January 26th, 2014


London and Ireland Trip, September 23: Sherlock Holmes, British Museum, Winchester

Monday morning was a particular experiment in what sort of tourists we want to be. We got a private guide for a Sherlock Holmes tour.

We had not originally planned to do it this way. But I felt that a necessary part of our London experience was a detective tour, and I had assumed that detective tours would be abundantly available. But after I had bought tickets to fly to Ireland on Friday afternoon, I discovered that the only tour I could find was on Friday afternoon. So we paid the cost of a whole group, more or less, to get a private walking tour.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken notes, because I look back across the pictures I took and I can’t remember much of the significance of the shots.

We met at the Criterion restaurant, where Dr. Watson first met Stamford, who introduced Watson to Sherlock Holmes. This had a double significance for us, because the Criterion had also been the setting of a significant scene in the episode of Downton Abbey we had seen the previous evening.
Criterion Restaurant

This row included several Gentlemen’s Clubs, and probably would have included Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club if it had actually existed. The Athenaeum is at the left; the dark brown building at the right is the Reform Club, of particular significance in Around the World in Eighty Days
Gentlemen's Clubs

This had once been the German Embassy, which played a particular role in “His Last Bow”...
German Embassy

… and this little side door to the embassy received special mention in that story.
Side door of German Embassy

Scotland Yard of course appears in the Holmes stories many times.
Scotland Yard

Our tour included a stop at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, which was decorated with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.
Sherlock Holmes Pub
Sherlock Holmes Pub

The upstairs of the Sherlock Holmes pub has a careful recreation of Holmes’ and Watson’s rooms in Baker Street.
Sherlock Holmes Pub Sherlock Holmes Pub

We ended our tour in Covent Garden, mentioned as the place where the goose was bought in “The Blue Carbuncle”. Our guide explained that there had never been that sort of market here, and speculated that this was Arthur Conan Doyle engaging in the wild tomfoolery traditional to a Victorian Christmas story.
Covent Garden

So here’s the question of this big experiment: was this private tour worth it? On the one hand, it was definitely a better tour experience - we never had trouble hearing Richard, and we felt well able to ask all the questions we wanted. But I didn’t feel much sense of “wow” during the tour, either the excitement of seeing a site that had a prominent role in the book or the excitement of feeling that Richard was really giving us a customized guide experience. And it was pricey enough that I wanted (reasonably or not) to get some “Wow”.
I still think that hiring a private guide might be a good thing under some circumstances; I’ve read many accounts of people saying it was the best travel decision they had made. But there are clearly other factors involved with making a private guide an awesome experience, and I’m not sure what they are.

We had a quick lunch at a pub in Covent Garden called the Cellar, which turned out to be owned by the same corporation that owned the Prospect of Whitby where we’d dined the previous night (and a great many other pubs). We had a sausage sampler and a cheese and pickle sandwich. I was surprised that the cheese in the sandwich was shredded cheese - I don’t think we encountered sliced cheese in all our vacation.
Sausage Sampler Cheese and Pickle Sandwich

For the afternoon, we went on another walking tour, through the British Museum. We knew that a few hours would not be enough time to effectively scratch the surface of the British Museum, so we hoped that a tour would help us come closer to effectively scratching the surface. (Because I goofed, we went to the Museum instead of to the Underground station where the our gathered, but we managed to meet the tour at last.)
British Museum

As we waited at the museum, Lori found a snack that became one of her favorites from the trip: millionaire shortbread, a tasty treat of shortbread topped with caramel and chocolate.
Millionaire Shortbread

British Museum British Museum

Unlike the Sherlock Holmes tour, the British Museum tour gave me a “Wow” moment right away with the Rosetta Stone. The content of the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is not terribly interesting, but the really exciting thing about it is that it was inscribed in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Ancient Greek was understood by scholars when it was discovered, but the other two languages were not, so the Rosetta Stone has been an essential clue to our modern understanding of Demotic and Hieroglyphics.
(One of the questions I’ve pondered about this: it took over 20 years to decipher the first Rosetta Stone; if we found an equivalent puzzle today, how long would it take us to decipher that with the Internet and computers and an improved understanding of linguistics?)
Rosetta Stone (replica)

