Opinionated London: Day 4

Old Jul 15th, 2013, 01:09 PM
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Opinionated London: Day 4

Day 4

For variety sake, we had booked a change in hotel mid-stay. I didn't want to commit staying at a place we had never been for a whole week. It is also seemed wise to move to a different part of town where different stuff would be more convenient.

We stayed the next three nights at the Chancery Court Hotel near Holborn tube on special deal that was $250/night. It is primarily a businessman's hotel, and we were there on a weekend. The location is excellent. It is a block from central line Holborn tube station and short walk to Covent Garden as well as lots of stores for room food and several attractions like the British Museum, and John Soane's House, both London musts. It is also nice and quiet, just east of Kingsway the road that seems to divide tourist London from financial London.

However, it is an odd place. On the one hand, it has all the trappings of a luxury hotel. The rooms and especially the bathroom were very, very fancy. Even little things like the room tea in silky little bags and coffee making were far more luxurious than I've every seen in a hotel. The minibar had a collection of fancy scotchs. Unfortunately, it was not free this time. Wireless is also not free and very expensive, but I knew this going in. I walked over to Starbucks every morning to check my email. I didn't learn until the last day that they have a guest computer on the third floor, so it was unnecessary.

On the other hand, the building had originally be insurance company offices, and it showed. There was essentially no lobby, just a small entrance area with counter for the clerks and a desk for the concierge, so the place felt more like a glorified pension than a hotel. There was really no common areas, except dark and some forbidding hallways and a small dark sitting area in front of the elevators in another room beyond the entrance. I thought the place was fine and would stay there again at the price, but my wife wouldn't.

After dumping off our luggage, we tubed to Oxford Circus. The plan was to walk down Regent Street to see some of the fancy shops that we had read about, soak in London atmosphere and to go to Fortnum & Mason to buy tea. I guess we hadn't learned our lesson about shopping. Same old same old. Liberty was just another department store, but at least it was in an older building that had some character. One place we were looking forward to was Hamely's, the worlds biggest toy store. We're big on puzzles and were hoping for something new and different. Big, as it turns out doesn't mean more different stuff. It just means more of the same stuff. The place is also a turn off because it is just so calculated to play on the excitability of 8 year olds. The phony, cynical manipulation of children and their parents with a contrived aura of playfulness and innocence was sleazy in a particularly despicable way.

Approaching Trafalger Square, we heard the loud singing of a bunch of German football fans who were in town for some big match. We had seen them all over town, but they mobbed the Square singing and waving around beers. Americans who have never been to Europe have no idea how crazy people there get about football. The craziest Philadelphia Eagle or Flyer fans are no match for your average Europe football fan on tour. I stood watching, hoping that some British football hooligans would counter attack, so there would be some real fun. Unfortunately, we never did see any real British football hooligans, which is like going to London and not seeing the houses of parliament. You feel like you've missed a classic British institution.

Fortnum and Mason is our second favorite place to look at food in London. We are especially fond of their tea although it is no match for the extraordinary at the hotel. The only other store we saw on the trip that really seemed special was James Smith & Sons. Luxury umbrellas are about as British as you can get. Globalization has lead inevitably to boring sameness everywhere. Finding new stuff gets harder every trip to Europe. The world is no longer divided by geography. It's divided by money. You are no longer British or French. You are now rich or you are poor. The only meaningful divide left is time, now and then. I prefer then, which is why history (and scenery) is about the only reason to travel anymore. The worthwhile part of London is the V&A, Greenwich, John Soane's House, etc. History. It is definitely not Oxford St. or Regent St.

We tubed back to Covent Garden and walked around a bit before visiting John Soane's House, a block from the hotel. It is a small townhouse crammed, and I mean crammed, with art and curiosities ranging from a pharoh's sarcophagus to John Hogarth series of paintings, the "Rake's Progress," which we greatly enjoyed due to a docent who explained what was happening in each and the story that Hogarth was telling. The overall effect of all this stuff crammed together was sort of awe inspiring a way that is hard to define. We found it one our favorite places in London, although I suspect that it is not for everyone.

