Diary of a UK Trip, Part 5

Three weeks in the UK

by Julian Edgar

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From seeing the Concorde stress test body to the best bridge I have ever seen; from experiencing the century-old banked track at Brooklands, to being inside a genuine Cold War nuclear bunker – I’ve seen a lot in 14 days! Now, we wrap up the trip by spending the last four days in London.

Day #14

We're again in London's suburbs tonight. We have booked a hotel for a few nights and are tubing it into central London each day. We did that today, visiting the Science Museum and walking around a bit, and we'll do the same tomorrow.

We spent the afternoon today at the Science Museum and in that time did only the ground floor – just one of the five levels.

Fabulous stuff - I was especially impressed with:

… Charles Parsons' original steam turbine and electrical generator (all just a metre or so long)…

…the Nazi V2 rocket (and its displayed internal parts like these gyroscopes)…

…the very old machine tools like this 1816 lathe…

…Jet 1 - the first turbine Rover…

…and the punch card weaving loom – effectively the first programmable machine tool.

However, the museum also has a way of showing how Britain has declined as an industrial and scientific pioneer: it's hard to find anything British that's really important from the last 50 years.

We'll be back at the Science Museum tomorrow.

Central London is stunningly different to the rest of England and Scotland that we have seen: it appears that about 95 per cent of the UK's wealth is located in about 0.1 per cent of the land area. Well maintained buildings, clean(!), grand architecture, high level shops - gosh.

It does make one wonder at the sheer inequity so apparent across the country... and when one looks a little closer and sees amongst the extravagant central London wealth the beggars and the homeless, it makes one wonder further… If they spent even a tiny proportion of what is obviously spent on central London on improving housing conditions across the country, it would be a better place.

At the check-out at the suburban supermarket tonight, while I sat on a bench for a few minutes waiting for Georgina to put through her goods, no less than three people had difficulty paying for their groceries....

Day #15

Well this morning we tubed in to London centre from our suburban hotel (the tube is very impressive - no complaints at all). We went to the Science Museum (again) this morning, briefly tried the Victoria and Albert Museum, then walked around London for a bit.

The Science Museum is really outstanding - they just need a bit more space so that they can, for example, display more full-size agricultural equipment, rather than use just models in (admittedly very good) diaramas.

But I have to say that the Science Museum is a class act indeed.

The V&A museum - well, today we quickly realised we weren't really in the mood, but we expect to return to it.

Day #16

We're tonight in Kensington, only about 3km from the London city centre. We are at this hotel until we leave - that is, three nights.

Today we saw very little. We had to return the hire car to Heathrow, and get a tube train to this hotel. Sounds simple. However, by the time we also packed up two boxes of books and (expensively) freighted them home, and had to locate a few places without either mobile phone working (we left it too long before topping-up the credit - they're working again now), well, that took over half the day.

This afternoon we went for a walk around Chelsea and Kensington - an ultra-rich part of London, with a Ferrari dealership and 8 million pound houses.... Bentleys picking up the kids from school; stuff like that.

Day #17

Pretty boring day today, me thinks.

We went and saw the international station at St Pancras - that was rather good, with the old station redone for its new purpose. Impressive – but at 800 million pounds for the redo, it would want to be!

But that was about it.

Also went to London's largest toy shop (OK I guess - but they didn't even have Lego Mindstorms);  went to Europe's biggest shopping centre (an [Australian] Westfield, about three times as big as a large Australian Westfield) but otherwise much the same; went to an antiques market (looked interesting but 90 per cent of the 200 shops [each very, very tiny] was shut on this Saturday morning); walked through Hyde Park (if you’ve seen Adelaide’s parklands, Hyde Park is nothing impressive)....and then came back to the hotel room and played Monopoloy.

Day #18

Had a really good day in London today.

We started off by going to the Churchill War Rooms, another Imperial War Museum. The IWM charge a lot but they have really excellent museums.

The War Rooms had individual electronic 'guides' that you carried with you; you selected on the device the number that matched the room and then a voice from the device would give you an in-ear description. Alexander had his own device (ie one for kids) and it was all very effective.

