly British. (Everyone at dinner had moved to London within the previous couple of years.)

The show was pretty good and certainly funny. Until I got into it, I was distracted by the beautiful set, particularly the pretty trees seen through the minister's window and also the bookcase. Of course, once I got into the show, I didn't notice the set much.

The acting was good; the actors really played their parts both physically and vocally.

The core philosophy underlying the show is that the civil service is a force to be reckoned with. Bureaucracy has a lot of power.

The show comments on politics, media, morals, civil service, cultural relativism, patriotism, selfishness, and education. Although there were many messages, two statements about modern politics come to mind as I'm writing this post. One, everyone (politicians, civil servants) is happy at the end even though nothing actually has been done. Two, for some large segment of the play, the politicians and civil service work together, spending a while trying to solve a problem that it turns out to be already too late to solve.

Incidentally, I was amused to see that all the people who played media types are really tall. This must've been intentional.

London: Nov 23: The Book of the Dead

On Tuesday afternoon, November 23, 2010, I escaped from work to see the special exhibit on the Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum.

The first half of the exhibit kept reminding me of fantasy novels and role playing games (RPGs). The Book of the Dead is effectively a spellbook for the deceased. Filled with strange scrolls written in hieroglyphs, they even look like a spellbook from a distance. And, like a wizard in a role playing game, you couldn't bring along every spell that exists. The books weren't big enough for that; people had to select which spells they wanted. Furthermore, in selecting spells, people wrote the important ones on the inside of the coffin--the easiest ones to get to--and the less important ones on the outside.

Spells could do a lot: healing, transforming a lotus flower into a serpent, protecting one's heart, preventing decapitation, avoiding getting caught in nets, creating water, controlling fire, transforming into another animal (snake, heron, benu bird (mythical)), repelling animals (snakes, beetles, crocodiles, etc.), proving certain after-life gatekeepers that the deceased knows their names (and thus has power over them), and more. This naming spell in particular sounds like the premise of many fantasy novels. Also, as in novels and RPGs, spells require ingredients, often very specific and rather peculiar, such as a clay bowl with the image of Osiris, a "scarab made from nemehef-stone, mounted in fine gold, with a ring of silver, and placed at the throat of the deceased", "a knot amulet of red jasper, moistened with the juice of the 'life-is-in-it' fruit and embellished with sycamore sap".

The Egyptians also had wands: a serpent-shaped staff, an ivory boomerang, etc.

The Egyptians believed that after the deceased passed the trials and made it to Osiris, the deceased was judged. His heart was put on a scale; the result determined if he lived forever in the after-life or if his soul got devoured.

The exhibit also explained, with examples, how books were made; the process sounds much like legal documents today. They're created by scribes. Some were custom-made; others were bought off the shelf with names filled in. Some ready-made ones were slavish copies of well-written books; others were copies of poorly-written books or even gibberish. (Not all scribes could read.) There also was a middle ground: one could buy a standard book and have it expanded with additional spells (or whatever). Furthermore, if one commissioned a book and didn't pay, the scribe may simply erase the name and sell the book to someone else.

The exhibit showed multiple books of the dead, including the longest known one. At 37 metres long, it wrapped around the wall, an impressive sight.

Incidentally, the exhibit was held in the so-called Reading Room in the center of the Great Court. It's amazing inside looking up to the central dome. I'm sorry no pictures were allowed. To compensate, I found a decent picture on the web. Sorry, it doesn't capture the full verticality of the room--I couldn't find a picture that did.

Being sick, although there were other sites in the area I wanted to see, I didn't have the energy do much after the special exhibit. I returned to work.

Incidentally, on the way to the museum I took a picture.

London: Nov 21: Sunday Roast

On Sunday, November 21, 2010, I didn't do anything during the day. For dinner, Di Yin and I went to the pub closest to our house for Sunday roast. I previously photographed the pub's outside; this time I took a number of pictures of its interior because the interior is incredibly quirky and offbeat.

Also, while we were there, they played Nina Simone on the speakers, which I appreciated and which pleased Di Yin greatly. She's a fan. And, she said, "it's very rare I go to a bar and know and have all the songs they're playing." Sadly, near the end of the meal they switched CDs to something not quite as good.

As we left, Di Yin asked why it took us so long to go there. She regretted not going earlier given its location (a block from our flat), respectable food, and fun atmosphere.

London: Nov 20: Hampstead

On Saturday, November 20, 2010, I left my flat before lunch to see more of Hampstead and Hampstead Heath. I'd visited it once before.

Though in the mid-40s F / 8 C like most of the week, it felt colder. I could see my breath most of the day. Perhaps it has something to do with the humidity and thick cloud cover.

Once in Hampstead, I walked around. I first visited St. John's church, which incidentally happened to have a Christmas fair (small, boring), then continued to Frognal, returned to downtown Hampstead for lunch, then continued up through more of Hampstead toward Hampstead Heath. I recorded the route I walked. I also took pictures.

Hampstead seems to have quite varied architecture, though most of the buildings are average examples of each style. Also, it has twisted streets, which, admittedly, is not unusual for London, though these are made more interesting than usual because Hampstead is built on a hill.

By the time I reached Hampstead Heath itself, I had decided I wanted to escape from the cold. I left exploring the heath for another day, instead retreating to the Kenwood House, an eighteenth-century house converted into a museum (with eighteenth-century art). It sits on one side of the heath.

Once in the house, I decided to take a guided tour. I'm glad I did because the guide was very interesting. He explained and told stories about the paintings, especially the portraits of the original family members who lived there. An example of the shocking, lascivious, and tangled stories he told is the tale of Emma Hamilton. (She's in one of the house's paintings.) He also explained how the Heritage Board decided to decorate the house, trading off between how to best show the artwork and the historic accuracy. Also, in addition to discussing paintings, he talked about the furniture and architecture, pointing out features such as a honeysuckle pattern that appears throughout the house (that I never would've realized was a theme without the guide).

Kenwood House is a neoclassic house with some rococo furniture. There are many friezes throughout, perhaps the most in the particularly impressive library. As no pictures were allowed in the house :(, you'll have to do with the best picture of the library I could find on the web (which isn't very good); here's the best sketch (click on the picture for an enlargement). The library, by the way, has many pictures of Roman gods, muses, and anthropomorphized representations of fields of study. It's neat trying to decode everything. It would make a good Game clue.

The artwork in the house includes a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Turner, and several Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, and Guardis. A bit of a variety of tastes.

The house had a good Christmas market going on, with an assortment of neat jams, chutneys, beers, wines, and desserts. Many of these were purely British: e.g., ploughman's pickle chutney, mulled wine, plum pudding. Best, the market encouraged sampling! :)

Kenwood also has substantial grounds (a proper estate), but I didn't explore those. I wanted to be home, warm, and sit on a couch.

Postscript: At it turns out, I came down with a cold soon after this outing. It probably has something to do with being outside for so long on a damp, cold day.

London: Nov 19: Chelsea Part Two

On a clear, relatively warm Friday, I left work for a shorter than usual outing, returning after only an hour and a half because work was busy. I used the limited time to explore a tad more of Chelsea, a nearby neighborhood that I walked in once before.

This time, I mainly walked through the Royal Hospital (actually a veterans home) and its Ranelagh Gardens. Details of the whole excursion are in the pictures.

London: Nov 18: London Transport Museum Part 2

On Thursday, November 18, 2010, I finished the London Transport Museum (see first trip). Now I can report my full impression: it's a good quality museum and I enjoyed browsing it. My main complaint is that the museum focuses on the evolution of the transportation system itself and little on how the system changed people's habits and beliefs. For instance, although, for examples, the museum explored how the rail lines sought to get people to move to the suburbs (hence more business) and briefly mentioned the installation of pedestrian crosswalks to simplify traffic, it never really mentioned what people thought of the jam of motor vehicles on the street or, say, how commute times have changed over the years. I also would've liked to hear how the government policies did or didn't affect the evolution of the system. I don't even have a good sense of how much it is currently controlled by the public. Nevertheless, these criticisms are secondary; the museum does well its job of exploring the (generally uncontrolled) growth of London's transportation system.

Some things I learned that I thought were particularly interesting:

  • I learned the history of the underground's logo, typeface, and station design (architecture).
  • I also learned that for some reason boat service never caught on among locals, only tourists. I never thought about the lack of boat transportation until it was mentioned here.
  • I read about the transition from trams to trolleys (better control, easier to stop by the curb) to buses (cheaper to run, no electricity lines to maintain) (in the 1950s) to the trams' comeback in the 2000s as light rail in the suburbs (primarily to encourage people to use their cars less).
  • There are new London overground lines designed to reach previously unconnected areas. There was a special exhibit on these lines. I didn't realize rail lines were being actively built. One of these overground lines runs by our place; I've taken it. Also, the trains on it use regenerative breaking.
  • And yes, there was something about the Thames Tunnel, which I first heard about two days prior.
There are some multimedia displays: a train driving simulator; a huge map of London under a projection display, with the map tracing someone's (pre-recorded) commute route while the display shows the sites the person would see; and more. See the pictures for another example.

