Dead and Unburied: Museums in London

After a couple of nights and days spent with locals, and keeping the touristic activities to a minimum, I thought it best to start seeing at least some of the real touristic attractions London had to offer. I was going to be around for a couple of weeks, so I definitely had the time, and London really did have a lot to offer in the way of sights and attractions. It had been a while since I had been to any museums – I’d almost been avoiding them ever since my visit to the Vatican – but from what I had gathered there were definitely a few in London that were definitely worth taking a look. Many of them were also free, which was almost always a big deciding factor as to whether I would bother visiting something that I was only half sure I might really enjoy. But growing up I had always been a massive dinosaur nerd, so there was no way that I could pass up the opportunity to see the Natural History Museum and its collection of fossilised skeletons. What I had failed to anticipate, however, was that such attractions are also really popular among children, and what I had failed to learn before I arrived at the museum was that it was currently school holidays. Yes, the line to get into the museum that morning was probably twice as long as the diplodocus skeleton that I knew was waiting for me inside the main hall of the Natural History Museum, just out of sight. It snaked around the various courtyards and around the edge of the outside park like a fat snake that had eaten a bunch of screaming, squirming and misbehaving children. And there I was, stuck in the middle of it.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Outside the Natural History Museum.

Thankfully I had my book to keep me entertained, because the wait was easily over an hour, possibly getting very close to two. I stopped looking at my watch after a while because it was simply too frustrating. Even my training as a sociologist and my love for participant observation and people watching failed to ease the painful wait – there’s only so many dumb things children say or do, or family arguments you can eavesdrop in before it all just becomes a monotonous blur. Several times I considered bailing and coming back when the line was shorter, but then I had no idea if the line would ever be shorter, and I’d come this far already that I was determined to hang in there. It felt like a bit of a surreal dream when I finally reached the front of the line, but when I did there was a quick security search before I was ushered in through the front doors and into the main hall of the museum.

Where I was greeted by another line. I nearly screamed, until I realised it was just a line to get into one of the attraction rooms. Of course, it was the main dinosaur room, but I decided I would come back to tackle that one later – I’d had quite enough of lining up for the time being. So I wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at exhibits and learning about all sorts of natural phenomena. I surprised myself with realising how much I actually already knew about a lot of stuff… then was probably less surprised when I remember that a lot of the stuff in the museum was aimed for children. There were halls and halls of taxidermy animals – or authentic looking replicas, I’m not 100% sure – which were also interesting to look through, as well as a bunch of fossilised of creatures which I guess weren’t cool enough, or born in the wrong era or whatever, to be included into the real dinosaur exhibit. Though considering there was no line to see these ones, I wasn’t complaining.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

An ichthyosaur skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

A wall-mounted plesiosaur skeleton.

The museum has extensive collections of birds, reptiles and insects, as well as scores of invertebrates, but it was the rooms dedicated to the mammals that definitely had the most to offer. They had models of species great and small from all over the continents of the world, as well as the worlds oceans. Suspended from the ceiling was basically every type of whale or marine mammal under the sun, hanging motionless in the cavernous walls of the museum.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

The mammal room is packed full of life size replicas of modern mammals.

Narwhale!

Narwhale!

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

The biggest of the mammals are the whales, the biggest of which is the blue whale. However, it was virtually impossible for me to capture the whole model in a single photograph.

But after I’d exhausted just about every other possibility, it was time to head to the dinosaurs. The line to get into the exhibit room was shorter than it had been earlier in the morning, but there was still a line. The room itself was littered with information and interactive activities and games, which I took way too much pride in beating all the little children at, but there was still a long line that passed over the whole exhibit on a suspended bridge. It seems you couldn’t get down to the rest of the exhibit until you’d lined up to see a special surprise of some sort. The line was long but it shuffled along at a moderate pace. As I waited, I passed by a vast collection of fossilised skeletons, and I stopped to take photos of my favourite ones and the best ones, reliving my nerdy childhood and my love for Jurassic Park.

