London Retrospective: Week Three

(28 Jan to 3 Feb)

Okay: Week Three. It’s the second week of classes, and I’m still getting into the groove of things – it’s more difficult than usual for me to figure out how to manage my time. This is understandable, because a) my schedule is considerably less intense than it has been in previous semesters; no class until 2:00 on Tuesday? What? And b) I’m in London. It’s kind of distracting, you know? My group for a project in studio makes a visit to the British Museum (we’re designing an exhibition for the Grand Court), and it’s so much easier just to wander in awe than to take photos and think about circulation patterns. “Hey, want to get dinner after class?” turns into a solid three hours of conversation and laughter at The Shakespeare’s Head (a pub close to Faraday House; not great on authenticity, but they have decent prices and good burgers) before I realize that I have to read a play for Irish Lit the next day.

It’s still only the second “official” week of the semester, though, so my workload is fortunately pretty light, and as we’ve previously discussed, the weekend rolls around pretty quickly. The Friday Field Trip this week is to Windsor Castle – the oldest continually occupied castle in England (or maybe the world; I can’t remember) and, it must be noted, the Queen’s favorite residence.

The coach drops us, blinking in the bright morning sun, at the rendezvous point, and we make our way to the castle, which sits on its defensive hill (called a “motte,” as our guide made sure to tell us about twenty times on the ride up) rather quietly. It’s absolutely massive, and obviously symbolic of the power of centuries of the English monarchy, and yet it doesn’t seem ostentatious. It doesn’t scream for attention the way a Walt Disney castle might; it speaks more of calm strength and all its long history than the gold and jewels and wealth it undoubtedly holds. Still, we bumpkins from America are impressed, which we indicate by our sarcasm and irreverence. “Oh, it kind of looks like my house,” I joke. (“Really?” Flatmate Eric wonders. “Um, no,” I reply.) Flatmates Sarah and Megan hold an impromptu dance party in the ticket line; Drama Major (and Honorary Flatmate) Stella is underwhelmed by the garden in the disused moat: “I could do better. Seriously.” We take an inordinate amount of joy in assigning imperial significance to everything we see: “Watch out, that’s royal grass.” “Oh look, it’s the royal Inner Ward Gift Shop.” Looking over a low parapet, I laugh and take my camera out; my flatmates wonder what’s up, and I show them the picture I’d just taken. “Even the Queen needs HVAC units.”

[Note: I would totally be including pictures here, but I’ve maxed out my monthly upload limit on Flickr, so I either have to pay for a Pro account or wait until March. We’ll see.]

Once we’re inside (and, thankfully, beholden to the free audio-tour wands rather than Tour Guide Calvin, who means well but can’t say something without repeating it over and over), making our slow and awed way through the rooms, I’m struck still by how unpretentious everything is. Oh, of course it’s elaborate beyond compare – I’ve never seen so much gilding, so many fine woods, so many massive tapestries and carved doorways and ceiling paintings in my life – but it all feels so natural to the place, as if this was the only way it could possibly be. Experiencing the State Rooms and St. Georges Hall in person is so much more interesting than looking at their pictures in a book; even I get tired and eventually dismiss the images as frilly and overwrought. But in reality, the rooms are much quieter, more tasteful than you’d ever guess. There is fantastic, beautiful craftsmanship everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I could never live in a place like that – I think it’d be suffocating, after a while – but it’s nowhere near as decadent as I’d expected.

Of course, one must realize that the monarchy lived in rooms like these while the majority of England’s populace was dying from plague; social equity doesn’t have much place in Windsor Castle, but it was lovely to see at any rate. After a quick lunch in Windsor itself (another adorable English town, in which people walk past a bloody castle on their way to work every day; can you imagine?), we head back to the castle and tour St. George’s Chapel, which is considered one of the top three examples of “perpendicular architecture” (read: Gothic) in the country, and cavort about on the Long Walk – a Mall-esque, tree-lined avenue leading up to the castle’s gates – before heading back to the coach, tired, overwhelmed, and happy.

Windsor Castle was only the beginning, though, because this particular weekend is designated as one of two “♥ London Weekends” (pronounced “Love London” – none of this cheesy “heart” business), which are put on by the London Program to encourage students to actually, you know, explore London, instead of flying to Barcelona and Amsterdam and Fiji every weekend. Walking tours and subsidized-pricing events like football games and plays are scheduled pretty much constantly over Saturday and Sunday.

