22nd and 23rd April 2023: A date with a dinosaur (London, England, Great Britain)

Since I cannot keep my mouth shut, I offered to organise a trip to London with some people from work. Despite prices skyrocketing everywhere and my ridiculously hectic schedule, I managed to secure a weekend when flying would not be stupidly expensive, and an activity I would really be looking forward to – the Natural History Museum was running couple of things I was very interested in. One was an exhibition on a gigantic dinosaur: Titanosaur: Life as the biggest dinosaur. Well, twist my arm – NHM is much closer than the actual Titanosaur home in Argentina. Furthermore, there was a collaboration with Jurassic Park (‘an adventure 63,000,030 years in the making’ is the motto), and coming back to the museum would give me the chance to purchase the rock I wanted the last time I was over and did not get because I was heading out to Stonehenge on the same day.

In the end, only one person took up the offer, and I figured out that well, London is pretty much always a good idea for a weekend – so I figured I’d arrange myself a date with a dinosaur. Unfortunately, it turned that London Marathon was held that weekend. Hotel prices were bloated for the night and we ended up at Earl’s Court because I wanted to stay close to South Kensington and the other person wanted the cheapest place possible. We left on a red-eye flight to London Stansted which took a long time to land – we spent about an hour circling the airport, and eventually the head cabin attendant said that there was bad visibility at the airport, and that the pilot required all electronic devices to be turned off so he could use the autolanding system. I did not like that one bit – after I visited Santiago de Compostela in 2022, I felt that I had got over the bad-visitiblity near-miss when I was a teen. Apparently not, the feeling of uneasiness is still there. We landed over an hour late, but we were on our way on the first Stansted Express a few minutes after getting on it. After reaching Liverpool Street Station at around 9:30, I asked my companion to take us to Guildhall as part of the incentive of the trip was introducing them to international travel. It was not a good idea. Their phone trolled us and tried to take us to Guildhall… in Stratford upon Avon. The Costa at the station was closed, but at least I had got myself a sandwich and a latte before we started walking.

After backtracking, we were in known territory around 10:15. As it turns out, my companion was only interested in “walking the city” and shot down any activities I had proposed – thus, some things I just imposed in order not to feel that I had wasted the whole day away. By 11:00, I had confirmed that our travelling styles were not compatible. After some time at the docks next to the Tower of London, I wanted to enter the Anglican church All Hallows by the Tower. All Hallows is the oldest church in the City of London – founded in 675 CE, it predates the nearby Tower of London. The parish used to take care of a lot of the prisoners executed there. The building withstood the Great Fire of London (1666), but it was severely damaged through The Blitz – the German WWII bombing campaign against the UK throughout 1940 and 1941. The church was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 1975. Its windows are decorated with symbols from the different London guilds and some families.

Collage of a church. The outer building is brick and it has a tower crowned with a greenish metal spire. The inside has huge windows decorated with guild symbols. The small crypt inside is covered in white stone.

Underneath, there are a few chapels and a small Crypt. Most of the crypt is a museum which chiefly holds artefacts from the Roman period – including remains of an old road. There are other historical items from the Saxon and Medieval times, and the 20th century Crow’s Nest of the vessel Quest, in which Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed for Antarctica for the third time, and where he died.

When we were done, we went to Saint Dunstan in the East Church Garden. I was hoping to use this as a relaxing point for a few minutes, but there was work being done on the parterres. We continued towards the River Thames for some views of Tower Bridge, the museum HMS Belfast and The Shard skyscraper.

We walked by the Monument to the Fire of London on our way to the Sky Garden. The Great Fire burnt inside the Roman city wall for four days after breaking out a bakery after midnight on the 2nd of September, 1666. Though the number of victims is (theoretically) small, the fire destroyed over 13,000 houses (15% of the city’s housing), almost a hundred parish churches, governmental buildings, St Paul’s cathedral, and even some of the city gates.

Afterwards, we walked over to Leadenhall Market, a covered shopping street which can be traced back to a 1321 food market, and marks the centre of Roman Londinium (ruins from the Forum and Basilica are buried underneath). It was given to the city in the 15th century, and in the 19th century, the City Architect Sir Horace Jones designed an iron-and-glass arcade. Today, it holds restaurants, wine bars, varied shops and even beauty parlours.

A covered shopping gallery or street, in dark red and beige tones.

