First Day in London

May 16, 2008


This whole car thing is seriously overrated. And this is coming from a seriously big car enthusiast. Over the course of this trip I travelled by foot, bicycle, motorbike, car, bus, coach, underground, train, boat, and plane. We only used a car when we had to, the rest of the time we used the infrastructure in place. It was more pleasant, easier, and didn’t detract from the day the way that sitting in a car seems to. I’ll have more to say about this at some point soon, but for now I just wanted to interject that little comment.

Libby and I slept in to recover a bit from our travels, and got a late start Tuesday morning. Besides, the prices on the trains into London go down after the morning commute, so it made sense to wait. We grabbed Travelcards for the day, which we could use on trains, tubes, and buses, and hopped on the train for the 30 minute ride down into Liverpool Street Station.

Once we got there it took a little while to get our bearings. We were stocked with maps and information, but London is a big place. We adjusted, and made our way down to the river and thence to the Tower of London, our first stop. What appeared to be a quick jaunt from the station ended up being a significant distance. We resolved to use the tubes and buses in the future.

Tower of London

The Tower of London is a big fort. The name presupposes a single structure; in fact it includes several layers, multiple towers, and the fortress of the White Tower in the central Tower Green. The whole site sits directly on the Thames and is surrounded by a depressed field of green that once served as a moat. Having just walked down through parts of modern, commercial London, the contrast created by the tower was pronounced. It directly evokes a sense of the history of the city, and that it is still being created and recreated.

Libby and I grabbed our 2-for-1 tickets with a coupon, a convenient trick if you take the train into the city, and immediately joined a large group for the next tour of the Tower by one of the Yeoman Warders, who serve as guides among their other ceremonial duties. Their curious dress uniform suits the rather gothic history of the Tower.

A tour at the Tower of London is an absolute must for any visitor. The Warders are phenomenal storytellers, weaving legend, spectacle, history, and fact seamlessly to paint life onto historical figures. Our guide was particularly good at scaring the children with dramatic pauses and exclamations, generally right at the most grisly point of his tale. He led us down the main road to the Bloody Tower and Traitor’s Gate, and then inside the main fortifications. In the center of the tower green stands the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror shortly after his victory at Hastings in 1066. We ended in St. Peter ad Vincula (“in chains”, even the chapel here has a slightly macabre name), one of the seven Royal Chapels. Here are buried two wives of Henry VIII, St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, and, underneath the floor, hundreds of other bodies discovered after renovations in the previous century.

After the official tour, Libby and I continued on to view the Crown Jewels and to make our way through the White Tower. The sheer amount of glittering history (literally, the Star of Africa has a lot of glitter) present here leaves a first time visitor a bit breathless. The Bloody Tower is particularly somber due to its history, specifically that of the Princes of the Tower made famous by Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. It’s now setup as a recreation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s living quarters while he was imprisoned there, but it’s hard not to walk through and consider the demise of the two boy-princes.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

We spent a lot more time at the Tower than either of us had expected, so we grabbed a late lunch and hitched a ride on the second level of a big red bus over to St. Paul’s. We unfortunately arrived late to tour the Whispering Galleries and view London from the cupola, but did manage to visit the large crypt as well as the main floor. The crypt has several famous graves, notably (for me) Christopher Wren, JMW Turner, and John Singer Sargent. The general plan of St. Paul’s resembles many cathedrals in the nave and quire, but stands more grandiose in scale and ornament. The spectacular dome is the second largest in the world behind St. Peter’s in Rome. The quire specifically is eye catching, covered in gilded gold and wood. As one early visitor said, “Without, within, below, above, the eye is filled with unrestrained delight.”

The Evening

After pulling ourselves away, we crossed the Thames on the Millennium Bridge to see the Tate. But unfortunately the Tate Modern is distinct from the Tate Britain and neither Libby or I are too keen on modern art. We stopped briefly at the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the south side of the river before making our way back to Liverpool Street Station to meet Neil, Sue, and Liane for dinner. They took us to an S&M Cafe amidst the requisite, obvious jokes from Neil (ha! :P). Sausage & Mash was raised to a bit of an artform, and we devoured 20-odd sausages and a huge bed of mashed potatoes and gravy. Duly sated, Neil and Sue showed us a couple of smaller hidden wonders, including an ancient piece of Roman edifice sitting directly beneath glass at the base of an office building, a curry district along Brick Lane filled with insistent hawkers, and a doubledecker bus turned restaurant. After tea, we made our way back town to the main excitement of the night, back at the Tower of London.

The Ceremony of the Keys

If the tower seemed foreboding in daylight, it had a slightly ghastly demeanor in the evening. We waited at one of the gates with a small crowd to see something special. Sue had procured four tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys - a hallmark of history unchanged. As my grandmother wrote to me, “This is English monarchical tradition at its very best — not a step of the ceremony has changed for hundreds of years.” And so it hasn’t, as we witnessed.

A Yeoman Warder took us through the Outer Ward and down to Traitor’s Gate where we would observe. He explained the ceremony and the significance it has had through the history of the Tower. Then, just before 10 PM, the Watchman, accompanied by an armed military escort, proceeded to lock several layers of gates. As he was walking back down to Traitor’s Gate, he was challenged by an armed soldier - “Halt! Who comes there!” The Watchman provided an appropriate answer (“The keys!”), since the soldier let him pass. The Watchman and his guard proceeded up to the Tower Green, where he shouted “God preserve the Queen!” We all shouted “Amen!”, and the Last Post was sounded.

The ride home was mostly silent. Back on the east coast at -5 GMT, 5 PM has taken on a new significance, now that I know what goes on elsewhere in the world at the end of a normal workday.

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