Monday, March 25th 2013
Today is Tigger’s birthday. The planned trip to Berlin was to have been a celebration of this important date but, as that has fallen through, we have to find other ways to mark it.
We took a bus to Liverpool Street and walked down Bishopsgate to a branch of Pod where we had breakfast. Opposite Pod is the entrance to Leadenhall Market. A market has existed here since at least the 14th century but the current, very striking, building dates from 1881. There are still food retailers trading here as well as restaurants and cafes. It was very quiet for a weekday, perhaps because it was still early.
The weather remains bitterly cold with small heaps of snow lurking here and there in corners and at intersections where snow has been swept into a pile by passing traffic. It is pleasantly warm in Pod but we have to brave the cold once more and move on.
We wander seemingly at random but Tigger has a plan. Perhaps she told me what it is and I didn’t hear because of the wind blowing in my ears. We arrive near Tower Hill and pass in front of a pub with a rather gruesome name, The Hung Drawn and Quartered. The name refers to the fact that criminals and traitors were in times past executed here, at Tower Hill. And not simply executed: often they were hung, drawn and quartered, a process that today seems to us barbaric and unnecessarily cruel. On the outside of the pub is a board bearing an abbreviated quotation from the diary of Samuel Pepys: “I went to see Major General Harrison Hung Drawn and Quartered. He was looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition.” (Oct 13th 1660)
When the monarchy was restored and Charles II took the throne in 1660, a small number of those who had participated in the death of his father, Charles I, were brought to trial and condemned to death. Major General Harrison was a member of that unfortunate band though he was in fact dispatched at Charing Cross, not here on Tower Hill. (See Pepys original diary entry here.)
We took a look inside All Hallows-by-the-Tower. This church claims to be the oldest in London, having been founded in 675. While some traces of its ancient past remain, the church has been altered several times, notably in 1650 when it was damaged in an explosion of barrels of gunpowder stored in the churchyard, and again after the Second World War after it had been gutted by enemy bombs.
From the church we continue along Tower Hill Road towards the Tower itself, taking photos as we go, despite the poor light and dull conditions.
I stop to take some photos, including this distance shot of the Tower of London with Tower Bridge behind it, and suddenly realize that Tigger has disappeared. This often happens when we are out taking photos but we usually find one another quickly again. Not this time: Tigger is nowhere to be seen and and I am left nonplussed. As a last resort, I call her mobile. It rings and rings but just before it cuts out and switches to voicemail, Tigger answers. She tells me she is in the queue for tickets for the Tower. That’s a relief.
We enter the Tower via the Byward Gate, and, despite it being a week day, the place is crowded. The chill wind gusts along the battlements and walkways. We follow the crowd, negotiating the bottlenecks of tiny doorways and narrow spiral staircases. This is not a place for claustrophobes. The press of people makes it difficult to see things and even more so to photograph them.
The Tower is interesting, of course, and bears the scars and stains of history, but the experience of seeing room after room of battered walls with posters and video screens and the occasional mock-up of furnishings to suggest what the room might have looked like when in use, becomes a little disappointing, as though we are visiting a ruin that is pretending hard not to be a ruin. Crowds stand watching the screens which, though they inform, also distract from the surroundings. It’s hard not to feel that this is an elaborate simulacrum.
The Tower is huge and rambling and the public is admitted to only a small part of it. Successive monarchs chose different parts of the complex in which to set up their private apartments. Edward I made his home in the Medieval Palace and we can still see his small chantry, or chapel, with its stained glass windows.
We dutifully follow the prescribed path through rooms and passageways, with doorways so low that we moderns need to mind our heads, and out on to the battlements where I take this slightly unusual view of Tower Bridge. Designed by Sir Horace Jones (and often mistakenly referred to by foreigners – and, I regret to say, by some Britons – as “London Bridge”), it was specifically designed to blend in with the ancient castle beside which it stands, though I think it goes farther than that remit to become a startling structure in its own right. Despite its retro appearance, it was opened in 1894.
Following the crowds and winding our way down to courtyard level, we arrive at the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are on display. We find an enormous queue, reminiscent of the one we were put in at Heathrow last Saturday. We decide not to bother as it would mean standing in the cold for an unknown length of time. Our tickets are valid for one year and during that time we can come back as often as we wish.
My favourite part of the visit to the Tower is, as you might guess, getting close to the Ravens. Since the time of Charles II, a complement of six ravens has been kept at the Tower. (There are actually seven: the required six, plus a spare in case of accidents!) A legend says that if ever the ravens depart, the Tower and the kingdom will fall. The ravens come from all over the country and the successful candidates are chosen for their suitability for the task they are required to fulfil. The feathers of one wing are cropped (you can perhaps see this in the above photo) to discourage them from flying away while still allowing them a certain amount of flight while moving about within the grounds. They are housed and fed and probably have a comfortable life but, despite this, ravens have been known to abscond or turn out to be unsuitable for their role. Being corvids, they are highly intelligent and can make up their own minds about whether they wish to stay.
On the way out, we passed the Thomas Tower in which there is a gate leading to the river. It is now called the Traitor’s Gate because, according to tradition, traitors brought to the Tower for imprisonment and eventual execution entered through here. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s Queen who fell out of favour, was brought in by this gate prior to her beheading.
Perhaps the dull weather and the crowds have had an effect on my mood and if we return another time in different conditions, perhaps I will respond more positively to the experience.
In search of refreshments and lunch, we make our way to the nearby St Katharine Docks. Ships once brought their cargoes of tobacco and, shamefully (as it now seems to us), ivory, to be unloaded here but today it is a parking place for pleasure craft, the yachts of the rich and boats that are hired out as “venues” for conferences. It is quite a pleasant place to visit, especially on a sunny day. For our visit, though, the weather is dull and cold and to cheer ourselves up we go to Mala, a rather fine Indian restaurant in the docks, for lunch.
After lunch, we leave the Docks (crossing the footbridge above) and catch a bus on the main road that will take us to the Southbank Centre..
At the Southbank Centre is the Hayward Gallery with its rather understated façade. It is hosting an exhibition called Light Show that we wanted to see. Unfortunately, it is a very popular exhibition and we found that all tickets for today had been sold. We will probably come back another time and book in advance. (The cement mixer, by the way, is not equipment left behind by builders but part of the decor of a restaurant.
This disappointment persuades us that it is time to go home, so we catch a bus to Euston. At Euston we must change buses but we also take a coffee break at the local branch of Caffè Nero. This is, after all, supposed to be our holiday, and if we cannot spend it in Berlin as planned, then we can at least do our best to enjoy ourselves in London!