Monday, April 14, 2014

Windsor & St. Paul's

One of the great things about travel blogging is that is allows you to preserve all your memories as they happen.  It's amazing how quickly the little details can fade after 2 weeks back at home.  However, we were so busy there it was hard to keep up!!!

I posted already about Serena, Celina, Harpreet and Simran's day trip to Stratford to spend time with Shakespeare.  Well, while they were out in the country, the remaining 14 of us headed to the Queen's house - Windsor Castle.  We took the train from Paddington Station to Slough, where we changed over to a smaller train that went directly to Windsor and parked itself an the foot of the hill next to the Castle.

We walked up the hill to check in and go through security.  It's amazing really that they let people into the building.  I went through way more security to visit the Statue of Liberty and National Archives that I did visiting the Queen's house.  And she was there.  She was IN THE BUILDING.  But they just let us inside - wandering around historic rooms, past creepy doll houses and halls filled with expensive China.  Ancient tables and long royal banquet halls with the crests of many knights hanging from the ceiling.  The tour through Windsor was done via an included audio guide - allowing students and teachers to go as fast (or slow) as they'd like.  The Queen's guards marched up the down the street from time to time, or stood post without averting their gaze.  Though at one point, a second guard came out to visit the first, took a selfie of the two of them together, and then continued on his merry way.  That was pretty outstanding.  St. George's Chapel was beautiful and historical, though interesting to observe the marriage of church and state in this way all throughout England (a constant battle in many countries).  The stone walls of the property were beautiful, but mostly I loved the perfectly manicured laws.  I wanted a cup of tea, a good novel and to set myself up in a chair next to the purple and yellow flowers and let the day pass away.  The beautiful blue skies only made this seem more and more appealing.  I was left wondering if the Queen ever really gets to spend time out on these beautifully manicured lawns.  I mean, there were hundreds of people wandering through her house and property. When does she just get to go for a stroll?

Windsor Castle
More Windsor Castle
View of St. George's Chapel (left) and some of the Castle Buildings (right).  Main castle at the end of the road here. 
St. George's Chapel
Group in front of the Castle, Me and the Guard, a group of marching guards, and Mr. Dewinetz reading about football on the train to Windsor.
After our time in Windsor we had some lunch before taking the train back to Paddington Station (yes, home of Paddington bear).  We then headed to St. Paul's Cathedral.  This was where Princess Diana and Prince Charles were wed back in 1981, and of course is a beautiful piece of architecture designed by Christopher Wren.  They were preparing to practice an installation of a new Bishop, so things were slowly quieting down and the students were allowed to sit and watch.  But first we climbed the dome.  It was just under 300 stairs to the Whispering Gallery, a thin walk way with stone benches around the base of the dome.  This was as far as I got - I wasn't willing to embrace the claustrophobia that came with the next 250 steps to the very top.  But the rest of the group did - climbing the narrow passage ways until they reached the fresh air and beautiful views (you should see the panorama below in full size - outstanding photo by Mr. Becker).  Such a wonderful view of the city!  We stayed at St. Paul's until 4pm, when they were closing.  This was a great time to head home and think about dinner.  The plan was to hit a chippy for English Fish & Chips.  And after the 10-15 minute walk to the one we scouted out we found it was closed (I blame the website....?)  So we wandered back towards the mall and compromised on a place called Bill's - that had a little something for everyone.  After dinner, Janey, Shelby and I ran off to see Once (see post here) and the rest of the group enjoyed a mellow (and well earned) night in.  As I have come to learn, this meant a lot of face timing, parties in Harleen and Simran's room, and playing MarioKart.  London life is good.

Our group in Paddington Station with the Paddington Bear Statue.
St. Paul's Cathedral.  Shelby and Janey at the top, and the group doing "the Garr" on the front steps.
Panorama from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.  Download and view full size here

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Beauty of a Night Stroll: Big Ben, Bohemian Rhapsody and Our Walk on the South Bank

A perfect Sunday.  Start my day at the Museum of Natural History, follow it up with a ride on the London Eye, enjoy Sunday roast (and Janey's birthday) at a wonderful restaurant, enjoy a scrumptious dessert, and then take a walk through a graffiti laden tunnel towards the Thames, walk along the South bank, listen to a beautiful rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, photograph the lights, feel the energy of the city and listen to the ringing of Big Ben.  So much goodness.  Let me break this down a little for you.

