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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 2)

My plan was to rise very early and take a long solo walk around London’s West End before Shannon was up, and do the same the following morning. Jet lag and a very thick set of curtains foiled day one of this plan. I gaped at the time on my cell phone when I woke up in a dark room — 9:26!

We hustled down to the hotel restaurant, the delightfully-named Scoff & Banter, where they laid on an excellent full English breakfast that came with the price of the room and that, sadly, I was unable to take full advantage of. My digestive system has a tendency to shut down on vacations. I am almost never hungry for some reason. I nibbled a banger (insert your own joke here), a few strips of “streaky” bacon (i.e., typical American bacon, rather than the leaner, more ham-like British bacon), some toast and honey, and guzzled breakfast’s most important element for an intrepid traveler: coffee, here served in individual French presses. (We all know that whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” nonsense is propaganda peddled by those snake oil salesmen over at Kellogg’s.)

The hotel’s breakfast buffet mastered the concept of guacamole, but not the name:

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The British Museum is one of those places where everyone remarks that you never have enough time to see everything. “You need a whole day,” fellow tourists lament, but never themselves taking a whole day because there’s so much else to see and do in London. Well, we came to London ahead of the rest of the traveling party for the specific purpose of spending an entire day at the British Museum (plus going in for about ninety minutes the day before, working our way through the “Enlightenment” exhibition in the King’s Library.)

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Main entrance to the British Museum. Cam is representing the U.S. well in his Philadelphia 76ers shirt.

We walked across the spacious courtyard of the Museum and through its main entrance not longer after it opened at 10:00.

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British Museum, west wing

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British Museum, east wing

The location of the British Museum was originally that of Montagu House, a sprawling country estate typical of the English landed aristocracy, once considered the “grandest private residence constructed in London.” Built just outside the city to the specifications of the avaricious, unscrupulous 1st Duke of Montagu after an earlier home burned down in 1686, its south facade peered suspiciously over its wall at the new construction that pushed the boundaries of London ever closer. Its north face opened onto manicured gardens and rolling countryside.

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Montagu House, north side. (This would be the back of the current museum.)

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Montagu House, south side on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum started with Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), an Irish-born physician to the royals, naturalist, purported inventor of the original recipe for milk chocolate, and (luckily for us) obsessive collector. He was the thirteenth president, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, of the Royal Society (this will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry). Upon his death, he willed the 71,000 items in his collection to the people of Britain (in return for a substantial payment to his heirs). Sloane’s bequeathment included historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and a wide variety of books and manuscripts.

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Sir Hans Sloane

After its official creation by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum originally considered a location at Buckingham House, but it was deemed by the museum’s first trustees to be a trifle too costly. (The “house” was renamed a “palace” in the early 1800s, and now has a very different function.) They decided to go with Montagu House, happily offered for sale at a bargain price by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was horrified to discover that his inherited estate was being rapidly surrounded by the scourge of middle-class suburbs. (He had already moved out a few years prior, and the house was a run-down burden. Also, the 2nd Duke of Montagu was the son-in-law of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry.)

The British Museum, housed within the walls of Montagu House, opened free of charge to “all studious and curious persons” in 1759. The Dog & Duck pub across the muddy road that would become Great Russell Street changed its name to the Museum Tavern three years later (see previous entry.)

It wasn’t long before the drafty old mansion proved inadequate to the Museum’s needs. Plans for new construction were approved as early as 1802, but it would be a lengthy process. The last vestiges of the old Montagu House were swept away by 1845, as a gigantic, Greek Revival-style “quadrangle” building (as seen in the photos above) was erected over the course of decades. The Museum as we see it today was largely complete and functional by 1857, filled to the brim with dozens of exhibition rooms known in museum-speak as “galleries.”

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To make room for the collection that grows to this day, all the natural history stuff was removed to its own museum in 1881. (We taxied past the cathedral-like Natural History Museum out in South Kensington on our way into town the previous day.)

Upon entering the museum building, we were first confronted with the Great Hall, in the center of which is the domed Reading Room…which is no longer a reading room at all.

