Our second (and final) full day in London started early, around 8 am. We walked through Green Park to get to Buckingham Palace. It was a startling contrast from the day before, to be up with the commuters and joggers and not have to deal with any other tourists (also, it was not a ‘changing of the guard’ day so it was going to be much quieter anyway). We took advantage of the lack of crowds to take pictures in front of Buckingham Palace.
We began to walk down the Mall, then turned left to make our way towards Clarence House and St. James Palace and saw staffers rushing in to work. Preparations were underway for the Royal Wedding, which also prevented us from entering certain areas surrounding the palace.
We turned left on Queen’s Walk, then realized that we needed sustenance to keep us going through the rest of the day. We initially wanted a “proper English breakfast” but stumbled upon Patisserie Valerie, a cafe on the corner of St. James’ Street and Piccadilly, and had a delicious breakfast of eggs Benedict, orange juice and coffee instead.
Bellies full, we made our way to the Piccadilly Circus tube station and took the tube to the Tower Hill stop (changing once at Embarkment). We arrived at Tower Hill and when we exited the station, the Tower of London loomed before us. Though my husband is the history buff between the two of us, there is something about the Tudor period that I just cannot get enough of. After reading a historical fiction novel, The Lady Elizabeth by Allison Weir, I became fascinated with the Tudors and the scandal of their history. I also thoroughly enjoyed Innocent Traitor, the historical fiction account of the life and death of Lady Jane Grey, who ruled for 9 days and was executed for high treason at the age of sixteen.
Barely able to contain our excitement, we headed to the Tower. Tip: We had done research beforehand and had a “2-for-1 London” coupon for the Tower that we were able to use since we had purchased the Travelcard, so for both of us, it cost £19.80. We entered the Tower, which is not just one solitary building as the name may imply, but rather a series of castle-like buildings, towers, apartments, and a chapel all amidst several grassy areas (Tower Green) sitting on the banks of the Thames. When we arrived, we noticed a sign that said that a guided Yeoman Warder tour (no additional charge) would begin at 10:15 am, which gave us about an hour to explore the grounds. We decided that, since it was still very early, we would head to the Jewel Tower to see the Crown Jewels and beat the line. There were several other tourists just ahead of us but we did not have to wait to enter the building. There are several rooms that you pass through where a short film plays on a loop, broadcasting events such as Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and highlighting the role of the jewels in these events. If they had only punctuated important events with diamonds and emeralds in my high school history classes, I might have done better…
We watched these short films, then moved onto the next room, which showcased thrones throughout the centuries and had each family’s coat of arms along with an engraving of the dates of the family’s rule. It was very poignant to see the thrones of centuries past juxtaposed with the current royal family’s thrones. I know there are many anti-monarchists out there but one has to admit that it is still a very cool piece of history.
After moving out of the throne room, we finally hit upon pay dirt: the Crown Jewels. The room is set up in a strange manner: the case of jewels are on the lower level, and there is a ramp with an upper level for stationary observation. I say this because you are not allowed to stand still and admire the jewels up close–there is a slow “people-mover” type of conveyer belt that you have to stand on to check out the jewels (which is kind of annoying for someone who gets motion sick and I am not sure how well it bodes for wheelchair accessibility either). Since I had popped a Dramamine prior to getting on the tube anyway, I was fine but it was rather strange. I suppose it is for a) security purposes (you can’t stand still enough to get an idea of how to break in, etc) and/or b) counterfeiting prevention (since you can’t take photographs, there is not enough time to sketch anything) and c) crowd control. There were only about 20 of us in the room so there was no need to worry about moving us all along, but I can see how things would get backed up at busier times. (Okay, enough about my digression on the people mover…)The Crown Jewels are stunning. Absolutely amazing. The diamonds (amongst other jewels) on each tiara, crown, staff and ring are breathtaking and each piece’s role in history is um, also really interesting. But the jewels…we definitely rode the conveyer belts at least twice to get another look.
After leaving the Jewel Palace, we stopped by the ravens on the green of the White Tower. Legend has it that there must be six ravens at the Tower, and if they ever leave, the entire Tower will fall. Their glossy, iridescent black feathers are gorgeous, and they are definitely larger up close than I realized.
By this time, it was around 10 am, so we made our way back to the entrance of the Tower to queue up for the Yeoman Warder tour. A crowd of about 50-60 people had amassed by the start of the tour. A Yeoman Warder (aka “Beefeater”) is a member of the Royal Bodyguard who has served in the armed forces for at least 22 years. (It seems strange that, after all of that, they end up as tour guides, but I guess it’s a lot safer than fighting abroad and the hours are better…)
Our Beefeater was also something of an amateur comedian; he greatly enjoyed poking fun at various members of the tour, which is something I guess you have to do to amuse yourself if you give the same spiel 8 times per day. But he was actually very funny and also very knowledgeable. The highlight for me was the visit to the Chapel of Royal Saint Peter ad Vincula, where an inordinately large amount of people are interred, including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey.
Just outside of the chapel is an execution site memorial engraved with the names of Henry VIII’s wives who were executed on the Tower Green. From far away, I had no idea what it was and thought it was an inflated plastic bag, but up close, I realized that it was a glass pillow and, in fact, a rather beautiful memorial to the people whose blood (innocent or not) was spilled on this site.
After the tour, we left the Tower and walked across the Tower Bridge, an iconic London landmark spanning the Thames. This bridge is often wrongly called the London Bridge, which is actually a much less visually impressive concrete bridge further down the Thames. The view of the Tower of London from the Tower Bridge is pretty remarkable, especially with the historical palaces juxtaposed alongside the modern buildings of downtown London.
After crossing the bridge, we walked along the Millennium Mile, a walkway that parallels the Thames on the south bank of the river. Many pedestrians were out enjoying the gorgeous warm weather, strolling along the banks of the Thames. We walked quite a while on this, then turned left to make our way to Borough Market. We had read about this market in several guidebooks, but also had seen it on an episode of Samantha Brown’s travel shows (Passport to Great Weekends). It is an open-air market (that is shielded from the elements by a huge awning) that has both temporary and permanent vendors selling local produce as well as delicacies like chocolate, cheese, bread, cakes, and even granola! We walked through the market and had some samples at the various vendors at the temporary stalls (and could not resist purchasing truffle-infused honey with truffle shavings inside–yum!), then headed inside to the more permanent stalls to sample their goods. I got a pretty delicious orange-mango juice (since my throat was really starting to hurt and I was getting hit pretty hard by some type of upper respiratory infection–more on that later!), which I sipped as we made our way over to Kappacasein, a stand that specializes in cheese-related dishes (that was also on Samantha Brown’s show).
We each ordered a toasted cheese sandwich, which was a combination of cheddar cheese, onions, leeks and garlic. We probably could have split one sandwich, but we ended up each getting one. [According to their website, they are no longer at Borough Market]. After sitting for a minute (ah, resting our feet!) to eat our sandwiches, we left the market and walked over to the George Inn, a historical bar (also featured on a travel show–this time, our travel guru, Rick Steves) where Shakespeare and Dickens were rumored to frequent, amongst other famous Londoners.
Since my cold was rearing its ugly head, I only drank water but my husband got his coveted Guinness and thoroughly enjoyed it while sitting at one of the many picnic tables in the courtyard outside.
We left the George and walked back towards the Thames. We passed by (but did not go into) Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (which is a replica as the original burned down in a fire) to get to the Tate Modern. We stopped for a moment at the base of the Millennium Bridge and took in the view of the spectacular bridge that looks like it is in perpetual motion.
We entered the Tate, which is a museum of modern art and is free to enter (individual exhibits have an additional charge). One of the most impressive aspects of the museum was the fact that it is a converted factory and that much of the original structure remains.
After leaving the Tate, we crossed the Millennium Bridge and headed to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is directly across the Thames from the Tate Modern.
Unfortunately, our 2-for-1 London coupon had expired the week prior so we had to pay full price (£14.50 each) for admission. The cathedral has played an enormous role in British history, and one of the most noteworthy events was Princess Diana’s wedding. We were given iPods with pre-loaded tours on entry (which were pretty cool) and began our audio-guided tour of the main floor, then headed downstairs to see where many people had been interred. My husband then made the 400+ step trek to the top of St. Paul’s dome to take in the spectacular panoramic views of London. I bailed on this–between my cold and my sore feet, I would have probably had to have been hospitalized afterwards had I done it! So I got to enjoy the pictures of the view with none of the pain or work, both of which were apparently pretty significant!
After we left St. Paul’s, we took the tube to the British Museum (admission = free), which houses a large amount of art and reminds me a little bit of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Had I not been so sick, I think I would have enjoyed it more.
Prior to going, we had downloaded a guide from their website (you can choose from 1 hour or 3 hours at the museum) to see the highlights and pick out what we wanted to view most. Since I love languages, it was a no-brainer that I wanted to see the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering heiroglyphics.
We also saw one of the statues from Easter Island and some of the ruins from Ancient Greece. I would absolutely go back to the British Museum (in a healthier state, of course) as there is so much more to see.
We left the British Museum and took the tube over to the British Library (admission = free). A party was being set up in the middle of the library, which closed some of the stairwells and initially threw us for a loop, but we figured it out pretty quickly. In the center of the library on the second floor, there are cushy chairs, each fitted with a lamp and an outlet for a computer. Had I gone to school in London, no doubt would this have been my studying place of choice (it almost made me want to be a student again. Almost). We had a list of things to see, which all fortunately were housed in the same room. The British Library is home to many historical literary and musical artifacts, including the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s first folio, and lyrics to “Imagine” by John Lennon, scribbled on the back of a birthday card (awesome). After looking at pretty much every document or book in this room and gasping in awe at the fact that we were looking at originals from hundreds of years ago, we left the library.
We had pretty grand plans for the rest of the day, as it was about 5 pm: we were going to go to a few shops (Fortnum & Mason, Selfridge’s) and end up doing a pub crawl. Given the significantly declining state of my health, we ended up heading back to the hotel, where I crashed hard and was down for the count. My husband went for a run in Hyde Park, where he ran past Kensington Palace, Speaker’s Corner, and the Princess Diana Memorial. He, too, passed out when he got back from his run and we ended up snacking on macarons that we had brought with us from Paris for dinner (we could have ordered room service or even gone to Nobu–right in our hotel–but we were exhausted)! Since we had to be up at 4 am anyway to catch our train back to Paris, we were okay with turning in early.