Monday, May 22, 2017

In Bloom

After a rainy start to the program, we have lucked into some fabulous weather this week, with sunny skies and highs in the mid-high 70s. This was perfect for our visit to Kew Gardens, London's largest UNESCO World Heritage site, located about 30 minutes from central London.

The area where Kew Gardens was established began as royal residences around 1299, but the origins of the gardens began in the mid 1700s. The Dutch House, now known as Kew Palace, was purchased by King George III in 1781 for his children. The gardens became national botanical gardens in 1840 and the Victorians enjoyed it as a retreat, enjoying the wide variety of plants gathered from across the world.

Nowadays, the gardens have a staff of around 600, primarily researchers and scientists. It is an global resource for plant and fungi knowledge, and the gardens house over 30,000 different types of living plants.

Since the students on this program are in science fields (pre-med, forensics, etc.) our guided tour related to plants with medicinal uses. Even with 1.5 hours with our guide, we had only seen a small part of the some 300 acres, so we gave the students lots of free time to explore on their own. I spent a good 4 hours there and could have easily spent more. There is so much variety and the weather was so lovely that I wanted to just lie down in the grass the entire afternoon.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday, Sunday here again

This morning we picked up the students for a walking tour of Hampstead.

Hampstead is a little northwest of my neighborhood, in a very posh area of the city. It has the highest concentration of millionaires in all of London and is known for Hampstead Heath, a large public park.

Our first stop was St. John-at-Hampstead church, whose first reference was in 1312, but the medieval building was replaced in 1745-7 with the building you see above. The churchyard is the oldest to survive unspoilt in the center of London and several famous people are buried here including painted John Constable, scientist John Harrison - inventor of the marine chronometer, and Peter Llewelyn Davies - who was the child who inspired J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan.

The majority of the tour consisted of stopping at houses where famous artists, writers, and scientists had one resided.

Here we are at the house of Robert Louis Stevenson

Admiral House, where the resident used to fire a canon from the top, which inspired local writer resident PL Travers in his novel Mary Poppins. Architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who designed Kings Cross/St Pancras Station lived in this house and next door lived writer John Galsworthy, author of the Forsyte Saga. 

In this house lived artist George Romney, whose muse Emma Nelson - known as Lady Hamilton - became mistress to Admiral Lord Nelson (who I mentioned in a previous post as having the column at Trafalgar Square devoted to him). 

A certain American politician, who ran for president in 2012, has traced his lineage back to George Romney. Know who it is? *ahem*

After the walking tour, my colleague and I tried to find a pub for a Sunday roast, but everywhere in the area was super crowded, so we parted ways. I headed south to try to find some food on my own, as well as pick up a few things.
I forgot how early the sun comes up here in the summertime and have been running on very little sleep due my room being full of light by 5am. Since there is no air conditioning here, I cannot keep my blinds down because it prevents air circulation and if I am at all warm when sleeping I have terrible dreams. So, I think this might be my best purchase of the month. Fingers crossed I can have a full night's sleep tonight. 

To make up for my lack of sleep at night, I had a nice, 2 hour nap this afternoon. If there have been any typos in this blog so far, I blame my lack of sleep! 

But, I want to make the most of my time here, so I forced myself out again this evening. 

A five minute walk from my house is a set of stairs in the middle of a street leading underground the cocktail bar Ladies and Gents. 
Seeing the sign you might think it leads to a public restroom and, in the past, you would have been right! The bar is housed in former underground toilets and now serves craft cocktails.

Out of the Woods cocktail
 The bartenders were friendly and it was a relaxed spot to have a drink just a short walk from home, so I'll definitely be back! 

I also took a short walk north to explore more of the neighborhood and encountered this Kentish Camel 
You never know what you'll stumble upon!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Unexpected reunions

Today was set aside for meeting up with my friend Sean, one of the first friends I made upon my move to Wales for university. We met during my freshman orientation week when I was trying to locate the information session about the student radio station, which he was also heading to. We bonded over indie rock and the last time I saw him was when he came to Austin about 5 years ago on a break from working at a marine station in Belize. Although I work with and associate with many international travelers, I think he has lived in some of the most interesting locations of anyone I know and I respect the heck out of him and his wife for taking on international challenges to work in marine conservation. Luckily for me, he is now back in the U.K and had time in his schedule to come into London for the afternoon.

When he asked what I wanted to do while here, I told him "eat all the foods!" so when we saw that there was a Sicily Fest at Spitalfields Market, we agreed to check it out.
 For lunch we had arancini balls, and they were the largest ones I had ever seen. Mine was filled with spinach and cheese.

