April 30, 2006

Bath is an incredibly beautiful (albeit touristy) city in the southwest of England.  Think of it as Aspen or Whistler, with spas instead of slopes.  The city was started by the Romans back in 43 AD.  Around 1700 years later, it started getting built up into the stately Georgian limestone city we know today, after King George III fell in love with the place and it suddenly became the “in” spot for rest, relaxation and royalty.  Luckily for us, the town planners hired their own “it” architect, John Wood, to design all the buildings in gorgeous Neoclassical Georgian style.  The result is a city so beautiful it’s been used in dozens of films and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the center of the city, the ancient Roman baths still flow with natural hot spring water.  Despite many signs telling people not to drink or even touch the murky green water (it’s algae-riffic!), I saw plenty of dumb tourists doing exactly that.  I’m hoping they enjoyed their case of “Hadrian’s Revenge”.  For the slightly less-daring, you can get a warm glass of filtered, potable Roman spring water for 50 pence.  Back in the (Georgian) day, this water was considered a cure-all for everything from cancer to rheumatism.  I tried it, and it wasn’t bad (as glasses of warm water go), although it was so mineral-y that you felt thirstier after you drank it than before.  Nothing was ailing me at the time, so I can’t comment on the “healing” powers.  However, they apparently weren’t powerful enough to prevent King George from later going insane.

More info: Bath


Salisbury Cathedral

April 30, 2006

Salisbury Cathedral has two claims to fame.  First there is the church itself, which has the tallest medieval (built 1310-1333 AD) church spire (at 404 feet) in the UK.  The architecture itself is a bit of a mish-mash.  Gothic for certain, but with some major idiosyncrasies like double-transepts.  In addition ,the spire is not at the front of the church like the towers of Cologne Cathedral, it’s smack in the center where you normally might have a small ornamental spire or dome.  Not only is this a weird design choice, but it’s a poor engineering decision as well, since the weight of this massive thing on middle of the roof (6,500 tons) is now threatening the collapse of the entire structure.  When we were there, most of the exterior was under scaffolding, and 13-year-old signs informed us that the work would be completed in another 9 years or so.  (Talk about job security!)

The Cathedral’s second claim to fame is the Magna Carta.  If you’re scratching your head, trying to remember back to high-school history class for this one… the Magna Carta is the precursor to the American Bill of Rights.  It was drawn up in 1215 by a group of Barons who were unhappy with the runaway power of the evil King John (you may remember him as the thumb-sucking lion in Disney’s Robin Hood, if you didn’t read the book).  Basically the document says that even the king is subject to the rule of law, and that there are certain inalienable rights shared by all people that even the king isn’t allowed to violate.  Apparently, George W. Bush (a thumb-sucking lion if ever I saw one) has never heard of it. :)  There are only four “original” copies of this document left in the world, and Salisbury claims to have the “best preserved” one.  The British Library has one as well, but it was out for refurbishment when I visited, so I really have no basis for comparison.  All the same, it looked pretty readable to me.  Certainly more so than the faded crusty parchments we have in the National Archives in Washington DC (which has another of the four, oddly enough on “permanent loan” from owner H. Ross Perot).

If old documents and structurally dubious towers aren’t enough for you, how about this tidbit from the Salisbury Cathedral website: “A dead rat which carried traces of arsenic was found inside the skull of William Longespée when his tomb was opened centuries later.”  Nice.

More info: Salisbury Cathedral
Next: Bath


April 30, 2006

For the one-year anniversary of our first date, Derek and I treated each other to two grand days out.  Mine (for him) started with lunch at the famous Fortnum and Mason, followed by a matinee of The Lion King, followed by drinks at the Absolut Icebar, followed by dinner at Cocoon, followed by dessert at the Oxo Tower.  It was a full day, to say the least.  But, it was limited to London.  For his day, Derek thought outside the box city, with a bus tour of some of England’s most famous historical attractions.

