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A 30-something living in the foothills of the Virginia mountains; I'm saved by grace, addicted to coffee and my little sister is my best friend! I devote most of my time to exploring, reading, attending as many Nationals games as possible and documenting life here. My Prince Charming got lost somewhere along the way...but I'm trying to remain hopeful that true love exists.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

London: Tour Buses, Turrets & Torrential Downpour

Remember when I said there wouldn't be a picture explosion? I may have lied. Ha! I definitely lied.

This has the most to do with the fact that on Monday, we continued our adventures in jolly old London town by starting the day off at the Tower of London. I know, I know...torture, beheading and prisoners galore...what a way to start a Monday! There were also crown jewels though - so, yay! 

Honestly though - I can say that touring the Tower of London was probably one of the two things I was looking most forward to because I'm a huge nerd about the whole Tudor dynasty. I've read books, I've watched movies and documentaries and I've especially been intrigued by the TV show(s). Hello - did anyone else watch The Tudors? Not you Lindsey - I know you did. You don't count. 

And yes - I realize that so much of these TV shows and movies are highly stylized and overly dramatized and probably only about 10% historically accurate - but you see, that's what going to the ACTUAL place(s) is for. Getting the history behind the fantasy that is crafted in books, on TV and on the big screen. 

The White Tower - built by William the Conqueror way back in 1078 
Tower Bridge

I'm pretty sure that half of the London tourist population was at the Tower the day we went - I mean, people absolutely everywhere! We elected to start our visit with a Beefeater Tour; my sister has been before and highly recommended it, so we found our Yeoman Warder (that'd be a beefeater) and set off behind him with about 75 other people (seriously - OMG the people) to hear all the tales about the Tower of London. 

The Tower is best known as a prison but has served as so many other things since it's initial construction in 1078 - it was initially a royal residence and housed Kings of England for many years. It wasn't until the Tudor dynasty began that the Tower's use as a royal palace declined and it instead became a place to store munitions and imprison criminals, earning the Tower it's most well-known function as a foreboding prison where torture and ghastly deaths were commonplace. However, from 1540 to 1640 there were only 48 recorded cases of torture taking place and most of the prisoners kept at the Tower were high profile individuals who were held prison in relative comfort and splendor - I suppose that's not much comfort though if the end product for you is a trip to the block, right?

Our tour lasted about 45 minutes and man - Simon the Yeoman Warder really crammed a lot into 45 minutes! The tour ended in the St. Peter ad Vincula chapel that is part of the Tower and is also the burial site of several notable people from history; most of interest to me, interred in the floor beneath that altar are the bodies of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the second and fifth of Henry the VIII's six wives. We were also pointed in the direction of the supposed location of the scaffolding where the executions of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and many others would have taken place on the Tower Green - not a place usually reserved for executions; those were normally done on Tower Hill outside the walls of the Tower but public executions became a bit too dangerous after a time.

One of the infamous ravens of the Tower of London
Simon the Yeoman Warder - our Beefeater guide to the Tower.
The Tower of London from the Thames, with a view of the Traitors Gate.
The line to see the Crown Jewels was astoundingly long...but moved surprisingly fast, since once you were in the building to view them you had to simply keep moving...moving...moving. One thing about crowds that is always so painfully evident - some people do NOT have any home training and if I'd had a pound (the money, not actual pounds on my body - I don't need more of those) for every time I was pushed, nudged, knocked into or just plain shoved out of the way...well, I could have bought a lot more souvenirs!

I think the Tower just holds such fascination for me because (as with so many things in London) there is history oozing from every pore of the place. And not just history of a couple hundred years, but history from a century or more before my time...decisions made in history that changed the course of time, the face of the English church and if you think about it, even the face of the USA itself. Who knows how differently history could have played out in the 1700's if it had played out differently before that...in say the 1500's. And to think that where I was walking, Anne Boleyn had once walked (yes - I like the whole Tudor thing, deal with it)...a woman who was certainly ahead of her time and merely tried to get ahead in the world; in a world that wasn't ready for a woman to be so headstrong, and it cost her the very life she'd schemed and plotted to acquire. She really got the last laugh though - right? 

We left the Tower of London and climbed aboard a cruise down (up?) the River Thames toward Westminster, taking in the sights as we cruised along in the brisk wind. We decided we'd try to make a fairly early evening of it and after trying to find a highly recommended fish and chips joint, the Golden Hind...and finding it only to see that it was closed until January 4th, we grabbed some supper at a restaurant a few blocks from Baker Street and then closed out the evening by riding the tube to Kings Cross Station to have our picture taken disappearing through the barrier at Platform 9 and 3/4! They have a whole set up where they'll help you pose, drape your preferred House scarf around your neck and make it look like you're zipping through the wall - so hilarious and awesome! 

Tower Bridge on a gorgeous London afternoon. 
Tuesday morning began the start of two days of all day bus tours with Evan Evans Tour company (through Viator) and on Tuesday the stops along the tour were Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath. I'd highly recommend doing this type of tour if you want to be able to see as much as possible in a given amount of time - however it's best to know that it probably will not allow for a lot of loitering around and taking your time to look at things. We had about 90 minutes at each location to see the sites before our bus moved on...and yes, they will leave you. They mentioned they'd done it before and I don't know if that was an idle threat or not, but we didn't test it to find out.