We started our day off at the Museum of Natural History (more details on that to come).  We had been broken into two groups that day, so the two groups met up in front of the London Eye, just in time for our ride (details here).  Because it was Sunday, and in honour of Janey's Birthday, we had reservations at a lovely neighbourhood restaurant around the bend from the Eye to enjoy Sunday Roast.  We also enjoyed (for the first time this trip) a lovely dessert - complete with birthday candle for Janey.  Following our dinner we were headed back home for an early night in (which is well deserved after such a busy first 7 days).  Since the group was headed back with the other chaperones, I wanted to take advantage of the great weather and location, and head back over to the pier to photograph Big Ben and the London Eye, all lit up.  So many European cities, complete with their iconic landmarks, have the most extraordinary vibe at night, and night strolling is one of my favourite things to do.  

I continued along with the group back towards the Tube station - through a dedicated graffiti tunnel.  My instincts were to assume this was a sketchy tunnel, but at second glance it was actually a tunnel of art.  Not gang related graffiti tagging, but masterpieces, creative expressions, the occasional political or social statement.  Overall - a really cool shortcut on the way home.  Right around the corner from the Eye and the Tube I bid the group farewell as they headed back home.  At this juncture a small group decided heard of my plan and decided they wanted to join me on my stroll.  And so myself, Mr. Becker, Mr. Dewinetz, Janey, Shelby, Serena and Celina headed towards the Thames.

The authorized graffiti tunnel
More of the authorized graffiti tunnel
Walking along side Jubilee park, the blue lights of the London Eye lit up the ominous cloud filled nights sky.  While I utilized the various posts, benches and rails to stabilize my camera, nothing is really a substitute for a good tripod and remote.  But even without the perfect photo, every moment of the walk was a welcome breath of fresh air.  The girls hopped up on the posts to post in front of the night Eye, and many photos were snapped as we drew closer to the river.

Janey, Shelby, Serena and Celina on the posts, with London Eye in the background.
Best Caption I could get of the London eye, with group in the foreground walking towards it.  Needed more time and a tripod.  But the view was incredible either way.
Along the bank of the Thames there were various platforms carved out or elevated to allow local artists to showcase their talents.  When coming across an abandoned platform, the 4 girls who had joined my decided to lip-sync and act/interpret the lyrics to the great Queen hit - "Bohemian Rhapsody."  There is something awesome that happens when something so random, spontaneous, humorous, and authentic like this happens - you never forget it.  Also - you instantly hit record on your camera so that you can share this gem with one and all:

Following the musical interlude and a few hundred photo attempts, we crossed over the Westminster Bridge towards Big Ben.  It was nearing 9:00 pm, and so we decided to wait the extra few minutes to hear the bell chime before heading home.  In our attempt to take photos in front of the Palace of Westminster, we were photobombed by a couple of mimes who were quickly looking for a hand out - this is something that commonly happens to tourist.  I'm sure many are pressured to hand over a pound or two, but we had no problem shaking out head and quickly walking away.  Confidence is key in situations like that.  

Palace of Westminster and Bell Tower
Bell Tower, Group with the mimes, and Mr. Becker and I in front of the tower, 5 minutes before 9.
As 9:00 pm came, Big Ben echoed loudly (and in tune and good time) - a moment well worth waiting for.    A rewarding walk, and a wonderful treat at the end of a wonderful day.  

And I wasn't the only one who loved it.  "I liked walking by the Thames at night and hearing Big Ben ring. It was nice to see how everything was out up and how different things are at night compared to during the daytime. And yes, we did have some fun there and on the way back too :D" - Shelby

London Eye - a welcome pause in a busy city

I'm going to be honest here - going into this trip I thought the London Eye was one of those over-rated, over-priced tourist attractions that we kind of "had" to do - for no other reason that it was on the list of things everyone "should" do.  As a tourist destination it gets more visitors that the Taj Mahal and Pyramids of Giza combined.  But I wasn't sure why.  It's just a giant ferris wheel, right?

So I bought the tickets, put a date on the calendar, prepared for the long line and added it to the itinerary.  We showed up, picked up, lined up, and less than 15 minutes later were in our own private glass capsule, slowly moving upwards to the east, with a beautiful view of the bridges, buildings, gardens, and of course, the Thames.  And it was awesome.  It was photos and selfies, pictures on every side, from every angle, and every configuration of students possible.  It was 26 minutes of pure joy, wonderful views, and a celebration of all the friendships that had been made and/or strengthened in the last week.  The sun was shining and the capsule was warm.  It was a break from the cool London wind.  There was room to sit and rest your feet, though most didn't, because the place to be was up against the glass.  We rounded the top and started to set on the west, watching the Palaces of Westminster becoming increasingly clearer.  And it was wonderful.  Every moment of it.  It was a moment of pause in an otherwise busy week - one needed and enjoyed by all.