First up was Stonehenge.  As we drove up to the site, the tour bus lady told us that people generally have one of two reactions when they finally see Stonehenge in person: a) they have a moving, spiritual experience or b) they realize it’s just a big pile of rocks.  Personally, I was thinking of the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap “…an ancient race of people… the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing…”.  This was right before the tour guide lady informed us that Stonehenge has nothing to do with Druids, apart from the bunch of 20th-century hippie flower-children who congregate there annually under the guise of doing something Druid-y.

Second thought that occurred to me was an old Mark Russell bit: “You ever see that movie, Field of Dreams?  Kevin Costner is walking around in his cornfield and he hears a voice, and it says, “Build a baseball field, and the people will come.” Did you ever figure maybe the ancient Druids [sic] were walking around and they heard a voice?  And it said, “Build a pile of rocks!”

Regardless of who built it or why or when or how (geez, do we know anythingabout this thing?), the fact remains that Stonehenge is a fascinating, unique, monumental tourist trap.  The good news is, it’s cheap, only a few pounds.  The bad news is that hoards of people will be circling it at any given time, juggling an Acoustiguide in one hand and a digital camera in the other, and jockeying for a shot of the stones with their wife/daughter/grandmother/etc. in the foreground while holding up the slow-moving procession behind them.

What is it like in person?  I thought it was bigger that I was expecting.  Derek thought it was smaller.  In any case, the really disappointing thing is that you can no longer go up and touch it.  You’re restricted to a grassy perimeter view. :(  However, if you join English Heritage(the organization that maintains this and many other historic sites in England) you can get tickets to special members-only events that allow you to walk “amongst” the rocks.

More info: Stonehenge
Next: Salisbury Cathedral

The Lion King

April 29, 2006

Of course, I’ve seen it all before.  I saw the show in Seattle when it was on tour.  I’ve seen the movie.  I’ve seen the scaled-down shows at the Animal Kingdom and Disneyland Paris.  And, considering I didn’t even like the original movie that much, it begs the question, why to I keep torturing myself this way?  What’s more, why am I now dragging Derek to these things?

The reason is simple: Julie Taymor.  Only she would think of the African savannah as hunky shirtless guys in rope hoop-skirts balancing flats of tall grass on their heads (see picture).  Who’s Julie Taymor?  She’s the director/creator of this show.  She’s the one who took the completely lame and sappy music of Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice and actually managed to create a visually stunning operatic pageant that makes you forget about the music (at least until people start singing).  In fact, it’s so visually spectacular, you start wishing there was a mute button for the show, so you could admire the creativity on stage without the cloying Disney-ness that goes along with it.

Julie Taymor is also responsible for the films Titus and Frida.  If you haven’t seen them yet, go out and rent them now.  They’re both brilliant, also visually stunning, and you’ll get a better idea of what she was able to do with The Lion King if you’ve never seen it yourself.  As a night at the theatre, it’s a mixed bag (due mostly to the songs), but as a moving work of art, it’s hard to beat.  Will I go again?  No, twice is enough (for now).

More info: The Lion King


April 24, 2006

Manchester is a city of contrasts.  Located about 3 hours northwest of London in the middle of the country, Manchester is a blue-collar town with incredibly up-market shopping.  It’s a city of tatty terra-cotta-clad Victorian hotels, standing next to even tattier 1970’s concrete-block office towers.  It’s a city that fancies itself as the Chicago of Britain, but is really more like Albany.

To historians, Manchester is important as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  Karl Marx and Frederich Engels visited here before they wrote The Communist Manifesto.  Indeed, this is the only place I’ve ever been that has a pointedly left-wing “worker’s rights” museum.  Aimed mostly at grade-school kids, you get a ballot card as you enter the People’s History Museum, and as you wander through the exhibits, there are voting machines with yes-or-no questions like “Will people have better working conditions in the future?”, “Does it take a special type of person to affect change?” or “Do you trust everything the government tells you?”  In the setting of a museum dedicated to organized labor, there are clearly some “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions, and it’s not surprising that the tote board in the front shows a bias toward the left-leaning responses (although not as strong a bias as you’d expect).  A frightening number of folks answered “no” to “Is it important to gather all the facts before you make a decision?”  But, that does explain a lot about the world.

