Friday, April 21, 2006

Madame Tussaud's, Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge, and Roman Bath

Monday, April 10, 2006: I can't remember where I left off so I'll start with Wednesday. Wednesday we had passes to Madame Tussaud's wax museum. As expected the wax figures were the best I have ever seen. Of course the Tom Cruise was one of the most popular (for me and my sister too!) although I think the most handsome was Colin Ferrel with his natural black hair rather than the streaky bleached hair he had for "Alexander". Mel Gibson's eyes were a very brilliant blue and my sister couldn't resist cuddling up to John Travolta. Their Indiana Jones figure looked much more like Harrison Ford than the sculpture of him in Tussaud's Las Vegas venue. As for the women, Julie Roberts and Angelina Jolie were big hits. I wish they would have had Clive Owens and Gerard Butler but maybe they're still in production!

In the world showcase, I was surprised that the most popular figures tourists were posing with were Adolph Hitler and Fidel Castro!!?? I preferred Admiral Lord Nelson myself! I had hoped to photograph Henry the VIII and Elizabeth but they had been removed temporarily to make room for a photo setup with Queen Elizabeth, Phillip and Prince Charles. The Pope John Paul II figure was very elaborate and a lot of rather silver-haired and somewhat wrinkled women (does that describe me?) were posing with the Beatles.

After leaving Madame Tussaud's we caught the train back to Westminster to tour Westminster Abbey. I was thrilled when we exited the underground and I looked up to see the famous statue of Boudicca, the warrior queen of the Iceni tribe who rebelled against the Romans in 62 CE. Prior to this time, the Iceni had coexisted with the Romans and Boudicca's husband Prasutagus was a client King. However, when Prasutagus died, the Roman governor of the region decided to seize her land and had Boudicca flogged and her daughters raped as a lesson in power. He discovered he had made a major mistake. She and her followers succeeded in burning down Camulodunum (modern day Colchester), Londonium, and Verulamium (the Roman site I will visit Saturday at St. Alban's).

We pressed on to Westminster Abbey. It was so huge and filled with so many memorials that it took us the rest of the day. I was particularly interested in the tomb effigy of Elizabeth I. The face was sculpted from her actual death mask. I was also surprised to learn that her sister Mary (daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon) is interred with her, and is engraved with a very loving inscription written by Elizabeth. I found all the fashions represented in the funeral effigies fascinating since they depicted styles from the time of Edward I up to the 19th century. Westminster does need to raise funds to clean many of the memorials that are darkly discolored from the prolonged exposure to candle smoke and the pollution of the industrial revolution.

Thursday, we went on a guided tour to Stonehenge, Roman Bath and Windsor Castle. Even though people have said Stonehenge is just a bunch of rocks, I still found it impressive. Of course I was fascinated by Roman Bath and spent my entire time there walking around the complex. I even crawled down and swished my hand in the water to see how hot it is (not too - just comfortable for bathing). Later my sister said there was a sign that said you weren't supposed to do that but I didn't see it! (She had gone shopping with a lady she befriended on the tour). I also went into the Pump Room and paid 50 pence for a full glass of the healing waters. I don't like drinking hot water but I figured I needed all the help I could get. At least it wasn't as nasty as the Lithia water down in Ashland.

We accidentally waited for the tour bus on the wrong side of the Abbey where it let us off and the driver didn't see us so we almost got left. Jane's friend called the office and they had the bus come back for us. Unfortunately it made us late for Windsor Castle and it was nip and tuck whether we would get there before they closed admissions for the day. We made it with only 5 minutes to spare. We raced (or should I say hobbled!) over to St. George's chapel (that section of the complex closed first) and I thought the high altar there was more beautiful than the one at Westminster Abbey. Then we headed over toward the state apartments and saw Queen Mary's doll house (Jane loved that) and the 20 lavishly furnished rooms that make up the public rooms of the palace. I was totally enthralled with the exquisitely detailed wall-length tapestries. I was surprised that the colors were so brilliant but I guess many of them are replacements that were obtained after the catastrophic fire a few years ago.