The museum has a shockingly extensive gift shop. It's amazing how many books, graphic art pieces, kitch, clothes, ceramics, and knick-knacks there are related to London and its rail system. The breadth is because they have old train ads, posters, informational drawings, postcards, etc., with designs ranging from before 1900 to today. They can re-present these stylish designs in any other form. For instance, they even have old-fashioned cigarette lighters and the 1933 bus map. It's a fun place to browse.

As usual, I took pictures on this outing and later in the day.

In the evening, I met Di Yin near the British Museum to go to dinner. To get to the British Museum, I took a double-decker bus that happened to pass through the glitz and lights of the West End (London's theatre district), and also Piccadilly Circus and Chinatown. I got to sit in the front seat on the top floor of a bus with clean windows on a clear night! I liked the ride. Also, when I was getting off, I noticed there was a monitor downstairs that cycled through views of all the cameras mounted inside the bus. Voyeurs may rejoice but, frankly, watching people sitting on a bus isn't exciting.

I met Di Yin and we took the bus to our dinner destination, Bistrot Passage Cafe, in Jerusalem Passage, a non-descript pedestrian lane. Passage Cafe is a cozy French restaurant with tip-top food, certainly the best meal I've had in London. Di Yin called it scrumptious. Every dish had us wanting more. For details see the pictures.

London: Nov 17: Tate Modern

On Wednesday, November 18, 2010, I visited the Tate Modern to see its latest exhibits.

Its biggest exhibit (and the only one charging an entrance fee) was on Gauguin. Though showing mainly his paintings, it also covered his other artistic endeavors: sculpting, making woodcuts, and writing. The exhibit confirmed my impression that I'm indifferent to Gauguin's art. I paid for the audio guide in hope it would increase my excitement about his work. Although the guide was good quality, it did not. The only positive thing I want to say about his work is that I like how he sometimes put his own work in the background of his paintings (i.e., his paintings and sculpture in the background of his paintings).

I stopped by a special exhibit on photography. Though I admire the theme of the exhibit--each artist has a framework that every photo he/she takes fits into (e.g., pictures of apparently door-less, window-less buildings)--I didn't much like any of the systems or particular photographs presented.

I went to a weird display that covered a huge swath of the Tate Modern's warehouse floor with things that look like sunflower seeds but are actually made of porcelain.

I also went to an even weirder experimental film exhibit.

By far, the best exhibit I saw was Martin Karlsson's sketches of London. I think it's cool he did sketches in the same places as those in the 1872 London: A Pilgrimage guide book. I recognized a bunch of the locations. All the drawings are done well. Also, they're in an unusual setting. See the two pictures I took of the exhibit.

Incidentally, I still like the timeline of twentieth-century art in the Tate Modern's escalator lobbies.

London: Nov 16: Tower Bridge

It was foggy Tuesday morning. This made it even more surprising that when I looked outside in early afternoon, I saw a clear sky, clearer than five out of six days in London this time of year. The sun was out and there were patches and swathes of blue in the sky.

Hence, I decided to make Tuesday my Tower Bridge day. I'd been planning for weeks to go to Tower Bridge and was only awaiting for a clear day.

I took many pictures on this excursion. They--not this blog post--have the highlights of the afternoon's outing. Some of the pictures, though they still look decent, are reminders that London doesn't really have a skyline.

The Tower Bridge is a striking neo-gothic structure of granite, stone, and steel, just over a century old. I mainly went to see it and see its views over London from the upper pedestrian walkway. I was sad to find that the walkways were enclosed in glass, but relieved when I discovered a few openings are wide enough to stick a camera out. On the plus side, being enclosed meant that the walkways are heated.

The Tower Bridge walkway contains three exhibits, all of which I liked. One is about the bridge itself; the most interesting sections of this exhibit describe stunts on the bridge (motorcycles over the bridge, planes flying through the bridge) and alternate designs (some normal bridges, some weird ones with elevators for cars or with canal-like locks). Another exhibit shows pictures of and information about other famous bridges (including this one I saw in Shanghai, though most bridges it covers are big, expensive ones). There are many impressive, pretty bridges that I never heard of before. A third exhibit shows other things on the Thames.

I also got to see the bridge's engine room, which was neat because of the size of the machinery within. The signs in the engine exhibit are written as if they're designed to teach physics to kids.

London: Nov 14: Nothing

On Sunday, November 14, 2010, I decided to stay at home and recover from my continuous daily outings. The only time I emerged was with Di Yin for dinner at our local cheap Indian joint, where I took one picture.

London: Nov 13: The Houses of Parliament, Chelsea, and more

I took an assortment of pictures on my various outings this day, Saturday, November 13, 2010.

In the morning, a friend of Di Yin's who was visiting us, B, and I ventured out to tour the Houses of Parliament, which is officially called the Palace of Westminster.

Pictures were not allowed except at Westminster Hall, the starting/ending location of the tour. Instead, I took lots of notes about sights I saw and things I learned. Incidentally, there are 360-degree panoramas of every room in the Houses of Parliament online. Not all of the rooms are listed on that page; some you can only find viewing a panorama in one room then clicking on a door to another room.

To enter, we had to go through security like in an airport. The security guards also took our photos and printed them on visitor badges to wear around our necks.

Everything in the Houses is tall, ornate, grand, gothic. The hallways make me feel short, as if they were designed for people eight or nine feet tall. This is a bit of a different feeling for me than in other royal palaces, which are designed to make people feel small/be intimidated as they pass through the larger and larger spaces approaching the king. In this case, I didn't feel small in the same way, just short. Maybe the hallways are narrower?

The complex is strewn with murals, paintings (mostly huge), busts (lots of prime ministers; most of the older busts are of nobles), stained glass, and coasts of arms. Also, on the Lords side, there's lots of gilding. For instance, in the Royal Gallery, there are gold-plated life-sized statues of past warrior kings. Regular kings only get paintings. It also has giant frescos of the battles at Waterloo and Trafalgar.

The House of Lords, which the queen called over-decorated (especially the neo-gothic throne), actually to me felt decorated in an orderly, symmetric manner. (It doesn't feel too busy, as Westminster Abbey does). Although there are more than 700 lords, I'd guess the room looks like it can seat only a third. This is significant because the lords only get paid when they show up.

The Central Lobby has tons more statues climbing up to the ceiling, a notable feat given the height of the room's rotunda.

The House of Commons is nicely done, but nowhere near as extravagant as the House of Lords.

Funky observations:

  • There are bas reliefs and frescos of King Arthur in the Queen's Robing Chamber. Some convey lessons: generosity, mercy, etc. (The story was popular when the room was being designed in the mid-nineteenth century and made it into the royal mythology.)
  • Frescos, of which there are many, are a bad idea in cold, wet climates such as London (versus, say, Italy). They take a while to dry and get darker and darker as they do. Once dried, the colors are sealed in and can't be touched up unlike oil paintings.
  • The Prince's Chamber's paintings demonstrate history and show the Tudor family tree (post-civil-war monarchs) by their order (chronological) and placement on the wall.
  • The House of Lords side of the complex has red tones and lots of gilding; the Houses of Commons has a green theme and no gold.
History & Odd Facts:
  • The current palace dates mostly from the nineteenth century, after its most recent fire and rebuilding.
  • The House of Lords is gradually shrinking as people get kicked out (e.g., hereditary posts get abolished) and as some new people are not automatically added (bishops, judges). By the way, the way people get added to the House of Lords is by getting voted in. This happens to a variety of people, ranging from retired members of the House of Commons to sports celebrities.
  • When William & Mary were asked to invade England as part of the Glorious Revolution, they had to accept the crown with conditions: a bill of rights. These rights said, among other things, the monarch cannot make or unmake laws, raise an army, or raise taxes without consent of parliament. There's a painting (The Lords and Commons presenting the crown to William and Mary in the Banqueting House) in the Member's Lobby that shows this scene. William and Mary look very unhappy.
  • Near the start of the English civil war, King Charles I went to the House of Commons to arrest five members of parliament for treason. They escaped the chamber shortly before he arrived. The king asked the speaker of the house where they were. In one of the first major times that parliament has stood up to the monarch, the speaker replied,
    "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
    William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of commons
(As you can tell, I thought the tour was interesting and wrote down a lot.)

After our tour, we found a pub for lunch. After lunch, B and I split up. (He, as a new tourist in London, wanted to see places I've already been.)

Because the day was warm enough to walk around outside, I decided to do so. I chose to do a walking tour of Chelsea. In the 1960s and 1970s, Chelsea was known as the fashion district in London. A well-heeled neighborhood, it retains echoes of its heyday, with many fashion boutiques surrounding Sloane Square and on King's Road. These are mostly clothing, jewelry, and accessories, with names such as Tiffany and Cartier and many others too exclusive and high-end for me to recognize. Along King's Road farther from Sloane Square are some less expensive stores with more familiar names (such as Gap).

