London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Harrods’s Department Store. We walked to the Victoria and Albert and strolled through the medieval section. The artwork and jewelry of the time were far more detailed and beautiful than I imagined. We even saw Saint Tomas a Becket’s Bishop’s hat that had been preserved from 1170. It is almost incomprehensible to us Americans that anything could be that old. There is also an entire collection of Queen Victoria’s artifacts.
We also spent the better part of a day in the British Museum. The British Museum is one of the best museums I have ever visited. So far, I have visited the Smithsonian, the Vatican, The Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Asian Museum in San Francisco. I loved the British Museum because there was such a wealth of treasure there to view, starting with the Rosetta Stone. There were artifacts from the Anglo Saxon Period, but also India, China and Japan. There were incredible exhibits of Greek and Roman statuary and molds of the Parthenon before it deteriorated. The great part of the British Museum was that not only was it free to visit, but we went while the children were still in school so it wasn’t crowded. We weren’t hustled through the exhibits, nor were we fighting crowds to see the exhibits which fascinated us most. There was a large, centrally located cafe with lots of seating, so when we wanted to sit down and take a break, we could have a sandwich or tea and a scone. The British Museum allowed us to take in as much incredible history as we could and still take comfortable breaks. For me, history became not just something to be read in books. At the British Museum, history, in all it’s glory, wonder, scars and bloodshed suddenly surrounded me.
We couldn’t resist a break from the museums, so we took some time to visit Harrods’s Department store, the late Princess Diana’s favorite. It was much different than our American department stores, with prices to match a royal’s purse. It seemed like a mall of designer shops. Any and every famous designer has a shop at Harrods. In addition, Harrods has its own high end food court including a tea shop and a bar. Jim texted my parents back in the States to send help because I was on the loose at Harrods’s. What can I say? I have good taste.
We were able to take a tour of Lloyd’s of London in the middle of the modern, high tech financial district of London not far from the Tower of London. Lloyd’s is not open to tourists, but we got a personalized tour and a history lesson because my husband has business associates who work there. Lloyd’s of London is the world’s original insurance company dating back to the 1600s. Even though the company is housed in a modern skyscraper, they still have a special ship’s bell dating from the 1700s, the wooden stand, and the ledgers that recorded insurance agreements for centuries in the center of the building in keeping with the traditions they used since their origin. As we left the building, we were told we could have lunch at the oldest pub in London, or one of Charles Dickens’ favorite pubs, The George and Vulture. That pub has it’s origins in the 1200s. We were told that it had been nearly demolished but Dickens fans begged the city to save it. The pub was in a medieval section not much more than a crooked alley preserved in the middle of the skyscrapers of modern London. Jim and I even got permission to go upstairs and look at the apartment Dickens lived in. His descendants still get together there at Christmas each year. The Victorian era stove is still there, and it is preserved much as it had been during Dickens’ time. We had a pint to toast Dickens and split a lunch of bangers and mash, mashed potatoes with sausage, onions, and gravy on top. We also had sticky pudding for dessert, which we had never tried before. It was delicious!
Indeed, British cuisine has a bad reputation among chefs and foodies, but that assessment is patently unfair. The bangers and mash, and the sticky pudding we had at the George and Vulture was delicious, savory and tasty. We tried meat pies, mine with chicken and Jim’s with steak at another pub. They were rich, savory, and delicious. My favorite dinner was fish and chips. I loved the fried fish and homemade fries. I ate fish and chips several times because it was so delicious. Fish and chips and meat pies are a must when in England. We also enjoyed the tea shops. When we first arrived in London, we passed a couple shops with rows and rows of the most beautiful pastries and cakes I have ever seen. Jim and I finally looked at one another, giggled, and decided then and there to have dessert before dinner. We don’t have bakeries here in the States like the tea shops in London. I loved them! We tried three different tea shops and all were decadent and delightful. If I lived in London, I would be at a tea shop every day.
Visit London for the history and the literature, but enjoy the cuisine too, especially the fish and chips and the tea shops. Jim and I found ourselves looking at the listings in a real estate office window wondering if we could move there. I would love to live in London!
