Friday, September 5, 2008

The Graciousness of Greenwich

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'Greenwich? For me, it's always been Greenwich Mean Time. Coming close on it's heels is the Prime Meridian. All those geography lessons in grade eight or nine come back so vividly. So, when Freshmen Orientation included a visit to Greenwich on a Thames River cruise, I was ready to join in a heartbeat. After all, it had been 22 years since I had last stood astride the Prime Meridian and taken a picture of myself straddling the Eastern and Western Hemispheres; and I was keen to see how much the place had changed since I was last there.

Well, as luck would have it, the day dawned grey and somber--in other words, a typical English September morn! We had instructions to assemble at Westminster Pier at 10. 15 and changing a train at Bond Street, I made it to the Embankment in just about a half hour. (I still can't quite get used to the fact that it does not take me more than half an hour to get anywhere in London. Being based in Connecticut, getting to New York meant at least two hours!)

Our NYU hordes were noisy as might best be imagined when about 200 students are restlessly anticipating a 'field-trip'. We had the boat almost to ourselves and with a rather jolly guide providing a rather jocular running commentary, we were well entertained all the way to the Tower of London and beyond.

I was so excited! This was my first ever glimpse of London from the River Thames. Brown and muddy though the river was, towering Big Ben seemed to glow above us. The London Eye and all of the most easily recognizable monuments--St. Paul's, the Tate Modern, Sir Norman Foster's Gherkin, The Globe Theater, all seemed to look completely different from this perspective. And then there was so much I learned about the lesser-known buildings that dot the waterfront. Some of London's oldest pubs and taverns enjoy river-views. I saw the infamous Traitor's Gate--leading to the dreaded Tower of London--for the very first time. The Mayflower sailed to the New World from a wharf on the river. The city's water supply comes exclusively from the river--though it goes through several purification procedures, no doubt, to make it potable and completely safe for consumption. A far cry indeed from the Victorian days of Benjamin Disraeli who described the river as "a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror". (London by A.N. Wilsom, p. 105) He did not exaggerate. The Houses of Parliament built so picturesquely on the waterfront sometimes had to close for the day as the stench from the river was so unbearable. The Thames is today one of the cleanest industrial waterways in the world. These were some of the facts I gleaned from the guide who kept us fascinated and deeply amused by his tongue-in-cheek commentary.

Then, we alighted at Greenwich Pier where we were met by the famous Blue Badge guides. Our large group was divied up into smaller segments and I was assigned the charge of 35 students under the guidance of a very upbeat guide named Fedra Jones. She led us past the Cutty Sark, one of the oldest surviving Victorian tea clippers, unfortunately, shrouded under canvas as it undergoes repairs following a devastating recent fire. I remember having toured it 22 years ago and been astounded by the depths of its hold and its immense capacity. I had also then seen the Gypsy Moth II on which Sir Francis Chichester had achieved a solo circumnavigation of the globe. His tiny vessel, almost toy-like, is today harboured at Clowes on the Isle of Wight, but a pub right by the pier still carried the name of The Gypsy Moth.

Despite the intermittent rain that had brought the temperature crashing down, the village of Greenwich was abuzz. Fedra led us through a narrow cobbled street to the Greenwich Market where business appeared rather slow. My eyes were attracted to a stall that sold commemorative china but I was unable to find anything I coveted.

Next, we were were heading towards the Royal Naval College where some of the world's best known sailors had trained including Admiral Lord Nelson and the husband of the current Queen Elizabeth, Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. I was completely blown by the magnificence of the architecture. The classical lines of those stately building that hinted at the work of John Vanbrugh (of Castle Howard fame)and Nicholas Hawksmoor and, of course, Sir Christopher Wren himself, was easily evident to someone with even a passing knowledge of London's greatest designers. Then, just a few steps away was the Queen's House, work of Inigo Jones. Imagine...in less than a quarter of a mile, I saw the architectural creations of some of the most eminent English architects of all time. How incredible was that???

And what astounding creations they were too! The imposing classicism of Wren's twin domes flanked by uniform columns. And the buildings themselves--one meant to be a chapel, the other a dining room for the nation's mariners. Right across the street, the severe lines of the Queen's House that lacked any exterior ornamentation. To its right, the Royal Maritime Museum, crammed with some of the most intriguing memorabilia of all time. All of these jaw-dropping curiosities stacked within a few street blocks! How could one possibly comprehend this treasure?
Then, just when I began to feel overwhelmed by the splendour of the architecture, we entered the dining room, referred to today as The Painted Hall, and I almost passed out! The impact was so stunning visually that I gasped audibly. In a space that was meant to provide a sheltered room for the sailors' meals, contemporary 18th century artist James Thornhill went crazy, painting the walls and ceiling with scenes that melded classical Greek mythology with contemporary royal figures such as King George IV, his queen and children. Neither pictures nor words can do justice to the magnificence of this room that ranks, in my opinion, as one of England's grandest, on par perhaps, only with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. It was in this sumptuous room that the body of Lord Nelson lay in state before it was transported up the river to St. Paul's Cathedral for a state funeral.

