Day 4, Thu, 9/25, 5AM to 5PM
We were all awake between four and five AM. We willed ourselves back to sleep. Our alarms went off to awaken us for an adventure packed day. We slept through them. We planned to get out early to pack in the amazing sights of this metropolis. We just slept.
Late in the morning, a text from mom said: “Are you at the Tower?”
“My parents are already at the Tower of London!” I yelled at Sarah. We were still getting ready. I furiously texted mom back. It was a blur, but out in the hallway I ran into Dad.
“You’re still here!” I told him. My dad shrugged. Of course he was still here. That’s when I found out none of us had kept to the prearranged early schedule. Jetlag blows.
Sarah and I “tubed” to the Tower of London–Mom and Dad split off from us, to pursue more novel destinations in the city of cities. There was construction at the tube station, and we haphazardly clawed our way through crowds and orange tape to the surface. We emerged into bright sunlight and we were still half a mile from the Tower. We tried to get our bearings, looking for the entrance.
Thousands of people squished themselves against the railings overlooking a red moat surrounding the Tower walls. I had no idea what was going on. Apparently, there were millions of glass poppies being placed that day. Each symbolized a fallen soldier from The Great War. Later I would find out the art installation was called: “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” (http://poppies.hrp.org.uk/about-the-installation). It was impressive, although not why I had come.
I’ll be honest. There were three reasons I wanted to see the Tower. First, because it’s a big deal historically, politically, and socially for England. Second, because I wanted to see the crown jewels. Third, I wanted to re-experience those giant ravens. The ravens were about all I remembered from the last time I visited the Tower–at around five years old. Indeed, by the end of the day, the ravens stand out more than the crown jewels in my mind.
Inside the grounds, was a totally different exhibit than outside. Rather than a sea of crimson cermamic flowers, there were full size wire sculptures of exotic animals (“The Royal Beasts” hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/WhatsOn/RoyalBeasts).
Apparently, they represented real animals, gifted to Britain’s monarchs over the centuries. The descriptions next to them were incredible. Apparently, gifting an elephant or a giraffe is a lot more of a “fuck you” than a heartfelt “thank you.”
The ravens were no disappointment. One bounded right up to Sarah and I was waiting for him to jump up on her head.
Ravens are even smarter than the stories you hear about them. Apparently their favorite activity is to nab snacks from a “rubbish bin” right after a tourist throws something away. But at one point, an artsy raven jumped up onto an antique cannon because he (or she) knew people love that shit. Ergo, the amazing picture Sarah got here:
That would make a better postcard than any I saw at the Tower gift shop. A foregrounded raven with the White Tower in the background and a Union Jack topping? It’s like an English cultural sundae. If only the raven also nibbled on a Pound coin showing the Queen’s head and Top Gear’s stig was visible in the Tower doorway.
Sarah and I pried ourselves away from the ravens to see the crown jewels. You feel a rising exhilaration for anything when you have to walk through a door that’s two feet thick and made of steel. We walked through more than one to see all them fancy rocks glued to hats and batons. It’s definitely weird thinking of the crown jewels in so mundane a way.
There’s a special conveyor belt that you ride down in order to see the hats of past monarchs. Of course, each king or queen has to outdo the previous one–thus each crown down the line (and behind thick glass) appears more weighed down than the last. They manage to stick those shiny carbon crystals closer and closer together. At this point maybe the next King will just have a black velvet hat with a gram of antimatter suspended above it.
Sarah and I rode that conveyor belt more than once, mind you. “YES, THE GLORIES OF WEEKDAY TOURISM,” I should have yelled.
Besides all them jewel encrusted hats and batons, the “Royal Collection” room contains other leftover relics actually even more impressive. Following the monarch’s coronation, the royal after-party (“the grand service”) is a one ceremony even Lizy II didn’t do–because it had already reached an unprecedented scale of conspicuous affluence. Nobody did those like the 19th century Kings.
There’s little you can do, to outdo, a monarch that has a giant feast with a massive hand-carved, golden punch bowl. See it here: royalcollection.org.uk/collection/31768/the-grand-punch-bowl. It’s called, “The Grand Punch Bowl,” which is like calling the biggest goddamn explosion imaginable: “The Big Bang.”
The Grand Punch Bowl should have been called something like, The Golden Bathtub, or The King’s Keg, or even Bacchus’ Dream Goblet. I am not at all exaggerating when I say it can fit several hundred standard punch bowls within it (nested of course). Nor am I hyperbolic when I say it has: a carved unicorn and lion; between which are dozens of Grecian party goers enveloped in grapevines; who are all standing on a giant clam; which in turn sits atop an imaginative subterranean cave filled with stalactites and sea creatures.George IV, aka Georgey Fourgey, who commissioned the bowl from John Bridge (in the 1820’s) died before it was completed. Admittedly, that should be unsurprising to amateur historians, who all know that Georgey was absurdly fat and never sober by that point in time. Incidentally, those are the reasons why he is my second favorite English monarch (he would have been first, but he likely had his wife poisoned because she wouldn’t divorce him; though to be fair, English King’s killing their wives is an olde tradition).
To John Bridge, I have to say, “Jesus dude. Now that’s a punchbowl.” In a few ways, the leftover relics of the royal after-party (“the grand service”) ceremony are more impressive than all of the jewel encrusted hats combined.
We managed to blow through the White Tower itself, which of course was full of memorable and historical (arti)facts. I won’t go into them now, it’s just too overwhelming. We did find ourselves with enough time to check out the dungeon, which, I don’t recommend at all. It’s neither gory enough, nor storied enough. It would seem, the tourist board still can’t decide which way to go with it. You can try and tell the stories of real people that were there in a heartfelt and solemn way. Or, you can go nuts with the Halloween/London Dungeon blood spatters on the walls with audio tracks of wailing persons. If you try for both it just won’t work London!
Truly, the most memorable of events was a side conversation between a “beefeater” and some Canadians. Their talk caught my attention because the beefeater was explaining that parts of the grounds were closed for an upcoming visit by the Queen. That was why painters were out touching up lamp posts and workers were hiding electrical cables with shrubbery. The whole place was being primped like an old hooker.
Turns out, the same goes for everywhere the Queen goes–I had experience of this at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, weirdly. The museum couldn’t get it’s hands on a real space shuttle, but they did get the space shuttle trainer, which is a full size mock up of NASA space bus. It was entirely accurate geometrically, except for one doorway–recut and enlarged just so that the Queen wouldn’t have to bow a little to enter the fake fucking spaceship.
“Queenie will bow to no man, nor machine!” She must have yelled at the plywood contraption.
The most amazing matter the beefeater spoke of was daily life at the Tower. There was a shockingly predictable pub on the grounds, with pints for a quid or two (employees only though). Meanwhile, housing at the Tower is based on seniority. This beefeater’s flat had floors so old and warped with age, he said, that bowling with his son was a life or death affair. I don’t think they did it more than once, it sounds like.
All of the beefeaters are soldiers and there are other special qualifications. The job also has a minimum length term of employment, after which, benefits increase steadily. That being said, a number of them who don’t have decade upon decade seniority status, hold a second job. Really, he said, the biggest pro was the free, prime London real estate. I couldn’t believe how nonchalant he was about all of this. He was chattier than a RA in a college dorm.
Ravaged by hunger, and with the British Museum imminently closing, Sarah and I semi-blindly exited the Tower of London. What we needed were pies…