Real London!

16 December 2000, Saturday

My body clock was right on schedule: I woke up at 5:30 a.m. Nashville time. The rest of the household, however, was snug in their beds, so I read for a bit and then dropped back to sleep. Sunrise seemed to come very late in England … or perhaps it was just the cloud cover. No matter—after months of rising at five o’clock without fail, it was heaven, just heaven to sleep in. (Also, the Lambkins—as many people do—like the house to be cool at night; this made it an easy decision to stay snug under the covers until the heating timer switched on at eight.*)

We had a leisurely morning, then drove into London. Real London, y’all! The city of my adolescent dreams and fantasies! (I grew up during a time when London was the epicenter of all that was cool, and I’d never lost that childish awe of the place. For an idea of what I mean, read Ready, Steady, Go: The smashing rise and giddy fall of swinging London, by Sean Levy.)

Harrod’s, with its royal seal. Meh.

And it was just like the pictures. Once again, I pinched myself … we drove by so many sights and landmarks, things I’d read about and never imagined I’d ever get to see in person. (That song you hear playing in the background just now is “Rule Britannia.”) And the architecture! Oh my, pick your period—Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Palladian, Gothic—London is chock-full of magnificent examples.

First order of business, though, was to visit a Bureau de Change to turn travelers’ checks into money. As a member of AAA, I’d purchased American Express travelers’ checks in British pounds at no charge, without having to order them in advance (my bank wanted me to place an order in advance and charge me 4 percent). At any rate, I was charged a 5 percent fee at the Bureau de Change but later found an American Express office that redeemed the checks for free.**

Can I tell you how completely charmed I was by British currency? The paper money came in a variety of hues, and the coins … oh! such a myriad of sizes and shapes to learn! Unlike our dollar bill, Britain does not have a one-pound note. It’s a coin. So one very quickly accumulated a pocketful of change, dominated by the lovely, satisfyingly thick one-pound coin. I must’ve brought two dozen of them home.

Our main activity that afternoon was a visit to the Tower of London. We were not going to spend a lot of time in the city, because there were other things to see in the countryside. So Anna and Eoin gave us the driving tour and chose a few special stops. The Tower was one.

I confess I had not reviewed English history thoroughly enough, so I had this image in my head of a literal tower (tall, narrow, dark), which had once been a jail for political prisoners (a couple of Henry VIII’s unfortunate wives spring to mind) and which now house the crown jewels. But, my friends, the Tower of London is so much more than this! If you have limited time in London, as we did, I would recommend this historic place as being representative of the majesty of England’s antiquity, its thriving monarchy, and its willingness to take an unflinching look at its own historic past.

These gentlemen are named Gin and Beer (for the 2 most important beverages of the time). That’s Beer on the right, with the tankard. Carved wooden statues located in the White Tower, dating from the 17th century, taken with ambient light.

“For over 900 years,” the official guidebook says, “the Tower has dominated the city of London and today is still one of the capital’s most prominent landmarks and a world-famous visitor attraction. Throughout its long history the Tower has served as a royal palace and fortress, prison and place of execution, an arsenal, royal mint, menagerie, and jewel house. Today, London’s great royal fortress is home to some of the most potent symbols of British history: the Yeoman Warders [you may know them as Beefeaters], ravens, and crown jewels.”

London was once called Londinium; the Romans built it. Most of the original city wall erected by the Romans is long gone, but on the grounds of the Tower of London, some small stretches remain.

This is part of the wall the Romans built around their city Londinium. Can you imagine a time when that much of a wall was all it took to feel safe?

The Tower itself was built in the reign of William the Conqueror (1066–1087), and remained little changed for over a century; then, between 1190 and 1285, the building now known as the White Tower was encircled by two towered curtain walls and a great moat.

The White Tower. The moat is now grass.

Much of this was done by Richard the Lionheart’s chancellor; the justification for the expense and effort this involved was the political instability of the kingdom and the Crown’s continuing need for an impregnable fortress in the city of London—which had, by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, become the most powerful city in England. Subsequent kings (and queens) added to the living quarters and other buildings, though the only significant enlargement of the tower was the addition of the wharf, begun by Edward III (1327–1377) and completed under Richard II (1377–1399). As best I can tell, the Stuarts were the last of England’s royal family to actually make their home in the Tower of London, which would mean, I think, it ceased to be a royal residence in the mid-1600s or very early 1700s.

And those crown jewels … holy sparkle, Batman! You’ve seen ’em on TV, adorning the current queen, but let me tell ya, they are most impressive in person. The absolute value of all the gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls in the royal collection is way beyond comprehension. Add to this the fact that the crowns and other artifacts have been worn and used by kings and queens of England for hundreds of years and you quickly realize they are priceless.

“Although the Tower of London is today seen as a visitor attraction”—again from the guidebook—“it is also a thriving community; about 150 people still live within its walls, mainly Yeoman Warders and their families.”

Apartments for the Tower residents. Nice enough neighborhood but too many tourists.

And perhaps most interestingly, the Tower is inhabited by a small flock of ravens (they’re large birds), which is attended by an official Ravenmaster.

Me: “Stand by the raven, honey, and let me take your picture.”
The Boy: “But Mom, he’ll peck me.”
Bird reaches over and pecks Boy’s leather jacket.
Me: (sigh)
The Boy: (sigh)

In theory, the indigenous birds were attracted to the smell of corpses (remember, the Tower was a place of execution) and thus just hung around the place. There are all sorts of legends, of course, including the most famous, which has it that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will crumble and a great disaster will befall England—and that King Charles II (1660–1685) decided not to buck it, even though the birds were pooping on his new telescope. During those delicate times following the English civil war (you know this as the period of the restoration), an irate Charles was reminded of the legend, spared the ravens, and moved the observatory to Greenwich. It’s a swell story … but historians believe it may have been a Victorian (ahem) flight of fancy. The Victorians did like their little stories.

We spent several hours at the Tower, then drove into Chinatown for a wonderful meal. Eoin knows London like the back of his hand and was great at pointing out sights and landmarks as he drove. A post-dinner stroll through Chinatown was most pleasant.

And the day wasn’t over! We drove back to Barkham, where we stopped at a Walmart-like store for provisions. Specifically, Eoin needed a bottle of whisky for a friend/coworker that we were about to meet. “American Bob,” he and Anna called him, because, well, he was (although he’d lived and worked in the London area for five years at that point).

So around 10:00 p.m. we removed ourselves to the local pub to celebrate American Bob’s fortieth birthday. Walking, as it was just around the corner. The Boy had his first-ever beer, a mild one picked for him by Eoin. (Yes, he was just sixteen; sue me.) He fit right in to this lively place, which Eoin and Anna insisted wasn’t a real English pub, though you could’ve fooled me—snug, warm, full of bonhomie, and low ceilings. Just what I’d imagined. Sometime after midnight we fell exhausted into bed.

* You know how sometimes the cold can just settle in your bones and you can’t warm up? I had that problem in England. I slept in sweats and socks and a sweater, and stayed similarly bundled during daylight hours. I hugged the radiator, while Anna and Eoin walked around in short sleeves, their breath condensing in the air. I know it’s just a matter of getting acclimated—the outside temperature was in the 50s the whole time we were there, which would be typical for Tennessee that time of year too. For me it was chilly. It’s probably healthier to keep the home a little cool.

** Remember, this was 2000; does anyone use travelers’ checks anymore? I remember movies made in the ’60s and ’70s, particularly those set in Europe, showed the ubiquitous American Express office; the hero was always ducking into one. This all seems very distant now, though, almost quaint.

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