More recent history is marked by two more contrasts: bombs and pop bands.  (Not to mention pop bands that bombed.)  On the “bomb” front, the IRA exploded a bomb in the middle of downtown in 1996.  Unlike al-Quaeda, they were gentlemanly enough to issue a warning first so nobody got killed.  But there was a lot of property damage (and a few injuries from broken glass).  The town has been rebuilding it’s downtown ever since, and quite frankly, they’ve made so many glorious improvements that more than one Manc has suggested that the bomb was far more affective as a force for urban renewal than as a political protest.

On the pop bands front, you can blame Manchester for all of the following: Herman’s Hermits, The Hollies, The Chemical Brothers, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Fall, Simply Red, Take That, Oasis, Badly Drawn Boy, and yes… Morrissey.

To everyone other than historians, Manchester is known for two more contrasting things: Football (“soccer” to you Yanks) and gays.  (Not that there aren’t any gay football fans out there.)  The city is of course home to Manchester United, as well as Manchester City.  Man-U is essentially the New York Yankees of British football, the team that always attracts the best players and has the biggest following.  Man-City is more the local team (although they still have a huge fan-base).  On the weekend we were there, Man-U was playing Chelsea for the premiership.  They lost, 0-3.  And, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth (not to mention binge drinking).

Over on Canal Street (which is famous in the opening-credits of the British version of Queer As Folk for having the leading “C” rubbed out), the party mood was unchanged.  Manchester has the largest gay population in the UK outside of London.  When we stopped into the city visitor’s bureau, we were handed a map with the city broken down into color-coded sections… “Chinatown”, “Central Shopping Area”, and plain-as-day, “Gay Village”.  If a Communist-leaning labor museum was hard to believe for an American, this was even weirder.  It’s so matter-of-fact.  Not like Greenwich Village in New York.  The was the Gay Village, no other name needed.  For a town so wrapped up in macho football-hooligan bravado and “chav” culture, finding the gay population clearly outlined on a map was a little surprising.  But I suppose it’s just as in-your-face as everything else in this city.  As for the clubs, I’m sorry to report they’re all getting overrun with gangs of drunk straight women who want to be able to ogle and drool over hot guys without worrying about getting hit on (or any other “straight guy” consequences).  Suddenly, I understood why the clubs in Vancouver, BC have a door policy that requires women to be accompanied by men.  They’re taking over!

In any event, Manchester was a lot of fun.  The museums were hit-and-miss.  The people were loud and rather “American”.  And the shoppingwas kind of Vegas.  All-in-all, an amusing side-trip, but not somewhere to go out of your way for… unless you’re a gay, Commie, pop-singing football hooligan.  Then, it’s heaven.

More info: Visit Manchester


April 18, 2006

Considering last week there was nothingat all going on in Paddington, I was happy to see something truly weird this week.  Snoreeze, as you might guess, is a product that helps you stop snoring.  The twist is that it’s in the form of a dissolving strip (like those Listerine breath strips).  I have no idea if it works, but the set thing (in addition to the free samples) was the display…  a glass cube containing a king-size bed, occupied by two real live people, fast asleep in the middle of Paddington station. 

Apparently, Snoreze not only stops you snoring, it also knocks you out completely (at least to the point that you can sleep through all the noise of one of London’s busiest train stations).  I have to wonder how much this job pays.  How much do you get an hour to sleep in the middle of a train station in the middle of the day?  And do you get less if you start snoring?

More info: Snoreeze

Kew Gardens

April 15, 2006

Derek and I went to Kew Gardens today, hoping we would see the first buds of Spring.  Unfortunately, Spring is taking it’s dear sweet time this year, and only a handfull of blooms were on display.

All the same, it was great to finally see it in person.  But, I was a little disappointed by the old-fashioned-ness of it.  After the splendour of Butchart Gardens in Canada, or Huntington Library in Pasadena, or even the Bloedel Reservenear Seattle (thanks Adam)… where idyllic landscapes emerge from lush rolling hills, streams, waterfalls and perfect Japanese tea houses, all surrounded by colorful explosions of flowers and trees… well, Kew seemed a tad too formal and restrained by comparison.  I’m hoping to go back again when everything is in bloom.

More info: Kew Gardens