31 October 2007

Gravesend

Terry wanted to visit the area just outside of London called Gravesend, where a lot of people (including some Beaumont ancestors) emigrated to New Zealand.

The town is recorded as "Gravesham" in the Domesday Book of 1086, probably a corruption of grafs-ham meaning "at the end of the grove". However, myth has it that Gravesend got its name during the Bubonic Plague as the place where victims were no longer buried on land, but at sea.

It was about a 50 minute train ride from London Bridge station, and we had a good view of the docklands and some industrial suburbs of London as we travelled. The town has a busy little main street, but we quickly made our way toward the Thames. The river front has many sites of interest, the first being St George's Church, where Pocahontas is buried.

Pocahontas was the first Native American to visit England, but on returning home to Virginia in 1617 she was taken ill. She was therefore taken ashore at Gravesend, where she died, only 22 years old. She was buried in St George's, but the church burned down in 1727. On rebuilding, the exact site of her grave was lost.

A life-sized statue by American sculptor William Ordway Partridge was gifted by the Governor of Virginia.

Bawley Bay: This historic tiny bay, adjacent to St. Andrews Church, was named after the many shrimp boats which used to moor there in the 19th century. Many families set sail from there hoping to start a new life in Australia and New Zealand.

The Gravesend Blockhouse: one of five small forts built in 1539/40 on either side of the lower Thames to protect the river approaches to London against the possibility of an attack by an enemy fleet. This was part of Henry VIII's national programme of defence.

The New Tavern Fort: remains of a fort built in the 1780s to defend the Thames against the threat of a naval attack from France, and extensively rebuilt by General Gordon between 1865 and 1879. The Fort was re-armed in 1904 and guns representing that period of development are now on display.

Part of the Canal Basin:

Always time for a pint - just make sure you avoid the Spitfire, it's far too bitter!

Warwick Castle

Before heading home to London, we took a bus to Wariwkc Castle, also overlooking the River Avon. Legend has it that the first fortification was erected by Ethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great, though the majority of the remains are Norman. Indeed, William the Conqueror appointed Henry de Newburgh as Earl of Warwick, during which the motte-and-bailey fort was erected.

Terry posing with some musical peasants. The one on the left is playing a hurdy-gurdy...

Now run as a museum, the castle has engaging exhibits run by Madame Tussauds. There are some of her famous wax dummies throughout (including a young Winston Churchill), which do a great job of evoking the historic atmosphere.

We had a great time exploring the castle, climbing the turrets, wandering in the grounds, visiting the tropical house, and watching an archery demonstration. There were also additional exhibits from the Warwick paranormal investigation group. Waste of time if you ask me, but then I'm a skeptic.

On the ramparts:

Stratford-upon-Avon

I organised a weekend trip away for us and Terry - originally to Portsmouth, but that plan turned sour when I discovered that there was a massive marathon taking place there. So instead we switched to Shakespeare's birth-and-death-place, Stratford-upon-Avon. The riverside town (literally in Anglo-Saxon: strat-street, ford-river crossing, avon-river) developed as a market in medieval times, specialising in wool and tanning.

The beautiful Avon river:

Outside the tourist centre:

There are 5 houses relating to Shakespeare's life scattered throughout the town, owned and operated by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. We dutifully made our way around them all, taking a tourist bus here and there. The first is on Henley Street, where John Shakespeare bought a half-timbered Tudor farm house in 1556. William was born here in 1564.

It's a very pretty little cottage, with a lovely garden planted with herbs and flowers referred to in Shakespeare's plays and poems. The interiors have been kept in period, but it was hard to get the atmosphere with so many fellow tourists shuffling about.

The Americans have built a Shakespeare monument by the market square. It doesn't evoke much to me, but it does have some nice carvings on it - little animals and monsters and the like.

The second of our stops was Anne Hathaway's Cottage at Shottery, the home of Shakespeare's wife's family prior to her marriage.

There was a little orchard, though the fruit wasn't yet in season. Nonetheless I did try an apple (crunchy, but tart), a pear (too hard to eat) and a quince (hideously dry in the mouth).

This is authentic Tudor bird-scaring device - a potato stuck with feathers that rotates on a string.

Further out in the countryside is stop number 3, Mary Arden's House, the family home of Shakespeare's mother. This is well worth the stop, with lots of farmyard animals, including plenty of chooks, sheep and even some birds of prey.

Back in town we stopped at #4, Nash's House. This is built beside the site of New Place, a mansion-like complex built by Shakespeare at the height of his fortune. He lived and died here, but alas!, the site was demolished by Nash in a dispute over taxes. Afterwards we we wandered through the theatre quarter, where the Royal Shakespeare Company operate.

Boats in the Avon river named after female characters from Shakespeare's plays:

Brass rubbing centre:

Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was baptised and is buried. The present building dates from 1210 and is built on the site of a Saxon monastery. It is Stratford's oldest building, in a striking position on the banks of the River Avon, and has long been England's most visited parish church.