Stegosaurus.

Stegosaurus.

Triceratops.

Triceratops.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

Skulls of a triceratops and an allosaurus.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

A fearsome allosaurus skull.

Finally I was at the front of the line, and I got to see what we had all been waiting for. Around the corner in a dimly lit room, we discovered a tyrannosaurus rex. Not a fossilised, inanimate skeleton, but a fully fleshed and very active dinosaur. Well, it wasn’t flesh, but it was a very lifelike robotic model, sniffing and stomping and moving about, opening its jaws to let out screams. It was pretty cool, but I found myself thinking that overall it was rather gimmicky. As I child I probably would have loved it, and I suppose it is there to either frighten or impress the younger children, but I realised that I’d been more interested in looking at the actual fossilised bones of real dinosaurs. It was also at that point that I realised I had never stopped being a dinosaur nerd.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, life-like replica that we waited for so long to see.

The tyrannosaurus rex moving, lifelike replica that we waited for so long to see.

After that I was beginning to feel a little bit of museum fatigue, so I headed outside to leave. To my horror, there was absolutely no line and there were people walking in and out freely. I made a point to remember that for my next museum visit, mornings probably weren’t the best time to visit, and from the Natural History Museum I strolled through the overcast streets of London all the way to Hyde Park, where I wandered through the paths and over to the nearby Wellington Arch for a photograph.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Serpentine, the major lake of the park, stretching out across Hyde Park.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

The Wellington Arch, the victory arch proclaiming defeat over Napoleon, was finished in 1827.

***

Following the idea that mornings weren’t the best time to visit museums if you wanted to avoid lines, I decided to make my way to the British Museum, another free museum that had a range of artefacts from all over the world, most notably the Rosetta Stone. I wandered throughout the museum, twisting and turning through the confusing maze of a floor plan, with no real direction or intense burning desire to see anything. It was an overcast afternoon that was threatening to rain, so it was really the perfect time to be inside in a museum. However, I suppose the reason that a lot of people choose to visit museums in the morning is that by the afternoon, many of us lack the concentration or patience to wander around looking at ancient relics for too long a period of time. I’m not exempt from this, and I probably spent a significantly shorter amount of time in the British Museum (although morning or afternoon – rain, hail or shine – I’m never one for spending hours upon hours at these kinds of places anyway). Still, I did enjoy my time there looking at the relics, from the beautiful to the interesting to the rather macabre.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Inside the main entrance chamber of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Statue of Caesar that was being featured in the main hall of the British Museum.

Sea shell tea set.

Sea shell tea set.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

An old clock adorned with sphinxes and a golden eagle.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

Mummified cats inside the British Museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

A perfectly preserved pair of skeletons on display in the museum.

The British Museum was the final stop of my day of museums. There’s only so much of that stuff I can take in a day, and considering all these places also involved a significant amount of travel between each one, I’d grown rather exhausted. I’d known that there was a lot to see and do in London, but it turns out that that was jut because London happened to be such a big place. I often misjudged what I thought to be walking distances and found myself on significantly hefty treks across the city. I’d get the hang of it eventually, but for now for the museums I was over and out.

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Bridget Jones and British Boroughs

On my first day in London I spent a bit of time with Giles as he showed me around central London, pointing out all the different bars in Soho and all the shops and eateries I should try, and helping me familiarise myself with some of the major landmarks, stations, and even the lingo – I was only given one chance to mispronounce to awkwardly Leicester Square. Giles said most people mispronounce it – it’s pronounced ‘Lester’, as thought the ‘ic’ isn’t even there – and I momentarily wondered what the hell went wrong with the English language for that to have ever happened. After being all over Europe, England was the last place I had expected to have problems pronouncing words or place names.

