Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Tower of London

Tower Friday

Not exactly the same as Freaky Friday ...

But we did end up in Soho

I get up very early on Friday as I have a report that needs to be written. I try to be quiet, as Rowan is still asleep. I make some Earl Grey and get to work. I am listening to Matisyahu’s “Youth” via my headphones, as it is my current report-writing music. In a couple of hours I am done and email it off. I continue to be saddened by the fact that the heated towel rail is NOT heating the towels. Grrrr. I have mentioned it to the front desk and am in danger of becoming a pest.

It is a gray day – a little rainy. Not sleeting-down rain, but there are definite rain-drops. I am actually pleased, as my Southern California soul is a little parched. When Rowan is in the shower, I open the window and lean out, enjoying the cool, wet air. We have settled into a routine of changing plugs to charge phones and laptops – putting in the US adapter, changing it out to use the hair-dryer. The room is small, but we have managed to stow away the suitcases enough to be able to walk around. Earl Grey tea, crisps and biscuits are squirreled away at the top of the closet in case of famine. Brochures that we have picked up litter the small table. Other than this, we are pretty tidy. I am going to wear jeans, a t-shirt and Converse sneakers. I hope that my shoes won’t get soaked. I had hoped to bring a pair of boots or something, but could not find any that I liked or that I was willing to trust to break in while travelling. I know that you should never bring a new pair of boots on vacation. I think we will be warm enough, despite the fact that we don’t have an umbrella. I brought a small one, but left it behind in Dundee. Sigh.

We head down to breakfast. Rowan had been abstemious the day before, but had seen the error of her ways and had a more substantial breakfast. I had the delicious Weetabix, toast, and some cold ham and cheese. I am not generally fond of ham, but I knew that it would help tide me over during the long walk. We fortify ourselves with tea and coffee and set off again.

We walked up Southampton Row for a bit, deciding which Tube station to take. We decide to go up to the station in Great Russell Square. Every once in a while, I see something that just does not belong – like the Sally Beauty Supply store. That seems very Southern-California-strip-mall to me, not at home in London at all. Krispy Kreme does not look right on High Holborn Street.

As we walk, Rowan spies a really cool umbrella – it is gray, but when you open it up, there is a map of the London Underground on the inside. It is a bit pricey and I figure that we can find one at a better price, as we have not even started to souvenir-shop. I think that my eldest daughter might need such an umbrella.

We are starting to feel very cosmopolitan with our ability to navigate by underground – we are getting jaunty. We get off at the Tower Hill station.

Here is a video of the station after we get off. Please forgive the Blair-Witch-Cam. I am not good at this. One thing that I think is very neat about the Underground is that they don’t say Exit and Entrance. The signs say Way Out and Way In.

As we come up out of the station, it is drizzling rain. I can smell something burning. It is like what I would think coal oil would smell like. A chestnut roaster has a cart at the top of the stairs. I wonder if I want to try roasted chestnuts. I decide that I do not, but I stop for a moment, enjoying watching people take away paper cones of the hot nuts. For a moment, I can see Victorian women walking along, packets of chestnut tucked into their muffs to keep their hands warm in the chill. I tug on Rowan’s elbow to show her the chestnut seller and ask her if she is going to get some. She says no and I am secretly a little disappointed. The video is a little brief.

There are kiosks with stacks of newspapers purporting to have the juicy details of the Princess Diana inquest. I ask Rowan if people really think that there is some kind of nefarious action about her death, and she turns to me and says, with no trace of humor, that yes, a lot of people think that there was some plot to kill her.

We stop at the Roman Wall. It seems that this has been here since Roman times. There is a statue of a Roman Emperor – I am pleased by the detail of his armour.

And the plaque that tells about the statue.

Rowan and I discover that we have a different idea of what “subway” means. To her, we just are about to go through a subway – which is the tunnel under the street. I tell her that a subway is like the Underground and is a sandwich shop. When we come up out of the tunnel, there is a green and yellow Subway sandwich sign, which obligingly makes my point.

We have to go under the street to get to the Tower.

We head off to All Hallows Church and go inside. I take a couple of pictures of the outside.

