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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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*.
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.