During my walk, I stumbled upon a food market in Duke of York Square. Much in the style of Borough Market, it had pastries, cheeses, cured meats, meat pies (even venison, stout, and chestnut pie, and wild boar and apple pie), prepared foods (even Brazilian (feijoada), Thai, and Jamaican), all sorts of stuff. It was a good find.

I made it part of the way through the walking tour before it got dark. I saved the rest of the tour for another day and instead headed home. Having learned from the previous weekend, I'd planned for the planned tube closures. It's too bad I couldn't plan for the unplanned closures. It should've taken me forty-five minutes to get home, but ended up taking me two hours! :( I don't want to bother telling the story here, but at least it had one positive note: I got to walk down Regent Street and Oxford Street at night and took some pictures.

For dinner, B, Di Yin, and I went to a restaurant I spotted in our neighborhood a few days before. Named Kovalan, it's an Indian restaurant specializing in food from the state of Kerala. Kerala is in the south of Indian along the coast, so this naturally means seafood. It also means, by the way, a class of dishes called thoran, which are vegetables stir-fried with grated coconut. They're dry dishes--no curry sauce.

The result? The restaurant was a good find. Details are in the pictures.

London: Nov 12: London Transport Museum Part 1

On Friday, November 12, 2010, a rainy afternoon, I visited the London Transport Museum. The museum explores how London's transportation system evolved from the nascent state it was in at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the modern day. The museum has full scale models of many of the vehicles used in London's transit system. In the part I visited this day, I saw sedan chairs, stage coaches, horses buses (omnibuses and more), horse trams, coal/steam trains, and electric trains. However, rather than the vehicles, I liked the small things in the museum, especially the transit agency's posters and handouts. There were countless shelves of these, and I smiled wryly at all those promoting that people should buy houses in (or at least go out walking in) the country.

I learned a lot at the museum. Here are some interesting facts, in roughly chronological order as I learned them / as they happened.

  • Since the beginning, cabbies in London were always licensed and fares were regulated.
  • There have been toll roads for a long time, often called turnpikes. I learned about them.
  • In 1843, a company completed building a tunnel under the Thames (the Thames Tunnel)! I had no idea such an engineering feat could be tackled in the mid-nineteenth century. Though it was mainly famous for a time as a pedestrian tunnel, for a long time now it's been used by trains.
  • Queen Victoria opposed plans to build the Tower Bridge, saying claims it would beautify the area were 'bosh'.
  • Trams, at least the ones used in London, were symmetric. Rather than turning around at the end of the line, they unhitched the horses and moved them to the other end.
  • In 1900, the vast number of horses in London's public transit system (mostly pulling trams) produced one thousand tonnes of dung a day.
  • Terrorist bombings occurred in London's transit system as early as 1883 (Irish nationals).
  • As in everywhere else in the world, it was mostly lower-class people who were forced to move due to the building of train lines. Parliament, partially in compensation for this disparity, required trains to have special working-class rates. Interesting, but I'm told probably not useful: few of these lower-class people needed to take a train every day.
  • In the 1907, the tube changed from flat-fare to a distance-based fare.
  • The transportation system's design changed substantially with the advent of elevators and escalators. I learned quite a bit about how it changed.
I also visited the museum's special exhibit, Under Attack, about London, Coventry, and a bit on Dresden. Although I found the special exhibit "meh", I enjoyed the related part of the regular exhibit: a collection of WWII-era posters praising London tube and bus drivers for doing their duty with bombs streaming down under the blackout. Also, some posters advised passengers on safety: "In the blackout: before you alight, make sure the train is in the station. Look for the platform." Good advice.

Incidentally, the elevator to the museum exhibits was great, playing sounds of transit: "all aboard", trains chugging, horses clopping, and even "one small step for man."

I took a few photos in the museum.

Because I began my afternoon outing later than usual, and because I knew my admission ticket would provide unlimited future visits, I explored slowly and only made it through half the museum before it closed, seeing only the early history of the transit system.

I'm withholding judgment on the museum until I complete my visit.

Later, feeling inspired by all the game for sale in London's groceries, Di Yin cooked three as part of dinner at home: mallard duck, wood pigeon, and partridge (with bacon). I had a frustrating yet entertaining time trying to debone them.

London: Nov 11: V&A Museum

On Thursday, November 11, 2010, I returned to the V&A Museum. I'd already been to the museum three times before (one, two, three) and seen the whole permanent collection. This visit was to see the latest special exhibits and new displays.

I took a few pictures on this outing.

I first went to a special exhibit titled Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography. These artists create their images directly on light-sensitive paper, either via chemicals, via lasers, by blocking light directly, or by having other materials directly touch or cause a reaction in the paper. They sometimes use positive-color paper. The result is often surreal.

I found a few remarkable pieces:

  • Breathing in the Beech Wood, Homeland, Dartmoor, Twenty-four Days of Sunlight, May 2004 by Garry Fabian Miller. In general, dye destruction prints can be neat, and they remind me of sun prints I made as a kid.
  • Susan Derges's River Raw. She put a piece of photographic paper underwater in a river at night and exposed it with a flashlight. It's a neat idea, bringing what one thinks of as sensitive darkroom materials out into the real world.
  • Pierre Cordier's labyrinthine Chemigram 22/6/87 Dedalogram V (see slide four in this slideshow). In general, I decided chemigrams are cool because they give the most freedom to the artist (he/she can draw on them), especially in rectilinear patterns.
  • Hebe, photogram after a sculpture by Floris Neususs "(made in collaboration with Renate Hayene)." It's the only photogram, which is created by blocking light, that I liked; I concluded that most are boring because they usually look like silhouettes.
Overall, however, though there were a few pieces I respect, I still feel this art form is in its infancy.

By the way, there was an additional regular exhibit in the photography section on the history of this technique.

I also visited a variety of new displays in the museum:
  • an exhibit of art inspired by things on display in the museum. It's a neat idea, and I like that each artist explains which piece inspired him/her and how.
  • an exhibit, Fashion Plates and Fashion Satire, of eighteenth-century printed etchings that show actual fashion at the time or mock the fashion by exaggerating things (women with vegetables in their hair, etc.). They're sometimes pretty funny if you look closely.
  • a temporary exhibit in the theater section on Edward Gordon Craig, known for his minimalist set designs. It had a neat interactive exhibit with little squares of columns, walls, and people that you could slide around on a special desk and see instantly projected on a large screen what the set you designed looks like.
  • a small exhibit related to the consumption of chocolate, 1600-2000.
  • a tiny new exhibit on Walter Crane's nursery picture books.
  • an exhibit on Beatrix Potter and her most famous work, Peter Rabbit.
  • the illustration awards. (V&A gives awards for the best illustrations in books.)

London: Nov 9: Wallace Collection & An Evening Outing

On Tuesday, November 9, I disappeared from work to explore The Wallace Collection.

I took pictures on this day's excursions.

The Wallace Collection is housed in the Hertford House, a sumptuous eighteenth-century mansion. The collection is of a high quality and broad scope, but even if it were not, the house alone would be worth a visit. A masterpiece of interior design, it's filled with elegantly arranged period furniture. Each room and all pieces of furniture have descriptions. The decorations and furnishings, especially the chandeliers and clocks, are artfully arranged and perfectly coordinated with the pieces on display. I found myself examining items and sections of the museum that I'd normally not be interested in simply to see how they arranged the objects and integrated them with the decor.

I'm told the collection of period furniture is the best in the United Kingdom and one of the best in the world. Having seen the V&A Museum's furniture galleries, which is the British government's museum that covers furniture, I can definitively state the Wallace's collection seems better.

The art and artifacts on display, mostly from Europe and dating from somewhere in the range of Medieval through the Renaissance to the 19th Century, are in a variety of forms, including paintings, sculptures (marble, wood, and metal), porcelain, ceramics, maiolica (wikipedia definition), pewter, Venetian glass, gold boxes, and even miniature wax portraits. Regarding painters, I saw a Rubens and several Rembrandts, Philippe de Champaignes, Titians, van Dycks, Gainsboroughs, Canalettos, and Guardis. I also saw lots of paintings of dead game. (I wonder if Sir Wallace had a fascination with them.) There are also four rooms of (mostly European) armor and weapons, a more comprehensive collection than I've seen the likes of before. Like the furniture, it's probably the best collection in the U.K.

I also visited the special exhibit on Poussin to Seurat (i.e., French drawings) but it didn't excite me.

Later, I met Di Yin for dinner at Made in Italy, an Italian restaurant that caught our eyes when we walked by two weeks ago. The Neapolitan was as we hoped it would be and we left pleased. Details are in the pictures. Interestingly, although we were in an Italian restaurant in an English-speaking country, we heard the nearby tables speaking French, Spanish, and (I'm told) Lebanese Arabic.