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The Great Hall and Reading Room

Back in the day, you had to make a special application to use the Reading Room and gain access to the Museum’s labyrinthine collection of books and manuscripts. In 1997, the Museum’s print material was moved to the new British Library building just up the road. After a three-year remodel, the Reading Room was opened to the general public as a short-lived, much-reduced “information centre.” From 2007 to 2013, it was used as a space for special Museum exhibitions. With the completion of a separate special exhibition space in 2013, the Reading Room went empty and dormant, and so it remains. No one seems to know what to do with it at this point.

Just off the Great Hall is the ground floor east wing known as the King’s Library, the oldest part of the currently-existing Museum building, completed in 1828. Now labeled less-romantically as “Room 1,” it was built to house the 60,000+ book collection of King George III, donated to the Museum after his death by his son, George IV. Over 40 feet high and 300 feet long, this hall was a repository for the late King’s books until all books were shipped out in ‘97. It now houses a permanent themed exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century,” detailing a time in the 1700s when “people — including the collectors who created the British Museum — used reason and first-hand observation of the world around them to understand it in new ways.” In essence, it chronicled the rise of the museum mentality — the mad scramble to collect interesting artifacts and put them under glass.

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Some of the items on display in the Enlightenment gallery include an ichthyosaur skull discovered by Mary Anning, the young girl who happened to be an expert paleontologist, case upon case of Greek red-figure pottery (more on that below), and a 17th-century medicine kit, containing various herbs and tinctures…and a few dried skinks.

Artifacts aside, I really just enjoyed being in the locale. The King’s Library was dim, quiet, mercifully cool (unlike the rest of the Museum’s galleries that day), with polished wood floors, busts on pedestals, old-fashioned glass-topped wooden display cases, and central columns of polished Aberdeen granite. It looked like the Platonic ideal of an “old-fashioned museum,” before they went all sleek and touch-screen. And there were still bookshelves lining the second-level walls to give the place a proper atmosphere, the books themselves on semi-permanent loan from the House of Commons library.

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The rest of the Museum was fairly crowded. I heard so many American accents it felt like I was back in the Smithsonian in D.C. There were at least seven different school groups touring the facility, including two or three “public school” (i.e., private school) groups in ties and blazers, calling each other by their last names in time-honored public school tradition. (“Hurry up, Jenkins!”)

The three of us then acquired our audio guide headphones and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch in the surprisingly good Museum pizzeria, and splitting up again to finish out the afternoon. No one should go through a museum at someone else’s pace.

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I was surprised at how relatively few artifacts in the British Museum had to do with Britain itself. (“Relatively few” meaning a mere half-dozen or so galleries.) It really was a reflection of how obsessed early antiquarians and collectors were with the “classical” civilizations of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The “Greeks in Italy” room was bigger than the entire medieval England section.

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A Roman mosaic from guess where? — Ephesus!

The entrance to the ground floor Egyptian galleries was dominated by the Rosetta Stone, acquired by the Museum in 1802. Arguably the most important archaeological find ever, the Rosetta Stone is a large slab of granodiorite (similar to granite) engraved with the same passage in three different languages — Greek, Demotic (letter-based Egyptian), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is noteworthy for providing the key to deciphering the formerly mysterious hieroglyphs, opening vast new vistas in the study of ancient Egypt. Written around 196 B.C. (the text was a political decree from Egyptian king Ptolemy V) and discovered by Napoleon’s troops in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (now known as Rasid) in 1799, the Stone was a part of a larger stele that had been broken up and used as foundation filler for a medieval-era fort. The British acquired it as a spoil of war after defeating Napoleon. They chalked in the inscription (like you would with D&D dice), and coated it with protective wax, giving it the appearance of black basalt. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 1)

Despite the exotic-sounding name, this was never intended to be a “travel blog.” As a general rule, I don’t travel. I am a mostly-sedentary creature of habit. I don’t like chairs that aren’t mine, beds that aren’t mine, being thousands of miles away from my creaking, over-stuffed bookcases, or not knowing when my next cold beer is coming.