London is a city that embraces the medieval and the modern. The White Tower, or as we know it, the Tower of London, stands as a proud legacy of England’s history amid the sparkling silver skyscrapers of London’s financial district. We stayed in South Kennsington within walking distance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrods’s Department Store, and the legendary Buckingham Palace, home of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
Usually, you can only visit the outside of Buckingham Palace. The palace opens the rooms which are used for events involving foreign dignitaries only for a few weeks during the summer when Her Majesty is at her summer residence, Balmoral, in Scotland. We just happened to be there the first day the palace was open for visitors. We were able to see the Queen’s Mews where the carriages and horses are kept. The gold carriage is the most ornate as it was built in the 1700s and the one used to carry monarchs to their coronation, but the glass carriage is the one that caught my attention. The glass carriage is the one that famously carried Lady Diana Spenser to her wedding to Prince Charles. I remember watching that wedding on the TV when I was in middle school. I remember being a Diana fan, angry with Charles for cheating on her, and crying as I watched her funeral years later. It was an incredible treat to see the glass carriage used in her wedding.
As we continued to the rooms open for visitors, I was in awe of the sheer opulence of the palace. As a fan of the arts, I was fascinated by the long hallway hung with paintings of the masters. Her Majesty’s art collection is stunning. What was even more intriguing was the museum aspect of the palace. Queen Victoria’s presence is infused into Buckingham palace. Although the original house was completed in 1705, and the palace renovated by George III and IV, Queen Victoria was the first monarch to live there. Her throne is still there. Many people do not know that Queen Victoria was an artist, and you can still see her sketchbooks on display at the palace. Even a couple of her gowns and some of her jewels have been carefully preserved. Queen Victoria is remembered as one of Great Britain’s greatest monarchs with an entire era named after her, the Victorian Era. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is her great, great, granddaughter, while Prince Charles and Prince William continue the royal line. The history of Great Britain’s monarchs and traditions is infused into every fiber of the palace. Walking through Buckingham Palace is not just about royal opulence. Every part of it weaves the story of the royal family and Great Britain through time.
Our next stop on our royal journey was St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s has existed for centuries, but was raided by Henry VIII for any treasures it possessed, mistreated during the Civil war, and finally lost in the Great fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding it, and in 1711, it was finally declared finished. Sir Christopher Wren’s architecture is unique and beautiful even to my untrained eyes. St. Paul’s is a huge cathedral with a choir area, a baptismal font and a lengthy black and white checkered floor. It has some characteristics of Roman Catholic cathedrals, but it is not. It is a main cathedral of the Church of England. It is distinctive in that it does not have the statuary and colorful paintings that are common to the Roman tradition. Instead, the beauty is built into modern embellishments that are cleanly elegant. The cream colored masonry is embellished with an almost simple geometric elegance. This is the cathedral where Admiral Nelson who was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar is entombed and memorialized. This is where many of Great Britain’s military heroes are buried and remembered. In the lower level of the cathedral all around Nelson’s tomb, were smaller tombs and memorials all with poppies laid nearby in remembrance. Great Britain has had her share of wars. The wars, and those who served Queen and country are remembered. In addition to being full of war memorials, St. Paul’s has been a place of celebration. Queen Elizabeth II has had two jubilee celebrations at St. Paul’s. Diana and Charles were married there. As I walked down the long black and white checkered aisle towards the choir and the altar, I have to admit that I felt a thrill realizing that I was walking the same steps Diana did on her wedding day. For a moment, I turned into a middle school girl and I wanted to squeal! (I restrained myself with some effort.) My excitement received an eye-roll from Jim, but I think the Diana fans out there will understand.
We continued our historical and literary tour by going to the Tower of London, this time going back in time long before Queen Elizabeth II. As a fan of the British Royals, and British literature, I have always wanted to visit the Tower. For me, understanding British history is crucial to understanding British literature. Besides, the real stories of royals and the Tower are better than fiction. Seriously, writers couldn’t make up better or more intriguing stories than those of the War of the Roses and the Tudor monarchs!
The White Tower, or Tower of London, was commissioned by William the Conqueror, and was under construction 1075. It initially served as a stronghold. During its centuries of history, it has been a royal residence, a prison, and a place to keep the royal jewels. The Tower is a fortress comprised of several buildings with a green in the middle. Much of what would have been needed to survive during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance could be produced within the fortress walls as it more like a small village rather than a lone building.
The Tower is also a place of intrigue. There is small marker in a staircase doorway which was at the heart of a classic, ages old, “who dun it”. The marker is where the two sons of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, brothers of Elizabeth of York, and the rightful heirs to the throne, were believed to have been imprisoned and killed. Historical mystery ensued. Who did it? Richard III Plantagenet, who is famously vilified by Shakespeare, may have ordered the boys’ deaths, or perhaps it was his wife, Queen Consort Anne Neville. The children were taken from Elizabeth Woodville, the widow Queen, and her daughter, Elizabeth of York, and conveniently disappeared in the Tower under the care of Richard III in 1483. Richard then claimed the crown as Richard III even though he was considered a usurper by many.
