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Westminster Bridge: a view of the London Eye
On May 2nd, our destination was further than walking distance, so we set out for the first time on London's Underground city train, or "Tube." There was a station just across Westminster Bridge from our hotel; and since Cameron and Joss were very familiar with mass transit systems by now, we challenged them to navigate our course. Gail noticed several differences between London's Tube and Paris' Metro. First, the Tube is clean (Gail finds Paris overall to be a pretty filthy city). Second, there are workers standing by at every entrance and exit, so we didn't see any of the turnstile fraud that was rampant in Paris (in London, you must also use your ticket to exit as well as enter, so even if you can sneak past the entrance, you can't sneak past the exit).
Most amusing was the difference in culture between the French and English. A Paris metro train announces its imminent departure with a loud honking siren. On the London Tube, a polite female voice intones, "Please, doors are closing." At every station arrival, a polite male voice intones, "Mind the gap."
By late morning we had arrived at the infamous Tower of London. The original castle, first built by William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion in 1066, was once the strongest fortress in Europe. Centuries and countless renovations later, it became infamous as a place where kings could make unwanted enemies "disappear" without a trace, hidden from public view. Henry VIII, during his quest for a male heir, had three of his six wives imprisoned and executed here. The only royal prisoner to emerge alive was Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, who subsequently became Queen of England.
Today the Tower of London is one of the biggest tourist sites in the city. Our admission entitled us to attend a free one-hour guided tour given by one of the Yeoman Warders, also known as "Beefeaters." Our guide was a particularly amusing character, and we learned a lot more from him than just the history of the Tower. We learned that the job of Yeoman Warder (which enables the Beefeater to live -- with his family -- inside the Tower) is a highly sought-after job, open only to men who have served 22 years in England's armed forces and attained at least the rank of Sergeant-Major (our guide had served in the military band). We also learned that many children's nursery rhymes are based on historical events, including "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" (about Mary, Queen of Scots), "Three Blind Mice" (about three clergymen who were executed by the Queen), and "Ring Around the Rosie" (about the Great Plague). We visited the Crown Jewels, the White Tower with its royal armory, and the parapet overlooking Tower Bridge before it began raining and we took the Tube back.
The Tower of London: learning history from one of the Queen's Beefeaters
By the time we reached our hotel though, it was still early and had stopped raining. So we bought tickets and took a ride up in the London Eye -- at 135 metres, the highest spectator Feerris wheel in the world. Originally, Gail (who is afraid of edges) had planned to sit in the room while the three men went up, but Cameron and Joss talked her into going as well. The wheel moves slowly and continuously; you get on at the bottom, take one revolution around the top, and get off again at the bottom. Each cabin is a completely enclosed glass bubble, complete with benches, so you can sit or stand as you wish during the 30 minutes it takes to go once around. Gail was fine until we got about halfway up, at which point she decided that sitting on the floor was more comfortable than sitting on the bench. Russell and Cameron took pictures, while Joss demonstrated that he didn't understand what the "Do not lean against the glass doors" sign meant (much to Gail's distress). When we got back down the boys wanted to do it again, but Gail decided against that.
The view from the top of the London Eye
On May 3rd, we took another long walk, this time to Buckingham Palace, home of England's royal family. The famous "changing of the guard" ceremony takes place every morning at 11:30 AM, accompanied by completely chaotic crowds of thousands of tourists -- things have reached the point where it is nearly impossible to see anything. We avoided the crowds by showing up a half-hour earlier down the street at the Wellington Barracks, where the completely unknown "inspection of the guard" ceremony takes place every morning at 11:00 AM. With the equivalent of front-row seats, we got a wonderfully close-up view of the guards and band going through all of their maneuvers ahead of time. Cameron and Joss also had time to play at nearby St. James Park, where they chased pigeons and began new stick collections.
Front-row viewing at the Inspection of the Guard
Afterwards we walked further north to Piccadilly Circus, London's equivalent of New York's Times Square. (Before we got there and explained what it was, Gail asked Cameron and Joss what they expected to see. The consensus was "elephants and clowns.") We went to Waterstone's book store, where we got some more reading material for everyone, including some more school workbooks. And we went to Hamley's toy store -- at seven stories, the largest in Englannd -- where Joss found and bought a stuffed seal exactly like Cameron's (Joss named his "Salmon"). Gail also contributed to the menagerie by buying a stuffed cheetah.
Ever since we treated the wait-staff to "Disney's The Lion King," we have been treated like royalty in the restaurant. For our last dinner at Potter's Restaurant we were served by Samie, Gracie's sister (unlike Gracie, Samie seemed particularly keen to practice her English, so we dispensed with the Swahili niceties). Joss had chili con carne for the fourth night in a row (he wants to learn how to cook it when we get back home), and by now all of us (except for Cameron) were ordering banana splits for dessert.
Due to a combination of the weather and our ongoing chores, we did not get to see or do nearly everything that we wanted to here in London. But we enjoyed taking our time, and everyone at the hotel treated us like family. Because of this, we may try staying here again for a few more nights on our way out of the United Kingdom. In the meantime, tomorrow we will pick up our new rental car and head out once more into the unknown.
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