Großbritannien – London – Sterne und Schiffe

I woke up on Sunday to a truly London day. Blustery, grey, with the hint of showers to come. Today was the lunar new year, so I made my way over to Chinatown to check out the festivities. I arrived just as the parade was kicking off. Tons of people came out to enjoy the show, and a large crowd pointed me in the right direction as I explored the venue. There was a cool area of shops and kiosks in Trafalgar Square, but it appeared blocked off and looked like you needed tickets to enter, so I satisfied myself by observing dancers and decorations from the outside.

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One of the many colorful floats at the parade
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This figure adorned a different float

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After some time I decided I’d had enough of the crowds, so I hopped back on the underground (against a growing crowd in the subway station near the festivities), bound for Greenwich. I made my way there after a few transfers, and found myself at the University near the main park there. I spent a little time exploring the campus but didn’t linger too long before hiking uphill to my first destination, the Royal Observatory. There, I learned about the history of celestial studies in London, primarily driven by the need for accurate navigation overseas. Early astronomers were tasked with providing star charts to ships to facilitate accurate localization without the assistance of landmarks.

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The view from atop the hill at the observatory
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The primary observatory building

Early on, they were able to determine how far they’d traveled North or South, but knowing how far they’d gone East or West proved more difficult. Because the Earth is rotating, the stars shift in position through the course of the night. Due to this it is imperative that one has an accurate measure of time. Unfortunately back then the only clocks with any reasonable accuracy relied on a pendulum and were therefore useless at sea due to the swinging of the ship. The museum detailed a history of timekeeping and its relation to astronomy.

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The first accurate pocketwatch, important for maritime navigation
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The planetarium at the observatory

I saw one of the IMAX shows at the planetarium. This was not your “watered down” IMAX that you see films in today, but rather the huge projection dome where the entire ceiling is a massive curved display. I loved those films growing up, and seeing the night sky in this format took me back to those earlier experiences.

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The telescope defining the Prime Meridian, outlined below

I saw the Prime Meridian and learned it was just the line drawn out by the major telescope at the Royal Observatory (which of course is pointing North-South). I learned that the line had moved arbitrarily when a new telescope was installed. I thought this was interesting to highlight just how arbitrary the line really is.

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This ship stands guard at the Maritime Museum

Eventually I turned down the hill and made my way towards the National Maritime Museum. The museum details history of the British fleet and naval power, detailing some historic battles, trade routes, and the cultural impact the sea has had on the British people. Upstairs in the museum there is a huge map with nautical elevations plotted out. There, children were taking part in another Chinese New Year celebration with a ribbon dancing lesson. They were fun to watch and everyone was enjoying themselves. I left the map area to check out a few more exhibits before getting back on public transit towards the city center.

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Children bringing in the new year

I got off at the train station to catch a ride to the airport. Before I left I took a brief detour to see the Monument of the Great Fire of London. It was raining so I did not stay long, but the imposing column seemed appropriate in that weather as a memorial to the victims of the fire.

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The monument remembering victims of the Great Fire

I slept on the bus ride to the airport. It was good that I did, because we did not get back to our apartments in Stuttgart until a little before midnight, and I had work the next day. I was tired, but it would not be long until my next adventure. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

-Ben

 

Großbritannien – London – Museen und Musik

On Saturday I made my way back over towards Westminster. Today I was not bound for any grand-looking picturesque building. Rather, my group was about to venture underground to visit the  Cabinet War Rooms. This underground bunker housed central operations for the British military and intelligence during the second world war. Our tour was extensive, detailing every aspect of life underground from communications to cutlery. We learned about the daily lives of the men and women who served there, the dangers they faced, and the comforts they abstained from. It was an impressive operation, and wandering through the narrow passages felt like a trip through time as the rooms had been restored to their 1945 appearance. The bunker also housed a small museum to Winston Churchill, detailing his life as a leader, soldier, artist and author. I enjoyed learning more about his background and circumstances and was glad the museum did not focus exclusively on the war.

