April 20, 2009

finally, The Tower (and a double decker bus!)

My crowning moment today as a stupid American tourist was when I told my children that the towering statue in Trafalgar Square was of Admiral Halsey. Thank God I whispered it to them instead of shouting it out--I knew I had at least an 80% chance of being wrong. At least I didn't say it was a statue of Willie Nelson.

Anyway, today the weather cooperated very kindly, and after we boarded the train for London around 10:30 a.m. I took my jacket off and never put it back on. It must have reached 70 degrees (to you in the Metric System, that's somewhere around 10 below, I think), and the sun was out nearly all day. Very un-London, from what I've been told.

We rode to Waterloo station again, this time heading straight to the Underground to get to Tower Hill. I thought that Warwick Castle had a lot of steps. Sheesh, it's got nothing on the average Tube station. The pathetic little "maze" at Hampton Court? A mere trifle compared to each sinister labyrinth underneath the Underground symbol. Still, it is remarkably well documented with very polite signs leading this way and that. After a brief orientation, I let the boys navigate most of the way, and we got to Tower Hill without incident.

I love the Tower of London. It's got traditions and really gruesome stories that bring to life all the brutality of the middle ages. Right now is the 500th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII, and all the Royal properties have something going on. The Tower has "Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill," an exhibit of arms and armor that is thrilling and jaw-dropping in the quantity, quality, and breadth of original armor and weaponry from the period.

We had just missed a Yeoman Warder's tour, so we hurried off to see how long the line for the Crown Jewels was. I had already been to the Tower of London twice before--once in 10th grade, and once in the year One BC (BC here meaning "before children," or about 14 years ago). In 10th grade I don't remember seeing the Jewels; I think I went to the gift shop instead. In 1 BC, we waited and saw them, but the line was over an hour long. Today, we walked right through.

The pieces are truly incredible, with jewels that are unbelievably large, beautiful, and plentiful. But the sense of history was to me the most impressive (again). There is a golden spoon that is 300 years older than the United States. It is the Coronation Spoon. What the hell do they use a Coronation Spoon for? I mean, really? WTF?

My older son was most impressed with the thickness of the vault door where the jewels are kept. I think he wasn't sure what he'd be seeing or its value until he saw that we were in fact walking through a ginormous bank vault with real actual military guards outside with real actual weapons.

That's another thing the boys enjoyed but did not expect--unlike other historical landmarks we've visited where there were very official looking doorpeople like at Hampton Court Palace, or in-character actors like at Warwick Castle, or sheep like at Stonehenge, the Tower of London has real honest to goodness guards, with weaponry. Which is pretty cool to a little boy.

If you get to the Tower, the one thing you must do is take a tour guided by a Yeoman Warder. These men live in the Tower with their families and have served in the military for a minimum of 22 years. And they clearly love what they do, have a good time with the tour groups, and are proud of the Tower and its history. The tours don't take you anyplace you can't see yourself (except perhaps the Chapel, which might be off limits to the public without a guide), but the stories they tell bring the whole place to life. Which is, of course, ironic since most of the stories are about execution. With it being Henry VIII's special time, we got an extra dose of Anne Boleyn detail I hadn't heard before. (Such as that Anne chose to be beheaded by a French two-handed sword rather than the traditional British ax, so Henry--being the kind and loving and caring husband that he was--paid out of his own pocket to bring an expert executioner all the way from France to do the deed.)

We ate lunch at the cafe there, which is a bit hectic and difficult to navigate at a crowded lunchtime but otherwise decent food at tourism prices. We were able to print off some coupons from their web site allowing for a cheaper kid meal, which was a bonus.

Finally, we made a point to see the ravens. For some reason, my 12 year old's teacher decided a clever homework assignment would be for him to find out what types of trees inhabit the courtyard where the ravens are. We saw two trees that had trunks that looked pretty oakey, but with leaves that didn't look much like oak at all. So we tracked down a Yeoman Warder and asked, and his response was, "I should know that, but I don't. They are supposed to be trees that are very good at pulling smog out of the air, though--that's the type of tree they used to plant back then, and I imagine these are one of those types." So that's our answer to the homework question. But doggone, wouldn't you know it, the Historic Royal Palaces web site has a page with a whole section on the trees at the Tower of London. It turns out there are 88 trees at the Tower, with two thirds of them being mature and many expected to live not that much longer. (Maybe they spent too much time topping the humans and not enough time topping the trees.) I believe the linked report notes the trees to the south of the White Tower (on the south lawn) to be London plane.

