19 April 2009

Easter break in Cambridge

We hadn't organised anything for the Easter weekend, so we started out by having a day off, lounging around and watching television. In the afternoon we took a stroll around our neighbourhood, and went to have a look at nearby St Bride's Church. Rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, the 69m high tiered spire is said to have inspired the design of the modern wedding cake. It was also a popular church for the journalists at Fleet Street, and once housed England's first moveable type printing press. When we went inside to have a look, there was a congregation halfway through their Good Friday prayers, and we ended up joining to listen to the choir and organ music, which was very beautiful.

Later we had a look online for cheapo last minute holiday deals before deciding to visit Cambridge for the weekend, although the weather forecast wasn't very inspiring. The next day we caught a train up north (only about an hour) and had an orientation walk around the town. We were expecting something more isolated and preserved like Oxford, but the historical aspect of Cambridge is surrounded by a modern suburb not unlike London, which is a shame. Once you get into the area around the colleges, however, the views quickly improve. It is particularly striking along the "Backs", the river Cam that runs behind the colleges, where there are graceful bridges, large gardens planted with tulips and daffodils, and weeping willows hanging down to caress the punting tourists.

After being run out of Oxford by the townsfolk, a group of students established a new University in 1209, which has since grown into a network of 31 colleges, with a record number of Nobel laureates and famous residents like Sir Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Earnest Rutherford, and Crick and Watson.

We visited the Fitzwilliam Museum with its fine collection of art (Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Gainsborough, Constable, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Braques, C├ęzanne and Picasso, oh my!), and did a walking tour of the town and colleges. Highlights include the brilliant, and terrifying, Corpus Clock, topped by a time-eating grasshopper; the glorious stone ceiling at King's College Chapel; an apple tree grown from Sir Isaac Newton's famous gravity-inspiring apple incident; a statue of Henry VIII, where his sceptre has been replaced with a wooden table leg by student pranksters; and punting down the river.

Trinity College:
King's College Chapel:
River Cam:
A famous statue:

Thames beachcombing

The Thames beaches are irresistible to me - centuries of dredging the riverbed means that all the contents have been mixed together in the centre, while the tidal flows of the river wash them back out to the sides, depositing them within easy reach at low tide. Consequently, modern detritus lies alongside debris from Victorian, and even Roman, times.

Riverside renovators would simply tip their old bricks into the river. When ship-building for the Royal Navy made heavy roofing timbers rare to come by, Londoners would abandon their too-heavy clay roof tiles in the Thames in favour of lighter slate materials. A short poke around one of the beaches will usually yield clay stems from disposable Victorian tobacco pipes, endless pieces of patterned crockery, colourful glass and all manner of metals (including shopping trolleys).

Where's Anna?
Last weekend the sun was out, so we walked down to the Millennium Bridge, and I went beachcombing while Anna listened to her ipod. I collected a couple of pockets full of oriental printed porcelain, which I'd like to cut up and glue into some kind of new picture (assuming I ever find the time). Poor Anna, I'm a hoarder of odds-and-ends like my Dad! On a more useful note, I did find an excellent brick (stamped with the name "Broomhill") which has made an excellent doorstop...

18 April 2009

The Square Mile

The "City of London" is a geographically small city within Greater London, whose boundaries have remained almost constant since the Middle Ages. Due to size, it is also known as "The Square Mile", and is today the home of the United Kingdom's financial services industry. Over 340,000 employees descend during the day, but only some 10,000 people (including us!) live here. It is known as the richest square mile in the world (not including us!).

Leftover battlements from the recent G20 protests:

This area - that contained within the defensive perimeter wall built by the Roman in the 2nd century - is our new home, and has a fascinating and varied history. Sites of archaeological and historical importance sit forgotten beside towers of glass and steel - a fascinating mix! We try to go exploring each weekend, and keep discovering lots of interesting things. Here are some of our discoveries...

St Paul's Cathedral

Not exactly a well-kept secret, but we're still blown away by the fact this enormous Cathedral is our next-door neighbour. Oddly enough, it's somewhat buried behind a couple of city blocks, and it's hard to get a decent view of the thing, unless you stand in the middle of Ludgate Street. In any other city, those blocks would have been bulldozed to give this landmark the space it deserves - but this is London!

It's actually quite expensive to visit, so we haven't done the full tour yet. However, we did pop in one Sunday when it was free for a brief look around. And we bought a doorstop in the shape of a bull from the gift shop. Yes, that's totally random!

After the Great Fire destroyed Old St Paul's, it was rebuilt from a design by Christopher Wren, and was completed in 1708. It has 17 bells, including "Great Paul" (the largest bell in the British Isles, at 16½ tons). We hear these bells every quarter hour, and on Sunday mornings (especially during during sleep-in time), pealing for about 20 minutes at a time before and after every service. Oh dear. 

Smithfield Market

A centuries-old meat market, this used to be a broad grassy space known as Smooth Field, just outside the London Wall. Now the site of a beautiful Victorian covered market, painted in gaudy colours, its best days appear to be behind it, and its future uncertain. 

In a grotesque example of synchronicity, this slaughterhouse area was also the main site for the public execution of heretics and dissidents in London (and also where currency forgers were boiled in oil). Famous dead include Wat Tyler (leader of the Peasants' Revolt) and Scotsman William Wallace.

