My last day in London was a whirlwind. It felt like a ticking clock had been set, counting down my final hours. One must truly allow for at least a week to even begin to enjoy everything that amazing city has to offer. So I pared down my wish list to The British Museum and a special visit to Kensington Park.
The British Museum. Wow. I think I spent close to six hours there and barely scratched the surface of all the exhibits. Stuff I’d only read about in school books was now just a pane of glass away. History from every culture was on display. Even the main lobby is a place to stop and admire for a few moments. The cavernous ceiling is a geometric arch of glass, allowing natural sunlight to illuminate the grand space. Snow piled up the sides of its sloped surface but I dare say it was colder inside the museum than out. Heated blowers were placed in the larger exhibit rooms but unless you were standing directly in front of one, the best way to keep warm was to keep moving.
The famous Rosetta Stone sits close to the main exhibit entrance, luring patrons in and sparking the passion of their inner archeologist. Honestly, it’s difficult to squeeze through the masses just to read the plaque description or snap a picture. But when you do get a glimpse of that massive stone it is terribly impressive. It was a decree issued by King Ptolemy V of Egypt written in 196 BC, once in Egyptian hieroglyphic script, again in Demotic script (the preferred form of Egyptian writing for legal and administrative purposes) and again in Ancient Greek. Before its most recent discovery in 1799, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were a complete mystery. Finding the Rosetta Stone was like finding the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring but for, like, the most advanced civilization of the ancient world. To have been a fly on the wall of that discovery… And if it weren’t for that stone, a film like Stargatemay never have been made and that’s just not a world I want to imagine living in. (Judge my taste in science fiction/fantasy all you want. It is a permanent part of my DVD collection.)
Nearby are the exhibits direct from Ancient Egypt. A seven-ton granite bust of Pharaoh Ramesses II towers over the vast room of antiquities. Surrounding him sits plaques inscribed with mythological scenes, statues of Egyptian deities, and royal sarcophagi. In 1817, it was announced that the bust of Ramesses would be acquired by The British Museum and it most likely served as the inspiration for Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias. (Ozymandias is the Greek name for Pharaoh Ramesses II). In high school, my classmates and I were required to recite Shelley’s poem and I can still hear the lifeless drone of our voices repeating each line over and over until it was branded into the wrinkles of our brains. As much as I didn’t appreciate the poem then, standing before the giant bust of Ozymandias himself I understood now what Shelley meant. There is lovely anguish when looking at the ruins of something so great. Time is, ultimately, the equalizer of all humanity.
On and on the rooms of history stretch. Each exhibit is worth a half day’s appreciation if you have the luxury of that much time on your hands. Great stone reliefs of ancient battles and wild lion hunts run down entire lengths of display rooms long enough to have a vanishing point. The famous human-headed winged bulls, or Lamassus, from the palace gate of King Ashurnasirpal II (yeah, don’t ask me how to pronounce that) stand on either side of the entrance to ancient Assyrian exhibit room. My heart broke to discover that these fourteen ton stone deities had to be cut into pieces in order to transport them to the museum. They are expertly assembled but the seams are apparent nonetheless. It boggles my mind that the original creators of these statues fashioned and placed them at the palace in one piece. A fun little fact: the bulls are carved with five legs—seen standing on four legs from the front and a fifth leg which, when viewed from the side, gives the appearance of the bull mid-stride.
A small bronze casting of Rodin’s The Thinker sits on a pedestal in the center of the main hallway, quietly splitting the gregarious current of passing tourists. I like to think he’s got the answer to the meaning in life in that metal cranium, smiling inwardly as we all shuffle from space to space, blissfully unaware and too wrapped up in our smartphones to stop and ask, “Well? What is it?”
By the time late afternoon rolled around, there was still half the museum still left to explore but I had to force myself to leave. There was one place left that I had just enough time to see before I enjoying a final dinner: a little gem in Kensington Park. On my way, I passed by Westminster and Big Ben. Sadly, the clock tower was silent and shrouded by scaffolding. Big Ben toned his last hour on August 21, 2017, in anticipation of a four-year renovation project. Exploring a ‘silent’ London felt a little incomplete but it only strengthened my resolve to return when ol’ Benny boy is put back into commission.
When I entered the park gates it was growing close to nightfall. The sky was completely coated in thick snow clouds making it feel much later than it was and I picked up my pace a bit. This was my last chance to see it in the daylight until I returned. Kensington Park stretches on for as far as the eye can see. I could get lost in it quite easily since many of the trails were snowed over and the crowds at that time of day were growing sparse. I wandered through the Italian Gardens, an ornamental water garden full of manicured pools and fountains, and Renaissance-like sculptures. I stopped at the Tazza Fountain which, today, resembled more of a dangerous, spiky ice flower than an inviting water feature. I trekked down the path a bit further. Then, tucked into a garden alcove, my heart gave a leap. I stopped. There it was.
The Peter Pan Statue by Sir George Frampton. JM Barrie, creator of the Peter Pan stories and initially inspired by Kensington Gardens for those literary adventures, had commissioned the bronze statue and erected it in 1912 without any publicity…or permission. The ‘unveiling’ was meant to be a magical surprise as if it had appeared overnight through the work of the fairies themselves. It depicts Peter playing his flute atop a base surrounded by rabbits, squirrels, and fairies. When I saw it, I was nearly moved to tears.
When my sister and I were young we’d watch movies together during the long summers. We’d each take turns choosing a movie but my choice nearly every time was Steven Spielberg’s Hook. I even attempted at times to coerce my sister’s choice in order to have an extra opportunity to watch it. It was the ultimate ‘what if’ story of Peter Pan who left Neverland and (gasp!) grew up. It was the perfect blend of adventure and humor, one of Robin Williams’ finest roles, in my humble opinion. I’d hum the soundtrack. I’d quote entire scenes. Heck, give me 136 minutes and I’d reenact the whole film for you. It was a defining aspect of my childhood (and my sister’s whether she liked it or not) and from that film on, Robin Williams had become something of a hero of mine. Not just in the heroic role he played as Peter Pan but his enthusiasm for life, his personality, his ability to make so many people laugh.
The 90’s were the best time to be a kid if you were a Robin Williams fan. Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji. He entertained and spoon-flung food for the imaginations of youth everywhere—and genuinely enjoyed doing it. It was a passion, an essence that came through the screen. Like a supernatural ability, Robin was able to take anyone watching his film right by their hand, bust that rapid-fire laugh and say, “Come with me, we’re gonna have a great time.” Near the end of Hook, (spoiler alert) Robin Williams has returned from his final adventures in Neverland and wakes up under the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Park. His passion for life and his family has been renewed. And the final line of the film is one I’ve heard Robin say a thousand times and it’s never lost its magic: “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”
Since losing him in 2014, there’s been a hollow in my heart and a yearning to reconnect with him in some small way. I still think on his passing with the emotion of having lost a dear family member. He was part of the family. But the positivity, hope, and laughter he brought to the world console me. If I could replicate a small fraction of the joy he generated in his time here on earth I would consider it the greatest accomplishment of my life. So here we were. Me and Peter. The boy who wouldn’t grow up. This was the Robin I knew and loved.
I sent a picture of it to my sister that evening who texted back, “This is so amazing I want to cry!”
I knew just how she felt.
By: Erica Ruhe
Check out: London (Part 1) and London (Part 2)
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