We’ve just returned from a few days away on a city break in London, and great fun it was too. As usual we seemed to cram in far more than is possible in just three days (hmm, that sounds like the opening to a new tv series – “Visit as many London museums as possible: you have just three days to do it…”) and saw some truly wacky things in the process. I’ll try to post details, day by day, on here, as there’s too much to put in one post. So, here goes.
The first day we were a bit shattered after travelling all the way from the Far North of England, so we only managed a quick scoot into the Natural History Museum (always a favourite in spite of the crowds) to look at an exhibit of bugs and creepy crawlies.
The next morning, though, we set off bright and early and caught the tube across the city to London Bridge. Stepping out of the tube station into daylight, we made the mistake of looking up and promptly nearly fell over because we were right in the shadow of The Shard, London’s (and I think Europe’s) tallest building. Compared to the skyscrapers of America and the Far East it’s probably nothing special, but here it towers over everything else and is truly awe-inspiring, even if looking up that far does make you feel dizzy. We’d have liked to go to the top to see the view for ourselves, until we found out the price – a whopping £30 “per unit”, whatever that means, just for the privilege of travelling in a lift. I don’t think so.
Our main purpose in any case lay further down the street at the old church of St Thomas. Here, back in the early nineteenth century, the surgeons of St Thomas Hospital next door took over the attic to form, of all things, an operating theatre to carry out surgery on women. In those days the church backed onto the main women’s ward of the hospital, and the attic was considered far enough away not to disturb the other patients with screams from those being operated on. The garret next door had already been used for storing medicinal herbs for the hospital, so perhaps this was a natural progression and not quite as bonkers as it sounds – although quite what effect it had on the congregation busy praying and singing hymns in the church below, I’m not sure.
The old St Thomas Hospital has long since moved to a new and larger site in Lambeth and the building that would have given access to the attic has been demolished. The operating theatre was abandoned, closed up, and forgotten about entirely until the 1950s, when a researcher stumbled across it having clambered up a spiral staircase inside the church tower and broken through a wall. The Old Operating Theatre Museum was duly founded, equipment and displays moved back in (up that same spiral staircase, in a superhuman feat of strength and ingenuity), and you can now visit and see the theatre and herb garret for yourself.
And absolutely fascinating it is too, if a little gruesome. I preferred the displays on medicinal herbs and their preparation to the rows of specimen jars, scalpels and other instruments of torture used for surgery in those days, but even the latter had its own morbid fascination. For anyone studying medicine or the history of surgery, I’d say this museum is an absolute must. For anyone else, it’s a bizarre, unique and fascinating foray into a world I’m quite glad we’ve left behind.