This area, near Marylebone and Oxford, was prettily decorated at night. I took a bunch of pictures.

London: Nov 7: Hampton Court Palace

On Sunday, November 7, 2010, I left the house early to spend the day exploring Hampton Court Palace. With a high of 9 degrees C / upper-40s F, it was the first cold day on my trip to London. I dressed warmly.

I took pictures on this outing.

I had thought I'd get to the palace, which is substantially southwest of London, by a straight-forward, long tube ride to Waterloo station followed by an overground ride. I was wrong. My nearby tube line was shut for repairs. Instead, I took a rail-replacement bus to a different tube line to another tube line to Wimbledon station (passing in the process the station near where I lived the previous summer) to catch midway the train that travels from Waterloo to Hampton Court Palace. Despite the crazy route, the journey took about the same length of time (about an hour and forty-five minutes) as it would have if everything were running.

The palace is large, with probably several hundred rooms, though only certain wings are on display. It was originally built by Cardinal Wolsey; desired, annexed, and expanded by King Henry VIII (in the Tudor style); and further expanded by William (III) & Mary (in the Baroque style). Other Kings and Queens resided there as well, though none built as much as those three residents.

There are many commonalities between these palace wings. There are tapestries everywhere, lots of stained glass, many paintings (especially of themselves and other royals), and a good number of huge murals (on walls and ceilings). Lots of the non-portrait images allude to religious events or renowned rulers (e.g., Augustus) -- basically imagery that reflects the royals' divine right to rule or reflecting their intentions for empire.

Exploring the palace and listening to the audio guides taught me a lot about the history of the English throne around this time. That said, I generally didn't like the audio guides. (Yes, I say guides because there were different ones for different sections of the palace.) Half were conversational, often with play acting, but consequently were frustratingly slow, with low information density. (They had a good amount of info, just presented slowly.) Another was simply boring. Only one (on King William's apartments) was good, explaining not just furniture and decorations but also people's behaviors, personalities, and the public opinion on the monarch at various times. Because I felt I got enough history of the palace from my guidebooks and audio guides, I skipped the "Story of the Palace" exhibit.

Some little touches made the palace fun. For example, the palace has hidden speakers playing sounds: horses clip-clopping in a courtyard, meat getting chopped in a kitchen, a ghostly voice in an allegedly haunted corridor. They did similar things with smells, such as fish and meat in different places in the kitchen. There were also some people in costume who gave educational historic talks or put on shows, speaking in appropriate Middle English. Also, the kitchen had "experimental food historians." These people were actively using the Tudor-era kitchen and experimenting with medieval cooking techniques to figure out what people in the time actually did.

Indeed, in the gift shop attached to the kitchen exhibit (as opposed to the gift shop for the palace as a whole), I found many books about the history of English cooking, including The Taste of the Fire: the story of the Tudor Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace (which has old Tudor middle-English recipes along with their translations into modern English), Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking, Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef, and The Last Food of England (describing what traditional foods have managed to survive into the supermarket age and what have not).

While at the palace, I tried the famous hedge maze (some say the most famous in the world). It's actually the only part of the Wilderness Garden that remains in its original state; the rest previously contained other mazes and secret walks. Now it's merely a pleasant park.

The maze is small; I have a good sense of direction; and I found my way to the center in five minutes. (Really!) There aren't actually many dead ends, though there is a lot of splitting and rejoining paths, so if you have a good model you can know pretty well what paths are fruitful or not.

I didn't have time to visit everything before everything closed. I skipped most outdoor gardens; I spent most of my time in the palace rather than the grounds because I know I can come back to the gardens/grounds for free, but didn't want to have to the pay the hefty entrance fee to visit the palace again. Also, I didn't get to see the Royal Chapel because it is closed to tourists on Sundays. I didn't even get to see everything in the palace; I ran out of time before seeing the display of The Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna (but I don't mind missing this).

Some things I learned over the course of my visit:

  • In King Henry VIII's time, 600 courtiers lived in the palace. Each was entitled to two meals a day. That's a lot of meals! Two hundred or so people worked in the kitchen to support the courtiers and royalty.
  • Courtiers ate 4,500 to 5,000 calories a day. They must work hard!
  • Each year, the palace ate through 600,000 gallons of beer, 200 barrels of wine, 1,200 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,300 deer, and 1,800 pigs, as well other animals. (There were people who kept track of inflows and outflows and managed the supply chain.) Can you tell I spent a lot of time in the kitchen section of the palace?
  • The royalty couldn't live in the palace year-round because it drew too many resources from the surrounding countryside. It wasn't sustainable.
  • Some think King Henry VIII's diet was 70% meat.
Anyway, come time to leave, I began my long trek home, taking a simpler route back (though not as simple as it would've been if everything had been running).

London: Nov 6: Guy Fawkes Fireworks

November 5th is Guy Fawkes day, a London holiday celebrated with fireworks. It's in remembrance of the day Guy Fawkes tried and failed to blow up parliament.

But, on the evening of the 5th, the forecast was predicting thick clouds and heavy rain. Di Yin and I decided not to do anything.

On Saturday, November 6, however, the forecast was good, and, as about half the fireworks were scheduled for Friday and half on Saturday, we still had the opportunity to participate in the festivities.

Before the evening, we did one other thing worth mentioning: lunch. We decided to go out for lunch, ending up at a little cafe (sandwiches, salads, brunch), Jack's, on the high street somewhat near us (Salusbury Road by the Queen's Park station). I had a panini with diced chicken, roasted vegetables, and mozzarella. Di Yin said she liked the smoky taste to the vegetables. I thought the sandwich was fairly good. Di Yin had a hot pastrami which, though made with much less pastrami than in U.S. pastrami sandwiches, was much better quality than I expected. The couple next to us had very diverse spreads of English breakfast. Their plates looked good, and didn't appear to be too much food. I would've taken pictures on this trip but I forgot to put batteries in my camera.

In the evening, Di Yin, I, and a friend, B, who was crashing at our place, ventured out to Battersea Park for its fireworks. Though the closest Saturday fireworks to us, it was a bit of a journey to get there. (It's across the Thames.)

It was a fun excursion, and I'm glad I got to participate in this British holiday. Battersea Park was packed with people. There was a huge bonfire (another tradition for Guy Fawkes night), a number of food booths (mostly selling hamburgers and hot dogs), and of course fireworks. The bonfire was so large that at some points we had to turn our backs to it because it was roasting our faces. (This was despite us being more than fifty feet away.) The fireworks show was pretty good and coordinated with music. I particularly liked the fireworks with flares that zig-zagged after exploding.

I remembered to bring camera batteries on our evening outing and took some pictures and movies.

London: Nov 4: Churchill War Rooms & Museum

On Thursday, November 4, I left work to visit the Churchill War Rooms & Museum. Because it was perfect fall weather, I decided to walk there and back.

I took some pictures on this excursion and later in the day.

I didn't expect the museum to be my cup of tea but I was pleasantly surprised and ended up staying there much longer than I would have guessed. Nevertheless, the excursion still felt more like a way to kill a couple of hours outside of work rather than a destination I'd go out to my way to visit. (I may be saying this, however, simply because I know how good the alternative--a walk in the park in this great weather--could be.)

The institution is divided into two parts. The War Rooms are the underground bunker where Britain's government planned operations during WWII. They're preserved in the state they were in at the end of the war. I found them boring mainly because, as part of a war effort, their design was purely functional: lots of tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, typist rooms, broadcasting rooms, and meeting rooms, all compact and unadorned. Nevertheless, the War Rooms were brought a bit to life with intimate details provided on large informative signs, by the audio guide's interviews with people who were personally familiar with these rooms (and told stories about them), and by the audio guide's re-enactments of events from written transcripts.

Incidentally, I was shocked to learn the War Rooms weren't perfectly protected. Indeed, they were a single flight of stairs underground -- more like a basement than a bunker. Admittedly, there was a two-meter-thick ceiling of steel-reinforced concrete above it, but the most-senior staff knew it wouldn't survive a direct bomb hit. They kept this fact hidden from most of the government workers.

The Churchill Museum, on the other hand, was much more interesting to me than I expected. It was filled with tons of objects and really managed to convey Churchill's style, in both his personal and professional life. I spent a good hour in the museum, which surprised me because I didn't think I was into this stuff. I didn't know much about Churchill aside from his role in WWII and that he was rather witty, coining many now-famous expressions. The museum taught me about the rest of his life, including that he was a war reporter around 1900, a war hero (from WWI and other campaigns) turned politician, a painter, and, late in his life, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also learned about his politics and policies, including that he laid the foundations for the welfare state and that he changed parties twice (both times opportunistically).

Two particular displays especially caught my attention. One described the rhetorical techniques he used and showed examples of them from his speeches. (He was quite a speaker!) The other showed a collection of witticisms he invented throughout his life. These were great -- I spent quite a while reading them.

