Memoirs of a Young Traveler- Day 4

Did you know London has a beach? Ok, it’s not so much of a beach as a small strip where they’ve packed sand and little beach umbrellas along the railing overlooking the Thames.  It’s a bit of quirkiness that is the Southbank.

From the other side of the river, standing next to Parliament, you look over to the Southbank and see the London Eye. Since it’s erection it has defined the Southbank. My fear of heights, combined with trying to jam pack everything into my last day, stopped me from riding on the Eye. But, it didn’t stop me from photographing it. Believe it or not the millions of spokes and bolts create some of the best photographic angles and pictures.

I spent the morning, after buying several disposable cameras, wandering along the Southbank from the Eye to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. For years the Southbank was considered the poor part of London while the other side of the river held the wealthy elites. In recent years, however, the Southbank has been cleaned up and it’s no longer the gritty impoverished step-sister of London. The region never lost its personality. It is dotted with art galleries and outdoor exhibits, with markets and street performers. There a little restaurants and boutiques.

While the man-made beach provided me with some comic relief, the actual sand and pebble area below the walk provided me with some unexpected art. I paused several times on the walk to simply sit next to the railing and look out over of the water, on one such occasion, instead of looking out I actually found myself looking down. Two people were creating sculptors in the sand. I’ve heard of people doing this throughout the world, taking the concept of a sandcastle and making it into something bigger, but I had never seen it in person. The detail on the sculptures was amazing. Also along the walk was an exhibit: a series of cottages, actually more like woodsheds. Each one was painted and sponsored by a different individual or group. All in different colors and designs. It added to the artiness of the whole area.

In all honesty, while I had many remarkable walks throughout London, staring at old beautiful buildings, this walk was my favorite. I’d pass some cute quirky building or some random piece of art, all the while walking along the Thames under rows of trees and over beautiful bridges. Part of the appeal may have been because the crowds were not as heavy, probably because it was still morning and a weekday, and because it was simply a beautiful day.

While my path to the Globe was not as direct as I would have liked, the Blackfriars Bridge has been under construction for several years now, I did finally make it there. My original intent was to go in, take a tour, and “ooooooooooo” and “ahhhhhh” like any literary, Shakespeare loving dork would, but my plans changed. For one, my walk had taken longer than I had planned, because it was more interesting than I thought it would be, but also the place loses its appeal when it is swarming with school children. So instead I sat along the Thames and looked at the Globe. Now considering that it isn’t the real Globe and Shakespeare never actually performed or had any of his lays performed in this theater because it was constructed hundreds of years after his death, I wasn’t too broken up about not going in. In fact, it was extremely pleasant just sitting there, looking at the building, and quoting Shakespeare in my head (“If we shadows have offended/think but this and all is mended”).

***

Of all the random things I wanted to do while I was in London, I would have to say the most bizarre was to walk over the Millennium Bridge. I have a strange adoration for bridges, especially pedestrian bridges, plus it had the added bonus of being a good photographic object. Unfortunately my bridge thrill stopped there.

I’m scared of heights. Always have been. When I was little I proceeded to freak out when my 6’1 uncle picked me up because I felt too high off the ground. I’ve never climbed a tree because I’m sure I’ll never be able to get myself down. The highest I got in the rocking climbing portion of my Middle School gym class was 4 feet off the ground. I start hyperventilating if I’m on the top bunk of a bunk bed. And, if I see a glass floor, I usually try to find a way to walk around it. Despite this fear, I’ve learned to control it. I don’t want to miss out on opportunities simply because I’m too scared to get too high. As long as I know there are sturdy railings holding me in and I can’t look down through the floor to the ground, I’m fine.

Despite the absolute inability, unless I really made an effort, of plummeting to my death into the Thames, something about the Millennium Bridge, sparked my fear.

I think it had something to do with the way the bridge is made. The type of metal used on the bridge, though I know it was tested and approved, didn’t seem secure to me. It clanked and I could have sworn I felt it shake. It probably didn’t help that I knew the bridge had been closed almost immediately after it was opened because people said they felt it move as they walked across….ok that probably had a lot to do with my sudden panic. I didn’t stop and run from the bridge. I made it across. But, I didn’t get the photograph from the center of the bridge I had intended and I failed to stop to take some truly priceless images of the suspension cables, because I didn’t want to stay on the bridge too long.

***

The Millennium Bridge connects the Southbank to the City, leading directly up to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Christopher Wren’s masterpiece. Wren’s domed building is perhaps the greatest known cathedral in the world, outside of the Vatican (and honestly there’s no comparison between the 2 considering one is Anglican and one is Catholic). In almost every novel I’ve ever read taking place in London, there’s at least one reference to St. Paul’s.  Every Christmas as my family sits and watches A Christmas Carol we watch the credits scroll past with an image of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim walking towards the Cathedral. It is a staple of London. So much so that it actually received extra protection from the firemen during the Blitz.

