Green: Historically Significant Tourist-y Places

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Sort of a funky name, but it describes this category of excursions quite well! Green pins stand for the places in London everyone at home told me I “haaaad” to go visit in order to satisfy my “inner tourist.” These places included Big Ben, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Tower Hill, the British Library, the Globe Theatre, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace.

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The British Library

Some of the places that I visited I wasn’t sure what the significance of the place was (such as Tower Hill and Parliament), and others I visited because I felt they were important to being an English Major, such as the British Library and the Globe Theatre. In Virginia Woolf’s “Literary Geography,” she writes that some people choose to be “scientific in our pilgrimage and visit the country where a great novelist lived in order to see to what extent he was influenced by his surroundings,” and I tried to do just that by visiting these significant places in London. I took notes in the tourist-y places and tried to see what attracted not only authors but the massive amounts of tourists that frequent them.

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Taking a look at my map, I notice that the only pin on the board that’s north of where I stayed in Connaught Hall marks the British Library. Really, the only pin on the map that’s north?! Mhmm. Again, as an English major and bookworm, it makes sense that the highest point on my map is the British Library (for more about the British Library, browse through my other posts!). Since I went a bit more in depth in another post, I won’t dwell on the British Library here, but the library turned out to be a place where an immense amount of knowledge is held, yet it’s not easily accessible to anyone. You must have permission granted by a library card (which is not easy to get, believe me) and know exactly what you’re looking for. I’m looking for inspiration in this library, how am I supposed to know where to find it? Isn’t part of learning not knowing what to expect and finding it along the way?

DSC_0710Another excursion I promised myself I’d go on was to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I’ve always been such a big fan of his work and couldn’t wait to see Macbeth performed in it’s natural habitat! I spent $40 in the gift shop alone, bought tickets for two different nights just in case I couldn’t make one of the shows, and finally took my seat in one of the balconies to the right of the stage. Thinking back on the experience, I can’t help but hear Woolf’s conclusion to “Literary Geography,” which reads “a writer’s country is a territory within his own brain; and we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible brick and mortar…No city indeed is so real as this that we make for ourselves and people to our liking; and to insist that it has any counterpart in the cities of the earth is to rob it of half its charm.” We don’t know a lot about William Shakespeare; the playbook that I bought at Macbeth explained how part of the original text of Macbeth was lost and there is only one real account of someone seeing it performed at the Globe. Why then was it so imperative for me to see the show in what I called “it’s natural habitat”? The Globe has been completely restored and isn’t the exact stage that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would’ve performed on or been around, yet it was restored to try to preserve what it could of the original theatre. How come I spent so much money to experience something that only faintly lived up to the significance it has historically?
Every place that is marked with a green pin is considered a crucial part of England and the idea of Englishness. The people filling up the space around these places were snapping dozens of photos with them smiling near the building. But how many of them really know anything about the historical significance? Do they stop and think about why these places are still so important today? Circling back to Woolf’s “Literary Geography,” these places that I’ve read about in literature or seen in a movie inspired me too take a step back and look at my surroundings, not just what’s blatantly screaming for attention. My notebook was filled with manic scribbles about how people interact with these tourist-y destinations and what that says about Englishness. Yes, I did snap some photos of myself (I had to satisfy the inner tourist, didn’t I?) but I left with much more than I expected to.

Yellow: Parks and Squares

All of the yellow pins on the board mark the parks, gardens or squares I visited: Russel Square, Hyde Park, St. James Park and Tavistock Square. One of my favorite things about London is that every few blocks there is a park or a square for you to sit in. Every park I went into or passed by was well kept; some had fountains that children could play in or to add soothing noise to the air; others had elaborate gardens with colorful flowers. All of the parks had places to sit and relax, which was such a great way to escape the loud, crowded streets of the city.

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What intrigued me the most was what else was inside or around the parks. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the words “sublime” and “beautiful” as “beautiful” as “(1) excelling in grace of form, charm of colouring, and other qualities which delight the eye, and call forth admiration, (2) affording keen pleasure to the senses generally, (3) impressing with charm the intellectual or moral sense, through inherent fitness or grace, or exact adaptation to a purpose, and (4) relating to the beautiful; aesthetic.”  The OED defines the adjective “sublime” (in terms of “things in nature and art”) as “affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.” Some of the parks I visited I felt were beautiful, some of the parks I considered sublime.

