Saturday, June 23, 2007
Vacation 12: The London Eye
Monday. Today's Big Event was a ride on the British Airways London Eye, the fantastic 350 foot-high bicycle-wheel-style ferris wheel on the South Bank opposite the Houses of Parliament. Our guide book said that tickets would need to be bought in advance, so we headed over yesterday both to look it over and to get tickets for today. It has become the most striking landmark in a place filled with striking landmarks. Nearly the tallest thing in London, it can be seen from very far away, and naturally it looks like nothing else. It seems to have taken on something of Paris's Eiffel Tower as a city landscape mascot, which is fitting since, supposedly like the tower, it was designed and built to be temporary and to be transported elsewhere if its welcome runs out.
This seems unlikely, since it's clearly the single biggest tourist draw in town since it went up in 1999. When we came by on Sunday to buy our tickets, the lines were hundreds long, and each of the wheel's 32 capsules was full. All day. But we showed up today, as specified, half an hour before our 11:am time, and walked right on. We shared our capsule with five other people, some of whom just walked up. So there's not always a wait, but the place was busy when we got there, and busier when we left.
And what a ride. The machinery geek part of me was more fascinated by the machine itself than with the views, but it makes for a hell of a one-two punch. Being right on the river, the views as your capsule rolls up toward the top get better and better, and soon you have a complete vista of the whole of the great city below you. So many fabulous sites in view that it's hard to know what to focus on. We were lucky in that our day, though overcast, was high enough and clear enough that we could see about as far as you'd ever be able to from this height. The whole trip around the wheel takes about half an hour, and the wheel normally turns continuously. You even board and exit your capsules while they're in motion, though a controller in a booth can stop the wheel to assist elderly or handicapped people. This happened momentarily a couple of times during our run, and it's barely perceptible when it stops and starts again.
The machine itself is really mind-boggling, so much so that when I got off I went in search of the very same guidebook they tried to peddle me when I boarded. A few of the oddities: the gondolas are mounted not between two wheels, as in a regular ferris wheel, pivoting freely as the wheel rotates; instead, they are mounted on the outside of the wheel, and the gondolas' floors are kept parallel to the ground by mechanical action. So if everybody in the gondola moves from one side to the other, the car does not tip. Each gondola can hold up to 25 people, though I imagine about half that number is more typical. Boarding and exiting the gondolas is done from one end, thru double glass doors like on a subway car, which are operated by the assistants who help you board. They close and secure the doors, which become another set of windows for you to look out. Apart from the floor and a section of the roof directly above you, the rest of the gondola appears to be glass, giving you a fighter pilot's view of the sky as you roll around. Of course, except when you're on the very top of the wheel (and the floor prevents you from looking straight down), a substantial part of your view is of the wheel itself and, looking beyond, of the rest of the gondolas on the other side. The steel of the wheel itself is very substantial, as are the two towers which hold the immense central hub. But between those two steel items--hub / towers & wheel, there is only a smattering of cables which look for all the world like bicycle spokes. To see how these things all mount together, and the joints and connections between parts, especially when you're hanging seemingly unsupported 300 feet above the River Thames, gives you a lot to think about.
It was over entirely too soon, and we stepped out of our capsule and watched the attendants do a quick search of our gondola with mirrors on stalks (clearly looking for things placed in obscure crannies by someone bent on malfeasance) before boarding the next group. It was entirely worth the 14 pounds they charged us, though a quick calculation makes it seem that someone is making a boatload on the concession. Well, good for them. We originally said it wouldn't be worth more than 10 pounds, but I'm glad we stretched things upward a bit.
From there we walked across the Westminster Bridge past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Abbey. Susan opted not to pay the 10 pound admission fee, but I figured I would have a go at it. And again, I'm glad I did, as there is a huge sense of history in the place. Unfortunately, they won't let you use your camera, so I have very few pictures except a couple from public areas which don't do the place any kind of justice. I can't help comparing it to the big cathedrals in Paris, which are about the same size, I'd guess, as the Abbey. But lavish and expensive though Notre Dame and St. Eustache and St. Sulpice are, there is not the same sense of any of them being wrapped up so tightly with government as is clearly the case with Westminster. The first thing you notice is that the interior of Westminster is like a cemetery. There are hundreds of people buried inside the Abbey, many in gigantic and elaborate sarcophagi, going back nearly a thousand years. Quite a number of kings and queens are there, as well as many other prominent personages, both governmental and non. This is very different from the Paris cathedrals, in scope anyway, and enough so as to make it seem different in kind. The next thing you notice is that while the Paris cathedrals are still in use as daily places of worship, they nonetheless feel (to me) like a step back a number of centuries, a visit to some past tradition whose connection to our present day seems highly artificial (and it could be that hearing the services in French might just as well have been in Latin to me). Westminster feels different. Though it also connects one with something very old and historic, it feels more like a breathing, present-day thing. That doesn't really make sense, but the sensation is different. To me it was, anyway. The architecture is really mind-blowing, with the very high nave and spectacular vaults, and the place is full of odd corridors and anterooms, all with stone steps hollowed out by centuries of footfalls. And parts of the place are clearly much older than others. It's odd to think of something being so old that the stones themselves from which it was built seem old.
