Tuesday, September 08, 2009

London, Day Five

Ah, the quaint old Tower of London, home to both one of the oldest active fortifications in England and one of its most storied prisons.

The Tower seems to have a strange hold on the imaginations of its visitors, and it’s hard to say whether that’s because of it has such a long history or because it has such a gruesome one. In my case, at least, I think it’s a little of both. The longevity of the place – in operation since William the Conqueror earned his title – in concert with its very bloody memory reminds us of how close at hand death once was, and how easily it reached even into the highest echelons of British society. People love to observe the cruelty of the world while keeping it safely at arm’s length: at the other end of a camera, for instance, or in the cheery tales told by a grizzly old Beefeater.

The grounds of the interior castle are immense, and there are several interior structures as well as an entire housing unit for all of the Beefeaters (or Yeomen, which is their proper title) and their families. It’s also home to the famous Tower ravens, whose wings are clipped because legend holds that the Tower – and England – will fall when the last one leaves the grounds.

Cute, though like all things in the tower, a bit morbid.

As we found out, few people were actually executed within the tower, contrary to popular belief; most times, they were bound and dragged up to Tower Hill, just outside the city limits of the old City of London. These were the public executions, held for a variety of reasons in front of large crowds, for whom executions were something akin to a spectator sport. Whole families would come out and crush to the front to get the best possible view of the act when it occurred. Executions were often botched, as well, which meant an even more agonizing death for the prisoner and even more amusement for the crowd. The message, however, was always clear: the state could and would kill you if you stepped out of line.

Exceptions to the public execution policy were reserved for the most famous or powerful prisoners, who were actually executed within the Tower – on what’s called the “Tower Green,” which during the Middle Ages had been used as a graveyard – ostensibly in order to preserve the privacy and dignity of the prisoner. These notable “exceptions” included two queens: Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn.

Walking around the Tower, it’s hard not to feel a little sad at all the blood that was spilled here over the years. I already recounted Lady Jane Grey’s story (which I hadn’t even known until this week), but of course there are many other famous men and women who lost their lives here or on Tower Hill: William Wallace, Sir Thomas More (also a victim of Henry VIII’s wrath), and of course, the aforementioned Anne Boleyn. It’s said that as she was led into the Tower, Henry knelt and kissed her hand, stating (for all we know, truthfully) that he would love her until the day she died. What a romantic.

Just outside the Tower lies the little church called All-Hallows-by-the-Tower.

Note the sign for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the front; it's always a bit surreal to see those in England.

We stopped here en route to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which would be our biggest church yet on this trip. Visitors to old Europe are often struck by how much of their trip is consumed by visits to churches, but it’s for good reason: these were the places where most excess wealth, labour, and intellectual energy were spent, and they show it.

The quiet and unassuming Hallows church is certainly a far cry from what we would see at St. Paul’s, but it has its own distinct charm. For one thing, it wasn’t crawling with tourists being led around by people walking backwards with flags in their hands. For another, it’s a very old site, old enough that it started out as a Saxon abbey in 625, and a bit of digging beneath that unearthed a section of Roman road and a number of other artifacts, many of which can be found in the church’s crypt.

After the Hallows church, we stopped for lunch at a neat little pub called the “Walrus and the Carpenter.” Alice in Wonderland fans will recognize the reference. We had some great pub sandwiches, including chips (French fries) coated in vinegar and “brown sauce,” a concoction I enjoy, but have never found anywhere but Britain. We also had some great ales, which, as a lover of flavorful beer and a nostalgic for my last trip to England, I relished.

The rest of the walk to St. Paul’s was surprisingly quick, given the amount of lunchtime ale we’d consumed. It had been another long day of walking, so we took a quick break and I walked around to get a few shots of the cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s one of those which is so big that there’s no angle which will ever capture it all.

Outside and in, St. Paul’s is truly London’s church; it wields the grandeur and character of a cathedral which has long held its place as one of the most majestic of its nation. Certainly, there are others which rival it; the York Cathedral and the immense Canterbury Cathedral come to mind. But St. Paul’s has a unity of style and architecture which suggest a short timeframe for construction – only 31 years, incredible for a cathedral of this size – and a very large budget. Indeed, because the place was built just after the Great Fire of 1666, in which the original was damaged beyond repair. It’s also reminiscent of St. Peter’s Church in Vatican City, which is not an accident: Christopher Wren (yes, he’s everywhere) designed it with that magnificent cathedral in mind.

We’d all been preparing ourselves for the climb to the top of the dome, which is truly awe-inspiring from the floor below. However, this turned out to be biting off a bit more than we could chew. First, poor Val’s fear of heights began to catch up with her at about the two hundredth step, and she called off the climb at the second tier after four hundred to wait for us to go to the highest level. Then, having climbed all of those stairs to the second tier of the dome and with only a hundred more to go, I finally managed to trip and hurt myself.

I’ll admit – I made it a lot further than I thought I would. Today had been a bad day to begin with; I’d tripped down the stairs at breakfast, nearly fell over twice at the Tower, and had made several missteps on our walks to and from all of these sites. In fact, I wish someone could compile a montage of all the times I tripped over myself today, because it would be a good five minutes of unintentional slapstick.

But the culmination of all this clumsiness finally came at St. Paul’s, in a tiny little alcove with four little stairs going down and up on the other side. Somehow, I managed to miss one of these four little stairs and went sprawling into the floor. I felt my ankle pop, and knew immediately that I was going to have some trouble keeping up over the next few days. Luckily, it turned out not to be too bad, and since I was walking carefully and gingerly for the rest of the afternoon and evening, it was the last of my awkward falls for the day.

I did manage to make it to the very top of the dome with my useless ankle, where we got some amazing photos of London from one of the highest vantage points available.

As I hobbled my way home from our church tour of London, someone in our group remembered that we had received an invitation to a VIP party at our hotel that night, thanks to Diane’s many airline and hotel points. The VIP party turned out to be a fun little event, with unlimited free drinks and finger food which filled in for dinner that night. Once again, we’ve found that traveling with Diane means traveling in style, and were suitably impressed.

Unfortunately for them, the Brits didn’t know it wasn’t a good idea to give us a bunch of drinks and let us loose in their capital. A few minutes after we finished up in the VIP lounge, we grabbed our cameras and wandered over to Trafalgar Square, where Val and Diane attempted to climb one of the giant lions surrounding Nelson. The attempt was met with limited success.

However, it provided Rob and I with quite a bit of entertainment, and was recounted numerous times over our second visit to Scoop, a little gelato shop just north of our hotel, where our addiction to gelato ice cream really came of age. Val has vowed to eat at Bertillon, the famous Parisian gelato shop, at least once a day, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. Gelato is some amazing stuff, though; just look at what it’s done to us (particularly Rob):

Happy and full of gelato, we headed home for an early night before what I considered the most dangerous portion of our entire vacation: driving through out of London and into the English countryside.


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