Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 10)

Today was the first low-key day of the trip. No rushing around to squeeze in as much stuff as possible like we did in London. I slept late enough to actually be a little hungry upon awakening, so I augmented my coffee with a couple of rashers of bacon, and toasted “bloomer” bread with rich, fatty English butter.

There may be no better place in the world for a walk than the Cotswolds. By late morning, we were on one of the many footpaths that criss-cross the woods and pastures surrounding Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, and the larger village of Bourton-on-the-Water. (“Slaughter” comes not from the ultimate fate of many of the area’s sheep, but from “slough,” meaning “wet land.”) We crossed the River Eye (which takes about five steps on a footbridge — the scale of what earns the name “river” is a little smaller over here), noting the trout idling lazily just beneath the surface, and the duck families paddling to and fro. The only thing that could make everything ever more like a children’s storybook setting would be a bunny rabbit. As if on cue, one hopped out from behind a hedge. It was almost sickening how perfect the scene was.

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Just beyond the village, our leisurely progress was observed by a herd of curious cows, and two horses wandered over to the fence line to say hello. These horses seemed absolutely delighted to see us and have their noses stroked. Shannon, our group’s true horse aficionado, reached under the jaw of one of them to scratch its ear on the far side. The horse actually leaned into her and closed its eyes in bliss. I have a feeling it would have rolled over to have its belly scratched if we were on the other side of the fence.

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The footpath passed by the parish church of St. Lawrence. The interior chancel was preserved from the old Norman church that once stood here back in the 14th century, but the rest of the building dates from 1784. The churchyard was the usual jumble of slender, tilted headstones, and the practice of burying randomly connected family members not only in the same plot but the same grave was very much in evidence. And it seems that tombstone engravers got paid by the word. “Here is interred the mortal remains of Harold Wyckham-Pigg, Esq., parish deacon and beloved husband, father, brother, cousin, and humble servant of the Lord, called home from his earthly toils in his sixty-sixth year of life, Monday the twenty-third of June, eighteen hundred and thirty-six, anno domini. Also, Mrs. Margaret Wyckham-Pigg, beloved daughter-in-law of same, wife of Peter Wyckham-Pigg, solicitor, passed from this life on…etc. etc.” Each line in a different font, like the annoying co-worker who tapes up signs in the office break room.

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We reached Bourton-on-the-Water just in time to start looking for a place to have lunch. Bourton is often referred to as the “Venice of the Cotswolds” due to the five arched bridges that span the River Windrush as it flows through the center of town. The distinctive yellow limestone buildings that give Cotswold villages their quaint character line the stone channel that carries the river. Like much of the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water shows evidence of continual habitation since prehistoric times and its name reflects a heavy Saxon influence. “Burgh” meaning camp, and “ton” meaning estate, enclosure, or village. So Bourton is the “village beside the camp.” (On the water.) The camp may have been the remains of an old Roman camp, as Roman-era coins and pottery have been found nearby.

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Our choice for lunch was De La Haye’s Cafe Tea Room, where I indulged in what might be my favorite traditional British dish, bangers and mash. The tiny bit of green onion in the mashed potatoes was a brilliant touch. Just across the street from the cafe was Bourton’s war memorial, listing names of the village’s young men lost in World War I and II. Even the smallest village we visited had one of these, a reminder of what a toll these conflicts took on every corner of Britain.

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After lunch, some of our party went to the Motoring Museum (“Bourton’s #1 Tourist Attraction”) next door, and a few of us (myself included) wandered back to River Cottage to while away the afternoon reading, dozing, and watching World Cup (Iceland v. Nigeria).

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Not even a reach-in.

My father-in-law and brother-in-law are both super-busy-type businessmen, and a two-and-a-half week sojourn overseas was only possible for them thanks to modern technology. Most late afternoons they would have their ever-present laptops open and tabbed up with memos, spreadsheets, and schematics that I could never presume to come close to understanding, while I, as a teacher on summer break, filled my time making ice and peering into the cupboards for more crackers. 

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River Cottage living room.

Because I had so much extra time to stake out our lodgings, I commandeered the best room in River Cottage for myself. Behind a small, nondescript wooden door off the kitchen — it looked like it led to a closet or pantry — was a tiny, perfect, wood-paneled study with a low, exposed-beam ceiling, the world’s softest armchair, and a flat-screen TV mounted next to the stone fireplace. This was where I would spend the next few evenings finishing my Nelson biography, sipping whiskey with painstakingly harvested ice, writing up the notes that are the basis for what you’re reading right now, and ignoring accusations of being anti-social. The only downside was the window was right on the heavily-traveled footpath through the village center. On one memorable occasion a Japanese tourist cupped his hands and stared directly into the window, only to find me, drink in hand, staring right back. I raised my glass in friendly salutation, but he seemed terrified and scampered off. I don’t know what he was expecting to see.

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Recessed door to my hideway.

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Introvert’s paradise.

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River Cottage back garden and sunroom.

Dinner that evening was at Lords of the Manor, just outside Upper Slaughter. We took a different footpath in a different direction, passing by Lower Slaughter’s historic Old Mill, through sun-dappled woods, and sheep pastures where the sheep barely bothered to get out of our way.

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Sheep pasture selfie, on the way to Lords of the Manor.

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Located in the lower floors of a manor house dating from 1649, Lords of the Manor recently lost its Michelin star due to a change in chefs, but I have no doubt it will soon earn it back. The 19th-century Witts family once occupied the house and grounds, and were the “lords” referred to in the restaurant’s name, and their manor was Upper Slaughter and its surrounding lands. The manor house sits on eight acres of gardens and lawns.

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Lords of the Manor in the distance.

After a round of drinks on the outside patio, we were ushered inside for their seven-course signature tasting menu. By the time we approached the finish line, it was growing dark. A few of our party headed back, and some of us stayed, lingering over coffee, dessert, and the last of many, many glasses of wine.

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It was full on night-time when the last of us headed out. The woods were no longer sun-dappled, and the uneven sheep pastures seemed designed to give the after-dark traveler a sprained ankle. The sheep themselves, roused from slumber, must have been amused at the sight: a bizarre human parade, half-drunk, picking and stumbling their way through their pasture, guided only by the light of their cell phones. As we re-entered the village, we were yelled at by woman from an upstairs window for excessive noise (i.e., conversing at a normal volume in the ten seconds it took to pass her house.)

A new day brought a new van and driver, this time the amiable John. Square-shouldered and silver-haired with bushy sideburns, and a pouch of pipe tobacco in his vest pocket, John always waved to his fellow bus drivers going in the opposite direction. I felt a little bad that so few waved back.

Today we would be visiting Stonehenge, the ring of massive stone monoliths that has stood in the Wiltshire countryside since prehistoric times. We were originally scheduled to see it en route from London to the Cotswolds, but you know what day that was? June 21. The summer solstice. Stonehenge would have been totally overrun with every New Age fake druid in a thousand mile radius, banging their drums and jabbering to the heavens. But Stonehenge was at the top of most our list of things we wanted to see, so we turned it (and Lacock Abbey) into a day trip on the 23rd.

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Stonehenge as seen from the van window traveling up the A303.

Stonehenge (if it was ever actually completed, which scholars are beginning to doubt) once consisted of four concentric settings — two circles, two horseshoe shapes — made up of two different types of rock. The outer circle consists of carefully shaped rectangular blocks of sandstone known as sarsens. There would have been as many as thirty of these “uprights,” each pair capped by a horizontal lintel. Only seventeen sarsens still stand, and only six horizontal lintels are still in place. Inside the sarsen circle is a ring of much smaller bluestones, many of which are missing or very fragmentary. Inside of that are the largest stones in the monument — a u-shape made of of five sets of sarsen “trilithons” — two standing stones and a horizontal lintel, like the outer ring, but larger in scale. The tallest of these stands 24 feet high and weighs 35 tons. Inside these is a smaller horseshoe of bluestones. The sarsen stones are relatively local, but bluestones of the type used at Stonehenge are only found at a certain place on the Welsh coast, 150 miles away.

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A low earthwork enclosure surrounds the entire monument, and two parallel banks known as the Avenue lead out from the monument’s northeast. The Avenue runs (almost invisibly if you don’t know exactly what to look for) for 1.5 miles and ends at the River Avon. Along the Avenue stands a separate sarsen, the fifteen-foot high “Heel Stone,” so-named because the devil once kicked a heel mark into it (or something like that — stories vary.) A ways behind it is the flat, sixteen-foot “Slaughter Stone,” named due to its resemblance to a sacrificial altar, and the fact that the rainwater that gathers in its surface depressions turns a bloody reddish color due to the iron in the stone itself.

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Stonehenge stands on an open area of low grasses and chalky soil known as Salisbury Plain. The plain is full of literally hundreds of prehistoric mounds, barrows, and burial sites, so the area clearly had some significance to prehistoric Britons. Sometime around 3000 B.C., they dug the circular mound that now surrounds the stones. The stones themselves went up around 2500 B.C., likely representing decades of labor by successive generations. Hauling the stones on flat sledges from their quarry site, shaping the stones, and digging deep foundation holes and counter-levering the standing stones into position would all be difficult enough today, let alone in a time where the only tools were made of stone, wood, and bone. Then there’s the question of how the horizontal lintels were put into place, the answer to which is still theoretical. The most commonly accepted theory is that they were hauled up earth ramps, long enough to have a manageable slope, then the ramps were shoveled away leaving no trace. (The blocks of the Egyptian pyramids — constructed at roughly the same time as Stonehenge — were probably put in place via a similar method.)

All to what purpose? Was Stonehenge intended to be a religious temple? An early astronomical observatory? A healing shrine for pilgrims? A necropolis (many graves are scattered through the site)? All of the above? No one ever lived there. It could not be defended if attacked. There are tantalizing clues, such as the fact that the Heel Stone lines up perfectly with the summer solstice sunrise, but there is still no consensus on Stonehenge’s original reason for existing.

Time moved on and the people who made Stonehenge abandoned it. But Stonehenge stayed, although it has seen better days. Its prehistoric constructors vanished into the mists of time, perhaps scattered into the western hills and gradually fading into extinction, but more likely being absorbed by the Bronze Age Celts, who arrived in Britain from mainland Europe in two successive waves beginning as early as 2000 B.C. At one point, the first professional archaeologists believed Stonehenge was the work of these Celts as part of their druidic religion, but it is, of course, much older. The Celtic Britons were conquered by the Romans, who left no record of their thoughts on the monument that was 1,800 years older than Romulus and Remus. Enough Roman coins and pottery shards have been found there to suggest the place was well known to them. The power gap left by the Romans’ retreating army of occupation was filled by the Germanic tribes known as the Angles and the Saxons. Often referred to as another “invasion,” it was probably more of a slow infiltration. The remaining Romanized Britons either intermarried with the Anglo-Saxons (creating the wonderfully eccentric race called the English), or headed west to become the Welsh. In the Middle Ages, it was believed the circle marked the site of a battle between the King Arthur’s old Britons and the Saxon newcomers, and the stones were erected by Merlin the wizard.

The Danes and Vikings had their way with Britain for awhile, too, and of course the Normans, who we’ve already heard so much about…

Stonehenge, crumbling but still there, stood silent witness to all these changes over four thousand years.

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In modern times, Stonehenge was on private land for centuries until it was donated to the nation by its last owner, Cecil Chubb, in 1918. The public had unrestricted access to the stones and could wander and picnic among them until 1977, when noticeable deterioration caused them to finally be roped off. For many years, there was just a parking lot and the stones. Finally funds were raised for an elaborate visitor center and museum, which opened in late 2013.

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Stonehenge Visitor Center.

Most of our group wanted to head right out to the stones, but Cam and I lingered at the visitor center, which is certainly an odd-looking building. It was designed to look “lightweight and informal” in direct contrast to the timeless monolithic stones, with an undulating roof that fit in with the rolling Salisbury Plain. Weird as it looked on the outside was full of displays boasting the most state-of-the-art technology designed to guide visitors through the history of the monument.

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Typical high-tech exhibit at the Stonehenge Visitor Center.

 

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Who built Stonehenge? Val Kilmer.

On a summer Saturday, it was more crowded than I could comfortably handle, so I did not give this splendid museum its full due. In an open area behind the visitor center were full-scale recreations of a thatched hut dwelling inhabited by a Stonehenge construction worker, and one of the sledges used to transport the sarsens.

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The monument itself was a mile-and-a-half away from the visitor center. Shuttle buses took the less-hardy tourists up the private road every five minutes, but Cam and I decided to take a stroll across a small section of Salisbury Plain. The air was smoky due to what appeared to be a controlled agricultural burn on the northern horizon, and the heat of the day made the walk a little uncomfortable as we began to sweat. Compounding this was Cameron’s phobia of bees, which dive-bombed him every few minutes. (My own phobia — spontaneous public vomiting — would not be a big deal out here.) Still, it was impossible to say the walk was unpleasant. We avoided the main path, and sometimes any path at all. Occasional clusters of woods provided shade at just the right moments. We ambled through green cow pastures (with bored-looking, seen-it-all cows who chewed their cuds and observed us as if we were the exhibits) and meadows bursting with wildflowers. I was also excited to be in (or near) another iconic Beatles location.