For dessert we had sfinci, which are fried dough. Ours were tossed in cinnamon sugar, then drizzled with pistachio syrup and topped with raw pistachio.

Thanks to the magic of Instagram, we saw that mutual friends Andrew and Victoria were in London today to visit a David Hockney exhibit at the Tate Britain. Sean and I meandered from Spitalfields to the Southbank, getting caught in a very cold rainstorm at one point. By Millenium Bridge, some blue sky made an appearance again and from the bridge you can see a number of famous landmarks.
Tate Modern
St. Paul's Cathedral
The Shard

We headed into the Tate Modern, another wonderful free museum and spent an hour looking around a section of it. I'm a sucker for surrealism and am happy any time I get to see some DalĂ­'s. One of my favorite rooms from what we saw today was the "A View from Zagreb: Op and Kinetic Art" which features optical illusions.

From there we walked along the Thames to the Tate Britain, about 2 miles away. We quickly found Andrew and Victoria, actually bumping into them in line for the toilets before even texting them that we had arrived.

For any of you who have glanced at my links to She and Hem in previous references to them on this blog, you will see that Andrew and Victoria are new parents to lovely little Ada, who I promptly picked up for some baby cuddles. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about her in 2 weeks when I head to Bristol to spend time with the three of them, but it was a lovely surprise to see them this afternoon. 
I accompanied them to the train station at Paddington, and we had to change at Baker Street which made the perfect opportunity to photograph the walls of the station that honor Sherlock Holmes.

Food for thought

On Friday morning we met the students at their housing and walked them to the British Museum. Since we have a large group, we had hired two guides and my group had the same guide who led us around Westminster on Wednesday. I wore my map dress and he asked if I have a dress for every possible occasion and I said pretty much.
"Kitchen vegetables?" he asked.
"Yes, a skirt with London and a skirt with Paris"
"Oh I give up!"

The British Museum was established in 1753 when physician Hans Sloane bequeathed his 71,000 object collection to King George II, for the nation of Britain, for the sum of £20,000. Its creation is important in that it was the first museum to be owned by the nation, not a king or the church, and with the aim of collecting everything. Some of the collections grew so large that they are now their own museums, such as the National Library and the National History Museum.

The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court
We only had two hours, which is barely enough to scratch the surface of all there is to see in the museum. First we saw the Rosetta Stone, but I didn't try to crowd around it for a picture because there were way too many people.

To its left of the Rosetta Stone is the statue of Ramesses II, which was acquired by the museum in 1817 and inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley (husband of Mary Shelley, writer of Frankenstein) to write his famous poem Ozymandias, which is a Greek interpretation of a name for Ramsesses II. 
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

All of the Egyptian art is very interesting and there is a large collection of mummies, including these mummified cats.
Reconstruction of the Nereid Monument
 The Museum has one of the world's largest collections of items from Greek and Roman history, including many pieces from the Parthenon, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world), and the Temple of Athena Nike. 

The British Museum has had to deal with a lot of controversy regarding many of these pieces because some people feel that the items should be returned to the countries where they came from. But, the Museum's stance is that they are trustees and these items that were given to their care and were done so before national or global laws were in force prohibiting the sale of artifacts. In some ways, keeping them in a stable country like the U.K. is for their own safety, as the museum holds many priceless pieces from countries like Syria, Iraq, etc. where we have seen the recent destruction of history by ISIS and other forces. 

One of the more interesting British history pieces is the Lindow Man. Yes, that is a real body, found in 1984 in a peat bog at Lindow Moss. He died sometime between 2 BC and 119 AD and the body shows signs of a violent death, but some factors make scientists believe it is possible he was killed for in a ritualistic sacrifice. 

After the Museum, we took the students on the Tube to have lunch at Borough Market. 
The market is one of the oldest and largest food markets in London and was first referenced in 1276, although the market claims it dates back to at least 1014.

It is a great place to find a variety of high quality, specialty foods all in one place.
Samples? Don't mind if I do!!

 My first purchase was some fresh gnocchi and pesto from La Tua Pasta, which were light, fluffy, and delicious.
 My colleague and I then walked to Gelatoria 3Bis across the street for dessert.
This is a waffle cone with hardened chocolate lining the inside, a scoop of salted caramel, a scoop of stracciatella, and espresso poured over it.

I decided I needed something healthy to go along with it and went back into the market for a juice, full of wheatgrass, apple and lemon.

Next we took the students back to our office so they could have class time next door.

In the evening, I met up with a colleague from Salamanca, who happened to be in town with some of her students. A U.K. colleague recommended Spaghetti House, a local, family-owned chain. Since I did not have any work commitments today, I opted for the "free flowing prosecco menu" which had 3 courses and unlimited prosecco (although they didn't come around very often for refills, probably for the best). 

