Feb. 15th, 2017

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So a week last Sunday (5 February), I left my friend Paul at Herne Hill, heading to Earl's Court via Victoria, a pretty straightforward journey that didn't take particularly long. Upon alighting at Earl's Court, I crossed the road and found my hotel with some ease, checking in before relaxing a short while, with the need to head back out again not so pressing. I departed about half an hour later, grabbing some food at a local Gregg's as I went, as I was scheduled to meet JM Horse on the steps of St Paul's at 4pm. In the end, I was about fifteen minutes late, but this was largely due to marvelling at the wonderful architecture of this iconic building, not to mention the monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London, which stands like a golden orb in an adjacent square. If this vista was breathtaking, this was nothing compared to the view that is afforded on the sixth floor of a nearby shopping centre, which overlooks St Paul's and gives a stunning panorama of the London skyline. Apparently, this was a public space that hardly anyone knows about and is somewhere that JM comes quite often, and it certainly was a little-known gem.

Speaking of little-known gems, we were soon walking to another - the Guildhall School of Music inside the Barbican Centre. My stepdad studied cello here in the 1960s but the current building dates to 1977 so was built after his time. It is situated in a triumph of urban planning that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be pretty bad as the years progressed. The whole area is quite sterile and somewhat soulless. It was meant to be a model village built out of purple bricks, with indoor walkways connecting the complexes and a number of pubs and restaurants scattered about. Many of these are since closed and most of the residences are no longer occupied, but the main stage area is still a hub of performing arts, with the theatre of the Barbican Centre being the centrepiece. There is still a number of fountains adorning the main square, which is perfectly symmetrical, a symbol of the urban planning of that era. Perhaps this is one of the things that was wrong with it - it was just too perfect - but either way it made for some very interesting exploring, with JM admitting that he sometimes comes here to work as it's quite close to where he lives.

As we walked, we talked about a range of things, but travel mainly, which was quite appopriate as soon I was boarding my first ever Boris bike as we were bound for Stepney Green, some ten minutes' ride away. I was a little apprehensive initially as I hadn't been on a bike in about twenty years, but once I got used to the sensitive three-gear system, it was quite a breeze, particularly as the network of cycle lanes insulated you from the traffic. We rode to Tower Hill, with the Tower of London looming on our right before following the line of the DLR, only cycling on actual road for a short while until we found a bicycle rack near Whitechapel Road. It was an excellent ride, albeit a bit nippy in the bitingly cold early February air, but it is such a fantastic system and one I wish would be emulated in other British cities. I like everything about this, from the green bicycle shape light as you are riding to the ability to lock your bike if it's broken, pushing a button to alert an attendant that it needs fixing.

Our first stop in the Whitechapel area was Rinkoffs Bakery, which was underneath a rather sorry looking housing estate but which had been there since 1911, serving the Jewish community in particular. As a consequence, their baked products were of exceptional quality and we were urged to try the crodoughs - half croissant and half doughnut - which were thick and layered as opposed to the lighter varieties to which I am more accustomed. We took three - for myself, JM and Bastett who we were meeting in a pub down the road - with us making the mistake of not eating them until after we had got to the pub, meaning we were eyeing them hungrily as we were drinking our beer. The King's Arms was about ten minutes' walk from the bakery, which gave us more time to chat before meeting Bastett, who was already sat down when we arrived. The range of beer was impressive and I tried another Cloudwater dIPA along with a few other interesting tipples as we chatted some more about a variety of things. Alas, even though it was only approaching 7pm, time was running short as JM and Bastett had to go to a Super Bowl Party, meaning I was largely free for the rest of the evening.