We had seen some lovely icons last night. I think that my mother and father in-law might like one. Rowan likes them too. We have not done any shopping for souvenirs and this is high on our list of things to do. When you have kids, an integral part of travel is that you bring stuff back to them.

Rowan writes:

We get off the underground and head to All Hallows church, which is close by, to purchase the icons we saw the day before. There is much bustle ensuing in the church, the Christmas Fayre from the previous evening being disassembled. The vicar, drill in hand, tells us he can’t open the cabinet to sell us the icons, as he is frantically busy, but recommends another outlet. We are kind of bemused and amused.

Bob says:

The vicar does take the time to tell us about the church and some of the history. I can tell that, once he starts talking about icons and the other churches that he has forgotten about being busy. He tells us about the church, and the other churches with enthusiasm.

We take a moment to wander around again and enjoy the stained-glass with the weak sunlight streaming through. Rowan admits to having a weakness for stained glass. We wander around, reading a little about the church. It is about ten o’clock when we finally walk across to the Tower.

Rowan runs into the gift-shop to get a prop for one of our pictures and I go into a building that is showing a movie about the history of the Tower. It was starting to rain a little more heavily, and I was happy to get out of it. A couple from Madrid are talking to one of the ticket sellers – it is interesting to hear their rapid-fire Spanish, so different from what I hear at home. They tell him where they are from and he shows them some sites of interest on a map, which he then gives them. I look around surreptitiously to see if there are other maps of the Tower available, but I don’t see any, and I don’t want to interrupt their conversation. I have map-envy. I like maps, as does Sam, my four-year-old.

Here is an aerial view of the tower. All Hallows Church is to the left.

A little history for those who like such things:

Founded nearly a millennium ago, The Tower of London has been expanded upon over the centuries by many a king and queen. The first foundations were laid in 1078 and the castle has been constantly improved and extended.

The Tower of London is the oldest palace, fortress and prison in Europe. History has it that King Edward of England backed down on his promise to give the throne to William, Duke of Normandy and ended up giving the throne to Harold Godwinson, his English brother in law. William, quite angry, sent his army across the English Channel to conquer England and on October 14, 1066 he met Harold at Hastings. The Duke's Norman warriors won the battle, and later that year on Christmas day William was crowned king. William decided he needed a stronghold to keep the unruly citizens of London in line. The site upon which William chose to build his fortress was the very same site upon which Claudius, the Roman Emperor, had built a fortress more than a thousand years before that and traces of the Roman wall are still seen within the Tower grounds.

Rowan writes:

Tickets are purchased at a series of booths, and they are very beautiful tickets, souvenirs in themselves, ornate postcards of a painting of the building. I am chuffed, and chortle to myself over the gorgeousness of my ticket. It somehow ameliorates the pain felt deeply in my wallet on being hit for £15. Still, looking ahead of me at the unbelievably fabulous Tower buildings, I know it will be money well spent.

It is cold and a little drizzly. We shelter a little back from the entrance, under an archway, and await the next guided tour.

A few others do the same, but most seem to be clustered at the entrance at the mercy of the elements. There seems to be a wide range of nationalities. I hear what I think is an Italian family chatting to each other nearby, but Bob informs me they are speaking Spanish. I am glad not to have professed that they are Italian, as I think that, being a bona-fide European, I should know about such things. We are kind of mildly competitive in a friendly sort of way, and keep a loose running tally of points scored.

Bob says:

Actually, we are companionably competitive, but in a nice way. Rowan knows literature and I know ... um ... how to read a map. And say bad words in Spanish. I am envious of her ability to speak French. I enjoy the sight of a family hurrying past in brightly colored rain ponchos – blue for the father and son and pink for the mother and daughter.

Rowan writes:

The party of tourists clustered at the gate comes closer, guided by a Beefeater, a tall chap, rangy, with as loud thespian voice, booming and self-assured.

He banters with his audience, singling out American visitors, who are up for a bit of teasing, and plying them with references to events back home. He is deft and witty, a true showman. Bob is laughing, and I see she has taken to him too. We are having a lot of fun. I am so glad that the tour is going to be a melange of the theatrical and the informative. I am always afraid of guided tours, because I am concerned that the phrase, “dying of boredom” may turn out to be true. I once was so bored in a Physics class in school that I fell asleep with the tip of my finger near a Bunsen flame. I spent the rest of the lesson with my hand in a beaker of iced water.

