Saturday, April 29, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 5: London Tower

In my last post, I hinted that the tour of the Tower of London was "darker." In some respects, that's absolutely true, because of the tower's history. The day itself dawned sunny and bright, and we made our way early to the Tower of London.

Tower of London

There was already a line by the time we got there. There was a group of visiting students in line ahead of us, from Canada. These were not the only travelling student groups we saw in London -- there was at least one more group from Spain, and another from France. London attracts tourists of all kinds, but is especially popular with student groups because there's so much to see and study.

But I digress. We were quickly admitted to the tower and went promptly to find the guided tour (as is our wont). The first one was already full, so we decided to try again at the next prescribed time.
Tours to the left, quick exits to the right!
The good news about missing the first tour was that it gave us a chance to toddle around a bit. We decided to go see the Crown Jewels.

So small a line we never did see!
We were actually very lucky to get there early, before everyone else realized there was no line. We got to go straight in and loiter a bit at each exhibit.

The following statement should NOT surprise those of you that have been following these escapades so far: NO PHOTOGRAPHY was allowed inside. They claimed it was for copyright and security purposes, primarily. I can't imagine anyone would actually try to steal the Crown Jewels, but better safe than sorry, I suppose.

The Crown, Sovereign Orb, and Sceptre.

A collection of a tiny subset of the jewels.

Note: I found the above images on the Internet. I can't find any other notable attribution, so I will informally declare it copyrighted by The Crown, United Kingdom. As I do not own the copyright and am using the images without permission, if the Crown wants me to remove them, just drop me a line. :-)

These two photos don't tell the story at all, not by a long shot. The enormity of the collection was such that you are left with the thought "surely, these are fake... these just can't be real." Well, they are, most definitely, real, and very much worth seeing. The trick, as before, is to find a time when the line is short. We were later told that the average line to see them was an hour or two long. Yikes!

After seeing the crown jewels, we went up into the White Tower. We weren't sure whether or not photography was allowed, so we risked a couple of photos.

The Dwarf and the Giant

The story behind this was that the small armor belonged to a dwarf in one of the courts, and the large armor belonged to a very large German knight, but those are unconfirmed. It, of course, reminded me of Game of Thrones.

There's a short tour of the upper level of the White Tower that is separate from the main tour of the tower grounds. The guide confirmed that the places we were about to visit were off limits to photography. Drat. The most interesting place on that tour is St. John's Chapel.

St John's Chapel, Tower of London
If these walls could speak...

Several members of royalty spent their last evenings in prayer here, before heading to the executioner's block. Other royalty were married there throughout the ages. The chapel is still operational, as it has been for the past thousand years. This concept is simply lost on my American mind. There's virtually nothing in the U.S. that is operating almost identically to they way it was a thousand years ago that's not a force of nature.

White Tower selfie

After this, we made our way back to the main entrance for the Yeoman Warders guided tour. In case you were wondering, Yeoman Warder is the formal designation for Beefeater, which you might be more familiar with. In any case, the guided tour is completely worth the time and effort.

Picture yourself on the wall, King William I at your side...
I really wish I could remember this gentleman's name, because he was vastly entertaining and informative. He took us all over the grounds, telling us vividly engrossing stories of the history, both dark and light, of the Tower the entire time.

There is SO much history wrapped up in the Tower and in what he shared with us that I can't type it all. Here are a few of the highlights (WARNING! the last one is graphic -- reader discretion is advised):

  • The moat was originally designed such that it rose and fell with the tides. As such, it was used for waste disposal (just like every other part of the Thames). The theory was that the tide would pull all of the waste out of the moat and wash it out to sea. When the Duke of Wellington (remember the guy from St. Paul's?) finally had it drained in the 1800's, he discovered that the theory never actually worked, and that the Tower of London was surrounded by Europe's largest cesspool. They filled it in as quickly as possible.
  • The Tower of London has been many things -- defensive fort, prison, a mint, and a menagerie. There are several animal sculptures scattered around the tower to remind you of that fact, including this one.
    Wiry metal looks fuzzy!
  • Speaking of prisons, when the tower was first used to hold prisoners, it had a miserable time of it. The first prisoner held there escaped, and the second, and the third. Any guesses as to why this happened? I'll give you a hint: the tower started off as a defensive stronghold. If you're defending a tower, on which side of the doors and gates would you place the locks? :-)
  • WARNING! GRAPHIC CONTENT! Of the less than stellarly-performed executions, there's the story of when the executioner couldn't perform his duties and the local butcher was called upon in his stead. Unfortunately, the butcher was not very handy with an axe, and after taking several swipes, resorted to using his butcher's knife to finish severing the poor soul's head.
The yeoman told this last story with such detail that someone in the audience actually fainted. I never saw who, but my understanding is that it was either a young girl or her father. Delicate English sensibilities, no doubt.