I could have spent an hour at least contemplating those paintings and marveling at their detail, but I made my way next to the Chapel where the captivating altar piece by the American artist Benjamin West grabbed my attention. In a room whose decoration was markedly Greek with some of the most exquisite plasterwork I have ever seen, it was impossible to pray. Indeed, I felt as if I had strayed into a private room in an opulent European palace. Embellished liberally with Coade stone carvings in bas-relief, this chapel was not to be missed.

At this point, Fedra took her leave of us and the formal portion of our tour ended. Deciding to spend the rest of the day at Greenwich exploring the interiors of the Royal Maritime Museum and the Queens Palace, I went in search of a seat for a spot of lunch and a hot chocolate and could not have picked a better place than Paul's Patisserie that was in the museum. My feet received a much-longed-for rest and then my exploration began in the Nelson Gallery where the suit of clothes worn by Nelson was on display, complete with bullet hole and resulting bloodstains! His status as a war and national hero was proclaimed by the variety of memorabilia that was gathered in that room, much of which I found deeply interesting.

Other highlights of that museum included the Baltic Exchange stained glass windows by Forsythe, the Bridge upon which one could virtually stir a ship through a harbor and to the high seas, the ornate gilded barge made for Prince Frederick and, my favorite, an exhibit on 20th century ocean liners. I saw pictures of Gandhi on the S.S. Rajputana, the P. & O. liner on which he sailed to England in 1930 for the First Round Table Conference, menu cards from the historic ships the Mauritania and the Lusitania, real portable wardrobe trunks, a reproduction of the sort of bunk beds that were laid out in the galley and a host of other things that further romanticized for me the glamor of luxury sea-faring in the Edwardian Age. I loved it!

Then, I was racing to tour the Queen's House, built by Inigo Jones, which became the primary abode of Queen Henrietta Maria in the 18th century. Here, it was the exquisite Tulip Staircase that caught my eye, the black and white marble mosaic floor of the Great Hall and the wonderful Tudor portraits that I fancied. The 'grotesque-style' ceiling of the Queen's Room was also impressive but truly after seeing Thornhill's work in The Painted Hall, everything else paled into insignificance.

Back out on the streets, with 5 pm approaching, I decided to stroll around Greenwich Village to take in the 10th century churchyard of St. Alfrege's, an old dominating structure in Portland stone. I did try to take a peak inside but it was locked. A quick stroll followed around the Greenwich Market where I browsed among the bric-a-brac. I almost bought an Indian gold necklace studded with tiny diamonds, rubies and emeralds but walked away from the temptation when I saw that one of the diamonds had dropped out hinting at rather poor workmanship.

Then, I decided to do something unique. I could have taken the Docklands Light Railway from the Cutty Sark Station itself, but I went out in search of another adventure.Forget about the Chunnel (Channel plus Tunnel), I intended to explore the Thammel--my name for Thames plus Tunnel, get it? Indeed, Fedra had pointed out a foot path that took the walker under the River Thames on what it called the Greenwich Foot Passage. Now while I have never travelled through the Chunnel, I had often driven under a river--the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey and, believe me, I have often wondered what it might feel like to walk in that space. Unable to resist the temptation, I decided to find out and what a fun adventure that turned out to be. I entered through one of the glass domed structures and went about eight floors underground on a spiral staircase. In a few minutes--somewhat scary as there was no one else there at the time and I almost turned back--I found myself under the muddy bed of the River Thames, striding along in a tube that was covered with white ceramic tiles, in the company of a handful of other brave souls. In exactly fifteen minutes, I reached the other side and found a lift, thankfully manned by an attendant, that took me back to the surface on the opposite bank. What an amazing adventure I had and how sorry I felt that I did not have Llew to share it with. I know he would have been bowled over by the idea of walking under the river as much as we once enjoyed walking behind the Niagara Falls through a similar passage hewn in the rock behind the cascading water.

By then I was exhausted and could not wait to sit on the train--my first time on the Docklands Light Railway from the Island Garden station on the Isle of Dogs that took me back to Central London passing through the exciting parts of Canary Wharf that have developed so enormously in recent times that I have resolved to go out and explore that area on another day--perhaps a sunnier one. I got off at Bank where it terminated and took the Central Line where I got back home in another two stops.

Suffice it to say that my day was filled with adventures and I returned home exhausted but deeply fulfilled by what I saw and experienced.

1 comment:

Chriselle Almeida said...

How very exciting! The first of your many adventures in London.