Throughout the museum I saw a good number of men wearing suits and memorial poppy flowers in honor of Remembrance Day, a Commonwealth holiday much like America's Veterans Day. Remembrance Day was the following week.

Later, I met Di Yin to go to dinner at a snazzy Indian restaurant, Cafe Spice Namaste, in the East End. I'd selected it not because I'd heard the food was any better than at any other good Indian restaurant in London but because it's one of the few places that purport to serve an authentic vindaloo. I'd gotten the idea in my head that I wanted to try to real thing. The vindaloo was alright, not bad though not something I'd probably order again, but the meal and trek was well worth it for a different dish we were served. For details on the meal see the pictures.

Cambridge England (Nov 3)

On Wednesday, November 3, 2010, I took the day off from work to go to Cambridge with Di Yin. (This is why I worked the previous Sunday. We were originally going to go to Cambridge the previous Sunday but it turned out part of the train track to Cambridge was closed for maintenance, so we would have had to take a bus part of the way. Rather than do that, we simply postponed our trip.)

Unsurprisingly, Cambridge is much like Oxford (which I previously visited). They're both small and pretty. (Actually, I think they're rather different sizes, but the center of town around the colleges where the students and tourists go feels the same size.) They're both dominated by dozens of individual, attractive, medieval, walled-off colleges, each with its patch of perfect grass in its quad, many with same names as those in Oxford (Saint John's, King's, Trinity, Magdalen, ...). They both have pedestrian-friendly town centers with a diverse array of buildings and shops with personality. Indeed, there are many other similarities both in names and architecture: they both have a similar-looking Bridge of Sighs; both have buildings designed by Christopher Wren; they both have a church in the center of town with a high tower that provides impressive views of the colleges, the town, and the countryside. Also, in Cambridge, like similarly flat Oxford, there are many bikes and bike-riders. Finally, like Oxford, Cambridge has lots of churches, though some in Cambridge appeared standalone whereas most I saw in Oxford were obviously attached to particular colleges.

There are two main features I'll remember that distinguish Cambridge from Oxford. One, in Cambridge many colleges back right onto the canal ("River Cam"). This makes it more convenient (than in Oxford) to get to and see the water and also leads to prettier pictures of the colleges themselves. In contrast, the canals in Oxford are a bit further from the edges of town, and only a few colleges are near them. Two, Cambridge has a top-notch art museum, the Fitzwilliam. (More on it later.) Nevertheless, despite these two features that sound like they're in favor of Cambridge, I'm left with a tad better impression of Oxford than Cambridge. I can't put a finger on why. Perhaps it's simply as mundane that I visited Oxford on a sunny day and visited Cambridge on an overcast day. Or maybe it's that Oxford has marginally more spires.

As in Oxford, there are a number of sites I missed seeing. In Cambridge these include some notable colleges (e.g., Trinity), the inside of King's College Chapel, some museums (e.g., Fitzwilliam, Kettle's Yard), and a walk (to Grantchester). Nevertheless, I feel I got a good sense of Cambridge from wandering around and seeing the good number of colleges that I did. And by the way, as in Oxford, I again didn't have time to go punting. Sorry.

Neat fact: Cambridge students officially aren't allowed to work during the school term.

The Day
I took many pictures. This post covers some topics the pictures don't, and the pictures cover some sites this post doesn't.

Di Yin took even more. The link goes to her first picture from this trip (picture #72 in an album that covers other trips as well). If you're in slideshow mode and see a picture of us eating Indian food, you've cycled back to the beginning of the album and are seeing pictures I already linked to.

We got a fairly early start, stopped by our local fancy bakery to pick up pastries for breakfast, and took a London overground train to Euston / King's Cross to catch our long-distance train to Cambridge. Euston and King's Cross had crazy crowds because tube workers were on strike--everyone had to take the overground trains to get around--and this is one of London's largest overground stations.

Our express train to Cambridge was fairly fast--my ears popped a few times. The train passed decent scenery (not as nice as Scotland): green fields, yellow-leaved trees. We also went through some tunnels, which I didn't expect.

Once in Cambridge, we began by walking down High Street toward the center of town. On the way, we stopped in The Cooperative Grocery store. It makes its own breads and sandwiches, and has its own branded milk, meats, and deli counter.

About this time I turned on my GPS device to record my route. I'd leave it on until lunchtime.

We walked to downtown, meandering through various colleges (Peterhouse, King's, Clare) and over the River Cam multiple times on the way. Downtown, we stopped by Great Saint Mary's because I insisted on climbing to the top to take pictures (just as I did with the church in the center of Oxford; Great Saint Mary's is considered the town centre). I'm glad we stopped; the view was spectacular. (See the pictures.) Near Saint Mary's, we discovered an outdoor market that had a bit of everything, including locally grown vegetables.

Eventually, we sat down for lunch, ending up at a respectable U.K. chain restaurant named Strada.

Because my phone was almost out of batteries, I turned off the GPS recording. Later, after I got home, I recorded by hand our walking route from lunch until when we left Cambridge. It was misting on and off all afternoon as we walked.

Soon after lunch we found an amazing candy shop, Mr Simms, and hilarious t-shirt shop, Talking T's. Then, around this time, Di Yin found a store she wanted to spend a chunk of time in, so I wandered off to explore St John's College. Going through the college and out into the Backs turned out to be a longer walk than I expected.

Once we rejoined, we headed out of downtown. On the way, I made us to stop at Fitzbillies, an historic and well-respected bakery, in order to pick up one of its famous Chelsea buns.

We also stopped by the Fitzwilliam Museum. It turns out to be a high-quality museum of art and antiquities, on par with museums in London, and includes famous names such Seurat, Cezanne, Monet, and Canaletto. (Di Yin, who is normally picky about museums, said it has a "fantastic collection.") We didn't have much time to see the museum before it closed; it deserves a return visit and more attention in general. Incidentally, the museum has an impressive, opulent lobby; I could stare at it for a while. Also, I saw a remarkable painting, A Village Festival, With a Theatrical Performance and a Procession in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony by Pieter Brueghel the younger. The detailed scene, in addition to the festival, shows someone getting bullied, a passed-out drunk, a traveling theatre troop, someone giving directions, and more.

Anyway, after the museum we headed straight to the train, and, once in London, straight home, stopping only at one more place in London on the way. (See the pictures.)

London: Nov 2: Courtauld Gallery

On Tuesday, November 2, I disappeared from work to explore the Courtauld Gallery. It's housed at Somerset House, a grand building which I previously photographed and also plan to return to again to explore the other galleries inside.

The Courtauld Gallery's works extend from 14th century religious art through the Italian Renaissance and into impressionism, post-impressionism, and some fields of 20th century painting (French, expressionist, etc.). I definitely liked the impressionist and post-impressionist section the best; this also happens to be the section for which the museum is famous. The collection includes many Cezannes, Manets, Renoirs, and Seurats, and also Pisarro, Monet, Rousseau, Gauguin, and van Gogh. It's uniformly high quality; the museum clearly prefers quality over quantity. Elsewhere, I spotted and noted multiple Rubens, Degas, Maurice de Vlaminck, George Braque, Matisse, and Kandinsky.

I took pictures in the museum.

I also went to the Courtauld's special exhibit of Cezanne's paintings of peasants, often playing cards or smoking a pipe. It's interesting to compare his multiple versions of the same scene and the drafts (a.k.a. studies) he did in preparation. (The exhibit displays all of these.) It's clear he likes drawing his peasants as solid, monumental men (or, if you were an art critic, you'd write men with "gravitas and stoicism").

By the way, the rooms in the Courtauld Gallery are worth mentioning in themselves. They're fairly fancy, with elaborate ceiling plasterwork flourishes. If I read a sign correctly, some of the rooms are transplanted copies of Victorian rooms that were originally elsewhere in London.

I spent a bit over one and a half hours in the museum.

London: Nov 1: Canaletto at the National Gallery

On Monday, November 1, I went to the National Gallery to see its current special exhibits. (I'd already seen all the permanent collection.) The headline exhibit was Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals. It showed panoramic paintings of Venice, showing large scenes and sometimes festivals, most done by Canaletto, Michele Marieschi, Bernardo Bellotto, and Francesco Guardi. I really liked how the exhibit juxtaposed Canaletto's paintings of views with others' paintings of the same view. It allowed me to get a grasp on each painter's style. For example, Bernardo Bellotto put more emphasis on the architecture than Canaletto. (I actually tend to prefer Bellotto's version of scenes.) By the time I finished browsing, I could recognize by styles all the major artists on display.

