It’s a strange contradiction, that one of the cities whose landmarks and streets I have known as well as my home city hasn’t been on the top of my list of places to visit. Rome, France, Spain, Japan, New Zealand, Istanbul, Malta – they’ve all been ticked off, but somehow that one city lurking in the background, all foggy streets, lamplight, theatre and history, just sat there quietly, waiting, as overlooked as the back of my hand.
Last week I finally made it there, and I should warn you that I have collected enough memories, history, stories and material for at least three posts. Until the next time we visit.
So without gilding the lilly, while I may have the body of a woman I have the heart of a man, so we will keep calm and carry on, the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable, and despite my love of the sound of deadlines as they whoosh past we shall get on with it (‘Yes, get on with it!’).
In case my heavy hints didn’t help, the place that we went, finally, was London. Now that you’ve reached this point, go back to the title and complete the line preferably in a gravelly Johnny Depp voice. It will set the mood. (Obviously I don’t endorse this view of London. It was much less foggy for a start.)
My first impression, as we stepped off the train at Liverpool Street Station, wasn’t darkness, creeping fog and dirt, but the pride and elegance of the Industrial era towering over a living city. Having been recently renovated, the iron columns of the old station loomed above us, topped with delicate lattice work buttresses and supported by painted palm bases. Far above was a semi-transparent ceiling that let in enough light to give the building a glow but not enough to see the clouded sky. It was a good first impression.
From there we made the most important purchase of our trip; oyster cards. I cannot overstate how useful these are, to be able to unthinkingly breeze through the gates of the tube or onto buses with a little, satisfying blip. The second most important thing we collected was a map of the underground. These were both worth their weight in gold.
So it was a simple thing to make our way to the airbnb accommodation, settle in and make a plan for the evening. My partner had, predictably, looked up the location before and sussed out the local pubs and breweries, of which there were many, so it was to one of these that we headed for our first night.
The pub was loud, warm and bracingly welcoming. However, within 5 minutes of stepping inside we had committed our first cultural faux pas. To us, a space at a table with empty and half-full glasses means that someone has left without finishing their drinks. But au contraire! Here it meant that the drinkers in question were outside smoking, and had left the half-full glass as a sign that they’d be back. Muttering apologies we escaped and found a new spot, where we excitedly ordered our first sausage roll in years and I enjoyed a very hot, very clovey mulled cider.
‘To London!’ we cheered, clinking our glasses together and settling into the beaten up old couch.
So, knowing me, as many of you readers do, what would you lay your money down as the first place we’d visit in London? If you guessed the National Gallery then no, but you’re close. If you guessed the recently opened Jack the Ripper museum, then frankly I don’t think you know me as much as you think.
If you guessed the British Museum, then well done! You win the prize of my esteem and a detailed description of my visit the next time we meet. Be prepared for enthusiasm and jazz-hands.
There is a piece of stone that I have wanted to see for most of my life, at least since I was 8 or 9. I’ve seen a copy and left a flower on the grave of one of the men who worked with it, in Paris. It is one of the most important artifacts in the world, and enabled us to open up a part of human history that had been partly hidden behind mysterious symbols for a very long time. It was, of course, the Rosetta Stone. I am, however, a person who enjoys drawing out the anticipation, so it was to the right, and the Assyrian gallery that we headed for first.
There we found the reconstruction of a massive door, cuneiform rolls and semi-human statues staring down at us. The most interesting for me were the panels from the palace of Ashurbanipal II in Nimrud. They showed hunting, war and the gods, typical stuff, but something about the finely detailed curls in the beards, the lone, perhaps baffled fish in the river crossing scene and the delicate beauty of the gazelle being offered up to the king charmed me. We spent a while there, staring and absorbing, before we slipped into the Egyptian gallery.
It didn’t take long to spot the Rosetta stone, mostly surrounded by school kids and tourists and looking exactly as I’d imagined. It was a very special moment and the culmination in a way of a lifetime of immersing myself in history.
Also in the Egyptian gallery were reliefs, sarcophagi and monumental heads of Amenhotep III and Ramses II. The latter especially looked serene, sure perhaps that thousands of years later he would not be forgotten or left buried in the desert.
The next part of the museum we ventured into focused on Greece, and it was here that my partner found himself unexpectedly entranced. He’s recently completed a ceramics course, bringing home a selection of lovely bowls and plates, so the displays of ancient plates, amphorae, vases and jugs entirely grabbed his attention. And they were stunning. Almost all where in the black on red style, showing gods and heroes parading about, or mortals indulging in an amphorae or two of wine. The quality of the work was stunning though, often discreetly signed by the painter and the potter, and found in places as far afield as Campania in Italy and in Egypt. It reminded me of the fineness of Georg Jensen ewers, or other designer home wares that you’d be more likely to display on a shelf than actually use.
