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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A glimpse of wildness

A watching tiger

As promised, I have finally written a post about our visit to Nordens Ark last year. It is a tale of a surprisingly sunny day, playful red pandas, hungry snow leopards and extremely unimpressed cats. Plus a little ponderance about the ethics of zoos and the power of caged animals.

Åby fjord, where Nordens Ark is based

Åby fjord, where Nordens Ark is based

As you may have guessed from the name, Nordens Ark is a zoo, and it specialises in endangered and threatened animals, running breeding programs and educating about the issues that endanger these creatures. For obvious reasons it specialises in European animals, though some of the critters that are exceptions to this rule greeted us as we walked in. They were furry, red and continually pounced on each other, tumbling about in a manner that made all 4 of the women in our little group coo and melt slightly. I dare anyone to resist the charms of red pandas, even from a distance.

Red pandas - awwww

Red pandas – awwww

The two guys stood at a slight distance, trying to translate the cooing sounds (there is a specific Swedish word that refers to cute things, it seems), but not protesting about staying at the enclosure for a bit longer.

Continuing along the designated trail, we found very sure-footed mountain goats, lynxs hiding on cliffs and owls, inlcuding Hedwig who looked rather miffed to be in captivity, though given that she was killed I’d have thought she’d be relieved (I’m not going to apologise for spoilers, because if you’re worried about them you really should have read the books by now, honestly).

Hedwig is not happy

Hedwig is not happy

We also came across some animals that I had been looking forward to seeing since I’d first heard about Nordens Ark, and started badgering my partner into visiting. A herd of the slightly hard to pronounce, and spell, Przewalski’s wild horse. These horses are the only remaining species of wild horse left in the world, a breed that has never been domesticated and until recently was extinct in the wild. As a historically minded horsey-girl from way back, I have long wanted to see one, and practically ran down the path when we neared the enclosure. They looked like fuzzy ponies, as they had already grown their winter coats, and I was enraptured.

Przewalski's wild horses

Przewalski’s wild horses

Further along, we encountered a breed of cat that was even less impressed with us than Hedwig had been. Despite it’s name, the Pallas cat, implying to me some sense of wisdom (see: Pallas Athena), the impression I got was a sense of extreme grumpiness and just cannot-be-botheredness. For most of the time that we stood and watched (and giggled) at the cat, it sat with it’s back to us, apparently staring at a rock. The picture below was taken in the brief moment it deigned to glance at us, grumpily, and then turned back to it’s vital rock-staring.

Pallas cat being grumpy

Pallas cat being grumpy

Very soon, however, we came across other felines who were not of the grumpy persuasion. They were some of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, and whose near extinction seems one of the most tragic. Fortunately for them, and us, the breeding program seems to be going well, and so we were able to see a total of 5 snow leopards. The father was in his own enclosure, lazing about and considering the hunk of meat that had been hung from a tree for his lunch, while the mother and 3 cups were variously relaxing and attempting to reach their own lunch. From what we could tell, the cubs have a lot to learn about such things as climbing trees, reaching out for food and critically, not falling down all the time.

Lunch time for the cubs

Lunch time for the cubs

While the cubs tumbled, swiped and climbed the mother watched and walked around. She reminded me of one of the negative aspects of a zoo; it is more or less a prison. Yes, it protects animals that may otherwise starve or be hunted in the wild and it helps educate people, but at the same time it deprives those it protects of their ability to be wild. Maybe someday we’ll find a compromise, and I hope that the descendants of the snow leopards we saw that day will still be around to benefit from it.

Mother snow leopard

Mother snow leopard

By this point it was reaching our own lunchtime, and so we headed for the wolf building, a large hut with glass sides that looked out over the wolf enclosure. As we sat and enjoyed our picnic and sipped hot chocolate mixed with Baileys (oh yes), we saw no sign of the wolves. It seems that there had been some health scare or breeding issue, so all but one of the wolves in Nordens Ark had been removed. After lunch we had another look, but could see nothing. As the others went on to the next enclosure I saw a small movement among the trees and watched carefully for a while until it coalesced into the shape of a wolf. It stood there for a short time and then disappeared. It was the first wolf I had ever seen.

The first wolf

The first wolf

We then passed reindeer, frogs, raptors and almost missed seeing the most threatened cat in the world. There was only one Amur leopard in the park, sitting on a rock in what seemed a smaller enclosure than the snow leopards. It too seemed bored, and beautiful, which I suppose the reason for it’s status (the beauty, not the boredom).

A bored Amur leopard

A bored Amur leopard

One of the next animals was one that certainly isn’t endangered due to it’s luxurious pelt, and in fact isn’t as threatened as the other animals that we had seen. The description of the wolverine, and what we saw of it, indicated that it’s reputation for viciousness and strength aren’t exaggerated. A solitary wolverine can apparently take down an elk, which is quite a feat for an animal that ranges from between 60-100cms long. While we were there, the first sign we had of it was a pine tree shaking as it climbed down the branches, thereby ruining my possible idea about escaping from them up a tree if I even spotted one in the wild. I really hope I never do, as I am smaller and quite a bit less fearsome than an elk. Usually.

A curious wolverine

A curious wolverine

After passing a few more unimpressed cats, we reached the enclosure of a cat that definitely fit into the impressive category.

Still not amused

Still not amused

I have seen tigers before, and remember then being struck by how trapped they seemed and how threatened by human stupidity they were. The Amur tigers at Nordens Ark were bored, walking around the tracks that had been made by their repeated loops, but I was also able to get a glimpse of how wonderfully stunning and powerful they are. I didn’t know until I just looked it up right now that Amur tiger is another name for Siberian tiger, an animal that I have been fascinated about for a very long time, as it is the largest of the big cats. There were 2 enclosures, one with a high platform that the tigers were sitting on, only able to be spotted by their tails and paws over the sides, but in the other enclosure a single tiger was in full sight, prowling around and ignoring us for the most part. I don’t think I need to go on about how amazing it is to see a tiger, and how sad it is as well, knowing how few are left, as anyone who has ever seen one will know what I’m talking about.

Amur tiger

Amur tiger

Even more impressive than the sight of the tiger prowling however, was when it lay down in a secluded part of the enclosure. Some of us walked around to find it and once there agreed that we were lucky that there was a fence. The tiger lay on the other side and watched us intently, barely moving as we took photos. Staring back into those eyes I wondered what it would be like without the fence and the cage, to be at its mercy. Perhaps, like that day, I would be too transfixed to run.

A watching tiger

A watching tiger

That visit was about 2 months shy of a year ago now, and I still think about the animals I saw there, and my conflicted feelings about zoos and how to protect endangered creatures. As I look at the photos I took there though, there are two things that stand out, more so even than the grumpy cats and cute pandas. One is a brief glimpse of a wolf, an animal that has played such an important part in human culture for most, if not all, of our history.
The other is the stare of an immense and powerful cat, trapped behind a fence as a result of human greed, but capable of making me feel like prey, while at the same time wanting to worship it.