Our dinner plan was to try Dishoom in Covent Garden, so I asked the concierge to make a reservation. He tried, but the place doesn't take them. Instead, they just said to come over and they would seat us. We didn't notice that they didn't say when they would seat us. Ten minutes later we arrived and they told us that the wait was an hour and a half. OK, maybe they didn't exactly lie, but even Bill Clinton could learn a thing or two from them about dissembling. Finding an alternative on Saturday night in London isn't easy, especially in Covent Garden. We walked around looking at restaurants bursting at the seams for a while until starvation seemed imminent. Then I saw a sign for Masala Zone, which I had on our radar as a supposedly good cheap and cheerful type of Indian restaurant that probably isn't for the purist. Anyway, we were just happy to get seated immediately. We both ordered a thalis, mine with lamb curry and my wife's with fish curry. My lamb jogan rosh curry wasn't all that great, yet somehow the overall he meal was very enjoyable and satisfying. All of the vegetable food had a perfect level and character of hotness that tickled the endorphins. I would certainly go there again and hope for better luck on the curry.
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Old Jul 15th, 2013, 01:22 PM
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Day 5

If it's Sunday, it must be Greenwich. After tubing down to embankment to take cruise, we stood in a long, long line for tickets. After a half hour, we discovered that the waiting was unnecessary because the travelcard allowed to use a special window with only a few people ahead of us. We boarded the boat, which then maddeningly proceeded at about 3 mph to zig-zagged across the river to stop every 50 feet. Walking would have been faster. The boat only began to pick up speed once it passed under Tower Bridge, which afforded so good photo ops of the bridge, the Tower of London and the Great Gherkin.

The weather was finally smiling on us and Greenwich was nice, easy day away from central London with many worthwhile places to visit. We started with the Naval Museum and it's huge displays of ships, and other nautical paraphanalia. We next walked up the hill to observatory to stand across the prime meridian. They have gated the area off and now charge admission to go in, but the pain was eased by our 2for1 book and travelcard. The very long line of people waiting to take pictures of their children straddling the prime meridian made us give up on the prime meridian. However, a docent in costume regaled the assembled crowd the observatory's interesting history and the history of the prime meridian, as the current one is actually the 5th incarnation. Naturally, colorful characters abounded in the story. We stood in the sun listening to a man in 18th century regalia talk about the history of the prime meridian, while the city spread out to the north. Now this was Britain of our imagination.

The observatory has several other attractions. The clock museum has all three of Harrison's sea clocks. They are proof that less is more, as the absurdly large and complex clock #1 eventually evolved into clock #3, something resembling a simple, but large, pocket watch. (Upon return homing, the first thing we did was re-watch "Longitude".) For many people, however, the observatory's highlight is the cupola room with the big windows.

We walked down the hill to the Naval College, which has two don't miss features. One is the Painted Hall. Too bad I can't get James Thornhill to paint my dining room ceiling for the same $5/sq yard ($1.60/sq yd for walls.). The other is the chapel, with its extraordinary golden yellow and blue design.

Next stop was the fan museum, which claims to have 4000 fans, but the number on display can't be more than 100. I thought it OK, but my wife loved it and found it an especially good place to buy some gifts. (However, we went to Frederick Mares museum a few days later in Barcelona. They have a fan display 10 times bigger and better than this place.)

We had booked afternoon tea in their pleasant Orangery. Actually, it would be better described as an afternoon tea-like experience. They serve tea in ordinary, everyday teapots and cups with a plate of substantial, but mundane pastries. One the other hand, they don't charge much, so no complaints.

Returning to the hotel via the DLR was an odd experience. We walked through town, skipping the market, but it took forever to find the entrance. We weren't sure whether the travelcard gave us a discount on the DLR, so we looked for a ticket booth. We looked and kept looking all the way down to the platform. No ticket booths or machines. (There was a machine at the top of the stairs). The train came and we got on. Maybe they collect at the other end? No, we got off the train and on the tube without even having use our travelcards. We finally got off at Holborn and, of course, had use travelcards to get through the barrier. We never did pay for the DLR ride. Someone will need to explain this to me some day.