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The War Rooms, ready for action

After finishing up underground, we headed up the hill to see the British Museum. This vast collection of artifacts details human history from all over the world, and is probably the most extensive museum I have ever seen. We saw mummies, Greek busts, intricate Muslim calligraphy, Assyrian writing, an Easter Island figure, and so much more. It’s hard to convey the vast collection of works on display at the museum. Needless to say, we stayed until closing, rushing to see as much as we could. While the museum is great to see, it’s a little sad to realize that many of these artifacts were taken from their respective cultures by a foreign power – seized as prizes from a conquering fleet. At least I can take some solace in knowing that everything at the museum is free for anyone to enjoy.

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An Easter Islander looks down on me
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Decyphering hieroglyphics is a little beyond me. Luckily the Rosetta Stone is in a case nearby!

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After the museums had closed, we wandered around a bit before finding a quick spot for dinner. I had a burger but was able to try some chickpea fries which were  quite tasty. After our meal I set off for my evening plans – seeing “Jersey Boys” at the Piccadilly Theatre. Unfortunately the friend whom I had been staying with (and with whom I had bought tickets) had gotten sick that afternoon and was unable to join me. Luckily one of the trainees happily joined in and I had some company at the show.

The musical was enjoyable. “Jersey Boys” tells the story of “The Four Seasons,” detailing their tumultuous rise to fame, conflicts within the band, and the lives of Frankie Valli and his bandmates. There was not much in the way of a super-compelling story, but the actors had vocal talent to spare and the soundtrack made up for the less-than-stellar plot. I was glad I had a chance to see the show, but in retrospect I should have looked at tickets sooner and gone to a different one – there’s always next time!

After the show I made time for a quick stop in a nearby pub before heading back home and to bed shortly thereafter. Another long London day, but it had been worth it. I wanted to make sure I was well-rested for my Sunday plans, but you’ll have to read about that later. Until then…

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Großbritannien – London – Kirchen und Paläste

Several of the trainees had plans to visit London. While I had spent a few days there on my last trip to Europe, London is a great city with tons to see; I didn’t need much convincing before I was agreeing to tag along. With so much there I decided I could experience new parts of the city and have more great experiences without “doubling up” too much. As an added bonus, a friend of mine whom I met in Barcelona on a study-abroad trip has been working on an assignment there. Spending some time in the city would give me a chance to catch up with him.

We flew out Thursday evening after work. I had a very pleasant first experience with the bus service in Stuttgart – for 2.50€ I caught a direct bus from the office to Stuttgart airport; the trip took around half an hour – not bad at all for rush hour. My progress slowed down when I made it to security, however. For reasons unbeknownst to me I found myself in what the locals were calling a “historically long line”, which is never a term you want to be associated with. Several people were snapping pictures on their phones, presumably surprised at the wait time. Luckily I had given myself plenty of time and was travelling light – before *too* long I made it through and met up with some other trainees who were also on my flight.

We touched down at Stansted airport shortly thereafter. I had spent the flight listening to the score from Les Miserables, the Beatles, and a few other British artists on my phone. Cliché, perhaps, but I was excited. We decided to save a little money by opting to split an Uber rather than taking a bus or train service. A few of the guys freaked out when they were faced with riding in a seemingly-mirrored vehicle. The drive into town took a while but eventually we found ourselves crossing Tower Bridge and knew we had arrived. We grabbed  some cheap Chinese food and my friends got settled into their AirBnb. Around midnight I left for my friend’s place. It was 30 minutes by bus or a 45 minute walk, so I opted to take the walk to get a feel for the city. I made it to my friend’s without incident. We played some cards and headed to bed before it got too late.