After my tour of the Abbey, we caught the tube out to the Portobello Road shopping area and market. This place is apparently much busier on the weekends, but there were still a fair number of people there today. We found a great little hidden place for lunch--the Lazy Daisy--and then wandered among the high-end antique shops and produce stalls for a couple hours. This was followed by more shopping, this time, via another tube ride, to Oxford Street. I managed to find a couple CDs and just generally to people watch. We came back to the hotel for an hour or so before going back out for a late dinner, and we're back in by 10:pm.
It's odd to think of how small this country is relative to the States--in both area and population--and yet to see how much industrial might, how much history, how much of Western civilization has come from this place. Where much of America and Europe can be seen in this place, it's still remarkable how much food and clothing and housewares and automobiles and on and on have come from domestic sources. I know that at one time England's empire stretched far and wide, and that these represent glorious lost days. But for all that, it still seems a pretty impressive place.
My impressions of London itself continue to evolve a bit as well. I can see that with a few more days the differences in the traffic situation will take care of themselves--after all, different skills and instincts are not required, only a recalibration of talents one uses in the States every day. Also, though I still have a sense of some sinister thing lurking not far from the beaten path here, it's coming to seem more like the regular hazards of the big city than a new stratum of evil. While I did not feel as though someone were actively plotting to steal my paltry hundred pounds as I walked the streets today, I still feel that if I fell down in the subway I'd wake up to find my pockets empty.
It reminds me: Susan was reading some interview with some entertainment person or other--I think it was Kate Beckinsale--who had recently moved from London to L.A., and she was asked what she thought of the two places. I thought her answer was quite correct. She said (I'm paraphrasing, as I don't have the article in question) "In London you feel like a part of the world; and in L.A. you feel like the rest of the world doesn't exist." I can see this absolutely. Walking the streets of London is like New York only even moreso. White, native English speakers are in quite a minority here, and the streets are an amazing melting pot of humanity. Just walking around as we did today, I bet we heard at least 20 languages, and newspapers and food are available from places I've hardly heard of. So it really does make you feel like one person in ten million, each carrying the flag and customs of your particular path, and that those paths are extremely varied and numerous. L.A. seems like a U.S. city which is influencing U.S. culture. That filters out to the rest of the world, but it's a knock-on effect, and one which has to compete in a place like London with many, many other cultural pressures. Service industries especially here seem to be staffed by immigrants, like food service. Our waiters & waitresses have almost all been ESL people, with varying degrees of skill with English. This is, of course, a world apart from Appleton, Wisconsin. I guess this is why we travel.
Lastly, we've now spent a goodly while in the tube system, and it's really a nice way to get around. The trains run literally every two minutes (which says, to me, that they're running at capacity, as they can't add cars to the existing trains nor additional trains on these lines; more capacity will require more tunnels), and there are very handy signs in each station which tell you how far away the next two trains are. Given how spread out the city is--and how shitty the traffic is, especially at rush hour--the train system is really necessary here. Connections between trains are often quite a haul, such that we've decided to take it in the shorts on Friday and take a cab or shuttle to the airport, as hauling our bags thru a couple train stations seems inadvisable. And lastly, I'm intrigued at how far below surface the tubes are here. We got on the train at Westminster today to go to Portobello road, and we descended not less than ten stories below street level. And none of the stations I've seen (except, of course, the remote ones which are above ground) seem less than, say, five stories down. This is directly in contrast to New York and Chicago, where the streets were torn up and the trains run right beneath them--in fact, you can often hear the trains rumbling right below you thru the ventilation grates along the sidewalks in both these places. What was it in London which made the deep tunnels so necessary? It can't simply be the river, as NY and Chicago also have those. It could be the age of the city (and all the shit that's below the streets already), but nobody was putting stuff eight stories down 500 years ago. I don't get it, but I'd love to read up on London's tube system if I can find a good book on it (Susan groans at this suggestion, as the bulk of what I've acquired in the past three weeks is in book form--probably 20 lbs. worth).