Wednesday, June 27, 2012

One to more sites today! Back onto the tube (only a bit less crowded today) and to Tower Hill and the Tower of London -- perhaps the most popular of the sites in London (ok, well, a lot of people thronging the gates of Buckingham Palace might disagree,  I love all things castle-y, so I was really excited to go -- which means we were hella early. But that's normal for us.

A few weeks ago, I discovered a BBC miniseries on The Tower streaming on Netflix, and watched something like eight hours of documentary about the history of the tower, the beefeaters, and how the fortress evolved. It was fascinating (and I totally recommend it), and was great preparation for actually visiting. For example, one of the episodes followed a new Yeoman Warder as he was trying out for the job, and how intense and stringent the requirements are for being part of the garrison here. All the warders are 20+ year veterans of the armed services, with good conduct and performance commendations, and they pretty much audition for the job. They all live here, in the tower, with their families, and not only do they have tourist-related duties, but they still have serious security duties as well. The best part for us, of course, was that they do the famous Beefeater Tours -- a one-hour condensed history of the tower, done with quite a bit of flair. Our Yeoman Warder, Barney, was a hoot. I hope that he enjoys his job as much as he appears to!

The tower has a long and blood history -- but much of it is hyperbole, of course. There were not that many people beheaded here, and it was more often a storehouse and garrisoned fort than prison, despite some of the famous prisoners we all know about -- Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn (and two other wives of Henry VIII), Guy Fawkes, a few Scottish Earls, etc.  A few of them were beheaded somewhere in the tower green, the rest on Tower Hill, with the public crowded around the gallows there.  The "Bloody Tower" was originally the Garden Tower, until Shakespeare got a hold of it. It sounded better, I"m sure.

Based on the very good recommendation of the guidebook, we marched in as soon as the gates opened and rushed to see the Crown Jewels displayed. In summer, the lines can be over an hour long to file past the half-dozen crowns displayed inside. We had no crowds, and were able to peer at the shiny stuff almost on our own for a half-hour or so. They are impressive -- knowing that you're looking at the actual jewels, the biggest diamonds in the world, is rather cool. I can't imagine wearing a five-pound crown for very long, though,  and carrying the orb and jeweled scepter. Heavy stuff, that.  There are also a ton of gold items that go along with the coronation stuff -- the Coronation Spoon (seriously, a spoon, one of the oldest relics in the collections, and used to hold the oil to anoint the new king or queen),and the bird-shaped ewer that stores the oil, as well as a giant and ornate gold tower-looking thing called the Exeter Salt -- a decorative salt holder. All gifts from dignitaries in the last eight hundred years or so. It's fun to look at things, and I appreciated that we had the time to go back and look at things in detail instead of being railroaded through, one way, in a queue. Definitely go in early and go there FIRST!

The White Tower itself is a great museum of arms and armor -- including a bunch of different suits of armor for Henry VIII that follow his progression from energetic, muscular young man to hugely obese old man. We laughed that as the girth of the armor got bigger, so did the size of the metal codpiece.  The collection is great, though, and the Hall of Kings has 17th life-sized horse models that used to have mounted mannequins of each of the kings since William, we could see the heads and hands of the models, and the suits of armor that would have sat upon the horses, arrayed in the long hall. Pretty cool, actually.

We walked along the tower walk to the east and south of the castle -- there are really two layers of defensive walls inside a moat (now just a garden, they filled it centuries ago). The original tower had a bailey wall with towers for defense, but then a second outer wall was built and the 120' moat was dug to further protect the kings.  There isn't any way to approach the tower that isn't covered by more than one of the towers. Even if you managed to swim the (stinky cesspit) moat, climb the huge outer wall, get past the guarded still had another wall to scale -- and by that time, the soldiers here had picked you off from the inner towers, I'm sure.

The ravens are here, too, of course. The legend is that as long as Raven live at the tower, England will remain and the tower will stand. There are seven now, and they have the run of the tower during the day. Their wings are clipped, so they can't fly very far, but they seem content to hop around the green and yell at the tourists. They're smart birds, I can't imagine they don't appreciate the easy life they have -- good food, nice place to sleep, someone to take care of them, interesting people hanging around all the time. A few of them even talk. Of course, they are also eager to tell you that there is a tryout period for the ravens, too, and a few have been rejected and one was even dismissede for being destructive and mean to the tourists.

