A trip to London can be so refreshing. The fact that I was once a sometimes cynical, sometimes prematurely life-weary foot plod of the Metropolitan Police who sometimes took so much of my surroundings slightly for granted, seemed to melt away as I revelled in the magnificence of my country's capital, the place where my parents grew up, worked in, suffered in during the Blitz and raised my sister and I. I was proud of the old place and forgave it the hard times it sometimes gave me.
We were there last weekend and stayed for a few days doing the tourist thing and strolling through the Royal Parks, the Churchill War Rooms museum (part of the Imperial War Museum), Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, The Embankment, Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, a stroll across the bridges to the South bank, coffee and croissants with scrambled eggs on toast in the fab bistro near the entrance to The Royal Festival Hall, early dinner in The Ivy then a 2 minute stroll up to Cambridge Circus to see "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" for the second time in 18 months before heading home on Tuesday with first class train tickets and all the salmon sandwitches, tea and cake I could stuff down between Kings Cross/St Pancras and Leeds. (My old English teacher told me that a sentence should always be between fifteen and twentyfive words, but I was on a roll there and just couldn't shut up).
Most of the above were my old stamping grounds during my London years as a police officer and so Mrs HD, with her own personal tour guide, was treated to some of the unseen streets that many tourists will miss, either through ignorance, apprehension about straying `off the beaten track` or time constraints. That is a shame because you can miss out seeing a very different side to the old place. We had a pint in my old local, just down the road from the Roman Catholic Cathederal in Victoria. A haven off the tourist trail by a mere 100 yards which meant it really was a `locals` boozer. I was in a time warp and flawed memories flooded back. The pub had its name changed 3 weeks ago but the refurb it had undergone was so good, so sympathetic to the classic London pub, that I intend to write to the brewery to tell them so.
We strolled back down to Parliament Square and I took my beloved through an arch next to Westminster Abbey and into Deans Yard where we strolled around the cloisters of Westminster School, a peaceful haven where, as a young London Bobby, I would escape for a few precious, peaceful moments during my otherwise bustling tour of duty. It was fascinating to see the pupils of this very expensive public school strutting between classes. We eavesdropped on lecturers corner chit-chats, briefing each other on pupils' progress and `unsuitable` items they had confiscated from Thompkinson-minor during British Constitution. We had a laugh on speculating what these items might have been.
As we strolled across Horseguards Parade I pointed out the back garden of 10 Downing Street and told of freezing winter nights I'd spent pacing up and down waiting for my midnight relief to take over and allow me a blessed 45 minutes in the warmth of Cannon Row police station canteen before heading out again to sit on the frost covered garden seat, my legs wrapped in the daily papers in an attempt to keep warm. I had more than just sympathy for what the vagrants of the parks and gardens suffered. There were times I was so cold I doubt I could have aimed my little Walther PP at any would be intruder attempting to scale the wall. If they came over with a flask of hot coffee I'd have been a push over. I chatted with the guys from the Diplomatic Protection Group covering the perimeter and swapped a few yarns. They listened to my ramblings with remarkable politeness and even asked a few questions of me, bless `em, and they still seem to be working the same basic rota I did over 35 years earlier - probably because it worked. There's progress! We shook hands as they headed of for a grub break and we headed off for a cappuchino and a bun.
But for me, the most remarkable object I encountered was at the Royal Observatory, now part of The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. We stayed in Greenwich on the saturday as we were attending my sisters 60th yes, sixtieth, wedding anniversary. (I'm not that old, I just came late in my parents life!). Greenwich has a village feel about it and there are some great little cafes, bistros and shops and all this within a 20 minute ride from Trafalgar Square. The Royal Observatory is a fantastic place, a beautiful historic building in a wonderful park at the top of a steep hill that, once you've caught your breath, affords a fabulous view across the Thames to the glass towers of commerce beyond. I could almost see our old house in East London from up there. The lavender covered gardens within the Observatory grounds and Flamsteed House, where once strolled the likes of Edmond Halley and Sir Isaac Newton, were a picture. It was such a powerful place, the centre for the study of time and space and the home of the famous Meridian Line that defines East from West.
The significance of time and astronomical studies is something that is so easily dismissed these days, but in the 17th and 18th centuries it was something of a Holy Grail type quest for the need to navigate ships accurately. Sextant-like instruments available to fix positions on the oceans have been around for centuries and early navigators were capable of pinpointing their position fairly accurately, in respect of their latitude (North and South). It was pinning down their position on the East/West or Longitude that eluded them. What was needed was a clock, but not just any clock, it had to be a clock that could not only operate on a heaving ship but one that could be set to a known time so as to back calculate. It also had to be capable of maintaining great accuracy.
The story of the search for Longitude is one that I read a few years ago in this book by Dava Sobel and despite sounding an unlikely subject to be exciting, I found it one of the most touching and remarkable books I have ever picked up, for the incredible story that it told. The below picture is of John Harrison's 4th attempt to create the timepiece desired by the British Government in 1714. There were three that preceded it and they looked nothing like this one and were huge by comparison, albeit remarkable in their detail. Some of the wheels were actually made of wood and the fine work of the movements were almost impossibly beautiful that one marvelled at the fact they were crafted to such fine tolerances in the 1700's. Harrison's story is one of the greatest tales of history.
At about 5" in diameter, Harrison's `4th` is arguably one of the singularly most important and significant objects ever created (after my wife). I stood before this clock and was mesmerised by it and what it meant to the world.
Other less significant but still memorable events are shown hereafter:
|Lavender in the gardens of the Royal Observatory|
|Approaching Greenwich Pier|
|Towards Horseguards Parade from The Duck Bridge, St James's Park|
|A pint of Yorkshire beer, in a London pub?? WTF?|
I'll go for a stroll now and contemplate our own future. We appear to have sold our house, after nearly three years of frustration and let downs. Perhaps our time is coming at last. The question now is, "where to next"?