Although I liked the paintings in the exhibit, my favorites weren't actually done by Canaletto. I liked Michele Marieschi's The Courtyard of the Doge's Palace (for the way the light sparkles), Gaspare Vanvitelli's The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco (so much detail!), and somewhat Luca Carlevarijs' The Piazza San Marco - looking east (for the architecture). The first painting brings up an interesting point. Art critics apparently say Canaletto was better than Marieschi because Canaletto's light is more atmospheric, darker, and more realistic whereas Marieschi's light is brighter, more sparkly, and more artificial. Perhaps I prefer Marieschi's precisely because Canaletto's light is more real, conveying the authenticity of the place, and therefore less stylish, less alive.

I learned some interesting things from the exhibit and its high-quality audio guide. (I read all the plaques and listened to nearly everything in the guide.) For instance, I learned a bit about how the British desire for Grand Tour art influenced the work of the artists and what and how they painted: i.e., the impact of commercialization. A natural consequence is that works painted by Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto's nephew/trainee, ended up being sold under Canaletto's name. (Canaletto took a long time on his paintings and couldn't satisfy the market demand.)

For reference, the paintings the critics proclaimed as two of Canaletto's masterpieces are The Grand Canal with San Simeone Piccolo and the Scalzi and The Grand Canal from Campo Santa Sofia to the Rialto Bridge.

I spent a bit more than an hour in the Venice exhibit.

The other special exhibit, meant to accompany the Venice one, showed more urban landscapes. In particular, it presented three views of London done by a modern painter, Clive Head. His paintings are almost photographic, yet each combines several perspectives in a smooth way. I look and know they're wrong, but it's hard to put my finger on why. A good description of this technique is on the exhibit's web page.

Incidentally, I took some pictures on the way to/from the National Gallery.

London: Oct 31: Running

I ended up working on Sunday, October 31.

At one point this day, Di Yin and I went on a surprisingly nice run. Although the sky was slightly drippy, it felt like great weather to run in and a great neighborhood to run through. We ran through Belgravia (passing many consulates) and Green Park. (I meant for us to go to Hyde Park but got turned around.) Belgravia, as I've reported before, has many pretty buildings, and Green Park is beautiful, with nice fall colors.

For lunch, we tried to go to a Turkish place near work but found it closed and instead ended up in a restaurant, Spice World, for an Indian buffet. We had dal, chicken curry, shrimp curry, channa masala, chicken biryani, and naan. Sorry I forgot to take pictures. Perfectly decent all around. I left happily full. Service was non-existent.

London: Oct 30: Hampstead and Hampstead Heath

I've heard it rains a lot in London during the fall. Hence, when I saw that the forecast for Saturday, October 30, didn't include rain, I advocated to Di Yin that we should use the opportunity and spend it outside. Of the choices I gave her, she selected Hampstead Heath as our destination.

I took pictures during our outing. Di Yin also took pictures. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day, starting with lunch near our apartment. When you see a picture of us beginning our trip to Cambridge (picture #72), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the Cambridge pictures in a later post.

Before heading to Hampstead, we stopped for lunch at Spice Grill's, a hole-in-the-wall Indian joint on Salusbury Road, near the Queen's Park station. This road is the other high street (besides Kilburn High Road) near us. Our meal was respectable; at the time I said I was willing to return (and indeed I did later).

We then took the train to Hampstead and walked around town on the way to the Heath. Hampstead has many architecturally interesting buildings. There are a variety of styles represented. You can tell it's a wealthy area, not just from the houses but also from the number of boutiques on the high street.

We were in the Heath for only ten minutes before it started raining. Given how we planned the day, the rain surprised the dickens out of me. Rather than checking the weather on a random web site, I guess I should've used the most authoritative source. We took shelter with about ten other people under a large tree. When the rain let up, we decided to head back to a pub or cafe to have a snack and to hide from the rain should it come again.

We ended up having tea in the Burgh House's cafe. The Burgh House is one of the oldest houses in town. It turns out the main two floors have been converted into a museum about Hampstead; we explored it after tea.

The Hampstead Museum was surprisingly good, containing more information/material than I imagined it could've had.

There was an exhibit on John Constable, a painter who painted the area a lot. Though all his works shown are prints--he's relatively famous so they're hanging in more prominent museums--it was nonetheless neat to see his perspective on the town at the time.

The exhibit on the Hampstead tube was extensive, explaining how the establishment of the station changed the area. For illustration, it included advertising posters, showing how the London transport organization tried to get people to accept and use the tube. London transport partially did this by promoting the nature you could reach with it.

Also in this exhibit I learned the Hampstead tube station is, at 192 feet deep, the deepest station in the system. Indeed, as we discovered when we arrived, the station has no escalators; it uses large elevators to move people up and down. Another consequence of its depth is that it was used as an air raid shelter during WWII; a substantial portion of the exhibit was devoted to elaborating on this.

This exhibit also included old tube maps. I found it interesting to see the change-over from the old, geographic representation to the modern, diagrammatic one. The shift in font faces was also notable.

Finally, the exhibit also mentioned there's a ghost station between Hampstead & Golders Green--a tube station that was fully built but never opened. You can't enter from the ground level and trains certainly don't stop there.

Another section of the museum covered Hampstead's history from the year 1000 onward, and reflected a bit on how Hampstead, as it was built over the years, has buildings in most architectural styles, from old ones such as the Burgh House to Isokon modernist structures.

There was also an art gallery.

Having exhausted the museum, we left to explore a bit more of Hampstead and then headed home. In addition to residential neighborhoods, we walked up and down the main street, Hampstead High Street.

London: Oct 29: Wellcome Collection

On Friday, October 29, 2010, I disappeared from work to visit the Wellcome Collection. I'd never heard of this museum before: it's not mentioned in any of my guide books, and I wouldn't have known about it without Di Yin mentioning it. (Perhaps I hadn't heard of it because it's new--it was established in 2007.) Its web page intrigued me so I decided to go.

The Wellcome Collection turns out to be a museum that looks at medicine, science, and health, their history, and art inspired by those things. Knowing this connection to medicine and health, I chuckle as the museum's motto: "a free destination for the incurably curious."

I first explored the exhibit Medicine Now. As you can guess from my description of the museum, the displays cover a rather eclectic range, including:

  • an interactive exhibit that takes a picture of one's face and compares the features to that of an average face. It was interesting to see the ways in which I differ from most.
  • a model of the body and a set of buttons for each organ. When you press a button, that organ lights up. I and another museum visitor thought the pancreas light was broken at first because we couldn't see it. It wasn't broken--it turns out the pancreas is only visible from the back.
  • an interactive exhibit showing videos of fourteen-year-olds side-by-side with videos of the same people ten years later. It was interesting to see how the people changed both physically and personality-wise. (Their personalities came through in these videos despite them not saying anything, just sitting there in the video box doing whatever they wanted.)
  • (art) a print combining echocardiogram measurements and topographic maps of mountains.
  • (art) pills cut into the shapes of organs they're supposed to heal.
  • (art) fMRI patterns put into three-dimensional crystal form.
The feature of this exhibit that I enjoyed the most was the audio recordings. I particularly remember a comedian talking about the changes his body underwent as a result of multiple sclerosis, a humanities professor watching medical students dissect a heart for their first time, and a journalist who got malaria. As you've no doubt guessed, these recordings, which are scattered around the exhibit, range as widely as the displays they accompany.

The exhibit also has sections on obesity, malaria, and genomes.

The other exhibit, Medicine Man, is more historic in focus. It has many objects and curios used historically in the practice of healing (effective or not). These objects range from masks (medical and shaman), glassware, chairs (birthing, etc.), artificial limbs, and old instruments (useful and not) to amulets, figurines, chastity belts, anti-masturbation devices, glass eyes, and memento moris. The curios (as if some of those objects aren't curios...) include a naturally preserved mummy (disturbing) and Darwin's walking stick. There's also an intriguing collection of 18th century (and earlier) medical prints (from around the world) that doctors used for reference. Some have astrological charts (e.g., showing good days for bloodletting).

In contrast to the modern art about medicine in the Medicine Now exhibit, this exhibit has a series of medicine-related paintings (most from the 18th and 19th centuries): physicians and surgeons at work, people giving birth, people being injured, bodies being dissected, etc.

One section of the exhibit presents the history of Henry Wellcome. He built a pharmaceutical empire and started the charitable trust that's responsible for the museum (and also responsible for ongoing grants for medicine). During his lifetime, he collected most of the objects shown in the Medicine Man exhibit.

It took me about an hour and a half to thoroughly explore the regular part of the collection. No special exhibit was open at the time.

On the way back to work, I almost hurt myself multiple times. The down escalator in the Warren Street tube station wasn't working so everyone had to walk down a long series of steps. Along the wall, London Transit had put up an interesting series of signs discussing escalators in the tube system: when the first one was installed, how many there are now, what and where the longest one is, etc. These signs attracted my attention so I didn't look where I was walking; this would've been fine if the steps were regularly spaced all the way down, but they weren't. Every dozen or two steps there was a landing, and when I stepped onto one unexpectedly (because I wasn't looking) I always stumbled.

Incidentally, I took a few photos during the excursion.

