This French expression of surprise or dismay seemed fitting when I realised it has been well over a year since I last shared a new blog post. It’s not due to a lack of travelling or a lack of desire: I have half-written articles and random paragraphs stashed all over my hard drive, as well as a mega-outline for last summer’s incredible ten-day walk along the Hadrian’s Wall Path. Instead, I’m suffering from one of the most common ailments of the 21st century: a lack of time.
Over the past year, running the business Academic Smartcuts has kept me on my toes and constantly producing new content for my courses. I’ve written over 10,000 words in the past week alone, and unfortunately blogging has dropped off the priority list.
However, I thought I would try to ease back into writing for fun with a short post. Please pour yourself a beverage of your choice and hold on for the ride: I suspect I’m a little rusty!
A common joke about Chippenham is that its best feature is how easy it is to get to other places. Castle Combe and Lacock, Malmesbury and Marlborough, Westonbirt and Bath … these fantastic attractions are all within a half hour drive of our house. If you’re willing to travel just slightly further afield, you can be in London in an hour.
And that’s exactly how MrElaineous and I found ourselves standing in front of the British Museum just before opening time, staring at a queue that snaked its way around the block. We had timed our travel so well that we managed to get door-to-door in two hours, only to find the museum wasn’t quite open yet.
Rather than brave the queue, we turned our attention to a hidden gem that’s located less than a minute from the museum’s imposing gates. Tucked away off Bury Place is a little courtyard called Pied Bull Yard. Tucked within Pied Bull Yard is Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School, which also houses a café for all and sundry. It has great opening hours, a peaceful atmosphere, and zero crowds: it’s perfect when you’re peckish and have a little time to kill in the Bloomsbury area.
This is a discovery we had made several years ago, before the pandemic, and we weren’t completely sure if it would still be open. But the familiar blue-and-white striped awning of Le Cordon Bleu greeted us as we turned into the yard, and we sat down to enjoy a breakfast of freshly made pastries while chatting about our plans for the day.
The museum was open by the time we emerged, and the queue had evaporated. We strolled in and went directly for our target: an exhibition about luxury and power from Persia to ancient Greece. Wrapped up within these items are questions of status, power, and conquest, as well as evidence that the siren song of luxury goods is not new. Debates about the impact of such items were raging in the ancient world long before brand names, designer fashion, or influencers were a gleam in a marketer’s eye. Indeed, conspicuous consumption and cheap knock-offs of expensive items stretch back millennia.
Beyond giving us a glimpse of the power structures of the ancient world, the artefacts themselves are things of beauty, made with exquisite talent and care. Many were imbued with symbolism representing strength and social standing, from griffins and bulls to royal figures and gods. And some showed the ancients had a sense of humour as well. Drinking vessels in the shape of animal faces would have momentarily turned the drinker into that creature when they raise it to their lips.
As a recovering archaeologist myself, I am supposed to write that precious metals like gold and silver don’t really matter. It’s not about the value of the artefact, but what you can learn about the past and its people. While I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment, it cannot be denied that the British Museum has put together an amazing assemblage of bling. One gold rhyton on its own would be a stunning artefact. An entire collection of them, like the Panagyurishte Treasure from Bulgaria, can stop a museum-goer in their tracks, and it is well worth a visit if you’re in London this summer.
From there we journeyed through the streets of Holborn to the British Library. This may sound absurd, but we only discovered the joys of the library a few months ago. For whatever reason, we just never got around to visiting this incredible temple to knowledge during previous London trips, but this oversight has now been rectified. We’ve gone all in, buying membership to give us free entry to its temporary exhibitions and, something that is more dangerous in the long run, discounts at its giftshop and bookshop.
Last time we enjoyed looking through its permanent collection, which contains some of the library’s best books and artefacts. This includes William Shakespeare’s first folio as well as Jane Austen’s portable writing desk and hundreds of stunning works from around the world. Beyond this, we enjoyed exploring the different levels of the library, which surround the original collection of 64,000 books (and 14,000 pamphlets) owned by King George III. These were once housed in the King’s Library at the British Museum—which has since been transformed into the stunning Enlightenment Gallery—and I felt like I had gone full circle. It was only relatively recently that I discovered this gallery at the British Museum, and I had now managed to track down its former occupants. It was a good reminder that there are always new things to discover, even when it comes to antiques and artefacts!
This visit, however, was all about the animals. The exhibition of Art, Science, and Sound from the library’s collection travelled through centuries of natural history, showcasing both incredible artistry as well as mistakes and mistranslations (a monkfish was illustrated as a medieval monk with scales). Unfortunately, we had trouble playing the audio so the sounds were a little less obvious, but running through the whole exhibition was a strong environmental message and blaring emergency klaxon: our wildlife and the natural world it inhabits are both rapidly disappearing. Some animals have already been driven to extinction through over-hunting and habitat loss, the only record that we have that they ever existed captured within the antique books or grainy photographs on display.
This is not to say the exhibition is depressing. Far from it. Instead, these glimpses from the past are a wake-up call that if we want to preserve what we have for the future, we need to do what we can in the present. After all, even the ancient Greeks and Persians would recognise that some things are far more valuable than prestige and power or wealth and luxury.