It’s been awhile since I’ve mentioned the Beatles, hasn’t it? In their second film, 1965’s colorful caper fantasy Help!, the band is pursued by an evil cult determined to use Ringo as a human sacrifice. In one sequence, in order to have adequate protection they hold an outdoor recording section on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by machine gunners and a ring of tanks.

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The sequence consisted of two songs — “I Need You” and “The Night Before” — and was filmed somewhere between Stonehenge and the military base to the north at Larkhill.

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The camera does a quick rack focus past George’s guitar neck to Stonehenge, the only shot of the monument in the film.

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Cam and I gazed out towards Larkhill, about three miles distant, trying to match the low hills and treelines to our memories of the film.

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The Beatles once ran around somewhere out there on a much cooler day in 1965.

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We finally arrived at Stonehenge after our cross-country ramble, and shared our time at the monument with about 500 other people there that day. 

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As evidence of most people’s fundamental laziness, by merely walking around the stones to the other side, the crowd diminished noticeably, and I could contemplate this prehistoric wonder as if I were alone.

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The Heel Stone. The Slaughter Stone, lying flat, is just visible in the middle distance.

We caught the shuttle back to the visitor center, re-grouped, and headed into the nearby town of Amesbury for an Italian lunch at La Lupa (complemented by an extra-large bottle of Peroni.)

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Our second major stop of the day was on the way back to Lower Slaughter via a different route — Lacock Abbey, a 13th-century nunnery and former country home that was chosen as a destination by a few Potter-heads our party due to it being a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films. After pulling into the abbey grounds’ parking lot, which was some distance from the building itself, I continued a family tradition of striding off confidently in the wrong direction. Once we were turned around and on our way, another (newer) family tradition made itself evident — competing for the most Fitbit steps. I was Fitbit-less, and driver John remarked that he got more than enough “steps” in the Army to last him a lifetime. Wait, what was John doing with us? Hired drivers usually stay with the vehicle. But grizzled Army vet John revealed he was a proud Potter-head himself, and wanted to get a look at the place (and take pictures for his sister, an even bigger Harry Potter fan.)

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Lacock Abbey, front entrance.

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Entry Hall

The original abbey was established in 1232 as a nunnery for members of the Augustinian order. It continued in that capacity until all monasteries were shut down and seized by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The abbey was sold to one of Henry’s loyalists, Sir William Sharington, and he converted it into a country house. Sharington tore down the nunnery’s associated church and used the stone to build the house, but preserved much of the original abbey in the house’s basement and ground floor.

The house eventually came into possession of the Talbot family in the 1700s. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) was a pioneer in the area of photography. In 1835, he made what may be the oldest photographic negative in existence — a shot of one of Lacock Abbey’s latticed windows.

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Backside of Lacock Abbey. The famous window is above the entrance.

Lacock Abbey, sometimes referred to as the “Birthplace of Photography,” was given to the National Trust in 1944 by Matilda Gilchrist-Clark, a niece of the last Talbot owner.

The original nunnery portion on the ground floor is bare and bleak, giving a good idea of the lack of material comfort religious adherents in the Middle Ages had to accept.

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The upstairs living portion is left pretty much as it was in the 1920s, when the Talbots were still having dinner parties here. It is not overly-restored, and looks a little musty and shabby, which is a nice change of pace after the sumptuous Windsor Castle and Blenheim Palace. It still feels lived-in.

Sure enough, anyone with a familiarity with the films Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would immediately recognize several sections of the old abbey. Through the magic of film editing, Lacock Abbey was combined with many other locations (Gloucester Cathedral, Alnwick Castle, Harrow School, some old Oxford buildings) to create Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (Some of the later Potter films also used Lacock, but not as extensively.)

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The passageways around the cloister were used several times for Hogwarts hallways.

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The sacristy — a room for keeping vestments and church furnishings between services — was used as Professor Snape’s classroom.

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The warming room was used for Professor Quirrell’s classrom. The 16th-century cauldron was not a prop.

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The chapter house is where Harry found the Mirror of Erised.

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Upon our return to the River Cottage, poor John was chewed out by a local resident for driving our oversized van through the narrow streets of the Square. From the voice and general location of where she popped up, I have little doubt it was the same self-appointed guardian of Lower Slaughter rules and standards that accosted us from the window the night before. We said our farewells to John, and walked to dinner at the Duke of Wellington pub in Bourton-on-the-Water. Another cheeseburger missed the mark (the dry, crumbling patty was more like a slice of meatloaf), but as I’ve said before — the ale was good, the service was friendly, and World Cup soccer was on, so it was all OK. Germany bested Iceland 2-1 with a free kick in the last five seconds of added time.

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After dinner, we looked around for an ice cream parlor, but it was just past 8:00, and Bourton really rolls up its sidewalks after a certain point.

 

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 9)

We were leaving London today and heading northwest for a stay in the Cotswolds. There was some talk early in the planning stages of the trip of renting a few cars and driving ourselves around the sceptered isle. However, the whole everything-on-the-other-side aspect of traffic and steering wheels would have undoubtedly resulted in getting lost/separated, damaged vehicles and property, possible injuries, and harsh accusations of incompetence from local drivers and pedestrians. So we decided the safest bet was to rent a van that could transport the eleven of us and hire a local driver. Pricey as it may seem on the surface, we figured we were saving money on foreign lawsuits in the long run.

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Our driver, Sebastian, sported a look best described as “Russian mob,” but seemed friendly enough as he loaded our approximately 11,000 pieces of luggage while dragging on his ever-present cigarette.

There were two sightseeing stops on the way, and the first one came after traveling west for less than an hour: Windsor Castle, which had been much in the news due to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan What’s-Her-Face taking place there about four weeks previously.

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Windsor is the largest occupied castle in the world, and the oldest in continual use. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was begun by William the Conqueror in the late 1000s as one of a series of defensive forts ringing London and its environs. It was a wooden keep at first, replaced with stone by William’s immediate successors. The reign of Henry II (1154-89) saw extensive upgrades. Work was continued by Henry’s bumbling youngest son, King John, who holed up in Windsor Castle when his own nobles revolted against him. This resulted in him signing the Magna Carta in 1215, which, in theory, was the first set of limitations placed on monarchical power by a monarch’s subjects. (Future monarchs felt free to ignore it for the next several centuries.)

The reign of Edward III (1327-77), who was born at Windsor, saw the most notable expansions and improvements to Windsor Castle since its original construction, although it didn’t go smoothly. The Black Plague wiped out much of the labor force, and the series of dynastic conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War diverted funds and manpower. The result, however, was impressive — Windsor became the largest and most comfortable of the royal residences, and was “the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England.”

Later in Windsor history, King George III went famously insane, as portrayed on stage and film, and spent the last twenty years of his life raving away deep within the castle, sporting a Howard Hughesian long white beard. Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert, died in the castle’s Blue Room in 1861, and the grieving royal widow insisted on the room being kept just as it was when he was alive, right down to the servants changing the linens and keeping the water pitcher full.

Windsor had become a popular royal “second residence” away from London for its heavy defenses when needed, its luxurious apartments, and its extensive grounds stretching through a beautiful woodland setting. The rambling expansiveness and general footprint of the castle was established at this point, but the towering battlements and turrets now visible for miles around date from extensive rebuilding during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The day was mostly clear, with a refreshingly crisp breeze blowing away memories of humid London. As we walked up the path toward the castle, we spotted the Queen’s royal standard fluttering above the Round Tower, meaning the monarch was in residence, although it was highly unlikely we would bump into her. Everyone knows about her preference for Windsor over Buckingham, and she was still lingering there a month after her grandson’s big wedding.

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We made our way around the Round Tower to the north terrace and entrance to the State Apartments, which were open to the public, but no photography was allowed. The State Apartments are mostly Georgian/Victorian in origin, and were severely damaged in a 1992 fire. Most of the furniture and artwork was saved, but the rooms themselves required extensive restoration, which was mostly completed within a year. (One of Windsor’s most popular features, Queen Mary’s Doll House, was closed the day we were there, along with St. George’s Hall and Waterloo Chamber.)

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The State Apartments are entered through the arched Grand Staircase, overlooked by a marble statue of George VI, the current monarch’s father and the stammering hero of The King’s Speech. The statue was flanked by an impressive collection of weapons and armor. The Grand Vestibule beyond is also kind of a military mini-museum. On display is the fatal bullet dug out of Admiral Nelson. (The coat it passed through is in the National Maritime Museum, remember?) We then passed through suites of rooms dedicated for the use of the king, and a separate suite for the queen.

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Every room in the State Apartments has a different architectural style — Classical, Gothic, Rococo, etc. — although they are so lavishly wallpapered or damasked and hung with dozens of works of art I couldn’t really notice the differing details of the actual construction. As the name implies, these rooms were once living quarters, but living quarters designed for use during state business, so they retained an element of “publicness.” People were coming and going all the time, even in the “King’s Bedchamber.” (In the time of Henry VIII, visitors were warned against leaving their dirty dishes “upon the King’s bed, for fear of hurting the King’s rich counterpoints.”) The royal family’s truly private living quarters were — and still are — elsewhere in the castle.

We then headed down the path into the Lower Ward to St. George’s Chapel, the primary burial place for the royal family once Westminster Abbey was full to bursting. The late-Gothic chapel’s construction was begun in 1475, and completed in 1528. St. George is the patron saint of England, despite the fact that he was a third century Greek-born Roman soldier who never saw England (he spent much of his life in what is now Turkey), and he never certainly never slew a dragon (dragons aren’t real).

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St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The interior is very reminiscent of Westminster Abbey, although on a much smaller scale. There is one stained glass window from the medieval era, the rest is Victorian. The wooden seats of the quire are English oak, originally felled in the nearby forest. The 75-foot high vaulted ceiling are lined with colorful heraldic banners. In the floor of the quire is the tomb of Henry VIII.

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As his weight skyrocketed and his health declined, Henry VIII planned an elaborate exterior mausoleum for himself and his already-dead (of natural causes) favorite wife Jane Seymour on Windsor’s grounds. Once he expired, his remains were placed in a temporary vault in the floor of St. George’s Chapel. Since his overbearing regal presence was no longer around the crack the whip, no one was really motivated to complete (or even begin, really) the mausoleum, and the temporary vault became permanent. The vault was cracked open a hundred years later, and the body of executed Charles I — his head sewn back on — was plopped in the vault on top of Henry and Jane. A stillborn infant of Queen Anne was tossed in for good measure fifty years after that. The vault in the quire became a kind of macabre utility drawer.

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Elsewhere in the chapel, you can pay your respects to George III, our old foe from the Revolution. He is also entombed in the floor, in a spot highly susceptible to Americans dancing a little patriotic jig. (A shame, really. Apart from the bad timing of being king in 1776, and the later mental illness, George III was one Britain’s more capable and sensible monarchs. He was laughed at behind his back by his courtiers for remaining faithful to his wife and not taking one or more mistresses.)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried in a large mausoleum on the adjacent (and much more private) Frogmore Estate grounds.

The newest addition to the St. George’s interior is the George VI Memorial Chapel, completed in 1969 in honor of the king who had died seventeen years earlier. George VI’s remains were moved here, and he is buried alongside his wife, Elizabeth (the “Queen Mother” who died in 2002 at the age of 101), and his daughter, Princess Margaret. Space is reserved for the current queen and her consort, Prince Philip.

One of the most attractive features of Windsor Castle is the one that we didn’t have time to explore — the 5000 acres of Windsor Great Park to the south of the castle. Full of ancient oaks, deer, and rambling paths and creeks, this expanse of broadleaf woodland is connected to the castle by the Long Walk. The only interruption to the idyll is jets coming in for a landing at Heathrow Airport, which is practically in Windsor’s backyard.

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The Long Walk leading from Windsor Great Park to the castle.

We trooped back to the van and turned northwest through Oxfordshire, arriving in the hamlet of Woodstock in time for lunch. Lunch was at a 16th-century pub alongside the little River Glyme called The Black Prince.

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Historically, the person who became known as the “Black Prince” was Prince Edward, eldest son of Edward III. His nickname is said to be based on the black armor he wore at the Battle of Crecy, but this has never been verified. He won several victories in the name of his aging father during the Hundred Years’ War, and it was generally assumed when he became king upon his father’s death, he would be among England’s greatest. Unfortunately, he predeceased his father by a year in 1376 (that damn dysentery!). The crown ultimately passed to the Black Prince’s ten-year-old son, Richard II, kicking off a politically disastrous era for England that lasted until the end of the following century.

The Black Prince pub had a chili dog on it menu, and remembering the lesson of yesterday, I ordered it without a second thought. No regrets. Cam sampled another traditional British dish, “bubble and squeak” — a fry-up of cabbage, onion, and potato — and he declared it a winner.

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Bubble and squeak

Just across the street from the pub was the entryway to our next stop — Blenheim Palace.

