Friday, July 1, 2016

Diary of a World Traveler

England Day 6: A South Bank Adventure

We woke to a bright and sunny morning in London—a welcome surprise after the past day of clouds. Plus, it was perfect weather for our most walking yet! A full day of exploring the South Bank treasures ended with a fabulous ride on the Eye, just as the sun was setting hazily over the city. I could not have asked for better weather or a better day traversing yet another part of this beautiful city.

Today, we could not afford to be lazy. We had a whole set of events that needed to be done in a time sensitive order, so nothing could go amiss. Our first stop was the Tower of London and the surrounding grounds, which involved an early morning Tube ride on the Center Line from Embankment to Tower Hill. I was amazed to see so many people crowding towards the station. It was like a stream of people, all obviously heading to work. Being previously unexposed to city commuting, this was a strange but fascinating phenomenon to see.

After our longest Tube ride yet, we surfaced across the street from the Tower grounds. We picked up our pre-purchased tickets at the counter, then proceeded to enter and explore the grounds before the guided tour at 10AM. Tower guards, or Yeoman Warders, give these tours once every half hour. We learned that William the Conqueror built the whole complex in 1066 as aftermath of the Norman invasion. Numerous jokes about the French ensued, which was probably the funniest part of the whole tour.

The main takeaway from the tour was that violence and imprisonment were not the Tower’s only purposes. Sure, the White Tower was built as an intimidating reminder to the common people of London. And yes, people were imprisoned there during the 16th and 17th centuries—Queen Elizabeth I being the most notable. But most people were actually executed on Tower Hill, not on the grounds. And, there are so many more functions of the Tower: an armory, a treasury, a menagerie (including a polar bear from the King of Norway!), the Royal mint, and the home of the Crown Jewels. It is no wonder securing the Tower was key to securing the country.

As interesting as I am sure it would have been to listen to the whole tour, there were so many people that we chose to hang back and explore on our own some more. We learned about the famous Tower ravens, and that was about all I wanted to hear. Legend has it that six ravens must guard the Tower, or the monarch will fall. Today, they have not just six, but six and one spare. Apparently Britain cannot be too careful when considering the success of its monarch. The most interesting fact about the ravens was that the birds live to be over 40 years old when in captivity in the Tower. They require wing clipping to keep them there, but they can still fly around. They just cannot fly away too easily—even if some have been known to. To learn more about this fascinating longstanding cultural tradition, read more about the Ravens here.

After we left the tour, we continued on to see the Crown Jewels. The line was nonexistent so early in the morning, so we basically walked right in to see them. We even rode the crown walkway twice, since we wanted to see both sides. But even if there is a wait, I would recommend sticking it out. Everything in the keep is extraordinary and absolutely worth seeing. Swords completely covered in jewels, serving dishes made completely of gold, and silk-draped trumpets last used at Queen Victoria’s coronation. 

I was astonished at the quantity and quality of every item. I had to keep reminding myself that all of the jewels were real, every piece of metal uniform. The collection is priceless, and shows the enduring power of the British monarch. The most amazing moment for me was realizing that all of the crowns in the case, no matter how many centuries old they might be, were all preserved in perfect condition. These items are valuable not only for their monetary cost, but for their importance as an age-old cultural symbol.

We finished our tour of the grounds with the Royal Armory. This is a multi-level display that features some of the most iconic horse and body armor of all time. The first floor displays the Line of Kings, a 300 year old exhibit of royal arms, armor, and wooden horses. Each piece is authentic, and each horse fits the real horse’s armor. In fact, many of these horses are over 350 years old. King Henry VIII’s looming figure sits in a corner, along with other pieces worn by people like “the Giant” and “the Dwarf”.

In addition to the armor, numerous arms and oddities are displayed in the Tower. There were endless displays of swords, guns, and axes, as well as specific specialty items like bits, wrist guards, horse helmets, and spears. On the top floor, there was even a dragon made from shields and other weapons!

Finally done with everything the Tower had to offer, we made our way down to get a good view of Tower Bridge. This is another one of the most iconic symbols of London, so I was very excited to finally see it in person. I stood for the obligatory tourist shot and looked out at all of the modern buildings on the South Bank. The Shard stands so clearly above them all, with its strange point and smooth walls.

We continued down the river to get to London Bridge, where we would be crossing to get to our next few stops. Though many Americans think that Tower Bridge is London Bridge, they are actually neighboring bridges. London Bridge also gives a great down river shot of Tower Bridge, which I thought was amazing. And as relatively simple its construction might be, it is certainly a busy place for pedestrians and cars to cross.