Windsor Castle is Queen Elizabeth's "weekend" home and seriously - what in the heavens?!? I think this more accurately looks to me like somewhere a King or Queen would live than Buckingham Palace and so I was fairly enchanted for most of our tour; especially when we toured the State Apartments which are where the Queen and family actually live from March - October... And let me confess; I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I had these ideas of what it meant to be royalty, but I didn't imagine that people actually lived in such grandeur. Now, maybe that sounds silly to you. Hello - we were touring a CASTLE. I know. I also know that I was absolutely dumbfounded when we entered the State Apartments and there were ballrooms that went on for what seemed like a mile, chandeliers like something out of Beauty and the Beast dotting the the ceiling every few hundred yards and a Christmas tree on one end of the hall taller than my house. It's was mind-boggling to say the least and I left the State Apartments absolutely gobsmacked by it all.

Lindsey and I discussed it as we walked down to St. George's Chapel (also on the grounds of Windsor Castle) and our general consensus was: Well done Kate Middleton, well done you. Talk about taking a step up in the world. Ha-ha! We made a quick route through St. George's Chapel because well...we only had about twenty minutes left before the bus was to pull out and we also had to stop into a cafe and grab lunch before we got on the bus too. Eek! St. George's Chapel was again a source of interest to me because Henry VIII is interred in the floor of the choir there, alongside his "favorite" wife, Jane Seymour (she was the only wife to give him a son...) and I thought that was fascinating....

The Round Tower and the Garden Motte - gorgeous even in December.
Castle turrets!
St. George's Chapel
I definitely "stole" the picture below from the internet - you couldnt' actually take pictures in the State Apartments at Windsor Castle but I just really needed to show you an example of the opulence I'm talking about. Y'all - there are SUITS OF ARMOR. Do you see that?? I mean...yep...

I mean - what in the heavens?!?

After a quick 90 minute journey through the very green (it's all that rain y'all...it's so green) English countryside, we arrived to the Salisbury Plains, home to Stonehenge. I feel like Stonehenge was exactly what I'd imagined it would be - a mysterious circle of standing stones arranged in a way that obviously meant something to someone...ages ago. And no one knows why it's there or what it means...or really who did it. Or how. Ha-ha...are you just blown away by my elaborate description of Stonehenge? I'm sure.

There are SO many theories as to why Stonehenge was built and who built it; they range from ideas about religion, mythology and even the paranormal. I'm not kidding even a little bit when I tell you that a gentleman seated on the bus in front of Lindsey and I said (in a completely serious voice) that he knew that "the aliens helped build Stonehenge, just like they helped build the Pyramids of Giza..."  Well sir, alright. To each their own, but I don't think that's the theory that I'm going to go with. Some other wild theories include that the stones were put in place by Merlin (yes, the wizard of Camelot) or even the devil himself...

The most likely theory is that it was built by Druids as a site for ritualistic worship...although it may well have also been built by the Romans or the early Saxons. See - really, no one knows. Just like no one really knows it's purpose either, but I can't imagine that the fact of the sun lining up through the stones on the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice happens as a mere coincidence. Can you? I do know it was absolutely frigid out on the Salisbury Plains; even though the sun was shining, the wind was whipping across the open landscape and after about fifteen minutes gazing at the stones, I felt like I was turning into a block of stone myself. Whoosh! 

All in all - I was fairly fascinated by Stonehenge, if only because it's a mystery that might never be solved. And while it's nice for most things to be tied up neatly with a good ending, perhaps some mysteries are better if left unsolved, don't you think? However - I'll say again - I'm thinking it definitely has nothing to do with aliens. Nothing. And guess what? You couldn't even get very close to the stones! Which completely killed my grand plan to go up to one, lay my hands on it and hope it would transport me back in time to find Jamie Fraser. Ha! 

Built circa...3100 BC...at least, the first portions.
Our tour guide said "you can only take so many pictures of rocks..." Ha!

The last stop on our Tuesday day trip was the ancient city of Bath, built up around the natural hot springs found in the area by the Romans way back in 60 AD. When the Romans invaded the English countryside and discovered the hot springs; already revered by the people living in the area as a dwelling place of the goddess Sulis, they built up a bathing complex and temple to the goddess Minerva Sulis over the course of several years. Much of that complex has been excavated today and is on display. 

The Roman Baths consisted of a calderium (hot bath) tepidarium (tepid bath) and a frigidarium (that's right..a cold bath, what a nightmare) that were all filled with water from the nearby hot springs. The flow was controlled by an elaborate channel system and kept heated by hypocausts under the floors of the baths. While the baths were once a large part of society and used by many, they are no longer considered safe for use - the water flows into the baths through lead lined pipes and the water was purported to have radioactive properties up until the end of WWII - which, look how green it is - it might be true! I'm just kidding - but the water does have that green cast due to mineral content and pollution in the water...