Further on there were Corinthian helmets, one with a dent, Sassanid swords and statuary, but for me it was all a build up to the main event.
I have been debating with myself as to whether to get into the politics surrounding the artifacts I’m about to describe. Though it’s important, for now I’m going to describe the moment so you can see what I saw, and someday I’ll get into the issue, perhaps when I’ve seen the original home of the artifacts.
When I first heard of the Parthenon Marbles, or the Elgin Marbles as I first heard them referred to, I for some reason imagined then literally as big, white marbles. As in the round ones that kids used to play with, but white and smooth and a metres tall. I am, I fear, sometimes too literal.
What they actually are, of course, are the friezes and statues that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, carved of fine marble and showing at once the incredible artistic outpourings of the time and how difficult it can be to correctly interpret the people of the past. Most of the works show a cavalcade of riders filling up panel after panel with movement and life, the muscles and tendons on the horses and men seeming to thrum with energy even without the paint and decoration that would once have covered them.
A parade was also taking place, with men and women tugging along heifers, sometimes against their will and carrying mysterious instruments for purposes that we don’t know.
At the end of each room where large but fragmentary statues that once sat on the triangular ends of the temple. Neptune, and perhaps Aphrodite and Demeter lounge and sit around, headless and armless, the folds of their clothes caught in sudden movement. The heads of horses also perch on display, nostrils wide and eyes fierce, though their bodies are long gone.
Finally there were the ‘Metopes’, panels showing a battle between centaurs and Lapiths. Again and again a man and centaur were shown locked in battle, always at a critical moment. It felt as though in the moment of sculpting the fight could go either way, the stone clutched in one hand could fly into the enemy’s face or a spear could be turned aside. In addition to the fine artistry, they seemed to live and tell a story, if we can only work out the message.
Having left the world of classical Greece, we found ourselves sharing space with fragments from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. If you’ve ever wondered where the word mausoleum comes from, look no further. In the 300d BCE a woman called Artemisia commissioned a massive tomb for her husband Mausolus and herself, which became one of the wonders of the ancient world. Though they were part of the Persian empire she employed Greek architects to design it, and the fragments that are left show a mix of both influences. Two massive statues remain, possibly of Mausolus and his sister-wife Artemisia, but the most amazing piece in my opinion was the head, shoulders and part of the legs of a horse that once stood with three others in a chariot on the roof. It was simply huge, towering over me as it once did over the city.
Then there was the Celtic room which turned into the Romano-British and then Viking gallery. It included incredible dishes and cups from the Mildenhall find, a delicately made chest chain probably worn only once by a very young Romano-British bride on her wedding and a seemingly unimportant letter from the Roman period.
It was from 100CE Vindolanda on the then border of the empire, and addressed to a woman named Sulpicia Lepidina. It was a birthday party invitation, written mostly by a scribe but in the bottom corner it had been signed by the sender, Claudia Severa,
I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
This letter is thought to be the earliest known writing in Latin by a woman, and I adore how innocuous it is. And at the same time showing the love and life of real people, and everyday life. I hope Sulpicia made it to Claudia’s birthday.
At the end of the long room were the treasures from the Sutton Hoo burial. I’ve known about these for a long time, but somehow the fact that they were in the British Museum had slipped my mind until I read up about the Museum prior to visiting. Knowing that I was eager to see the treasure, in particular the helmet, my partner told me to close my eyes and turned me around to see it when he spotted it before me. I saw first the reconstruction, a beautifully made helmet of silver, inlaid with precious stones and decorated with symbols from the Roman, Celtic and Viking worlds. To the side was the original, much reduced, but with the decorations still visible.
Even though no one knows for sure who the man buried with the helmet was, he was lucky to have incredible craftsmen available to provide treasures to take on his final journey. As well as the helmet, was the clasp of a purse, a brooch and buckles, made of gold and gems and of the sort of quality I’d expect on the catalogue of a professional jeweler today. It goes to show that despite the prejudice about those who went before us being somehow less able due to the limitations of technology, they were just as capable of creating beautiful things, simply and confidently.
By now we were tiring, and the wonders of the past were starting to blur together a little, so we headed to the exit. On the way out I bought something which I felt symbolised my impressions of London, at least prior to visiting; a compact umbrella decorated with writing from the Rosetta Stone. Armed against the likely rain, we went out and continued our first day in London.