Thursday, July 24, 2008

Roman London: The Walk

I picked up a copy of historian Stephen Inwood's Historic London: An Explorer's Companion not long after arriving here and have used it sporadically for recommendations on historic pubs and other one-off things to do. The first section is a walk through Roman-era London, which I finally managed to pull off last weekend based on a combination of favorable weather and a desire to get out of the flat and do something.

The walk covers The City, the oldest parts of London that used to be encircled by the city's wall. Originally the Romans built London (Londinium) as a strategic center because the Thames is a natural harbor. It was essentially a supply point for their efforts further inland; it wasn't the capital of the province and was only important as a waypoint. But like many waypoints (say, Chicago) it eventually became important in its own right.

We started at the Tower of London, not a tower at all but the fortress where the King used to reside when he wasn't traipsing around somewhere else. We didn't pony up to go in – it's stupid expensive and we did it the last time we were here – but it's always interesting to see because it's one of the few examples of a completely intact medieval building in the city. Not completely completely intact as various changes have been made throughout the ages, but it's close.

The object of my interest is just north of the Tower, literally right outside the Tower Hill Tube station. There's a massive section of the old city wall there, although only the bottom three meters or so are Roman; the rest were added in the middle ages. It makes a good basis to start the walk. From there, we wound north, taking in various sections of wall. One is in the courtyard of a five-star hotel; another is in the basement of an office complex, visible through the windows.

This represents London the city in ways that nothing else could: ancient architecture, as old as the settlement itself, that has been completely subsumed by the new around it. Built around, knocked down when it wasn't needed anymore, and developed upon. That is London, and it's amazing to think of all the layers of history one on top of the other.

We headed north to the appropriately-named London Wall (a street), and jogged west, following bits of the wall as we went. We passed the not-so-PC streets Jewry Street and Saracen's Head Court (!) along the way, enjoying the City on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

Unlike many other European cities I've visited, London follows its American counterparts in that its business and financial areas close down on evenings and the weekends. In some parts of the City, you can walk several blocks without finding an open pub or coffee place, or without seeing another person. It can actually get a little creepy because the city just seems so empty, moreso when you compare it to areas like Camden where things are hopping all the time.

We ended our trip at the Guildhall, another fine example of surviving medieval architecture, although one that was rebuilt extensively after the Blitz and the Great Fire. Again, this is London: a city that has been razed both naturally and unnaturally throughout the ages. It's almost Biblical the way some disaster or another occasionally comes along to cleanse the city of some of its old floatsam, burying ancient buildings in piles of rubble. But at the same time it was this destruction that lead to the discovery of much of what is known about Roman London: the Blitz uncovered many of the sections of wall that were previously lost, and revealed other things like the postern gate outside of the Tower and the amphitheatre now housed in the Guildhall Gallery.

These are the times when I love London the most, when I feel the most connected to the city itself. Being here is like living in history, breathing the dust and pieces of so many people who walked here before and left their mark on the town. It's easy to lose sight of this because I go to work every day, but it's important to get out every once in a while and not take for granted that I live in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

Check out the Flickr photos.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Minotaur

Last Wednesday I stopped at Great Portland Street Tube Station, on the Circle Line, and waited for it to clear out. It was late and the trains were running with big gaps between them, so I had the station to myself for a while. I sat on the bench at the far end of the platform and stared into the black dusty void of the tunnel.

After several minutes I heard a growl from the darkness. I knew who it was, of course: the minotaur. You catch glimpses of him every now and then, but more often than not you can hear him growling from the darkness, or occasionally snorting and charging. This is his city after all, the manmade contraption meant to contain him and those sacrificed to him.

He emerged from the tunnel slowly, his horns slightly sooty from the filth in the air. He sat on the bench next to me, causing it to creak slightly under his immense weight. For a few moments neither of us said anything. Then he asked:

'You seem unhappy lately. Are you alright?'

'Of course,' I said. 'Although I certainly appreciate your concern.'

'It's easy to lose perspective here,' the minotaur sighed, leaning back, resting his head on the brick. 'It happens to me from time to time. But I need to be concerned. This is my city, and the people in it are under my care.'

'Is that why you’re trying to kill me?'

'That's just my day job. Night job. Well, job. I mean, do you think I want to? No. But the sacrifices, they’re always willing. It's not like anyone forces them to be here.'

'You don’t have to do kill them, do you? They just kind of... grind themselves down.'

'Yeah. It's just a job though. Pays the bills. Allows me to travel.'

I look over at him. His bovine snout snorts slightly each time he exhales, his coal-black eyes stare straight forward, ignoring me. His muscled and bare chest, human if not for the light coat of black fur and leathery skin, is crisscrossed with tiny scars from millions of battles. I remind myself that he’s older than time and will be around long after I'm gone.

After a few moments I ask: 'Is it time to fight now?'

'Might as well get to it,' he says.

We stand, and square off. The first blow is mine. The rest are his. In the end, it doesn't matter; this is his city, after all.

Photo credit: Minotaur a by Stephen Rees on Flickr.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

To Canterbury We Wende

Whan that July, with his shoures crappy
The droghte of dust hath perced to the roote
And bathed every Jason in wanderlust,
Of which vertu engendred is the truste;
Whan Elizabeth eek with her sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge Ja-son
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne, (WTF?)
And smale foweles maken melodye, (birds)
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen Jason and Liz to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende!

So this last weekend to get the hell out of London we took a pilgrimage (slow train ride) to Canterbury, home of Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Thomas a Beckett, England's best-known Martyr, and destination for pilgrims since medieval times, when Chaucer wrote his famous tales. We didn't tell stories on the way - we had our usual Sunday chat instead - and didn't see much of Canterbury apart from the high street and Cathedral, but I'm told there isn't a hell of a lot to Canterbury apart from those two things so I think we did alright. The Cathedral is probably my favorite in the UK aside from Durham, as it's an amazing Gothic construction, impossibly huge and beautiful in a way no other Cathedral is. Even with all the Cathedrals we've seen here and across Europe, there's something about Canterbury that's different. It's one of the few that feels warm on the inside, whether it's from the lighting or the choice of stone. It feel like what I've always believed God's house would be like. It's a strange, homely feeling at once historical and immediately present.

I admit that I'm biased to Canterbury based on my first experience there almost ten years ago, but returning this time with just a little time before it closed and the rain alternating between annoying sprinkle and outright downpour it still held its magic. There's very few things I can say that about, especially after so much time has passed. It was a strangely refreshing trip, even if it was just for a few hours. And just what we needed to get out of the city.

Flickr set here.

Friday, July 4, 2008

This Is The Day Of Our Independence Day (What?)

It's strange celebrating the 4th in London, considering I'm surrounded by the very people that my forefathers some rich white guys 120 years before my ancestors even arrived in America fought against. When I got to the office, several people wished me Happy Independence Day, to which I responded by flipping them the bird and saying 'screw you, Redcoat!'

There are no fireworks today for me, but we are going on a team outing at work where we're going to play baseball in St. James' Park. I have official scoresheets, just like I used to use in Little League, and ten copies of 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame' which we'll be singing during the 7th Inning Stretch.

This is going to be a lot of fun.