We had a 2for1 deal at Porter's in Covent and decided to make this a cheap night since we expected to blow the budget the next night at Rules. Porter's is very loud and raucous, and it seemed like every other table was either a girl's night out or a birthday party. The place specializes mainly classic British savory pies. My steak and Guiness pie was excellent, by far the best such pie I've every had. My wife also enjoyed her seafood pie. The fries were plentiful and above average. We also daringly tried vin d'Angleterre out of a sense of adventure. It was quite weirdly fruity and just this side of drinkable. Anyway, there were no French wine snobs who laughed at us.
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Old Jul 15th, 2013, 01:23 PM
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Day 6

We started the day by tubing up to Hampstead. It was supposed to be a quaint village, but it was just another upper class enclave. The only thing of interest, the Burgh House, was closed. We started out to look around the heath, but it looked remarkably like the same grass and trees we have at home, and Kenwood House was a long trek, so we judged it as not being legworthy.

Next, we took advantage of good weather to walk around some new places and postponed the British museum until the next day, when it duly rained, UK style. We had no real plans, but headed to Trafalger for the morning, thinking about going into one of the museums. We never did.

We had our only bad meal of the trip for lunch. We didn't want to do a real sit down meal and for something quick. Oddly, enough there wasn't anything until we spied a rather sketchy looking noodle place on a street going into the Square. Needs must, as the Brits say, so we gave it a try. The food was as sketchy as the place looked, but it tided us over to dinner, which as the point.

We devoted the afternoon to a London Walks tour, "Inns of Court." It conveniently started nearby at Holborn station next to our hotel and was led by guide named Shaughn (Seymour) whom we had taken walks with on a previous trip. Anyone who watches British mysteries will have seen him, as he is an actor who has been on virtually all of the classic (Sherlock Holms, Poirot, etc.), always playing very tightly wound prigs. In reality, he couldn't be more opposite. He is a real character who gives very amusing walks, most famously his Jack The Ripper Walk. We wanted to take one of his walks, but the Inns of Court are not the most interesting part of London, so it was merely OK. It was also a bank holiday, so we couldn't get to see some of the better bits.

After stopping at the picturesque Princess Louise pub, we walked over to Rule's. Since we wanted as many real British experiences as possible, we figured that dinner could get much more British than Rules. (Maybe we would even spy Edith and her publisher.) Although we went there primarily for local color, we were pleasantly surprised by the very good food.
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Old Jul 15th, 2013, 01:24 PM
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Day 7

We tramped through the rain from our hotel to the British Museum, one of our main targets for the trip. We tried to find out about the free tours that they give on specific subjects all through the day. We were told to go over to the other desk. We were told to go to the ticket line. We were told all sorts of things, virtually all wrong. We discovered many times during our visit that you really can't count on the people there to know what they are talking about. When we did hook on to a tour, it was so dry and academic that we soon wandered off on our own.

Armed with the very excellent British Museum app from Vuseum on my Ipad, we started our own personal tour. We started with ancient Greece, but it was a major disappointment. The statuary is terribly worn and so much detail gone that they really didn't look like much. I guess, you could still imagine somewhat what they may have looked like in Athens a couple of millennia ago, but it would take a lot of imagination. Much better were the Greek vases upstairs. They were in much better shape and took you to Ancient Greece a lot better than the decayed statues. In contrast to the Greek statuary, the Assyrian sculptures and reliefs were in great condition. The famous "lion hunt" was particularly effective in evoking the ancient world. They may have been the Nazis of the ancient world, but the Assyrians really knew how carve out propaganda that lasts. Besides, the Assyrians taught the world you an important less: don't piss everyone off, or they'll eventually gang up together to bring you down. There is a lot Egyptian stuff, but I'm not all that interested in it. My big areas of interest, the Romans and Etruscans, didn't have much representation, so overall, the museum was surprisingly underwhelming. Before this trip, I never would have thought that I would have found the V&A so much more enjoyable than the BM.

I was also surprised at the blah gift shops, which were located about every 10 feet. Just a lot of British Museum pencils, British Museum notebooks, British Museum T-shirts, etc. This was true at the other museums we visited. We normally do a lot of our travel shopping at museums, but there wasn't much of interest anywhere on this trip - no unusual games, puzzles, etc.

My wife's museum highlight was Mrs. Delaney's flowers. My wife had read a book about Mrs. Delaney, a 19th century spinster who developed a unique method of making flowers from painted paper cut outs. Just getting to see them is an experience in itself. They weren't on my app or on any directory or literature. You have to go to the little known and hard to find (since no one seemed to know where it was) study room on the top floor. You sign in, dump all your belongings into a locker, wash your hands and get a once over that exceeds TSA on their worse day. You are then led to a wood-lined study room right out of a Dickens novel where very seriously looking research types pour over various very serious looking ancient documents. After being shown where to sit, you fill out a slip and wait until someone returns with a book, and pair of gloves that you must wear and a long list of instructions about what to do and what not to do (don't lean over the book). You are also told that there are 12 books of flowers, but sorry, you only get to see one per visit. I doubt that the Dead Sea Scrolls receive such care. Anyway, my wife loved the flowers.