It is a difficult task to keep track of all the territorial and dynastic conflicts the British have involved themselves in as they built themselves into a world power, including one spat known as the “War of Jenkins’ Ear.” The War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) saw Britain throwing its lot in with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch against the Spanish and — of course — the French. Britain never missed a chance to pick a fight with France. On August 13, 1704, in some random corner of Bavaria, the British won a glorious victory in the Battle of Blenheim.

The field commander that day was John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough. Ultimately one of the most capable generals in British history, to say Marlborough had some ups and downs is an understatement. Through the last couple of decades of the 1600s, he was by turns honey-tongued diplomat and aggressive soldier, close courtier with the ear of the monarch, and enemy of the state. By the early 1700s, fortune was again smiling on him, partly due to his wife’s close friendship with Queen Anne. When he scored his Blenheim victory (unimportant as it seems now in the grand scheme of things), he was lavished with royal gifts — including a pretty hefty chunk of cash and nice piece of property near Woodstock.

The Duke of Marlborough decided to build the grandest house he possibly could on the property, and certainly succeeded, often over the objections of his more frugal wife, Sarah. The Duke figured the money faucet would never be turned off, but the Duchess was more in touch with reality, especially after her falling out with the Queen. The exact nature of the relationship between Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne has always been the topic of speculation. Whatever it was, it was intense, and came to an abrupt end when Anne began favoring another woman, her cousin Abigail Masham. (Politics had a lot to do with it too — Sarah was an outspoken Whig, the political party that favored the elevation of Parliament over royal power.)

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The English Baroque mansion took seventeen years to construct (1705-22), and ended up being one of the largest houses in England. It is the only non-royal, non-episcopal building entitled to be called a “palace.” It cost every penny the Duke had and more, and in keeping with tradition, the Duke died the same year it was completed. The Duke had no surviving sons. A special Act of Parliament had to be passed for the dukedom to pass to his daughter, Henrietta, and Blenheim Palace has remained the seat of the Dukes and Duchesses of Marlborough ever since. (Henrietta’s youngest sister, Mary, married the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who sold Montagu House to the British Museum as discussed back in Part 2. See how it all ties together?)

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The trend of the British landed aristocracy bolstering their dwindling fortunes by marrying rich American heiresses is not just an invention of Downton Abbey. The lavish lifestyle at Blenheim was about to be severely curtailed in the late 1800s until the 9th Duke saved the day by marrying Consuelo Vanderbilt, who provided an infusion of American railroad money. So life could continue in its accustomed way, with the Dukes living a life of almost unimaginable ease. Supposedly, the 10th Duke went on a trip without his valet, and complained to his hosts at breakfast that his toothbrush was faulty — it refused to foam up. He had no idea his valet had been placing a dab of toothpaste on the brush before it was handed to him. I don’t know if the story is true, but it’s repeated often enough, and the 10th Duke did have a reputation for cheerful vacuousness. In 1950, the Marlborough fortunes were once again saved by opening the palace to public. Photography happily encouraged.

As one of the younger sons of the 7th Duke, Randolph Churchill would not inherit the title, but he also married an American, socialite Jennie Jerome. Not so much for her fortune (it was modest) but, as the story goes, he was dazzled by her beauty and charm. Their son, Winston, was born at Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874.

Winston Churchill is one hundred years and four days older than me. I often chart my personal and professional progress alongside his. When Churchill was exactly my age, in September of 1918, he was serving as the British government’s Minister of Munitions. Of course, by 1918 he had also been: 1) a cavalry officer who participated in the last major horseback charge in military history in the Sudan, 2) a published novelist, 3) a war correspondent covering uprisings in India and the Spanish-American War, 4) a P.O.W. camp escapee in the Boer War, 5) an elected Member of Parliament, 6) President of the Board of Trade, 7) Home Secretary, 8) published historian, 9) First Lord of the Admiralty, and 10) a battalion colonel in the trenches of World War I. Plus some stuff I’m probably forgetting. So yeah, he has a few things on me so far, but there’s time to catch up.

Blenheim Palace sits on two thousand acres of landscaped parkland, laid out and designed by the aptly-named “Capability” Brown. To the west of the palace is a sculpted “water terrace” and a lake created by damming the River Glyme.

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The water terrace gardens.

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West side of the palace.

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Here, instead of pointing my phone in the general direction of a photography subject, mashing the button and hoping for the best, I attempted a composed “arty” shot.

The south facade looks across a mile-long lawn toward the little village of Bladon. Bladon is home to St. Martin’s church, burial site of Winston Churchill.

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The south facade.

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View from the south facade. The closest I would get to Churchill’s burial site, marked by the church spire in the far distance.

The north facade opens onto a spacious (everything here is “spacious”) Great Court, beyond which are more green fields dotted with white sheep, the Grand Bridge crossing the lake, and far in the distance, Marlborough’s “Victory Column,” a 134-foot pillar topped with a statue of the Duke dressed as a Roman soldier. Blenheim Palace is still home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who reside in the east wing.

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The north facade and Great Court.

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The palace is frequently used as a filming location. You’ve seen it in the James Bond film Spectre, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, and the cinematic marvel that is King Ralph.

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Visitors enter the palace through the north doors, and step into the Entry Hall. The distinctive black-and-white floor tiles and high ceilings are continued beyond the closed doors that lead to the Grand Salon, but we didn’t head straight there just yet.

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Entry Hall ceiling

The audio tour prompted us to head past the oil painting of the first Duke’s family, and begin our walk through the palace in the Green Drawing Room. From there, we passed through rooms of increasing size, importance, and visibility. Many of these rooms are decorated with the Marlborough Tapestries, a series of ornate, 14-foot-long woven wall hangings depicting various scenes from the Battle of Blenheim.  After passing through this suite of state apartments, we reached the Grand Salon, where the Duke entertains important guests. By accident or by perverse screw-the-servants design, the kitchen is at the furthest point from the Grand Salon that you can possibly get. It takes the porters several minutes to transverse dozens of rooms with covered trays of hot food.

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One of the Marlborough Tapestries.

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Cam admires the ceiling of the Grand Salon.

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Shannon and her dad catch up on the audio tour.

From there, you go through another set of rooms mirroring the first, ending up in the aptly-named Long Library. On one end of the library is a very flattering statue of an unrealistically slender Queen Anne, commissioned by Sarah Churchill after the queen’s death. All was forgiven, it seems. At the other end is the largest privately-owned pipe organ in Europe.

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The Long Library.

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The waist of Queen Anne that existed only in Sarah Churchill’s imagination.

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The audio tour narration for almost every room ended with descriptions of even grander designs intended by the first Duke “…but the Duchess felt it was too expensive.”

The palace tour concludes with a section of rooms off the Long Library dedicated entirely to the life of Winston Churchill. The room and bed in which he was born is part of the exhibit, as is a curly lock of three-year-old Winston’s hair framed just above the bed.

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Churchill’s birth room.

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Back to the van. We were almost to our next destination, the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds is a region of pastures and rolling hills in south central England, roughly 25 miles across and 90 miles long, known for its picturesque villages made of Cotswold stone, and sheep. Lots of sheep. The term “wold” is Saxon for “wooded hill,” but the prefix “cots” is something of an etymological mystery. Most people believe it is derived from a Saxon proper name. “Cod’s Wooded Hills,” or something like that. The whole region was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966.

We made a stop at the co-op in the village of Bourton-on-the-Water to load up on necessities. I made sure the cart had coffee, Jameson Irish whiskey and ginger ale, a case of our old standby, Peroni, and several pint bottles of various brands of ales.

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River Cottage, Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire.

The British aristocracy names things on a slightly different scale. Their huge mansions with hundreds of rooms were simply called “houses” (as in Montagu House, Somerset House, etc.) A “cottage” to them was not a humble, low-ceilinged woodcutter’s shack the way Americans reared on fairy tales would picture it, but a country retreat, smaller than the great houses, but very luxurious and still the size of a pretty large dwelling anywhere else. River Cottage, which we rented for the next few days, was a rambling, multi-level affair in the tiny village of Lower Slaughter, Gloucestershire.

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It is one of the largest dwellings in the central part of the village known as the Square, along the River Eye, and is actually a combination of four older structures, the oldest of which dates from the 1600s. As I opened the window in our room above what was once a garage (but now known as the “Annex”), I could hear the sound of horses’ hooves and the bleating of sheep carried on the slight breeze. Today was the summer solstice, and there was still hours and hours of daylight left.

A restaurant, Slaughters Country Inn, was just across the street, and we dined there that evening on the usual solid British fare. The steak was excellent.

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The hectic pace we set in London was about to relax considerably.

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A Note To Our British Friends About Ice:

Why do you hate it so much? Why are you against being refreshed by a really cold beverage? Is it some kind of stiff-upper-lip self-denial built into the national character? Or do you genuinely enjoy things as tepid as possible? 

For awhile in London, it appeared as though things were changing. Instead of having to ask specifically for ice as American tourists had to do in times past, a cube or maybe two is now grudgingly included without asking. Then we got to River Cottage. Everyone was thirsty for gin-and-tonics and Jameson-and-gingers, which require a certain amount of ice. (Lots. “Lots” is the certain amount.)

The heart of River Cottage is its large and beautifully updated kitchen. Flagstone floors, a large center island, and a nice stainless steel fridge-and-freezer combo. The ice maker in the freezer was defiantly set to “off.” The few lonely cubes in the hopper were fused together and covered in fuzzy frost. No one had touched ice in this cottage in who knows how long! And when we finally turned it on, it produced about eight cubes every six hours. There were no separate ice trays. I took to freezing the water the nieces and nephew left behind in their little-kid cups in order to have enough to get by.

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Ice is easy. Water, cold, and time. That’s the recipe. Indulge yourselves!

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 8)

After our illuminating trip through the world of the Royal Society, we were ready for lunch. We chose the restaurant located on the ground floor of the Grand Hotel, within sight (“a mere 77 paces”) of Trafalgar Square. Built in the 1880s, it was once the Hotel Victoria. Seven floors, five hundred rooms, electric lights…and four bathrooms (it was the 1880s, after all.) Its ballroom was one of the biggest in London, and an elegant billiard room filled the basement. It all ended with World War II. In 1940, the Ministry of Defense took over the hotel, and it became one of the many nerve centers of the British war effort. Primitive computers filled what was once the restaurant. The ballroom became a lecture hall, where military experts and intelligence officers briefed civil defense workers. After the war, the old Hotel Victoria was a musty shell of its former self, still owned by the government but underused and in bad shape. After finally being sold, it returned to the hospitality business in 2010, reopening as the Grand at Trafalgar Square.

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The Grand’s restaurant, known as Boyds Grill & Wine Bar, was lit by vintage chandeliers from 1914, and the original marble and onyx walls were once again in evidence, having been covered over during the war years. After a starting course of duck wings, Shannon had the sea trout, I had the cottage pie, and Cam had their “hot dog of the week,” which I regretted not getting myself. We don’t keep hot dogs in the house because they’re fundamentally disgusting — the processed-scrap, bottom-feeders of the lunch meat world, not even fit to be categorized as a “sausage.”

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Yes, they serve hot dogs.

But goddamn, do I love a grilled hot dog. I once made a vow to myself to never turn down the opportunity to have a hot dog outside of the house, be it a ballgame, barbecue, or gourmet restaurant. I broke that vow today, and was a little remorseful as I saw Cam devour his southwestern-themed dog, covered in cheese and hot sauce. The cottage pie was fine, though.

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After lunch, Cam and I were the only ones really interested in seeing the Churchill War Rooms. Shan and her parents hopped a bus to head back to the Airbnb for an afternoon of rest and reading. We would meet again that evening in London’s East End for another walking tour, this time dedicated to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Cam and I struck out on foot towards Whitehall.

We turned southwest at Trafalgar Square, passed under the 1912 structure known as the Admiralty Arch and began walking down the Mall, which, if we followed it all the way, would lead us to Buckingham Palace. We turned left on Horse Guards Road instead, heading towards the Churchill War Rooms, and found ourselves in the sector of London known as Whitehall.

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The Admiralty Arch, gateway to Whitehall

Whitehall was named for Whitehall Palace, which once occupied this entire area. The old Palace of Westminster, since 1049 the seat of the English monarchy, was viewed with increasing royal disfavor by the early Tudor era. With its cold medieval feel and immense echoing hall, Westminster Palace was an outdated relic. It was being used more and more for meetings of Parliament, anyway. A hundred yards downriver was York House, owned by Henry VIII’s discredited advisor Cardinal Wolsey. Once Wolsey had fallen from favor in 1530, Henry swiped the mansion for himself, renamed it White Hall, and turned it into a rambling, 1500-room edifice with luxurious private apartments for both king and whoever his queen happened to be at the moment. No more would the king’s court live and work communally in a drafty, stone-floored “great hall.” Now there would be smaller, plusher rooms. The king would meet people in a “presence chamber.” Business would be conducted mostly behind closed doors.

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Whitehall Palace. The Banqueting Hall is on the left.

