Photos From Great Britain
I was born in London and this, the world's grandest metropolis, will always have a special meaning for me.I had the privilege to live here for some thirteen years but, apart from a brief, but thoroughly enjoyable one-week visit in Summer 2003, have not set foot in Britain since 1983. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to move there again permanently one day.
Before reviewing the sixty or so enlargeable thumbnail photos in the lower section of this webpage, you may be interested to read my London travel report. I planned this visit from Speyer, Germany, where I had just completed three grueling years of doctoral research in public administration at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer. Having submitted my voluminous thesis in July 2003, all that was left now was to wait for my two supervisors' evaluation reports and prepare for the mandatory oral examination. As this is normally quite a time-consuming process, I thought I should take the opportunity to visit England again and see how things had changed there after my two decades long absence from the country and visit familiar places I frequented in my youth. I went to my local travel agent to arrange for a return flight and a travel pass for London bus and rail system. The nice lady at the office handled this with typical German efficiency. A seat was reserved on the British Airways flight from Frankfurt to London and back, and I was told that I could pick up the travel pass on my arrival at Heathrow Airport. Convenient! My visit took place from September 1st to 7th, 2003.
Understandably, one-week can never be sufficient time to comprehensively and thoroughly explore London and its innumerable attractions. With careful planning and efficient time management though, one can still see a great deal and this is exactly what I did during the seven eventful days and peaceful nights I spent there. Rather than wandering aimlessly from place to place, I gave serious thought to what I wanted to see and do and selected a handful of places across town to divide my time amongst. Unfortunately, I’m not in the habit of keeping a diary to record my daily activities and this travel report has just been compiled three years hence from memory, helped by the data on several receipts of entrance tickets which I’ve kept as souvenirs.
The most important task, and one which I did prior to reaching Britain, was finding accommodation. I was lodged for the week in a hostel operated by the London Metropolitan University. It was from a poster on wall at the German university of Administrative Sciences Speyer, that I learned of the hostel, named “Sir John Cass Hall”, located in Well Street in Hackney in East London, which I then contacted via eMail from Germany to reserve a single room for me. The place was satisfactory. It was a modern building offering all the facilities one would normally expect from a student hostel, including a TV lounge, where several students gathered every evening to watch TV, and a broadband wireless internet facility. I hadn’t come to London to watch TV and surf the web, off course, but to see new places and relive my experiences in old ones, so I paid no attention to these.
The rent was decidedly cheap but the room I was allotted on the first floor was small (actually, all rooms in this hostel are about seven square meters) and cramped and, given that I’m not a small person, a bit uncomfortable. The bed, wash basin and wardrobe took up much of the available space and I was quite hard pressed to properly place my suitcase and the snacks and drinks I purchased from the Tesco supermarket just a minutes walk down the road. The prevailing warm summer weather and the absence of a ceiling fan or air-conditioning unit made the room a bit muggy too and I had to leave the window open in the night. The shower cubicle in the community bathroom down the hall was small too and I had to stoop a little to fit in it. All these inconveniences were not really a problem for a week. Things were manageable and there were several plus points about the place too. The student crowd was courteous and helpful. Besides the indigenous British students, I saw a number of foreign guests. And the delicious continental breakfast served every morning was a welcome treat indeed. From my room I had a nice view of the apartment buildings, resembling council flats, situated on the opposite side of the road. Besides the great convenience of having Tesco at your doorstep, there were also other nice places to shop in the neighbourhood but I didn’t have the time or energy left to check them out after returning in the evenings from my exhausting excursions downtown. And just opposite the Tesco there was a quaint little snack bar where I went on a couple of occasions to enjoy something I hadn’t eaten in over twenty years: a traditional British steak-and-kidney pie.
The one thing that was really irritating about the hostel though was the disgustingly filthy condition of its toilets. They were SOOOO horrid that I tried to avoid using them completely! I wondered then and I still wonder how adults – and supposedly educated ones at that - can leave such a truly messy state of affairs behind. Yuk!!!
