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Brains in jars

Apr 18, 2010 by glennji

Six weeks and counting.

We’re getting into the “spirit of travel” now I reckon — most of the house packing is done, so I can make a booking with the shipping company with some confidence that we’ll be ready for them, and start concentrating on our backpacks and gear. In the meantime we’re trying to spend quality time in London so that our memories aren’t all work, work, work.

Which is why we caught the bus to Drury Lane yesterday and walked to the Royal College of Surgeons for the Hunterian Museum: a gory selection of skeletons and partially-dissected animals (and people!) collected by John Hunter throughout the later half of the 18th century. Hunter bought two buildings in Leicester Square in 1783 and had a teaching museum built for his collection between them. It was eventually bought by the government in 1799, and moved into the College.

Entry to the (free) museum is up a flight of stairs, with a sombre gallery of surgeons in traditional regalia looking upon you with a critical eye — no doubt wondering what secrets your body would relinquish under a scalpels blade. But once inside: shelves, two-storeys high, with row after row of clear preserving jars containing everything you can imagine and a good deal more: an entire human nervous-system laid out on a plank of wood; the 8-foot tall skeleton of an “Irish giant”; bodies of rats and cats and dogs and sheep, spread open to show digestive systems, hearts, brains; even the quartered face of a child who died with a tumorous nose.

And of course, the reason I wanted to visit: the brain of the genius “father of computers”, Charles Babbage. His 1849 design for a Difference Engine described a mechanism of gears and levers which could calculate polynomial functions, which in turn could be used to approximate logarithms and trigonometric functions. (Babbage never finished building his engine, as the government pulled funding when they realised just how much it would cost!) 140 years later, the London Science Museum built a working engine from the original plans;  we saw it on a visit to the museum in 2007.

Suitably humbled, we walked down to Trafalgar Square for Koninginnedag, the birthday celebrations for the Queen of the Netherlands. The entire square heaved with people in bright orange shirts while a Dutch band (I don’t know who) rocked the crowd from a temporary stage on the south side. We didn’t stay long, but it was just so funny to see so many people celebrating “togetherness” … with ample amounts of booze and Dutch food, of course.

After this we wandered aimlessly for a while, and found ourselves across from Westminster Abbey and the iconic Houses of Parliament. Too! Many! Tourists! We realised that although we loved seeing sights and “playing tourist”, we weren’t going to just follow the crowd. So it was onto a Thames Clipper and back closer to home for lunch: the posh “Côte” restaurant had a £10 weekend special, so we straightened our bow-ties and monocles and headed inside.

The place was quiet, which was no doubt why they let such riff-raff in, but we were inspired to share a starter of moules mariniere (mussels) in a delicious creamy sauce. Dee had one, but it wasn’t really for her — so much more for me! I’m loving seafood at the moment, as you might’ve guessed; it was all so much sweeter when washed down with a glass of Crémant de Bourgogne. Boats, mussels and sparkling wine — we felt so grown-up, and so fancy. Probably would’ve felt even more posh if we hadn’t spilt shiraz on our jeans on the clipper …

After lunch we were about as relaxed as we could be, and were just going to go home and fall asleep in front of the telly (or something) but realised we were walking past one of the pubs on the “Dick Whittington Ale Trail” — five ales at five venues gives you a cheap touristy t-shirt, who could say no? I had a pint “Leed’s Best” and we studied the map for the next step…

The Mudlark served “A Sign Of Spring”, and it wasn’t ’til it was poured that I saw the colour. I think I scared the bartender with my exclamation: “Dickens! I think perchance I had not fully absorbed all salient details regarding this fine ale, dear woman! Namely: its emerald hue!” At this point Dee found our camera in her bag, and we documented the strange turn of events. (Oh, did I mention I bought some coloured contact lenses?)

Two pubs (two pints) later and I felt like I was back on the Thames Clipper. With the ground swaying gently beneath me I suggested we head home, but somehow we couldn’t resist the dodgy “Globe” near Borough Market, although it wasn’t on the ale trail. I had a Fosters, for its irony-value rather than a patriotic desire to drink crap beer, but by then it was well and truly time to head home.

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