London – Day 2
A boat ride on the Thames and a visit to the Tower of London
The first day of travel moving through more than three times zones can really throw your sleep cycles out of whack and so we did our best on our first day to stay awake until dark. Then we enjoyed a short nap of around 12 hours and woke late but feeling amazingly refreshed and ready to tackle the London crowds once again. Off to the tube we went, heading for the Westminster Pier where we jumped on a boat to take us down the Thames to the Tower of London. Along the way we learned some interesting tidbits about the various buildings along the Thames and it gave me shivers to think that I was floating along the same river as all those historic sailing ships with captains such as Admiral Nelson, Captain Cook, Russel Crowe (ha, just seeing if you’re paying attention!)….and other famous people, Benjamin Franklin who lived nearby, Charles Darwin, and on and on…so much history.
We went under quite a few bridges and learned that one of them, the Waterloo Bridge, was built by women during WWII when the men were away. The ladies chose self-cleaning stone as the material to build the bridge, and they built it on time and under budget! The crewman who was doing the commentating seemed to enjoy this story and said that the bridge is affectionately known to Londoners as the Lady’s Bridge.
The one thing that really surprised us about the Thames was how much it is affected by the tides. We had no idea that there was a 20′ tide on the river. We happened to be traveling against the tide and you could really feel the current against the boat. It was pretty impressive to see all the river boats shuttling back and forth, maneuvering perfectly in very rough conditions. I suppose having 4 mega-horsepower engines didn’t hurt. I kept envisioning trying to dock Happy Dance with her little 75hp engine, while trying not to be swept down the river!
When we arrived at the Tower of London we were able to see the “Traitor’s Gate” along the river where the prisoners would be brought in by boat. This is also where Kings entered at one time. I’d tell you which one, but my mind is a jumble of kings and queens! We were able to walk through all the rooms where the kings and queens lived and received guests in medieval times and look out the same windows to the Thames. It really is incredible to walk across stones that were placed in the 1100’s.
Marty especially enjoyed “his” tower, and we both ogled at the crown jewels. The size of the diamonds and sapphires is simply unbelievable. And to see the actual diamonds in their settings in the crown and in the sceptre, it takes your breath away. The stones in the main pieces of the Crown Jewels include the larger diamonds made from the Cullinan diamond that weighed 1.37 pounds uncut. Can you imagine being the one to cut that thing? They said that the first blade actually broke when they tried to cut the diamond. The size of the diamond in the sceptre is literally the size of a large egg, and the one in the crown is about the size of a small lime. My favorite though was the sapphire, with its beautiful deep blue color and lights streaking through it. The overwhelming and impressive show of wealth certainly served a purpose in its day, but it does leaves this American to wonder what that purpose is in today’s world! I now know the true meaning of regalia.
There was a special WWI commemoration going on while we were there, and we watched volunteers as they placed some of the 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies all around the walls of the Tower. Each poppy was to honor a man or woman from the UK who had died in WWI in the service of their country. It was stunning to say the least, and we listened to some of the people who had been making the poppies one by one saying that as they watched the numbers and piles grow, they would become very emotional at the meaning of it all. It sure brought it home to us how huge a number 888,246 truly is, but then 1 is a huge number when you are counting people lost in wars.
After our visit to the Tower we decided just to walk along the Thames and see what we could see. Unfortunately we arrived about 20 minutes late to catch a theatre performance of King Lear at the Globe Theatre. The Globe is the recreation of the original theater that Shakespeare used to frequent. It is now the only thatched roof allowed in London, after the great fire of 1666 that burned most of London on the north side of the Thames.
Walking along the river you can’t help but notice all the new buildings and special architecture, standing alongside buildings that have been there for 100’s of years. Here comes that big word – it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of styles and eras! It was very, very cool to walk along the river taking in the sights, holding hands and realizing how lucky we are to have this freedom to travel and explore new places together.
London – Day 3
A trip to Windsor Castle
Our third day in London was dedicated to visiting the Queen, however she seems to have gotten the date of our visit wrong because she wasn’t home! How rude. We made the best of it though, and toured Windsor Castle without her.