We grabbed lunch at the cafeteria in the tower before leaving for St Pauls Cathedral (we often have lunch in the cafes that are attached to the various sites we visit -- they are usually very good, quick and convenient. ) St Pauls is an amazing church, and you gain even more respect for Wren's complete mastery of architecture when you walk through the incredible chapels and aisle of this, his masterpiece.  There is a very good audioguide for the church, which is totally worth the rather slow pace it requires, by the way. I spent most of the time walking around listening tot he audio and craning my head up to see the stupendous mosaics on the ceilings. Seriously, I walk into walls and things all the time because I'm staring straight up.

One of the huge draws of the Cathedral is that you can climb up the stairs to the very top of the dome for spectacular views (well, spectacular if you aren't afraid of heights or narrow spiral stairs).  It's about 530 steps to the top, with access to three different galleries.  The first is the Whispering gallery around the base of the done -- the acoustics are so good you can hear a whisper halfway around the dome -- although it was too loud for us to really test it out. The view down into the church is impressive from here, of course, but getting closer to the painted dome ceiling is the real draw. Up another two hundred stairs or so is the Stone Galley -- outside around the dome.    I  didn't realize that the dome you see inside and the dome you see outside are not the same, by the way. The inner dome is designed to look perfectly proportioned from the church floor, and above it, supported by a cone-shaped set of supports, is a much taller outer dome that look pefectly proportioned from the ground outside. If Wren had simply built a single dome, it would have looked squashed and dumpy from outside if it was correctly viewed inside, or too tall and narrow if he'd built it to look right from outside. It's a rather magnificent bit of engineering that you don't actually realize exists until you see it.

Up another narrow, spiral staircase to the very top of the done, the Golden Gallery -- with views over mos of the city on a clear day. We ran into a few people on the way up who were apparently a bit afraid of heights and the spiral stairs -- cast iron, so you can see straight down most of the way--freaked them out a bit. At the very top, before you go outside on the narrow circlet around the dome, is an oculus that looks straight down on the very center of the floor below -- it's a bit dizzying, even if you aren't afraid of heights. It's a small hole, though, and glassed over now, so no worries.

We wandered around the aisles looking at the numerous (and enormous) tombs and memorials that fill the chapel almost entirely. While there aren't quite as many here as in Westminster Cathedral, it i stil impressive. Most are really, really gaudy; these Victorian/Gothic memorials to everyone worth mentioning -- they fill every spare space. Even more fill the crypts down beneath the cathedral -- Wellington, Nelson, dozens of other minor military people that we didn't recognize, all with vast, overwrought statues and flowery epitaphs. Nearly every stone floor panel is a memorial or's a bit weird to think about how many people are interred beneath the floor.

Off to find food -- this time, no arguments, we are going to be super cheesy and head to the reputed oldest continuously operating pub in London -- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. (by the way, it's not 'yee old'.  Y is pronounced 'Th', so it's 'The Old Cheshire Cheese'). This is a labrynthine maze of rooms and chambers tunneling underground to the bar beneath. Nothing terrifically special about the decor, other than to know who used to hang out here and drink pints. We trailed down to the lowest level, had a very serviceable fish-and-chips dinner and a few glasses of wine and beer, and enjoyed the constant trail of people coming and going.

We have tickets to see Taming of the Shrew in the Globe Theater tonight -- hey, you have to see Shakespeare in its element, if you have the chance!) so we walked back to the Cathedral and then across the Millenium Bridge to the theater. The Bridge is pretty neat, but frankly not as fabulous as it's made out to be -- narrow and blade-like, it's a bit too modern for my taste. Apparently when they opened it the first time, it wobbled disarmingly and had to be closed for further reinforcement. It does, however, have fabulous views back across the Thames to the dome of St Pauls. And, it dumps you out next to the theater. We had the option to be 'groundings' -- 5 pounds a ticket, stand on the floor in front of the stage and be part of the action. Given that by the end of the day we are both exhausted, I opted instead for seats in the highest gallery, right on the rail, and I even rented cushions. How terribly posh!  The theater is amazing -- a down-to-the-peg reproduction of the original (albeit a bit smaller) Globe theater, it is realy an experience to see Shakespeare performed in the round, with no stage lighting, no real sound system..just actors, on the stage, and the audience surging forward on the floor when things get interesting.

The performance was amazing, and really a joy to watch (although I am reminded that I don't actually like the play itself very much) and it had an intimacy that most theaters simply don't have. I loved it --and wish I'd gotten tickets to see Henry V, too.  I would have gone back in a heartbeat to see another play.

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