Around the market stands a mixture of modern buildings and traditional buildings, mostly small churches. Among the former:

  • The Lloyd’s Building (25 Gresham Street), sometimes called the “Inside-Out building”. It was finished in 1986 and it is consider a great example of Bowellism – an architectural style that maximises inside space by building ducts, lifts, and other structural necessities on the outside. It was designed by Richard Rogers & Partners, and it still maintains the original entrance of the building that stood in its place in 1928 – the East India House.
  • The Leadenhall Building (122 Leadenhall Street), designed designed by the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. It opened in 2014.
  • The Willis Towers Watson (WTW), designed by Norman Foster, it was finished in 2008.
  • The Scalpel (52-54 Lime Street), which yields to cool reflections along with the WTW, and has a strange sculpture at the entrance – it made me think of several ship wheels fused together. The building was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox and only completed in 2018.
  • And of course The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe). It was designed by Foster + Partners and it is the first ecological building ever built in London. It opened in 2004.

The historical buildings we encountered (having survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz) include:

  • Saint Andrew Undershaft Church. It dates back from 1147, although it has been rebuilt several times. The current building was erected in 1532.
  • Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate Church, where Shakespeare himself used to worship in the 1590s. The building can be traced back to the mid 12th century, and it was restored during the Victorian period and later during the 20th century.

Skyscrapers reflected on the glass that covers yet another huge skyscraper

A small church built in Stone in the background with a huge modern high-rise building behind it

Afterwards, we headed towards Embankment on the Tube. There, I was happy to find a Costa Coffee and get my vanilla latte fix. In the area, we saw the Victoria Embankment Gardens and I wanted to visit Cleopatra’s Needle – half of a pair of obelisks (the other one is in New York), originally made and carved in Heliopolis, what is Cairo today. It has inscriptions from the 18th and 19th Egyptian dynasties (around 1450 BCE). It was presented to the United Kingdom by Sultan Muhammad Ali in 1819, and later transported to London in 1877. Two sphinxes and other decorations were added when the Needle was erected, and the plinth under one of the sphinxes was damaged during London Bombings – it was never restored as a tribute to memory.

An Egyptian obelisk standing against a cloudy background

We walked over to the Westminster area to see the Palace of Westminster and Elizabeth Tower. There was an environmental protest there, which made it packed, but at the same time diverted traffic, allowing for new views from the middle of the street. On the way, I encountered an adorable pit bull mix I got permission to pet – coffee and dog pets made everything better.

A view of the palace of Westminster, with the Elizabeth tower on the left

We continued off to Saint James’s Park, home to squirrels, geese, swans, pigeons, mallard ducks, robins… all of them extremely used to people and tourists, and rather unconcerned by dogs being walked. We ditched the marathon fencing and reached Buckingham Palace, but by then my companion was beat. Thus, we had to go to the hotel so they could get some rest. The hotel was better than expected for a London 2*. It was nice and warm, although the bathroom was tiny – it was difficult to stand inside and close the door.

Buckingham Palace and some of the animals at Saint James' parks

A couple of hours later, we were off into the evening to see Piccadilly Circus, the entrance to Chinatown, and Leicester Square. Companion was beaten, so they were not sure they would be up for anything the following day – we arranged to touch base at 9:00 for them to evaluate. Once in my room, I had a shower and booked a free time slot for the British Museum the following day, just to avoid the queues. I thought, even if we did not make it, at least we had assured entry if we did, and I could always cancel and release the ticket.

Central London at night - Picadilly Circus' Eros and entrance to Chinatown

The next morning, I left on my own around 8:00 to look for a nearby Costa Coffee for a large vanilla latte breakfast, and I came across Brompton Cemetery. This had not been on my radar, but since I had time, I decided to explore it a little. Brompton Cemetery, formerly West of London and Westminster Cemetery, opened in 1840, and it has belonged to the British Crown since 1852. It is on of the oldest garden cemeteries in Britain and comprises around 35,000 monuments. I wandered for about half an hour before I had to head back.

Brompton cemetery, a 19th century graveyard and garden

We managed to get to to the Natural History Museum on time for my date with a dinosaur just after opening. I had my Titanosaur ticket at 10:15, and left off my companion to wander on their own after agreeing to check with each other around noon. The exhibition Titanosaur: Life as the Biggest Dinosaur brings a cast of Patagotitan mayorum to Europe for the first time, along with a few real fossil bones, of a front leg, some teeth, and an egg.

