Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Taking Tours--Royal Courts of Justice and Highgate Cemetery

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

     I am kicking jetlag on its butt--slowly but surely. Awake today at 5.00 am, I used an hour or so to blog about my doings in the company of my young friend Jonas who has since then been forbidden to leave his bed to join me! Knowing how obedient he is, I feel half sorry that I will not have to contend with Scooby-doo upon awakening. Still, I had a chance to shower, eat my muesli and yoghurt breakfast and rush off to St. John's Wood Tube station to hotfoot it to 8.00 am Mass at Westminster Cathedral where I was meeting my friend Reshma. She wanted to find out what a Catholic Mass was like and in the suitably awesome interior (recently refurbished to allow the Byzantine mosaics to glow softly), she had her first taste of daily ritual Mass although she felt slightly affronted that she could not receive "the offering"  (Communion). This, somewhat unexpectedly, called for my best explanation for her exclusion. She loved the unique Byzantine design of the Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the far more famous Anglican Westminster Abbey down the same road).

     Eager to catch up together, we fought the crowds flowing out in reverse direction from Victoria Station where, in Cafe Rouge, we had their 2.50 pound breakfast special: a beverage and a pastry (hot chocolate and a pain au chocolat for me; a latte and a plain croissant for her). As the mother of one of my favorite former students and someone I have discovered a little via email, there was so much more to learn about her--and we chattered non-stop. One hour and one selfie later, we were at the bus-stop heading for Fleet Street to cover the next item on our agenda: A Tour of the Royal Courts of Justice. It was only as we waited on a cruelly freezing morning for the Number 11 bus that took all of 12 minutes to arrive, that she informed me that she had a Law degree from India--although she had never practiced Law and had ended up in banking.

     Sunshine flooded the city and Parliament Square glowed as we turned the corner into Whitehall. Alas, we did not have the front seat but we were content to spy some of London's best-known landmarks: Big Ben, Nelson's Column at Trafalgar (later in the day,  I would see the grave at Highgate of the man who sculpted him, William Railton), Charing Cross, etc. We were early for our 11.00 am guided tour of the Royal Courts of Justice (given on Tuesdays, must be booked online) so popped into the Twinnings shop on the Strand that has been around since the 1700s. Alas, the tea tasting I had promised Reshma was not to happen as there was a corporate tasting event in session until 1.00 pm. Peeved, we were presented with sample sachets of tea by an apologetic assistance as we left.

Tour of the Royal Courts of Justice:
      I might have passed the Royal Courts of Justice hundreds of times and have never known that they are open to the public. But, come to think of if it, in a democracy, courts are indeed open (except, ironically, when held "in camera"). This marvelous confection of turrets, towers, spires, crenallated rooflines and stained glass windows might well lead the viewer to believe that he/she is looking at a fancy palace or medieval court. In fact, it is a Victorian addition to Fleet Street, the architectural work of one George Street, pupil of the famous Gilbert Scott (whose marvelous work I had admired yesterday at St. Pancras Station).

     Reshma and I went through Security screening, entered the august Main Hall with its brilliant tiled mosaic floor and grabbed a hold of one of the self-guided tour leaflets. For the next hour or so, we wove our way in and out of impressive chambers and court rooms along spotless marble clad corridors adorned with Gothic arches, casement windows,  winding stone staircases, wooden carvings and panelling, etc.  It was great fun to say hello to some of the greatest icons of the Law such as the "Fire Judges" who had listened to all cases pertaining to the destruction wrought by the Great Fire of London of 1666.  Upstairs, we spent time in the court rooms where judges were actually hearing cases--it is fun to see the regalia that she prevails in British courts: the horsehair wigs, the flowing black robes, the stiff elongated collars. In fact, the reason I finally chose to tour the Royal Courts of Justice that Queen Victoria had inaugurated, was because they are featured in some of the most compelling TV law shows I have recently been watching. The exteriors are also featured frequently in high-profile law cases (such as the Madonna-Guy Ritchie Divorce). It is a wonderful thing for a foreign tourist to do: to get a real glimpse into the working of British jurisprudence for it is like live drama. The judges ask pointed questions, the advocates respond. A clerk is seen recording the proceedings. The court rooms are ornate. There is decoration everywhere. Some have high square tower-like ceilings. We enjoyed it all.

