Sunday, June 9, 2013

London Calling!

London is quite a city!  After getting settled in, recovering from jetlag, and waking up a bit I spent the last few days wandering around town, checking things out, and of course taking a lot of pictures.  Unfortunately four days is definitely not enough time to see everything but I managed to get in a lot of the highlights.

After catching up on sleep and resting from traveling around Parliament Square on Wednesday, I headed out into Southwark to the Tower of London.  

 
 Southwark Cathedral, on site since the early 1200s

After crossing the Thames via the London Bridge (which is the one with the famous name not the famous face, that would be the Tower Bridge) I wandered along through the streets just north of the Thames.  

 
The Tower Bridge, the most famous (and sometimes mis-identified) bridge in London

As much as it is far easier to travel around London by the Underground I think you really can't get the feel of a city unless you walk the streets, get a little lost, and explore a bit.  You never know what you'll find when you do it that way.

Monument to the Great London Fire of 1666

 After a few good hours of wandering I got to the infamous Tower of London, the refuge of kings, prison for traitors to the realm, and until recently one of the first armories in England.

 The Tower of London from the northwest side

The main gate to the Tower of London

The Tower has a rather gruesome history, infamous for torture, murder, and imprisonment in dark holes where many went in and few came out.  With the foundations built on the walls of an ancient Roman fort, the Tower has been expanded many times since then as new kings added more to fill it out.  Some of the more infamous sections of the Tower include the torture chamber in the depths of the fortress complex and the Bloody Tower, the place where two young princes are believed to have been murdered during the reign of Richard III in the War of the Roses.

The Bloody Tower

 The rack in the torture chamber

 The Scavenger's Daughter.  Victims were placed in the position outlined in white before the two iron bars were pressed together.  It was said to break people much quicker than the rack.

Of course just because one was a prisoner here didn't mean it was as bad as you would think.  If you were important enough the accommodations were nothing to sneer at, giving you plenty of time to catch up on a few things.  As always those who knew the right people were given a very different treatment.

 Sir Walter Raleigh's quarters in the Tower during his imprisonment

Sir Walter Raleigh's history of the world, written during his imprisonment.  Nothing like prison time to help give aspiring writers inspiration!

Of course not all the prisoners' quarters were so luxurious as Sir Walter's.  Many who passed through the Traitor's Gate directly from the Thames River were not so lucky.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here!

No visit to the Tower would have been complete without stopping by the famous Tower ravens.  There is an old prophecy saying if the ravens ever leave the Tower then the Tower will fall and England will go down with it.  Just to be on the safe side the Ravenmaster of the Yeoman Warders makes sure to clip their wings so they can't go wandering off.

One of the Tower's ravens.  This guy was easily as big as a hawk and quite the chatterbox

 
Going medieval in the Tower of London

After visiting the grounds I had the opportunity to view the famous Crown Jewels of the British monarchy.  Unfortunately I do not have any pictures of those to share since photography was pretty strictly forbidden in the room where they kept all the shiny stuff.  While they were quite something to look at me being me I couldn't help but wonder if all the blood and treasure put into acquiring them (including the baseball-sized South African diamond in the royal scepter) could have been put to better use.  One fun fact: the Crown Jewels in the Tower are NOT the original Crown Jewels.  Those were destroyed in 1649 after the abolition of the monarchy during the English Civil War.  The ones on display were made in the 1660s after Charles II was given back the throne following Cromwell's death.

From there it was on to the famous White Tower, the most iconic building in the Tower complex.  It served a wide variety of functions including royal refuge, gunpowder storehouse, records room, and currently stands as a museum.

 The White Tower, what most people picture when you say the Tower of London

By the way did I mention the Tower has a rather blood-soaked history?  This sculpture is supposedly on the site where some of the most famous blood-letting and executions took place the most famous of which was Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII who lost her head on May 19th, 1536 (same day as my birthday!)

The spot where many famous people lost their heads in the most literal sense possible

From there it was onward to St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England with known services going back to the 600s.  It achieved truly iconic status during the London Blitz by surviving when most of the city was in flames or blasted to pieces by German bombers.

St. Paul's Cathedral

After enjoying the evening in the company of other hostelers, including a Dutch student who was in England to take a test to prove his proficiency in English (he passed with flying colors, as one would expect for someone who got his bachelor's in English Literature) I headed out the next day to explore around Buckingham Palace.  The Palace itself was closed to visitors but the Royal Mews, where they house the carriages for the royal family, were open (for a nominal fee of course.  London is NOT a cheap city to visit!)

 One of the carriages of state, drawn by horses and made nearly a hundred years ago

The Royal Limo.  Queen Victoria refused to have one of those "mechanical monsters" housed in the Mews so her son waited to purchase this one until after she was good and dead.

No visit to the Mews would be complete without seeing the massive, four-ton Gold State Coach.  This thing was built in the late 1700s and has been used to ferry every single British monarch to their coronation since then.  It is so heavy the team of four horses can't move any faster than a slow walk.

 The Gold State Coach.  The word "subtle" was definitely NOT in the designer's vocabulary.

After that came Buckingham Palace, the home to the Royal Family.  While closed to visitors it always draws quite a crowd, including an outlaw biker club!

 Buckingham Palace

In the grounds next door to the palace were the St. James gardens, providing a small oasis of peace and greenery in the midst of the hustle and bustle of London.

The St. James Gardens

After a brief stop for lunch came time to head south and visit with a few people whom I've only, until now, had the chance to meet online.  First up was a short train ride to Coulsdon Town to meet Wendy, who first contacted me via Facebook over a year ago.  We had a lovely time in the park with her young son before it was time to head back to the train and for him to head back for his nap.

From there was a trip to the British Museum to meet with Thorskegga Thorn, an active Heathen in the London community.  For those who are unfamiliar the British Museum is the place where the British Empire put all the works of art and great archaeological finds they, ummm, "borrowed" from all over the world, the most famous of which were the great Parthenon marbles.  They had everything from ancient Egyptian works all the way up to the high Medieval period although, sadly, the section with all the Saxon and Viking stuff was closed for repairs.  That aside it was a great experience and great meeting Thorskegga in person.

After all that traveling it was time to get ready to head out.  After sorting out a slight snafu with travel arrangements I got my bus booked to Edinburgh, said goodbye to the Steam Engine, and headed out for my last day in London.

The Steam Engine at breakfast.  Free breakfast is the best kind there is!

I spent the day walking through Chelsea and Kensington, getting slightly lost before arriving at the British Museum of Natural History.

The main entrance hall to the Museum of Natural History

After wandering through the museum and seeing everything from prehistoric sea monsters to life-size replicas of blue whales I caught the Underground to Victoria to grab a bite to eat before catching my overnight bus north to Edinburgh.

 The Shakespeare Pub, home to a very solid and filling steak and ale pie

The bus ride north from Victoria Coach Station was uneventful and surprisingly enough easier to sleep on than the plane flight was.  I arrived in Edinburgh at 7:40 in the morning and after taking care of breakfast (3 pounds for bacon, a fried egg, blood pudding, some bread, two sausages and beans, best deal in the UK to date!) I set out for my hostel located on Castle Rock in the shadow of the imposing, ancient, and indomitable Edinburgh Castle for the next part of my trip through Europe.  Next stops after Edinburgh are a trip up through the Highlands to a little town called Oban, followed by a ferry ride to Amsterdam then onward to Berlin and Sweden!

Edinburgh Castle, built on top of an extinct volcano

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