London: Oct 27: Sir John Soane's Museum, plus Marylebone

On Wednesday, October 27, 2010, I left work in mid-afternoon to explore Sir John Soane's Museum. Upon arrival, I was surprised to see there was a queue to enter. The curators control the number of people in the museum/house. I waited twenty minutes. The curators said the delay was due to an event earlier in the day and that there usually is no queue.

I feel weird calling this a museum. Rather, it's a collection. First, there are effectively no plaques/explanations. Second, it reflects one man's idiosyncratic tastes; it's not trying to convey a broad educational or cultural message. Third, it's in his (overfilled) house. Indeed, the whole idea reminds me of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (which I previously visited), where one person leaves his/her collection with the instructions to leave it in the condition it was in at the time of his/her death. Unlike the Gardner Museum, the curators here didn't quite obey. For instance, Soane's private rooms on the second floor were converted into museum offices. The curators obeyed in some parts of the house but not others. Now the museum/collection is trying to raise money to restore the rest of the house to its original state.

The museum has some remarkable sights, its architecture for one. Soane was an architect and designed the house himself, and he apparently really likes his skylights. They're everywhere--a greater abundance than I've seen in any other building. Some use colored glass.

Marble decorations (busts, reliefs) and casts, all Roman, comprise the majority of objects in his house. In some areas, so many are mounted to the walls and piled into overflowing alcoves that it's clear Soane wanted people feel like they were in Rome everywhere they looked. In fact, the wooden columns in the display hall seem flimsy in contrast to the marble.

The picture room is filled almost entirely with William Hogarth's series The Rake's Progress. It also has some hidden doors.

The basement has an eerie Gothic room that, with its mocking carvings, satirizes the style.

I got a taste of Canaletto -- there were two Canaletto paintings not on loan to the National Gallery, which was having a special exhibit on him. (I'd visit the special exhibit later during my stay in London.) The most famous Canaletto was loaned out.

By far the most amazing sight in the museum was from the basement near the Egyptian sarcophagus, looking past the literally countless busts up into the atrium above. This vista alone made the museum worthwhile. I'm sad I couldn't take a picture. This sketch is the best representation of the sight I could find on the web; this picture also kind of captures the effect, though from a different angle. Frankly, I'm shocked and disappointed that these are the best images I could find.

It took me a bit under an hour to go through the museum at a very languid pace. Because the museum was fast, and because the weather was great--I couldn't imagine a better temperature--, I fancied a stroll outside. I walked through Lincoln's Inn Fields and Lincoln's Inn before returning to work. I've previously visited them.

By the way, I took three pictures this day.

In the evening, I met Di Yin and a friend to go to The Golden Hind, a fish and chips shop we've visited before. On the way there (we didn't meet at the nearest station to it), we walked down Marylebone High Street, passing some attractive apartment buildings and doing some window shopping. I've previously walked through this area.

My reaction to dinner was exactly the same as before.

After dinner, we continued strolling down Marylebone High Street. It got nicer, turned into Thayer Street and James Street and got nicer still. Some buildings have such attractive facades, especially on the topmost level, that we stopped to talk about them. At the same time as we talked, I was thinking, "this building is nice, but it's not distinctive for London. London has many buildings equally nice; that's part of the appeal of the city."

Di Yin remarked that James Street was one of her favorite streets in London. I can see why: not only is it cute; it also has many restaurants with al fresco dining on the sidewalk. We passed some that provided good eye-candy: one with large, thin, rectangular pizzas; another with large paella dishes; another with hookahs. The square, St Christopher's Place, off James Street has more cute restaurants and pubs.

Di Yin, I, and her friend split up at Oxford Street, with Di Yin and me heading to the tube to head home, concluding our nice walk on a nice, comfortable evening.

By the way, Di Yin took pictures at dinner. The link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #77) in her London album. When you see a picture captioned "the pickles were very good" (picture #82), you're done with the day's pictures. I'll link to her other pictures at appropriate times.

London: Oct 24: Little Venice

On Sunday, October 24, 2010, my first full day in London, Di Yin and I decided to explore the neighborhood referred to as Little Venice. I'd previously read online about Little Venice and seen a handful of pictures and, as a result, had low expectations. Nevertheless, we went. It was a nice day, and the canals we walked along (Grand Union Canal: Paddington Branch; Regent's Canal) turned out to be very pretty, definitely exceeding my expectations.

I took pictures on the way. Also, here's the route we walked. (To explain the upward loop: I took a wrong turn so we ended up seeing more of the neighborhood than I'd intended.)

Di Yin took even more pictures than I. The link goes to the first picture she took this day (picture #23) in her London album. When you see a picture of me in a subway (picture #76), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to her other pictures in a later post.

In addition to the canals, we enjoyed browsing the local high streets: Clifton Gardens and (the smaller) Formosa Street. As you can see from the pictures, this is a relatively high-end area with many upscale cafes (no Starbucks) and organic food shops.

London: Commute

Sometime I got to work by double-decker bus. (Though slower than the tube, it was more direct.) The route passes through areas I've visited during past excursions. From Kilburn High Road (my apartment area), it passes through Maida Vale, by Little Venice, Edgeware Road, Marble Arch, Hyde Park Corner (with Wellington Arch), and into Belgravia to Victoria.

On various days, I took pictures from the upper floor of the double-decker bus. I collected the photographs on one page.

Along the journey I see adventurous bikers. They're allowed to use the bus lanes and play (in effect) a relay race with the buses.

London: Commercial Areas Near My Apartment

There are two high streets (main streets) near my apartment: Kilburn High Street (near Kilburn High Street rail station) and Salusbury Road (near the Queen's Park rail and tube station). Kilburn High Street is the closest one to our apartment, and the one where I caught the bus to work.

At separate times, I explored these areas with my camera. Here are the photos.

Kilburn High Street is a long, everyday shopping street. I imagine that anything you need to live, you can find on this street. It has grocery stores, mid-range department stores, shoe stores, furniture stores, cell phone stores, banks, restaurants (mostly quick, convenient ones such as fast food joints and cafes with pre-made sandwiches), pubs, and even a dollar store (oops, I mean a pound store). There are also a variety of service shops, including a locksmith, a tailor, a dentist, a dry-cleaner, and a funeral home.

This is my impression from walking two-thirds of a mile from Kilburn High rail station to the next rail station north, Brondesbury rail station. Along the way, I passed a segment with a high density of Middle Eastern shops and restaurants.

Near Queen's Park, our other high street, Salusbury Road, is a bit higher class than Kilburn. I wouldn't call Kilburn low-class, or Queen's Park upscale by any means; it just feels a bit more well-to-do. There are certainly nicer restaurants there.

Salusbury Road is much, much shorter than Kilburn High Street--the commercial section lasts perhaps four blocks.

These descriptions are brief; refer to the pictures for more detail and concrete imagery.

London: Apartment and Vicinity

During this trip to London, we stayed a bit north of London (in zone 2), in the vicinity of neighborhoods known as Kilburn and Queen's Park. Our flat was in a townhouse that'd been converted into apartments. Our flat was nice and spacious and a very comfortable place to live. Wooden floors throughout. It was basically furnished (not sparsely furnished, but furnished more in the simple way someone our age tends to furnish places). The mattress was on a simple frame on the floor, and the living room had a circular plastic Ikea table for eating. The living room also had a large and comfortable L-shaped sofa, soft enough that one can easily sleep on it (as houseguests sometimes did).

The living room and bedroom were very large (perhaps 400-500 square feet each) and both had lofted ceilings (12+ feet tall) with floor-to-ceiling windows. The living room even had ceiling flourishes near the sides. It also had a gas fireplace, though we didn't touch it.

There was also a TV (which I never figured out how to turn on, though Di Yin could do it without trouble!) and a set of easy-to-move iPod speakers (which came in handy to listen to things at various places throughout the apartment).

The kitchen was long and narrow and more functional than it looked. There was a camouflaged dishwasher; it looked like a regular cabinet. The camouflaged refrigerator--a tall cabinet--had a tiny freezer but otherwise was large enough to serve our needs. There was also a small washing machine hidden in this hall of a kitchen.

The bathroom had its own style, with waist-high tiles on walls, some of which had emblems vaguely reminiscent of coats of arms.

Both the kitchen and the bedroom overlooked a backyard. Though we weren't allowed to go into it--it was property of the tenants below us--we enjoyed the view and also enjoyed watching the antics of the various neighborhood cats that came there to play.

As for the residential area around our apartment, I took a variety of photographs over several days documenting the area. Sorry I didn't take pictures inside the apartment itself.

Di Yin took some pictures in and near our apartment: 1, 2, 3, 4. Those pictures come from her London album. I'll link to the other pictures in the album when appropriate.

London Overview

I lived in London for about two months in late 2010, from Saturday, October 23, 2010, through Wednesday, December 15, 2010. I wrote about my impressions of London after I lived there the previous summer. This post adds to/updates that entry.

