Friday, April 13, 2012

We Get the Royal Treatment

(Just to remind the less computer-savvy of our fans: you can view the pictures in a slideshow-type format by clicking on the first picture then pressing the right arrow to move through the rest.)

At the end of January/start of February, in the middle of a cold snap, the borough of Greenwich ascended to the rank of Royal Borough. The week of celebrations began in exciting fashion, with Woolwich getting its own fireworks display, which I watched from our lounge. The fireworks were let off from the town centre, which is a 3 minute walk from our apartment, so it was like being treated to a ten-minute personal display! Every time I thought the fireworks had finished, there was another big bang and another round of sparks began. 

The next night, it was Eltham's* turn. Another day, another fireworks display from the comfort of our apartment. This time, however, it was in the distance and we could only see the highest fireworks explode above the horizon line. 
(*Eltham is another town in the borough of Greenwich. A borough is a bit like the divisions you have in Christchurch for voting - e.g. Wigram, Fendalton-Waimairi, etc. Although in the case of London you can have quite a few people living in each borough - in our case, just under 230,000 people. And there are 33 boroughs in London in total.)

Finally, it was the turn of Greenwich itself on February 5th. 

The end of January/first week of February saw unusually cold temperatures in the UK and on the 4th it snowed here, with the snow not particularly thick, but remaining on the ground for near a week because the days rarely rose above 2 degrees.

 So on the 5th, we bundled up as warm as our limited wardrobes would allow and slided our way to the train station, making it to Greenwich in the early afternoon.

This is me doing the Asian-pose outside the Dial Arch, which is the gastro-pub* belonging to our apartment complex.

*for those who don't know, a gastro-pub is a restaurant that lures you in with the word 'pub' but actually has posh (read: weird) and very expensive food. You won't find bangers and mash at one of these.

At Greenwich we wandered around the markets for a bit and ended up getting some hot chips and eating them in the gorgeous Greenwich Park. This is a huge big reserve (183 acres) that reminds me a bit of Victoria Park on the Port Hills, and has an observatory at its peak - this is also where the meridian line sits.

Needless to say, we didn't climb very far up the hill as the paths were slippery. We sat down and ate our chips, and I contributed to the early-death-by-heart-failure of a squirrel by feeding him some of my chips.

Greenwich is a lovely place, a maritime town historically, and the birthplace of Henry VIII whose castle became the site for the Naval College. We enjoy spending time there, as it is only a 20 minute train ride, and is a much cheaper journey than that into the heart of London. 

Because of the historic connections with Royalty and with the Navy, as well as being the home of Prime Meridian (hence Greenwich Mean Time), and being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Queen decided to make Greenwich a Royal Borough. There are only three other London boroughs that have Royal status, and this is the first to be awarded in over 80 years.

From the Guardian, "The new regal status is, in effect, similar to a person being awarded an honour, but far more exclusive, since the only others members of the club are Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston-upon-Thames. ... Greenwich also has several buildings with royal status including the Old Royal Naval College, built on the site of the old Greenwich Palace where Elizabeth I, Mary I and Henry VIII were born."

Greenwich now has a new crest which features the god of the sea on it, so that explains why we saw a guy dressed as Neptune, and also Jupiter, who apparently signifies the commitment of Greenwich to astronomy.

To celebrate the day, Greenwich had organised a sort-of Medieval Festival, complete with authentic costumes and events. We managed to catch the end of some sword-fighting - complete with chain-mail - and we briefly watched a falconer with some birds, but the giant owl he had in his tent gave me the creeps so we quickly moved away. 

Unfortunately it was such a miserable day that we felt thoroughly sorry for the medieval volunteers who stood around in the slush beside their games areas or exhibits. We assumed that one poor man was there to hold running races for children, as he had those wooden horse-on-a-stick things, but there were no children around and the melting snow was dripping from the trees above onto his head, and he stood looking sodding wet and utterly wretched.

By this stage we were thoroughly frozen too but we had the luxury of being able to leave, so we went for a coffee and waited, eagerly checking our watches. Watch-watching mainly because the only cafe that was open that late on a Sunday afternoon was a paint-your-own-pottery-cafe and Adam was feeling his masculinity rapidly melt away.

Just as Adam began to slip into a state of delirium, we heard the sounds of a marching band and we knew our relief had come.

We ran outside to watch the parade, seeing bands, dance groups, medieval-imitators, and acres of bored, cold, and tired-looking school children limply waving flags featuring the new Royal Crest. After watching the parade, we headed over to the Naval College and managed to get ourselves a prime spot for the fireworks.

They definitely made up for the sad affair of our New Year's Eve fireworks. Front-row position on the Thames waterfront, directly facing the barge from which they would be let off. I have never been the biggest fan of fireworks - all that money burning up, and all that jazz - but fireworks in England are something else. Huge, flashy, and lasting for ages! The New Year's Eve fireworks and all three displays in Greenwich borough each lasted ten minutes and were utterly spectacular. The New Year's Eve ones even featured firework Olympic rings...

I must say, too, that standing on a path along the Thames, watching the fireworks and hearing a band play tunes like 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'Rule Britannia', it felt very magical. Standing on a site where former Kings and Queens of England were born or raised, and great Naval forces were sent off, it felt like it all made sense.

I think personally it feels a bit strange in NZ at times to bow to this Queen who doesn't have a lot to do with 21st Century NZ life, and read about things that happened to our long-distant ancestors but who don't really seem related to us. But when you're here, standing on a spot where these things happened, listening to the music that was composed in this country, for these people, it feels quite right. When the final set of fireworks burst forth and God Save the Queen was played, I had a shiver down my spine. Perhaps it was because the snow had seeped through my sneakers and my toes were beginning to freeze solid, or perhaps it was the magic of Olde England that was in the air that night.

(We have waited so long to post this because we were going to insert a video of the fireworks. You will all die wondering as we have had more exciting things to focus on - like planning a trip to Europe!! Next time you hear from us it will be to tell you about the adventures we recently had in Spain and France...)


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