I spent one morning at the Tower of London, a famous landmark and site of many historic events spanning centuries. There were quite a large number of visitors on that sunny, rather warm summer day. One of the first sights to catch my eye on entering the compound were the caged ravens. Legend has it then when these ravens depart from the Tower, the British monarchy will cease to exist (to prevent this their wings have been clipped). A major attraction at the Tower are the priceless British crown jewels on display and which I viewed from a moving belt, probably intended to keep visitors from moving on and not crowding around the glass cases. The armory with its diverse weapons on display were worth spending time examining as was the armour of King Henry VIII and several other centuries-old eye-catching exhibits. The stay at the Tower was made all the more enjoyable on account of the guided tour given by the yeoman warder, in his period red-coloured uniform, and who took our group to various locations, including the chapel, scaffold site and the notorious traitors gate (see photo gallery). There is a resteraunt and gift shop inside the Tower and there I purchased a CD of the music which was played at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II some fifty or so years earlier.
221B Baker Street, the famous residence of Sherlock Holmes and his faithful cohort Dr. John Watson, is a place I definitely was intending to visit whenever the opportunity to visit London again arose. I spent a while here, first looking around the gift shop at the ground floor, then visiting the house proper upstairs. The temptation was just too great to let up – even the pricey seven pound entrance ticket was no deterrent. From the photo set that I took at 221B Baker Street, now housing the elegant "Sherlock Holmes Museum", you can see that there is plenty to look at and I particularly appreciated the tasteful way the rooms have been furnished to reflect the late Victorian period. The wax models all over the place were an unexpected, but appealing addition which helped bring back memories of the many movies and television episodes I saw since childhood featuring the world’s greatest fictitious consulting detective and his faithful friend and assistant. Being unobservant, I didn’t notice that there was a wax model of the dreaded “Hound of the Baskervilles” gazing up and snarling from the basement (and which I got to find out as I was leaving). And, most surprising of all, I had an interesting encounter with “Dr. Watson” who suddenly appeared in the living room out of nowhere (maybe having stumbled through some time vortex), invited me to try on Sherlock’s deerstalker hat, chatted with me briefly and then snapped my photo (see photo gallery).
Another landmark high on my “target list” was St. Paul’s Cathedral, that grand symbol of London and its endurance which survived the devastation of the Blitz and World War II almost unscathed. The almost three centuries old colossal structure is unique and reflects the ingenuity of its famous builder Sir Christopher Wren. The intricate marble engravings inside are a real treat to the eye and I advise visitors to spend an hour or so just walking around and trying to get an appreciation for the vast space contained in this splendid structure. Several British heroes of a now vanished Empire, including Sir Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) are buried here. Prince Charles married Lady Diana at St. Paul's. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside so I couldn’t take any snapshots there, but it’s probably one of the most photographed buildings in London anyway (and that by generations of professional photographers), so why the heck would an amateur like myself care to add a few mediocre ones to it? Anyway, while I was here I thought I should embark on a journey that would take me right to the top of the cathedral – an exhausting undertaking and one which entailed climbing of hundreds of steps along with many other locals and foreign tourists, young and not so young, in the process. The view of London from the top was truly awesome and evidently worth the bother of ascending but it made me somewhat dizzy as I’m a bit scared of heights. I just had a peek over the edge and that was it before proceeding back down again and having exhausted myself completely on leaving St. Paul’s. I slept like a log that night.
I had a thoroughly enjoyable time on the Ripper walk, organized by the walking tour company London Walks. It is held daily and is on the agenda of many a tourist to London. The meeting point was at the exit of Tower Hill tube station in the early evening. My five pounds were well spent that evening. A number of people came to take part in the walk. Our young guide was certainly well versed with the history of the Ripper murder cases which shocked London in the summer and autumn of 1888 and made world headlines. Countless books and articles have been written and movies made about the enigmatic Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five (possibly eleven) women in and around the Whitechapel district, and whose identity remains unknown to this day (the casebook website is a splendid repository of Ripper-related knowledge). We got a graphic account of the horrendous living conditions endured by the working class and poorer inhabitants of the district in those days and were lead to the various murder sites, such as Mitre Square and Miller’s Court (where the Ripper’s supposedly last victim Mary Ann Kelly was hideously butchered in the early morning of November 9th (see police archive photo on the left)), and other sites relating to the cases, such as Spitalfields market, which has now reduced to less than half its original size, the building in which Jack the Ripper supposedly left a cryptic message written in chalk about “the Juwes not being the men who will be blamed for nothing”, and the Ten Bells Pub, which was regularly frequented by the Ripper’s victims. Our memorable tour ended there at the pub.