Blogging is by its very nature a self-indulgent exercise, reaching its nadir with the toxic spoor of the internet known as the “mommy blog.” Mommy blogs seem to be less about documenting activities with their dull, backward children and more about “look what an awesome mommy I am.” Travel blogs can fall into the same narcissistic reflecting pool — endless photos of meals, sunsets, and feet-on-the-beach. But well-done ones can be edifying, informative, and amusing, three things no mommy blog in the history of the universe has ever got within shouting distance of.

For the brief period of time that the Holy Bee of Ephesus will be prancing around in a “travel blog” costume, I will try to be those things, but probably not all of them at once. And there probably will be a few pictures of meals. In fact, there’s one below.

The accompanying photos are mostly my own (which explains their poor quality), except in situations where photography was not allowed, or whenever time or circumstance precluded me from snapping some shots. In these situations, I will shamelessly swipe pictures from the web or resort to screenshots of Google Street View.

So, what prompted me to clamber out of my chair, stuff an oversized suitcase full of socks and various medicated creams, and dust off my never-once-used passport?

A British Airways aircraft taxis past ot

Because the destination was to be Great Britain.

Growing up steeped in the Beatles and Monty Python, and countless other bits of British cultural ephemera, a U.K. trip was a siren song not to be resisted. Plus they speak pretty good English over there (certain parts of Cumbria excepted), so making myself understood would be only a limited challenge.

And I would not be fending for myself. It was a trip for the extended family, and had been in the planning stages for years. Like myself, my wife, Shannon, has chosen a career in teaching, and therefore lives with me on the edge of pauperdom. Her parents and brother, however, entered the world of business, and through their ingenuity and hard work, have all been very successful. One of the ways they celebrate that success is seeing the world, often taking any black-sheep educators that happen to be related by blood or marriage along with them. Before my time with them, my wife and in-laws have tromped across Machu Picchu, the Alps, New Zealand, and various European cities. But, oddly enough, never London. Shannon went there for a few brief days after college in 2002 (as a small part of a larger European trip), but the British Isles have remained for the most part un-visited. And since Shannon’s family by nature are doers and planners, I could simply be hauled along like luggage and not have to concern myself with the nuts and bolts of organization, apart from taking part in an occasional vote about where to eat. (Most luggage doesn’t whine that it needs a beer, but whatever.)

The only downside was that my older son Cade, 20, was working an internship and could not join us. Shannon, myself, and my younger son Cameron, 18, were already on summer break, so we set off a few days ahead of the rest to get a feel for London and take our time at the massive British Museum.

Having never flown anything but coach, traveling in business class was an unexpected luxury. The seats in business class are sort of self-contained pods that can be reclined fully into sleeping positions. Each pod is twinned with another pod to the side. If your pod buddy isn’t a spouse or a friend, a privacy divider can be raised. When the dividers are down and the seats are upright, everyone’s head and shoulders are visible. A woman in a tube top nearby kept startling me out of the corner of my eye because it looked like she was taking a bath. Pillows were provided, along with a sealed package full of blankets (three different thicknesses), a sleeping mask, earplugs, and socks. Cold champagne and hot towels were distributed before take-off.

(The seats themselves weren’t much wider or plusher than standard airplane seats. The true gift of business class is leg room, so I wouldn’t repeat the gaffe of my most recent airline excursion the previous month. As an 8th-grade teacher, I was one of the chaperones on the annual graduation trip to Disneyland. Getting two dozen self-absorbed, half-awake 14-year-olds through security and onto an early morning flight was its usual nightmare, and I was literally the last person to board as they were closing the jetway door. It was a completely full Southwest flight with first-come, first-serve seating, so there was one single middle seat left available. I was so frazzled and out-of-sorts, I thought I could squeeze in front of the older lady in the aisle seat, as if I were at the movies or a basketball game. Her distressed squeals as I practically climbed into her lap brought me to my senses. As far as most embarrassing moments, it barely cracks the top 20.)

And since we were flying British Airways, all the flight attendants were wonderfully, authentically British. They were crisp, efficient, and referred to us all as “luv” and “darling.” The plane safety lecture was presented via a video featuring British celebrities only vaguely recognizable to American eyes, but warmly familiar to the Anglophile Holy Bee. “It’s Steve Coogan! It’s Jim Broadbent!” I kept saying exultantly to Shannon. Gillian Anderson used her English accent. She is evidently bidialectal.

