Tuesday, 17 June 2014

When London becomes a day trip

I don't live near London. In the normal run of things, I would feel the need to make a weekend of it, and therefore go to the added expense of overnight accommodation, plus the concern of having too much to carry, especially given Britain's lack of Left Luggage lockers. However, I'm also someone who is willing to try anything once, and go to quite a lot of effort to save myself from feeling that I've missed out on something significant because it seemed like it would be difficult. So, when I'd got some LondonMidland free 1-day passes, and the British Museum was holding an exhibition about the Vikings, I decided London was where I'd go.

Side-note: If you happen to live in the Midlands, and are either cash-strapped or time-rich, it is definitely worth noting that a LondonMidland-only day return is significantly cheaper than other types, and gets you straight into London Euston, which is very close to the British Library and 10 minutes from the British Museum. It is the slow train from Birmingham, but it does allow plenty of knitting time!

Between an early morning and the train, I arrived in London by 9.50 and was able to wander through the sunny streets of Bloomsbury (past RADA and Le Cordon Bleu), and arrive at the Museum by 10.00. 

I should perhaps have pre-booked my ticket - I suspect that people arriving later may not even have managed to get in - but was able to slip into the 11.30 entry, and therefore to spend an hour looking around the newly-refurbished Anglo-Saxon gallery, including the Sutton Hoo treasure and a fascinating set of cases focussed on the different types of Anglo-Saxon decoration developed through viking interaction with other cultures (the Franks, the Magyars, the Celts etc) before going into the exhibition itself.

Now, this is a headline-grabbing exhibit, and anything I have to say about it has no doubt been said, but I'm going to put in my tuppenn'orth anyway. The British Museum is of course free to visit (donations distinctly welcome), and I don't therefore mind paying entrance to a special visiting exhibition. It would help, however, if it were made clear at the point that you're buying tickets that audio-guides are extra, if only so that you've not packed your wallet to the bottom of your bag before you get to the audio-guide till. I'd also very much like to know whether those first few tracks lasted the 40 minutes it took me to step very very very slowly in the prescribed path very close to the exhibits in the first two rooms. The biggest problem was that in the large group let in at 11.30 with me there were lots of people who actually wanted to see them, and who very quickly came to realise that if you weren't pretty much pressed up against the cases, you wouldn't be able to read the curators' descriptions of the contents, since these were placed at hip height and in small print. Of course the exhibits are generally small – they're mostly grave goods, or from hoards buried to keep them safe. Of course people want to see them. But you don't necessarily want to spend 10 minutes craning to see the case, and 3 minutes speed-reading the case description before the next person moves up, and conscious that you're spending more time than you'd like accidentally watching other people's bottoms move along.

Thankfully, I had my knitting with me, and there were pretty pictures on the walls. Together with interesting quotes about the Vikings. If only they'd put more on those walls away from the exhibits, they could probably have managed the flow of people much better, especially in the first few rooms, when everyone was keen to pick out information, see everything, and would have had the focus to take in quite a lot of context, if it had been provided more accessibly. As it was, I was very glad I'd been up to the Anglo-Saxon gallery and picked up some information which I could apply here.

Complaints over – the actual contents of the exhibition were fantastic, and the cases about trade and the development of coinage, the reach of the Viking world and the early slave trade were full of things I only wish I'd retained better. The partially reconstructed ship (discovered at Rosskilde) on display was the highlight of the exhibition for me, and I suspect for others – the impact of it as a physical piece of history: so large compared to a person, so small compared to the sea, really brought home the scale of the challenge undertaken. I came out inspired, and have since added to my bookshelves in an attempt to learn more.

A final thought: while I'm very aware of material history, and of making my own mark through things, I'm also a very visual learner, very much a reader, and the purely archaeological data on display was destabilising. I realised that I don't have the tools to decypher the meaning behind such artifacts, and so have to rely on others to communicate it to me. A space to learn more, I conclude.

But this day trip wasn't just about the British Museum. It was also about exploring a different area of London – I was taking myself off to E17: Walthamstow, to discover the fabric possibilities detailed by Karen

A relatively simple tube journey later, and I found myself walking through a distinctly urban and somehow more familiar setting – as a non-Londoner, the metropolitan centre is on a little too large a scale, and so busy with people and tourists that it seems very alienating – with its bus station, library and shops. The market was not so dissimilar to markets in Bury or Burnley or Reading as to be hugely surprising – until you discover quite how much fabric is available! And that, both on the market itself, and in the shops behind. If I were more interested in trims and embellishments, I think I may have been lost for ever, and I was certainly dazzled enough by the choices available to have no details to report as to where the most exciting stands were... other than the most obvious: 'Man Outside Sainsburys'. His stall truly was a treasure trove, and thronging with women on a mission. He had some beautiful suitings, and I could easily have come away with the makings of half-a-dozen skirt suits, but I withstood temptation on the basis that Spring is coming, and my haul actually consists of floral prints and haberdashery:

I'm working on a project that requires a chocolate brown zip, and lots of bias binding: one of the stands on the same side as sainsburys and slightly nearer the bus station provided these at a fraction of the cost of my local House of Fraser (or equivalent).

But my 'may-be-bought' list was one more focussed on the edge of my comfort zone. I like prints (I like buying prints) and have found that the larger florals are growing on me with their current fashion-status, but I don't often have the confidence to wear them. So the hope was that I would find some striking floral prints at a price point which wouldn't make me worry about getting the project 'right'. Mission: accomplished – the three fabrics above came to £12.00, and I have enough for a top / dress in each. Now I just have to make them up before they fall out of fashion!

A tube back to Euston, and a coffee in the station complex left me with time to hop on the 1649 train, and be home by 9pm. It may not seem a very long day, but the early start ensured I was ready to come home, and the connection at New Street is such that you do not want to be too late arriving into Birmingham. So a day trip to London is possible, and can be pleasant indeed.

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