Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Summer Solstice 2011

This story was in the pipeline for a few months. Only now I managed to squeeze some time to finish it, in between some other things. Not the most recent event, but an experience that I think worth sharing. So enjoy reading!

My last summer in London was filled with activities that I never thought I would be doing (this included a more intense research and writing up activities) J.  To mark this special period, I planned to do something extraordinary that I had never done before, on the longest day of summer (Solstice, or Midsummer Day). In astronomical words, the summer solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's semi-axis in a given hemisphere is most inclined towards the sun, at its maximum tilt of 23° 26'. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer_solstice). Or in a not so astronomical terms, the time of the year when the sun is closest to the Earth’s hemisphere. In my case, it's the Northern hemisphere.

The hand-drawn solstice

This year’s Solstice fell on the 21st of June 2011. With two of my good mates, we started off the day as early as possible to make full use of the longest daylight. The sun rose at 4.43 am on that day, but for some obvious reasons, our day started at around 7.30 am. That was not too bad considering that most of our activities seldom starts that early ;)

So the first thing in the morning, a big hearty English breakfast. As with all ‘Engfasts’, it came with fried eggs, sausages, baked beanz, toasts, accompanied by a good milky café latté. Owh and with some grilled tomatoes and mushrooms too. Not my favourite kind of breakfast (too much for me!) but again as this was a special day we chose it over lighter ones. But I kind of miss Engfast after returning to Malaysia.  

The sumptuous 'Engfast'

 Then off onto the tube to the London Monument, which is close to the Monument tube station (hence the name) on the Circle and District lines (London’s slowest line ever!). A bit of history, the monument was built to commemorate the Great Fire of London in the year 1666 (ouch not the luckiest year). The Fire was on a scale so big that it consumed more than 13,000 houses, and even a chunk of St Paul’s Cathedral. Though fortunately there were only a few deaths recorded. Probably this is why nowadays fire regulation in London is so strict, to prevent events like this from happening again. Smoke detectors are virtually everywhere, even in the loo!

The Monument tower

The story behind it 

Well the original intention of going to the Monument was to see the sun rises. But it is not opened to visitors that early (plus as I already mentioned no way we could wake up that early just for sun rise watching). Even as we arrived there at around 9 am, it was still closed. So we wandered around the Monument area, like Bank to kill time. I quite like Bank and its surroundings with all the historic and magnificent façade of the Bank of England, and the Royal Exchange. We took a peek inside the Exchange building, only to be surprised (or rather intimidated) and we felt completely out of place. Especially with all the expensive, charming little shops, and smartly-dressed patrons. We made our way out in no time, seriously!

The impressive Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange story
The Bank of England, with no. 23 bus to Paddington!
Back to the Monument, we were the first visitor there. Paid a few quids, and we began a historic Midsummer climb up the spiral staircases. Looked easy from the outside, but trust me we almost ran out of breath towards the top! We were kept motivated by a bunch of families making their way up. No way we could be beaten by mums and dads and their kids! But the view from up there is spectacular. Almost all, if not all, of London landmarks could be seen despite the cloudy and windy weather. We took a few photos, and head down quicker than our ascend as gravity did us a few favour. And the first real surprise of the day, we each got a certificate certifying that we have climbed the Monument! How proud we were of our achievement J. Actually I have read on the internet about the certificate, but I did not believe that you would actually be awarded with one given the small effort required. But I was proven wrong. Thanks London Monument and the nice ticket lady!

Tower Bridge from atop Monument

The street

Tower Bridge

The City area

Then our driver (aka the tube) ‘picked us up’ again. Next stop, Thames Barrier. It is an architectural and engineering marvel, built to control the tide of the River Thames to avoid flooding the London city. To get there we had to change for the DLR (just like our Malaysian monorail) and got off at Pontoon Dock station. The Barrier is just a few minutes walk away. There is a charming little garden too next to it, but sadly it was closed for visitors. So another photo shoot by the river, next to the Barrier, while admiring the structures. I think the barrier structure look like a row of war ships ready for battle! The visitor centre is at the other side of the river, so we couldn't learn more about it (why didn’t they build the centre on both sides of the river??).

Closed garden

Yes these are the Barriers!

Barrier bee

Desolated Barrier park

Then we decided to make our way to take the ferry to the other side (at a pier that I couldn’t remember the name anymore), the onto the Double Decker Prawn Cracker bus to North Greenwich station to change for the river boat service from North Greenwich pier. North Greenwich pier is just next to the O2 Arena, the alien space ship-shaped building formerly known as the Millenium Dome built to commemorate the arrival of the year 2K. That was my first ever river cruise on the Thames, after being more than three years in London! And the good thing is that, the boat service allows the use of Oyster card, though the charge is not zonal like the Underground (and considerably more). Exciting I must say, viewing the buildings that I have seen ‘terrestrially’ for so many times from a different angle. But what amazed me the most of the river boat service is the efficiency. I had never imagined before that a large boat could stop just for a few minutes at a pier before getting back on their journey, just to pick up passengers. Well that is exactly the case with the Thames river boat. I think this service has a huge potential for London commuters, especially with the speed of the boat itself. So no problem if there is more tube strikes? Hmm maybe…  
The journey passed Greenwich, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the Millennium Bridge which is next to Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Westminster and the London Eye, before disembarking at Embankment Pier. We got off the boat, then hopped onto a tube, to meet another good mate at University College Hospital. The hospital is close to the ‘museum street’, so I took the opportunity to check Wellcome Trust Museum, managed by the Wellcome Trust, one of the richest grant-giving body in the world, in Biomedical field.  Some weird exhibits later, hungry stomach, we made our way to a nice buffet restaurant somewhere in the area.

Greenwich from the boat 
Another Greenwich from the boat, 2 seconds later...

Warship docked next to the Tower Bridge, again (no this time not viewed from atop a tower!)

Just, Embankment Station! See the sun, that's the sun of the longest day of the year ...

Guess where am I?... Hint, see photo

Castle-like hotel next to St Pancras station

Our Solstice ‘adventure’ concluded with a goodbye get-together at Heathrow Airport, for a friend going back to Malaysia upon finishing his study. A whole day full of useful and insighful activities, the 2011 Summer Solstice was the most  memorable one for me. Because on the next year’s, I would possibly be teaching a group of students a bit of biology, or even share my experience of the previous Summer Solstice! Adios!

Last destination for the day, Heathrow Airport, for real!

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