The 747 jumbo jet hauled itself aloft out of San Francisco International Airport a little after 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The time difference meant we would arrive at London Heathrow Airport in the late morning of Thursday.

The dinner menu was a little vague in places. One course was simply listed as a “fillet of beef.” Trying to get any scrap of further information, Shannon asked the nearest flight attendant how it was prepared. “We heat it up, luv,” shrugged the attendant and moved on. Shannon wisely went for another dish, and I had the beef. It was indeed a totally non-descript brick of beef-like matter, wholly impervious to my attempts to cut it with the doll-sized knife and fork. It was at least flavorful, and the smoked salmon appetizer, with a healthy dose of horseradish cream and lemon juice, made me rethink my usual aversion to oily fish.

After dinner, washed down by a couple of Tribute Cornish pale ales, I attempted to sleep. It was twilight outside the plane’s window, and the tracking info on my little video screen indicated we were entering Canadian airspace at an altitude of 38,000 feet and a speed of 660 miles per hour. The cabin had gone dark, passengers vanishing as they put their seats into sleep mode. The glow of dozens of personal video screens was the only illumination. I tossed and turned as we streaked through the sky over Ontario and Quebec, but sleep would not come. Every time I would begin to drift off, a jolt of turbulence caused the aircraft to shudder. After two and a half hours, I gave up and fired up my Kindle, completing most of of Kerrang! writer Mick Wall’s Guns N’ Roses band biography Last of the Giants. Convinced it was the middle of the night, I cracked the window shade and was stunned to see bright North Atlantic sunlight. I snapped it shut before it disturbed anyone. We were just south of Iceland, and it was morning in Europe.

By the time the rest of the plane was stirring and breakfast was being served we were over the west coast of Ireland. According to my flight tracker, we flew directly over the Skellig Islands, the picturesque but incredibly windy location that served as Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi temple and hideaway of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.  

As we passed over the main part of Ireland, I noted that anyone who describes it as “green” is pretty spot-on.

As will be mentioned several times, Britain was in the grip of a heat wave at the time of our visit. The modest air conditioning of Heathrow Airport couldn’t keep up, and as we crawled through the line to have our passports checked, sweat began to pool in the small of my back. We finally were determined to be not of the terrorist type, picked up our luggage, and breezed through a totally unmanned customs zone. A huge room full of scales and stainless-steel inspection tables echoed emptily as we strode towards the airport exit.

We grabbed a cab (a mini-van, not one of the traditional “black cabs”) and headed towards London on the M4. The cabbie, I noted, was dressed in a floral Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. All clothing items I left at home so I wouldn’t appear out of place. (Except for flip-flops, which I don’t own. Any grown man who wears flip-flops more than fifty feet from a swimming pool or other body of water should be fined. Any grown man who wears flip-flops with jeans should be executed by firing squad.) I took in my first view of a foreign country as it whizzed by our cab window. Not too different from home — car dealerships, big box stores, diversions for construction. The main difference was the style of traffic signs and the age of most of the buildings. Any random, anonymous building by the side of the motorway in suburban London was likely old enough to be an historical monument with a guided tour if it were in California.

As we got closer to London itself, the cabbie engaged us and began pointing out items of interest — and railing testily against the new bicycle lanes which he believed had destroyed the previously smooth flow of London traffic. The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrod’s, the Ritz, and Piccadilly Circus all went by our cab’s windows as we alternately zipped insanely or crawled interminably through the districts of Knightsbridge and Mayfair towards our hotel. Being Americans, it wasn’t long before the cabbie asked us about Trump. We assured him that we thought Trump was a vile, bloated toad and a national embarrassment, and conversation continued amiably.

Just over an hour after leaving Heathrow, we arrived at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of London. Taking an hour to go sixteen miles was something that would take some getting used to, but I believe there is something positive in having quaint, narrow roads and a lack of eight-lane freeways. Continue reading

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