One other note about the yeomen and the other guards at the other places I've mentioned so far. These folks are real soldiers, most of them veterans of some sort. The ribbons they wear are all earned. The yeomen, specifically, have a pretty long list of requirements that aren't easily achieved. You have to be a veteran of at least 22 years, be a warrant or senior non commissioned officer, and have earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal to even be considered. That already narrows the pool quite a bit.

Here are a few more pics from the Tower, before we move on to the bridge!

That wall has stood for almost 1,000 years!

Artsy shot through old wall opening

Meta shot of artsy shot

These wiry guys were scattered at random places throughout the tower

The portcullis of the gate of the Bloody Tower. Heavy, man!

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge, as you might expect, is the bridge across the Thames that is closest to the Tower of London. It's special in that it's a bridge built in two styles: part suspension bridge, part drawbridge. It also has two towers built on it, between which is an observation area with a clear floor.

Look! A bridge with a tower! It's probably London Bridge, right?

The trip through and around the bridge is actually pretty quick. The most interesting parts for us were in the observation area, of course. There are parts of the floor that are transparent, so you can see just how high you are and what's going on below. I'll bet it's pretty neat with the bridge is drawn and some big boat is passing under.

So far above the teeming masses!
They also have mirrors on the ceiling, so that you can take pictures of more than just your feet. It was kind of amusing to watch people that were so accustomed to taking selfies try to figure out how to use the mirror to take a good picture. Most of them gave up and resorted to selfie-ing.

Mirrors are useful, especially when you don't have a selfie stick!
We skipped one part of the tour through the bowels of the bridge's machineries, but didn't feel like we'd missed very much. Plus, we needed to prepare for an evening of drinking and shenanigans. You see, I was about to get together with people that I've known for twenty years or so, but haven't seen in quite some time. In fact, one of them I'd never met in real life at all!

Horizons Reunion

Approximately twenty years ago, during the age before Facebook or Twitter or even MySpace, the way you enjoyed society on the Internet was either through IRC, or through Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). If you're unfamiliar with what these are, reddit.com is a modern-day BBS.

I was a huge fan of the Ultima computer RPG series, and the final edition of that series was in the works. Using Lycos, the best search engine of the day, I sought out other like-minded individuals that might have started some discussion on the topic. The place I came across was Horizons Tavern.

Being a part of this social group had a significant impact on me. I met several people that became excellent friends, and that I'm still in touch with to this day. I sincerely hope that each of you has a group of friends (virtual and/or otherwise) that always provide stimulating and diverse topics for conversation and commentary, and that you can count on to be thoughtful and fun at the same time.

Ah, nostalgia. A small group of these folks live in/around London, so we had agreed to meet up at the Glasshouse Stores pub for a night of revelry. Well, not so much revelry, as drinking and chatting and laughing.

Glasshouse Stores pub. Photo courtesy of sohopubs.com
We met early, because you're allowed to start drinking pretty much as soon as you step into a pub in London, and I like beer. We sampled the wares, talked and laughed and drank until well into the evening, and eventually parted with promises not to wait another twenty years before getting together again.

Don't hate us because we're beautiful...
Drinking after a hard day of Towering was absolutely the right way to end Outing #5. It left us in the right frame of mind for Outing #6, where we FINALLY made it to Westminster Abbey. Be on the lookout for that!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 4: St. Paul's Cathedral, Tate Modern

Two venues: St. Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern. St. Paul's was on purpose; Tate Modern was just convenient. :-)

St. Paul's Cathedral

The fourth outing began with St. Paul's Cathedral. We had originally planned to go to Westminster Abbey, but it was closed in preparation for a service where Prince William honored those that lost their lives on the Westminster bridge just before our visit.

We arrived early, wanting to ensure we could get in on the 90-minute tour. Considering we arrived well prior to opening, I was surprised and slightly disappointed that there was no bird woman to greet me.

Where will I spend my tuppence?

We were admitted and purchased our tickets for the tour. We were only able to toodle around a little bit before the tour actually started. They run a tight ship at St. Paul's. We were also informed that, as at Windsor Castle, photography of any kind was not allowed. I'll include a few fairly recent pictures from the Internet instead.

The cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who oversaw the construction in the late 1600s. His genius was apparent everywhere, including one of the first stops on the tour: the Geometric Staircase.

Geometric staircase, St. Paul's Cathedral
So winding a staircase I never did see!
Those steps are made of solid, heavy stone, and are held in place by relatively small dowels. The bulk of the weight is supported at the bottom of the staircase. This was one of the items for which Wren personally oversaw construction.

Note: you might recognize this staircase, especially if you've seen any of the Harry Potter movies!

At some point in the recent past (possibly during the stone cleaning project), they removed the choir screen and never put it back up. As such, you can now see all the way through the cathedral, giving you a sense of the grandeur and solemnity of the place at the same time.

St Paul's Cathedral Nave, London, UK - Diliff
Spit shined! So white!
The monument to the left in the above picture is the Wellington Monument, one of the very few that are actually in the cathedral. Apparently Wren made it a requirement: no monuments or tombs allowed in the cathedral. Instead, he designed a proper crypt, which you can see through the round gold grate in the floor in the picture. The result is, again, a feeling that the purpose of the building is worship of something greater than a collection of humanity.

The very center of the picture is the bottom of the dome. You can see the Whispering Gallery just below the windows there. Supposedly you can whisper anywhere in the gallery, and because of the acoustics, the whisper can be heard at any other point of the gallery provided your ear is up against the wall. We did NOT try this when we went up there (more on that later).

Here's the dome from directly below.

St Paul's Cathedral Interior Dome 3, London, UK - Diliff
St. Paul's Dome, or a kaleidoscope? YOU be the judge.
This perspective is pretty interesting, if you ask me. Even in three dimensions, it's hard to tell that this is anything more than a slightly concave surface.

The tour concluded with a trip through the crypt. You'd normally think that the crypt would be creepy, and you'd probably be right. Maybe that's why they put the tourist shop down there, but beyond the crypt gate. :-| The most notable memorial is Lord Nelson's.

Tomb of Horatio Nelson on Saint-Paul Cathedral
Very well lit for a crypt!
Lord Nelson was the badass that made the British Navy into the force it became, including kicking Napoleon's ass during the wars with France. The monument was well-earned.

After the tour, we took the stairs to the top of the dome. There are supposedly 528 steps, but I only counted 527. At 257 steps or so, you emerge onto the Whispering Gallery. Here's a picture from that level.

The Whispering Gallery at St Paul's. Photo courtesy of Grant Smith.
We lingered here for a bit, mainly because the staircase from here to the top of the dome is very narrow, and the ushers were only allowing people to go up in small batches. Apparently, people were somewhat smaller 450 years ago than they are now.

There are two spots that take you on the outside of the dome, where pictures are actually allowed! The first one had somewhat obscured views...

No idea what I'm pointing at...

Oh, it was the best spot for a selfie, obviously.
The second stop afforded FANTASTIC views!

Best view ever! Oh, and London in the background.

Rivers and bridges and buildings! Oh my!
Finally we made our way back down, and still didn't see the bird woman. However, some folks had shown up to feed the birds.

They spent their tuppence!

Leaving St. Paul's, we enjoyed a light lunch (remember how we ate ALL THE THINGS the day before?), and decided to spend the afternoon at the Tate Modern.

Tate Modern

The Tate Modern was actually not on our original list of places to visit. It was in the "nice if we can make it, but not essential" group. Since our original plan of going to Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's on the same day had already been altered, and since the Tate Modern is really close to St. Paul's, we decided to check it out.

I'm not sure what your opinion is of modern art, but if you like it, Tate Modern is a glorious place. It's huge, meandering, confusing, and full of modern art. I, personally, am mostly indifferent to modern art. I find some of it very interesting, but am of the opinion that if a piece of art has to be explained to me in the full context of the artist, and I STILL don't get it, I'm generally not going to enjoy it very much.

The building itself is a work of modern art. It was originally a power station, but was converted to a museum between 1995 and 2000. Since then, it's expanded even more. At this point, the display space is vast and only partially filled. Regardless of its content, the building itself was pretty cool.

There were a few VERY personally interesting pieces of art. They had a Picasso (of which we neglected to take a picture), and Salvador Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus", shown here.

I'd pay to own this.

There was also a small series by Piet Mondrian, including a couple of the Composition works.

I didn't crop and straighten ON PURPOSE! Because ART!

There was also a plastic/metallic robot, with looping nutzo videos playing in its hands, face, chest, and thighs. I ALMOST understood this one, but failed at the last moment. I kept expecting Max Headroom to show up in the face and explain to me what was going on.

