A ‘tower’, an abbey and charming eccentricity

London, the third:

As we climbed up the stairs at the Tower Bridge station, we were ambushed by history older than we’d expected. Looming over us was a wall, 5 metres tall and a metre thick, built and rebuilt over the years, starting in the 200s BCE. The wall once encircled what was then the Roman town of Londinium, and while only fragments of it remain, you can trace is through the names of streets, from Aldgate, Ludgate and the obvious London Wall.

An emperor, cranes and a really old wall

An emperor, cranes and a really old wall

In the shadow of the wall was a statue of Trajan, looking imperious, as well as a flock of tourists peering around through their cameras, looking less imperious. As the wall quickly came to an end, we followed the path it would have taken to a slightly more recent site, one which I’m sure you would have heard about, if not seen in an historical drama of some sort.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is not, as the name suggests, a tower. It’s a fortress, admittedly made up of a number of towers, surrounded by a high stone wall and a moat. And tourists. We decided not to go on a tour, but instead walked around it, admiring the ancient stones, the width of the Traitor’s Gate (I guess there must have been many of them) and the combination of brutal harshness and glimpses of royalty.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

From the Tower we crossed Tower Bridge, which was very impressive in person, and definitely contributed to the feeling that I was in London, the London of the stories and postcards. In a good way. Walking along the embankment, we passed a replica of the Golden Hinde (Sir Francis Drake’s ship), the Globe Theatre (a replica of the theatre built for Shakespeare’s plays) and innumerable people out on their lunch break from the skyscrapers lining the Thames.

Globe Theatre

Globe Theatre

Then I headed off to look at the graves of famous dead people. They were all housed in a very fancy building in a prime position by the river, namely Westminster Abbey. I won’t tell you how much the entry ticket was, for fear of frightening you, but after carefully skirting the graves of Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, William Pitt the Younger, Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell (briefly) and the Unknown Soldier I was able to come to terms with it. Other notables included Chaucer and memorials to Austen and pretty much any other author or poet you can think of. Plus most of the kings and queens of England since Edward to Confessor, which is a lot of royalty in one spot. Most impressive was the old and indeed long casket of Edward Longshanks and the elaborate memorials to Queens Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. After death they have been placed together, Elizabeth just above her half-sister, a setup that makes me wonder how they would have felt about it.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

It is a very beautiful building, and chock full of history, from the paving stone graves to the ceiling of the Lady Chapel and it incidentally fulfilled one of my life ambitions to have Jeremy Irons narrate my life, if only for an hour. It did also, despite being so tied in with Royalty and Religion, have a remarkably secular feeling, which I guess is the anglicanism as opposed to the somewhat shouty catholicism of Italy and Spain.

The final historical trek of the day was to a museum that had been highly recommended by friends, and as a plus was free. It was located down a side street opposite a park, ad looked from the outside very much the Victorian town house that it was. Once inside, I felt as though I’d fallen back in time, and would accidentally interrupt the gentleman of the house or a maid down a dark corridor. The gentleman in question would have been Sir John Soannes, who I’m guessing must have been something of an eccentric, as his house is packed full of antiques, paintings, models and the paraphernalia usually seen in obscure museum collections. Plus the sarcophagus of Seti I.
In order to keep the mood authentic, there is no unnatural light, so as darkness began to fall outside it became more difficult to make out statues in corners or the detail on carvings. Sadly like Westminster Abbey photography was not allowed, so I can only rely on my memory to describe the narrow corridors, woodpanelled and painting lined rooms and lived-in feeling which made me feel as though I was an intruder in someone’s house. Though it would have been someone who would have happily interrupted my musings with a long story about how he came across a relic, and would probably have told me not to walk with such a twisted, elbows in way for fear I’d knock something over, but rather relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
Instead of Soanne himself, there were a bevy of volunteers perched in alcoves or wandering about, ready to spill facts and info at anyone with an ounce of curiosity. This happened to me, and I spent a very interesting 10 minutes hearing how the sarcophagus was lowered into the room via a specially made hole in the roof and that most of the statues and models were in fact plaster, which made me feel a bit less worried about my elbows.
As I write this I realise that I could easily spend an entire blog post just talking about the house and its wonders. Maybe someday I’ll return to the house and the blog and try that, but suffice it to say that it is well worth a visit, and if you need another fact to sum up its endearing eccentricity, picture large dried thistles on every seat. To stop people sitting on the old furniture, obviously.