Skeletons of two children were discovered in box at the bottom of an enclosed, unused stairwell when the Tower was under renovation in 1674. Were they the skeletons of the princes? We may never know for certain, but historians believe that they might very well be, and King Charles had them buried at Westminster. Whatever the case, Richard III was later killed in battle by Henry VII, who then married Elizabeth of York joining the houses of York and Lancaster, ending the War of the Roses and starting the intriguing Tudor reign. Today, the old staircase and entrance are open with a small sign designating that this is where the Princes in the Tower are believed to have been found.
The Tower has become most famous as a prison during the Tudor period. Jim and I got to see the infamous “Water Gate” or “Traitor’s Gate”, the gate to the fortress that was used to bring high ranking prisoners by water during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. Jim and stood on the green where Ann Boleyn, and her younger cousin, Catherine Howard, two of the six wives of Henry VIII, were beheaded. Interesting that although Anne Boleyn was was seen as a homewrecker, and called a whore by the English people for her displacement of Good Queen Katherine of Aragon, it seems sentiment has changed. There is a memorial on the green where Anne, and other high ranking nobles were executed, almost as an apology. There is a small marker in the nearby chapel where she is buried near the altar. Later, Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, was brought through the Water Gate when her sister, the Catholic Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary, and her advisors thought the Protestant Princess Elizabeth was plotting against her in the 1500s. Elizabeth succeeded the throne after her sister Mary, and used the Tower as a prison as well. When you tour the Tower, you can still see the etchings by the people who were kept as prisoners. Some of the people must have had a long stay at the Tower as the etchings are often intricate.
Today, the Tower is used to house Her Majesty’s royal jewels. The crowns still used today as well as the crowns, orbs and scepters from previous monarchs are housed there. All the golden tableware used for a monarch’s coronation is also kept there. Many Americans think Hollywood or the women on the Housewives shows are glamorous. They have nothing on Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. The jewels within the crowns and scepters are beyond any dreams I could imagine. When visiting the crown jewels in the Tower, people are asked to get on a people mover, or conveyor belt that moves people along the eye popping row of spectacular jewels. You won’t see any pictures of the crown jewels here as photos and videos of the crown jewels are strictly prohibited. The jewels are the private property of Her Majesty the Queen, so she is entitled to make the rules. Jim and I adhered to that rule because we believe we must honor the rules, customs, and traditions of the people and places we visit. We were told by one of the men who was a Beefeater, that all who work in the Tower are military or retired military, and many of them live in the fortress. Hence, it would be a bad idea to even think about stealing any of the Queen’s jewels. Again, I felt surrounded by history. As we viewed the Tower from across the Thames later, it seems a castle standing regal in a forest of modern silver skyscrapers. That is London, a celebration of tradition, old and new.
After we toured the Tower of London, we walked across Tower Bridge to the New Globe Theater to see a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Theater was popular during the Tudor monarchies, particularly during the Elizabethan Period. Elizabeth I, and her successor, King James Stuart, of King James Bible fame, were patrons of Shakespeare. The New Globe Theater is built very near the original Globe, and even nearer to the the remains of the competing Rose Theater. It was strange experience to walk down the street to see a large marker in an apartment parking lot to designate the place where the original Globe stood. We had dinner at the Swan, which is within the theater. It is a theater in the round open to the sky in the middle. There are no microphones that we could see at the Globe. It was an incredible experience as a lover of all things Shakespeare and Elizabeth I to see a play at the New Globe. If you visit London, the New Globe Theater is a must. The play was at times poignant, and sometimes funny. I found it fascinating that there was much gender bending within the roles. Falstaff, for example, was played by a woman. Prince Hal and Hotspur were also played by women. Why not? During the Elizabethan period, all the roles, even the female roles, were played by men. Interesting take on that tradition.
London is a tapestry of people, history, and some of the best stories. Explore! Go see where real stories took place and history happened. God save the Queen!
In an earlier post, I wrote that I have a love of history stemming from my studies in literature and music and the history surrounding the arts. The arts have certainly influenced me, but long before I went to college, my father, Daniel Barton, was my first influence. He loves a good story, and historical adventures. He is a treasure trove of British and American naval history and raised my sister and I on sailboats. Understanding the history of Great Britain, particularly England, means understanding naval history. The British have always been a nation of sailors. It is their skill in sailing and naval warfare that propelled them to the position of being a world power with Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The British went on to colonize and influence much of the world. Tea, spices and textiles, were much sought after as luxury goods. Natural resources such as lumber provided a means of continuing Britain’s shipbuilding industry. Britain’s colonial history is complicated, messy, and controversial, especially in places such as India and Africa. Not all those who were colonized wanted or needed to be colonized, and colonization has had long lasting implications. When I visited India and London, I observed a very complicated relationship between modern Indians and the English. The Indian people saw the English colonization through the East Indian Tea Company as an affront to their ancient culture and traditions. Still, I noticed in India that the English tradition of tea time in the mornings and afternoons is observed, only with chai tea and English shortbread cookies. In London, Indian restaurants are bountiful and Indian spices are frequently used. It makes me wonder, who influenced who?