Since we had an early flight the next day, we booked a room next to Gatwick. We took an evening train from Blackfriars station, which is fairly small with no amenities in a fairly barren area. After much searching, we bought some crappy sandwiches at the one small Tedesco market in the area. We arrived at the south terminal train station and took the bus to the Premier hotel, which we had booked at a somewhat astounding 49 pounds, at the north terminal. The hotel is brand new and the rooms were clean and neat but very small and minimal. It was fine for its purpose. Best of all, it was literally across the street from the north terminal, a 5 minute walk.

Summary

There are many reasons that we like London. It's a trip to the mothership for any Anglo. I have no British ancestry, but my cultural DNA immediate recognizes home: this is who we are and where we've come from. We also like it because it is easy. Everyone speaks English, sort of. It is easy to find your way around. It is easy to order at restaurants. It is easy to ask directions. It is also very friendly and well-mannered. People on the tube give up their seat for you, not grudgingly, but with a smile. The trip back to Gatwick was a microcosm of why we like London. We boarded the train, my wife got a seat but I had to stand. As we left the station, a man in his late 20's happily offered me his seat next to my wife. He had to stand the entire 45 minute trip. This is one of the big reasons that we like London. In a word, it's civilized. And the civilization is ours.
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Old Jul 15th, 2013, 06:16 PM
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Why has no one commented on what is a truly entertaining trip report? I have been to many of the places you mention, with the unique exception of Mrs. Delaney's flowers. And although we were in London less than a month ago I am homesick for my favorite city after reading your descriptive narrative.

Thank you.
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Old Jul 15th, 2013, 07:01 PM
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POPOV, what a great detailed report! Loved what you said, “There are many reasons that we like London. It's a trip to the mothership for any Anglo. I have no British ancestry, but my cultural DNA immediate recognizes home: this is who we are and where we've come from.”

You put it very well. “Mothership” is an excellent metaphor. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Boston where my mother still talked about how Cromwell drove the Irish to the sea – “To hell or Connaught!” He died in 1658. When the British saw their empire fade, especially after WWII, they passed the torch on to America with grace, at least according to how Winston Churchill explained it.

The English language is perhaps the greatest gift they gave the world. Amen

On a more mundane level – how was Rule’s, the “oldest” restaurant in London, eh? Was it very expensive?

Again, thanks for your great report.
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 01:42 AM
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T'Elgin Marbles in't British Museum
Were not all they're cracked up to be
And Trafalger (sic) Square were a washout
At least, twas for mother and me
There was no football 'ooligans fighting
For Uniformed bobbies to quell
Just a load of old statues and fountains
And t'lions was statues as well!
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 02:02 AM
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Well, at least if he'd poked one in the ear with his stick with the horse's head handle, it wouldn't have eaten him.
Josser is giving a version of a famous comic monologue
I think that Albert Ramsbottom and his family have appeared on the forum before.
Here he is http://monologues.co.uk/Albert_and_Lion.shtml
That whole site is worth a visit. http://monologues.co.uk/
It's full of old Music Hall monologues and songs
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 02:20 AM
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To be boringly pedantic:

- the DLR is covered by the travelcard, so you'd already paid for it. I don't know why the DLR didn't bother with ticket-reading machines (apart from the Oyster readers for people on pay-as-you-go), but they do have someone on board the trains to operate the doors, to drive sometimes, and to check tickets sometimes. You just got a day when they didn't check.

- the German football fans were there for one of the European competition final, which was at Wembley this year; since it was between two German clubs, there was no particular occasion for British fans to make their presence known (and known trouble-makers will probably already have had their cards marked by the police if they were thinking about it).
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 04:28 AM
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I like the fact that you have opinions, but I don't agree with many of them.

