The Bloody Tower

5 Jun

Day 2

Sunday, April 15…. first full day on the ground in England.  First order of business was to have some breakfast. I left Julia to continue knitting up her raveled sleeve of care and made my way to the dining room. The George had an average-sized room for a hotel its size and they served an average English breakfast; Tea, fried eggs, toast, bacon, bangers (What we in the States would call sausage links), mushrooms, baked beans and tomatoes. I skipped the tomato and beans and supplemented with cereal in milk from the sideboard. As I was dining alone the waitress asked me to take a seat with another gentleman flying solo. In true British fashion we didn’t speak a word to each other (We hadn’t been introduced).

Cartwright Gardens the morning of my outing.

Thus fortified I made my way out onto the street where I managed to find a bodega that carried Mountain Dew for my beautiful young bride (They don’t call them bodegas in London. I’m not sure what they’re called, apart from a “Shop” I suppose). This made me very popular with the other 50% of our little group. Once dressed, packed (The staff was moving us down to our single room while we were out for the day), and in Julia’s case full of neon green caffeinated soda, we set off for the Tower of London.

We popped down to the Russell Square Underground station armed with our trusty Oyster cards ready to zip over to the Tower. An Oyster card is a metal scan card the size of a credit card. It is a refillable pass for the London public transit system above and below ground. Immediately upon our arrival in London we purchased the cards at a cost of £5 and added £30 to each card. Fares on the Underground are figured in zones that radiate out from the city center. Most tourist destinations are well within Zone 1. You scan the card upon entering the Tube or boarding a bus, then again when you exit the system and the correct amount for the distance you’ve traveled is deducted from the card (You MUST scan out of the Underground, otherwise you will be charged full-fare price to the farthest zone). Once you reach a fixed amount for the day it won’t deduct any more, making your card a day pass. This gives you the best of both worlds. If you make only one or two trips, you’re charged the single rate. Once you reach the threshold amount, you are charged no more than the cost of a single day pass, saving you money over the single rate. Just remember, you will have to see a ticket agent to purchase or add value to a card if you are using an American credit card, so allow a tiny bit of extra time on your first outing. (Additional information on the Underground here.)

It was still the weekend, so there was still track work going on, and this meant there were absolutely no trains running to Tower Hill. Service on the Central Line had been replaced by a bus, so we made our way to the Embankment and rode one of the iconic red double-decker buses across London. Much slower than the Tube, but we were armed with a tour company map that we had picked up at the hotel, and with this we were able to get the story on one or two of the notable landmarks we passed along the way.

We arrived at Tower Hill at about 11:00AM. Just across Tower Hill road there is a section of the old city walls built upon a foundation of the original Roman walls that surrounded Londinium.  The wall was one of the largest Roman projects in Britain and went up sometime between 190 and 225. There is a small replica statue of the emperor Trajan on the site.

Roman walls

We’d paid online for our tickets the night before, and just had to stop by the office to pick them up.  Anytime you can do this for any venue I highly recommend it.  Purchasing tickets in advance often lets you skip lengthy queues outside popular attractions and there is almost always a discount (In this instance, £2.90 per ticket. Official website and ticket prices here).  The Tower is looked after by the Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that manages several palaces owned by the Queen on behalf of the British people. HRP receives no money form the government or the Crown and relies on ticket sales, donations and volunteers.

A panorama of the Tower taken from near the ticketing area

The Tower of London is quite impressive. It is a massive fortress that is actually composed of several different buildings with the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, at its center. It has served as a royal castle, armory, treasury, mint, menagerie, observatory and prison. Several notable persons were imprisoned and executed within the Tower (And the Two Princes, who disappeared from the Tower, are held by tradition to have been murdered there). Today it is still the home of the Crown Jewels, which are on display in a newly renovated section of the Waterloo Barracks.

I really want a trebuchet. I have friends that I am pretty sure could make that happen. Just sayin’…

I first visited the Tower in 1989. Of course the overall structure of the place hasn’t changed in a scant 20 years, but the experience of visiting the Tower has changed dramatically. The trend in museums over the last few decades has been toward the theatrical. The Royal Armouries displays are quite different, and the White Tower has been taken down to the bare bones inside.

Foot armor of King Henry VIII

While I recalled most of the items we saw there, they were in new and dynamic settings with more detailed explanations that placed them in a larger historical context.

