Thursday, June 3, 2010

All Your Typical Sights...And More Sausages

Greetings from pub country!

We indulged in a few must see spots this afternoon in London – the Thames, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Tate Britain Museum, and, of course, further critical investigation of this “pub culture” as it were. The neighborhood we’re staying in, South Kensington, is bustling yet laid back, so venturing out into one of the most popular tourist districts was an awakening. Sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder people in Westminster City, and I began to consider what it might be like to live as a Londoner, to have all of these strangers invading your city, gawking and snapping photos. We tried to be as respectful and discreet as possible.

The river, Big Ben, and Parliament experiences were pretty much limited to this: “Hey, there it is! Cool!” Then we took some photos and tried not to step on the very small Asians all around. To be sure, it was still poignant standing in the presence of such iconic monuments. We pushed on the Westminster Abbey, “the finest church in the English speaking world,” according to Jeremy Irons, our audio tour guide. I’m glad it was as fine as it was since we paid ₤27 to get in, that’s $40 to the Yanks. John and I agreed wholeheartedly, after the tour, that it was worth every quid. The architecture inside is both oppressive and sublime at once, typical of medieval style buildings. Though not the most ornate or breathtaking church I’ve ever visited, the historical import of the place was enough to baffle me. Westminster Abbey is one of the oldest structures in London, and every single monarch ever to rule was crowned on premises (many are buried there, which is the church’s main interest point). Our friend Jeremy narrated to us through our audio guides (they looked like early nineties cell phones) about the rise and fall of kings and queens as we visited their tombs, and I felt a little bit like an ADD child. John has studied British history and I haven’t really, so he helped to keep me on track. It’s very hard to sort out all the Marys and Williams and Jameses. Who was married to whom. Who begot whom. Etc… My diligence was rewarded, however, when we came to the section known as “Poets’ Corner.” This area of the church pays homage to the great writers and artists of England throughout history. The arrangement of this corner looks as if it came from the frazzled mind of some poet or genius composer. Monuments are scattered without any semblance of order, all erected of different types of stone, all in different styles. Some monuments boast elaborate likenesses and metaphorical carvings. On the floor are inlaid slabs engraved with other, more modest tributes. Just a few of the greats that are commemorated or buried here include: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, all the Bronte girls, D.H. Lawrence, Laurence Olivier (laid to rest just at the feet of the Shakespeare monument!), Tennyson, Auden, Byron, Dylan Thomas, the composer Handel and the list goes on. It was exciting to be in the presence of so many brilliant creators. Even more, it was exhilarating to realize that the citizens of Great Britain insist upon commemorating their artists alongside their kings and queens.

After the Abbey, we continued to the Tate Britain, a museum housing works by British artists exclusively. (They did cheat some of the time, though, and included works by foreigners that were created in country.) There were a lot of paintings of Lord and Lady What’s-their-names. Duke This and Duchess That. We skimmed those pretty quickly. They only had two or three of their Blake paintings on display, which was a major bummer for John. We did see a handful of lovely Pre-Raphaelite works along with several rooms filled with sublime, immense landscape paintings. Along with these finds, the real treat of the tour, for us, were the modern and contemporary galleries. It’s just a taste of what’s to come when we visit the Tate Modern later in the week. I’ll have more enthusiasm for that one, I’m sure.

Our final destination was St. George’s pub where John, yet again, consumed a large plate of sausage, mashed potatoes, and gravy. I had some mussels in cream sauce (yes, this is a typical pub food.) It was pretty good, but I find myself falling into the old trope regarding Britain and its terrible food. I need vegetation, and soon. We’re going to check out some of the ethnic food tomorrow night, and maybe I can track down a V8 somewhere. Back to the pub scene, though. Let me tell you, it’s about as rowdy a place as you can imagine. The joints we’ve visited have been spilling over (I mean literally, there are people out on the street sloshing them back) with twenty and thirty-somethings just out of the office, still in ties and high heels. There is a definite camaraderie between these folks, and they seem completely involved in one another’s company and conversation. The beer actually seems quite incidental, and it never seems like anyone is ever eating anything. This evening culture is very different from what I have found in other European countries where people sit down to enjoy long, leisurely meals with one another. To be honest, I would describe the pubs as a bourgeois frat party of sorts. People drink copious amounts of relatively non-descript beer and stand in clusters conversing and eyeing other groups. You have to push around people to get to the bartender and it’s really loud. I guess it’s a way to decompress after a day working in a city as bustling as London, though the pub seems as bustling as the city itself. As a tourist, I really feel on the outside of this community, but, then again, we haven’t yet been out on a weekend. We’ll see how that scene compares.

Well, this day really kicked our butts. We already took a late afternoon nap – snooze-fest from about 7:30pm until 9:00pm, and now we’re considering doing some more field research on the exotic pub culture. Even though it runs like water and is as ubiquitous as the air itself, the beer is still a treat for us – a tasty one.


  1. Hey there, I'm a friend of Lynette Enz Liberge from high school, and now my family and I live in London! I concur completely with you about W. Abbey: Poets Corner is where it's at! Kipling! Chaucer! Thrilling.

    Have you any need of help while you're here? Just give a shout! via my blog, address in a hot link here!

  2. Forgot to add: I'm a DePauw graduate, an art historian, and now a food writer! Guess why Lynette wanted us to get together?!

  3. I can relate vicariously to this post just having finished cataloging a row of books from the Saatchi Gallery, who loved the YBAs, who were loved by the Tate Modern. So envious that you can actually explore all this! I know how you love the Caravaggio (and rightfully so), but if you're in the mood to spice up your monochrome dinner plates with some contemporary art, Saatchi is the heavyweight.

  4. Your posts are wonderful, Kate. It's like being there with you. Keep them coming!