The Ripper walk inspired me so much, that a couple of days later I decided to take part in another guided walk. This time it took me through the streets and parks of Westminster, past the pompous buildings of British aristocracy and the elite echelon of class-conscious British society. Our competent and somewhat elderly guide, whose name I can’t recall but who seemed to be a prominent individual, maybe even an actor or entertainer, led us to various haunted sites including a lane where the ghost of a long-dead actor is occasionally seen waking into the wall of a theater (the ghost’s point of entry previously having being a door which was subsequently walled up). We visited a place where the ghost of a dog is occasionally seen, the animal having been the pet of a German Ambassador to Britain in the pre-World War II era. Most sinister of all was the hint dropped by our guide about 50 Berkeley Square which may be the most haunted place in London. As in many haunting cases, there are different theories, but it seems that this mansion in Mayfair may have been erected over a “plague pit” where a large numbers of victims of plagues, which periodically used to afflict London in past centuries, are buried. The haunting has continued for years and it is thought to be extremely malignant. Now housing the company Maggs Brothers, sellers of antiquarian books, its employees are not allowed to be left alone in the building. The company’s policy is that the last two employees finishing work must leave the building together. Considering that nothing out of the ordinary has been witnessed at the house in decades, that’s something really ominous, isn’t it?
No visit to London could be complete without strolling around inside its famous department stores so I traveled to Oxford Street to poke my nose inside Harrods. As a child I visited it on occasions with my mother. As I remember it from those long-gone days, Harrods was a world in itself, a vastness dotted by countless familiar and alien objects, in which you could easily get lost forever if you strayed off from mom’s protective side too far. Everything about the store seemed uncompromisingly monumental at the time. I suppose in any child’s eyes such places usually would. My visit this time shattered some of that illusion. The universe had shrunk somewhat and the objects dotting it appeared quite a bit less alien. Given the hype about Harrods, I did expect to come across very high-quality unique products but was disappointed to find a lot of stuff that normally would be available in any supermarket or retail shop. The crude pharonic statues, apparently meant as a shrine to the late Princess Diana and boyfriend Dodi Fayyad, and the ancient Egyptian décor on the walls, which glare at you as you're ascending on the escalators, seemed rather out of place. Nevertheless, in some respects - architecturally and price level-wise – it didn’t seem as if Harrods had changed noticeably with the passage of time.
I have always loved visiting museums, which I have elevated to the status of a hobby, and I have a large collection of photos I've taken at museums in Britain, Germany and Pakistan. The great cultural metropolis London seems to be saturated with museums as a beach is with sand! Perhaps no other city on Earth can boast such treasures on public display on such a vast magnitude. Big and small, old and new, well known and the not so well known, there are simply just to many museums to see. I didn't have time to properly explore London's museums on this visit, but I did briefly wander into the Natural History Museum, whose priceless exhibits are housed behind an exquisitely carved facade (see photo). Looming in the center of the hall was the skeleton of a rather and seemingly menacing big dinosaur, which would have sent shivers down any persons spine had it been a stuffed specimen. A special exhibition "T-Rex: The Killer Question" was running and I decided to poke my nose in there while I was at the museum. Although public museums no longer charge for entrance (thanks a lot Tony Blair!), special exhibitions apparently are exempt as I had to pay three and a half Pounds for my entry. Totally justifiable really given that the museum upkeep probably costs a fortune and I always one for promoting culture, even if I have to dig in my pocket for it. The theme was whether the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which we have eternally been accustomed to believing is the prehistoric biological killing machine par excellence, was really as vicious as it has been made out to be or whether it was merely a wandering scavenger feeding off the remains of carcasses left over by other predator animals. Hmmm, it seems that the cancer of political correctness which dominates our contemporary age, which has the magnanimity of transforming villains rather abruptly into innocent victims, and vice versa, has metastized backwards over several million years. Anyhow, the exhibition was nicely designed and managed but I didn't stick around too long as I had plenty of other places to visit.
