Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Travelogue > London: Rain, The Post Office, More Rain, The New London Theatre, The Natural History Museum, And Drizzle

I'm on vacation in London at the moment. This is a combination of a blog post, and a travelogue outline and general notes for possible articles for brainwavez.org when I return to Cape Town. I've added subheadings so you can skip to bits that may interest you (or, more likely, skip past bits that don't). Please excuse any typos - they will be fixed.

It rained during the night. This is the first time that it's rained since I arrived here 10 days ago, which, I am well aware, is very unusual, but I'm not complaining. The weather is still warmish, though, so this causes a bit of a Durban effect.

I got up just after 9am, pottered around a little bit, and then decided that I might as well start preparing packages to post back to myself in South Africa. I have already bought a large amount of souveniers, gifts, gifts for myself, and oddities on this trip, and I don't have the space to fit everything in my bag, as I have a small travel bag, which was pretty much stuffed full just for my trip here. (I have already resolved to buy a new bag when I get back to South Africa.)

The Post Office
Over two hours later I was finally done sorting items and stuffing envelopes and a box, so off I trundled to the local Post Office. Forty+ minutes and one hell of a postal charge later (unfortunately two of my three items were over two kilograms, so they couldn't be classified as "small packet"), I was finally done - in fact, the Post Office officially closed (the store in which it is situated had a half day) while I was there filling in forms while the man behind the counter tried to figure out the new postal system, which, as luck would have it, came into effect yesterday. By the time I returned to the house it was lunch time, so I made lunch, then had to go online to check the particulars of an exhibition that initially I was going to go to today but am now thinking of attending once I return from Paris. By the time I left the house half the day had been wasted, and it was 2:20pm.

The New London Theatre
After my disasterous attempt to get to the New London Theatre [map]a few days ago I thought I'd try one more time, as I really want to see the Blue Man Group and tomorrow night is my last opportunity because I am going to Paris on Thursday and after this week the show is on hiatus until mid July.

I left Neil and Audrey's house and walked to the bus stop, and then stood for about 10 minutes waiting for a bus. While I was on the bus, heading for Stratford station on the Central line, it began to rain again. I caught a train at the station and travelled westwards to Holborn, arriving at about 3pm. Yesterday I looked up the area on a map, again, and figured out where I most likely had gone wrong last Thursday (from the station I went down one road too far, which untimately led me in a wide circle around the area I had been looking for), so I was extra careful this time, and found the theatre without any difficulty (if you turn left into Kingsway when you exit Holborn station and then turn right earlier - into Parker Street, you're in the right road, and you hit the theatre on the corner of Parker and Drury Lane).

The theatre was open, but deserted (which was quite eerie), save for one person working at the box office. She was very pleasant and helpful and sold me a GBP25 seat (the mid-range price) in row C, near the stage in the "Poncho Section". She reassured me that the poncho was more a precaution that an necessity, but I remain nervous that I shall be covered in water, paint, and confetti by the end of the evening. However, I have my ticket, and am very excited to go tomorrow night.

Since it was just after 3pm and there were still a few hours left in the day I decided that I may as well use the opportunity to go to the Natural History Museum. I walked back to Holborn station and then caught the Picadilly line to South Kensington, arriving about 20 minutes later. I then followed the signs fro the station that point pedestrains to an underground route to the museums in the South Kensington area, and a few minutes later popped up at the Natural History Museum, and was faced with an impressive, imposing facade [read more]. Unfortunately the weather was still overcast, although it had stopped raining, so I chose not to take any photographs of the building. I am hoping I will have time to go back at some point during the rest of my trip.

The Natural History Museum
I entered at the Life Galleries entrance (there are three galleries: the Life Galleries, the Earth Galleries, and the Darwin Centre, of which Phase One is currently finished). There is a bag search at the entrance to the Life Galleries and you are asked not to bring sharp objects into the museum. Entrance to the museum is free, although certain temporary exhibits have admission charges, and you are allowed to take photographs.

Upon entering the Life Galleries [map] you are immediately greeted by a huge replica of a Diplodocus skeleton in the Central Hall. The fact that it's a replica doesn't dimish the impact one bit but you may initially be distracted (and possibly feel overwhelmed) by the masses of children inside the museum as the museum is incredibly kid friendly, with lots of interactive displays for them to explore.

