This past February, my sister and I spent four days in London, a stopover before heading further east. I have visited some of Europe’s most popular cities for tourism, (Paris and Rome for example) usually during the busy seasons of late spring, summer, and early fall. Dealing with large crowds is the down side, but it is usually nice weather and outdoor activities are nearly guaranteed. February in London is definitely off-season, and it would be a first for me. The advantages of off-season travel include abundant hotel choices, smaller to nonexistent crowds, and more affordable rates on airfare and hotels. We expected cold, rainy weather, and packed accordingly.
It was cold, but we got exceedingly lucky in that most of our days were sunny. Because we had anticipated cold weather and had packed jackets, gloves and scarves, we were able to enjoy the cold but sunny weather by walking a good deal of the time, even visiting the Portobello Road outdoor market. We also discovered that pub atmosphere and food is even better when it’s cold outside.
The best part of traveling during the off-season is the lack of crowds. There were no lines at Westminster Abbey, so we had plenty of room to stroll leisurely around the interior and read the names on the tombs of the royal and the famous. Poet’s Corner is the final resting place of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling, to name just three.
We spent several afternoons at the wonderfully entertaining but terribly expensive Harrods department store, where I was delighted to discover the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar on the first floor. Now that is an idea we should import to department stores in America. We even returned to Harrods food halls for dinner one evening. Another off-season travel perk? Fantastic theatre seats for less. We scored center stage seats to Les Miserables for half the usual cost.
On our one truly cold and rainy day, we walked to the Victoria and Albert Museum and spent an entertaining (and dry) morning and afternoon in what felt like London’s royal attic (http://www.vam.ac.uk). To our surprise, photography was allowed. There was only one room in the entire building that prohibited photography. What a great idea. I loved it, and used my camera freely. Entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum is free of charge.
The V&A Museum has six levels packed with fantastic pieces from around the world. My favorite galleries included the Asia Rooms, the Fashion Gallery, and the Medieval and Renaissance Rooms on Level 1; the Ironwork gallery on Level 3; and the Ceramic and Glass Gallery on Level 4. In one day we could not possibly see the entire museum, but we did cover a lot of ground.
In the South-East Asia Rooms on the first floor we saw a carved stone elephant and calf from India among hundreds of other items. In the South Asia Rooms we enjoyed discovering Tippoo’s Tiger from 1793, a painted wooden mechanical automaton. Too bad it was behind glass, because the description of the actual operation sounds fascinating. It would be fun to see it in action. It is described in the museum guide as follows:
This wooden model of a tiger mauling a European was taken from Tipu Sultan’s palace after his death. The man lies on his back while the tiger sinks its teeth into his neck. When the handle on the side of the tiger is turned, the man’s left forearm moves back and forth between his mouth and the tiger’s ear, while bellows inside cause the animal to growl and the man to emit a plaintive whooping sound. A flap near the handle can be opened to reveal organ pipes and a keyboard with button keys of ivory.
My two favorite paintings in the South Asia rooms were Akbar hunts in the neighbourhood of Agra, and Akbar Hunts with Trained Cheetahs, from the Age of the Mughals. They were painted between 1590 and 1595 in either India or Pakistan.
The Islamic Middle East Room is home to many colorful ceramics and tiles, and the impressive Ardabil Carpet, lighted for only 10 minutes twice per hour to preserve the colors. The V&A website describes the Ardabil Carpet as “…the world’s oldest dated carpet and one of the largest, most beautiful and historically important in the world.” The placard next to the carpet reads as follows:
The Ardabil carpet is one of the largest and finest Islamic carpets in existence. It is also of great historical importance. It was commissioned as one of a pair by the ruler of Iran, Shah Tahmasp, for the shrine of his ancestor, Shaykh Safi al-Din, in the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran. In a small panel at one end, the date of completion is given as the year 946 in the Muslim calendar, equivalent to 1539-40. The text includes the name of the man in charge of its production, Maqsud Kashani. The carpet is remarkable for the beauty of its design and execution. It has a white silk warm and weft and the pile is knotted in wool in ten colours. The single huge composition that covers most of its surface is clearly defined against the dark-blue ground, and the details of the ornament – the complex blossoms and delicate tendrils – are rendered with great precision. This was due above all to the density of the knotting – there are 4914 knots in every 10 centimetres square (304 knots per square inch).
My first thought after reading the placard was “If this carpet is so culturally important to Iran and so valuable, how come it is in London and not in a museum in Iran?” I wondered if the carpet had been purchased from someone, or was it acquired in some other manner? In recent years there have been discussions of returning items of antiquity to their rightful owners. Egypt has called for the return of many ancient pieces taken illegally, including the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, and a bust of Queen Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum. It was for the good of humanity that the items were protected and restored, but perhaps it is time to return these items to their original owners, especially if the countries want them back.
Also on Level 1 are the Buddhist Sculpture Rooms. The four rooms we toured included forty-seven Buddhist master works, my favorite being The Great Departure of the Buddha, Pakistan, 100 to 200 AD. That you can get up close to these and see them in a naturally lit environment without glass casements is wonderful.
We wandered through halls of ironwork and marveled at the glass works. We saw small bronze sculptures and large pieces of antique furnishings. Many of the galleries contain sculptures of all sizes and materials. The Medieval and Renaissance Rooms and the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Galleries, Sculpture in Britain, include seven rooms of sculptures. The V&A is a wonderful way to spend the day, rain or shine.
After a day of wandering the museum floors, we stopped at Harrods food court for dinner as we walked back to our hotel. On our last morning in London we walked through Hyde Park on a brisk and sunny day, witness to the first crocuses. A walk past Windsor Castle was on the schedule that morning as well. Maybe we were incredibly lucky with the weather, experiencing only one day of rain, but I would chance off-season travel again. I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.