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“The Shard” from its base
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The London Eye on the Thames
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Parliament on a chilly morning
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“Big Ben” looms over a phonebooth

On Friday my friend had work, so I made my own way across town. I bought an Oyster card, made sure to “mind the gap”, and headed towards Parliament and Westminster Abbey. On the way, I passed by “the Shard”, bustling with commuters making their way across town. I made it to Westminster before the rest of the trainees I was meeting, and took the opportunity to walk around and grab some pictures of the beautiful buildings and river before meeting up with the group at our first stop, Westminster Abbey. The interior of the building is stunningly decorated, with intricate details, rich monuments everywhere, and a refined charm. The Abbey hosts coronation ceremonies for the British monarchs, and is the final resting place for some of the world’s most influential individuals including Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Dickens, as well as members of the British aristocracy and monarchy. Standing somewhere with so much history, amid the giants you read about through all of your studies, is a humbling experience. I spent awhile basking in the tranquility of it all to take everything in.

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Westminster Abbey

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Buckingham Palace from the courtyard
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The palace gates

Exiting the abbey, we strolled through St. Jame’s park on our way to Buckingham Palace. We didn’t go inside but instead just wandered around the gates, taking in the sights and crowds at the Queen’s home. After wandering around the palace and park, we made out way up to Trafalgar Square, where we saw a street performer and did a little people-watching. We grabbed lunch (I opted for bangers and mash, naturally) up near Piccadilly.

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The National Gallery at Trafalgar Square

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Getting our limbo on at Trafalgar Square
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Statues overlooking the square

My friends wanted to head over to the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. I had toured both of these on my first visit to London, so I broke off from the group and made for the Natural History Museum instead. The museum had tons of cool free exhibits. Plate tectonics, dinosaurs, Darwinian evolution, human evolution, and other fossils were on display at the museum. Some of the displays were more geared towards children, but I really enjoyed the dinosaur specimens and seeing the plate tectonic displays.

After wandering the museum for a bit, I made for Kensington Palace and the nearby gardens. Having grown up in New Kensington I was amused to go see the original. I know the gardens would be much prettier in bloom, but seeing the hedges and the grass was still a nice quiet break from the hustle and bustle of the city. I got up close to some of the many birds here. Wandering the gardens, I came across a huge memorial to prince Albert before departing to meet back with the group.

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The Albert Memorial at Kensington Gardens
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Kensington Palace
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The Kensington Palace Gardens

We met back up at St. Paul’s Cathedral. By now, the church was closed to visitors, but we were lucky enough to happen upon an evening singing service. We were able to step into the back of the church where we were treated to beautiful choral music. I was struck by how many military figures were honored here – I had never seen so much of a war theme in a religious building before. We sat in peace and observed the service for awhile, took in the beautiful roof and the decorations, and took our time before stepping out for our dinner.

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St Paul’s Cathedral
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The dome at St. Paul’s

We made for a quick restaurant to grab fish and chips before meeting our tour guide for a “Jack the Ripper” tour. I won’t spoil the story for you by recalling all I learned on the tour here – if you haven’t heard of the killings I would encourage you to read about them. Our guide did a good job of building suspense and revealing intrigue as he walked us through the eerie sites where the events took place. Between stops we had chances to ask him questions about London then and now – our guide was very knowledgeably and happy to explain things in great detail when we asked. I’m happy to have done the tour.

After the tour we stopped into a pub to grab a drink and relax. I’d describe the pub we chose as “casually ornate” – there was a nice whitewash and gold-trim aesthetic but the atmosphere felt lively and casual. We discussed the highlights of our day, theories about the murder mystery, and plans for the next day over drinks. Naturally I had Guinness as it’s so much better here than in the US.

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Tower Bridge in the evening on my way back home

Tired from a long day, I split off from the group to meet back with the friend with whom I was staying. I did not stay up too late and called it an “early” night around midnight. There’s a lot more to tell of my London adventure, but in the interest of brevity and punctuality I’ll leave it here for now. Check back soon to hear more about what I did with the rest of my time in London. Until then,

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben