On our journey back to Thailand, Theresa and I stopped in London for a six-day holiday. Since this was Theresa’s first trip to the U.K., visits to the prime tourist sites were de rigueur. Fortunately, by the time we had reached London, Theresa’s broken ankle had healed and she was able to walk without her crutches. Frankly, the sightseeing we did would have been altered dramatically if she had still been hobbled. While bus tours and taxis would have gotten us around, I think that there is more to see on foot and the Underground is typically faster and less expensive than using London’s black cabs.
After a red-eye flight from JFK, we arrived at Heathrow about 10:30 a.m. and we were checked into the Park Lane, our home for the next five nights, around noon. The weather forecast was for good weather during our first two days, rain over the next three, and then fair weather again on the day that we would leave. Thus, our objective for the first afternoon was simply to walk in the City and see as much as we could while we had good weather.
We put Theresa’s ankle to the test as we hiked for several miles around Westminster. After we left the hotel (point H on the map below), we went through Green Park toward Buckingham Palace. In about 10 minutes, we were at the Queen Victoria Memorial (point B) and right across from the palace. While the palace is far less ornate than Bangkok’s Grand Palace, the Neo-Classical architecture and scale of the building clearly signify the power and authority of the monarch.
From the palace, we headed east along St. James’s Park toward Westminster Abbey (point C) and the Palace of Westminster (point D) with the iconic Big Ben. After looking at these building and taking the obligatory pictures, we walked toward the Westminster Bridge that spans the Thames for a closer view of the London Eye. Although it was only about 4 p.m., the sun was quickly setting and the streetlights and Christmas decorations were beginning to illuminate the city.
From the riverbank, we backtracked toward Big Ben and then along Whitehall toward Charing Cross. We passed by Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister (currently David Cameron) and we could see a lit Christmas tree outside his residence. It was dark by the time we arrived at Trafalgar Square (point E), yet the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson high on the memorial column was not yet lit.
The square honors Horatio Nelson who established the naval supremacy of the British fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. With a fleet of 33 ships, Nelson defeated a combined force of 41 French and Spanish vessels capturing 21 of them and their crews and destroying another. Nelson, however, died from wounds that he received during this battle that took place off the Spanish coast near Cape Trafalgar.
The TKTS booth in Leicester Square (point F) was our next destination. I wanted to know where this kiosk was so that we could pick up some tickets in the morning for a show the next evening. Along our way, we went by a restaurant called The Texas Embassy just across the street from a storefront promoting Thailand. Maybe we were just tired, but this seemed amusing to us since we had just left Texas less than a week ago and we would be back in Bangkok within the coming week. After locating the TKTS booth and checking out what shows were offering day-of-performance discount tickets, we began our trek back to the hotel.
Our route took us through Piccadilly Circus (point G) and we were struck by the resemblance to Times Square where we had been two nights earlier. While Times Square is unquestionably larger and grander, both are near their city’s theatre districts, both have large video displays that light up the surrounding area, both have a plethora of bars and restaurants, and both are magnets for tourists. Along the way back, we window shopped in the many arcades along Piccadilly and stopped for a quick dinner. I think we were asleep by 9 p.m., maybe earlier.
We awoke refreshed and ready for a day of adventure. The weather forecast was now calling for rain to arrive in the late afternoon and to stay with us for the next few days. We decided that we should book tickets for the London Eye, which we were able to do on-line, and then make our visit whenever the weather looked decent.
After a quick breakfast, we returned to the TKTS booth where we purchased tickets for the evening performance of Million Dollar Quartet. By this time, the sun was beginning to come out from behind the clouds, so we jumped on the tube at Leicester Square and headed to Waterloo, the stop nearest the London Eye. By the time we came back above ground, the sun had disappeared, but we decided to queue up anyway. We had about a 40 minute wait to get on the Eye, and a light sprinkle began when we were about halfway along.