The era of Whitehall Palace came to an end in 1698, with its near-total destruction by fire. The official royal household moved on to St. James’s Palace. The only structure of Whitehall left to see today is its Banqueting House.

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The Banqueting House today.

The street called Whitehall is now home to most of the administrative offices of the British government. The home and offices of the Prime Minister, Downing Street, is a side street off of Whitehall. The term “Whitehall” is often used as shorthand for the entire British government, much as “Wall Street” represents the American financial world.

Underneath the Treasury Building, not far from Downing Street, is a set of bomb-proof basement rooms from which World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed the course of Britain’s role in the conflict. In various forms, these subterranean bunkers, including a Cabinet Room and a Map Room, have been open to the public since 1984. After an expansion to include Churchill’s private quarters and a major 2005 remodel, the Churchill War Rooms (now operating under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum) saw a surge in popularity. So much so that when Cam and I approached them, our hearts sank to see the size of the line. Near the beginning of the line, an official-looking portly gentleman in a vest and holding a shade umbrella kept repeating the mantra of “Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait. Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait…”

We bailed, and decided on the spur of the moment to make the obligatory Beatles fan pilgrimage to Abbey Road in the upscale neighborhood of St. John’s Wood.

The abbey the road was named for was the Kilburn Priory, a small community of nuns that existed from 1134 to 1536, nothing of which remains.

Behind its graffiti-covered outer walls, the front Abbey Road Studios looks like the 1831 Georgian townhouse it once was. When the Gramophone Company acquired the property in 1929, it built its recording facility on top of what was once a very extensive back garden. The townhouse facade has always been used as administrative offices only. The Gramophone Company merged with a few others to form Electric and Musical Industries, Ltd. (EMI).

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One of EMI’s subsidiary record labels, Parlophone, signed a promising young band from Liverpool in the summer of 1962, and they spent almost all of their remarkable recording career within the confines of what was then called simply “EMI Recording Studios.” The facility has three recording spaces — massive Studio One, designed for large orchestras, mid-sized Studio Two, and the little Studio Three. The Beatles made use of all of them at one point or another, but their home base was Studio Two. The early puppy-love singles which rocketed them to fame, the twin masterpieces Rubber Soul and Revolver, the psychedelic epic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the fragmented but no-less-epic The Beatles (“White Album”), and almost everything else — all cooked up in that one building, mostly in that one room.

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Going over the Hard Day’s Night screenplay while recording “And I Love Her,” Studio Two, February 1964.

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Studio Two, Abbey Road.

Their Get Back project, an attempt to perform a live concert of all-new material in January 1969, did not go well. Internal tension between the band members, and collective boredom with the whole Beatles thing, was at its height. The desulatory run-throughs of the new songs were shot by a documentary crew (at Twickenham Film Studios) and the songs were duly put on tape (at their self-owned Apple Studios, not at Abbey Road). The “concert” ended up being a brief lunch-hour performance from the roof of their Apple office on Savile Row. Iconic as it is now, the rooftop show seemed anti-climactic back then. Apart from the title single which came out that spring, the Get Back project was shelved.

Not wanting to fizzle out like that, the Beatles decided put their differences aside and craft one more well-polished studio gem as a proper cap to their career. As producer George Martin recalled, Paul called him up and asked if they could make another album “like we used to.” Over the summer of ‘69, the walls of Studio Two were witness to the creation of “Come Together,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Because,” and several others that formed the sonic tapestry of their final project*, including the aptly titled “The End.” The resulting album is a lot of people’s favorite — it’s filled with good energy, more close three-part harmonies than any of their recordings in years, and tinged with the perfect amount of elegiac, end-of-the-ride sadness.

As recording was winding down in early August, the band and their associated assistants and recording engineers were having a brainstorming session for what the album’s cover should look like. Ideas were growing more grandiose and expensive. There was even talk of calling the album Everest and shooting the cover in the Himalayas. Finally, someone remembered John saying, “Look, let’s just go outside, shoot the photo there, call the LP Abbey Road, and have done with it.” Brilliant. The title and the cover decided in one stroke of Lennonesque impatience.

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Paul did some preliminary sketches.

The cover photo was taken by freelance photographer Iain Macmillan on a warm, sunny August 8, 1969, at about 11:35 am. Paul had strolled over from his nearby house on Cavendish Avenue wearing a very-1969 ensemble of suit and sandals. Macmillan stood on a stepladder near the intersection of Abbey Road and Grove End Road.

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Waiting on the studio steps for Macmillan to set up.

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Almost ready…

Over the next ten minutes or so, a policeman held traffic so Macmillan could get his shots. He managed six photographs of the band using a “zebra” crossing just south of the studio gate to troop back and forth three times. Paul kicked off his sandals after the first crossing, and lit a ciagerette after the second. Shots 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 were useless — everyone was too awkwardly spaced.

But shot number 5 — magic.

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The album came out on September 26, and ever since, that one little intersection in a shady London suburb has been one of London’s major tourist attractions. The studio was officially renamed “Abbey Road Studios” in 1985.

Cam and I arrived via tube. London is one of the best walking cities I’ve ever experienced, but St. John’s Wood is just a little too far north for the amount of time we had. We walked up Grove End Road, the sun had just come out from a bank of clouds, we rounded a bend…and there it was. The crosswalk. Actually standing on the spot, it was pretty nondescript. There are hundreds of identical zebra crossings throughout the city, and the street itself looks a little narrower than it appears in the wide-angle photo. There weren’t as many people as I expected hovering around, and those that were there were like us — just hanging out quietly, talking amongst themselves, and enjoying being in this very special place. A few empty beer bottles were dumped in some nearby shrubs, but otherwise the scene was perfect.  There was no Volkswagen Beetle with a 28 1F license plate, but the leafy trees and red brick flats on the edge of the picture were still there and wonderfully familiar.

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Every few minutes, someone would try to replicate the album cover. They had to be quick, because Abbey Road is a somewhat busy street, and I firmly believe local motorists make a sport of how close they can come to hitting someone posing for a photo. The resultant pictures are mostly of people running across Abbey Road, probably with a car bumper at the edge of the frame.

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Trust me, that car was moving.

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The heavily-graffiti’d outer wall is repainted every 3-4 months.

img_20180620_151458After soaking up the atmosphere for awhile, there really wasn’t much else to do. The still-busy recording studio doesn’t offer tours. We crossed the famous crossing one more time, and decided to hit another Beatles location within walking distance — Marylebone Station.

Marylebone Station was the train station featured in the opening sequence of Beatles’ first movie, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, as the group are pursued by the usual mob of crazed teenage fans and the title song plays. The actual opening shot of the group running up a side street was indeed filmed on a side street — Boston Place, which runs alongside the station.bostonplace

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We hopped on the tube at Marylebone to do a little celebrity stalking. Monty Python’s Michael Palin has published three volumes of detailed diaries, and without actually coming out and stating his address, has made enough references to his domicile’s location scattered throughout the three volumes that a careful reader can piece together exactly where you would find him if you wanted to knock on his door. Not that we would be so rude. I just wanted to get a look at the place in person.

Like any metro train line, the London Underground is very user-friendly once you decipher its multicolored map. Every once in awhile, though, if you get too complacent, you can find yourself screwed up and turned around. We got on the wrong line once, and had to double back. That put us behind schedule, and also put our Oyster cards at a dangerously low level.

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Just before we made a line transfer at Charing Cross station, I stopped by the automated Oyster kiosk to top them off. I couldn’t figure out why the machine kept rejecting my debit card. It would take it in a little ways, and then spit it back out. I gave it one hard final shove, and it disappeared forever.

It turns out I was putting it in the cash slot. The small, very-poorly marked card swiper was a little ways above it. After several of my attempts to force my card in, the machine must have internally shrugged and thought, “All right, I guess it is cash,” and swallowed it up. Luckily, afternoon rush hour hadn’t quite started, so there wasn’t a line forming behind me as I dealt with my idiocy. I topped off the Oyster card with my emergency back-up credit card, and soon we were in lively Kentish Town.

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Kentish Town was an explosion of color. One of the first buildings you see has a large “Welcome to Kentish Town” mural. There is other graffiti, some of it so well done it seemed to be more civic pride than vandalism. (I apologize to any property owners who may disagree, but there’s so much of it that it seems to be unofficially tolerated.) The shops along Kentish Town Road had doors and window frames painted in vivid blues, greens, and oranges. People of all nationalities and sometimes exotic garb were in and out of the shops, and music blared from upstairs windows and passing taxis. With a pretty lengthy walk and dwindling time ahead of us, Cam and I did not linger, but headed uphill to the more sedate environs of Gospel Oak.

Gospel Oak was more high-market than neighboring Kentish Town, certainly, but it still did not seem like a proper abode for someone who is a fairly decent-sized celebrity, at least in Britain. Palin noted in his journals he considered selling the place many times, but is simply too attached to it. It’s the first place he bought when the TV money started coming in. Other celebrity pals were also surprised that he stayed rooted so firmly in such humble environs. “Nonsense,” said George Harrison when he saw the place. “It’s to be a mansion in the country for you, Palin!” His pronouncement never came to pass.

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The quiet neighborhood of Gospel Oak.

Over the years, Palin did drop a little coin on his property, buying up two adjacent houses, and connecting them all internally around a central courtyard. None of this is visible from the street. Chez Palin looks like three modest, well-cared for townhouses, with a small home security system notice posted to warn off intruders. A pair of silver, newish Volkswagen hatchbacks were parked in front. (In the 70s, he drove Citroens. Palin was never a flashy car guy.) Someone was clearly moving around behind partially closed blinds in a downstairs window. Could it be…? We strolled respectfully by, not even stopping to take a picture. (No, I’m not going to give an address. If you want to know where it is, read his diaries. It’s not hard to figure out.)

Back down to Kentish Town and onto the tube, for the first time heading into London’s East End.

Unlike the posh West End, London’s East End — particularly the district of Whitechapel, where we emerged from the tube station — has always been associated with Victorian poverty. Whitechapel was once rife with overcrowded tenement houses filled with immigrant laborers, rampant crime, down-on-their-luck women reduced (often by alcoholism) to prostitution to pay for their nightly bed in a flophouse. Whitechapel was once a dangerous warren of rambling streets and narrow alleys. People came and went at all hours, some of them engaged in shady activities, many more of them honest laborers working very late or starting very early. The feeble street gaslights, installed at irregular intervals, often could not penetrate the sooty gloom.

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Whitechapel, 1880s.

In the 1880s, a bed for the night cost around 4 pence, a pint of ale 3 pence. A prostitute’s services were on a sliding scale between the two. For that price, the “gentleman caller” would take his prize into one of the many dark alleys, she would lift her copious amount of skirts (semi-homeless, most of them had to wear everything they owned), and what was known as a “knee-trembler” would ensue up against a grimy wall. Usually within moments, the transaction would be over, the prostitute would purchase her next pint or bed for the night, and the man would go about his business, perhaps to a tenement or flophouse of his own, or perhaps grabbing a cab back to the West End to wash off his night of illicit cruising.

In the late summer and fall of 1888, the prostitutes of the East End had a new problem to face. Someone was stalking them, and performing brutal eviscerations on those unlucky enough to cross his path on the wrong night. He soon became known as “Jack the Ripper,” based on how he allegedly signed a taunting letter to London’s Central News Agency. Although serial murders had undoubtedly happened before, Jack the Ripper became the first media-sensationalized serial killer.

The “Whitechapel Killings,” as they were known at the time, encompassed eleven murders over four years. Only five (possibly six), however, were later credited to the figure known as Jack the Ripper, and they were carried out over just a couple of months. The “canonical five” — Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly — were of neccessity mostly killed quickly and quietly, either through manual strangulation (or actually, “throttling,” which cuts off the blood supply rather than oxygen), or a quick slash across the throat. Most of the “ripping” took place post-mortem. The victims would be disemboweled, with some of the internal organs left at the scene, some taken away as keepsakes. Only Elizabeth Stride escaped mutilation. It is believed the killer was interrupted by an oblivious passerby before he could really go to town. Frustrated, he took out (and thoroughly gutted) Catherine Eddowes later that same night. The victims were all killed out of doors, except one. Mary Jane Kelly was murdered in her rented room, and may not have had a quick, silent death. The killer could take his time, without fear of interruption. Read the details of her fate if you have a strong stomach.

After Kelly’s murder on November 9, Jack the Ripper vanished. Other murders entered the “Whitechapel Killings” case file over the next couple of years, but none matched the ferocity of the summer/fall 1888 crimes. No one was ever caught in connection with any of the Whitechapel Killings. None of the wild theories that have been postulated ever since come close to being plausible. In all likelihood, Jack the Ripper’s true identity will never be known.

When Cam and I emerged into Whitechapel that evening, it was a very different Whitechapel. Now home to a thriving population of Bengali Muslims, most of the old tenements and slums have been swept away, either through revitalization programs or the Nazi bombs of WWII. Many of the former haunts of Jack the Ripper would be unrecognizable to him or anyone who shared his time and place. The silk-weaving shops and fruit markets of Brick Lane have been replaced by curry houses, seemingly one in every other building. This tour was going to take a lot of imagination.