We (flatmates and designmates alike – my two primary “groups” here) decide to take on the South Bank of the Thames with the Saturday-morning walking tour, which is led by Norman Reuter, an absolutely charming old professor who teaches architecture history. The history of London Bridge is dissected, the jail that originated the term “clink” pointed out, the Borough Market perused. We admire a reproduction of Sir Francis Drake’s infamous ship, the Golden Hind, we admire the reconstruction of the Globe Theater, we admire the repurposing of the power station that now houses the Tate Modern. It’s a beautiful cold, clear day, and the tour ends up at the base of the London Eye – upon which, after a brief lunch, we take a flight. (I love that they’re called “flights” rather than the much baser “rides.”) I continue to be absolutely astonished by the feats of engineering that make the Eye possible, and…man. The flight is one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had yet in London; the view is astonishing, the pace of the wheel slow and stately, the picture opportunities unparalleled.

Once we’re back on the ground again (a singularly disappointing thing after going up on the Eye, let me tell you), my flatmates and a couple of designmates and I choose to retrace our steps from the walking tour. Strolling back up the South Bank in the now-afternoon sun, I can’t believe how much…life there is, concentrated in even this one area. Crowds of tourists and locals alike lean over the Thames levee to watch a small team sculpting a dragon out of the strip of beach exposed during low tide. Out-of-work actors, wearing period dress and painted bronze or silver, pose as living statues, while an elderly man in a kilt walks a tightrope and – no kidding – plays reels and jigs on the fiddle. While on the tightrope! I know! A large area under a cantilevered concrete balcony has been claimed by the city’s youth as a sort of urban skate park; teenagers on BMX bikes ride over jumps and down ramps, performing for a surprisingly appreciative audience of passers-by, all in front of a massive graffiti mural that boasts unexpected morsels of intelligence and humor: “Gazpacho is not tomato soup!” Down the street, under one of the bridges, two men are playing loud salsa music, one on sax and the other on bass, a digital accompanist somewhere among their equipment – and they’re good. Damn good. Another bridge shelters a massive used-book market, with stacks of vinyl and vintage maps thrown in. I remark aloud, to no one in particular, that I may have found my favorite place in the world, and vow to do some souvenir shopping here before the semester is over. The whole South Bank is teeming with perfomers, art, people; the spirit is intoxicating. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.

Sunday rolls around and, with it, the usual woes of doing the homework you’ve put off until now. But that night, as a farewell to the ♥ London Weekend, I see a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – which I’d never seen or read beforehand, much to my embarrassment – that was utterly fantastic. I love “formal” Shakespeare, of course, but I love well-done reinterpretations too, and this had to’ve been one of the best. Before the show, you’re instructed to enter the “concert hall” – a raw, industrial space, with work lights hung on the wall and mismatched chairs and tables and beat-up sofas spread about the place. Workmen (and women) in yellow vests keep rushing through or bending to specific tasks; touching up a painted area on the wall, sweeping the floor between the audience’s legs. I have the sense, while all of this is going on, that we’re in very good hands indeed – I love theater in the…what would you call that, when the actors set themselves up in the middle of the audience and just…start acting? It’s so immediate and unsettling and awesome, and I wasn’t disappointed – the workmen, who turn out to be the Mechanicals, all dropped to their knees on cue as Theseus, Egeus, and Hermia enter, arguing loudly.

Once the exposition’s over with, the audience is invited to move behind a ragged curtain, deeper into the space, where a rough theater-in-the-round setup hosts the rest of the play. The production is wonderfully gritty; an old de-tuned piano in the corner serves as the soundtrack, with various characters plucking or running their fingers over the strings directly; the set, as it were, and the lighting are dark and distinctly eerie; the Fairies are interpreted as bestial drug addicts and periodically weave themselves among the audience, plucking at the edges of garments and whispering in ears. Most of the acting is superb, and the few characters who are noticeably weaker don’t drag the show too badly.

It was a great play, and a fitting end to the weekend – although coming home and facing the impending school week is, I must admit, always a bit of a bummer. But between the South Bank and the Eye, that one-pound bag of produce from the Borough Market, and the general awesomeness? Not bad, London; not bad at all.

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