It turns out that the stele you can touch is not actually the real Rosetta stone; the real one is much better protected. I sheepishly admit that it didn’t have the same “Wow” effect for me.
Rosetta Stone (the real one)

This massive statue (and its twin in the same room) came from an Assyrian temple.
Assyrian Sculpture

And some ancient guardsman scratched a game board into the base of one of them.
Ancient Gameboard

There was a fantastic bas-relief of an Assyrian lion hunt. I remember the tour guide explaining that although there were dogs and guards and beaters in the group, only the king was allowed to spear the lions.
Assyrian Lion Hunt Bas-relief

Assyrian Lion Hunt Bas-relief

From Assyria, we moved on to Ancient Greece, and the Elgin Mables, carted off to England by the agents of the Earl of Elgin. (Greece would like to have these pieces back.)
Elgin Marbles Elgin Marbles Elgin Marbles

Once again, my notes have failed me. This might be the temple of Athena Nike, or it might be the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the tomb that gave us the word “Mausoleum”.
Temple of Athena?

The staircase was decorated with Roman mosaics.
Mosaics Untitled

These pieces were parts Roman hoards found in Britain. In the words of the tour guide, “We may have to return the Marbles, but this is unquestionably ours.” I could have spent many hours in just the Roman area.
Roman platter found in Britain Roman bowl

In fact, I went back afterward for more pictures:
Roman Britain Roman Britain

The last room the guide took us to was the clock room. This ship automaton would proceed down a banquet table, hoist the sails, and fire the cannons.
Ship automaton

Another amazing clock from that room.

I had particularly wanted to see the Sutton Hoo hoard, a fabulous hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasures from the sixth or seventh centuries, including a nearly complete ship burial. Unfortunately, the exhibit was under maintenance when we visited, but we were able to see this fabulous helmet (and a modern reconstruction):
Sutton Hoo helmet Sutton Hoo Helmet replica

I think we only managed to visit a tenth of the rooms of the British Museum in our afternoon - we could have spent a whole week just in the British Museum without seeing everything.

Our last plan of the evening was one more walking tour, “Westminster by Gaslight”. This was the worst evening of our whole trip. It wasn’t the fault of the tour, though. Our legs were really aching from the first two walking tours. I think that two walking tours in one day is our limit.

But worse, Lori’s phone got pickpocketed in the Westminster Underground station as we were waiting for the tour to start. She took out her phone to take a picture of Big Ben (much like this one taken with my phone):
Big Ben
As the tour began, she reached into her purse for it to take another photo, and discovered that the pocket where it belonged was unzipped. This was the first clue something was wrong… because she was fairly sure she’d zipped it back up. She then spent several frantic minutes searching her purse, but no phone.

We paid only meager attention to the tour of Westminster, and spent most of the time searching through her purse in hopes of finding it. This was too bad, as there was plenty of interesting history and architecture discussed.

The tour ended at the Houses of Parliament, so we asked a policeman guarding the gates how we should file a report. Instead of referring us elsewhere, Constable Ryan took our report himself. He was extremely pleasant and friendly; although he didn’t give us much hope of recovering her phone (we didn’t think there was anyway), he assured us repeatedly that we had not done anything wrong, and he had had his own wallet stolen nearby, “and I like to think I’m pretty aware”, and he hoped this would not give us a bad impression of London. He called us several times to inform us of the progress of the case. We could deal with the loss of the phone, but we most regret the loss of the pictures Lori had taken.

It was late by the time we were done with the report, and we were tired and hungry and upset. We could fix one of those, at least: we went to St. Stephen’s Pub, supposedly favored by members of Parliament.

This was the epitome of a dismal lesson about English pubs: a beautiful, well-maintained pub like this offers no guarantee of food to match the decor. Lori got a chicken and ham pie with no trace of ham, and I got ham and eggs prepared as if the cook had been been traumatized by an egg as a child and sworn eternal vengeance against all things ovate.
Sad ham and eggs Ham and chicken pie