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Tavistock Square, located right outside of my dorm, was one of the beautiful squares on my trip. The layout was simple and open; a few benches lining the walkways, trees that weren’t too tall. Everything was green or brown. There were a few statues in the corners of the park but, because of where they were located, they weren’t overbearing or obtrusive. One tree that I always sat across from had a small plaque underneath, telling us that it was a “peace tree.” The main purpose of the park was to act as a place of rest and relaxation, and there weren’t any obvious statements of power or control that I saw. Russel Square was a similar story; it was a bit bigger and louder, for it had the fountain that little children splashed around in. People laid out on the grass to try to tan, friends gathered around benches or tables at the small cafe in the park. The presence of the cafe was again unobtrusive and didn’t take away from the overall beauty of the square. These two parks were beautiful and not sublime for it brought “keen pleasure to the senses” from it’s simplicity and function; it was appealing to the eye in a subtle way.

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St. James and Hyde Park, on the other hand, were examples of the sublime. When I went to Hyde Park, I walked around the Rose Garden and by some of the bodies of water in the park. The Rose Garden was filled with dozens of types of flowers, all very well kept with bright colors and interesting shapes. There were overhangs with vines and more flowers growing on top, fountains of naked women, all located on a winding path with several options of which way you want to experience the garden. It was overwhelming at times to choose the right path that would take me to the part of the garden I wanted to see.

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St. James Park was also very large; what made it sublime was the view of Buckingham Palace through the trees. At first the sight appeared to be beautiful due to it’s charm, but the longer you stared at it the more it became obvious that it was sublime. Much of what the palace stands for, the monarchy and power and privilege, is felt by seeing this view of the palace from a distance. It is a reminder that even when you are trying to relax and escape the day’s pandemonium, you cannot escape the power that royalty has, nor will you ever attain it. St. James Park and Hyde Park are sublime because they are overwhelming and meant to leave you with a sense of awe, gawking at the power they present. Overall, parks were quite an important part of Englishness and the London experience.

Blue: Museums in London

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Museums!

Blue pins represent the museums I visited throughout the two weeks of my trip. There are four blue pins on the map: The British Museum, Museum of London, National History Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Four famous museums catering to various ages and visitors, all defining space and Englishness with their contents.

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The Museum of London and National History Museum were both geared to a younger audience. The main exhibit I experienced in The Museum of London used students (both younger and older) to help create and make the experience more contemporary. Glass cases were filled with historical facts next to bottles of sriracha sauce and cell phones, showing us what we would potentially trade nowadays. The National History Museum was packed with young and set up to be easily accessible to children. Everything was colorful and very visual; many of the exhibits had audio and video to explain it’s significance instead of the traditional signs to read. Children could interact and learn from most of the exhibits. To be honest, I felt out of place and awkward in that particular museum. I didn’t fit in or learn anything I didn’t already know.

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British Museum

The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are examples of the heterotopias that Michel Foucault describes in “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”:  “Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity.” The Victoria and Albert Museum is a heterotopia because it houses an immense amount of art (over 4.5 million objects!) from around the globe. Objects are placed next to each other that weren’t intended on being categorized together, but are preserved there to be on display for museum goers. Time and space have been broken down, controlled and ultimately erased by how the museum is laid out.

