Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bloody Hell, that's the Bloody Tower.

So I missed a post last night as we were out having drinks with my old prof and by the time we stumbled back to our hotel (in the rain) it was so late that all I could do was crash.

This morning we slept in and revised our schedule based on conversation with aforementioned prof, who felt that if we were going to see a show at the Globe tonight, we really don't need to shell out the 10.50 pounds to take the tour of it this morning.

But enough about today! A recap of yesterday:

Began at the Tower of London. We decided to meet up with a London Walks Historical Tour Guide as we did for Westminster Abbey. The tour was great, the tower was awesome.

Construction of this tower began in 1078 by William the Conquerer known to we of British descent as William the Bastard.

I can barely describe the feeling of walking up the uneven cobblestones, away from the ominously named "Traitor's Gate" under the archway and up the hill to the execution site memorial, following the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and many other unfortunates who got on the wrong side of Henry VIII and his desperate efforts to have a son, break free from the pope while still being a Catholic, and always have the biggest codpiece in the land.

I am so mature.

I honestly felt like we were in a movie set although Tom the Tour Guide told me that rarely are they allowed to film there and that most of the time they just recreate the Tower on a set in Hollywood. Or Toronto. Whatever.

The ravens that live in the tower. Their wings are clipped to make sure they never leave -- legend has it that if the ravens leave the tower, it and the monarchy will fall. Also the ravens bite. So we were told.

We were continually made aware of our woeful ignorance of English history (1078, er, yes... that year seemed to be important why...?) but it definitely came alive as we walked the grounds and climbed the narrow winding staircases and peered through the cross-shaped windows specially made narrow for defensive reasons and cross-shaped so as to better fire a crossbow from behind them. They had a big display of Henry VIII's weapons and armor and a display of torture devices (the rack was terrible but there was nothing quite like the torture-machine in The Princess Bride). Perhaps the saddest parts were the inscriptions made by Jesuit priests into the stone of the towers where they were held prisoner.

The execution site (or where they think it probably was) had nice little memorial constructed with the inscription: Gentle visitor, pause awhile * where you stand death cut away the light of many days * here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life * may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.

We viewed Paul Delaroche's painting of Lady Jane Grey on the chopping block at the British Gallery before we headed for the Tower of London and I kept thinking of the poor teenager, blindfolded and crying, groping for the place where she was supposed to put her head to be hacked off while her ladies in waiting swooned and even the executioner looked ashamed of himself. Oh the power plays of corruption in politics.

Evidently Anne Boleyn got luckier -- she was able to request an executioner from France who used a sword instead of an axe and lost her head in one fell swoop before she was expecting it so she supposedly never knew what hit her and her lips kept moving in prayer even when her head was rolling on the platform.

David lost the favor of the king. Off with his head!

The crown jewels were beautiful and impressive even though I can't help but feel that if a diamond is bigger than 3 carats or so it just looks totally fake. The dramatic lighting in the cases makes everything sparkle and I was amazed to read that the jewels had been stored there since the 17th century. Also notable: the huge-ass diamond that was cut to make the two largest cut-diamonds that exist in the world was mailed by regular post to the Queen while a fake one was transported by ship under heavy guard so as to throw off would-be thieves. Only one attempt has ever been made to steal the crown jewels and I think that occurred in the 17th century but somehow the thief got a pardon.

I asked a guard if the jewels were stored there during World War II and the Blitz and she said no, they were taken to a secret location that is still under the Act of Secrecy.

We spent a good long time at the tower, walking along the top of the wall and peering through the battlements over the river Thames, tracing the uneven stones in the thick walls, and admiring Henry VIII's fancy armor with its exaggerated anatomy.

From the Tower, we followed a Rick Steves walk through The City of London -- mostly the financial district with the banks and the courts of law. We walked the mile and a half of the city that was ravaged by the fire of 1666 -- a fire that basically leveled London entirely but actually saved the city from losing all of its occupants to the plague. We admired the outside of St. Paul's Cathedral and other Christopher Wren churches, we stared up at the Royal Courts of London
which was so imposing that it makes every other courthouse I've ever seen look like a scrawny little shack.

We wandered through Bow Street and looked at its cute shops and saw the Twinings Tea Company which was closed by the time we arrived but you could still smell the tea through the front doors.

It was about five o'clock when we left the Templar Church (we just missed Robert and Sophie racing to Paris with Opus Dei hot on their trail) and we were looking for Ye Olde Chesire Cheese Tavern, favorite watering hole of Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Arthur Conan Doyle. It is tucked away down a charming little alley and was difficult to find but at last we stumbled upon it and wandered through the four floors of different dark wooden bars with different menus and at last ordered the house brew (Samuel Smith lager) and collapsed on a leather bench to drink our beers and rest our feet.

Thank God we found it! Never have I needed a beer so much. I am sure that Dickens had days when he felt the exact same way.

Reasonably refreshed, we hoofed it all the way from there to Tralfagar Square, pausing to take pictures of Australia House which is basically an embassy but is perhaps better known for its role as Gringotts Wizarding Bank in the Harry Potter movies. More churches, King's College, and at last the underground.

We had dinner at Fitzroy's Tavern -- fish and chips and more Samuel Smith. It was crowded and noisy with students and people dressed for work and we just enjoyed the atmosphere before going to a quiet hotel bar for after dinner drinks. Bloody hell. What a day.

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