There are a few exhibits (entitled "Wonders Of The Natural History Museum") in cabinets placed around the Central Hall that get you in the mood for what is to be found in the museum, so I had a look at some of the items before heading for the dinosaur exhibit in Gallery 21, the Ronson Gallery. The exhibit is great, covering pretty much everything to do with dinosaurs, from their natural offensive and defensive biology and mechanisms to how they walk, what and how they ate, the nesting habits (or lack thereof) of various species, theories as to why they became extinct, and how those species that roamed in herds may have behaved, as well as profiles of famous dinosaur hunters from the past 150-odd years. The highlights are, of course, the skeletal and fossil remains on display (although some are replicas), as well as a number of animatronic dinosaurs, the most impressive being the "Super-sensing T. rex", which is a temporary add-on to the exhibit until 18 March 2007. The T. rex is a model of a teenager (3/4-size adult), with built-in sensors that allow it to "notice" visitors. It's fascinating just to stand nearby and watch people pass (and take photographs), as some children, especially, find it enthralling, while others are freaked out.

Unfortunately, I will be missing a temporary exhibit that complements the permanent dinosaur exhibit, "Dino Jaws", which opens on 30 June. It has been designed especially for kids, but should be of interest to adults too.

After the dinosaur exhibit I wandered into the small Dino Shop (the icon between numbers 23 and 22 on the map), before heading off to the Mammals section (Gallery 23). The displays are logically ordered according to scientific classifications, such as canines, rodents, and marsupials, rather than by continent, so you can see how different mammals from different continents are actually related and why they are classified together. The displays house both fossils and skeletons of extinct animals along with stuffed specimens of animals that are still in existence. There are notes in a number of the diplays saying that the museum supports conservation of animals (meaning that it is no longer sourcing new specimens from taxidermists) and, therefore, the specimens are all quite old and have faded over time due to exposure to light, but won't be replaced.

Next I wandered into the Human Biology display (Gallery 22, which is incorrectly represented on the map, as it is actually off Gallery 23 halfway down that gallery's hallway). Although interesting (of particular note is the human brain and spinal column preserved in a small tank), much of the exhibition is really geared more to children and teenagers, with lots of interactive exhibits, so I zipped around it quite fast before heading to the Mammals And Blue Whale exhibition in Gallery 24. Unfortunately the second floor of this room was closed off due to some repair work (it looked like it houses displays of marine mammals) but the rest of the room is fascinating, with more combinations of the fossil or skeletal remains of extinct animals complemented by specimens and replicas of animals that still roam the earth. Some of the highlights include the heaviest elephant tusks ever recovered and a horn of the extinct "Giant Unicorn Rhinocerous". The exhibition also houses skeletons of a number of whale species suspended from the ceiling, and a life-size giraffe, African and Asian elephants, a lion, and even a few "Rock Hyrax" specimens (better known to South Africans as dassies.

As I was wondering around the Mammals And Blue Whale gallery an announcement over the PA system informed museum visitors that it would be closing in 20 minutes, so I finished walking around the room and the headed for the exit (Galleries 14 and 13 weren't accessible), passing the part of the Fishes, Amphibians and Reptiles exhibit as I followed the signs. I didn't see any of the fish specimens, but I did see the cabinets that house reptiles (including two cases devoted to snakes), amphibians, and even a giant tortoise before reaching the Waterhouse Café (11 on the map) and then following it through to the eastern side of the Central Hall, when I continued to look at the "Wonders Of The Natural History Museum" on that side of the room: of note is a fossilised tree trunk that has been sliced so you can still see the rings.

Since I still had a few minutes left I headed for the main gift shop, which is rather huge but, again, primarily caters for children, with a wide range of stuffed dinosaurs, toys, and stationery with the Natural History Museum logo.

South Kensington Tube Station
The museum then closed at 5:50pm and I was back in the bad weather, with a light drizzle ensuring that everyone was slightly damp. To my annoyance the route back to the underground pedestrian thoroughfare had been closed, so I had to ask the guard at the entrance to the museum grounds how to get to South Kensington station. He happily directed me and it ended up being a brief walk to what turns out to be a beautiful old building more reminiscent of many of the stations in Paris than on the London Underground. I walked to the platform, which is above ground, and, while waiting for a suitable train, marvelled at the view of the high, old, brick wall that can be seen on the other side of the tracks at the District line eastbound platform. Due to the natural light that has access to the station and the station's particular architecture, especially at that platform, the area has a romantic edge to it and you can almost imagine a steam train chugging along the line to some far-off destination.

After about a six-minute wait I was able to grab a train that was heading past my stop at Plaistow, so I headed home on a train and bus journey that took over an hour (partly due to a long wait at the bus stop), finally arriving home at around 7:30pm.

Moment Of The Day
Considering how much I had to pay for postage at the Post Office I didn't need to be spat near or coughed on to feel nauseous for the rest of the day...

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