I had noticed earlier in the day that there was a new BrewDog bar in London, conveniently in Homerton which wasn't too far from where I was. As a consequence, I was directed to the nearest tube before waving goodbye to my friends, with me getting to Stratford by Underground and Homerton by Overground shortly afterwards. I had already had about five pints that day and was desperate for a pee, but fortunately I discovered the bar pretty easily so there was no huge crisis. The bar had only just opened and was in the middle of a housing area, which was quite an odd place to choose, although I had been reassured that Homerton is an up-and-coming area. It was quite quiet though, at least initially, but this gave me time to chat to the three guys behind the bar. By 8:30pm, I was the only one there, but things got a little more lively after that when a couple of regulars walked in, including a rather angry looking Scots bloke. They all knew the bar staff though and before I knew it, I was embroiled in conversation and they were buying drinks for me. In the end, it was quite a good night, but I wasn't in any mood to call it a night, meaning that by the time I left, it was past 11pm. I walked to Hackney Wick station with one of my new friends, but upon arrival I was informed by a member of TfL staff that I had missed my last train and that I needed to call a cab. Fortunately, the nice gentleman gave me a number and soon one of the local taxi firms was on hand to meet me. My driver was a rather nice Albanian gentleman and we talked a lot about his homeland, making the rather long drive seem quite short. The price was only £28, which wasn't too bad for a journey across London I thought, although it was an added expense that I could have done without paying. On the way back to the hotel, I picked up some food before heading back to the room with the intention of watching the rest of the Super Bowl. We were already into the second quarter and as I settled down to watch on the bed, I must have fallen asleep as I awoke to the sound of Lady Gaga doing the half-time show. I watched this for a short while before falling asleep again, awaking at some point towards the end of the fourth quarter before switching the TV off. It was a shame that I missed it really as it was one of the classic Super Bowls and having watched the last three, I somewhat lucked out. Still, I had had a good evening so I couldn't complain all that much.

On Monday I had arranged to meet up with Paul at the British Museum at 1pm ahead of going over to Tower Hill for my first work meeting at 6:30pm. Remarkably, I was bang on time, probably as a result of having to check out at midday, and he was waiting for me in the main square of this rather impressive building with its Greek style portico out front. I had never been to the British Museum before, despite being to some of the world's top cultural venues, so this was bound to be a huge treat. I got through security okay and put my bag in the locker room, being charged double due to it being overly heavy, before we had a quick chat about all of the things we wanted to see. I wanted to check out the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles and the stunning carvings from the city of Nimrud, the remainder of which having been destroyed when ISIS took over the city a few years ago. This made visiting here even more poignant, while the craftsmanship behind such intricate pictures was truly breathtaking. The fact that all of the friezes told a story, and a rather brutal one at that considering the warriors were paid by the number of severed heads they had, made the sight even more remarkable. The same was true of the Parthenon Marbles of course, which had such beautiful detail, particularly on the dress work and the horses' form. It was quite a treat to see them so close up - of course they had been situated just below the roof of the Parthenon originally, which only highlighted the dedication that had gone in to craftwork that no-one was ever destined to see. Paul wanted to see the Mildenhall Treasure, which is a large collection of Roman silverware dating from the fourth century. Discovered in 1942, remarkably most of the items are preserved, including the truly beautiful Great Dish or Great Plate of Bacchus. Weighing over 8kg and with a diameter of in excess of 60cm, this was the outstanding item in the collection, although there were a number of smaller bowls and spoons which were equally intricate. While in this very room, we also got to see the Lindow Man, whose tortured facial expression and twisted corpse was disturbing, particularly based on the knowledge of how he died. Despite all of this, however, the highlight for me was The Rosetta Stone, largely due to my fascination for languages. Seeing this most famous of linguistic tools, which enabled the Egptian hyroglyphs to be deciphered was a real heart jumping moment and I was privileged enough to get exceptionally close to it, just dodging the huge posse of Chinese students who were marching in behind me. These were the main sights and once we had seen them, we were free to amble around the Museum in a more relaxed fashion, taking in some of the lesser-known exhibits. After all, we knew we were never going to see everything so we just did what we fancied. My favourite was arguably downstairs in the African section where there was a tree constructed entirely out of machine guns, while we also got to learn a lot about clothing in that region. I also enjoyed the airy centre of the Museum, the Great Court, with its towering glass roof and stone column right in the middle. The Holy Thorn Reliquary was another exhibit which was a highlight, along with the intricate carvings of the religious nuts depicting a range of Biblical scenes.

We spent about four hours in the Museum in total and barely scratched the surface, such was the wealth of the collections in there. However, we were all Museumed out and it was only half an hour until closing, so we decided to grab our bags before going for a quick half in a local Sam Smith's pub, a place which had retained its fabulous Victorian feel. It was definitely stuck in a timewarp but it was a great way to end my trip with Paul as I was then bound for the work section of my visit to the capital.

June 2017

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