And what could possibly follow from a visit to the house of a very English eccentric? As you no doubt guessed, it was a poke around at Kings Cross St Pancras station. Yes, I did go to the actual Platform 9 and took a photo, and then found a huge queue leading to an owl-encumbered trolley wedged into a wall on the main concourse. At the end of the line two people with a camera and a lot of enthusiasm were setting up photos for the fans who eagerly leaped about with wands on command, sometimes while one of the staff sang the theme song at high volume. I didn’t stop for a photo opportunity, but I did check out the store which was packed with enough fans and merchandise to make Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes look like the Tasmanian international airport*.

Platform 9

Platform 9


'Platform 9'

‘Platform 9’

We followed up this busy, history filled and walking heavy day with a trip to a local Hackney micro-brewery, marveling between us at the richness of sights, stories, culture and life in London. I mean, where else can you go where you can be narrated by Jeremy Irons?

*At least as it was 13 years ago, before anything as exciting as another shop to compete with its existing single cafe and a non-corrugated iron roof. I love you Tasmania, really.

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Streets and stones of London

Though my previous post may have lead you to believe otherwise, there is more to London than just staring at fascinating and ancient artifacts from around the world.
Before I get into that and continue our adventure from the portico of the British Museum, I have a joke relating to an item at the museum to share with you, dear reader.
Me: Knock knock?
You: Who’s there?
Me: Sutton.
You: Sutton who?
And then we laugh. I came up with that joke all by myself, though I have to say that the first listener didn’t give me quite the response I was after. Some people just have no taste.

Anyway, having left the museum (and material for other hilarious jokes) behind, we continued down to the main street, further into London. As we went I noticed plaques on the walls of the very typical townhouse frontages, one of which stood out especially. It was dedicated to Dame Millicent Fawcett, who as I’m sure you know, was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and played an important role in the campaign for women’s votes. History really is everywhere.

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Dame Millicent Fawcett lived here

We walked for a while, taking in the bustle of tourists and locals, the black cabs and double-decker red buses and ye olde style pubs. Soon we found ourselves in Leicester Square, which seemed to to be heart of the West End. Wherever we turned, huge posters for shows loomed above us, some familiar and some new. We headed to one of the last minute booking stands, and after some discussion, booked tickets to a certain musical for the second last day of our stay. There will be more on that in a later post, and yes, it was fantastic and not revolting at all.

It seemed now that we were starting to slip into the more well known parts of London, the streets and squares featured on endless tv shows and movies. One of the most recognisable squares also waited just ahead of us as we went down towards to river from Leicester Square. All of a sudden, a huge column topped by an old fashioned looking gentleman came into view, and beneath him was spread a place that I have seen so many times that I felt a sense of deja vu. It was also bigger in person, the fountains on either side more like elaborate paddling pools and the lions under Nelson’s Column many times larger than life. At the time it was too dark to properly make out the statues on plinths around the square, but something that was well lit up was the National Gallery, sitting becolumned and huge behind the square. It was closing as we arrived, so we put that off until another day.

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National Gallery at night

In addition to the tourists and locals hanging about and climbing the lion statues, there was a collection of flowers, candles and waterlogged posters huddled next to one of the fountains. The words ‘Je suis Paris’, #endhate and the tricolour in various forms were almost lost in the darkness, lit up by the light of the fountain and the flash of cameras. And if you’re wondering, no we didn’t notice a huge amount of security, no more than the serious clusters of bobbies that I imagine would usually stroll around busy areas.

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Je Suis Paris

From the square, as we turned our backs on the National Gallery, a familiar clock face appeared in the distance. Not having any other plans, we headed towards it, dodging crowds, crossing busy streets and passing endless pubs and theatres. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben were all as impressive as I’d thought they would be, lit up and seeming to have just jumped out of a guidebook.

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There was also one final sight that I wanted to take in, one that isn’t on the front pages of the guidebooks. The Stone of London. I’d heard about it in the novel Kraken, by China Mieville, and then found references to it in guides to obscure sights of London.
It’s origins are mysterious, from a Roman mile stone, the foundation of a bath house to the remnants of a medieval wall, and has been mentioned in travel guides from the middle ages to the 18th century. In the 14th century the leader of a rebellion against the king swore an oath on the stone before going to war (he failed, though it probably wasn’t the stone’s fault), and it was commonly believed to be the heart of London. If it was moved, so it was said, the city of London would fall.

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The Stone of London

It’s now located behind a grating in the wall of a convenience store, with only a small plaque and the neighbouring London Stone pub giving away its location. Maybe in another 2000 years it’ll still be there, slightly more reduced and unimportant looking, dragging myths with it into the future.

After all this adventure our feet were starting to hurt and our stomachs were rumbling, so we sought out dinner and drinks and then went home. By the time we made it back, sleepy and tipsy, the name of the train line that we had to catch was completely hilarious. It kept us going at least halfway home.

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A tube line