I still have the feeling that London is inexhaustible. Although I left work for a couple of hours most days to go exploring and see something new, my list of things to see in London feels longer than it was when I started. I discover new places to see at least as quickly as I manage to see them.

Also, I again want to emphasize that London has many attractive buildings. I like just walking around this city and looking. Incidentally, local area maps posted throughout the city have a circle labeled "5 minutes walking" -- very handy.

Climate & Weather
London is very far north. During most of my visit, I'd wake up before dawn and the sun would set between 4:00pm and 4:30pm. By the time I left in mid-December, it was almost dark at 4:00pm.

As I've said before, the weather in London is unpredictable, making weather prediction unreliable. It says heavy rain the next day but it barely mists for an hour or two. Again, I learned that regardless of the prediction, I should carry my umbrella. Nevertheless, I found I actually enjoyed London's intermittent rain. It was usually light, and walking around during a shower while being perfectly comfortable under an umbrella made me proud that I was braving the elements. Sometimes the rain was even refreshing.

I think I may choose to keep some of the Britishisms that I've picked up. I like saying "have a think", "on holiday", bill (for check), note (for paper money/bills), and mobile (for a cellular phone). I'm indifferent about saying cheers (for thank you and goodbye), take-away (for carry-out / to-go), lift (for elevator), aubergene (for eggplant), banger (for sausage), jacket potato (for baked potato), biscuit (for crackers or cookies), and crisps (for potato chips). There are some terms I don't think I'll ever get used to: on-lead (for a pet that's leashed), pudding (for dessert), chips (for french fries), chestnut mushrooms (for brown mushrooms / baby portobello), courgettes (for zucchini), and swede (for rutabaga).

I'm left with a better impression of food in London than on my earlier visit. I think I simply had better luck with restaurants. I also have a good impression of prepared foods sold in grocery stores. Grocery stores in London have many refrigerated dishes that you microwave or bake at home, kind of like frozen dinners in the U.S. except these are fresher and go bad in a couple of days if you don't cook them. Marks and Spencer has the best ones, and the best selection. There are also desserts in the same vein; my favorite is banoffee pie, but in general we never went wrong with any of the desserts we picked up. Judging by the fat content, Londoners each have a quarter of their calories in the form of desserts, but these desserts are so tasty that they're calories well spent. Incidentally, as for freshly cooked desserts, I don't think I'll ever understand the appeal of warm custard, which the Brits put on all sorts of bread puddings and cakes.

By the way, I'm amazed how much the Brits mix meats in their meat pies (turkey and pork, game and poultry, etc.).

I learned it wasn't just Christopher Wren who designed a ton of London. John Nash designed/built a lot as well. (See the pictures, then the long list below.)

Maine Oct 2010

I was to spend two months of the fall in London. On the way there, I stopped in Maine to visit my parents from Tuesday, October 19, 2010, through Friday, October 22.

Sorry, I didn't take any pictures during this visit.

I flew into Boston on Tuesday. On the way, I grabbed a turkey and avocado sandwich to eat on the plane from Boudin Sourdough Bakery's SFO location. While buying this sandwich, I noticed a woman who wanted rye bread and made a big fuss: "What kind of bakery doesn't have rye bread?" I wanted to shout at her and shake her. The employees, however, were too nice to point out this is a sourdough bakery. It's in the name. That's why they don't have other types of bread.

On Wednesday, my parents proudly took me to Hebert Brothers Seafood, the local fishmonger, where we ate good lobster rolls while sitting on a picnic bench in front of the shop overlooking the water.

In the afternoon, we went to the Wentworth Hotel to stroll through its gardens and along its marina. It's a pretty area.

After that, we headed to Fort Stark, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and the Piscataqua River. I guess it's easy to find places that have views of water in this part of New Hampshire and Maine. Incidentally, walking around this derelict fort (much of it was fenced off), we saw places where branches struck out like artillery turrets through the fence around one building. Also, there were some rooms/buildings that I couldn't decide if they were meant to be prisons or barracks.

Later, we drove by more sights, including one place with a metal sculpture of a picture frame (on an easel, with a metal sculpture of a painter nearby) framing a water view. Finally, before returning home, we passed some nice houses in Newcastle, which I'm told is an expensive town.

For dinner, we headed to the York Harbor Inn, which has a prime rib special on Wednesday nights. We ate downstairs, the interior of which was designed to look like a ship and built from nicely glowing red wood. We ate watching the sun disappear through the hatch. We had pretty standard prime rib, not as good as what we've become accustomed to but acceptable nonetheless. The sides were good: mashed potatoes, battered french fries, grilled asparagus, and sauteed brussels sprouts in brown butter. (Yes, I liked the brussels sprouts, a pleasing surprise to me.)

After I ran in the morning, we went to Shio in Portsmouth for lunch. It's a perfectly respectable Japanese restaurant; we had sushi (my last chance given London effectively has none) and teriyaki and tempura. I liked the restaurant's varied design, with regular tables, regular booths, and sunken floor Japanese-style booths.

We ate a Thanksgiving-inspired dinner at home: rotisserie chicken from Market Basket, baked sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, peas, and cranberry sauce.

By the way, for some breakfasts in Maine I ate my mom's banana bread muffins. Good stuff.

My flight from Boston to London left Friday evening. My parents planned to drop me off at the airport and then eat dinner in Boston so as to wait out the rush hour traffic. Happily, it turned out my plane was delayed--a fact we only discovered once we were already in Boston--and thus I got to eat dinner with my parents.

Dinner was an adventure, and we got to exploit all the restaurant research my dad had done. My dad had a number of suggestions for dining options; he was excited when he saw how many good restaurants there were near the airport.

On the quest for food, we spent some time confusedly driving through the mess that is East Boston near the airport (lots of blocked roads and that kind of thing). The first place we stopped at was a pupusaria. From the outside it looked more like a small, corner Mexican market than a restaurant. There were no customers inside, and the neighborhood was scarily empty. We decided to pass.

Our second choice was a cafe in a shipyard. We thought we were in the same situation again when we found the entrance to the shipyard dark (no street-lights) and guarded by a family of skunks. Slightly perturbed, we detoured and drove to the other entrance, which was marginally more welcoming--there was a guardhouse but still no people.

Once in the shipyard, we found the small restaurant we were seeking: Scup's in the Harbour. It's a cozy space with a couple of bench tables inside, that's all. One orders food from the door to the kitchen. It's funky, given character by exposed pipes in the ceiling, by Christmas balls hanging from the ceiling, by the large, fake spider attached to one wall, and by the paintings.

Soon after being seated, we were greeted by and chatted with the owner for quite a while. She and her husband previously ran Emma's Pizza in Cambridge (a shop I've been to before (though after they sold it) and enjoyed). By the way, it turns out they weren't the original owners--they took over from Emma the pizza Nazi. (Yes, she sounded like the pizza equivalent of the soup nazi.) After they ran and sold Emma's Pizza, they lived on a tugboat in the shipyard for a while, then were offered this place in the shipyard to run. (The previous occupants left.) Anyway, we talked about a lot more than her biography, but those are the highlights.

My parents and I split three dishes:

  • Crab cakes. Decent. The crab was the texture of moist bread crumbs in a white cream sauce. I thought they were decent and relatively unusual; my mom thought they were the best crab cakes she's ever had.
  • "Ultimate" BLT: house-marinated bacon, cherry tomatoes (sliced in half, which makes them really want to escape the sandwich), greens, cheese, and pesto. (Yes, it's those unusual ingredients that make the chef call it "ultimate.") I thought this was very good, especially when hot, with the bacon being better than most I've had. My mom disagreed, saying the bacon was average. Regardless, I thought the cheese and pesto added a lot, and I think this sandwich will get me to consider ordering BLTs again. (Normally in a sandwich shop my eyes skip over them on the menu because I didn't believe they were something I usually like.)
  • Chicken rice bowl with grilled chicken, rice, peanuts, shredded carrots, and green onions, all in a funky Asian sauce (sesame mixed with something sweet?). There were also notes of lemon, chili powder, and ginger. Fine. Nice grill-marks on the chicken. Though I usually like dishes with green onions and/or peanuts, I felt there was too much going on in this dish and it didn't manage to come together harmoniously. My mom hated it, but dad convinced her to take the leftovers home. They said the leftovers were much better. Mom "loved" them. I guess I didn't mix the dish enough the first night, or perhaps the flavors blended better overnight.
After dinner, my parents dropped me off at the airport.

As for the flight itself, because it was an overnight flight, I worked hard to get comfortable and sleep the entire way. The Virgin Atlantic economy seat had too much space (!) between my seat and the window -- I couldn't easily jam a pillow in there to lean on, and if my head let the pillow slip, it would fall between the plane's shell and my seat.

It's interesting that this flight was shorter than the flight from San Francisco to Boston, but this flight crosses five time zones, not three. Can you figure out why this is? (I can.)