22 June 2010

Europe recap 2003, Day 6: New experiences in London

It's already Friday, November 7th, 2003, with my European week pretty much gone, and the return home looming toward the end of the weekend. All the more reason to push myself ahead farther into the great sights scattered throughout London.

My starting point is the Kew Gardens, best known for its greenhouses. It is a bit out there, located in Zone 3 of the Tube system, requiring me to buy a slightly pricier 1-day TravelCard that would cover up to Zone 4. The green District Line splits into several branches as it heads westward from Central London, and I needed to take the Richmond Branch that sees a mix of National Rail and Tube trains.

Kew Gardens, officially named the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, had a somewhat steep admissions charge around £12. I did find that there were tons of cheaper concessionary categories - including a registered unemployed person, who would verify his/her status with an Unemployment Benefits 40 card. Yes, the UB-40, which a famous reggae band named itself after. The British welfare state considers unemployment to be a downtime where the person in question needs to concentrate on finding new work - but also continue enjoying public culture to better be prepared for the eventual return to work, via these concessions; it's a certainly very different mentality from the American model, where such a concession would never fly because it would be a "reward for laziness."

I am inside one of the tropical greenhouses with a sizable collection of palms.

While I am used to palms thanks to living in California, palms are certainly unexpected in chilly England. Granted, some west-facing beaches of the British Isles are freeze-free relatively, and that does allow palms to grow there according to what I've heard, but I am pretty sure none of them would be this magnificent.

Another greenhouse which emphasizes prehistory and evolution. This is a shrunken-scale model of a forest that may have existed hundreds of millions of years ago. The dragonfly in the photo is much larger than modern-day counterparts; some dragonflies then had wingspans wider than the height of a modern-day human being.

The Kew is a great place to walk amongst the peacocks. In Los Angeles, I can head for the Los Angeles Arboretum located in Arcadia - or simply visit some Arcadia residential streets neighboring the Arboretum - to mingle with peacocks. Over here in Britain, the Kew is the place to do the same.

The Kew also boasts a sizable Japanese garden with plants native to East Asia. It is maintained with funding from Japanese corporations, and comes complete with a haiku written in Japanese and English.

That multistory pagoda is part of the garden, though I have to say it looks more Chinese to me.

I am now entering a California sequoia forest. Sequoias grow only in the high elevations of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, so it is a bit of a surprise for me to find them here. But if I really think about it, the cool, moist air of England is actually quite suitable for sequoias. Of course, I shouldn't expect sequoias in London to grow to the same lofty heights I expect in the Sierras.

And it is indeed quite chilly. Temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit at best.

And I see another peacock.

Wide open spaces punctuated by small palaces. This is how I like it. I may be in Europe's largest city, but I can find some peace here, forgetting about all the hustle and bustle of the City or Westminster. Though the roar of jet engines from airplanes, taking off from Heathrow Airport not too far away, does shatter the peace quite a bit.

It was a very nice 2-3 hours strolling around the Garden and its greenhouses - even one that had desert plants familiar from Arizona. I wrapped up at the gift shop, and took a look at some seeds. I ended up buying none, however, as much as I wanted to grow them in my own garden; whether I could bring them through US Customs was questionable at best, so I decided not to risk it.

My sightseeing continues in South Kensington, now involving the last of the three museums found there: Natural History Museum. This lobby with a skeleton of Diplodocus, an early gigantic plant-eating dinosaur, is one of the key features of the museum. Nearby are other early dinosaurs like Coelophysis, the first major carnivore dinosaur.

The museum has many interesting exhibits, including a hallway full of stuffed animal specimen, some of which were faded; the captions noted that as capturing new animals for display are against the goals of preserving them, faded specimens will not be replaced. Other exhibits included a huge room full of gemstones and a cross section of a 1,500-year-old California sequoia. This museum is easily on par with New York's American Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite museums anywhere.

My favorite extinct animal would have to be the ichthyosaur. It was a dolphin-shaped reptile that lived during much of the dinosaur era. In its heyday, Britain was a warm, shallow sea, and Oxford boasted large populations, which were preserved and fossilized in clay. The above are some of the Oxford ichthyosaur examples.

Though I am noting that the Oxford ichthyosaurs are not particularly large. Back in 2000, I had driven out 3 hours from Reno, Nevada, to reach the ghost town of Berlin, literally located in the middle of nowhere, and Berlin's claim to fame was its own ichthyosaur fossil collection. The Berlin ones are up to 9 feet long, whereas these British ones are at most 6 feet. Like Britain, Nevada was a shallow sea then, and plate tectonics had pushed those ichthyosaur fossils up to the 7,000 feet elevation they are found at today.

My last sight for the day is Covent Garden and its traditional markets. Traditional markets are one aspect of London that I had skimped on previously, and still am skimping on during this trip. This will have to be remedied in a future London visit.

At least I can enjoy a live string band.

My evening was spent taking in a musical - something I had had zero interest in until that point. Before leaving home, I had ordered a ticket for Mamma Mia! via TicketMaster's UK site, and I arrived at Prince Edward Theatre and took the front-row seat to take it all in. I loved being able to watch the live orchestra playing ABBA medleys below the stage; and yes, I loved the musical, and it almost seemed like ABBA had written its hits back in the day with a future musical and storyline in mind! I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline, and sang along to ABBA the best I could. Also noted the immediate neighborhood's fairly gay character.

Though I have to say that after the end of the show, and a fast food dinner immediately afterwards, I was scrambling to get back to the hotel before the last Tube train of the night - while London does run a network of night owl buses, I did not know how the routes were laid out at night, so I simply hurried my way.

The next recap post will be the final one, covering a day trip to the town of Bath as well as a night visit to Tate Modern, plus the logistics of flying back to Los Angeles.