It is without a doubt beautiful (which if you haven’t noticed is something most of London is). The ceiling, the floor, the columns, the effigies, the sculptures, the dome, the gardens: all beautiful. There’s a French term called “trompe l’oeil,” meaning “trick of the eye.” You see it in lots of older buildings and cathedrals. It can be anything from a life size looking statue that actually 10 feet tall, to a ceiling looking curved when it is actually not. The Dome of St. Paul’s fits into this description. It’s a big dome that much is obvious. What you don’t realize is that the dome is actually several domes and that the main dome is more cylindrically shaped than spherical. It’s a “trompe l’oeil,” an illusion. Wren did this to make the dome huge, visible throughout the city, but in a way that would maintain the weight of the structure. It’s pure genius.

I wandered around the Cathedral for a while, conceding to the fact that due to my recent Millennium Bridge hyperventilation, I would not travel up to the dome for a view. My view from the ground was more than impressive. Beyond the typical religious “wow” of the cathedral other aspects also created “wow” moments. There are areas of the cathedral where you can still see the burn marks and holes from when St. Paul’s was hit during the London air raids of World War Two. There are surviving effigies from the great fire in 1666, still smothered in black from the smoke.

I was raised an Episcopalian, the American stem of the Anglican Church. Despite my decision early in life to take an atheistic/agnostic religious path, I wasn’t going to resist attending a mid-afternoon service at St. Paul’s. Any good Episcopalian (and yes, I’m still a good Episcopalian), couldn’t resist having the opportunity to experience a real Anglican service, in St. Paul’s, the most Anglican of Anglican cathedrals. Tourists like myself were welcome to attend and I was considerably humored by those who didn’t really know what was going on and started bowing at odd places during the service. Despite my lack of religious fervor, I’d have to say it really was, to use a term that barely suffices, cool.

When you tell people you’re a photographer or that you like photography, they often have a hard time understanding why you don’t also want to have your photograph taken. It’s difficult explaining that you’d rather be the one taking the photograph than be the one in the photo. The night before I had discussed with Lizzie, my godfather’s daughter, the fact that I had not yet taken a photograph of me in London. I struggled with the concept. I hate having to ask people to take a picture of me, even if they’re friends. It always seems to me like a waste of their time and a selfish request on my part. Shouldn’t the photos I take be sufficient enough proof for people that I was in London? She was right though, it would be horrible to look back on the trip and not have a single picture of me in the batch. So, I wandered around outside of the Cathedral for 20 minutes looking for the right person to ask to take my photo. What better place to have it taken than with St. Paul’s Cathedral as a backdrop.

***

I’m one of those travelers that spends more than enough time preparing for a trip. Before I left London I studied the map on google thoroughly, I practically memorized the Tube map and I made a mental list of almost every attraction, even the ones I didn’t plan on visiting. In all that preparation I never once came across something called “The Monument.” But, every time I opened my map I saw the Tube Station marked “The Monument” and a little dot next to it saying “The Monument.” If this were so important than why didn’t I see it anywhere in my previous research?  The answer is I’m not sure.

Naturally curiosity got the best of me and given the fact that it was on the path from St. Paul’s to my next stop I figured I had to look. The Monument, is a monument, dedicated to the Great London Fire in 1666. It was erected within a few years of the fire and inscribed in old English (thank god for translated placards). It sits right next to where the fire started, which was in a bakery or patisserie, or maybe it was as simple as a muffin shop, that caught on fire in the middle of the night. Due to a considerable number of buildings with wood and thatch roofs the fire spread quickly taking out considerable portions of the city including the King’s palace at Whitehall and destroying the original St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It was a devastating event. And yet, it made London what it is today. With the help of Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, the city was restored and the great St. Paul’s Cathedral that we know today was built. Even in terms of health, the fire is actually believed by some to have saved the city. Health conditions actually improved following the fire and the Plague failed to return to London, at least in major outbreaks. Somehow the fire killed away the bacteria and germs spreading disease.

One would think considering the significance of the Great Fire of 1666 that tour books would spend a little more time on The Monument. Considering the numerous signs that led me there, I have to believe that it isn’t a ploy on the part of Londoners to stop tourists from visiting there. I think it’s a failure on the part of tourists to actually think about the history and the culture of where they are. Tourists focus on hitting the marks and the major attractions, something I myself am not immune to. A tourist wants to make sure they see as many things as possible. But, they fail to pause and think about what they’re seeing or to take a back road to somewhere less known. A somewhat small monument to the Great Fire, isn’t nearly as impressive as a giant cathedral. They don’t fail because they are ill-intentioned, they fail because they want to see it all and often the big things, the main attractions, take precedence over the things they stumble upon on their way from destination to destination.

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