…are paved with gold? Is that what Dick Whittington heard when he started his journey to London all those years ago? Well maybe there’s no gold paving, but there’s more to being in London than following the highways of learning and earning, and so there is surely plenty of opportunity for detours along the byways of cultural advancement as well. The legendary Whittington rose from a pauper boy to Mayor of London, via cats, rats and wealth, undoubtedly acquiring cultural improvement in the process. And now? What is there for a poor mature student to do in London when not under the academic cosh at Imperial? I have indeed had the opportunity to check out a few of the cultural delights available in the metropolis: theatre, museums and galleries, for a start.
There are of course the great museums on the college’s doorstep in South Kensington. The Natural History museum, which recently changed its iconic dinosaur skeleton in the atrium for that of a blue whale – maybe not as dramatic but backed up with a second specimen, a complete cetological effigy, so a more fleshed-out example than its extinct cousin. The Natural History Museum is very popular with families, so avoid school holidays when the queue to get in can be daunting. Once inside it’s worth any wait. My favourites are the galleries in the red zone, with a compact journey of discovery through the history of the universe. However, I prefer the other great museum next door to Imperial – the Victoria and Albert. The V&A is an artistic treasure trove, with everything neatly grouped in various themed galleries, so that on each visit I can select whether I’m interested in Korean art, jewellery or European art from 1600 to 1815, etc. There’s also a super little café in the Sackler courtyard off Exhibition Road – all glass and metal – offering interesting sandwiches, salads and snacks for an occasional off-campus change from the Imperial routine. I’m still to venture into the Science Museum – also extremely popular with families, as well as seemingly endless columns of primary-school children in crocodile pairs, so choose the timing of your visit with care. This houses many interesting displays, I’m sure, but there’s only one object which really motivates my intended visit: Stephenson’s Rocket, made in 1829 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and becoming the first successful commercial railway locomotive. Other London museums on my list but not yet visited include the house of Victorian architect John Soanes on Lincoln’s Inn Fields which remains as it was during his lifetime almost 200 years ago.
There is of course the west-end for theatre. I’ve managed to see a couple of shows so far – as always the repertoire seems to be dominated by musicals, though it’s possible to find a few old-fashioned plays as well. The debating chamber of the old City Hall proved an unusual and authentic setting for Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution. I’m very excitedly looking forward to making my first visit to the Globe later in the summer, for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I’m told that it’s possible to buy standing-only tickets at the Globe for a miserly £5, suitable for most student budgets, but do check the weather forecast first as the central standing atrium is uncovered. Splash out a little more and you can find yourself in the Royal Opera House, the Coliseum or Covent Garden. The Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank has an enormous stage – ideal for the massed ballet troupe for Prokofiev’s Nutcracker.
My personal cultural high spots are the many art galleries throughout London. I am now a member of the National Gallery, a venue of architectural splendour with a vast range of paintings and sculptures. I like to choose a single gallery per visit and immerse myself in the works of a single artist or school. You can also sign-up for weekly lectures on the history of art. My favourite however, and my respite during long dry days of revision, is to pop into the Tate Britain on Millbank to contemplate some Turner classics or find a new artist to explore – on many occasions I would break off from my studies walk the 20 minutes or so from my flat to the Tate, spend a half hour lost in contemplation and return refreshed and ready to take up the pen once again. Maybe there is indeed something complementary between the paths of learning and of culture?
Now where is that gold?…