Tuesday, May 16, 2000
Today promised to be a full day. We managed to leave the motel at 8:30 a.m. and arrived at the Tower of London just before 10 a.m. In the dry "moat" surrounding the tower was a small deer. Our Heritage Passes allowed us 50% off the admission price saving us about £7 each.
As we entered we bypassed the tours and headed directly to see the Crown Jewels. We quickly walked through room after room of roped "lines" with video monitors playing documentaries on the Crown Jewels. This was a clear indication of what the crowds would be like later in the day.
We soon found ourselves enjoying a "private" viewing of the Crown Jewels. With the exception of the security guards we were the only ones there. This allowed us to oooh and aaaah as much as we wanted.
To view the actual Crown Jewels you step onto a moving walkway that slowly takes you past. We were able to just walk backwards and stay in front of each crown as long as we wanted. We were also able to go back around and see the other side of the crowns (there is a moving walkway on each side). I am not sure if this is allowed during more busy times. You definitely wouldn't be allowed to linger in front of the crowns as we did. I also bugged the guards with many questions that I am sure they answer countless times during the day.
So, here is a big tip, when going to the Tower of London get there early and head straight for the Jewel House. Later in the day the line came out the door and snaked off down the hill. I was told that it took nearly two hours to get through at that point! I would also assume late in the day that the lines are much shorter. But around 10 - 11 a.m. the tour busses start showing up and dropping off the hordes of tourist.
After the Jewel House we walked back to the entrance gate to join one of the guided "Beefeater" tours. The "Beefeaters" lead these free tours. These are retired military that have served at least 22 years in the service with distinguished careers. They live at the Tower and serve as guards. (There are also military guards on duty with very lethal looking weapons).
The "Beefeater" Tour is a must. They are hilarious and very informative. There are also several other tours they lead that you must sign-up for. We didn't have time to take one of these other tours.
We found a tour that had just started so we joined in. Our guide shared many entertaining stories about the Tower of London and its history. Some of the specific stops on the tour included Traitors Gate, Tower Green, the Ravens, and the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula. The only way to see the chapel is on a tour or by attending a service there on Sunday. The entire tour last just under an hour.
After the tour we went through the White Tower. The White Tower is the heart of the Tower of London. It was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror and has served as an armory, records house, dungeon, garrison, as well as many other functions through its millennium long life.
The White Tower is large and we spent nearly an hour going through its many rooms. A large portion of the White Tower now serves as a Armory Museum. It is filled with all types of armor, swords, guns, pikes, and a vast number of wicked looking weapons. At the top of the tower is a small chapel in which is kept the (Large and Small) Domesday Book. This is an ancient book of land ownership. The basement of the tower contains a gift shop and a collection of cannon.
We then took the East Wall Walk. The only reason we took the East Wall Walk was so we could enter Martin Tower. One interesting thing about the East Wall Walk is it allows you to look down onto the homes of where the "Beefeaters" live. Inside the Martin Tower is an exhibition sponsored by Debeers on diamonds. There is also a collection of crowns that have had their precious stones removed. It is a very interesting exhibition and only takes a few minutes to go through.
Beneath the Martin Tower is a gift shop. I tried to enter but was told that they only allow so many people in at a time. So I went elsewhere. Actually, I wouldn't have spent any money anyway. Looking inside it appeared to be a very expensive gift shop.
We headed downhill and took the South Wall Walk. It included a tour of several rooms and some excellent views of the river. By this time we were "Towered" out. We bought some drinks and then found a place to sit and watch the ravens. We also ate some of the granola bars that we carried with us everyday. These proved to be a quick energy pick-me-up as well as saving considerable money by not having to buy food.
Exiting the Tower of London by the South Wall, we started towards Tower Bridge to take the Tower Bridge Tour. Our Heritage passes allowed us into this tour free. The tour starts at the northwest "tower." We managed to walk to the north-east "tower". There was no way to cross this extremely busy road at this point so we had to walk back down the bridge and cross the road to get to the correct side.
Would I recommend the "Tower Bridge Experience"? If you have time to spare, don't mind climbing several hundred stairs, and want to see some nice views of the city, then take the tour. Otherwise, I think I would take a pass on this tour and just walk across the bridge and enjoying the view from that level.
The tour begins with an elevator ride to the first room. There is a series of three additional rooms that you must go through before you reach the top of the bridge. Each room is up a flight of about 60 stairs. While this cleverly allows people to stop and rest several times before reaching the top, it also makes the tour overly long. Each room has a small audio-visual display and some animatronic "bridge workers".
Once you are at the top of the bridge you can cross between the two bridge "towers" by means of glass enclosed walkways. I will say that the views are great. You then descend back to bridge-level on the south tower (placing you on the south side of the Thames).
After exiting the tour we went to the south end of the bridge to visit the machine rooms. These rooms house an exhibit showing the original machinery that allowed them to raise and lower the bridge in just over a minute. Today the bridge is opened about twice a day.
By now it was close to 2 p.m. so we decided to hop a bus to St. Paul's Cathedral. The nearest bus stop (that would take us where we wanted to go) was a good mile away at Tower Hill. There may have been one closer (and probably was) but this was the only one we knew about. So we trudged back over to the bus stop. Once there it seemed we waited for thirty minutes for the bus to arrive. In that time a hundred other busses stopped before ours arrived (and this is not an exaggeration).
Finally, our bus arrived and we found ourselves enjoying our first double-decker ride through the city. The tube is great and gets you around very quickly; however, you really can't get a sense of the city that way. By taking the bus you begin to realize the size of London.