As soon as we stepped foot the South Bank, I could tell I would love it. As we made our way to the famous Borough Market, we found crazy statues, an old ship restaurant, and an amazing cathedral within tall office buildings. We could tell once we were getting closer to the food, since everyone around us had some sort of exciting snack, sandwich, or styrofoam box. I could not wait to see what this incredible market had to offer.

And let me assuredly say that it did not disappoint. There were so many options that I did not even know what to choose. The market lives under the rail line, so most of it is actually enclosed—a welcome change for a market. Plus, this market is 1,002 years old. Yep, that’s correct! It is one of the oldest markets in London, which means it has had time to cultivate only the finest food stalls. We strolled past meat counters, pastry shops, a toasty stand with an incredible line, and more vegetarian and vegan options than anyone could ever hope for. I decided to go for a vegetarian burger from a stand called the Veggie Table, which had a variety of delicious meat-free options for those that still love a the feel of a good burger. I almost tried the halloumi burger, but then went for the Classic V cheeseburger instead. Everything I ate was completely vegan—the bread, the patty, and even the cheese. It was delicious!

Next, we walked through the remainder of the market, just browsing for samples and for particularly yummy things. I bought a piece of almond baklava and a vanilla bean doughnut from the Bread Ahead bakery stand. Both were absolutely delicious. Diana spent a lot of time sampling honey from a stand called From Field to Flower. Even though I wasn’t going to buy anything, the workers were still encouraging for me to try different types. A particular favorite of mine was the Devon Flower, but all of them were superb.

Done with food and completely stuffed, we headed down to the Globe Theater for our performance of Taming of the Shrew. We picked up our tickets at the box office and proceeded to our £5 standing spots. I could not believe, after hearing so many stories and seeing so many recordings, that I was finally in the Globe. The entire time, I felt I was in some sort of dream. The cast moved through the standing guests to make their way to the stage. Actors’ spit was very close to landing on my face. Everything was great.

But the real kicker about this show was the theme. The play was set in 1916 Ireland, during the Rising. Exactly what we had spent the last ten weeks learning about. I absolutely could not believe it. The entire cast either was Irish or adopted Irish accents, they sported drab 19th century dresses and suits, and had repeated references to shoes, songs, and independence. My one complaint is that though the play fits very well in this time period, the lines of the original play were still the lines spoken. Nothing was altered to fit the time period or the location. This only presents a problem for people who might not know the importance of shoes to Irish people, or why independence of a character like Katherine is so parallel to the independence of a place like Ireland.

And the way this actress played Kate… she was phenomenal. Not only was she called to do the part exactly one week before our show, but she already had the majority of her lines memorized. Plus, she knew how to play the character. She was not happy in the end. She was loving and obedient, but she had to give up her spirit. And it clearly hurt her to do so. The whole performance was spectacular to see, even if there were some points of confusion. My favorites were Bianca (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), Lucentio (Aaron Heffernan), and Tranio (Imogen Doel).

Once the three hour show finished, we sat on the bank until feeling returned to our feet. We could not dawdle for too long though, no matter how much our feet hurt. We needed to take the Queen’s Walk all the way to the Eye for our 6:30 ticket time. Reluctantly, we got up and left our peaceful little steps by the Thames. Luckily, however, the Queen’s Walk is one of my favorite things we did the whole trip. The weather was perfect, which always helps. But even besides, there were buskers, a giant bubble machine, a sandbox the size of the sidewalk, a book store opened underneath a bridge, too many food trucks and stands to count, and even a punk skate park and a carnival. It was amazing and I am so happy we got to see all of it.

We finally made it to the Eye. After a bit of a scare regarding the confirmation email (as in, I never received one but my card had been charged), we got our Fast Pass tickets to go to the top. By this time at night, the line was so long that I was incredibly happy we had our fast passes. Plus, we walked literally right up to the loading deck and did not wait in line at all—we got on the next available car. It was crazy. Pay the extra money, people, because I have never done something so easy in my whole life. It was so worth it.

But the views! The views beat everything. We made these reservations so long ago that we did not know what the weather would be like, or how far we would be able to see. In another stroke of continued luck, we got an absolutely beautiful hazy golden hour, just as the sun started setting. Clouds littered the sky and made the whole scene look like an elaborate imagination. Big Ben glowed in the light, and the river reflected the water back onto the boats and buildings around it. Everything about it was perfect.

Exhausted by now, we exited the Eye and made our way back toward Westminster to the hotel. I got some more great shots of the palace in the sunshine, as well as some pictures of the lake in St. James’s Park. Contented with all we had done, we both collapsed for an early night. We took one of everything from the free buffet, including ice cream and hot chocolates for our weary bodies. Nothing could compare to a day like that, but ice cream always ends anything the right way. I fell asleep instantly, letting myself get some rest for our final day in London!

photo credit Diana Cleveland 

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