Getting Ready to Board the Eye
Entering the Capsule, and the photo session starts immediately.
Here's our group!  Love these guys!  Couldn't have asked for a better group to explore London with.
Group sitting on the rails, with London behind them.  On the bottom you have Ms. Garr (left) and Ms. Mulji (right) and the views from the capsule in between.
The view of the Palace of Westminster (top), group selfies (bottom left) and group getting ready for the "official" picture (right).
Few last photos before exiting the capsule - include a rare one of me (I prefer to be behind the camera.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Royal Observatory

As a physics teacher, the first two units of measurement we learn are time, and distance.  And while we teach these ideas now as if they have always been, the measurement of time as we know it, and length has we have come to accept it, had to start somewhere.  And one of the places instrumental in that was the Royal Observatory.

Our last morning in London we woke up at a reasonable hour, enjoyed our routine hearty breakfast (unlimited access to Bacon, Sausage, Hashbrowns, Beans, Eggs, Mushrooms, Croissants, Cereal, Yogurt, Fruit Salad, Muffins, Coffee, Hot Chocolate, Bread, Cheese, Ham and Orange Juice) before heading far across London, and the Thames, to Greenwich - home of the Royal Observatory (and Cutty Sark, and Maritime Museum - though we didn't visit those places).  The directions I was given told us that we needed to get out of the DLR (Docklands Light Rail) station at Cutty Sark (across from a giant old boat) and then walk through the park and up the hill.  This translated into "get out at a station with construction.  Walk up 100 stairs, through a Naval College, cut through the Queen's house next to the Maritime Museum, and then walk to the top of a VERY STEEP HILL."  Check.  So a good mornings aerobic activity (not that the 100 km we'd walked in the 9 days previous could be called lazy).  It was a drizzling, cool morning, but we made it to a rather unassuming brick building at the top of the hill.  There are many things awesome about this place that made it worth the climb and effort.
Meridian House, housing many astronomical relics (top), entrance to the Royal Observatory (bottom left) and walking through (and up) Greenwich Park (bottom right).
1.  It's the home of the Prime Meridian.  Yes there is an arbitrary place that divides the east and west hemisphere, and this is it.  France also fought for the right, as did a few other places, but London won.  And all measurements of longitude East and West are measured from this point.  And so we could enter the Meridian Courtyard, and stand on the Prime Meridian.  How often can you say that?  We stood with one foot in the east and one foot in the west and took our photos.  Yup.  It was pretty cool.
Our group straddling the Prime Meridian int he Courtyard (top) and individually Qudrat, Mr. Becker, myself and Celina & Serena (bottom)
Harjot & Rene (top left), Kiran & Harpreet (bottom left), and Suesha, Simran and Harleen (right), on either sides of the Prime Meridian.
2.  It's home of time.  With a 24 hour magnetic clock ticking to the half second, and ball that drops each day at one in tradition for sailors setting their watches as they sailed down the Thames.  The Royal Observatory existed in a time where there was a need for more accurate navigation. And in the 1800's there was no universally recognized time.  So eventually there was a world wide meeting and a giant vote and 1884 it was decided that all world time would be measured relative to Greenwich.  And to this day, our time zones are +/- Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) - the time at the Royal Observatory.
The 24 hour magnetic clock outside the Observatory.  Also, a place that the British could go back in the 1600's to measure items.  They placed them between the two brass pegs to get a definite Yard, foot, or 6 inch measurement.
3.  Cool astronomy stuff happened here.  They have a SIDEREAL CLOCK.  One of 2 working sidereal clocks in the world.  It may be possible that I was the only one who cared about this.  In short - as the world we measure days/years in one astronomical way, but there is more than 1 "correct" option - and this is the less accepted (and known) version to those outside of astronomy and physics.  But if you are curious, check here.

4.  Christopher Wren, architect who built St. Paul's Cathedral, Kensington Palace, and many other famous British Buildings, also built the Royal Observatory, including the octagon room.  The king at the time heard that Louis XIV of France was building an observatory, and insisted that Britain have one too.  He only have £500 to spend, and Wren said he was up to the task and completed it for only £520.  From that point on the Astronomer Royal was appointed by the King/Queen and lived here in what is now known as the Flamsteed House - After Flamsteed, the first astronomer Royal.

Top - Tombstone of Halley, second Astronomer Royal (and discoverer of Halley's Comet), Sidereal Clock, and ancient measuring devices.  Bottom, the octagon room.
5.  Astronomy Stuff.  Space is cool.  There is a telescope, and historical telescopes and various ancient and modern space devices.  They do a lot of research there and have great school programs, but unfortunately we couldn't study Cosmic Radiation this day because we weren't a UK school.  So we had to settle for enjoying the view, a brief walk through the courtyard and houses, and a momentary stop on the Prime Meridian.  So no complaints here!

view of the Queen's house, Maritime Museum and Naval College from the top of the hill, and London beyond (left); the Prime Meridian (right) complete with distances to various cities from this line (measured in degrees).