Your account of St James's was just way off. Within a brief stroll of Fortnum's are the best men's shopping in the world: tailors, shirt makers, hatters, boot makers, gun makers, art galleries, wine dealers, and dealers in shaving equipment like Floris and Trumper. You are near Asprey the jeweler, Dunhill the tobacconist and jeweler and on and on. Around the corner, more or less, is the London Library and Clubland. The man who tires of St James's , to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, tires of life.
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 05:22 AM
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The Chancery Court lobby appears to have changed drastically from when I was last there. Although there were only two small seating areas on either side of the entrance, the recetion desk was quite long and between the desk and the entrance was a large round marble table with a huge fresh flower arrangement. A pension? It must have been significantly altered in 3+ years.

What exactly were you expecting? There are banks of elevators on either side of the lobby and through on one side is a really great bar and on the other side, a seating area with chairs and couches where breakast and light meals are served but there's always seating for guests to read the papers, etc. It is a listed building, I believe Grade II which means very little of the interior or exterior can be altered.

To describe it as an insurance company building is accurate, it's the former Sun Life Assurance building with beautiful features retained, not a 50s Mad Men glass and steel skyscraper.

I stayed there probably 20-30 times on business, now with a child who lives in Camden and with no longer being on expense accounts, we usually stay with him but will have to stop in the next time I'm in London to check it out.
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 05:27 AM
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Correction--Pearl Insurance building
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Old Jul 16th, 2013, 05:40 AM
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Popov, I enjoyed reading your report. I always love to read about my favorite city even if you didn't love every part. Your ending was perfect. I think that is how we have to be, when we are perfectly honest about people and places we love. Not everything is wonderful, but in sum it is special.

Thanks for sharing.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2013, 01:05 PM
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"I stayed there probably 20-30 times on business, now with a child who lives in Camden and with no longer being on expense accounts, we usually stay with him but will have to stop in the next time I'm in London to check it out."

Too late. The Chancery Court is closing at the end of July.

"Your account of St James's was just way off. Within a brief stroll of Fortnum's are the best men's shopping in the world: tailors, shirt makers, hatters, boot makers, gun makers, art galleries, wine dealers, and dealers in shaving equipment like Floris and Trumper. You are near Asprey the jeweler, Dunhill the tobacconist and jeweler and on and on. Around the corner, more or less, is the London Library and Clubland. The man who tires of St James's , to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, tires of life."

Maybe your idea of life is a bunch of wildly expensive stores that sell stuff that no one is interested in except people with too much money to spend, but it ain't mine.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2013, 04:24 PM
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"Too late. The Chancery Court is closing at the end of July".

Per the website:
This property will be closed from 1 August 2013 to 15 October 2013 for renovations and will resume operation once the renovation is complete (completion date subject to change).


We had stayed there when it was owned by Marriott and used Marriott points. We thought the rooms were huge for a city hotel and the lobby area was quite lovely. They had the flower arrangement when we were there too and it was only a few years ago. The hotel is listed as a five star hotel.
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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 02:18 AM
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Knowing now that it's undergoing renovations, I'm guessing they may have already started which is why popov found the lobby small or maybe he was expecting something massive. Glad someone bears me out that when It was a Marriott the lobby was beautiful.

If they stay on schedule we may be able to stop in for a drink in November. Big "if". Many good times in their bar off the lobby. Pearl, the upscale restaurant, never appealed to me. Will be interesting to see what they do with that space.
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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 04:04 AM
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What a grumpy old soul you are.

You were complaining that the shops were identical to any in the world and that there were no typically English ones. Somebody points out several quintessentially English/London shops and you say that you wouldn't be seen dead in them.
Goodness knows what Vin Anglais is, but there are several rather pleasant English wines available and some have won international prizes
http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010...in-gold-medals
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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 04:32 AM
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I feel a sudden desire to see Mrs. Delaney's flowers, not for the flowers themselves but for the experience.
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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 05:16 AM
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I used to work in the St James area and still love all those characterful shops listed by ackislander. There is nowhere else like Jermyn Street, Bond Street and the Burlington Arcade. Did you see the chemist D R Harris, founded in 1790 and still selling some of the same products?

But I agree about the Greek sculptures in the British Museum, I mean, why are they so worn?
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Old Jul 24th, 2013, 05:30 AM
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"I mean, why are they so worn?"

I assume you're joking, tarquin, seeing as the sculptures in question were exposed to the elements beginning only slightly after the reign of your namesake.
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