The biggest difference, however, is in the display of the Crown Jewels. The display has been completely renovated with funding from De Beers.  The re-presentation was opened in late March of this year. As you enter the Jewel House you see a multi-media presentation about the coronation gear.  The core of the collection is in a central vault, where visitors glide by slowly on an airport-style people mover. I recommend going back around for a second, third, or even fourth look from both sides because these pieces are amazing. The jewels in the Tower are the “New” Crown Jewels that were remade in 1661 for Charles II, the older regalia having been broken up by Cromwell (Whose name and memory we spit on forever) after the English Civil War. While looking at the collection of ceremonial Maces we asked a question of one of the Warders and got a fantastic history lesson. The men and women serving in the Tower WANT you to ask questions, and you will get so much more out of your visit if you do. (Photography is not allowed inside the Crown Jewels display. Since I am trying to make sure I generate all the content for this blog I will not be adding photos not taken by myself or Julia)

We visited the museum of the Royal Fusiliers. The Fusiliers were formed out of two companies of Tower Guards in 1685. While the name has changed from time to time with reorganizations, the Fusiliers have been a fighting unit for over 300 years. The museum is full of interesting exhibits and artifacts. These range from commemorative tins that contained chocolate sent to the troops as a Christmas gift from the Queen in 1900, to a bust of Hitler the Fusiliers hauled back from Germany. There is one artifact that is not in the museum however, the King’s Colours (A regimental standard) that the regiment carried at the battle of Cowpens in 1781. The Fusiliers were nearly wiped out, suffering the loss of 300 men. The battle of Cowpens was fought in South Carolina. The King’s Colours are still on display as a trophy of war at West Point Military Academy in New York. Felt weird standing there reading that.

I did not know that the Tower had served as a menagerie.

Sculpture of lions that were once kept at the Tower

There are of course the Tower Ravens, but it also once housed lions, baboons, and even elephants at various times. New to the Tower are life-sized metal wire sculptures throughout the fortress of the animals that were once kept there.

A Tower raven, about 16 inches tall. VERY big birds.

Also new since my last visit was the memorial to the ten persons executed on the Tower Green. The memorial was installed in 2006. It is comprised of a glass pillow on two disks, a glass disk bearing the names of the ten people and a granite disk inscribed with a remembrance poem by the artist, Brian Catling.

Memorial on the Tower Green

If you should find yourself in Kentucky back in the States and have a day to spare I recommend the Frazier Museum in Louisville. It has on permanent display a collection from the Royal Armouries and the Tower of London, the only one of its kind outside the UK. I’ve visited the Frazier more than once and there is always something fascinating to see.

We left the Tower and stopped at a fish & chip stand outside the gate before walking to the Tower Bridge.  Apparently lots of folks confuse Tower Bridge with nearby London Bridge. The easy way to remember the difference is that the Tower Bridge has towers on it… and is next to the Tower. Really.

I think Tower Bridge is incredibly beautiful. To me it has an almost fairy tale look to it.  The bridge has just undergone restoration, and particularly with the Summer Olympics coming up it is being made spic and span (There were workman hanging from the south suspension portion of the bridge the day we crossed).

Tower Bridge

The bridge was completed in 1894 and was operated by a hydraulic/steam engine system until being converted to hydro-electric in 1974. Originally a greenish color, the suspension portion of the bridge was painted blue with red and white accents in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It has just been repainted those colors and it looks amazing. The upper pedestrian span now houses the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Adult admission is £8.00. If you’re even more into planning ahead than I am, check this site to see when the bridge will lift to allow a boat passage.

We crossed the bridge and wandered a bit to the west walking along the Thames. We passed the HMS Belfast (Currently closed) and wandered around the Southwark Cathedral and under the southern end of London Bridge. Then we hopped on the Tube and took a short side trip.

Trinity Church Square is on Trinity Street east of Borough High Street. Get off at the Borough Underground station on the Northern line and walk south along the High Street, turn left onto Trinity. The square is about 200 yards on your right. Standing in the center of the square is the (Purported) oldest outdoor statue in London.

Statue of Alfred the Great, (Maybe) The oldest free-standing outdoor statue in London

The story goes like this; The statue is believed to be of Alfred the Great. Alfred is considered the first English king and re-founded the city of London in 886 (We know that cuz we saw a plaque!). Some sources indicate that the statue was moved to Trinity Square in 1822 from Westminster, where it had stood since 1372.  However, there are others who think the statue may have been created for the gardens at Carlton House in 1735.  Carlton House was demolished in 1825. Julia is somewhat skeptical to say the least.

Controversy aside, the statue sits in a beautiful square directly in front of the Henry Wood Hall. The flowers and trees around the square were in full bloom when we stopped by.  Looking at it alone in this setting it is certainly easy to believe it has stood for over 600 years

Our next stop was Kensington Gardens.  We took the Tube to the Queensway stop on the Central line.  This will put you out on the northern side of the park just by the Broad Walk to Kensington Palace (And incidentally just by a restroom right inside the park).  We strolled down toward the palace and as we walked I heard Julia chuckling to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“We’re in England.”