This Beefeater chappie – he is the biz. I don’t care if he embellishes the history if he staves of the spectre of my monument apnoea.

Bob says:

As we walk through the portcullis, our guide tells us that these were installed to keep the guards from sitting down on the job. The guards used to pad the spikes with their packs, therefore foiling the intent.

Rowan writes:

The Beefeaters are actually drawn from the Forces, men with honourable service records of at least 22 years. The 40 Beefeaters live within the spread of buildings, which, the official site tells us, “house 150 people”.

The tour begins, and we are charged to witness Traitor’s gate, before turning into the compound of buildings which make up the Tower of London. I am awestruck by Traitor’s gate. I think of Sir Thomas More, that clever, principled, upright man: his knowledge of the law, his unerring faith, his refusal to sign over spiritual allegiance to a King who set himself as supreme head of a new church, so as to divorce his Spanish wife, and marry again, hoping for a son to continue his line. Worshipers and churchmen countrywide would have to fall into line, or suffer Henry’s wrath.

Sir Thomas came into the Tower under Traitor’s Gate via the Thames River. He remained a prisoner, and then was beheaded in 1535. I love “A Man for all Seasons” Robert Bolt’s wonderful play about the interplay between these two giants of men – the intellectual, conscientious, introspective Thomas and the bullish, corporeal, single-minded Henry.

Anne Boleyn died here too. Beheaded. And Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey. And many more, down through the years, drifting in on the current with fear in their hearts, under the low archway of Traitor’s gate.

It is a wonderful thing, the sense of excitement, seeing this place, history coming alive. It is a cliché, perhaps, but that makes it no less true. I am almost skipping with excitement to be here, where Sir Thomas walked, with a slow sober, slightly ironic and world-weary step. I can see him in a long cloak, and cleric’s cap, and as Lord High Chancellor of England, in scarlet and ermine, right-hand man and advisor to the monarch.

Bob says:

I think that this is part of the Roman Wall. It was kind of an amazing moment, to come up into the quadrangle. I don't know what I was expecting, but this vast compound was not it. They tell us the names of the various towers and the buildings, but I am unable to process it all. The walls are filling up my eyes.

Rowan writes:

The Beefeater points out the geography of the quadrangle – the White Tower, The Armoury, The Jewel House, the Mint, The Chapel. We go inside the Chapel first, having switched off our mobile phones. The historic Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) is the oldest chapel royal in England. In this little chapel most of those who died on Tower Hill and six of the seven executed on Tower Green, were laid to rest under flagstones without ceremony.

Our wry guide says that he wishes ill to befall the cell-phones of all the males present, but he would like the ladies to politely leave their numbers with him as they pass him on their way out. There is a ripple of laughter. Inside the very simple and beautiful wooden vaults of the chapel, the guide’s powerful baritone echoes out the dreadful tale of some poor nobleman, falling foul of a drunken headsman’s axe.

The inconceivably vast history of the Tower is cut up for us tourists into perfectly manageable chunks.

It was begun in the Eleventh Century, changing slowly over time, but never hugely, it seems, from looking at the early paintings and the subsequent etchings and plans, skilfully presented within the informational displays on offer throughout the Tower Buildings.

I find this appealing. I am particularly impressed by the deft use of video-montage, a slideshow which slides into a bird’s eye view of the augmentation of the Tower in Tudor times, where it took on its present form. Henry VIII’s religious reformation meant the need to house many prisoners.

The Armoury contains an incredible display of full-size wooden horses, displaying suits of working armour, and of dress armour from a long chain of monarchs, down through the years.

The armour is ornate, cunningly augmented, but most of all, I am stunned by the wonderful craftsmanship, in an age when tools were unsophisticated. I love the little details, such as the armour designed to protect the horses’ ears.

The walls are covered with a lethal array of pikes on spikes, designed to disembowel at twenty paces. I feel a queer churning in my stomach just looking at them.

I am thinking of Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”.

Bob takes photos of the scuury weapons to show her older son, and we move on to the Jewel House, where reside the Crown Jewels.

