Light and Dark – An Afternoon in the City

2014-03-04 12.41.01I have, with a friend, an, as yet unrealised, plan, to spend a full day doing cultural things in London without spending any money.  Being a plan concocted by two lawyers, it is of course not quite as simple as that – it would be too easy, and therefore a bit of a cheat, just to sit in the National Gallery or British Museum all day.  To be fully ‘plan compliant’ the day has to involve us in doing something we’ve not done before, to fulfil the other ongoing objective to explore our city.

A lunchtime concert in a City church has long been on the agenda (perhaps not strictly speaking ‘free’, as it would require a very mean spirit indeed not to leave a donation, but we agreed to allow it within the rules of ‘the plan’).  We picked a day, Tuesday of this week, and of the recitals we could find on the internet, we picked the one at St Stephen Walbrook, on the basis of location; neither criteria being particularly culturally sensitive.  So what a lucky happen-stance.

St Stephen Walbrook is a Wren designed church, which now cowers beneath City behemoths on three sides, and stands opposite a massive hole, filled with cranes ringed by hoardings.  Inside, it is calm and filled with light.  The centre is dominated by a Henry Moore created altar, and the pews are ranged in concentric circles around it.  The recital was by The Guastalla Quartet, and their programme was Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major Op 18 N02, and Shostokovich String Quartet No3 in F Major Op73.

I wasn’t familiar with either piece; during the Beethoven I admired the church, and wondered about its reconstruction after it was bombed in the War, and looked at the play of light from the high windows and thought what a lovely way it was to spend a lunchtime, with some nice music.  When it came to the Shostokovich however, there was nowhere to look but at the musicians; the drama and energy of the piece demanded my full attention.  In half an hour, it charts every emotion of war, from the self delusional belief that things aren’t that bad before it begins, through the horror or battle to the grief of bereavement and on to the resolutions to avoid it in the future.   It was an astonishing and unexpected experience.

Outside, afterwards,  the cranes and City blocks were still there, making the cocoon of the church building feel even more surreal than before.

We were heading for the Museum of London. but the walk at street level along London Wall is unremittingly awful, so we took a 2014-03-04 15.42.33detour through the Barbican, even if it is always, at least for me, pure chance if I find where I want to go at my first attempt, so confusing is the layout.  There, The Curve, an odd sliver of space behind the concert hall, usually houses interesting installations.  (Last year I visited the Rain Room installation)

At the moment, it is hosting Momentum by United Visual Artists.  The space is completely dark apart from a series of moving lights, each a sort of pendulum, moving both together and independently of each other.  Ambient sound adds to the generally unsettling environment.  It took several minutes for my eyes to adjust to the deep blackness at the start of the walk through, and I was anxious about tripping up or bumping into someone; the sounds in the distance suggested the baying of dogs at night time, and I did, briefly think about turning back.  As the intensity of the lights changed and their position moved, I was forced to focus on nothing but the spots of illumination, and as we walked around the curve, sometimes we tried to be in the spot light, while at other moments tried to move out of the way as it swept over us.

It was fun….. and the world was very bright when we came out the other end.

Our final destination was The Cheapside Hoard exhibition at the Museum of  (not exactly free, but reduced price entry with out Art Fund Pass, another flexing of the rules associated with ‘the plan’, allowing us to capitalise on the sunk cost of the annual membership).  A cache of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewels found in a cellar in Cheapside just over a hundred years ago, the Hoard retains an aura of mystery and is yet to be fully researched and analysed.  Believed to have been hidden sometime between 1640 and 1666 (when London was destroyed by fire), it is explained as being the stock in trade of a goldsmith, which was most likely hidden during the time of the Civil War and then couldn’t be found again after the destruction of the Great Fire.

It is a huge collection of gemstones, necklaces, rings, pendants, cameos and other curios, some of them so tiny and detailed that you need one of the freely supplied magnifying glasses to be able to see them.  Among many surprises was how far many of the jewels must have come – that there were trade routes stretching all the way around the world – and that it was thought worthwhile to transport the gems to London.  I also couldn’t help but wonder how the craftsmen ever had enough light to work on such tiny yet detailed pieces.

A selection of portraits from the period illustrate how many of the items on display were worn; understatement clearly not being fashionable at the time.

It wasn’t a free day, but it wasn’t expensive, and worth every penny.

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  1. Thank you Rowena for sharing your day. I am off to listen to Shostokovich String Quartet No3 in F Major Op73, and will watch again my TV recording of The Cheapside Hoard.


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