It is said that Shakespeare's body is buried 20 feet deep to prevent its theft. Above the grave, a badly eroded stone slab displays his epitaph:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclos├Ęd here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
But cursed be he that moves my bones.
A 14th-century sanctuary knocker in the church's porch (built c. 1500):

Hall's Croft, the one-time home of Shakespeare's daughter, Susannah, and her husband Dr John Hall. Outside is a large mulberry tree, grown from a cutting off Shakespeare's own mulberry tree. Obscure!

In the evening we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V. It was brilliantly staged, but very tiring as we only had standing 'seats'.

16 October 2007

October update

Anna and I have been very active this month, making the most of the wonderful opportunities that London has to offer. We've recently been to a couple of special screenings at the BFI. The first was a documentary about The Prisoner TV series, with some of the crew present. I'm a huge fan of this series, and it was great to glean some insights into how it all came about, plus it's always nice to get a few autographs.

The second was a 20th anniversary sceening of British cult classic Withnail & I. We've seen this before, but we enjoyed it a lot more this time around. I think partly because we're older, and also because one feeds off an enthusiastic crowd. There was a discussion afterwards with the director and two leads present. I'm proud to say I've now met two Doctor Whos - Paul McGann (canonical 8th Doctor) and Richard E Grant (non-canonical 9th Doctor)!

Anna and I in Southbank, near the BFI and National Film Theatre:

My lawyer friend Simon has just joined us in London, and I caught up with him and Mark for a nice Sunday lunch at Food for Thought, an extremely popular vegetarian restaurant in Covent Garden (it's in the Seven Dials area). We popped into the British Museum afterwards - of which I have barely scratched the surface - to explore the European/British section in depth. I particularly enjoyed the bog men (poor peaty bastards), checking out the Roman-era Mildenhall silver collection again, and the remains of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon ship burial. Here's Simon peeking through a Persian statue:

Had a night out to say goodbye to our friend Rachel, who's off home again soon. We started in the early afternoon, with a matinee performance of Swimming with Sharks with heart-throb Christian Slater. Popped by the stage door afterwards for autographs and photos. he was very obliging as you can see. FYI, I'm not really twice his size - I'm just always embarressed by perspective in these kinds of photos.

Popped into the Tate Britain for the first time (different to the Tate Modern). It's a little off the beaten track (Pimlico), but well worth the effort as it focuses on the history of British art, and therefore has a cracking collection of work by the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood.

We saw a number of pivotal pieces, including "The Lady of Shallot" and "Saint Eulalia" by John William Waterhouse, "Beate Beatrix" and "Proserpine" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and "Our English Coasts" by William Holman Hunt. (If these don't mean much to you, I recommend getting out a book on the PRB with big colourplates!)

There's nothing quite like seeing great art in person, and nowhere is this more noticeable than with the magnificent Waterhouses. They're much larger than I expected, and contain a wealth of detail I've not seen replicated with any justice in prints and postcards. I'd be quite happy to look at these two paintings every day...

I'd also booked tickets to the Turner prize retrospective, Britain's leading award for modern art. Since its inception in 1984, it has courted controversy and debate - I think largely due to its
preference for conceptual work, which can fail to engage the public as easily as something concrete. On the whole we did find the exhibition rather disappointing, but it was - well, not nice as such - interesting to see Damien Hirst's "Mother and Child Divided", dissected cows preserved in glass tanks.

I was back to the BFI a week later for an interview with the lovely Naomi Watts, who seems to look more and more like Nicole Kidman every year.

I had hoped to get an autograph on my copy of Mulholland Drive afterwards, but discovered that she had already left. I did, however, see Steve Buscemi breeze past on the way to his car.

Anna and I both ended up having a big night, so Saturday was pretty low key. We did make an effort to watch the World Cup final, though at home, with Connor and Terry (just back from his EU trip). I drank an imported bottle of Monteiths to celebrate the SA victory. Terry got back We roused ourselves on Sunday, and took Terry to the National History Museum (saw the dinos again, and also the "Red Zone" dedicated to the mysteries of the earth) and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Terry was impressed with the shrapnel marks on the outside of the V&A, preserved as a testimony to steadfast nature of the British institution..

We also had a good time feeding the squirrels in Hyde Park afterwards...

But I sustained a bite on my thumb! Hopefully I won't turn into a were-squirrel next full moon...

Took Terry to see a theatre show last night. We met at Leicester Square, where there have been film premieres all week for the BFI Festival. We did see the red carpet for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but there were barriers so visibility wasn't great. I believe the cast were already safely ensconced inside, but I did spot a lone celebrity or two signing things for the crowd.

Postscript - I later determined that the celebrities were the respectable Dame Kelly Holmes (gold medal olympist), and the less-so Samantha and Amanda Marchant (from Big Brother, ugh).

Anyway, the play was Avenue Q, an adult musical with a part-Muppet cast. It opened with an hilarious first half, but the remainder was unfortunately lacklustre. Still, the cast/puppeteers were terrific.