diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Random borough 7: Kensington and Chelsea (part 3)

Somewhere historic: the Natural History Museum
If London's museums are its crowning glory, then the crown jewels must be the big three in South Kensington. There's fine art and design at the V&A, there's technology at the Science Museum, and then there's the dead animals in the Natural History Museum - which is where I headed. It's somewhere I've been many times before, not least because it seemed to be my primary school's favourite destination for a school trip. We'd pile onto the tube (no overbearing Health and Safety regulations in those days) and bundle down to South Kensington, then set off on the arduous route march through the vast pedestrian subway into Museumland. There were no worksheets on clipboards to complete in those golden days, just an educational wander around the exhibits in small groups, each led by a willing Mum. Then at lunchtime we'd cram into the vestibule behind the main hall and unwrap our clingwrapped ham and cheese sandwiches before continuing round the musty displays of bare skeletons and stuffed mammals. The museum has changed a bit since then, but I still get a kick out of every visit.

The main hall is a Gothic spectacular, almost overshadowing the famous diplodocus in the centre (this year celebrating a centenary on display). Climb the broad stone steps to the upper landing and you can gaze in awe at a slice of 1300 year-old Giant Sequoia tree trunk, as many have before you. Or go and keep the lone curator company in the minerals gallery - a long pillared room filled with rocks, rocks, more rocks and (right down the far end) some rather splendid meteorites. But you won't find anybody under the age of 10 up here - they're all down on the ground floor being scared witless by the dinosaurs. During my visit several mothers had to shield their toddler's eyes as they rushed past the animatronic tyrannosaurus rex, hurrying on to the next section of the exhibition where the fossils didn't growl back. The enormous blue whale hanging nextdoor was another awe-inspiring attraction, especially with children who'd previously thought that animals existed only in cartoons. Meanwhile the stuffed birds and animals in Waterhouse Way merited barely a look - kids were dragging their weekend fathers towards the creepy crawly zone and interactive human biology exhibit instead.

And then there are the Earth Galleries, kicking off with an enticingly dark escalator rising high into a hollow metal planet. This used to be a separate concern called the Geological Museum, complete with a less than magnetic selection of old rocks, as I remember from yet another (sixth form) school trip. Now the space has been updated with six new galleries showcasing the solar system and Earth's more dynamic processes. There's even an seismic simulator where you can stand in a fake Japanese shop and 'experience' the Kobe earthquake, although on Saturday it all felt rather tame compared to the real thing in Pakistan a few hours earlier. B+ for effort, but I'm afraid all the kids were still nextdoor gawping at the big lizards.
by tube: High Street Kensington, by bus: 14, 74

Somewhere peripheral: A riverside stroll east from Lots Road to Chelsea Bridge (1½ miles)
Lots Road: Once London Transport's main power station [pictured], but closed three years ago in favour of the National Grid. The two chimneys still dominate the area, but there are plans to transform the cavernous brick building into flats and add a couple of modern residential skyscrapers at the mouth of Chelsea Creek.
Chelsea Wharf: A riverside jetty with impressive views across the Thames, named after an old warehouse that's currently in the process of being demolished.
Cremorne Gardens: In Victorian times a pleasure garden including a circus, theatres and side shows, but it all got a bit bawdy and was closed down. Now a soulless municipal space with yob-encrusted lawn and an empty paddling pool.
Battersea Bridge: A replacement bridge built in 1890, and a notorious riverboat accident spot. The bridge was closed three weeks ago after being hit by a 200-tonne gravel barge, and on Saturday local pedestrians were still making the most of having the full span to themselves.
Cheyne Walk: Famous residents of this exclusive riverside terrace have included Keith Richards (at number 3), George Eliot (4), Lloyd George (10), Dante Gabriel Rosetti (16), James Whistler (21), Mick Jagger (48), Elizabeth Gaskell (93), The Brunels (98), JMW Turner (119) and Sylvia Pankhurst (120).
Albert Bridge: This fairytale bridge may be pretty, in a kind of pink wedding cake style, but it's also very fragile. Not only is there a 2 ton weight limit but signs have been erected at each end of the bridge warn troops to break step as they cross.
Chelsea Physic Garden: Meticulous herbal garden founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1673, but alas only open on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Royal Hospital: The most famous old people's home in the world, occupied by a select group of doddery Chelsea Pensioners. They have a huge public back garden, mostly used for playing football and dog walking by the look of it.
River Westbourne: One of London's lost underground rivers flows into the Thames out of a hole in the Embankment just west of Chelsea Bridge. It wasn't flowing much on Saturday.
Chelsea Bridge:Rebuilt in 1937 on the site of a much more ornate 1858 toll bridge. Now overshadowed at the southern end by the lonely towers of Battersea Power Station. Bikers still meet here every Friday night.
by bus: 360, 239, C3

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