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Whitechapel’s Brick Lane today.

We actually made it a little early, and after all that walking I was dehydrated and dying for a beer. Not far from the Aldgate tube station, I spotted a likely looking place. It sported the typical pub livery (gold letters on a black lacquered background) and a good pub name (“The Nag’s Head”), but as I walked up to the door, I noticed the windows were blacked out and the entrance was guarded by a doorman. Then I saw the sign on the door itself: “Gentleman’s Club: All-Topless Revue.” Such was my thirst, and so short the time, I glanced at my newly-adult son and briefly considered leading us in. I came to my senses, and the search continued. A pub is on every damn corner of the city except here! Finally, one appeared like an oasis in the desert. We slaked our thirst — thank you, Indo of Whitechapel Road — and hustled back to meet Shannon and her dad.

No private tour for us this time. We were joined by a couple of dozen other folks with an interest in the macabre, and met up with our Ripper tour guide. We sometimes crossed paths with about three other large tour groups working the streets that evening. Part showman, part scholar, tour guide Philip would be leading us through several spots associated with Jack the Ripper and his victims, none of which really existed as they once did.

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Philip looked a little like Bizarre Foods’ Anthony Zimmern, and sounded a little like Ricky Gervais (minus the annoying giggle). He was good company for the next ninety minutes or so. I promptly bought his book on Amazon. The murder sites of Nichols and Stride were too far in the opposite direction from the rest of the tour, so they were left out. The non-canonical Martha Tabram murder site was included because it was convenietnly close. As we walked down the Tabram site alley, Whitechapel showed it could still be a little sketchy. We passed two guys silently splitting a case of beer who glared menacingly at us, and a toothless woman wrapped in a blanket shouted, not at us but past us, at something only she could see.

Of the other three official victims, two were found behind what are now modern storefronts. Only one — Catherine Eddowes — was found in what is still a public square. Mitre Square was just over the boundary of the City of London, in the shadow of the pickle-shaped modern skyscraper known as the “Gherkin,” and that site was the conclusion of the tour.

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Annie Chapman’s body was found in the small back yard of 29 Hanbury Street.

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29 Hanbury Street today.

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Philip the Tour Guide in Wilkes Street, one of the few streets relatively unchanged since 1888.

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The Ten Bells pub, supposedly the last place Annie Chapman and Mary Jane Kelly were seen alive, so it was likely the Ripper himself was a frequent patron.

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Looking down the entrance to Dorset Street, considered one of the worst of Whitechapel’s many bad streets. The arched entrance to Miller’s Court, site of Mary Jane Kelly’s rented room and murder location, would be somewhere to the right.

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New construction obliterates the earlier new construction that obliterated Dorset Street. The entrance to Dorest Street would have been behind the scaffolding. Miller’s Court was a few dozen yeards behind the bus stop.

My overworked cell phone was dead by the time we reached Mitre Square, so I was unable to get a picture of it. However, Philip the Tour Guide pointed out that Shannon happened to be standing on the exact spot where Catherine Eddowes was found.

At the end of the tour, we popped into the pub just opposite Mitre Square, the Craft Beer Co. at St. Mary Axe. Cam was the only one really hungry, so he ordered the ham-and-cheddar pie. With visible effort by the barman, a brick-like slice was carved off the full specimen stored under glass since who-knows-when, and served at room temperature. I found its appearance off-putting, actually, but Cam declared it just fine and left not a crumb. As the sun ducked behind the high-rises and the rats began to quite brazenly scamper in the gutters of Mitre Street, we summoned an Uber.

It was our last night in London. I was in the basement of the Airbnb doing a load of laundry, freshly-showered but already sweating through my t-shirt, and thinking London shouldn’t feel like Manila. Did I mention the heat wave? Then I remembered I should probably call my bank. Luckily, ten at night in London is still business hours in California…

* If you go by release dates, Let It Be was their last official album. The Get Back project was revived because the Beatles owed one more movie on their United Artists contract. The footage of them rehearsing their aborted concert was released as the documentary Let It Be in May 1970. A Beatles film needs an accompanying soundtrack album, so the January 1969 tapes were dug out of storage, given some tasteless orchestral overdubs by noted sick nut Phil Spector, and became the patchwork and somewhat below-par “final” Beatles album. Even though its release followed Abbey Road, the Beatles themselves feel that Abbey Road is their true final artistic statement.

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 7)

2.5 million people take a peek at the crown jewels every year. The line leading into the Tower of London’s Waterloo Block for viewing them wrapped around the east side of the White Tower, but the wait wasn’t over when we finally entered the building. Disneyland-like, the line continued to wind back and forth once we entered the building, with large video screens showing scenes from various coronations in an attempt to help the time pass as the queue shuffled along. Fairly quickly, it must be said.

The reason the line moved quickly was revealed when we finally entered the crown jewels display area — visitors hopped on an airport-style moving sidewalk and were moved past the collection at a pretty speedy clip. No lingering was possible, and no photos allowed.

The collection known as the “crown jewels” is made up of 140 individual pieces — crowns, scepters, orbs, swords, robes, maces, trumpets, plates, and other items, most of them symbolically representative of some element of the British monarch’s reign. Several of them are used in the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Some of them are worn by the newly-crowned monarch in the ceremony, some are handed to him/her, some are simply shown to him/her, who then kind of solemnly nods at them in an approving manner and they’re placed somewhere nearby.

The original crown jewels, from the time of Edward the Confessor, were mostly lost when King John’s caravan attempted to cross the tidal estuary known as the Wash in 1216. They mistimed their crossing, and high tide rolled in and claimed several wagons, including the treasure wagon. The next set of crown jewels was physically destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, who had toppled the monarchy and installed himself as “Lord Protector” in 1653. The crown jewels, he said, were symbols of the “detestable rule of kings.” Cromwell’s rule as essentially a military dictator was pretty detestable itself, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660, the new king, Charles II, ordered a replacement set of crown jewels to be crafted. The collection has been growing ever since, with the latest addition being a set of bracelets made for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

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The most important accessories of the coronation: St. Edward’s Crown, the Sovereign’s Orb (topped with a cross, symbolizing God’s dominion over earth), the Sword of Offering, the Sovereign’s Dove Sceptre (symbolizing the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England), and the Sovereign’s Cross Sceptre (symolizing the monarch’s position as head of state). To the left is the hollow golden eagle called the Ampulla, which contains the holy oil which will anoint the new monarch. The anointing is done with the Coronation Spoon, the oldest surviving item in the crown jewel collection. Dating from the late 1100s, it was hidden when the rest of the jewels were destroyed.

The centerpiece of the collection is the St. Edward’s Crown, made of 22-carat gold and encrusted with over 400 jewels. This is the crown placed on the head of the monarch at the moment of coronation, but it isn’t worn for very long — weighing in at five pounds, it is said to be incredibly uncomfortable. For most of the coronation ceremony, and for all other state occasions, the monarch wears the similar, but lighter, Imperial State Crown.

After being whisked by the crown jewels so fast we could feel the breeze in our hair, we were deposited outside the Waterloo Block, and concluded our visit to the Tower of London. Our little family trio broke off from the main group again, leaving them to do something more kid-friendly. We headed up toward the Tower Hill tube station to see the oldest thing in London.

The Romans founded London in the first century A.D., and inhabited the city for almost 400 years. By the second century, it was enclosed by a protective wall. London had all the features of a major Roman settlement — a forum, an amphitheater, public baths, a large fort for its garrison of soldiers. All now long gone, or deep under the modern city. But a few fragments remain, mostly uncovered by Nazi bombs in World War II, or by digging foundations for new construction. The most noticeable of these fragments are some sections of the old wall, which once ran for 2.5 miles and defined the original shape of the city.

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The section near the Tower is one of the largest. Buildings used to back up against both sides, but they were torn down in the early 1900s, revealing this portion for the first time in centuries. The first nine feet or so (up to the top row of red tiling) is Roman, everything above that was added during the Middle Ages.

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Perimeter of the London walls.

We continued eastward from Tower Hill in search of a suitable place for lunch. We soon found ourselves at St. Katharine Docks, named after the medieval hospital that once occupied the site.

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St. Katharine Docks, 1800s.

The docks were used for commercial shipping purposes from 1828 to 1968, then sold to developers. Today it is an upscale shopping and dining area, surrounding a small yachting marina.

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We chose Bravas Tapas, which specialized in the Spanish Basque style of dining indicated by its name — multiple small dishes of finger food shared around the table. We sat outdoors on the water, and picked two dishes each, including brava potatoes, piquillo-wrapped prawns, bacon-wrapped quail, and roasted Iberian pork belly. Even including some of the fancier places we found ourselves in, it was some of the best food I had on the whole trip.

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The prawns

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The quail

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The pork belly

We hopped a bus to St. Paul’s cathedral.

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Cam on the bus to St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s, along with the Palace of Westminster and the Tower Bridge, is one of the three iconic sights of London. It occupies Ludgate Hill, the highest point within the old city walls (a dizzying 58 feet above sea level). It is possible that the Romans built a temple to the goddess Diana on this spot, but it was long gone by the time Christianity permanently came to England in the early Middle Ages. Various cathedrals occupied the hilltop since the 600s. The Normans constructed the edifice known as “Old St. Paul’s” beginning in 1087. Like its successor, Old St. Paul’s dominated the skyline, with a spire reaching almost 500 feet above the ground. After Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, St. Paul’s became the “mother church” of the new religion.

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Old St. Paul’s

The old cathedral was decaying by 1666, and there was already hesitant talk of pulling it down and starting fresh. The Great Fire made the decision easy for them. Good old Sir Christopher Wren designed the New St. Paul’s, replacing its spire with a dome, which was completed in 1708.

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New St. Paul’s

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The other reason, besides the Fire, that the face of the City of London is so new is that central London was a primary target of German bombs in the Blitz of 1940-41, which wiped out much of the city that had been re-built after the Fire. St. Paul’s took a couple of direct hits, but its thanks to its immense bulk, it survived, and it became a symbol of English fortitude in the face of Nazi aggression.

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We approached the steps of the great cathedral, and I suddenly remembered that the steps of St. Paul’s were the site of the “Feed the Birds” song from Mary Poppins, featuring Jane Darwell’s silent performance as the Bird Lady, selling bread crumbs for “tuppence [two pennies] a bag” to people who wanted to feed the pigeons that swarmed the area. Darwell was an Oscar-winner (for her performance as Ma Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) brought out of retirement at age 84 by her admirer Walt Disney for this tiny part. It was only on a recent re-watch of the film that it dawned on me that the song was actually a metaphor for giving to charity. I always thought it was about feeding a bunch of filthy pigeons. I looked around and saw only a handful of pigeons. I checked the St. Paul’s website later, and there’s a notice at the bottom warning people against feeding the pigeons. I guess that could be a metaphor, too.

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My own charitable spirit was stretched to the breaking point when I saw it would cost us £18 each to enter the cathedral. Instead, I took a couple of pictures (we were too close to capture the massive dome properly), and headed up Little Britain Street, through Postman’s Park, to arrive at the Museum of London.

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The Museum of London, appropriately located at the address of 150 London Wall, is dedicated to examining the history of the city, from the Stone Age to present day.  It is the largest urban history collection in the world. Its modern-looking (for 1976 — it looks a little funky today) building was constructed in the 1970s on the gutted bombsite that was notable for having received the heaviest concentration of falling ordinance during World War II. The museum was great in a different way from the glorious jumble of the British Museum — it was streamlined and logically ordered in a chronological fashion. The British Museum demands the visitor dig deep, the Museum of London is set up in a way that the casual I’ve-just-got-an-hour visitor can have an enriching experience, as well as those who like to linger longer.

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Although I had only briefly glimpsed the Monument to the Great Fire that morning, it had stayed in the back of my mind, and I lingered longest in the War, Plague, and Fire gallery. As mentioned in the previous entry, most Londoners believed the fire to have been deliberately set in the bakery by Catholics as an act of religious terrorism. This belief was further fueled by the confession of a man named Robert Hubert, a Frenchman who claimed to be Catholic and working with a gang of Catholic insurrectionists. Despite changing his rambling, disjointed story several times, and despite testimony from everyone who knew him that he was a lifelong Protestant, well…a confession was a confession, and he was hung before the year was out. Not long after the Monument went up, a smaller plaque, now on display at the museum, was placed on the exact spot where the bakery once stood:

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“Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”

The plaque was finally removed in the 1700s, not due to a change of heart or because the truth was established, but because the crowds stopping to read it were blocking traffic. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 6)

Since yesterday was all about Westminster, today would be dedicated to the City of London, often referred to as just “the City,” or “the Square Mile.” Although the oldest part of metropolitan London, most of buildings in the City are relatively new. The succession of buildings that were once here — the old Roman forum and amphitheatre, the Saxon halls, the dark-beamed wooden houses and shops of the Tudor era — are all long vanished. In their place are the sleek skyscrapers of big business. The City is London’s financial center.

