Travel 2007


One of my favourite posts here was one I wrote almost two years ago, about a claim that a certain well-known photo of the London Blitz was faked. Not only for the post itself, but for the ensuing discussion, which led me to change my mind on the issue more than once. My tentative conclusion is still that the photo is indeed a fake, and I'm not going to rehash that here. What I want to do here is show just how pervasive the image is.

When I was in London last year, I went to three museums where one would expect to find some sort of display about the Blitz: the RAF Museum, the Imperial War Museum, and the Cabinet War Rooms. Let's see what images they each used to represent the Blitz ...

RAF Museum:

RAF Museum

Imperial War Museum:
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Since coming home from London, I keep coming across interesting things which I could have seen while I was there, but didn't. Which is not at all surprising, given the city's size and history, but it's true even in the relatively restricted confines of Bloomsbury, where I was staying and got to know fairly well (or so I thought). My first inkling of this came when I was watching Black Books for the nth time, and idly wondered where the exterior location filming was done. Practically around the corner from where I was staying, as it happens; I must have walked past the street it's in on an almost daily basis, if not down the very street itself. If I'd known I would have gone in and bought a book, even at the risk of being verbally abused for my troubles!

But there were also things I didn't know about which were more relevant to my research. Chronologically, I stumbled across the earliest when flipping through a new Osprey book, London, 1914-1917: The Zeppelin Menace by Ian Castle. It's got these nice maps showing the tracks of individual Zeppelins across the city, and where their bombs fell. And from one of the raids, there were two nearby, one in the south-east corner of Russell Square Gardens and the other in Queen Square. Unfortunately I was too poor (or at least too responsible) to buy the book, and I can't remember what the date of the raid was. Judging from this, it would appear to be 8 September 1915. And the Bedford Hotel on Southampton Row was hit on 24 September 1917 by one of the first Gotha night raiders.

Anyway, I've been to former bomb sites before. A more truly unique event which took place in Bloomsbury was the discovery of the nuclear chain reaction which underpins all nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors -- or at least the idea of the chain reaction. This flash of inspiration took place in the brain of Leó Szilárd, a refugee Jewish physicist, on 12 September 1933, at the traffic lights at the intersection of Southampton Row and Russell Square (in fact, only a few metres from where the Zeppelin bomb had fallen). Again, I walked past this spot several times a week, at least. It would have been an appropriate, if noisy, place from which to contemplate the subsequent atomic age.

Even that place, significant though it may be, has nothing to mark its connection to this past. That's not true for the final (so far) thing I missed in Bloomsbury, the Goodge Street Deep Level Shelter. This was one of eight air raid shelters excavated between 1940 and 1942, parallel to existing Tube stations on the Northern Line. During the war, they were intended to hold 8000 people each; afterward, they could be used as the basis for an express line. Due to the end of the Blitz, none of them were used as shelters until 1944, and the new tunnel was never built. Goodge Street was in fact used by Eisenhower as a headquarters (though I think SHAEF itself was in Bushy Park); apparently he announced D-Day from here and one of the two entrances is called the Eisenhower Centre. That's on Chenies Street, which I'm not sure I walked down; but the other is on Tottenham Court Road, and I most certainly walked past that more than once without even noticing.

Well, darn it all to heck.


Wallace Monument

After wandering around Edinburgh Castle, I thought: castles are really cool! I wanted to see more, and since I probably should be a confident user of the British transport system by now, I decided that I'd do a day trip out somewhere to see one. A bit of googling led me to Stirling Castle, a mostly-15th/16th century edifice less than an hour away by train. (I see now that I overlooked Craigmillar Castle, which was closer and looks even more castley. But aside from the castle it seems there wouldn't have been so much to see there.) So I hopped on a little inter-urban train and headed for Stirling, getting a glimpse along the way of the Forth Bridge and the Falkirk Wheel.
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Scottish National War Memorial

I'm now covering my last few days in the UK, which I mostly spent in Edinburgh. It's a lovely city, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't warm to it as much as I thought I would. That may have had something to do with inflated expectations (everybody I know who's been there raves about the place), and it may have had something to do with the fact that my summer wardrobe was no longer adequate in this more northerly clime, in early autumn. But I think it was mostly because, having come direct from Hadrian's Wall, I was now really impatient to get to Rome and see it for myself. Once I managed to put Edinburgh's position in my itinerary to one side, I did really enjoy it for itself.

Above: the Scottish National War Memorial (see below). Yet again I go for the easy silhouette effect.
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Day two on the Roman frontier. This took some careful poring over the tourist bus timetable (route AD122, of course) to try and maximise the number of sites I visited while spending enough time at each one. This turned out to be be a non-trivial problem -- the gap between buses varied considerably, and sometimes the buses stopped in Haltwhistle instead of going beyond, so I was having to make calculations like, 'well, I can go to A in the morning and be there at opening time, but then the bus to B is either 45 minutes later or 3 hours 45 minutes later, which is either too short or possibly too long, but if I want to take in C as well I really need to take the earlier bus because there's no other way to get there. Or I can go to C first, then come back to B but I'd only have an hour there ...' And so on: it did my head in! It turned out that there was really no sensible way to do more than 2 places, so I crossed the Roman Army Museum off my list and settled on Vindolanda and Housesteads. I didn't have cause to regret this, as they were both even more absorbing than Chesters had been.

The above photo, incidentally shows Hadrian's Wall itself, looking back towards Housesteads from the west (it's past the big clump of trees on top of the cliffs).
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