Monday, October 16, 2017

A Tale of Two Walking Tours

Many years back, I spent a month working in Manchester, England. During that time, I had a Brit Rail pass, meaning that any minute I wasn't working was spent on a train heading somewhere else. I treated Manchester's attractions the way I would those at home. Since I could go anytime, I felt free to ignore them altogether.

It is only recently that I realized what a mistake that was. Last week, I was back for a couple of days with no rail pass to speak of. Another key difference- it was not raining. My one prevailing memory from that first visit was how stinking persistent the rain was. We were there for 28 days and got drenched each and every one of those days.

The day we just arrived, it wasn't exactly sunny but it wasn't pouring down either so we were off to a good start. We took the train from the airport right into town and commenced exploring.

What we found was a city that was both architecturally rich and extremely walkable.
The Old Wellington Inn: One of the oldest buildings in town and a mighty fine pub.

The Manchester Cathedral
The Royal Exchange Theater: Housed in a former cotton exchange

They managed to blend historic buildings and new construction into a hip vibrant landscape.

I was so taken by Manchester's charms that I returned the following day to take part in a city walking tour that included visits to the Public Library, City Hall and many of the city squares.

Manchester City Hall
James Prescott Joules: Founder of the field of thermodynamics and the guy they named the joule after. 

Honest Abe. This was meant to stand in London but was labeled the "stomach ache" statue due to the placement of his hands and was re-gifted to Manchester.

Mural by German street artist Case highlighting the work of a charity called Back on Track that provides assistance to the mentally ill.

The bee is the symbol of the city due to its reputation as a hard worker. Following the Ariana Grande bombing, the city has come together and in a show of civic pride, the bees are simply everywhere. These can be seen inside Affleck's, a former department store full of indie shops.
I would have happily returned for a third (and fourth and fifth...) day but I was soon off to London, where I did yet another walking tour. In case you haven't noticed,  I love these things- particularly the free ones- as a way of getting to know a city.

This one met at Covent Garden on a particularly lovely day.

We began by walking over to Trafalgar Square. While staring at the 169 ft column and monument to Lord Nelson, our guide told us a story about the Vice Admiral Nelson and his death at sea during the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson was already considered a hero at the time so once he died they couldn't follow the standard protocol and feed him to the fishies even though they still had a long journey home. In order to preserve his body, they deposited him in a barrel of brandy, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  That is up until the moment that they worked their way through all the other booze on board. Sip by sip, they downed the Nelson brew. When the barrel was opened back on land, it revealed a rotting hero in a very dry barrel. There was widespread outrage and no one wanted to admit to being the sacrilegious drunkard that sucked dry the dead guy's barrel so it was announced that Nelson was such a macho bad ass that he had managed to drink an entire barrel of brandy all by himself even after his death.

Note: I have done some research since and this story seems to be widely discredited but I still think it's great and have every intention of continuing to repeat it.

In addition to the column, the square has four plinths meant to showcase monuments to other heroes. One of them was supposed to be King William IV but there was never enough cash on hand to commission his statue, leaving an empty and unloved plinth . To address this issue, the city began showcasing a rotating collection of modern sculptures on the fourth plinth. At the moment, David Shrigley's mega thumb holds the honor. The piece is called "Really Good" and is meant to highlight positivity. Londoners, on the hand, prefer to point out how much the thumb looks like a giant thumb penis. Personally, I like to think that it is an ode to one of my favorite books, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues".

Next stop: Buckingham Palace. The flying flag would seem to indicate that the Queen was home but that is no longer the case. It used to be so but after Princess Diana's death, people gathered here to mourn. Since the Queen was not home, there was no flag to fly at half-mast. Given the Royal's strained relationship with Diana, people thought the Queen was purposely avoiding the palace and were pissed. Tony Blair stepped in to soothe the masses by declaring that the Union Jack flag would fly whenever the Queen was not home. When she is in residence, it is changed to the Royal Standard.

Union Jack= Queen no home

The Pigeons of St James's Park
Next to Whitehall, the area where the Horse Guard parade takes place, there is a building on a side street that is barely visible. That is 10 Downing Street, the current home of Prime Minister Theresa May. Although photos of the building make it seem like you could walk right up, knock on the door and ask what time tea's being served, it is actually quite inaccessible.

The site of the Horse Guard Parade.

Moving right along, we stopped before a scaffolding-clad bell tower. Most people, myself included, would call it Big Ben. Most people would be wrong. It is called the Elizabeth Tower after Queen Elizabeth. The giant bell within, which is currently silenced for the sake of the workers doing the restoration, that is Big Ben.

The only way this photo could be more British is if Benny Hill ran across the frame.
We concluded the tour at Westminster Abbey, Prince William wed Kate Middleton's wedding venue and the burial site of many royals and notable Brits.

Having concluded the tour, I considered running across town for a 2pm street art tour of the White Chapel area but decided that two in two days was enough. Instead, I went to the British Museum, where I could have stayed for days.

Their collection can best be summed up as "Holy shit! How in the world did they get that?" During the British's long reign as global colonizers, they helped themselves to some pretty spectacular souvenirs.

Take for example, Hoa Hakananai'a.  In 1868, British sailors landed on Easter Island, saw the many carved statue and decided to take one for the road. With intricate carvings on the backside, this is considered to be one of the finest specimens of Eastern Island sculptures. The Chilean government would like him back, please. The British response: New phone, who dis?

Then there is the Rosetta Stone. Not the overpriced language lessons but the actual stone used to decipher ancient hieroglyphics. It was discovered by French archeologists in 1799.  When the Brits defeated Napoleon's forces in Egypt in 1801, they said "Spoils of war, gimme the rock" or something to that effect and brought back the Stone. The government of Egypt would like it back, please. The British response: "Please hold. Your call is very important to us....

There are some mind-blowing reliefs depicting a lion hunt from a palace in Northern Assyria, which would have been in Northern Iraq.  The governments of Iraq is a little busy right now, they'll call back later.

The biggest battle is over the Elgin Marbles.  In 1798, the Earl of Elgin was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was a part.  While studying and making casts of sculptures found in the Parthenon, he decided to start collecting them to decorate his home, claiming that he had permission from the Sultan. The documentation that exists is all highly shifty. The Greek government would really truly like their marbles back, pretty please.  The British response" LOL, HAHAHA, JAJAJA"

It is truly surreal walking amongst so many of the world's treasures. On one hand, it is fantastic that these things, many of which would have most likely been destroyed,  have been so well-preserved for future generations. On the other hand, England, that's not yo' shit. Give it back! The people of all these countries have a right to their heritage.

As the day was coming to a close and my phone was dying (thanks IoS update!), I decided to take it easy and take a cruise along the Thames before heading back to my hotel in Luton.

Funny, it doesn't look like it is falling.

As you can see from the pics, Mother Nature graced us with yet another beautiful day, that's three in a row in the UK!! I'm pretty sure that is a first. 

My stay was short but getting the chance to enjoy Manchester, really for the first time, take in two walking tours and down a proper pint of ale or two made it all worth it.  Plus, the next time, I still have the street art tour to look forward to.

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