The London Eye, initially called the Millennium Wheel, was opened in March 2000 for the Millennium celebration. It is a giant Ferris Wheel but with enclosed, air-conditioned capsules that hold about 25 people rather than the simple seats for two or three found at the amusement park. From a distance, the Eye looks like it is stopped, but it isn’t. It moves continuously, albeit quite slowly, and each car completes a rotation every 30 minutes or so. The loading and unloading occur as the cars are moving, but entering and exiting are really no more difficult that getting on and off an escalator or moving sidewalk.
The views of London from the Eye are simply spectacular. The cars are large enough that people can move from one spot to another without interfering with the other passengers. Even with the light rain and overcast sky, we could see miles from the top of the ride.
The light rain had stopped by the time our ride was over, so we headed back to the subway for a trip to Tower Hill. We arrived at The Tower of London just after 1 p.m. and immediately joined a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeomen Warders, also known as the Beefeaters, have been guarding the castle since 1485 when the unit was formed by King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.
The guide explained that the White Tower, the central building in the fortress, dates back to 1078 when construction began under William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The complex was expanded during the following two centuries. Over time, the tower complex has been used as a royal residence, a treasury, an armoury, and a prison.
The first prisoner is believed to have been Rannulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham in 1100 while the most recent was the Rudolf Hess (Adolf Hitler’s deputy) who was captured in Scotland in 1941. Other notable prisoners include Sir Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh (three times!), William Penn, Guy Fawkes, several kings of Scotland and of France, and many deposed British monarchs including Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the second and fifth wives of Henry the VIII. Some were released for ransom while many others, including three queens — Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey — were beheaded. The queens, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fischer are buried in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains) located on the Tower grounds.
Today, the Tower is home to the Crown Jewels, which we saw during our visit. There are nearly 24,000 jewels in the collection including the Great Star of Africa (530 carats) and Lesser Star of Africa (only 317 carats), both of which were cut from the Cullinan Diamond that had a rough, un-cut weight of 3,100 carats. In order to keep the crowds moving, two moving sidewalks take visitors past the crowns, sceptres, orbs, and jewels that are on display. The automated walkways effectively prevent people from lingering in front of the displays and blocking the views of others. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside the jewel vault.
As early as 1200, the complex was home to wild animals. The Royal Menagerie contained rare beasts — lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, ostriches, grizzly bears, polar bears, zebras, owls, monkeys, and kangaroos — that would otherwise not have been seen in England. Many of these animals were gifts from other kings and royalty. Animals were in residence until 1832 when the Duke of Wellington had them moved to the London Zoo in Regent Park after many escapes and attacks on staff and visitors.
Ravens, however, still remain on the grounds. Ravens are scavengers and they were likely attracted to the Tower grounds by the corpses from the executions that took place there. Today, the ravens are fed six ounces of meat daily as well as biscuits soaked in blood. Legend has it that if the six ravens ever leave, the Tower and kingdom will fall. Hence, at least seven ravens (with clipped wings) are kept at the Tower. When King Charles II’s astronomer complained about the ravens interfering with the observatory, Charles II had the Royal Observatory moved to Greenwich rather than displace the ravens.
We toured the Tower grounds until the 4:30 p.m. closing, and by that time it was dark. After a short walk back to Tower Hill station, we rode the Underground to Green Park and then walked back to our hotel. We had enough time for a quick clean-up and change of clothes, and then we were off to dinner at Carluccio’s in Covent Garden. Although we did not have a reservation, the wait wasn’t too long and the food was very good. The server was aware of the 8 p.m. curtain for our show, so she made sure that we got out in time. Fortunately, the Noël Coward Theatre was just two short blocks from the restaurant.
The Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of the only time Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis played together. The impromptu session took place at Sun Records in Memphis in December 1956, not too long after Elvis had moved from Sun Records to RCA and just as Cash was preparing to move to the Columbia label. While the storyline is neither overly compelling nor complex, the music was fabulous, particularly the high energy performance by Ben Goddard who portrayed Jerry Lee Lewis.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.