Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Visit to the Old Country, Part 1

A few weeks ago I had the fortune to travel to England for about a week and a half. Anyone who doesn't care for others' vacation slides should just skip the next few entries and I'll eventually get back to much more important things, such as happenings in the Steamlands.

Frequent-flier miles - obtained mainly through a linked credit card, not actually flying places, mind you - made the trip more pleasant in both directions. I'm not so good at sleeping in strange places, and planes are among the worst of all the strange places I've encountered. In the past, trans-Atlantic trips have resulted in massive sleep deprivation and a day-long headache. This time, with somewhat nicer accommodations, a concerted effort to stay hydrated, and slightly less of my sleep aid (Glenlivet), I was actually functioning upon landing at Heathrow. More miraculously yet, given all the late departures I've had on long flights, the plane took off about an hour early - the plane wasn't terribly full, and all passengers were present and accounted for, so the pilot ordered doors closed and we left - and we landed about a half-hour early. Still, check-in time for the apartment wasn't for another five hours or so, so we had made arrangements for a four-hour stay in the Heathrow Yotel, in Terminal 4.

Yotel room 2012 09 27 11 19 34
Yotel room. The picture does not do the room justice

I had heard of Yotel, which offers tiny boxes of rooms at by-the-hour rates (minds out of the gutter, Gentle Readers!) for airport travelers, but I had never stayed at one before. Let's just say it was an experience, and one I probably won't be repeating. The problem wasn't so much the size of the room, though it was so small that the bed had to be retracted before one could cross from the door to the bathroom, as it was the noise level, which prevented serious sleep.

Perhaps I was too hasty in keeping minds out of the gutter, for what should the bed controls display but an icon of two feet up and two feet down!

Yotel bed controls 2012 09 27 11 18 29
Bed controls. Notice button No. 2.

Enough of that. We took the train to Paddington station and the Tube to West Kensington.

West Ken tube stop sign 2012 10 05 16 38 56

The apartment we had taken for the duration of the trip was a short walk from the Tube stop.

Castletown House

Our street 1

The neighborhood was clearly in transition once again. The house was a large manor at one time, but it, like its neighbors, had been partitioned into apartments. The area currently seems to be a mix of immigrants - largely Asian, judging from the restaurants - and young people, though I suspect the immediate area was gentrifying rapidly. I marveled at the ability to cram a bathroom and a kitchen into the space, though the compromises were clear. The bathroom sink was a tiny triangle and the kitchen did not permit two-way traffic.

Our first full day was spent largely in Buckingham Palace, the Queen's Gallery, and the Royal Mews. The Palace was an absolute zoo of tourists. The Queen's Gallery had a fascinating exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci anatomical sketches,  which were based on years of work on animals and human cadavers. The sketches were essentially lost for centuries when they wound up - mysteriously left to the visitor's imagination, so I assume “looted” - in the possession of the monarchy at the beginning of the 20th century. By then, much of his work had been independently confirmed, but much later than da Vinci himself had done it.

Da Vinci sketches at Queens Gallery 2012 09 28 10 33 53

The next morning we took the train to Windsor. We had been there about a decade earlier, and it's not as though a lot changes, but last year the castle people started offering small tours up the main Norman tower.

2012 09 29 00 55 14
I know, I'm just as amazed as you are when the picture comes out well.

The other highlight of Windsor is St. George's Chapel, which is the burial place of a number of kings, including Henry VIII (supposedly so he could be buried with Jane Seymour (apparently not the actress from Live and Let Die and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), and home to the Order of the Garter.

2012 09 29 01 29 11

The State Rooms are also worth visiting, though apparently all the other tourists thought so as well. In contrast, the Chapel was fairly calm and quiet.

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