A visit to amazing London

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Ingenium – Canada's Museums of Science and Technology
Couple selfie in front of the White Tower.
Couple selfie in front of the White Tower. We are so nerdy.

For my husband’s fortieth birthday this year, I decided to surprise him with a trip to London, England over March Break. We both love to travel and try to see as many sights as possible when we do. Most of the places we go tend to be historical  I guess one would expect that much from a curator! There is no shortage of amazing places to see in London and our list of “must-sees” was quite long; we only had six days to fit them all in. I’m happy to report that we got to all the must-sees and with only minimal damage to our poor, exhausted feet! In honour of International Museum Day (May 18), I wanted to share some details on three of the amazing places we had the privilege of visiting.

View of the Shard from the Tower grounds.

View of the Shard from the Tower grounds.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is nothing short of incredible. We spent over three hours walking around the grounds and generations of buildings, in and out of the misty rain.

The views of the city from the walls were amazing.

One of the things I love about London is the mix of the very old and very new. You could really take in that contrast from the walls of the tower. At one point, you are looking at The Shard and behind you is the White Tower, the oldest building on the site, which dates back to 1078.

The White Tower was closed the first time I visited, so I was thrilled to be able to go in this time. Inside, there is an extraordinary exhibition of armour — including a rather comical example of a suit that belonged to Henry VIII. The history of the Tower as an instrument of captivity, torture, and death is also poignantly represented by a monument of sorts, marking the place where the infamous Anne Boleyn and others were executed. Several rooms have extensive carvings, the last earthly evidence of many inhabitants held captive and often killed for their religious beliefs.

Interesting armour belonging to Henry VIII.

Interesting armour belonging to Henry VIII.

As an avid reader of Plantagenet and Tudor histories, being at the Tower really brought many historical events to life in the imagination. Standing in rooms wherein Elizabeth I was held prisoner before she was Queen, or where she, in turn, imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, or where the infamous Princes of the Tower were kept before they were (presumably) murdered. It really is such a magical and haunted place, and I think no visit to London is complete without an afternoon there.

Down House entrance.

Down House entrance. 

Down House

This site was very special, and I venture to guess it’s probably not a place that is on many people’s list when visiting the London area. Down House is the home of Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution (I’m not really sure this is a theory anymore, so much as generally-accepted fact, but it certainly was in his time). To say my husband is an admirer of Darwin is an understatement, and visiting the place where this man lived, worked, and raised his family was a bucket-list item for Dennis. The site did not disappoint.

Dennis enjoying a coffee in the Darwin family kitchen.

Dennis enjoying a coffee in the Darwin family kitchen.

Often in Canadian historic homesteads, the furniture is true to the time period but not necessarily to that home or the home’s residents. We assumed this was the case at Down House as well, but a docent informed us that no, nearly all the pieces of furniture in the house belonged to — and were used by — the Darwin family. How magical!

Here we were standing in Darwin’s study, which was, as you might imagine, full of cases and cases of books, papers and notebooks, specimens of creatures and plants, and a messy desk in the center of it all. The chair was a custom job by Darwin himself, who fitted it with wheels so he could easily glide around the room in the course of his work.

The Darwin family’s kitchen was transformed into a lovely little café, where we had a few homemade pastries. Darwin did a lot of thinking and he felt he did that best when walking around the grounds of Down House. The route he took has been preserved but as the weather conditions were not especially favourable, the walking path was closed. One of the staff members was kind enough to let us do a short run along the back of the property though, so we got to enjoy the scenery: farm fields with grazing sheep, sun struggling to come out, a brisk wind, and a touch of mist. I can’t imagine anything more English.

Note: Photos were not permitted in much of the house.

The Grahame-White Building and adjoining hangar.

The Grahame-White Building and adjoining hangar.

The Royal Air Force Museum

Because it was my husband’s birthday trip and his first time in London, I let him set the majority of our agenda. I had only one place that I needed to make sure I got back to — the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum. I had been there once before, back in 2016, and since then colleagues there had been working madly to revamp the museum and their grounds for the centenary of the RAF in 2018. I was really excited to see what they had done.

The biggest change was in the former Battle of Britain hangar, which is now the entrance, small café and gift shop, as well as the location of a huge exhibition on the RAF, its role and evolution over the last 100 years. The exhibition is wonderful; there are so many new elements, immersive experiences, interactives, and of course, amazing aircraft. Lots of great ideas to bring back to our own museum!

My favourite part of the RAF Museum is still the Grahame-White building, which houses their exhibition on aviation during the First World War. This period of aviation history is of special interest to me, so it’s no surprise that I am drawn to it.

The amazingly detailed re-creation of Claude Grahame-White’s office.

The amazingly detailed re-creation of Claude Grahame-White’s office.

The building itself is the oldest one of the museum’s site, built in 1915 as an expansion to the Grahame-White factory. The factory’s owner, Claude Grahame-White, is honoured by an incredible recreation of his office space. The rest of the building is dedicated to the story of aviation during the First World War, including manufacturing and the various roles aviation played in home defence and at the Front. The objects in the exhibition are amazing. I really can’t help feeling a little artifact and space envy; the Canada Aviation and Space Museum has an incredible collection of First World War airplanes and I would love to have a dedicated building where we could show them all off!

After six days, we were properly exhausted and ready to come home. There is so much to see in the city and while we managed to take in a ton of sights, we’ll definitely go back for more. I could write so much more about Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Oxford, or the five supposedly oldest pubs in London, or the parks and monuments that are all over the city, but this highlight reel will do nicely, I think. All I can say is that I can’t think of a better way to celebrate International Museum Day than reminiscing about an unforgettable trip. London, I heart you.

Author(s)
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Erin Gregory

Erin Gregory brings a passion for engaging the public through storytelling to her role as Curator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. She strives to deliver historical information in new and interesting ways; she is currently researching how the museum can best utilize gamification to promote its collections and share knowledge with audiences. Erin has curated exhibitions and digital products such as Early Aviation, Life in Orbit, The Starfleet Academy Experience, Ace Academy: Black Flight, Ace Academy: Skies of Fury, and Skies of Fury DX (for Nintendo Switch). Her areas of interest include aviation in the First World War, Canadian airplane manufacturing in the First World War, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, women in Canadian aviation, air traffic control in Canada, the Avro Arrow, and the history of human space flight. Erin earned an MA in Canadian History from Memorial University, a BA in History and English from McMaster University, and a post-graduate diploma in Cultural Resource Management from the University of Victoria. In her spare time, she loves baking and decorating cakes, and spending time her family.