Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hampton Court Palace

It was a scorcher of a weekend, so I decided not to do a bike trip. Instead, I went to Hampton Court Place in south London.

Hampton Court Palace was originally built by Henry VIII's chief strategist Cardinal Wolsey, but after his fall from grace he was compelled to gift it to Henry. It was later the palace of William and Mary and several of the Georges, so there are a number of appartments from different ages you can visit.

The Cartoon Gallery was designed by Christopher Wren for Willam and Mary. It originally contained Rapheal cartoons, but Victoria gave them to the V&A museum, so they now contain 17th century copies.

Cartoon Gallery

This was Henry VIII's hall. All of his 6 wives visited HCP, and he married one of them here (Catherine Parr, I think).

One of the ornate ceilings in the Georgian section:

History lesson time: Normally, a monarch's spouse is only the consort - they cannot rule. Prince Phillip, for example is only "prince" consort. He is not the King. But, uniquely, William III and Mary II were joint rulers. They were protestants brought over to replace the catholic James II, who legged it after the near bloodless Glorious Revolution. Obviously, this meant William had numerous enemies (sore losers), so the King's Guard Room had 3000 weapons arranged on the walls.

A couple of the stain glass windows:

...and a couple of the old windows:

So there you go: Not a bad day out, but pretty expensive (14 pounds to get in). My biggest complaint is that you get a free information headset to listen to, but few of the rooms have a number in them, so you don't actually get a lot of opportunity to listen to it. Still, Hampton is a lot more impressive than the Kew Palace that I saw a couple of weeks ago.

As I walked across London, I stopped at the St Pancras Church on Euston Rd, not too far from King's Cross. It has caryatid columns, which I don't have to tell you are Greek sculpted female figures that form a structural support. The caryatids at St Pancras are based on those at the Erechtheum, on the Acropolis. This interested me, because 2 weekends ago I went to a little-known museum in Cambridge called the Museum of Classical Archeology. This is one of the only museums left that still has Victorian plaster casts of classical sculptures. It's just closing for a year of renovations (that's an English year of renovations, which equates to 3 or 4 years by any other measure). But it's a rip snorter of a visit. It has a plaster cast of one of the original Erechtheum caryatids.

The British Museum also has one of the original Erechtheum carytids, because when were the Brits ever satisfied with just making a copy of something priceless and then buggering off?

Anyway, these St Pancras ones were apparently built a little tall, so they had to be cut down at the waist.

In another hark back to a previous post, I wanted to show you something. Do you remember that I really want to see a Banksy stencil? I haven't found one in the wild in London, but there's this on the wall of a video shop I pass on the way to the rail station in Cambridge:

The red TV is the logo of the video shop. The original Banksy would've had the little girl losing a balloon. So, either this is an actual Banksy that has been modified by the shop to its own end, or they created a fake Banksy on their wall. I like to think that I've seen a real Banksy - and not that far from my flat.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Bit Grim, a Bit Grave

It was another bank holiday, so you know the drill - I was on the bike touring. This time I decided to avoid the Sustrans offroad routes that were such a pain last time, and developed my own on-road route. For the most part, it went really well. I headed north-east from Cambridge to a campground in a speck of a town called West Row, slightly above Mildenhall. That worked out at about 45km, and was a nice cruisy ride. The next morning I was up and on my bike just after 8am. I left my belongings in the tent, and headed further north-east through the town of Brandon to Thetford Forest. It was a scorcher: I could see the heat radiating off the road quite early in the day.

In Thetford Forest there is a large field dotted with depressions called Grime's Graves. "Grime" from "Grim" (the Anglo-Saxon name for the god Woden), and "grave" meaning a quarry or hole. So according to the guidebook, the Anglo-Saxons had some idea of the purpose of the holes, but this was lost in later times when it was thought to be the location of a Viking camp or fortifications.

Do you remember my post about Norwich? The common stone on the buildings out on the East Anglian coast is flint, and that's why these holes came into existence: They are neolithic flint mines. The Grime's Graves site is a chalk-covered hill, with the flint up to 9 meters down beneath the chalk. The pits were dug from 3000-2000BC. There are currently 433 known holes, although there may be others that have not yet been discovered. Flint is a hard stone that creates sharp edges when it breaks, so it is excellent for tools.

How did the neolithic people know to dig down for 9m to get to the flint? Beats me. I guess when you don't have TV, digging really deep holes is the sort of thing you do in between bedding Ayla.

There are other flint mines around England, but this is the only one you can actually climb down into. They made me wear a hardhat, which is the sort of nannying that really annoys me, but then I smacked my head on the ceiling of a cave I was crawling through, so I guess that was a pretty good precaution after all.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Grime's Graves. It was a fair slog to get there, and there isn't actually much to see. It's mostly just a big field with dips in it (see below). In NZ it would be pretty special, but in England there is so much palpable history that this comes across as a bit lacking. Also, I had to bike along a road called the A134, which turned out to be a little busy. The speeding cars helpfully honked, just in case I had forgotten I was a guy on a bike.