My week in London as also intended as a journey to rediscover my "roots". High on my target list was Earl’s Court in the Royal Borough of Kensington where I was born, lived for the first eight years of my childhood, and attended a Church of England run primary school (St. Barnabas & St. Philip's Primary School). Stepping out of Earl’s Court station felt like stepping back in time. Memories overcame me as I gazed up at the buildings that ran adjacent to the station on both sides of the road which now seemed to me narrower than they did decades back. I immediately set out for Nevern Square and Courtfield Gardens, those two places I habited after my birth for almost nine years before my parents decided to move to Pakistan. It was an exhilarating feeling to walk those same streets and broad pavements, and gaze my eyes on those same buildings, parks and neighbourhoods which were my immediate surroundings for years. What I saw looked surprisingly familiar. The experience was almost surreal and images from long-gone days constantly kept cropping in front of my eyes. I spent hours that day just walking down Earl’s Court and trying to recapture that lost aura of magic and innocence, in a nostalgic childhood world largely free the daily worries and apprehensions that characterize adulthood. The elegant building in the photo on the right is the Princess Beatrice Hospital, where I was born on March 28th, 1965 :=)
I had lived in other places in London apart from Earl's Court. This was after resettling there in 1979, a time marked by upheavals in Pakistan and my parents concern that I be provided with a good school education, at least of a standard better than the one available to me in Pakistan at the time. In the later part of that year we moved into an apartment at St. George’s Square in Pimlico, which is close to the Thames, and where we stayed for several months. Again, it was like going back years in time as not much had really changed, at least insofar as the external appearance of the place was concerned. I spent some time walking around the neighbourhood and in the fenced park which fronted the block where I lived, and where I often spent hours walking the path or playing. I had some interesting experiences in this park at the time. On this occasion a few elderly people, probably mostly residents of the block, were sitting around or walking, a few of them eyeing me in a manner I would almost consider suspicious. Not minding them I did my round innocently and continued on just across the street past the small church at the corner of the road to stroll past the Pimlico School I briefly attended on Lupus Street. My memories here are not all that pleasant so I didn’t pay much attention to it but walked down a great distance on a seemingly endless street.
The final destination on my journey was Southfields where I lived for about two years and attended the secondary school there at which I completed my ordinary-level examinations in Summer 1981. It was nice to be back in that neighbourhood again and I spent time wandering around the school, which has been renamed Southfields Community College and which, according to one news report in "The Mail on Sunday", may have become one of Europe's most cosmopolitan schools. I even briefly ventured inside into a room where a receptionist was sitting behind a glass pane. She appeared quite busy though and I decided not to approach her and ask permission to walk around the premises (next time I visit London I’ll inform people of my visit in advance so that they have time and may be prepared to receive me). Southfields hasn’t changed much, except that it has become a "community college". I walked behind it, where there is a large field, and looked at the buildings intensely behind the fence fronting the paved playground. My presence was soon noticed by some pupils who asked themselves “whose that man there?”. Walking off, I wandered across the familiar St. George's Park to the Southside shopping mall I often frequented with my mother a quarter century ago or alone and which, in those days, was called the Arndale Centre. It was the largest shopping mall in Europe when it was built in 1970.
All in all, I'd say not bad for a week’s work! It was an awesome experience to set foot in London again after what seemed almost an eternity. Things do seem to have changed quite a bit for the better since those dark days when Maggie Thatcher was at the helm of affairs. The city was clean and I found the Londoners (white and non-white) largely courteous and helpful. As a visitor, one may become apprehensive on hearing that London has a "very high crime rate" but despite traveling extensively all over the city alone, including at night, and frequently using the subway and bus network, I just didn't get that impression. London is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world and I was a little bit worried about overstepping my budget, but surprisingly, I didn't find it all that expensive. I can't say anything about the cost of renting, but the food prices at Sainsbury and Tesco were comparable, and in some instances, cheaper than in Germany. Camera film was frightfully expensive though, so much so, that I didn't buy any rolls there. Public museums are free and the expense I incurred at the few resteraunts where I lunched out at was reasonable. And, quite contrary to what I often read or hear about London, I didn't see any beggars or homeless people on the streets. Maybe I wasn't observant enough.
I hope you liked my brief travel report. Now look at the photos set below and drop me a line if you have any comments about my report or the photos I took. Note that I took many more photos than I'm showing here but most of them, especially from the Ripper Walk, were underexposed. This is, by the way, the last major photo collection that I took with my analogue camera - an Olympus OZ 115 - before I switched over to digital photography in February 2006. Last, but not least, let me state that all the photos displayed above in my travel report were not taken by me but "borrowed" from various websites. If the owners of these photos have any objection to their work being used here, I shall withdraw them.
Just click on the photos below to see their enlarged versions.
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