I wonder if we will be able to take photographs inside, but sadly, we are not. I go in with a little bit of Scottish disapproval of all things royal, and have my Irony head firmly fixed on my shoulders. We queue briefly to enter a dark room, where a looped film shows the coronation of the present queen, Elizabeth the Second, in 1953. The film is blown up from old celluloid and is shaky, but with a quaint and charming quality which even nips at my Scottish barbarian toes.

Bob says:

Actually, at the footage of Queen Elizabeth, Rowan started to make dismissive snorty noises, despite her Scots toes being nipped. When we left, she said, with an air of someone who had just finished a slightly tedious task, “Wehl, tha’s enough of tha’”. I can tell that she likes the history of it all, but there is an edge to it. At one point, when we were in line and I could tell that she was NOT going to be able to tolerate seeing Elizabeth Regina footage one more time, I ducked under a velvet rope to go around the other viewers – who were contentedly watching Queen Elizabeth in her regalia. I think that I made Rowan actually yip in distress. She grabbed my arm, looking around frantically for Beefeaters with halberds to do in queue-jumpers. I told her that there was no sign prohibiting it, so I was fine. She looked around for cameras. I ignored her and ducked under another rope. She followed, but with clear trepidation. It was funny, but I seemed to have started a trend – people followed us, and we were like velvet-rope-ducking Pied Pipers.

Rowan writes:

The United Kingdom came into being in 1603, when Elizabeth 1st of England died childless, and the son of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who was James 1st of Scotland, ascended the throne of England and became king of a united kingdom. Our independent nationhood was signed away in by a knot of unscrupulous nobles in the “Union of the Parliaments” in 1703. (We got our Scottish parliament back, a few years ago. We were never conquered. Just sayin.) Bob and I meander on into the path of the actual jewels and stuff.

Woah! There is an actual conveyor belt for people to stand on, to float past and admire the succession of crowns and sceptres (not forgetting orbs) : ) which are displayed in a long glass case. They are very sumptuous, with their deep scarlet and maroon velvet linings and sparkling jewels, picked out by careful lighting. The atmosphere is one of suppressed admiration. Bob and I cannot help making comments about the size of the cruet sets and soup tureens in the other displays, formed out of solid gold, and decorated to such level of gothic ghastliness to be fabulous. I assume they are just museum pieces, or used for State banquets. You could step into the cruet set and wear the salt and pepper pots as thigh boots, they are so huge. Still, no one can question your condiment intake if you are a bona fide royal personage. Bob and I gasp a bit at the exhibits and chortle a little too, behind our hands, quietly, as there is a sober–looking guard watching us from a seat in the corner. We have been stung for £30 between us, and do not want to be flung out before seeing all we can.

Bob says:

We walk outside for a little bit in the rain, and go into the White Tower. We are cold , but inside we are out of the wind.

At each of the corners of the Tower is a spiral staircase. I am not sure why I am fascinated by them, but clearly I am.

The stairs make me feel like I am "going down to see , roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble."

Maybe because I can see myself, walking with a basin of water, trying to fit my feet on the narrow stairs.

Or sweeping, trying to balance.

I wonder what it was like for the defenders.

We emerge from one set of stairs to find ourselves in The Chapel of St John the Evangelist. It was reserved for the sovereign and his court.

It is not as small and there is a much different feeling here than has been in the other churches that we have visited. Maybe because there are no services here.

I like this display -- it shows what the Tower looked like, centuries ago.

We come into another armory. This picture is for you, Cynthia. I liked the horsies.

Rowan writes:

There is just so much to see, within the tower walls. So many buildings, each with its own history and informational displays. The gift shop leads through from the armoury, and is expensive, but very tasteful. The wares inside are quirky and unusual. Bob spies a wonderful darkly-comic self-assembly cardboard model of an execution scene and buys it for her eldest son.

I am getting a bit tired and jaded, but Bob has bags of energy still. I go and sit on a wooden barrel and wait while she reads display boards and takes pictures. I am glad she is taking them, and know they will be good. I am sad to have recently lost my beloved digital camera, tied up though it is, with duct-tape and seven years old.