The British Museum, in my opinion, is the best example of a heterotopia. Historically significant artifacts are owned by the museum (the Parthenon sculptures, the Rosetta stone, sarcophagi, etc.) and on display for everyone to see. There is a piece of history from just about every important time period, all kept under one roof. Again, time is no longer linear when one walks through the museum, creating a heterotopia. Though I only visited four (five museums in total, but one isn’t mapped) the amount of museums and their importance defines Englishness. All four of the museums are there to show museum goers the power of the British and to teach people things that the British find important. The National History Museum and Museum of London might be geared towards a younger audience, but they are still displaying the power relations to the children. The Museum of London displays an incredible amount of preserved, animatronic, and reconstructed animals, showing off the technology and the knowledge the museum has (and London, of course). Same goes for the National History Museum, with it’s futuristic feel and high-tech displays. These museums perpetuate the image of the all powerful England that has everything; new technology, ancient pieces of history, more knowledge than anyone else has. A museum goer is meant to experience the museum and be awestruck and overwhelmed by the presentation. My experience in these museums was both enjoyable and critical. Once I caught on to what felt like the “real” purpose of the museums, I saw them in a different light. If you ever get a chance to visit any of these places, think about what the museums are really saying :P!

Red: Religious Buildings

Let’s begin with religion…

The red pins on the map are for religious buildings I visited. As I said before, some of the places I visited that would’ve fallen under certain categories are not shown, for they are not on my map of Central London. Some people suggested that I guesstimate where the pins would fall and plot them anyway, but I decided against that. This map is the only map that I personally used throughout my entire trip to London. It’s torn and has some highlighter stains on it (as did a pair of my shorts I had to get rid of); the places not shown, such as Highgate Cemetery, were places that I relied almost solely on the directions my professors provided the class with. I didn’t use a physical map to get to those places, so I’ve chosen not to physically map them.

There are four red pins on the board: Westminster Abbey, St. Mary Le Bowe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and St. Clement Danes. It was hard to find some of the churches on the map because there are so many churches in London! Jeez! Red crosses can be found every few centimeters on the map. This study abroad session has shown me that religion plays many roles on Englishness. I’m not a very religious person myself; yes, I believe in a higher power and try to live a good life and pray sometimes, but organized, institutionalized religion is not exactly governing my life. While in London, I noticed how people, including myself, were affected by the inescapable presence of religion due to the abundance of churches on every corner.

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My class went on a church tour, visiting all of the churches mentioned in The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. St. Paul’s was the first stop on our tour, where some very noticeable things happened. Michel Foucault said in an interview that, in order to understand an architectural space, one must consider “the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other.” While visiting the churches, I kept an eye out for these factors.

“one must take him – his mentality, his attitude – into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture

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The actual cathedral of St. Paul’s can be seen from miles away; the architecture is breathtakingly enormous and asserts the power of the church for all to see. How everyone was occupying the space around the building was equally as fascinating as the architecture itself. People on the steps of St. Paul’s were eating lunch in business suits, congregated in groups or taking pictures, students (both elementary and college level) and learning about the history of the cathedral; everyone was casual and seemed to move relatively freely about the stairs. What was interesting was how everyone was talking; the noise level was super quiet and respectful, especially for the amount of people around. Though from a distance it might’ve appeared that everyone outside St. Paul’s was oblivious to it, once you took a closer look (and listen) the presence is felt by all. People control their voices and keep them down to a quiet, meditative level that is unobtrusive to those surrounding. Everyone is a bit more respectful of each other here than in other places I visited.

DSC_0694St. Mary Le Bowe’s and St. Clement Dane’s were quite different from St. Paul’s; the churches were much smaller and this affected how people occupied the space. Mary Le Bowe’s has a cafe in the basement, which seemed to receive more attention than the church itself. Clement Dane’s was located in the middle of the road and the inside is no longer open to the public. The smaller sized churches were easily forgotten about; one can argue that this is because of their size and where they are in the city. Mary Le Bowe’s might be using the cafe to try to get more people into the church, while Clement Dane’s simply faded away. Either way, the people occupying the space around these two churches were almost completely unaware of their presence. Mary Le Bowe’s is a tiny little church wedged into a street; Clement Dane’s is in the middle of a busy highway and out of the way. These factors definitely contribute to the fact that they are less frequented by the public.

I won’t go into detail about Westminster Abbey (there’s a whole other blog post about that one- check it out!) but even though some of these buildings have fallen out of use to the public, they still contribute to the overwhelming presence of Christianity in London. These buildings perpetuate the dominance that Christianity has over Englishness.

Beginning to Physically Map London!