     Also part and parcel of this tour is a visit to the Painted Room that adjoins a "Bear Garden"--a misnomer for no bear baiting actually went on there ever. The reference is to Queen Victoria who once visited the place, was shocked by the loud audible discussions of the lawyers and likened the din to a "bear garden". The Painted Room is spectacular, its paint fresh and crisp as the day it was done. There are cells--holding cells where prisoners are kept, pending sentence but, of course, they are out of bounds of the general public. I loved the idea of being able to wander around at will, watching lawyers in consultation in the corridors (just as in the TV shows), anxious relatives milling around and whispering quietly. This is real-life drama--something we do not see in the flesh daily unless we are part of the legal system of a country. Tours end in the Costume Gallery where we saw legal robes and regalia through the ages in the British Isles. Costume is so intrinsic to the practice of Law globally that it was huge fun to see how much importance it was given as we viewed the most ornate robes ever. A tour of the Royal Courts of Justice is most heartily recommended. It is the perfect thing to do if one has Been There, Done Everything in London. In fact, if one has not done so already, one can wander towards the Inns of Court in neighboring Chancery where more architectural delights await and one can see where the plotting and planning goes on that is then played out among the lawyers and their clients in the Royal Courts. It was a morning truly well-spent. And the tours are free of charge.

Off to Highgate Cemetery for Another Tour:
     It was time to bid Reshma goodbye. She had things to do and I had my tour to take, based on the one I had booked online.  I hopped on to a bus going down the Strand, hopped off at Charing Cross from where I bought a Brunch threesome sandwich from M&S Food for my picnic lunch in the park and off I went on the Northern Line train to  get off at Archway. It took me about 20 minutes and deposited me at Archway Station from where I got Bus 210 to Lauderdale Park/Waterlow (as instructed by the Highgate Cemetery website).  It was a very pleasant walk through the park amidst dog walkers and robust dogs, past duck ponds that had the glaze of thin layers of ice on them--truly, the day was freezing. I could not have picked a worse one for my outdoor tour of the cemetery and, by the time it was over, my toes felt frostbitten.

     It was time to eat my solitary lunch on a park bench and to take a breather before I proceeded to the gates of the Cemetery. I was early for my tour and able to to wander on to the East Side of the cemetery (where I had been before). Although here you do see high-profile graves such as those of Karl Marx (the most popular) and George Eliot, this is all you see--plus row upon row of Victorian mortuary sculpture featuring angels, urns, crosses. On the West Side (for which you need to book and pay), there is a guided tour given by a member of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. This happened to be a very elderly woman who moved at snail's pace, spoke in the softest voice that I had difficulty hearing and seemed out of breath rather frequently as she negotiated the hills of the property. All the time,  she provided information on the  space and its inhabitants. About 194,000 people are buried here in about 78,000 graves. Many graves contain only ashes but even buried ashes are placed in purchased plots that are carefully numbered. As long as one could pay for a burial and was from the Church of England, one had access to this site. Later, the C of E rules were relaxed and as long as you were Christian, you were allowed final resting in this spot.