Patagotitan mayorum is one of the largest known animals to have ever lived. It was a sauropod dinosaur – a tetrapod with extremely long neck and tail. It lived in forest regions during the Late Cretaceous (102 to 95 million years ago) grazing on ferns and tree leaves. The species was discovered in Argentina in 2010, and it’s calculated that it could have been up to 31 metres long and weigh over 50 tonnes. It is widely considered the most complete of the South American dinosaurs. The cast that the Natural History museum brought is considered the holotype, and it was reconstructed from the partial skeletons of six specimens.

Titanosaur skeleton. People walking around don't even reach its knees.

The best thing about the exhibit was being able to actually touch the cast, so I kinda hugged my date, I guess. As far as I know, there are only three casts of titanosaur – the one in Argentina (Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio in Trelew), one in the US (Field Museum, Chicago), named Máximo, and this one.

After I had pranced around the exhibition to my heart’s content, and as it filled up with kids, I moved on to reason number two of this visit having to happen asap in 2023. To celebrate 30 (thirty!) years of the 1993 release of Jurassic Park, the Natural History Museum was running a limited-time-only collaboration pop-up shop – the Jurassic Park 30th Anniversary #NHMxJURASSIC store in which I did not even spend that much! I bought a replica badge and a commemorative coin, both limited, numbered editions. The shop had both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World merchandise, especially toys and T-shirts, and a few props, including a life-size sculpture of Blue the velociraptor.

Jurassic Park pop-up shop, with Blue the velociraptor just hanging out

I then headed to the official museum shop to get myself the rock I had wanted – a piece of aura silicon carbide, a shiny mostly-artificial mineral. I also bought a souvenir guide, just because. They did not have anything from the Titanosaur exhibit there, so I backtracked to the exhibition shop to buy a pin.

Whenever I got to the Natural History Museum, I end up in the dinosaur gallery (well, there was that one time I walked through the whole thing throughout a winter day). This time, however, I decided to wander the upper area of the historical building. I was drawn to the Treasures in the Cadogan gallery. I had not been there since it opened in 2013, and my mind was blown. The collection includes a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and some of the pigeon specimens that he used to develop the theory of evolution. I also got to see the first-ever-found iguanodon teeth (not the replicas), the first fossil ever found of the Archaeopteryx (the link between dinosaurs and birds), and a skeleton and egg of the great auk, the first confirmed victim of anthropogenic extinction (due to human activity). I was very impressed, these were all treasures indeed – no overselling.

Treasures at the Natural History Museum - ancient bird fossil, extinct penguin-like bird, a book, dinosaur teeth. Whale skeleton.

After wandering the second floor for a bit, I ran into my companion and at noon we left towards the British Museum, where I had booked entry for 12:40. I left them to their own devices again and headed off to the Japanese galleries, which had been closed the last couple of times I was in the museum. I was… a bit on the disappointed side, I remembered them being way more impressive from my early 2000s visits.

Japanese Galleries at the British Museum: Samurai Armour, lion dogs pair, articulated metal animals, a standing Buddha.

I visited the Moai, the Elgin Marbles, the Babylonian bulls and the Rosetta Stone, and I headed off to the shop to get myself a treat – retail therapy is a thing. Eventually, we left the museum and managed to get to Liverpool Street to take the Stansted Express to the airport. Security was smooth, not as crammed as other times, and then, as tradition calls, I got myself some sushi at Itsu.

When we boarded the plane, I had been assigned an emergency exit seat. In order to sit there, you need to be able to take responsibility about opening the exit if something happens. I flagged a flight attendant to inform them that I would be physically unable to do so. I had a new seat in 4.5 seconds, and it turned out to be a window seat. We took off a few minutes late, and landed with a delay of almost a quarter of an hour. Nevertheless, after passport control and all, I managed to reached the parking lot payment machines with a few seconds to spare the overstaying fee – all good!

Balance – The marathon barely interfered with the weekend. I had a date with a dinosaur and hugged them. That was awesome. I got limited edition Jurassic Park and Jurassic World merchandise. I found some Kettle Sea Salt and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena crisps at one of the supermarkets. I got two new books, commemorative coins and a shiny rock. I also discovered new places to explore in the future, and had Costa – twice. Unfortunately, we ran out of time for extra visits on Sunday – so I could not fit in either the HMS Belfast or the Jack the Ripper Museum. Furthermore, the Grant Museum of Zoology is closed for renovation, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology does not open on Sundays, so in the end I was not really able to scratch much off my list. Whoops!

Souvenirs from London: books, crisps, commemorative coins and Jurassic Park merch