Friday, we thought we were going to have a relaxing day over at the Tower of London - famous last words! All of the stairs almost finished us both! I did enjoy looking at the crown jewels and all the sets of armor though. There were several sets of King Henry VIII's armor - both battle dress and jousting armor. I blushed, though, when I saw the suit of armor that was designed to fit a Henry VIII if he took a walloping dose of Viagra!

I was also dumbfounded by the size of a jousting lance. Although it was designed with flutes to ensure it would splinter when thrust solidly against another knight's armor and weighed only twenty pounds, I think I would chicken out if I saw someone riding towards me wielding that thing!

There were historical reenactors presenting little vignettes that I photographed and, I found way too many goodies at their gift shop! Jane says she isn't taking me to any more shops featuring "knight" goodies.

Saturday, Jane went back to Portobello Road for more antique shopping so I caught a train to St. Albans and had a very interesting visit to the new Roman Museum at Verulamium. I was particularly excited to see a set of hipposandals and the remains of a real section of lorica segmentata.

I admired the beautiful designs on the red Samian ware on display and was intrigued to learn that the delicate vines and leaves were added to the ware by a bag and nozzle apparatus similar to the ones used by modern day cake decorators. I also liked the ram-headed handles used with the patera displayed there. (Patera are dippers used during ritual proceedings.)

I was also glad to see an early Roman helmet and a funeral pyre-blackened set of chain mail. Of course I love mosaics and there are several spectacular mosaics completely intact discovered at Verulamium including a sea god (a horned Neptune?), a lion dragging a stag, and a number of mosaics featuring floral motifs that are apparently the most numerous patterns found in Roman Britain. I found an excellent book on Mosaics of Roman Britain in the gift shop. I also bought a small replica of the Venus of Verulamium for my office.

I didn't realize that a decorated lead coffin I had seen on a program on PBS is housed at the Verulamium museum along with a sculpture of the reconstructed bust of its inhabitant so seeing it in person was a special treat.

I walked down the street and explored the remains of the Roman theater. I'm afraid the Normans did a really thorough job of reusing Roman building stone so there is little remaining but it was still interesting to see.

At 2:30 p.m., two members of Legio XIII Gemina delivered a lively presentation in full Roman kit. I was a little surprised that the officer said the groin protector was primarily used to hold the legionary's tunic down in windy conditions. (?) He also did a thorough job of explaining the construction and functional attributes of a pilum. I knew the iron shaft would bend on impact but he pointed out that the pyramidal shape on the haft immediately behind the iron portion also served to overbalance the remaining wooden shaft so it could not be flipped around and its pointed end used as a javelin by the enemy. Of course he adeptly demonstrated thrusting techniques with the gladius and various uses of the scutum as a weapon as well as a shield, using the boss and the edges. He also pointed out that the scutum was laminated so it was about four times as strong as a Celtic shield. He was very informative and obviously very enthusiastic about the Roman army and Roman civilization. It is the first time I have ever seen a serious Roman reenactor and it was thrilling!

Today, we celebrated Palm Sunday by attending services in St. Paul's cathedral. St. Paul's is extremely beautiful with walls adorned with sparkling mosaics. When you are there for church there is no sightseeing allowed so we didn't go down into the crypt but I did see the Duke of Wellington's monument in the main transcept of the church. My favorite admiral, Lord Nelson is interred there as well. Afterwards, we participated in a procession with palm frond crosses led by two tiny donkeys that had been commandeered for the celebration. Attending a service in a cathedral gives you an opportunity to listen to the massive organs and the choir. The service was "high church" so it is a very nonparticipative form of worship. The audience sits quietly and simply sits and stands on command while the choir sings all the responsive readings. The only point in the service where the audience were expected to say anything was the during the declaration of the Nicene Creed. We were talking to some ladies from Canada and one of them said she could see why the populace became disenchanted with this form of worship.

Afterwards we took the train back to Westminster and crossed the bridge and went up in the London Eye. Even high up in the Eye, London stretches out before you in every direction. Well, I better sign off. It's time for a sandwich and early bedtime since we have to get up at 5 a.m. to catch a train to York tomorrow.

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