To get to Windsor Castle we took the tube to the Paddington train station, and then hopped on the train to Slough (slew), and then changed to the Windsor Train. There is a charming little town outside the castle walls with lots of shops and cafes. We entered the gate to the castle and immediately felt as if we’d been transported to the past. However our more cynical sides made us look at the pristine grounds, walls, and turrets and wonder, is it real or is it Disneyland? Everything was so perfect!
The Queen does have a very nice home I must say. After walking the grounds and exploring the tower, we made our way toward the State Apartments. The entrance is up the grand staircase through the guns and knives and swords room, or more affectionately known as the Guard’s Room. The intent here is to let the visitor know that the Queen is well guarded, and based on all the armament on the walls we definitely got the picture!
The ceilings throughout the rooms must all be at least 30’ high, and each room has its own theme. Some have intricate stone carvings on the ceilings, silk on the walls, and huge original oil paintings. Some have ancient tapestries on the walls, painted ceilings, and furniture that is made from hardwood or sterling silver.
As we wandered through the rooms and listened to the history of each room we were struck by how close we were to living history. It was similar to the feeling that we had when we toured the White House, in that we have both seen photos and news reports of the Queen in the same rooms that we were standing in. Add into that the history of to whom, what, and when things happened in each room and it’s very impressive!
Our favorite room in the castle was the Banquet Room that was all windows on one side, with high arches rising to the ceiling, and displayed on the walls were the coat of arms of all the past and present knights of the Order of the Garter. Some of the coats of arms were painted all white, and this meant that the knight had been expelled from the order for some sort of crime against the crown. There was a great story of one knight who had his helmet knocked off while he was sitting in the choir chamber and the other knights kicked his helmet down the aisles and out the door. Say good night knight!
We also enjoyed St. George’s Chapel, which is within the walls of Windsor. As we entered we couldn’t help but notice the high scaffolds set up against various parts of the exterior walls. There was a sign explaining that they were replacing 13 of the grotesques. We loved all the different faces and expressions of the gargoyles and carvings along the tops of the walls. I’m sure there are many stories and details surrounding the various designs that would be fascinating to learn. Throughout the castle and the chapel there are ceiling ornaments and artwork built into the walls that have certain meanings and refer to certain people.
The nave of the chapel is gorgeous, with high medieval arches spreading out from the pillars. It’s mind boggling to think of how the intricate carved stone ceilings were installed so very high up, over empty space. We found a quiet corner and just tried to soak it all in; the elaborate designs in the hand laid marble floors, the golden carved altar, the brass painted pipes of the organ, the minute detail of the carved wooden screens.
Our favorite room in the Chapel was the choir room. It’s full of pageantry and symbols of the knights of the Order of the Garter. The pews and seats are all carved with different figures and designs and the individual seat backs are over 20’ tall with carved heads for the knights’ helmets. The flags bearing the coat of arms for each current knight hang above their helmet, along with their sword, which is displayed partially drawn to symbolize that the knight is ready to defend his Queen. It is a bit funny to think of all the pageantry that goes along with the banners and helmets and the knighting and kneeling that goes on today as well. A few hundred years ago it served a purpose, but maybe not so much anymore. It would be fun to play dress up though in their fancy duds!
After walking our feet off with hours of castle exploration and non-visits with the Queen, it was time to head for the nearest pub to find a beverage and a nosh. Marty had been to Windsor before, so he was eager to find The Carpenter Arms, which happened to be right down the cobblestone walk from the castle entrance. We found a spot by the bar with the sun streaming in the windows and ordered a couple of pies, a cider for me and a new type of beer for Marty. Perfect! With our tummies full we headed back to the train station for the ride home, to pack and get ready for the next adventure.
We really loved London, but probably wouldn’t be able to survive the crowds for more than a few days at a time. Sometimes when you’re wandering the tunnels in the tube it kind of feels like you’re a rat in a maze. There are so many people going so many different directions! People were friendly, but very busy and in quite a hurry. The sights of course are amazing, but if/when we come back it won’t be in August!
As I write this we are on the train enjoying a full British brekkie whilst heading for Edinburgh. The ocean is outside our right hand window, and the green fields are on the left hand side. There are ancient looking rock walls between the fields, and pristine looking farms scattered about. Draft horses, chunky ponies with thick manes and long tails (remember Thelwell Meg?) and lots and lots of sheepies! The sunshine is breaking through the gray clouds here and there, making for another perfect day, mate!