Still alive out there? Good!

What finally let me know that the day was done was our trip through the following room, the entirety of which is an exhibit.

Uh, wat?
Before I tell you what that is, I want you to take a moment to study it. REALLY study it. What is all that dark, stringy looking stuff? And the horizontal metallic bars? What does it say to you? What does it mean?

Alright, now that you're in the right state of mind, I'm going to tell you what's going on. What looks like thick strands of black yarn is, in fact, human hair. Thousands of meters of human hair woven together by hand, and then wrapped and tied around Fiat bumpers. It's supposed to represent the coexistence of ritual and superstition alongside urban and economic transformation, particularly in India. For more information, have a look at Behold.

As you might have guessed, I didn't understand it in the slightest. And as impressive as the effort must have been to do all of this, I couldn't imagine that it would have significance in the future. Let's say it were somehow miraculously preserved just as it is, and future archaeologists dug this up. Would they think it was art, or rubbish? You decide...

To end our excursion, we left the exhibits and went up to the observation deck. Now THAT was worth doing. Being high up in London, especially along the banks of the Thames, is always worth it. It was a good ending to an excellent outing.

There's some modern art for you!

Stay tuned for outing 5, where our trip took a dark turn at the Tower of London...


Monday, April 24, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 3: Windsor Castle and St. John's!

Our third outing was to Windsor Castle, the furthest we traveled on the trip. We could have punted our way up the Thames (not really, but that's what they used to do), but instead took a train ride. I haven't talked about the train system in London, and it's worth more than a mention. Tell you what -- I'll do that in a separate post. I don't want to keep you waiting on this venue, because it is almost beyond belief.
Just another day at the office... guarding the Queen...


Changing of the Guard

Getting off the train, we walked briskly up from the station straight to the castle. There was a slight crowd gathered, and ushers ushing people around. We were trying to stay out of the way while figuring out what was going on. As it turns out, luck was on our side. We had arrived just before the once-daily formal changing of the guard ceremony.

Most of the spots along the wall and gate were taken already. We were slightly disheartened, then saw a particularly British-looking usher standing near an arch leading to another area. Motioning to him in as questioning a manner as I could, he smiled at me while maintaining a stiff upper lip and waved us over. He showed us a spot around the other side of the Quadrangle that was ideal for watching the ceremony as well as listening to the band as it marched in and out.

The Queen might be in that far window!

As an aside, the Quadrangle is where all of the tournament games would have taken place in medieval times, and is where heads of state and other dignitaries meet the Queen when they visit, coming up the Long Walk on the south side of the castle. And yes, the Queen was in residence the day we were there, although we didn't see her.

The formal ceremony takes the better part of an hour. The old guard stands at attention on the north side of the Quadrangle while the new guard marches onto the south side. The leaders meet near the center, yell at each other, yell at their guards, then partially exchange places. The band plays at least three tunes in between all of the ceremony. Finally, the old guard and new guard have completely switched places, the band marches out, and the old guard marches out.

Left! Left! Left-Right-Left!

There are LOTS of little details that are probably worth noting, but I'll mention two quickly. First of all, the band plays, but I found myself being the only person applauding. The very British usher actually thanked me for it, as the band appreciates it and it doesn't happen very often. I asked why that was, and he said "I think everyone thinks this is a church," then shrugged a bit as if to say "it's the British way."

The other detail is that the guards' uniforms are slightly different. For example, a few of them were wearing pointy shoes instead of rounded toes. I asked the same usher about it, and he said it had to do with rank. Apparently, when you're important enough, you get pointy shoes.

Pointy shoes, pointy sword!

North Terrace

After the changing of the guard, we made our way back toward the lower ward and decided to take the Precincts Tour. Given the grandness of the castle, the tour is amazingly short -- 30 minutes at the most. We were privileged to be guided around by a lady that fit the castle's ambience perfectly. She was 5'2, with more gray hair than white, an easy smile, dignified manner, and had been working at the castle for ten years.
You there! Pay attention, or I'll lock you in the Round Tower!

We toured around through parts of the Lower Ward, up to St. George's Gate, back around through the Norman Gate, and ended on the Northern Terrace, where many kings and queens have enjoyed taking their constitutionals (the walking kind). The amount of history wrapped up in that 30 minutes was staggering, and humanizing in some ways. It was true that we were walking in the same ways as kings and queens, and were looking out on vistas that have changed over time, but at the end of it all, these monumental people were just human, and not fundamentally different from any of the rest of us, despite their rank.
St. George slays a dragon, and all he gets is a crummy gate.