That evening, Giles and I went to see a performance of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Giles was a big lover of musicals and theatre, and he had gotten complimentary tickets from a friend of his who worked there. I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off – they were very good tickets, centred and very close to the front, on a sold out night. The show was fantastic and the cast were amazing – however, there was another learning curve that I would experience that evening, in a theatre that was very much exposed to the elements. Despite it being a relatively warm and sunny day in London, as soon as the sun went down it got cold. Or at least, cold for an Australian. I hadn’t really anticipated that when I’d set out from Hackney during the middle of the day, but right now I was seriously regretting my choice of shirt and shorts. I had to borrow Giles’ big warm coat to drape over myself for most of the second half of the performance. Granted, he didn’t even need it – I guess being a local he was acclimatised to the conditions. It was something I made sure to take note of during my time in London, though – despite it still being their summer, it was the tail end of the season, and it wasn’t going to feel anything like the summer I was used to back home.

After the show we had a quick drink in Soho, but Giles had to get home to pack. Yes, Giles had to pack – he was off to America for two weeks. When I had figured out when I was going to be travelling to London, I’d dropped Giles a line to ask him if he’d be free to catch up at all while I was there.
“When exactly are you going to be in London?” he asked me. I told him when I was flying in, and approximately how long I thought I might want to stay – in my true fashion, I hadn’t really planned that far ahead.
“Oh that’s a shame, I’m only going to be there for one day before I’m going to America,” he’d said. But what he’d said next seemed almost too good to be true. “Have you found a place to stay in London yet?” Of course, I hadn’t.
“No, not yet…” I replied, thinking he might have a couple of hostel recommendations.
“Do you want to housesit my apartment and stay in my room while I’m away?” He didn’t ask for any rent – just that I minded and looked after the place for him. His housemate would be going away for at least a week during that period too, and I guess he may have felt better knowing there was someone around the place and keeping it safe. And of course, I was facing the opportunity of two rent-free weeks in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world, apparently. I didn’t have to consider it for more than a second before accepting Giles’ extremely generous offer. I guess I had proved myself to be trustworthy enough on the few occasions we had met, and I was yet again blown away by the kindness that people who I barely knew would show towards a weary world traveller.

***

And so Giles set off for his American holiday and left me to my own devices when it came to discovering London. I briefly met his housemate, a Canadian guy called Blake, but he was only around for a day or two as well before he set off on a trip to Serbia. We was only supposed to be gone for a week, but in all my time in London he never actually returned home  – I guess Serbia must have been pretty amazing – and I literally had the place to myself the entire time I was there, save a few days at the beginning and end. As someone who had been sleeping in hostels, spare rooms, and sharing both beds and apartments with some of my hosts, it was actually a pretty incredible situation. For the first time since perhaps Helsinki, and I had an entire apartment to myself. As excited as I was to actually get out and see the city, there was something about that circumstance that I just had indulge in. On a Sunday evening, I was flicking through the internet on my iPad to see if there were any parties or anything cool that I could make a trip into town to visit. Then I turned on the TV – basically just for the hell of it because, hey, I had a TV for the first time in months! – and saw that Bridget Jones’ Diary I was about to start. I considered it for a second: I was going to be in London for quite some time, and who knows when I may have the luxury of having a place to myself again? So the only trip I made that evening was around the corner to the fish and chip shop – a great British tradition – and returned home to sprawl out on the couch to watch one of my favourite British rom coms. In the end it did actually feel like I was experiencing a bit of British culture, with all from the comforts of my British living room. I regret nothing.