Aside from colonial controversy, I inherited an appreciation of all things related to boats from my father. I simply had to go to either Greenwich or Portsmouth when Jim and I visited London. Dad voted for Portsmouth, but Greenwich is just a short boat ride down the Thames from London. Jim and I took the Underground from our hotel in South Kensington, not far from Buckingham Palace and Harrods’s, to Westminster Pier. We boarded a boat from the pier and enjoyed views of London from the water while listening to a tour guide’s description of how the Thames has played a part in London shipping and trading as well as stories about the buildings we passed.
Once we got to Greenwich, it was a short walk to the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory lie at opposite ends of a large park. The end of the park that houses the Royal Observatory is on a hill overlooking the town of Greenwich. In dry dock by the National Maritime Museum is the most fascinating attraction for those who love ships, the Cutty Sark, the famous clipper ship whose likeness decorates bottles of Cutty Sark Scotch. The Cutty Sark was part of the tea trade, and later, the Australian wool trade. She is the last surviving clipper ship of England’s glory days in the tea trade. She was built in 1869, and spent a few years sailing trade routes before she and her sister clipper ships were superseded by steam ships that could use the Suez canal for a shorter route East. Like other clipper ships, she was built with taller masts, a slimmer hull and a whole lot of sail in order to sail faster. She was the racer of her day, and the pinnacle of clipper design. Today, she is preserved in dry dock, masts standing tall and proud, with docents ready to tell stories of her adventures of sailing to Asia and back again. Boxes of tea are aboard with placards to explain how the tea trade worked. The Cutty Sark is raised, and there is a cafe below her, so you can see her gleaming hull. Fascinating!
We went on to the National Maritime Museum near Cutty Sark’s dry dock which included much of Great Britain’s proud naval history. An entire room was dedicated to Lord Nelson’s death aboard the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. It also included a barge from the reign of the Hanover Kings. As a music scholar, I remember the stories about George I and his court composer George Frederick Handel floating down the Thames on barges while Handel’s orchestra performed his famous composition, Water Music. The barge in the museum had been preserved much as it would have been in 1717 when Water Music first debuted.
After the National Maritime Museum, we walked out through the park to the village of Greenwich. The section of Greenwich near the park looks exactly like what I pictured an old English town to look like with quaint old storefronts and pubs, so Jim and I stopped at an old pub for a pint and a plate of meats, cheeses and bread.
After our break, we went back to the park and hiked the hill to the Royal Observatory. If you have ever been a sailor, or been aboard a ship, you may have heard the term, Greenwich Mean Time. If you have, that means that Greenwich keeps time for the world. It is 0 time. If you have ever heard of the Primer Meridian, it is here. We get our time standards from Greenwich. The astronomers who were appointed by the reigning monarch stayed here with their families and not only studied the stars, but explored new ways to aid navigation.
During our time in Greenwich, I wished my father was with us. As an old salt with time in the United States Coast Guard, time as First mate aboard the Halve Maen, the replica of Henry Hudson’s ship that explored the Hudson River in 1609, and many, many days of sailing our own family sloops ranging from 12 to 40 feet, he understands navigation far better than I do, or ever will. I love to write and I love history and music, but math was always my nemesis. I won’t attempt any more than the most elementary explanation of navigation and what we saw at the royal Observatory here. Suffice it to say that in order to figure out where they were with more precision, mariners needed to time how far they were from Greenwich. Every hour they sailed away from Greenwich equaled 15 degrees longitude on the charts. This is modern longitude. Problem was, not only only did they need clocks which were precise, but which could also withstand the motion of the ships and ocean. A prize was offered for the invention of a maritime clock that could keep accurate time even aboard a rocking (and sometimes rolling) wooden ship. Trust me. I’ve been aboard the Haeve Maen. Those wooden ships do rock and roll. John Harrison puzzled over 5 variations of his maritime chronometer until one worked. He finally was awarded some prize money from George III before his death in 1776. You can still see his chronometers, or maritime clocks, when you visit the Royal Observatory. They are exquisite time pieces, beautifully fashioned unlike anything clock makers produce today. There are placards and docents available to explain navigation and the part that the clock played as navigation aids.