Did the Queen lean out over this very spot earlier today?


State Apartments/Doll's House

The rest of our time was spent exploring the State Apartments and the Doll's House area. Here is where personal photography had to end. No photographs of any kind are allowed inside. The reasoning is that the Queen owns the copyright to everything, flash photography hurts everything, etc. It was frustrating, because we weren't using flash photography and weren't trying to violate any copyright laws, but I understood where they were coming from. Luckily, images exist on the Internet already, and the samples we found were remarkably like what we saw.

This photo of St. George's Hall courtesy of TripAdvisor
You can get a sense from the above about the grandeur that is exhibited in each State Apartment. Pictured is St. George's Hall, with the family seals of the Order of the Garter adorning the ceiling and walls. Some of the seals are covered, meaning that that knight had somehow dishonored himself (most likely by doing something that pissed off the King).


Windsor Castle Crimson Drawing Room
This photo of the Crimson Drawing Room courtesy of "Empirically Grounded" [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I have no idea what all was drawn in this room, but based on the scenery, it couldn't help but be majestic. :-)

I can't remember exactly how many State Apartments there are in total, or how many we actually went through (the number seems to be between 30 and 40). Regardless, every one of them had art in the form of paintings and sculpture, including the furniture itself. Various rooms in green and red and blue and gold, and everywhere you look, something historically significant or noteworthy. Dizzyingly awesome!

After making our way through the State Apartments, we went up to see Queen Mary's Doll's House.


Queen Mary's doll house at Windsor Castle
This photo of the Dollhouse courtesy of Rob Sangster [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You thought your Barbie Dream House was pretty fancy when you were young, with that fully operational (via string) elevator? Well, that's PEANUTS to this doll's house. The structure itself is about three feet tall, but the outer walls lift vertically to reveal the inside. Everything inside the doll's house is a faithful reproduction of a real-world object, INCLUDING operation. That's right -- this thing has running water and working electricity (and gas!).

So, we went from life-sized majesty to majesty in 1/12th scale. The key here is to go to the Doll's House when there's no line (queue, in British English). The room itself is small, dominated by the doll's house at the center. You walk around the house clockwise, and then exit. It is not a long trip, and with the pressure of many people behind you, you might not think it's worth it, or might not want to linger at spots.

St. George's Chapel

The last spot we visited was St. George's Chapel, which is the church in Windsor Castle. 
This photo of St. George's Chapel courtesy of thehistoryhub.com
You can see more family seals of Knights and Ladies of the Garter. These seats are reserved for members of those families.

Both ends of the chapel have large stained glass windows depicting various saints and figures, but one of the figure's faces has faded, as if it were too exposed to the elements, or subject to some undue stress. The verger couldn't tell me when or why that had happened... Smells like a mystery to be solved!

I'll add a couple more photos we took of the castle. None of them do the actual venue justice. If you ever make it to London, you HAVE to go visit it.

Round Tower

South Wing from the Quadrangle

Yes, still doing selfies

St. JOHN

After a late lunch in Windsor, we caught the train back to London. We had a reservation that night at a one-Michelin-star restaurant named St. JOHN, and didn't want to be late.

This photo courtesy of www.stjohngroup.uk.com 
The restaurant's exterior is modest, and the inside is what you would expect given the entry. What makes this a one-Michelin-star restaurant is the chef's approach to preparation -- nothing is wasted. Our appetizer was bone marrow on toast, which is one of St. JOHN's signature dishes. It was definitely everything it was cracked up to be. See what I did there? You used to have to crack the bones to eat the marrow... Gah, nevermind.

There were two issues with our experience at St. JOHN's. First of all, the main dining room has a fairly high ceiling and no noise dampening. As a result, it was VERY loud. There was a corporate gathering there while we ate, and Tanya and I almost had to shout at each other across the table to be heard.

The second issue was that the portions were very large. Yes, you read that right -- I just said the portions being large were a problem for me. No, I'm not sick, and yes, I'm still Rusty and not an alien body snatcher. We had a late lunch in Windsor and an early reservation at St. JOHN's. However, given the Michelin star rating, we figured the portions would be conservative at best. We were wrong, and probably should have read the reviews more carefully.

Despite the above, we would definitely go back. We might choose to sit in the bar area and eat lightly that day, however. :-)

This wrapped up our third outing. Next comes St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tate Modern! I'll try to get it written up more quickly, promise!