Bob says:

I am completely in my element, taking pictures and reading each display. This is like the best kind of museum for me – it is a place where people lived and worked. It is older than I can imagine. Inside, we see some of the cells where people were held prisoner. It is cold inside, and I imagine what it would be like to be holed up in there. I touch the walls, wondering at the thickness, enjoying the texture of the stone. I cannot imagine how old this place is – there is no frame of reference for me. I can imagine decades old, but not centuries old.

I walk up and down the spiral staircases, imagining how it was to repel invaders down the winding stairs. I thought you might enjoy what it is like to walk down them. This was the last set on as we left the White Tower.

We walk towards the exit, finally, taking in the panorama, watching the ravens who live within the tower walls with clipped wings, so they do not fly away, and court the superstitious possibility of the white Tower crumbling and disaster befalling the kingdom if they slope of to pastures new. I can’t imagine them wanting to do that. I mean, where else are ravens treated like kings? They even have little ringed name tags around their legs. One is called Thor. (I didn’t get up that close…there was a cuddly version of him in the souvenir shop!)

Here are a few final views of the walls as we leave. They are wonderful.

The Tower Bridge is faintly outlined in the grey sky beyond the tower.

Rowan writes:

It is a magnificent sight. It is iconic London for me. I have to stop myself sounding completely uncool-excited-touristy, when other tourists from outside the UK are just gazing without comment, and are not suppressing the urge to jump up and down. Bob takes pictures, and then takes one for a Russian couple. They are a little irritable with their camera and confused by how it works – they do not quite believe that she has taken the picture and gesticulate this message. Bob notes their disgruntlement and notes with a smile that they will see alright, that she’s done a good job, when they get home. I admire her tact. I would have been calling them something slightly un-nice. Just slightly, mind.

We are very hungry, as it is well past lunchtime. There is a wonderful noodle-bar restaurant called Wagamama sitting at the top of a row of steps, overlooking the Tower. We decide to go inside. There are long benches in pale wood, and chopsticks on the table which are still held together at the end. I look with unconcealed horror, and Bob gently and expertly prizes them
apart, without any eyeball threatening splinters. I do not know how on earth I will be able to use them. Bob gives me a very good lesson, as she is the boss of chopsticks, but I think I am adding ‘chopstick planning difficulties’ to my other motor issues.

I order a delicious sounding meal with help from the cheerful waitress, and scoot off to the ladies’ room. When I come back, there is a huge fragrant bowl awaiting me. As is an actual FORK. Bob knows I would not have asked for it myself. It is good to have a friend who understands one’s limitations.

Bob says:

When Rowan goes off, I sit back and untangle myself from my 24 bag (if you don’t know what I am talking about, Jack Bauer has this sort of Mr. Wizard army bag in last season’s 24. I have a bag exactly like it, and I love it – it is the perfect travel bag. However, mine does not have various electronic devices and firearms. Sometimes I poke around in it, hoping for a Sig, but no dice). I am cold and wet. The rain has wicked up my jeans and I am wet to the knees. My shoes are wet and my socks are soggy and my feet have turned into blocks of ice. I had not noticed any of this until we got into the warmth. My scarf is strangling me, and I scrabble at it impatiently. I opt for a steaming bowl of miso soup with udon noodles. The miso tastes a little funny – more fermented and I can’t find any tofu. However, it is just the thing for a cold afternoon. It is worth the price just to warm my hands on the bowl.

The server comes and I ask for a glass of water – she asks if I want still or sparkling. I think about it a little. I am not sure, but I pick still. I also ask for a fork for Rowan, as I know that she will not ask for one. The server comes back with a bottle of water and I realize that I will be charged an arm and a leg. I know that it is cheap, but I haaaate paying for water. If I go and buy it, that is one thing, but I think that restaurants should have drinkable water for free. I can tell that the server thinks that I am cheap, but I am a good tipper.

We finish lunch and consider our options. We decide to hit the British Museum next and get to Covent Garden after that.


A mom in the 'burbs said...

So magnificent to hear about the Tower! I am woefully ignorant of all it's history (though, I am not a princess because of it, boo hiss on Richard the Lionhearted!--at least I think it was him...) I loved the embedded videos--walking down the spiral stairs made me feel as if I were there, woozie. :)

Bob-now you must right a historical novel based in London!!

Dr. Bob said...

burbmom, you, me, two laptops, and a beach in mexico ... I am holding you to it...