     The most famous recent burial was that of so-called Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko known as Sacha  whose grave is fresh and nondescript but has a small early picture adorning it. As the family had requested that the public not take pictures, we refrained. There was a lot to learn as we trudged up a hill about mortuary emblems, the fact that symbols of one's profession were sculpted facing downwards (because they will never be used again) and about burial conventions. But the true charm of taking and paying for a tour of the West side (although there are no really prominent names buried here--a clerk had once told me, years ago, "We do not do fame!"), is that you get to enter the Lebanon Circle where you see family vaults and finally get into the catacombs where lead-lined coffins that have worn with age can be seen very easily in the eerie darkness on shelves only a foot away. These, to my mind, are the best part of a visit here. You enter in pitch darkness and with the aid of a flashlight you see these shelves of coffins, some concealed behind a grave stone bearing a name, others exposed for all to see. There is evidence of grave robbing everywhere--not even in death were folks allowed to rest. We could not access some of the more famous graves--such as that of the Rossettis and Elizabeth Siddal who had moddelled for some of the most famous Pre-Raphelite paintings, as the path was too icy and closed off. The tour included tour graves that were crowned with extraordinary sculpture--one of a lion, another of a dog--the stories that accompanied them were just as fascinating. The lion belonged to a menagerist called George Someone, the dog to a bare fist fighter called Thomas Sawyer. They allowed us to pause and take in the eccentricities of the Victorians but, on such a freezing day, I would have restricted the tour to half its length. 

     Would I recommend such a tour to a visitor? If you do death, yes. If you have run out of things to do in London (almost an impossibility) yes, if you enjoy stories of strange people, yes. But, for Pete's sake, make sure you choose a warmer day!  

More Retail Therapy and Meeting Michelle:
     Had it been a more pleasant day, I might have lingered in pretty Highgate Village and browsed through its shops. As it was, I could not wait to walk to the bottom of Swain's Lane (about 8 minutes) from where I hopped into a C2 bus that took me past lovely corners of Northern London: Kentish Town and Camden before bringing me to Oxford Circus where I hopped off and nipped straight into Marks and Sparks for my supply of eats: Battenburg Cake and Fruity Flapjack Biscuits. Meanwhile, on the bus, my friend who conducts Civil Law for the British government, Michelle Misquita, had texted to find out if I had any time free to see her. After shopping, I sure did, because my next appointment was dinner with my NYU colleague and friend, Mahnaz. I finished buying my goodies, jumped back on the Tube to meet Michelle at St. James' Park's lovely Art Deco station with its Jacob Epstein sculpture all over the place, and then there I was having a lovely reunion with her and settling down for some hot chocolate at Pret a Manger nearby. Michelle and I were college classmates in Elphinstone College, Bombay, majoring in English, and had a very healthy rivalry for marks raging on between the two of us! It is always a joy to catch up with her and to hear about the goings-on in her life. We parted promising each other a reunion with the third member of our English Honors Threesome, Marie-Lou whome I had just met in Bombay visiting from Chicago, some time soon.

Dinner with Mahnaz:
     And then it was time to make my way back to Mayfair to meet Mahnaz, my NYU colleague now on a sabbatical of sorts in London. She picked  out an Italian eatery called Finos on North End Street behind the Primark store on Oxford Street and there she was, sipping a glass of red Vallipocelli as I walked in. She was starving; I had been nibbling and sipping hot drinks all day, but was ready to sink my teeth into a good salad. And that was what I ordered although she went for a gigantic burger. Goat cheese, pine nuts, assorted peppers and pesto adorned my salad and made it very tasty indeed as it was lightly dressed with balsamic vinegrette. A lovely dinner accompanied by a glass of Peroni, Italy's very light beer. Despite having just passed a semester as colleagues in New York, Mahnaz and I had barely found the time to connect--we have to travel, it seems to other parts of thew world (Florence, Venice, London) to really sit and connect. We talked about future plans for research and publication and about personal issues and before we knew it, it was almost ten o clock and time to call it a night.

     We went our separate ways--me, making the delightful discovery that she is a lodger for the next 9 months with Kate Buffrey, the actress who played the female lead in Trial and Retribution, the detective and courtroom drama that Llew and I had recently enjoyed! What a tiny world!

     It was another day that was packed to capacity--as indeed all my days in London are. And at 11.00 pm, when I sank into bed, I fell asleep instantly.

Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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