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The City

As we emerged from the Monument tube station that morning, we came face to face with the station’s namesake — the Monument of the Great Fire of London.

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The fluted Doric column made from white Portland stone looms over the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. The inside has a narrow spiral staircase, and there is a viewing platform near the top. The very top is capped by a gilded urn of fire. If the column were to be tipped over on its side to the east, the urn’s flames would be resting on the starting place of the fire, exactly 202 feet away.

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Pudding Lane has shifted slightly west during various redevelopments over the centuries. It used to cross the red dot.

That empty patch of Monument Street (marked with an X in the photo below) was once a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane belonging to Thomas Farriner, who made hardtack for the Royal Navy. He extinguished his oven fire when he closed for business around nine o’clock Saturday night. His daughter Hanna checked the oven around midnight, and later swore it was cold. Shortly after that, in the dark pre-dawn of the morning of September 2, 1666, the ground floor filled with smoke, and flames began licking the wooden ceiling beams from a fire in the upper portion of the chimney. Farriner and his daughter escaped by climbing onto an adjoining roof. Their maid was not so lucky. Soon the building was engulfed. Before dawn, a strong wind picked up from the east.

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London was a tinderbox. There was little open space. The buildings all abutted each other, and were all made of wood and lath & plaster, many with thatched roofs and straw flooring. Nearby warehouses were filled with timber, oil, hemp, tar, flax, pitch, coal and all manner of handy fuel. The previous July and August had seen a low amount of rainfall, so everything was brittle and dry. If the City were set up by arsonists for deliberate destruction, they couldn’t have done a better job.

As the sun rose, the fire had already engulfed its first church, St. Margaret’s, on the site where the Monument now stands. People were beginning to panic, but London’s Lord Mayor hesitated, at first dismissing it as such a minor conflagration that “a woman might piss it out” (delightfully direct were those pre-Victorians), but he soon had to eat his words. Londoners packed what they could and streamed out of the city.

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In the days before professional fire departments, putting out fires came down to volunteers. Every parish church had fire fighting equipment on hand: usually brass syringe-like “squirts,” leather buckets, and massive hooks for pulling down houses. Water in large quantities was often scarce, so the primary strategy for halting the progress of fires was to create firebreaks by pulling down unburned houses and shops. The owners of said structures were understandably reluctant to destroy their perfectly good buildings (even if they were right in the path of the fire), so it was a real test of their civic-mindedness. Bucket brigades were formed to get water from wells and pumps to areas under the gravest threat.

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Imagine a volunteer firefighter’s surprise when he looked up and saw that the person passing him the bucket was none other than King Charles II himself. The normally lazy and dissolute monarch stirred himself off his velvet cushions in Whitehall Palace and headed to the City, where he began supervising, issuing orders, working the bucket brigades, and generally demonstrating the kind of leadership he had been unwilling to apply in most other situations. He certainly came out of it looking better than the Lord Mayor.

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Fed by strong winds, and creating its own diabolical atmosphere as major fires do, the towering flames spread, unchecked, to the west at a pace of about thirty yards per hour. Thunderous booms and cracks echoed across the city as buildings imploded. By the third day, the fire had reached St. Paul’s cathedral. Only the stone walls were left standing. The lead from the roof ran in molten, glowing rivers down the street like volcanic lava. All the buildings on the north side of London Bridge were destroyed. Dense smoke spread over a fifty mile area.

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By the fourth day, the fire’s westward progress caused people to think about protecting Whitehall Palace, and it was even conceivable that Westminster was under threat if the winds continued. The Royal Navy began using gunpowder to blow up buildings between Somerset House and Whitehall. Other firebreaks began finally seeing success as the winds died down. The fire consumed all available fuel. It was completely out by the end of the week, but the ground remained hot to the touch for days afterwards.

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The face of London was permanently changed. St. Paul’s was reduced to its exterior masonry walls. What was once a crowded, thriving, essentially still-medieval city was now an ashy wasteland. The lone familiar structure was the Tower of London, behind stone walls upwind and east of the fire, so it was spared. Of the 448 acres within the City walls, 373 acres were wiped out, and 13,200 houses and 87 churches were no more.

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Engraved map of London just after the fire. The non-burned areas reflect the building denisty that used to be city-wide.

Luckily, the Monument that now stands near the fire’s starting place does not commemorate a large loss of life. Fewer than ten people are (officially) reported to have died, including the Farriners’ poor maid. But over 80,000 were now homeless. The very first insurance company, the Fire Office, was founded the next year. As re-building began, Charles II issued a royal proclamation: all new buildings in the City of London were to be of brick or stone. Architect Sir Christopher Wren became the busiest man in England.

The Monument itself (designed by Wren) was part of the rebuilding program, completed in 1677. In the aftermath, it took some time to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Many in the City assumed it was arson perpetrated by the Catholics, and in fact the original Latin inscription on the Monument made some disparaging comments about “popery” that weren’t removed for almost two hundred years, long after the cause was determined to be accidental. More on that in the next entry…

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We didn’t linger long at the Monument, but headed east down Lower Thames Street toward the Tower of London. The Tower of London is actually a conglomeration of several towers (20 altogether) and other buildings, built at different times for different reasons. The centerpiece is still the original tower, known as the “White Tower,” the most imposing and impressive building Londoners of the 11th century had ever seen. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror, beginning around 1078 and finished by 1100. Originally located right where the easternmost section of the old Roman wall met the Thames, the White Tower anchored what William intended to be a strong defensive position for his newly-acquired territory. By God, these Normans built castles, not the humble little halls and hill forts that littered the Anglo-Saxon landscape.

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The White Tower, 1400s, with the London Bridge in the background.

Most of the other buildings in the Tower complex were added during major expansions ordered by William III and his heir Edward I from the the early 1200s through the early 1300s. Thick “curtain” walls went up on the west and north, and replaced the crumbling Roman wall to the east. Rings of small fortifying towers were built as added defense. Each ring was separated by open spaces and pathways called “wards.”

The Tower was no longer used as any kind of royal residence by the early 1500s. It became more of a defensive “keep” — a fort, a meeting place, the Royal Mint (until 1812), an armory…and a prison, which increasingly darkened its reputation. Although no great foreign armies invaded England’s shores after William’s 1066 conquest, there were enough civil wars and local rebellions to keep the Tower’s defenses busy for hundreds of years. 

As far as “newer” construction and additions, the cluster of Tudor buildings known as the Queen’s House was built in the 1540s as lodgings for the Tower’s chief constable. It was not, as many websites state, built for Anne Boleyn, who would have been too dead to enjoy it by the time it was constructed. A set of Tudor storehouses north of the White Tower were replaced by an army barracks known as the Waterloo Block in the 1840s. Other Victorian-era buildings now line the eastern wall.

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The Tower as it exists today. Refer back to this diagram as you read. You may need your reading glasses, but it will come in handy.

There are two chapels, one built into the interior of the White Tower (St. John’s) and one next to the Waterloo Block (St. Peter-in-Chains).

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The western Tower wall as seen from the entry plaza. The rounded portion is Beauchamp Tower.

The current entrance for the Tower’s visitors is through the wetsern gatehouse known as Middle Tower. Dating from one of Henry III’s expansions in the 1200s, it was re-surfaced with Portland stone in 1717, and had the coat of arms of George I added above the arch. The iron portillicus is long gone, but the grooves where it once rose and lowered are still visible.

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The Middle Tower

Another defensive feature, known as a “barbican,” also once guarded the approach to the Tower. (The barbican was the “first tower” before you reached the Middle Tower.) The rounded interior of the barbican became home to the Royal Menagerie, and the structure was later known as Lion Tower.

The Royal Menagerie began when the Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Henry III with three leopards in the 1230s. Lions were soon added, along with jackals, owls, a polar bear (who would go fishing in the Thames, attached to his pen by a long chain), brown bears, hyenas, and assorted others. They were housed in wooden pens lining the inside wall of the barbican. James I added a small exercise yard and an audience platform, and the inhabitants of London could view the animals for a small fee. The English climate and the cramped conditions were not conducive to good health for most of these creatures, so there was a pretty frequent turnover, but monarchs did not seem to have any trouble acquiring fresh specimens of exotic beasts, especially once Britain became an empire. (An American mountain lion was described by one chronicler as “an Indian cat from Virginia.”) It was finally decided to move the animals to the newly-opened London Zoo in 1831. The only animals to remain behind are the well-known Tower ravens, who now freely hop around the walls and lawns (their wings are clipped), and retire to a spacious aviary at night.

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Wire-mesh lion sculpures peer at the remains of the Lion Tower. The moat bridge between Middle Tower and Byward Tower is in the background.

The Lion Tower was pulled down not long after the departure of the animals. Its crumbled foundation and the pit that once housed the drawbridge gears were still visible off to our left as we approached the ticket takers of Middle Tower. Once we passed through the Middle Tower, we followed the footbridge that crossed the moat. The moat is now waterless, a wide expanse of green lawn marking where it once existed. With the moat behind us, we entered Byward Tower, the true entrance of the Tower of London.

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Crossing the “moat” into Byward Tower

I plugged into my audio tour (available at almost every major site in London, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee — it’s worth it) and headed through one final archway into the Inner Ward.

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The White Tower

The White Tower is still quite impressive. The external wooden staircase was designed to be removed in case the defenses were overrun, making entry into the stronghold extremely difficult. The interior was designed to handle all the needs of a medieval king, especially in times of crisis — a council hall, private living quarters, and a thick-walled basement, rumored to be a place of interrogation and torture. (The White Tower basement is off-limits to the public, but there is a torture display in the basement of Wakefield Tower if that’s your thing.)

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View of the Tower Bridge from near the White Tower.

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The three public floors of the White Tower today are occupied by a museum dedicated to armor and weapons. There are multiple suits of armor custom made for Henry VIII (you can trace his weight gain through the years), and every instrument of violent mayhem known to man.

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St. John’s chapel, inside the White Tower

Across the Inner Ward to the south are the riverside defensive wall and the towers designated to be cozier royal quarters when the White Tower accommodations proved a little too spare. Wakefield Tower was built for the use of Henry III around 1220, but his son, Edward I, didn’t take to it, and had his own lodgings, St. Thomas’ Tower, built over the river entrance known as Traitors’ Gate. Lanthorn Tower was designated as the “Queen’s residence,” but it came to be used as quarters for the whole royal family, along with an extensive set of buildings running along the east side of the Inner Ward. The area between Wakefield and Lanthorn was once occupied by the typical “great hall” of a medieval castle (see the previous entry on Westminster Hall), but, like the royal lodgings immediately to the east, was torn down in the mid-1600s.

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Artist’s rendering of the medieval-era Tower. Note the cluster of buildings just to the right of the White Tower — these were the royal lodgings and great hall (with the peaked roof.) The drawbridge and rounded barbican of the Lion Tower is at the lower left.

After the Wars of the Roses in the late 1400s, Wakefield Tower was where feeble-minded Henry VI was imprisoned by the victorious Edward IV. Henry may have been happier here as a deposed ex-monarch than as a ruler, as he cared nothing for power and knew nothing of government. He was content to roam through the Tower gardens in a shabby robe and mumble prayers. (Royal and noble prisoners were kept in relative comfort.) Edward IV was frequently magnanimous to defeated foes, and decided Henry was harmless. Henry was a “guest” of the Tower for several years. But after one too many uprisings in his name came close to toppling Edward, it was decided that the old king had to go.

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Wakefield Tower

Edward entrusted the task to his loyal younger brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester. On the night of May 21, 1471, the holy day of the feast of the Ascension, Henry was performing an all-night vigil on his knees in his “oratory” — his personal little chapel built into his quarters. Sometime before midnight, he was brutally bashed over the back of the head from behind and died almost instantly. It was put around that the old king, known to be in fragile health, had succumbed to natural causes. No one really believed it. Some later said the weapon that did the deed was wielded not by paid assassins in the service of the duke of Gloucester, but by the duke himself.

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Henry VI’s oratory

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No one was a more dangerous enemy to Edward IV than his other brother, the duke of Clarence. The unstable Clarence betrayed and changed sides on Edward at least twice during the Wars of the Roses, and twice was forgiven. Finally, his increasingly psychotic behavior caused him to be imprisoned in the Tower and sentenced to death. Being the brother of the king, he was allowed to choose the manner of his execution. He chose to be drowned in a butt (about 108 gallons) of sweet Malmsey wine. The messy sentence was duly carried out in 1478 in Bowyer Tower in the north wall. (A “butt” was a type of barrel. In castles, palaces, and upper-class houses, wine was kept in copious amounts in a “buttery.” Its purchase, storage, and decanting was supervised by the “butler.” [He didn’t answer doors.] The dairy product known as “butter” is named after the barrel it’s churned in.)

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Entering Bowyer Tower

Edward IV, tall and fair-haired, was a bold and cunning warrior-king in the mold of his great-uncle (and Henry VI’s father), Henry V. However, he had none of Henry V’s sober judgement or self-restraint. In an era when kings were expected to be a little promiscuous, Edward IV entered the realm of legend. Seriously, the man was a walking hard-on. No woman, married or maiden, high-born or lowly servant, was safe when the king was in the vicinity. He may have even sexed himself to death, as the once vigorous king died from an unknown ailment at the age of only forty in 1483. All that is known is that his overweight body was debauched, exhausted, and thoroughly used up. 