I had a wonderful time catching up and hope that one day I can make it to Salamanca myself. 


Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Day of Ancient History

As a program leader, it is my job to be the first to arrive and last to leave. With a 7am meeting time this morning, that meant a 5:30am alarm for me. But, I forget how early the sun comes up here in the summer time. It is a love-hate relationship for me, because I love the long days but when the sun rises early, your room begins to heat up and I get very vivid, often nightmarish dreams when my room is warm. This morning I had an uncomfortable dream which startled me awake and I saw that it was light outside, so I bolted upright thinking I had slept through my alarm. I grabbed my phone and saw that it was... 4:30am. Oops. There was no going to sleep after that, but some friends in Austin were awake so I was able to chat a bit on Whatsapp before getting up for the day.

While we waited for our hired bus to arrive, a frantic jogger approached my colleague and I asking if we could help him call the police because he had just had his phone ripped from his hands by the passenger on a motorbike. I hesitated for a moment, debating whether to try to have him go inside our housing agent's office on the street to use their phone, since this itself can be a common tactic to steal phones. But, he seemed earnest and desperate, so I pulled out my phone and told him that if he tried to run off with mine I would be chasing him down. My colleague later said she never would have let a stranger borrow her phone like that, but I figured helping someone was more important to me than material property and I would hope someone would do the same for me. Things can be replaced and, well, if he had run off I would have had 35 people around me as witnesses. As he gave the police his FindMyiPhone details, our coach arrived. He apologized profusely and handed mine back so I could board, then went to wait for the police on the corner. I hope they were able to recover it for him. :-(

When I boarded the bus, we used that situation to reinforce to students that the information we gave them during the health and safety orientation was not just fear-mongering, but theft and pick-pocketing is a real concern in the city.

On board the coach, our students learned why much fewer people drive in the UK than in America, as we sat in traffic for over an hour delay. Once we made it to Bath, we hurried off the coach to make sure we wouldn't lose our reservation at the Roman Baths.

Bath, known as Aquae Sulis in Roman times, is the home of the only hot spring in the U.K. The Romans built baths and a temple there and archaeologists have discovered many interesting items such as thousands of Roman coins and messages scratched onto metal, called curse tablets because people would write curses against others who had wronged them, to be read to the goddess Sulis Minerva. The hot spring water still bubbles up today and the ruins are the best preserved in northern Europe.

The water in the main bath pool is not something you would want to touch nowadays, but at the end of the exhibit they have a fountain with water from the spring that has been treated. It comes out warm and while you can drink it, it was not pleasant.

We had some free time for lunch, so I headed over to the Southgate shopping center - just a few minutes walking distance away. In 2016 they suspended a few hundred umbrellas in the air and it was so popular that they decided to bring them back this month and triple the amount.
 This year they have also added artificial turf and decorative trees to line some of the streets.

In Southgate I ate at Cosy Club, on the suggestion of my friend Victoria - one half of the fabulous blogging duo She and Hem. Not only is their dining room incredibly charming, with a huge blue wooden bar, but they also have a lovely balcony that you can opt for when the weather is nice.

I went with the 3 tapas plate, choosing patatas bravas, spinach & goat's cheese croquettes, and avocado, tomato, & chili with ciabatta. Very delicious and very filling.
I loved the decor and little touches on things, such as this envelope used to bring your bill.
I also picked up some truffles from Hotel Chocolat that were reduced in price since they need to be eaten soon. And I've been snacking on them while typing up these posts. Delicious!

Since I will likely be back in a few weeks, I didn't want to try to cram too much else into the 40 minutes I had left, so I just meandered around the city, taking in the sunny weather.

Ghost sign and false window

From Bath we headed to Stonehenge and lost the sun along the way. I had been to Bath before, but this was my first time at Stonehenge, since you cannot take a train there and trains were my primary way of traveling back when I lived in the U.K. as a student.

 Most of you are likely familiar with this view of Stonehenge. Below is the Heel Stone, which sits across from the main circle and remains in its natural state, rather than being carved like the others. We do not know exactly its reasons, but if you stand in the circle on the summer solstice, the sun will rise in the approximate direction of it and thousands of people gather here each year to witness it.

I had heard from many people that Stonehenge was underwhelming and smaller than you think it would be, but I found it fascinating. These rocks were placed here 4,500 years ago by people we do not know much about at all. They were obviously advanced to bring these massive rocks from miles away, with the bluestones (smaller stones inside the circle) coming from 120 miles way in Wales, yet we do not know exactly why these were so important to them. There are burial sites all around the site and we know that the rock placements align with astrological events, but so much of the
monument is still a mystery.