The Great Fire of London

In 1666, a fire broke out at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane and swept quickly through the city due to bungled handling by the Mayor. Eventually halted by a fire break from large-scale demolitions, the fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall, rendering 70,000 homeless, and consuming 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities.

"The Monument", a 61m high tower (311 steps, but who was counting - phew!) designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, and topped by a golden orb, was erected near Pudding Lane. 

In 1668 accusations against the Catholics were added to the Monument:
Here by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city.....the most dreadful Burning of this City; begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction...Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched...
The fire lead to rampant racism, and mobs ran wild in the streets killing anyone with a foreign accent. The inscription was since removed, and was formally recognised that the "Papists" had nothing to do with the fire. Another abortive theory, though of a more amusing nature, was that the fire was God's punishment against the gluttony of Londoners. Afterall, the fire began in a bakery, on Pudding Lane, and was stopped at Pye Corner. There is a statue of a chubby boy here, with an admonition against over-eating.

Interestingly, the fire put an end to the Great Plague epidemic of 1665, by destroying so much unsanitary housing. Given the minuscule death toll (only 6 confirmed), the fire was probably one of the luckiest things to happen to England!

The Temple of Mithras

The "London Mithraeum" is a 3rd century Roman temple dedicated to Mithras - a deity popular among Roman soldiers. It was discovered during rebuilding work in 1954, and in the ruins were found fine Italian marble statues, coarser locally-made clay figurines, and other artefacts. The temple originally stood on the east bank of the now covered-over river Walbrook, but the whole site has since been moved down the road to Queen Victoria Street. The remains of the temple foundations have been reassembled for public display - apparently so that the public can either (i) ignore the ruins completely, or (ii) throw their rubbish all over it.

The London Stone

Possibly the most important artefact in London, this stone was the marker from which the Romans measured all distances in Britannia. Mythically, it is said to be from an altar built by Brutus of Troy, or perhaps the stone from which Arthur drew Excalibur, but in history it has been recognised as the symbolic authority and heart of the City of London. Instead of holding pride of place in the British Museum, the stone is woefully set into a wall on Cannon Street where it is choked by car fumes and resolutely ignored by people heading to and from work. The building is now due to be demolished. Maybe they'll just toss it into the Thames next?

The Barbican Estate

Built after WWII to repair the damage of the war and provide housing, this is a vast labyrinth residential estate, with 13 terrace blocks, a lake, the Barbican Centre (an arts, drama and business venue), public library, schools, and the Museum of London. Originally hugely unpopular, due to its concrete Brutalist architecture, it is now a sought after place to live, and a Grade II protected site.

We really enjoyed walking around the Babylonian ruins, connected by elevated pedestrian networks and cul de sacs, before popping into the museum to view the exhibition on the Great Fire.

March round-up

Balcony view from our new home:

Anna and I have both been super busy with our jobs, and settling into our new digs. There's an unbelievable amount of admin involved in moving flat in the UK, and the service providers here seem to think it's their job to make things more difficult where they can. So, having stayed home one day to donate extra furniture to charity, arranged movers, cleaners, and a time for the inventory check, then transferring power, water and council tax accounts, then setting up a new phone line for our internet provider, then being told our internet provider can't provide a connection to the new flat, then suing the internet provider for the cost of installing a now-useless phone line, to making sure we get our security deposit back from the old flat, plus securing a refund of over-paid council tax, plus returning the internet service providers modem, and doing the inventory check in the new flat - phew!

I made this process more fun by booking several events at the BFI on the day of our move, but they had a special "Blade Runner" day that I wasn't going to miss for the world. Ended up seeing a panel discussion with the producer Michael Deeley, a screening of the Final Cut with Rutger Hauer in discussion, and a special interview with (hold the press!) Sir Ridley Scott himself, at which he was presented with a BFI fellowship. Amazing to be there for such an historical event. Even more amazing to realise that Sir Ben Kingsley was sitting in our row in the theatre!

So what else did we get up to in March? I had a couple of social events at Yahoo!, a night of cocktails and pool with one of our law firms (and saw a nearby building burning down), and a karaoke binge to farewell a colleague. That was a lot of fun. I sand a few duets, "Summer Lovin" (under duress), "Moonlight Shadow" and "Head Like a Hole" - plus a rousing solo rendition of "Killing in the Name Of" by Rage Against the Machine. Hell yeah. I also caught up for drinks with a few of the old gang from Sohonet.

We bid adieu to Wes and Mon, who are back to Australia, though hopefully not for long. 

I went for a trip to Croydon to visit Andy, Megs and Ollie. We all went to the old Croydon Airport, now represented by a single art deco terminal building. As I keep discovering, history always runs just under the surface in London. This unassuming little spot, in an unassuming suburb, was actually the site of the world's first international airport, London's original main airport, and the first airport to introduce air traffic control. During the First World War it was used as a base to stave off Zeppelin raids, it was the home of British Airways during the 30s, and a fighter station during the Battle of Britain.

All in all very interesting, in a pokey sort of way. The place was pretty empty, and run by a staff of retirees, and only opens one Sunday a month! Ollie was very well behaved, though he did keep throwing Andy's sandwiches on the floor. We capped the day off with a couple of pints in the Casablanca-style diner out the back.

Finally I've kept the momentum up on my film projects. Spent an evening in the rain filming Dan Kitchener doing freehand graffiti on Portobello Road, and working with a sterling VFX artist on the grading and other spot effects for my spy film.