It was the first time that I would curl up in front of the TV in London – it’s arguably one of the most local things you could do – but wouldn’t be the last. However, there were other nights when I didn’t feel like trekking it on the tube all the way to the city, but I didn’t feel like just staying at home either. Giles had told me he would put me in touch with some of this friends so that I wasn’t so alone to begin with, and I had gotten in touch with some of them to arrange meetings. However, on this particular evening I turned to one of the numerous gay social smartphone applications. While these apps are mostly used to arrange a far less innocent type of rendezvous, as a traveller they’re actually quite useful in their originally marketed purpose which is to “meet other guys”, which is how I found myself walking through the neighbouring district of Bethnal Green to a nearby pub to meet Dean. His background was a mix of French and Greek, and had been living in London for about a year for his work. We met in a traditional looking English pub, but the inside was a different story. It was full of teenagers getting absolutely wasted, spilling their drinks all over the antique, rustic furniture they were lounging on while some house music blared from somewhere on the floors above. It wasn’t really the thing either of us were in the mood for, so we downed our drinks relatively quickly – though assuring I didn’t spill a drop – and hastily took our leave.

I hadn’t really been looking for a wild night out anyway, so Dean and I took to the streets and just talked. The good thing was that at this stage of my trip, I was never short of any weird stories or crazy adventures to share, so I always had something to talk about. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing in particular, and Dean asked me about London and what things I had seen.
“Ahh, I don’t know, I haven’t done much yet,” I said to him, scanning through a mental checklist of things I wanted to see and finding it almost completely blank. “I’m just making the most of my unique living situation and enjoying a place to myself.”
“Fair enough,” Dean chuckled. “Well, there’s this place I can show you that had a really nice view. It’s a bar in the City.”

I was about to getting a rough schooling in the local geography of London. It turns out that the City of London is just one specific and rather small section of the wider region of London (although City of London is actually part of the Greater London borough – I know, it’s confusing), which is made up of a collection of other boroughs and cities, such as the Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster – which is the relatively larger borough home to Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Soho. The City of London was a little more than a square mile where much of the financial district of London is located. The more Dean tried to explain, the more confused I became, and it took actually getting home and looking at a detailed map – and even a little bit of Googling place names – before I even began to slightly understand it. I’m not going to go much more into it – mostly because I don’t think I would be entirely correct – but we ended up walking a fair way to get to a place called SUSHISAMBA. It’s not a Japanese restaurant, and it isn’t a Brazilian nightclub – perhaps it’s a fusion of the two different cuisines, but all I know is that it was super fancy and pretty expensive. I didn’t think I was going to get in – it was smart casual dress code, and I was wearing the only warm jacket I currently owned which was an unremarkable looking black hoodie. But I wasn’t stopped when we tried to enter, and so Dean and went up the elevator to get to the bar on the 38th floor.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The elevator was glass, and gave you a somehow nauseating view of the wider city as it shot upwards with impressive speeds. Once inside, I had a glass of wine and Dean had a beer – I didn’t dare order anything more in such a pricey establishment.
“I wouldn’t come here for the drinks,” Dean said, “But for the view… it’s pretty amazing.”
And it was. Certain parts of the bar were restricted and reserved, so I couldn’t get as close to the windows as I would have liked, but from the bar you could see in all directions, and even though it was dark, you could still get an impressive sense of how immense the city was. Or should I say, City of London? Greater London? It was all a bit too confusing for me, but I told myself I’d have a couple of weeks to get used to it (note at time of writing: that obviously never happened).

On the way home, Dean pointed out to me several dragon statues. “Those dragons mark the boundary of the City of London,” he said to me. The City of London’s Coat of Arms features two dragons supporting the City’s Crest, and there are two original dragon statues which were made in 1849 that stand roughly 6 feet tall. There was also a collection of smaller, half-size replicas, and they are all located at the main entrances into the City. We passed one of the replicas near Aldgate High Street on our way home, and Dean continued to tell me more of the history of the City, although by this point in the night it was so late I was only half listening.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

We walked as far as we could until we had to go our separate ways. It was a strange evening – Dean seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but we didn’t get along that famously or anything, and there was no real connection. I never ended up seeing him again, yet I still remember the evening we spent together pretty clearly, and the minor history and geography lessons he attempted to teach me. I’d done a bit of crazy partying while I was in Amsterdam, so I guess taking the time out for myself and taking cute midnight strolls in the city was just the kind of change of pace I’d needed.