We soon found ourselves at St. Paul's Cathedral and just as quickly found that it was closed for the day. Bad Luck. Or so we thought. We hopped a second bus to take us to Westminster Abbey. On this trip I noticed how many people would hop on the bus (even as it was moving through the open door in the back) and ride for just a few blocks before hopping off again. When we arrived at Westminster Abbey I had to push Pat and Alan off the bus as there was no bus stop. We jumped off when the bus came to a stop in traffic.
Next to Westminster Abbey is St. Margaret's Chapel. There was a large crowd outside the chapel so I asked someone what was taking place. She told me that the Queen, the Queen Mother, Prince Phillip, and much other royalty were inside attending a memorial service. The service was over and they would be coming out in just a few minutes.
So Pat, Alan, and I each positioned ourselves for a good vantage point to see and take pictures. Within about 10 minutes out came the aforementioned royalty as well as many others of who I will never have the slightest clue. Of course, the lady in front of me kept point and saying, "There is Duchess....., there is Prince....., there is Lady....."
Pat got a couple of good photographs. Unfortunately, every time I took a picture it was just as the Queen stepped behind someone. So I have some wonderful pictures of the Queen's hat, her arm, her back, and her leg, but I don't think I got a single picture of the Queen.
As we were standing there, a man came out of Westminster and announced that the last admission was in 10-minutes. Having seen the "important" royalty, we headed into the Abbey.
What can be said about Westminster Abbey? Wow! If you enjoy history (and even if you don't), Westminster is overwhelming. Poet's Corner, the tombs of Mary and Elizabeth (who were arch rivals in life and now buried together), King Henry V, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the tomb of Stanley Livingston, and so much more. Of all the cathedrals we visited, Westminster was the most interesting.
It was nearly 5 p.m. so we decided to stay and attend the Evensong service. We were there early enough that we were able to sit in the Quire (or choir, i.e. where the choir sits). It is amazing to sit in a church where worship has taken place daily for nearly a thousand years. It is also wonderful to be able to participate in a worship service. I very much enjoyed this opportunity.
Our only clear plan on leaving Westminster was to find a toilet. The only one we could find was several blocks away at a department store. After concluding our business, I decided we should walk over and see Buckingham Palace.
We had debated whether we should try and attend the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham. We finally decided not to as we would be attending the Ceremony of the Keys. I had also seen the Changing of the Guards on television and movies enough times to know that it wasn't a "must do" event.
As far as I can tell, there are no bus or tube stops within 10 blocks of Buckingham Palace. This was as close as we would get and we had nothing else to do so off we went. As we headed towards the palace we saw a small sandwich shop. We hadn't stopped to eat all day (except for a granola or two). So we purchased sandwiches, crisps, and colas to carry with us.
We arrived with the sun low in the sky behind Buckingham Palace. The weather was still warm and we enjoyed a picnic on the steps of Victoria Fountain. After taking all the necessary pictures we started for Victoria Station so we could catch a tube back to Tower Hill. We had tickets to attend the Ceremony of the Keys at 9:30 p.m.
Arriving at Victoria Station with still more than two hours before the Ceremony started, we decided to find a place to have dinner (those sandwiches were an appetizer). Across the street was an Angus Steak House. This is a chain of steak houses across London. The prices are in the £7 - £18 range. It was nice just to sit and relax. The most interesting thing to me about the restaurant was the toilet. The men's toilet was in the basement. To get to the commode you had to duck under several pipes before entering the stall. The ceiling of the stall was made of frosty glass bricks and you could see the shoes of people as they walked by on the sidewalk.
Pat ordered Egg Mayonnaise (this is basically a salad - we had first found these in Ireland) while Alan and I ordered steaks and chips. The steaks were small but tasted good enough. I also ordered a Lemonade Shandy. I had heard many people talk about these so I knew I should try one. From what I found a Lemonade Shandy is half-lemonade and half-beer. But once again we need a definition. Lemonade is a carbonated soft drink very similar to Sprite. Alan seemed to enjoy the lemonade and ordered one most places we stopped to eat.
After dinner we crossed the street and took the tube to Tower Hill. A cold front had moved in and the temperature had dropped to the point it was very cool outside. With still some time to wait, we stopped in the Tower Hill McDonald's to relax and use the toilet. Around 9:15 we went to the entrance to enter the Tower. While waiting I started talking with a lady and her college-age daughter. We shared what we each had been doing and gave and received several tips. They had been able to view a debate in Parliament (I was jealous) and we had seen the Queen (they were jealous).
Precisely at 9:30 p.m. a "Beefeater" arrived to let us into the Tower of London for the Ceremony of the Keys. The reason for the "Beefeater" title is lost to history although some say that it comes from the fact that these were the King's men and thus were able to eat beef every night.
The Ceremony of the Keys is an age-old ceremony where the Tower of London is locked-up for the night. It is as full of rituals as the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, the difference being only a small group of about 40 people are allowed in each night to witness the Ceremony of the Keys. Tickets are free by writing and requesting the number of tickets needed for the particular night you will be attending. Since tickets are very limited you must write several months in advance. You must also enclose two International Return Coupons (from the U.S.A., not sure for other countries). These coupons may be purchased at any post-office for about $1.10 each. I had written in January for the tickets.
It was a beautiful night with a large full moon over the Tower. Inside, the grounds seemed vastly different with the absence of hundreds of tourist from just a few hours before. The ceremony takes about 30-40 minutes. And your "Beefeater" escort is eager to answer any questions you may have. I definitely recommend trying to attend this event if you can.
Once the ceremony is completed and the Tower is locked-up for the night, you have to figure out a way to get out. Fortunately, there is a "small" door in the gate that is kept opened to allow you to leave.
We took the tube back to the hotel arriving after 11 p.m. (after stopping in the little store for a cola and some crisps). It had promised to be a full day and it was. We collapsed in bed knowing tomorrow would be the same.