The War Rooms just blew me away – they are enormously impressive. (But of course it's the victors telling the history, isn't it - Hitler's bunker would be just as interesting - if the Allies hadn't wrecked it!)

From there we went for a boat ride on the Thames. This was OK, but at AUD$50 for about 20 minutes, a bit over the top. I kept waiting for the old thing to sink - and then the guide walked round collecting tips!

We went by this boat to the Tower Bridge - a really fascinating structure. I hadn't realised that the top cross-parts were pedestrian walkways, and also that it is really a steel bridge with the towers clad in stone.

The steam machinery rooms and the hydraulic accumulators, that originally operated the lifting portions of the bridge, were excellent. Overall, a lovely bridge - even if the ornateness of the stone cladding is a bit off-putting when seen up close. I very much liked this structure - but after the Firth of Forth bridge, well, nothing compares...

From there we went to the (wait for it) Science Museum - yep, for the third time. I realised that we'd somehow skipped the 'air' part, so this time we saw:

…an airship engine, a cross-section (full-size) of the Boeing 747 (and also the original 747 wind tunnel model)…

…a cutaway V1 Nazi flying bomb, the (original!) Schneider trophy - as well as one of the seaplanes that won it…

…a Wright Bros engine, and Whittle's prototype jet engine (the very, very first jet)…

…an ornate china cup and saucer from a Zeppelin, and a ladder used in the R38 airship.

Also, in another display we'd previously missed, we saw a section of recovered Comet airliner, post-crash. The signage was unusually poor, but it looked to me to be a part of the roof panel surrounding the (square) automatic direction finder, from which the original fatigue cracks spread on one of the aircraft. It was just bloody awesome seeing this: perhaps the most important physical part of aviation history of the last 70 years.

Day #19

Well, we're now at Heathrow for the flight home.

We went to the Natural History Museum this morning. Alexander started losing interest after a few hours but we very much enjoyed the fossil and mineral displays. Had a quick look through the dinosaurs and then that was about it. The fossils were just fantastic - jaw-dropping stuff...love to have a few of them on my shelf.

We then went for a long walk, going first to Buckingham Palace (too late for the changing of the guard) and then right down to Westminster. We then took the tube to St Pauls Cathedral, looked at the outside and then made our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags.

From there, it was the tube back to Heathrow, a delayed flight, a missed connecting flight – and 56 hours, 50 minutes and 43 seconds later, walking in our front door.

And now the bad news…

The trip overall?

I think the specific things that we came on holiday to see - the structures, museums, and so on - were absolutely stunning. In my case, literally gasp-inducing. (Georgina ribbed me about my gasps when I saw something - like a Wellington bomber unclothed - that I'd previously only read about.)

Those things made the trip infinitely worthwhile.

But much of the culture and society, that I thought would be equally wonderful, were rather a disappointment - or I actively disliked.

The London city centre? After seeing the state of the rest of Britain, to me it looked like a theatre set. All these buildings with their extravagant stonework cleaned and shiny, opulently grand architecture, Harrods and The Ritz, Piccadilly Circus, 'Big Bentley' (as Alexander calls Big Ben): all the city centre rebuilt beautifully after the destruction of WWII and perhaps more recently, spruced up for the Olympics – walking around, I couldn’t shake off a feeling of unreality. London isn’t Britain – it’s the huge exception. Is all the economic activity in the UK completely centred in London? Certainly looks like it...

I've also decided that UK urban planners don’t seem to have any idea about urban renewal, and so areas of housing that in any Australian city would be regarded as the low of the low are not just prevalent - they're absolutely everywhere. After driving over 3500 kilometres around Britain, and walking perhaps 100 kilometres through villages, towns and cities, I'd characterise the suburban areas of every town or city we went to (except one) as ugly, small and run-down, and with extraordinarily little open space. The exception was Milton Keynes.

Someone said to me: “It’s a country living on its history.” I think that may be right.

An interesting trip.

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