Time for me to start physically mapping my experience!

For this project, I took my map of Central London that I constantly used while studying abroad and glued it to a piece of cork. I also included a map of the tub underneath.

My map of Central London and the Tube on cardboard

My map of Central London and the Tube on cork

At Michael’s craft store, I bought a box of “map pins” to mark off all of the places I visited in Central London.

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Map Pins

 

 

Some of the places I went to during my stay are not  located on this map, so they will not be included in the  “Mapping London” project.

 

 

 

 

Mapping!

Me mapping!

 

I hadn’t realized how difficult it was to navigate a map when you aren’t actually on the streets, figuring out how to get to your destination. Even using Google to find the address of the places I was trying to map wasn’t much help!

 

 

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Why so lonely?

Hmm, this looks interesting…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ideas about next few blog posts started to percolate…Why is there a group of multi-colored pins clustered over here? What’s the significance of the lonely yellow pin in the corner of the map?

A Stroll Around London: In the Style of “The London Scene”

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury and my room in New York

Postcards, t shirts and video games have shown me time and time again an artistic representation of Big Ben; I’d been in London a few days already, it was time for me to meet him. He is, based on his fame in the States, one of the most important faces of London, though I’ve heard that his face isn’t the most reliable, and taking the Tube for a visit was the least I could do to satisfy the inner tourist inside of me.

As I beheld this integral piece of Englishness in my eyes, I suddenly felt something against my hip. Glancing down, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a white hand grasping into my pocket, hoping to come up with something of value, perhaps my cell phone or wallet; thankfully it comes up empty, for my mother taught me well and I secure all of my important belongings in zippered compartments in my bag, which is held tightly against my side at all times . My eyes disinterestedly scan the crowd for the owner of the begging hand, knowing she or he is long gone, then make their way back to Ben. He stands completely unaware; my heart is pounding, beads of sweat have congregated around my hairline, my body feels violated. Yet his face hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s the distance, but I cannot make out the second hand on the clock. There is no evidence of change in the air, not even on the face that seems to see everything from his vantage point. The personal, almost-trauma of the last minute goes unnoticed by all. I lock my eyes onto the hands that are visible from where I stand, nod at Ben, and cross the street.

How could I have been so deaf, so blind? On the corner of the street I cross onto stands a man and his fiddle; the boisterous, playful music tickles my ears and rejuvenates my walk. Music is what brings me back, even if it only stays with me for a minute or two. The comfort of the notes seems to have spread to those around me. Everyone seems to have joined together, taken a simultaneous, deep breathe in, held it for a moment, then let the breath go and continue on their individual journey.

I must’ve been a bit preoccupied trying to absorb what just happened, for I practically missed Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t know exactly what to expect; Westminster Abbey is a bit less famous in the States. I’ve seen a photograph once or twice, but not enough to be familiar with it. Oh, there it is! Beautifully lush trees obstruct my view quite a bit, and that’s not the only thing keeping me from properly appreciating this piece of London; bells have begun to chime. I search the buildings around me to try to find the source, but the trees have kept me from the bells. Hoping to escape the cluttered streets around the abbey, I follow the group and walk under an archway.

Air: fresh and new, unlike the oxygen-depleted air the streets outside Westminster provided. Standing in a cluster of human beings to just stare at an old building seems to have made me a bit lightheaded. Thankfully, the English have found a cure for this proximity and provided the people with open spaces to replenish. A few moments of sitting on the grass make it easier to focus on my surroundings; neat buildings all connected surround me, not a single tourist from down the street, staring up at the abbey or Ben can be heard. But my mind can still not totally piece together everything I saw and experienced within the half a mile walk from the Tube station to my place on the grass. My pleasure and pride in London was not instilled by the buildings themselves, for those seemed to be detached and unaware of anybody coming to experience and appreciate the wonder that surrounds those historical, tourist ridden buildings. The London that struck me was the London that cared; I may be a mere American individual, having my existence acknowledged what I’m longing. Staring into the face of Ben, one only receives a blank, unfazed stare back: these immense structures of Englishness stand proud to be unaware of one’s minuscule existence.