Notes from London: It Was Really Hot, Well Sort of

by Rachel on September 20, 2009

It was Day Two of the London “HURTWAVE.” Temperatures in London peaked at an earth shattering, mind boggling 84 degrees and believe it or not, it appeared that the record heat would last for three, count ‘em THREE full days. The papers literally referred to the staggering fact that at night the temperatures were only going to drop to, hold your breath, 64 degrees. This was enough to bring on widespread panic and all sorts of public proclamations from serious looking British officials advising people to stay out of the full sun (given their skin color these folks had not actually ever seen “full sun,” let alone stayed out in it for any length of time). I have to admit, when the papers first started printing the alarming weather news I was briefly sucked in. I absolutely hate the heat. What was I going to do? Our apartment, like all British flats, was without air conditioning. I ran out and bought two fans. I opened the windows all night. I slammed them shut in the morning and drew the shades. Oh for heck sake. Really? All that angst for 84 degrees? Who are they kidding? Come on out to Southern California and we’ll show you some heat baby! We’ve got weeks and weeks of it. It got so hot in our backyard two years ago that the air surrounding the sprinklers built into the roofline of our outdoor BBQ reached the maximum temperature of 135 degrees causing the wax seals to break and the water to shower down on the countertop. I’m not making that up. We had to switch out those sprinkler heads for ones with a 175 degree tolerance and so far, they’ve held.

Main Lobby, V&A Museum, London

Architecture Display, V&A Museum, London

We added the Victoria & Albert Museum, the London Science Museum, and Kew Gardens to our list of places visited (one each on a Saturday, Sunday and Monday). The British understand public gardens. They have an incredible mix of both the formal and the informal. Within Kew Gardens there are vast wide open spaces that give the sense that the acres go on forever, as well as tightly designed flower gardens with glorious patterns of color cleverly conceived and implemented by the finest garden designers around. We visited all of the glorious Victorian Glass Houses, including the one that housed the Lily Pond. I did not fall in. My family was so very proud.

The Victoria & Albert Museum is a shrine to high style and design. I must note again that the Brits have cornered the market of topnotch museum designers. The jewelry room in the V&A is insanely handsome. It isn’t just the outrageous beauty of what is in the cases, but it is the room itself, all black and gleaming with silver spiral staircases and fabulous silver beams criss-crossing the space. The V&A offers (if you know to ask) activity backpacks that kids can check out for free and take with them into the museum. Each one focuses on a particular part of the museum and has a well put-together spiral binder of activities (not too many, not too few – just the right amount). Numbered Ziploc bags have interesting projects that range from quite challenging to just plain fun. We did two of the backpacks when we were there. I’ve never seen anything like it in the US.

My first born son was on a mission to eat and cook everything he could get his hands on that we don’t have at home – and this included small animals generally associated with Easter Egg distribution in the US of A. One fine day we purchased three rabbit saddles and six rabbit legs and made rabbit stew. I don’t actually travel carrying a rabbit stew recipe, but with the able assistance of Epicurious (the Bon Appetit website) I was quickly recipe ready. We bought the rabbit in the Harrod’s Food Hall ‘cause I felt it was my personal duty to help the Brits recover from their financial crisis. The boys chopped all of the ingredients without any blood loss, and two hours later – voila – we had stew. Rabbit, it turns out, does NOT taste like chicken, at least not like tasteless, bland American chicken. It has a lovely meaty flavor and with the addition of a lot of white wine, some tomatoes, fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano and some salt – it makes a lovely repast.

Natural History Museum, London

Though I think the whole British HURTWAVE thing was a tad overblown in the media, it must be said that an afternoon spent in a large, windowless, 250 year-old museum densely packed with warm bodies and completely devoid of air conditioning is tantamount to passing a summer’s day inside your teenager’s gym locker. We visited and fled two such museums during the heat wave. The Natural History Museum that was delightful and grand in cooler temperatures was a frightful tomb during the heat wave and nearly did in my uncomplaining mother-in-law and me. I had nightmarish visions of my stepmother being carted off in an ambulance from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in similar circumstances in 2006 so rather than soldiering on through the steamy dioramas of this dinosaur and that, I bid as hasty a retreat as possible and am pleased to report that no one in my brood needed medical care. It should be noted that the London Science Museum is air-conditioned and is a glorious place to spend a hot summer day.

After the Natural History Museum we had two tourist failures and one success. It turns out that my trusty guidebook is wrong and the Royal Mews where the Queen keeps her horses and Rolls Royces, is not open on Fridays – I do believe they must need a prep day for her weekend jaunts. We adjusted course mid-stream and redirected our cab to take us to the relatively new Tate Modern (dedicated by the Queen in 2000). This, it turns out, was a massive mistake. The Tate Modern, housed in a immense former power station (think something big enough to hold an entire submarine), houses a collection of contemporary art that runs from the frightful to the ghastly. I had just my boys with me and I started our morning with a variation of my liberal, open-minded arts lecture on the importance of seeing art not just as something that has to be beautiful. 14 paintings of severed heads, some truly creepy videos, pencil drawings of lacerations and tortured children, and a room full of large brown objects that seriously had to have been turds and I pronounced myself a Republican and admitted I hated the place. My youngest child spent most of the time walking around shielding his face with a museum map. Super.

We took the “Tate to Tate” Thames boat cruise which in 15 short minutes transports you from turds to Turners, and thank G-d for that. The Tate Britain houses a noteworthy collection of British Art that spans 1500 to the present. There is a remarkable commissioned work by sculptor Eva Rothschild that fills the entire 200 foot-long entry hall. Much like a spider’s web, its leggy steel beams thrust up to the ceiling and back down again inviting visitors, large and small alike, to climb in and around it where it touched down – and my boys did just that. Just unveiled in June of 2009 it is first-rate and worth a visit. We spent an agreeable 45 minutes with the Turner paintings that are neither ghastly, nor frightful but rather startlingly beautiful, moody and sublime. The hot weather finally departed. It was back to cool mornings, afternoon showers, daylight well past 10 pm and the daily need to use the word verdant.

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