DM and MM's Britain 2009 Diary

Day 21 - St Paul's Cathedral, National Gallery

Saturday, 20 June, 2009

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Premier Inn, London. 17:57

We're going out to dinner in a while, but are now just relaxing for a bit after a relatively easy day of gallery crawling.

We started with breakfast at the nearby Pret a Manger again, then headed into town on the bus to see St Paul's Cathedral. We slept in and had such a leisurely breakfast that it was approaching 12:00 by the time we arrived. Changing buses at Aldwych, we saw a wedding car outside a church there, and what looked like bridesmaids hanging around.

St Paul's with cab
St Paul's Cathedral

Unfortunately, it turned out the cathedral was closed and would be all weekend - we never did find out why. So now our only chance to see it is on Monday before we leave for home. Undaunted, we bused our way across to Trafalgar Square to check out the National Gallery. This impressive neoclassical building forms the backdrop to Trafalgar Square and houses a world-class collection of paintings spanning European art form the 13th to the early 20th centuries.

Trafalgar Square wide angle
Trafalgar Square, just outside the National Gallery

We began with the more modern works for no particular reason other than that they were conveniently near the entrance. Although this amazing gallery is also completely free to enter, like the British Museum, photography was strictly forbidden inside and guards were very fast and forceful with the few offenders we saw.


We're back from dinner, but more on that later.

The National Gallery includes famous works by Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Canaletto, Degas, and Turner - all in the 18th to 20th century section of the galleries. This was the first area we tackled. There were several works by Van Gogh, including one of his Sunflowers, a field with cypresses, and a painting of his chair in a room. The impressionists were represented by Manet and Monet, with two strikingly different interpretations of Monet's Japanese Bridge at Giverny. Turner's Fighting Temeraire was there - recently voted the best painting in Britain by BBC viewers. And there was a room full of Canaletto's scenes of Venice, plus a few of England that he must have done during a visit.

All of this and much more of the modern period was in just a quarter of the gallery. By the time we'd completed these, it was time for some lunch. We found a Pret a Manger just across Trafalgar Square (there were two actually,within sight of one another) and decided that would do for food. M. had a felafal wrap, and I tried the jalapeño chicken wrap and some vege chips. It was really good.

Refreshed, we continued our expedition into European art. This time we began with the oldest works, from the late medieval era. Most of these were religious works, done in egg tempera on wooden panels and decorated with gilt backgrounds. Many were originally intended as altar pieces in churches. Later in this period there were scenes drawn from classical mythology, including Botticelli's Venus and Mars, in his unmistakeable clear style, recognisable from his works we'd seen in Florence. Also in this section was Van Eyck's famous Arnolfini Portrait, with the convex mirror in the background reflecting the main subjects and two people not seen in the main composition - one of the earliest conspicuous uses of reflective optics in a painting.

The next set of galleries covered 16th century work. Here we knocked off three of the famous Italian Ninja Turtles, with works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael featuring prominently. There were also many works by Titian and Cranach, who we'd seen examples of in the gallery at Bath. Portraits became important in this period, with several good examples. One fanciful work was The Ambassadors by Holbein, famous for its elongated depiction of a skull across the floor that can best be recognised only by viewing the canvas at a steep angle.

Finally, we reached the 17th century galleries, full of works by Dutch masters and the emergence of French and Spanish art. Many works here were by names such as Van Dyck, Vermeer, Rubens, Velázquez, and Rembrandt. Particularly striking were many of the still lifes and paintings of incredibly realistic and detailed flowers. Landscapes appeared and flourished in this period too. By the time we had seen every gallery, having to rush slightly through some, it was almost 17:00. Still in need of relaxation more than manic sightseeing, we headed back to our hotel for a brief rest before emerging for dinner.

London souvenirs
Souvenir stalls, Trafalgar Square

We decided to go a bit further afield for dinner tonight. We hopped on a 30 bus to Islington, which the Lonely Planet suggested had plenty of decent restaurants. I was also curious to see why the Angel at Islington was called that, hoping to see some sort of large 17th century statue of an angel or something. However, we saw no such thing, so I'm still in the dark. I'll have to look it up when I get home.

Wandering along the pleasant looking Upper Street in Islington, we found a Miso noodle bar and decided that noodles would go down well. M. ordered the vege stir fried noodles, while I ordered the special with beef, chicken, pork, duck, and prawns! We also got some vegetable gyozas. It was all very good and comprised one of the cheapest dinners of the trip so far.

Islington Asian
Dinner at Miso noodle bar

On the way back to the bus stop we searched for an ice cream shop but didn't find any. We did stumble across a very large Sainsbury's supermarket though and I decided to splurge on a tub of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food ice cream, since they are lucky enough to have that here. The checkout queues were all ghastly long, except at the self-serve checkouts, so we tried one of those. But try as we might, we could not get the ice cream to scan. The machine kept giving us some sort of error message, complaining at us to stop removing products from the bagging area. We were lost and fumbling until a store assistant came over and pressed some buttons and scanned the ice cream for us. As he left, we put the ice cream in a bag and tried to pay for it with a £5 note, at which point the machine said we still owed over £10 more! I thought we must have somehow scanned the ice cream four or five times instead of just once, and started trying to figure out what to do. M. signalled to the help guy to come over again. He said we needed to put more money in, but I pointed out that we only had one ice cream and the total was wrong. He pressed some more buttons and a whole list of other items appeared on the screen, apparently left over from the previous customer, who hadn't completed his transaction (and thus the first error we had was in fact asking for the return of all those items to the bagging area, not our ice cream). The guy cleared the total and scanned the ice cream again for us, then put the £5 note in for us - effectively doing everything for us since we were so obviously incompetent. In the end, we escaped and sought a bus back to our hotel.

Despite missing a bus because of a recalcitrant traffic light, we made it back with most of the ice cream still frozen. I ate it with a hotel teaspoon while lying on the bed. Mmmmm...

And now, this diary entry done on the correct day for once and not needing to be completed tomorrow, I'm going to retire early and read some more of my English history book before bedtime.

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