Speaking of average tourist sites, I took a 20 meter detour in Burwell to check out the former castle. Totally not worth it. If a clump of weeds in a paddock somehow counts as a castle, then Dad, I think we may've had a castle behind the garage.

The second day ride was over 100km - I'm still not judging the distances well.

Apologies for the cellphone photos:

A lot of the houses in the area had sections of flint on their facades:
House with Flint Features

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bergamo, Italy

I flew to Bergamo in the north of Italy, where I met up with my parents. My intention to save the planet by refraining from flying around Europe got biffed when my mummy and daddy were nearby. Pilot, use the afterburner. I've got some people to hug.

Here's some Bergamo:
Looking out over the Town

Bergamo from the Tower

Bergamo is quite large - I think it's a university town - but it has an old walled part on a hill. It's very nice: cobbled streets, cafes, the stuff that Italy does very well. It reminded me of Perugia, although there's probably a thousand other towns like that in Italy.

The top site in Bergamo is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The outside is interesting enough, but the inside is knock-your-socks-off stunning. Everywhere you look is an explosion of Baroque colour. These dudes don't go in for that "less is more" austere piety thing. If they can find a surface, they'll slap a frescoe or painting on it. I like to think that when the artist finished, he looked up and said "Oh shit, I think I forgot to include God".

Scattered around that square are several other churches, including the incensey Duomo:

There's also a long line on the ground that forms part of an old sun dial. As the sun moves across, it shines through a disk with a hole in it that is suspended from an arch above. The pinpoint of light appears on the line on the ground. It's like that staff in Raiders of the Lost Ark, only instead of finding the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant you get to find out what day it is.

If you look closely, you can see the disk at the peak of the arch, and the white line on the ground. BELOCH!

I should mention at this point that on my previous trip to Italy, I set a record of 13 scoops of gelato in a single day. It was my goal on this trip to top that. And I wanted to have one really flash pasta meal. After this and the Stockholm shrimp-binge, perhaps this blog should be called "This Kiwi is Pies", or alternatively, "This Pig can Fly". The meals we had weren't bad. I had a nice wild rabbit with chili on pasta. But none of them were the greatness I was looking for.

So that's our day in Bergamo: recommended for a visit.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

'Holm Sweet 'Holm

(I'm posting 2 at once here, so scroll down for the first one. Or don't - it doesn't much matter).

The conference over, I had Saturday and most of Sunday to explore. One of the people I work with insisted that I buy a Stockholm card, which gives free entrance to heaps of museums and free transport. I chose not to, because it was really nice weather and the central islands are easy to walk around. There are a lot of museums, but some of them sound a bit second-rate. I went to 3: the Historiska, the Royal Armouries, and the Vasa. All three were great.

The Historiska is not big, but it has a good Viking section. They have a room full of treasure called the Goldrummet (containing 50kg of gold artifacts). One of the treasure hoards was found when a boulder was dynamited, sending the silverware that was hidden inside flying in all directions.

The Royal Armouries is attached to the Royal Palace:
Guard at the palace

Closeup of the guard

It features possessions of the royal family, including (fascinatingly but morbidly), the blood-stained clothing that the various members of the royal family were wearing when they were assassinated. One was shot in the back at a masked ball, another was shot in battle, another by a sniper while inspecting a trench. If you work in personal insurance and the Swedish Royal family knock on the door, tell them you're busy.

It also had the royal carriages, and a collection of the royal sleds. That's how you know a country is cold:
Royal sled

The third museum was the Vasa. You may not've heard of this one, but it's nothing short of stunning. The Vasa is a warship that the Swedish built in 1628. There wasn't enough balast in the hull for 2 decks of cannons, and it sunk into the harbour on its maiden voyage. The woodworms that would normally destroy a ship like this do not live in the Baltic sea, so it lay there undisturbed.

It was rediscovered in the 1960s, and raised. It was sound enough that when they raised it and pumped the water out, it floated on its own. Add it to your list of things to see. Remarkable.

The Vasa

'Holm is Where the Heart is

Okay, so in our last gripping installment from Stockholm, I was staggering back to the hotel from a shrimp-off, being followed by a flock of squawking seagulls.

Apparently it was the first nice weekend and there were people everywhere. As one of the guys on the cruise said: "The natives are restless". One park that I went to was packed with people, and each group had a little barbeque burning:

Picnicing in the park

The rubbish bins were just buried in mountains of rubbish. Hmm, I wonder what happens if you dump the coal from your barbeque into a full rubbish bin?

Bin fire

The fire engines passed me when I was a little further down the road.

This next photo probably won't interest anyone but me, but I loved it. The little wooden boats are something straight out of Tintin. Incidentally, the tall, narrow buildings of Stockholm reminded me of those in Brugge. I made that comment to someone, and they said it was because those northern European countries were members of the Hanseatic League. So there you go.

Wooden boats

Graffitied hut on a hill

On the old houses, you can see an emblem of a phoenix rising from the flames above the door. This dates from Stockholm's early fire insurance program. The people who paid the insurance were given the emblem, and the firemen were required to save those houses with a phoenix on them before others.

Viking weapons in a tourist shop window