After we spent the day between the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, we decided to head back to London. My advice is to get right back on the boat to Westminster Pier. Yes, you can take the Underground, but we couldn’t find a station nearby and ended up walking for the better part of an hour through places that were not as pretty as the park or the section where we had lunch to finally get to one. The boat is a far easier and more pleasant option, even if it is a little more expensive.
For the mariners in your life, Greenwich is a must. Visiting the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime Museum, and the Royal Observatory sheds light on Britain’s proud maritime tradition.
For us, as Americans, England is a many faceted place of fairie tales, age old stories, castles and dreams. In many ways, England, and the British Isles are our mother country. Our legal system, our culture, even some of our cuisine are all rooted in Britain. We may have rebelled in 1776 for good reason, however, it could be argued that we never stopped loving our mother country. Consider our current fascination with Britain’s Royal Family if you doubt our love for all things British.
If you love literature, as I do, England is a place of enchanted castles and timeless tales of heroes. For a lover of literature, there is no better place than England. Jim and I stayed in London for a week, and because we don’t have children, we were able to explore the museums, the castles and the pubs where history happened. We were fortunate to take a side trip out through the Cotswolds to Warwickshire, Warwick Castle, Oxford and Stratford.
While we walked through Warwick Castle, we could see the different periods in English history as it was first commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1068 and underwent several renovations over time. The great hall had been left as it had been during medieval times, but the upstairs was refurbished in the 1800s. We continued to the man made mound at the end of the castle which is belieed to have been commissioned by Aethelflead at the end of the 800s. It is certainly the remains of an old baily. I had read Bernard Cornwall’s series, The Saxon Tales, with my father, in which Aethelflead and her father, Alfred, play a large role. It was a surreal experience to stand on a mound perhaps created by a formidable woman who lived so long ago during the Anglo Saxon Period. I found myself texting my father that I felt like I just stepped into a Bernard Cornwall novel. From the mound, we had a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. For me, standing on Aethelflead’s Mound, as it is still called, was a real life connection to the Anglo Saxon period and Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia as well as the Bernard Cornwall books.
Next, we went on the Stratford to tour Shakespeare’s house. Yes, the house of the Bard himself still survives. I found out that it was to have been demolished in the 1800s, but for the efforts of Charles Dickens and his friends who worked to see that it was preserved. Walking through the house where the Bard was born and raised made him seem that much more real. At one point, I touched a door frame with my fingertips and whispered to Jim, “He was here. Shakespeare was here.” I almost couldn’t breathe as I walked the same steps he had walked so long ago. I had hoped to also see the first folio, which is often on display in the house, however it was not on display while we were there. It was still more than gratifying to walk the steps that Shakespeare walked. Much of the rest of Stratford is touristy, and there is a large outdoor market with all sorts of trinkets to buy. We bought handheld pastries with bacon, leeks and cheese and walked through the market with them. Delicious! Stratford is also where the Royal Shakespeare Theater is housed. Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard, Star Trekthe Next Generation) Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) and Dame Judi Dench (M in several Bond movies) were all well regarded members of the Royal Shakespeare Theater long before they became famous in Hollywood. If you are there when a play is happening, it’s a definite must. After all, the play is the thing.
We then went to Oxford and toured the parts of the campuses open to the public. We couldn’t go in, but we saw Exeter, the school where J. R. R. Tolkien taught. The medieval architecture of Oxford is stunning, and exactly what we Americans envision it to be, maybe even more beautiful. Oxford has an incredibly old library, but we chose to go into the local bookstore instead. Oxford is, of course, the home of the Oxford Press which published most of the books I read for my college courses, so the bookstore was extensive. Then we had to hunt down the pub where J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met their friends, the Inklings, to talk about their literary ideas, the Eagle and the Child, or the Bird and the Baby, as locals call it. We drank a pint in honor of Tolkien and Lewis. I had to investigate the entire place, and told Jim that I couldn’t believe we were drinking where Tolkien and Lewis drank. I think I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
You don’t have to love literature to love Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle, but I felt as if my love of literature and history gave me a deeper appreciation of the places. I felt the literature I loved come alive as I walked the steps that my favorite authors walked long ago. For me, Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle were not just touristy places for photo ops. These were the places where my favorite authors lived, wrote, and history happened. Go to Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle for the history, the architechture, the literature, and of course, the pubs. Have a hand held bacon, leek and cheese pastry while you are there.