Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6: The Tower of London and the Museum of London

At around 10:30, we took the tube from King's Cross/St Pancras to Tower Hill station in order to visit the Tower of London. The tower, which is accessible via a pedestrian stairway running under the street immediately outside the tube station, is one of the most famous and enduring icons of London. Its famous White Tower, built under order of the newly crowned William the Conqueror, was completed in 1078 and still stands to this day. In addition to serving a role in protecting London from invaders, it served an equal function in those early days in protecting the new rulers, the Norman French, from the native population of London.

From this time, the Tower was expanded and today contains 20 towers within its complex. As we entered, we were fortunate enough to jump in on a Yeoman Warder (popularly known as "Beefeaters") tour that had just kicked off, which is an option for anyone who has paid admission. To become a Yeoman Warder one must be enlisted in the British service for at least 22 years, whilst essentially maintaining a spotless record. In addition to providing tours and information, the Warders must also provide for the defense of the Tower should the need arise. To complete these tasks to their fullest, the Warders live with their families inside the Tower compound behind the Tower gates, which are locked every night. Our Yeoman Warder was a former Sergeant Major who, as part of his duties while serving on a British base in Germany, guarded Nazi war criminal Rudolph Hess - who was also, somewhat ironically, the last State prisoner to be held in the Tower, in 1941.

The commentary provided was witty and fluid, while also commanding the audience's complete attnetion. Stories, of course, generally centered on the bloody history of the Tower. Before our final stop on the guided tour - the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula - the Warder instructed us, in no uncertain terms, to have all cell phones turned off in the chapel. Naturally, these demands were too simple to be met and two people were publicly humiliated once inside. In the second instance, the Warder said "Sir, are you texting? Because I can go back into 'Sergeant Major' real quick. DON'T text back! Shut it OFF!"

Needless to say, this was quite enjoyable to watch even though the Warder was anything but joking; full attention was demanded and expected. After the colorful commentary, we were off on our own, heading into Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are housed.

After being led through three queues involving short films - including Queen Elizabeth II's coronation - pumped up with increasingly regal music (which frankly set up expectations for some kind of royal theme park ride which was presumably just around the bend), we were allowed to view the most prized items from a slowly moving walkway. It was certainly impressive to see them outright, including the Sceptre of the Cross, which contains the second largest polished diamond in the world - the Great Star of Africa - weighing in at 530.2 carats. In addition to this, my favorite item was the oldest surviving piece in the collection, a golden spoon dating from the 13th century. It is the Anointing Spoon (upon which the "anointing oil" is poured which is then used to anoint the new Sovereign by the Archbishop of Canterbury), spared from Oliver Cromwell's psychotic decision in 1649 to destroy the Crown Jewels by the intervention of a Yeoman of the Removing Wardrobe, Clement Kynnersley, who bought it for 16 shillings before the Jewels were destroyed. One of the greatest items destroyed by Cromwell was reputedly the crown of Alfred the Great, who ruled from 871-899 - such a pity.

From here, it was on to the White Tower where an exhibition of Henry VIII's armor - in honor of the 500th year since his ascension to the throne - was on display and was also included in the admission price. Essentially, this exhibit allowed one to watch, in increments, the increasing size of Henry's frame. From a fit young ruler at age 18, to the extremely obese and unhealthy man from age 45 onwards, Henry VIII's armor tells the tale. Needless to say, it was a fascinating exhibit.

We followed this with a trip through the remaining towers and, in total, spent about 3 1/2 hours at the Tower. From here we hopped on the tube from Tower Hill to Barbican station to visit the informative, though significantly smaller than other London museums visited previously, Museum of London. Smaller is used somewhat lightly here, as there were still a very wide range of objects emanating from the London area going back to at least 2500 BC. The most impressive and interesting were the collections from Roman London, including a full mosaic floor.

Tired now, we headed back to the hotel to wind up the day eating the evening meal at Callaghan's where I had, once again, the prized fish & chips.

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