After our time at the Tower, which was over four hours but could easily have been extended (we never got to see the cells where prisoners scratched notes into the walls, for example--a bit I was particularly fond of on my last visit), we hopped on the #15 bus for a ride to Trafalgar Square. We were lucky enough to get one of the old-fashioned buses, maybe one of the originals. It was empty, so we sat right up front on the top level, right above the driver.

I'll tell you, this was a better ride than Disneyland's Indiana Jones ride. Whoo, we thought for sure we ran over 40 pedestrians, 10 signs, two taxis, and eight boxes which I think had something to do with traffic but which Sam thought were mailboxes. HIGHLY recommended, especially for those of you fond of roller coasters.

Drove past St. Paul's Cathedral and alit at Trafalgar Square, where I mistook one Admiral for another of a different nationality and different century.

We hit a book store in search of Top Trumps cards and bought one deck at Waterstone's, somewhere right near Charing Cross. The boys were nackered by now, so rather than walk down Whitehall Street and back up along the river, we simply went across the pedestrian bridge and back to Waterloo Station.

A pleasant nap on the ride home, a nice dinner with friends, some telly, and a blog post. A right wonderful day.


writtenwyrdd said...

I spent 2 weeks in London in 1990, and it was marvelous. Glad you guys are having a great time, too. My favorite bit was teh arms museum at the Tower.

Anonymous said...

1. Your son's teacher is very strange.

2. Mind the gap.

3. Blasphemy, sir. Nothing is better than Indiana Jones, although the Hovercraft we took across the channel when I was eight sounds close.

JaneyV said...

I think your son's teacher is a genius. Not only did he have to go to one of the most interesting places in London, he had to engage with the guide personally (very good for confidence) and had to research British trees. (I've never heard of London Plane. My guess would have been Horse Chestnut, the leaves of which look like little fingers emerging from the bud at this time of year. When fully out each leaf has 5 or 7 "leaves" attached at the base and is quite large allowing a large surface area to "filter" London's smoggy air. But looking at the picture I think those leaves are much smaller. So now I must go research London plane. See how inspirational that assignment was!)

Those old Routemaster busses were the business, weren't they? I'm really sad that they are trying to decommission them all.

I'm going to miss these posts. You and your family are really good tourists. And I'm sure that Lord Nelson has far too much pigeon poop in his ears to hear you getting his name wrong.

JaneyV said...
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fairyhedgehog said...

Another wonderful travel post. Like Jane, I'm going to miss these once you're back home.

I notice you didn't post about Sunday. Can you remember any of it, or was there too much wine?

PJD said...

Aerin--I rode the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland once and won't bother with it again. I didn't like it at all. I prefer things more like California Screamin'--speed and twists. I thought the IJ ride was more like being put inside a small box and then having the box put inside a large tumble dryer.

Jane and FHH, thank you! That's so kind that you'll miss my vacation posts. I'm flattered.

As to the trees, I'm just going on what I saw in the report on the trees from the royal palaces web site. No idea what London plane trees are in reality.

I did not post anything about Sunday, FHH, because I wasn't sure of the privacy issues. I didn't know if everyone would be OK with having photos posted or what.

Based on what Robin said, though, I am now extra careful to keep my dongle tucked in while riding the Tube.

fairyhedgehog said...

Ah. I did ask about the photo issue and everyone said they were OK with it. I thought that's what they said, anyway so I hope I haven't upset anyone. Maybe I'd better note that on the blog.

pacatrue said...

Dang, you could write travel brochures, or Lonely Planet guides.

And as Aerin said, "please mind the gap".

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Wow that is just awesome! I am so jealous of your trip. I've really enjoyed reading everything and your family looked like they had a wonderful time. I'm always afraid to travel with kids but you are really infecting me with the travel bug.