Always Check the Weather

Always Check the Weather

When we finally got settled into our apartment, we took our first serious look at sightseeing since our arrival. Turns out English schools have a half-term break for every term (and three terms). Unlike the usual two terms that we’re used to. Canadian schools don’t get a major break until Christmas, so it was a breath of fresh air to have a week for ourselves.

We planned to visit Kew Gardens during our first outing. The hubby chaperoned a field-trip there during the first month of school and thought I’d really enjoy it. The royal Botanical Gardens (called ‘Kew Gardens’) contains the world’s largest collection of living plants. Created in 1759 it now houses more than 30,000 living plants and it’s herbarium contains more than seven million preserved plant specimens. During the field trip, my husband and his students learned that it’s common practice to bring plant samples back to Kew Gardens to be studied and tested for development in other parts of the world.

Unfortunately, hurricane force winds blew through the area that weekend. We set out unaware the gardens were forced to close due to inclement weather. Luckily, we checked the website during our stopover and discovered the closure before we had to change trains. Since we’d already spent the money for travel, we re-directed to the heart of London and spent the day sightseeing instead.

When we arrived, we headed for Saint Martin in the Fields. A friend of mine recommended the church both for its musical performances and the café located beneath it; the Café in the Crypt. It’s exactly what you expect; they’ve cleaned up the catacombs beneath the church, lit them, and turned them into a modern cafe. You can eat dinner over the tombstones, if you like.

It’s a bit disturbing if you think about it; rather like a picnic in a graveyard. But as a writer, sitting among those old stones lit by modern lighting, it’s inspiring as heck. I can kind of see why so many great writers are British; there’s inspiration everywhere over here. All you have to do is walk out the door. I sat in the crypt while my husband paid for dessert, wondering how some of my fantasy characters would react to the idea of a tourist attraction in what was once a sacred crypt. Like I said; inspiring as heck.

After lunch, we took a walk in Trafalgar Square. We’d been there once before, the day we arrived, but I was so tired the memory’s nothing but a haze. Since it was close to Halloween, there were people dressed as various characters standing outside the National Gallery. We saw a storm trooper, a pair of Yodas, and Minnie Mouse. There were lines for all the characters except Minnie. While we passed, a young girl, couldn’t have been older than a year or two, ambled up to Minnie Mouse since there was no crowd to stop her. The look of utter awe on her face was one of the most adorable and touching things I’ve ever seen.

We spent some time near the giant blue rooster. I’m not sure whose idea it was to build a giant blue rooster, or what it’s supposed to represent, but I was quite fascinated by it. While we were at the Café in the Crypt, we saw some prototype suggestions for a new statue in Trafalgar Square. None of those made sense to us either.

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Nearby, a chalkmaster drew various flags in a giant mosaic. As we approached, we noticed people left money on each of the flags – usually the currency that corresponded with the flag. Of course, we had to represent so we each dropped a loonie on the Canadian flag.

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We stopped across the way at the Canadian Embassy to bask in a tiny piece of home. The building is beautiful (way better than the American Embassy, sorry dudes). The doors are made of wood and beautifully carved with the fanciest maple leaves we’ve ever seen.

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Our last stop for the day was the Imperial War Museum.

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The museum was under construction. We suspect much of their usual content was in storage, which is unfortunate, though I imagine it’s going to be impressive after the renovations. But it also made it easy to get through all the museum’s content in a single afternoon.

Our first stop was the World War II exhibit which focuses on a single family and their account of living through the blitzkrieg in London during the Second World War. It talks about what each family member did during war time and it illustrates how everyone contributed to the war effort, even if they weren’t soldiers. It also talks about the evacuation and how many people subsequently returned home, since the bombing started later than anticipated. It’s a haunting and poignant reminder of a dark time in our history.

Our favorite exhibit was probably the secret agent exhibit, dedicated to members of MI5 and MI6. Ironically, it starts with video footage of James Bond and warns that the things beyond are truth rather than fiction. These are bits of declassified information that have been released to the public to educate people on the role these special forces played in both world wars. Yet the objects on display are more impressive than secret agent movies!

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Like this briefcase transmitter.

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This is called “the Enigma device.” Not pictured are two massive rotors that fit inside the machine. Depending on the rotor and the position of the wires, the machine will type different letters. Essentially it’s designed for writing coded messages. The recipient requires the corresponding cypher in order to decode the message.

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And, my personal favorite, a bomb delay kit. Each different vial will delay the ignition of a bomb for a different length of time depending on the thickness of the vial used.

The top floor of the museum featured medals given to soldiers throughout history, most specifically recipients of the Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross is awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy.” It is the highest military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries and former British Empire territories (Canadians were included in the exhibit). It has been awarded only 14 times since the Second World War. Out of respect for the soldiers and their families, we didn’t take any photos in the exhibit. But we did pause to read some of the stories. I wish I had time and space to devote to them all. These were courageous men, many of whom stayed or went back into combat after suffering grievous injuries. Many risked their lives repeatedly to defuse bombs or safely navigate ships through mine fields. One pilot strapped the plane’s last remaining parachute to another member of the crew, sacrificing himself to save another. It was a hall of heroes and a humbling way to end our first day-trip to London.

One Reply to “Always Check the Weather”

  1. Thank you for sharing this fascinating slice of your London visit. You are so right about the inspiration there! So many places we visited were like stepping through a portal into another realm, although we missed the Cafe in the Crypt–creepy cool! I would love to visit that WWII exhibit. My mum-in-law was a child in Manchester then, which was also heavily bombed, and she and her older brother (for whom my hubby is named) were sent to the country, just like the Pevensies of Narnia fame.

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