The crown should have passed to his twelve-year-old son, Prince Edward, but twelve-year-olds are not capable of independent rule, and need a regent to run the government. Enter the ever-trustworthy Richard, duke of Gloucester, the boys’ uncle, who took his place as Prince Edward’s regent and “Protector.” This would lead to the most notorious event in Tower history.

Gloucester placed Prince Edward and his ten-year-old brother, Richard, duke of York into the fairly luxurious tower next to Wakefield called the Garden Tower. It was for their own protection, of course. The kingdom was still unsteady, and a lot of conniving nobles would be out to do the boys harm. First and foremost among them was the boys’ so-called Protector himself. It didn’t take long for Gloucester to 1) have his dead older brother’s marriage posthumously annulled, and 2) declare his own still-living mother as an adultress (except in the question of his own birth). The two princes were declared bastards from two directions and disinherited. Gloucester was duly crowned Richard III. The two princes were moved to the White Tower, occasionally glimpsed behind the barred windows through the summer of 1483, then never seen again.

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; The Princes in the Tower

They were almost certainly smothered in their beds by assassins on Richard’s orders that autumn. Richard made no attempt to explain their disappearance, public opinion hardened against him, and his inner circle was already making plans to openly or secretly ditch him. I guess Richard had hoped his new subjects would simply forget about the princes. In less than two years, Richard’s stripped, bleeding body was slung over the rump of a horse after the battle of Bosworth and dumped in an umarked grave, abandoned by all. The victor in that contest, Henry (VII) Tudor, started a new dynasty by marrying the princes’ older sister.

In 1674, workmen dismantling an old turret staircase in the White Tower discovered the skeletons of two young boys stuffed into the staircase foundations. Whether or not these are the remains of the two princes is still a hot topic of scholarly debate. (Human remains are evidently not a rarity around the Tower.) I have my opinion, and I could go into both sides of the argument, but that sounds like a fun thing for the reader to him/herself some rainy afternoon. (It really comes down to how much stock you put in the writings of Sir Thomas More — investigative journalist or imaginative propagandist?)

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The alleged remains were found under this walled-off staircase.

Some say Richard didn’t do it. Some say his lieutenant, the duke of Buckingham, committed the crime thinking it would please his boss, or independently for his own reasons. Some say the princes were secretly hustled into a safe exile. While Richard III was not the twisted, hunchbacked demon of the Shakespeare play, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, both at the time and through later historical investigation, points to Richard arranging the prince’s permanent disappearance. Forever after, the old Garden Tower became known as “Bloody Tower” (even though they died in the White Tower). Sadly, Bloody Tower was closed for renovation the day we visited.

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Bloody Tower. The high, walled garden that gave it its original name is to the right.

From very early on, the Tower of London housed official state prisoners, usually those suspected of treason. After the verdict, the guilty party was immediately rowed from their trial at Westminster Hall downriver to the Tower, where they entered via the water entrance under St. Thomas’s Tower known as “Traitors’ Gate,” and awaited their fate, usually the chopping block. This caused the Tower to be permanently associated with executions, although very few took place within the Tower walls. Most state executions took place to the north on Tower Hill.

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Entry to the Tratiors’ Gate, as seen from the river.

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Traitors’ Gate from the inside.

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St. Thomas’s Tower, above the Traitors’ Gate.

Only a privileged half-dozen or so got the honor of having their heads lopped off in the Tower itself. There is a beautiful glass sculpture supposedly marking the spot of the execution scaffolding, but it is in the wrong location. Contemporary sources place the scaffaolding immediately north of the White Tower, where the Waterloo Block now stands.

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Nice memorial. Wrong spot.

Of all the Tower’s executions, none are more well-known than Anne Boleyn. Said to be witty, spirited, and devastatingly attractive, she was the reason Henry VIII cast aside his first wife (creating the Church of England to do so)…and then was cast aside herself. Like her predecessor, she had failed to conceive a male heir, producing only the future Elizabeth I, and once Henry’s initial lust for her had burned away, he found her a total pain in his ever-widening ass — haughty, demanding, and flirtatious with male members of the court. Henry had her arrested for adultery. A random, low-level court musician was accused of being her lover. He was brought to the Tower, tortured extensively, and confessed to the crime, not neglecting to name a dozen others, including Anne’s brother, adding incest to the list of charges. As the Tower’s torturers worked the poor musician over, it’s a wonder he didn’t name half of London as sharing Anne’s bed.

Cheating on a king counts as treason, and Anne was put on trial. The trial was rigged from the outset. Before it had even begun, a skilled swordsman had already been sent for from France to ensure to first execution of a queen of England would go smoothly. After the inevitable guilty verdict was delivered by the kangaroo court headed by her own uncle (toadying for favor with the king), she impressed everyone in the days before her death with her dignity, cool, and gallows humor. “From here on, I shall be known as Queen Anne Lackhead,” she remarked to an attendant. Anne Boleyn was swiftly beheaded on May 19, 1536, and her body interred in the nearby St. Peter’s chapel.

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St. Peter’s Chapel, final resting place of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard.

Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the ditzy and frivolous Katherine Howard, was also executed on the same spot on identical charges in 1542. The only difference was, the charges against Howard were most likely true. (She had been banging around with a courtier named Thomas Culpeper.)

The year before, Henry had sentenced Margaret Pole, the now-elderly daughter of the drowned-in-wine duke of Clarence, to death for the treasonous actions of her son, who was frustratingly unavailable to be executed himself (wisely choosing this time to see the sights of France.) She refused to kneel for her execution, and the axeman had to literally chase the surprisingly spry 67-year-old around the Tower Green, gradually hacking her to death over several minutes. That one probably didn’t go on his resume.

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The Tower Green and former “Lieutenant’s Lodgings,” c. 1540. These buildings were re-dubbed the Queen’s House in honor of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. They are some of the only Tudor timber buildings that survived the Great Fire, thanks to being inside the Tower walls.

Henry VIII died, bloated and ulcerated, in 1547, leaving three children by three different queens: the devoutly Catholic Mary I (by first wife Katherine of Aragon, divorced and exiled), the shrewd Elizabeth I (by second wife Anne Boleyn, executed), and the devoutly Protestant Edward VI (by third wife Jane Seymour, who died as a result of the birth). Henry’s immediate successor, the sickly, teenage Edward, was dying himself by 1553, and cut his half-sisters out of his will. Mary because of her Catholicism, Elizabeth because of her disgraced mother. He named a Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir (without her knowledge). Stunned when told the news, Grey was coerced into accepting the crown and lasted as queen for nine days before a fickle group of nobles decided to back Mary’s claim instead. The vengeful “Bloody Mary” promptly had the hapless Grey executed at the Tower for the temerity of being crowned queen against her will by her greedy relatives. Blindfolded, Lady Jane Grey spent her last few seconds feeling for the chopping block, asking “What do I do? Where is it?” She was 16.

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A fanciful 1800s imagining of the execution of Lady Jane Grey.

The subsequent wrangling between Mary and Elizabeth (who was a prisoner in the Tower herself for awhile) is a story for another time, as are many, many other anecdotes regarding the Tower itself, including the one about the cell just below river level that floods with rats when the tide comes up.

OK, one more story. After his capture, Guy Fawkes, famous participant of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and assassinate James I in the name of Catholicism, was held after his arrest in “Little Ease.” Little Ease is a windowless cell in the basement of the White Tower that measures about four by four by four. Its occupant could neither stand up nor lie down, but had to crouch for as long as his captors kept him there. Fawkes’ confession was soon extracted, and led to England living in terror of Catholics for the next 200 years, blaming them for the Great Fire in 1666, among many other crimes. The Tower continued to hold state prisoners as late as the 1950s.

Naturally, the Tower is purported to be the most haunted building in Britain. As I went from place to place, with these stories in my head, I tried to conjure up a shiver or some spooky atmosphere in my imagination. But it just can’t be done on a late spring morning when you’re crushed between hundreds of other tourists.

Here’s a sampling of the ghost stories told about the Tower, mostly by employees who work the night shift: Henry VI appears in his oratory on the anniversary of his murder (you’d think this one would be easy to verify). The two young princes have been seen wandering the grounds in nightgowns. Anne Boleyn, occasionally headless, is frequently sighted near the chapel. The Inner Ward sometimes echoes with the screams of Margaret Pole. Sometimes a tourist gets lucky and snaps a picture in broad daylight with the face of the murdered prince Edward reflected in a display case.

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Ghostly reflection of murdered Prince Edward? Or some random kid wandering by? You be the judge.

The weirdest story is probably the one about the guard who once attempted to bayonet the apparition of a brown bear near the crown jewels.

Oh, yes, the crown jewels. Judging by the size of the line to see them, the crown jewels are the most-visited exhibit in the entire Tower. And we’re about out of space for one entry in this series. We’ll talk about the crown jewels next time…

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Waterloo Block, home of the Crown Jewels, built in the 1840s.

[The Holy Bee doesn’t make this stuff up — I am indebted to the books Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones, The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones (presumably no relation), and Stephen Inwood’s three-pound doorstop A History of London. Someone else makes up the ghost stories, I just repeat them.]

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 5)

It was a short walk from our lunchtime pub to Westminster Abbey, but the line to get in was anything but short. It wound neatly back and forth in front of the Great North Door without the need for ropes and stanchions. The British can queue like nobody’s business. It is one of their many skills as a culture. I didn’t mind the line so much, except when it was in direct sunlight, at which point it became a brutal endurance test. Did I mention the heat wave?

The Abbey towered above us, providing blessed shade at regular enough intervals. It hasn’t been an abbey for 450 years (since Elizabeth I booted the community of Benedictine monks that had been living there for centuries), nor is it technically a cathedral (since it is not the seat of a bishop). It is just a really, really big church that the monarchy has a proprietary interest in (a “royal peculiar.”)

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Edward the Confessor, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England (unless you count poor old Harold Godwinson, the Moe Green of mediaval monarchs), decided sometime in the mid-1000s to build himself a palace and a church a few miles upriver from the walled City of London. London had semi-autonomously governed itself since time out of mind, and regarded the king’s rule as a formality rather than a subjugation. Edward wanted a place where he was top dog. He chose Thorney Island, formed by a confluence of the Thames and Tyburn rivers. Upon Thorney Island, the Palace of Westminster arose. And right next to it, supposedly on a site already occupied by a century-old monastery, Westminster Abbey came to be. (Minster is derived from the Latin word for monastery. “West” because it was west of London.)

Unlike so many other patrons of great architectural projects, Edward the Confessor did live to see the church completed — and promptly died a week later. He was the first, but far from the last, person to be buried in Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor (his nickname derived from a posthumous — and totally undeserved — reputation for piety) died heirless in 1066, leaving England open to conquest from across the Channel by William, Duke of Normandy. Thus, the very French duke became King William I (“The Conqueror”) of England, imported a lot of his Norman cronies to be noblemen, and was crowned in Edward’s brand-new abbey. English kings and their courts spoke little but French until around 1400. Britain’s current corgi-loving monarch can trace her ancestry through a few twists and turns back to William I.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in England was thrilled with their new Norman overlords, and Edward became a symbol of their proud Anglo-Saxon past. He was canonized in 1161, becoming Saint Edward the Confessor.

William and his immediate successors had better things to do than look after a crummy old church, such as building a shitload of castles all over the place, so Westminster Abbey languished until the reign of Henry III. Henry III, whom no one would mistake for a rocket scientist (had such a thing existed in the 1200s) was at the very least a kind and decent fellow, a rare thing for a king from the hot-blooded Plantagenet dynasty, and was absolutely dedicated to the veneration of Edward the Confessor. He decided to have Westminster Abbey completely rebuilt on a much grander scale and dedicate it to his hero. The old Romanesque church was gradually replaced with one in a high Gothic style, with lots of pointed-top arches and flying buttresses to support the walls. Greater wall support meant more room for enormous stained-glass windows, and the layout was in the shape of a Latin cross, similar to the great cathedrals of the era.

A bustling service community grew up around the Palace of Westminster and its associated Abbey. London had begun spilling beyond its walls, and the walls themselves were pulled down in the 1760s. London and Westminster eventually met in the middle to make the great metropolis we know today. The marshes around Thorney Island were drained, and it ceased to be an island, although the little River Tyburn still exists, culverted and flowing underground.

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The building Cam and I entered now through the Great North Door after a 75-minute wait was the building begun by Henry III in 1245, and consecrated in 1269. Henry himself was stuffed in a Westminster Abbey crypt three years later. Work continued, off and on, until 1517. Then the Abbey’s most distinctive feature, the two massive towers flanking the Great West Door, were added between 1722 and 1745.