Indeed.

Duck pond at Kensington Palace

We walked in the gardens and around the duck pond by the palace, and then Julia noticed a golden cross just above the trees nearby. She asked what it was and I confessed that I had no idea. We walked south past the Round Pond and came upon the Albert Memorial.

Ok, I had never even HEARD of the Albert Memorial. It is stunning, absolutely stunning.  It is situated just across Kensington Road from the Royal Albert Hall. The memorial consists of a massive gilded statue of Prince Albert seated under a gothic canopy. There are eight statues representing the four continents of the Empire (Asia,Europe,Africa, andAmerica) and four Victorian industrial arts & sciences (Agriculture, Commerce, Engineering, and Manufacture).

The Albert Memorial

Victoria commissioned the memorial shortly after Albert’s death in 1861 and it was paid for by public subscription.  It stands more than 170 feet tall and is simply amazing to look at. It was recently renovated and if you are in the area make time to have a look.

We walked along the south side of the park through the flower gardens to the Princess Diana Memorial by The Serpentine. The memorial is a circular flowing stream and quite lovely. A plaque nearby explains how the memorial was composed of more than 500 pieces of granite cut using a hyper-accurate computer guided cutter. The Princess of Wales Memorial Walk also winds through the park (And several others in the area). It is marked out by plaques set into the pathway.

Princess Diana Memorial

Detail from the Italian Gardens

From the Diana Memorial we walked north along the Long Water. The collection of fountains and sculptures at the northern end of the Long Water is collectively known as the Italian Garden. We got there as the sun was setting and watched the ducks paddling around the fountains and the evening joggers going by.  After a while I finally figured out that the planks going down into each pool of water was so the ducks could get in and out.

Trivia geeks take note: There is a statue of a seated man on the east side of the gardens with an inscription that just reads “Jenner.” There is no explanation or even the subject’s full name. Turns out he is the man likely responsible for saving more lives than anyone else in human history. Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine that used cowpox, and is considered the “Father of immunology.”

It was getting dark so we headed back to Cartwright Gardens, and began that evening’s dinner dash. We started at the Nelson just around the corner from The George. There was a chalkboard sign out front advertising a Sunday Roast. We went in, Julia had a seat, and I walked up to the bar to order our food.

“I’d like to order the roast.”

“Oh, sorry we’re out.”

“Ok, well what about the pork roast, or chicken?”

“No, we’re out of food. The kitchen is closed.”

“Ah.”

Not even 8PM. Off we go.

We wound up at an Italian place called Balfour on Marchmont Street. We asked for a table and were asked if we had reservations. I can’t imagine how pathetic we must’ve looked when we told them “No.” After a few minutes conferring and re-arranging we got a table. Crisis averted (For today).

The food was quite good, if served absurdly hot. Like, harm-yourself-and-require-medical-attention hot. We found this to be true in many places across Europe.  Most establishments are smaller and your food doesn’t sit around? They’re using microwaves? Dunno, but watch yourself so you don’t get burned. I had the chicken parmesan with chips*. It’s England, just about everywhere you go chips are THE side. Even a menu item to themselves lots of places.  I also had the obligatory pint of cider and we looked through the pictures on our phones from the day.

We’d been moved down to our single room at The George. It was what I would consider an average size. The exception is the bathroom. I guess more precisely you would call it the toilet, as it had only a shower and not a bath. Since the hotel was not built as a hotel but a residence they’ve had to put the toilets where they could. This is accomplished buy putting in what is basically a one-piece fiberglass insert that is very much like the toilet in an RV. Overall I’d say it isn’t much more than 6 feet long. The front edge of the toilet is under the sink and the shower was not much wider than my shoulders. It was perfectly serviceable, I just had to be careful when I moved about to keep from crashing into things.

We had a lovely view of the park and tennis courts outside, a tiny television that we never turned on, and a comfortable bed, which we fell into. Big day tomorrow… bus trip to Bath… and Stonehenge!

*I was just going to assume that you all knew this, but then I remembered that one of the main goals here is to inform, so… just in case you don’t know;  When I say “Chips” in England (Or pretty much anywhere in Europe) I mean fries. What we would call “Chips” in America the English call “Crisps.” Now you know.

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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One Response to “The Bloody Tower”

  1. JHild June 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Two fascinated young men and a mom. I picture more of a giggle from Julia rather than a chuckle. Come to Chicago in fall/winter and I’ll make a Sunday roast.

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