Day Two: In which battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy

I dawdle a little this morning because I have to wait for the Bank of England to open at 9:30, so I can go exchange some old pound notes I brought with me. On the way back from that, I detour on impulse to the Guildhall library, where I waste half an hour waiting for a book that turns out to have gone missing. But the visit itself is not a waste, as the helpful librarian (I’ve yet to meet a non-helpful librarian at the Guildhall, or indeed at most libraries) tells me the king of thing I’m looking for — a survey map of London’s Victorian sewers — has been moved to the London Metropolitan Archives. Particularly alert readers will recognize that name from my Ashes-trip adventures in secretary hand. The archives, of course, are in Clerkenwell, and it turns out that on Thursdays they’re open until 7:30. I may also be able to get the info I want at Abbey Mills, but it’s worth trying this first, because it’s closer, and I have a catalogue reference that looks promising. So much for the quiet evening I had planned, eh?

Actually, my whole plan for today is a bit borked. I intended to go to the Science Museum in the morning — more on that in a bit — so after I leave the Guildhall I begin the long trek of Cheapside -> Newgate -> Holborn -> High Holborn -> Shaftesbury -> Piccadilly, stopping along the way to sign a few books at Forbidden Planet. (If I’d been smart, I would have arranged something there in advance. Sadly, I’m not smart.) But when I pause in Green Park to rest my feet and write up that first paragraph, I realize I have a choice: I can rush off to the Science Museum, rush through my time there, rush through a quick lunch, and arraive for my Apsley House appointment without having first done the audio tour as my contact suggested . . . or I can have a proper lunch, do Apsley House properly, then have a proper visit to the Science Museum, and still hit the archives this evening.

Since I’m writing this part of the notes while seated in a nice restaurant along Piccadilly, you can guess which option I chose.

So I have a very tasty salad (wtf, I’ve been replaced by a pod person; I wanted the salad) and then head off to Apsley House. This was and still is the residence of the Dukes of Wellington, since the early 19th century; part of it is now open as a museum. They apparently made that change because after World War II they couldn’t afford to repair and maintain the entire house; it’s a win scenario for everyone, I think. I’m visiting to get a sense of how a grand house of the non-terraced variety might be laid out, on the possibility that I may relocate the Kitterings from Queen’s Gate to somewhere else in South Kensington. My tour leads me to suspect that Apsley’s a bit of an oddity in the layout sense, though: several of the rooms have rounded apsidal ends, which produces some weirdness in the floor-plan. Still, it’s helpful to see — and the decorating scheme is still largely mid-Victorian, which gives me a sense of what period extravagance might have looked like. (Answer: lots of gilt. GILT GILT HEY LOOK WE HAVE SOME GILT. Wellington apparently had A Thing for gold leaf, though he’s far from the only man of his time who did.)

Walking to the Science Museum afterward, I discover I made the right choice before; it’s farther away than I thought, past the high-end shops of Brompton Road. (The “high-end” part hasn’t changed; I’m curious, though, as to how many shops were around here back then.) Why am I at the Science Museum? Because I am determined, come hell or high water, to cram Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine into this novel. He never built it, of course; the two pieces the museum has are later work, one from Babbage’s son Henry, one from modern times. There are, however, some incomplete Difference Engine bits he built, and one (complete?) machine built by some Germans at the time, and one hulking engine made in the late twentieth century, incorporating all of Babbage’s designs, using Victorian technology, establishing that it might have been possible for him to build a working model had other things not gotten in the way. Do I have any clue how it works? Not in the slightest. But I’m hoping some reading can help with that — or rather with the Analytical Engine, because it doesn’t matter if it never existed in reality; my book has faeries in, which means it can also have Analytical Engines if I want it to. Which I do. ^_^

The Science Museum also turns out to have something else cool: an exhibition of Muslim science, 700-1700 A.D. Some of it I already know about (Ibn Sina, algebra, astronomy, etc), but there’s plenty that’s new to me: I didn’t know that the world’s oldest university, Al-Qarawiyin, was founded by a woman (Fatima al-Fihri); nor that Ibn al-Nafis figured out how our circulatory system works a few hundred years before Harvey did, nor that a crazy seventeenth-century guy named Lagari Hasan Celebi strapped himself to a rocket and shot himself into the sky. (He landed in the Bosphorus and survived.) He wasn’t even the first to attempt flight! Eight hundred years before, Abbas Ibn Firnas built a glider and flung himself off various high places — a feat later copied by a medieval European monk, proving that insanity is no respecter of nationality or religion.

I really wish I could spend more time enjoying that exhibit. As it stands, though, I spend too much anyway: the announcement of the museum’s closing takes me by surprise. I have a quick debate with myself: should I make a diversion to Queen’s Gate, or not? I opt for yes, because it’s only one largeish block away, and at the time I think — erroneously — that none of my remaining schedule plans will bring me back to quite this area. (Not true: I’ll be here again for the V&A tomorrow.) So I hop one street westward, and discover that luck really is toying with me; I made this diversion specifically to look at the corner houses I’m considering for the Kitterings, but they’re all covered in scaffolding.

I snap a few shots anyway, marveling at the cookie-cutter elegance of the high-end Victorian terrace. It’s lovely, but not much in the way of individuality, yanno? Then I hurry off to Gloucester Road and the Tube. My plan (the third or fourth I’ve had today) is to hit the hostel long enough to get directions to the London Metropolitan Archives, then get back on the Underground. We’re not walking to Clerkenwell, not today; my feet hurt too much, and I wouldn’t get there in time. But while on the train — feeling stabs of pain as blood rushes back into my poor, pounded feet — I reconsider. By the time I made it to the LMA, it would be very close to closing. Which is fine if the reference I scribbled down from the Guildhall Library catalogue turns out to be what I need — but if it doesn’t, I’ll have to come back another day, when I have time to search further.


So my plans change once again. I get off at Temple (cursing anew the closure of Blackfriars), walk back to the City (past people chanting “Illegal! Illegal! The war is illegal!” outside the Royal Courts of Justice), and stop at Tesco’s along the way. Then I sit on the steps of St. Paul’s and eat my dinner in the late sunlight while listening to how the book is going to end.

My feet are feeling rather abused — though not in any surgery-related fashion — so I don’t know if I will commit the stupidity I’m thinking of for tomorrow. We’ll see in the morning, I guess.

By the way, stay tuned for a second non-trip post in a little bit. My hostel has vastly improved its pricing for wireless, so I’m much more able to handle side tasks this year; this is very fortunate, given the things I keep having to take care of. Anyway, I have a question I need answered semi-urgently, but I’ll put it in a separate post.

0 Responses to “Day Two: In which battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy”

  1. desperance

    Isn’t it Apsley House whose formal address is (or used to be) No 1, London? So very cool…

  2. Anonymous

    Yeah, well, I always called mine a belt pouch; I brought in ‘fanny pack’ just for disambiguation here, since terms do vary.

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