Which is why there were signs everywhere that said "do NOT touch the water" and yet...I watched person after person stick their hand(s) into the water. I even saw some people stick their hand into the water and then put their hand IN THEIR MOUTH. Maybe it's a geographical thing or a personal thing or even just going back to not having any home training...but I don't think I've ever in my life been tempted to stick my hand in green water and then put that same hand in my mouth! Which begs the question - what in the world is wrong with people?!?!

The Roman Baths & Bath Abbey in the background.
I mean - fascinating to look at, but I'm not really interested in crawling in...are you?
Roman "plumbing" if you will, carrying water from the hot springs to the baths....

The museum seemed fascinating but again - there was some time constraint - we only had 90 minutes and that doesn't leave a lot of time to read things in the museum....especially when night was falling fast. It gets dark in England during the Winter at around 4 PM. And the sun comes up at around 8 AM...so you don't have a lot of daylight hours to work with. One of the things I did notice in my quick turn around the museum was that people used to write curses on tablets and offer them up to the goddess Minerva Sulis while they were at the baths...and the most frequent complaint? That someone had stolen their clothes while they were visiting the baths and could the goddess please curse them, ha-ha! 

The Baths were fascinating though; if only because...yes, they are absolutely riddled with bits and pieces of history that I just eat up. In case you haven't guessed it, I'm a history nerd and so anything like this = absolute fascination and joy for me. After a 2 hour bus ride back into the bustling city of London, we asked our tour guide if he could recommend a good place to get fish and chips; we were on a quest, well really my family member were. I don't eat fish. He recommended Sea Fare and said it was just a couple blocks away...and we found it! And we found out it was closed - until January 4th! Just like the Golden Hind! What in the world was up with these fish and chip places? Would we never find some authentic fish and chips in London? *despair*

Thank goodness for the Prince of Wales, this grubby looking little pub caddy corner from Sea Fare that I can only describe as exactly what you'd think of as a typical English pub. Let me tell you though - they had some of the best food we ate during the whole of our trip; I would kill for another bowl of their potato and leek soup. Man! We finally hopped on the tube and made our way back to the flat around 9 PM - quite a long day indeed, but filled with wonderful things. 

The Roman Baths and Bath Abbey by night...
Bath Abbey & the Christmas tree

Wednesday began another day of touring on a big ol bus...this time to Warwick Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Oxford. Since this post is already getting really long, I'll share about our time spent at Warwick Castle and save the rest of the story for another day, sound good? It does to me, my fingers are getting tired.

Warwick Castle is believed to be the oldest castle in England; the original motte and bailey portions of the castle having been built by William the Conqueror in 1068 - once he conquered, William really liked to build. The castle was built at the site of an already fortified settlement in position on the River Avon and the castle was built with more purpose than to look pretty. The castle's position on the river allowed for it to serve as a line of defense against invaders in the land that William had only recently conquered and was still maintaining a tenuous hold on. The castle; at least in it's earlier days, would not have been a warm and comforting place to live - remember, it's there to defend you, not tuck you in warmly at night.

The castle served as a royal home for hundreds of years, serving as a place for the royal family to stay and was lived in by both Lancaster and York kings, Plantagenet kings and finally, the Tudor kings. The castle survived the War of the Roses...and many other wars and in the 17th century, when the normal running of castles began to go out of style, Warwick was converted into a country home and numerous lines of Earl(s) of Warwick lived in the house for the next few hundred years. The castle began to fall into disrepair after the British aristocracy took a hit after WWII and while it was still being visited, was not in great shape. Enter the Tussaud's Group (yes - the same one of Madame Tussauds fame) in the 1970's who bought and restored the castle and now operate it as a tourist attraction that receives something like 1.5 million visitors a year!
Warwick Castle on the River Avon
A trebuchet...& a burned out cottage.
The original mound & tower built as part of the motte & bailey castle in 1068.

The day we toured Warwick, the UK was experiencing some glorious weather courtesy of Storm Frank - and the winds were whipping at 29 miles per hour! This wild weather was; of course, completed with rain...because, hey - no one goes to England to get a sun tan, right? The weather wasn't too crazy in the morning, when we visited Warwick and so we were able to make it from building to building without getting too damp. Umbrellas were kind of an afterthought - one good gust of wind and your umbrella was inside out, so those weren't as much help as we'd hoped they'd be.

The interior of the castle is renovated to include examples of what life would have been like in the castle throughout it's history - from the early days as a castle for kings and queens to it's later days as a country home for Lords and Ladies. The renovation is completed with the presence of wax figures...because remember, Madame Tussauds? The castle included figures of Henry VIII and all six of his wives; which are believed to be highly accurate, so Lindsey and I stood around staring at those for quite some time...transfixed by history, I suppose. There was a dungeon tour you could do, but considering we only had about 90 minutes and screams kept emanating from below....we decided maybe we'd skip that one and instead just take our picture in the stocks labeled "thief" and "drunkard". Ha! 

Henry VIII....& Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard & Catherine Parr. Whoosh. 
Adios castle - you were lovely.
Our tour on Wednesday continued...and the rain continued to get more intense, but I'll save the rest of that for another day. Perhaps we'll meet back here again soon to read about those adventures, sound good? 

Until then....

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