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The Great North Door

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After a stern warning about taking pictures (the interior pictures here are mostly from the Abbey’s website), our audio tour headphones guided us to the nave, where we began our exploration. The nave is the long main body of the church, where the congregation sits. Tombs and memorials line the walls and floor, including those marking the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, prime ministers Clement Attlee and Neville Chamberlain, and the still-fresh Stephen Hawking.

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The nave, with the British Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the foreground and the gilded wall of the Quire in the distance.

At the altar end of the nave is the Choir (or “Quire”), a sort of roofless wooden room, with hand carved wooden seats, reserved for high-ranking parishioners and dignitaries (and yes, the choir).

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The Quire, walled off from the rest of the nave.

Beyond the choir is the Sacarum, or High Altar, the site of every coronation since 1066 and many royal weddings. Tucked away behind the Sacarum is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, containing what little is left of his mortal remains.

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The Sacarum

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Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor

Just east of the Sacarum is the 16th century extension known as the “Lady Chapel,” named in honor of the original Lady, the Virgin Mary. The most prominent feature here is the tomb of Henry VII, sponsor of the Lady Chapel’s construction. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was once revered as the dashing young earl of Richmond who sailed in from exile and ended the destructive Wars of the Roses by uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York in marriage. He aged into a grim, paranoid bureaucrat with a deeply-lined face and an ultimate legacy of miserliness and total mediocrity. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” — Henry VII.*

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Westminster Abbey as it appeared around 1600. The “new” Lady Chapel built by Henry VII sticks out on the left. Note the lack of massive towers on the right.

Fittingly, the Lady Chapel is also the location of the tombs of two noteworthy ladies: Henry VII’s granddaughers, Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I, bitter rivals in life, now lie side by side for eternity. Just a few feet away are the alleged** remains of the uncrowned Edward V and his brother Richard, both probably murdered as children on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. (More on that in the next entry.)

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A few monarchs from the late 1300s through the early 1700s are buried elsewhere due to various circumstances, but the majority of them are right there in Westminster Abbey, mostly out of the desire to be interred near the remains of St. Edward, one of the most prominent English-born saints. Henry III is cozied up right next to his saintly idol. His son, Edward I, sworn enemy of William Wallace and the hissable villain of Braveheart, is nearby. Edward I’s son, the suspect and effeminate Edward II, who abdicated the throne and was supposedly assassinated soon after by a red-hot poker up the rectum***, is also somewhere in the vicinity. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 4)

This might prove useful over the next several entries:

The Holy Bee’s Handy Guide to Historical Eras/Dynasties in England:

Prehistoric/ancient — dawn of time to the Romans. The earliest occupants of Britain were a mysterious bunch, with a muddled and puzzling genetic past. But they could build a hell of a ring of stones.

Roman — the time of occupation by the Roman Empire, 43 – c.410

Middle Ages/medieval — from the exit of Romans to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, c.410 – 1485. The Angles and Saxons (tribal groups from Germany) held sway over England (which comes from “Angle Land”) in the first half of this era, and the Normans of France took over after 1066. A Norman offshoot, the Plantagenets, ruled from 1154 to 1485.

Tudor — from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII (1485) to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1603). Basically, the 1500s. A very busy period for England. Shakespeare time. Big ruffled collars. Your “Bloody Mary” and your husband of the year Henry VIII would go here. The setting for lots of historically-inaccurate movies and mini-series.

Stuart — the Scottish royal house that, due to overlapping family trees, was England’s ruling family from James I (1603) to Anne (1714). (Their reign was interrupted for about a decade by the Parliamentary “commonwealth” of Oliver Cromwell.) Throw in two Charleses and another James, and the first official joint rulers, William III and Mary II. And a lot of hilarious long curly wigs and stacked heels. Basically, the 1600s.

Georgian — I don’t use this one too often. George I through IV, and let’s toss William IV in for good measure. Basically, the 1700s – early 1800s.

Victorian — the reign of Queen Victoria. 1837 to 1901.

Anything after Victoria, I just call “modern.”

“Great Britain” is the large, main island of the British Isles. “England” is its politically-dominant southern part, “Scotland” is its northern part, “Wales” is its far western part. England has more or less controlled Wales since 1282. Scotland was for many centuries an independent kingdom, a great rival to England and frequent collaborator with England’s old enemy, France. During the latter days of the Stuart dynasty (1707, to be exact), England and Scotland became a unified political entity — “The United Kingdom of Great Britain, etc.” (The whole Ireland thing is too complicated to get into in this Handy Guide.) For the monarchy, before 1707, I’ll say “English” king or queen, after 1707, I’ll use the term “British” king or queen.

Following Saturday’s travel via tube and black cab, we nailed the London transportation trifecta on Sunday morning by hopping a red double-decker bus. It was dubbed by three-year-old Maya as a “decker-decker” bus, and that’s how it was known to us forever after. The bus took us as far as the east side of Westminster Bridge, which we crossed on foot. (In a larger sense, the Thames divides London into north/south, but Westminster is on a pretty extreme bend.)

Much of the central part of Greater London, and most of the West End, is actually the “City of Westminster,” an entirely separate administrative district. The “City of London” is much, much smaller, and roughly corresponds with the square mile once enclosed by the old Roman walls.

Westminster Bridge, under the shadow of Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament), is the tourism center of London. A huge crush of people, and so many different languages and accents mingled together, it was like an international bazaar. Police cars and ambulances dashed around unnervingly. I was let down to note that the traditional British rising-and-falling, two-note emergency vehicle siren has been replaced by the more familiar “whoop-whoop” American siren.

This was my first good look at the clock tower that houses Big Ben, which is the name of the huge bell inside, not the tower or even the clock. The tower was officially called “Clock Tower” (clever, no?) until 2012, when it was renamed “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of the current monarch. No matter the name, it was now completely clad in scaffolding due to a massive, multi-year renovation project. It was distinctly un-photogenic, indeed almost unrecogizeable, and a mite disappointing for tourists. “Even Space Mountain breaks down occasionally,” Cam pointed out.

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At Westminster Pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper river ferry (Oyster cards gladly accepted) and headed downriver towards Greenwich, passing under London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. (Don’t confuse them. One of my Anglophilic pet peeves is someone referring to the Gothic-spired Tower Bridge as “London Bridge.”)

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This is London Bridge.

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NOT this. This is Tower Bridge.

London Bridge is pretty nondescript, and it is the third bridge by that name to have occupied that space.

Where London Bridge is currently located is also roughly the same place that the Romans built a bridge when they established the settlement of Londinium in the 1st century A.D. Wooden bridges came and went in that location well into the Middle Ages. The first stone bridge across the Thames connecting London and Southwark was completed in 1209, and remained in place for over six centuries.

“Old London Bridge” was treated like any other street, and had homes and businesses lining either side. A chapel (St. Thomas’s) was next to a small drawbridge in the center which allowed for the passage of some tall ships, but most bigger vessels docked downstream from the bridge. Ferries rowed passengers and cargo through one of nineteen stone arches under the roadway. The heads of traitors could usually be observed impaled on spikes on the bridge’s Southwark entrance.

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London Bridge, circa 1600. Those aren’t lollipops on the lower right.

London Bridge was also the site of one of the most epic forgotten battles in history. A huge popular revolt led by Jack Cade rose up against the increasingly disastrous rule of the possibly mentally-challenged Henry VI. Cade’s rebels succceeded in taking over London for a day or two, but were forced out by the Tower of London’s garrison. A huge battle raged on London Bridge all through the night of July 8, 1450. Men fought hand-to-hand by the light of torches and the burning drawbridge until well after sunrise. Several inhabitants of the bridge’s homes were swept up in the fighting, and civilians and combatants alike were sometimes plunged howling into the Thames. When the gates to London were finally heaved closed in the morning light against the pile of charred and bloodied bodies, the revolt collapsed. Jack Cade’s head appeared in the expected spot above the Southwark entrance to the bridge within a few weeks. Political instability continued, ultimately leading to the Wars of the Roses a few years down the road. (I wish I could say I was cool enough to have named my son Cade after this guy, but he was in fact named after now-forgotten UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.)

Over time, the arches grew increasingly narrow due to silt build-up, the river level on either side could vary as much as six feet, and the water gushed through them at low tide like whitewater rapids. “Shooting the bridge” became a test of a boatman’s skill. By the 1500s, the bridge had more than 200 structures on it, some seven stories high. The center road was a mere twelve feet wide, and the top stories of the buildings were extended so far over the road, they almost touched in the middle, creating a tunnel effect.

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The bridge’s growing disrepair probably led to the well-known nursery rhyme song. It became so structurally unsound that all of its buildings were torn down in the 1700s, and the bridge itself was finally demolished in 1831.

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Out with the old bridge (right), in with the new (left), 1831.

That same year, “New London Bridge” opened, a granite structure with five much-wider arches (and no buildings cluttering it.) By 1896, it was London’s busiest thoroughfare, with 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossing every hour. But it was gradually sinking into the riverbanks on either side.

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New London Bridge

In 1967, it was dismantled…and reassembled in, of all places, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it can stare impassively down at thousands of tanned, oblivious spring breakers preening, pissing, screwing, and puking each April.

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New London Bridge in its new location, Lake Havasu City, AZ.

The better-engineered modern London Bridge is a perfectly serviceable concrete box-girder bridge, but it has no whiff of romanticism about it and does not draw the eye the way the more impressive Tower Bridge (completed in 1896 and named for the nearby Tower of London) does. It was long rumored that the billionaire entrepreneur Robert McCulloch, who was responsible for buying London Bridge and moving it to Arizona, thought he was getting the Tower Bridge. He always denied this. I think it may be true. (He was from Missouri.)

We got off the ferry at Greenwich, 5½ miles downriver from Charing Cross, and home to the Royal Observatory. This is where time begins, at least as far as we know “time.”

Before we got there, though, there was the matter of an early lunch. Shannon, Cam, and myself were over our jet lag, but our newly-arrived nieces and nephew were in the worst throes of it. They had popped awake and had breakfast around 5:00 that morning, and were now famished. I had partaken in my usual light traveling breakfast (two large cups of strong black coffee), so I could do with a bite myself. We settled in along long wooden benches on the second floor of Goddards at Greenwich (“Traditional Pie and Mash since 1890”).

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I had the minced beef pie and mash because it seemed to be the specialty of the house, and was a little disappointed. Not the dish’s fault at all, but Shannon’s heartier steak-and-ale pie just looked so much better.

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Goddards also seemed very proud of their jellied eels, but all of us skipped those. (Yes, they’re exactly what they sound like. Yes, the bones are still in there.)

In the 1670s, when England was on the rise as a maritime nation, there was a growing need for accurate timekeeping, since accurate timekeeping was vital to determining a ship’s longitude, or position east or west. Latitude (position north or south) had been easy enough to pinpoint for centuries (just measure the angle of the sun or North Star relative to the horizon), but longitude required a way to keep precise time while on board a ship. The rolling of a ship on waves plays havoc with a typical clock’s pendulum, and smaller watches had to be constantly wound and measured against a pendulum clock.

Longitude was a very tricky issue, and many ships and their crews were lost because they weren’t sure of their location. Charles II founded a Royal Observatory, administered by an “Astronomer Royal,” to make sure England’s sailors could safely determine their location based on the Observatory’s detailed star charts, created with the aid of increasingly sophisticated telescopes.

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Courtyard of the Royal Observatory, facing the Flamsteed House.

A clockmaker named John Harrison spent thirty years of his life developing a timepiece that could keep time at sea. He finally succeeded with his H4 “sea watch” in the 1760s, and in conjunction with the data generated by the Royal Observatory, the longitude crisis was solved. This bit of history is considered so important, a lavish four-part TV miniseries was made about it in 2000, starring Michael “Professor Dumbledore” Gambon as Harrison. It was called — wait for it — Longitude.

Zero degrees longitude is called the prime meridian. Every seafaring country once determined their own prime meridian, and made their own navigational charts based on it. Increasing globalization caused England’s Prime Meridian (capital P, capital M) at Greenwich to go into universal use after a vote of the International Meridian Conference in 1884 (what a crazy party that must have been). Along with that, the local time in Greenwich became the basis for the international civil time standard, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

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In keeping with being the home of all standards, the first thing you see when you approach the entrance to the Observatory after a long walk uphill across the broad, green lawns of Greenwich Park is the Public Standards of Length. The yard measured between two brass posts on is the official yard, supposedly based on the distance between Henry I’s (1068-1135) nose and outstretched thumb. The foot is the official foot (supposedly based on — you guessed it — the length of Henry I’s foot.) 19th-century scientists would travel here to make sure their measuring equipment was accurate.

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The strip of brass marking the Prime Meridian was close by (on the other side of the gate — pay your admission first, please), and was constantly crowded with people experiencing the novelty of having one foot in the western hemisphere and one foot in the eastern hemisphere.

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The Observatory building itself was designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren (St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, tons of other stuff) and referred to as the Flamsteed House (after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed.) It is the first purposely-built scientific research facility in Britain. Most of the actual astronomical observing was farmed out in the mid-20th century (due mainly to light pollution from ever-growing London), leaving the Flamsteed House and its surroundings as museum space. Continue reading

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