Day 03 – Thu 28 Apr 2005 – The Thin Red Line

Went to breakfast at about 0800 and am surprised to find the full breakfast is included in the price. Nice dining room without being especially flash. Lots of tourists are staying in the hotel, including many from the continent. Noticed same at museum the day before – full of people speaking Dutch, German and French.

Headed off to see the British Army Museum. Bought a day travel pass for GBP 6 and took tube from Paddington to Sloane Square. From there walked up past the Royal Hospital to the museum. Excellent and thoughtfully created display, though not as large as I was expecting. Some good dioramas, notably a large model of the Battle of Waterloo with a recorded commentary of what occurred. The full scale walk-through of a typical World War One trench was particularly engaging. An audio-visial display covered the lives of three typical soldiers in the 1800s. One was a model of behaviour, one a bit of a reprobate and the other was killed in action. It gave a touching and very personal view of army life. On a more fun note the bed and kit of a typical soldier of the 1950s national service days was featured. You had to pick the things that were ‘out of place’ that his sergeant-major would spot.

Admiralty Arch – Architectural Echoes of the British Empire

Walked back to Sloane Square and took tube to Victoria – another big mainline station – then took the tube to Embankment (near Charing Cross station) and walked to Trafalgar Square, then through Admiralty Arch, and a bit up the Mall (which leads to Buckingham Palace, across St James Park, up to the Houses of Parliament and back to Embankment.

Went past where they do the changing of the guard (Horse Guards Parade?). Three Life Guards were on duty. One black lady and her child were delighted to have their photo taken in front of a black Life Guard. (I’ve obscured their faces nonetheless.) The place was full of tourists, including large hordes of school children jabbering away in German. One of them mentioned der Krieg once, but I think he got away with it.

The Life Guard, mother and child mentioned above

Caught the tube back to Paddington. Up to this time I’ve been using the Circle Line, which seems to run just below ground and often in a shallow cutting. However, it was disrupted by a ‘fire alert’ at Euston Square, so I went back on the Bakerloo Line, which seems to run much deeper. The tube tunnels are very tight, it seems like only a few inches of clearance between the walls and the train.

Some impressions:

London is a huge, heavily populated city, but is not as clearly organised as Australian cities on the classic pattern of a well defined CBD, surrounded by commercial areas and ringed by suburbs with occasional satellite centres. It’s as if all those satellites of old have grown and started to merge. The architecture is often very grand. Westminster smacks of echoes of Empire, but it has a cold, grey feeling about it with the odd flash of gold. Perhaps it was designed to impress subjects with the solidarity of the establishment and of the futility of disrupting its ‘natural order’.

Big Ben peeking around the corner to the (top) left

It occurs to me that it is in this that Australia, while having so many institutions based on British models, is also so different from the UK. Australia’s ‘solidity’ is more based on a shared set of values and a casual mutual respect than any architectural splendour. Sydney’s ‘great’ places (like the Bridge, the Rocks, Darling Harbour, Manly and Bondi beaches, and even the Opera House) feel like they ‘belong’ to the ordinary members of the population. I can’t help feeling that London’s great places belong more to the powerful and the wealthy, who deign to allow ‘commoners’ access to them as a privilege.

Security is taken very seriously in London. It’s not uncommon to have your bag inspected when entering buildings or leaving it at a cloak room. Police are everywhere and often patrol in flak jackets. It seems quite odd to see pretty young female officers toting Heckler and Koch sub-machine guns.

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