Now that I’m back from my vacation and in the safety of my apartment, my Europe trip already seems very far behind me. I’ve done about three loads of laundry so far and unpacked most things. And I’ve taken out my souvenirs, though we all know it’ll be months before I put up my Impressionist prints. But despite everything — all the running around and occasional panic — it was quite a trip. Here are some highlights, including my favorite photos.
London: Sunday, May 10
The London that I know is derived from Doctor Who, Agatha Christie, and all the rest of it. On Sunday I got taken on a graffiti tour by my cousin, whom I hadn’t seen in about ten years. This is another side of London, the side that’s made up of people without the accent, people who aren’t too overawed by establishment, people on the fringes. I’ve no doubt I saw the tippy tip of the iceberg of another London. But it was fun, still.
Petticoat St is so called because apparently even the petticoats can be stolen out from under you. It’s sort of the same neighborhood, but not exactly, not the same Tube stop — but Brick Road is another interesting area. If you look carefully, the street signs are in both English and Bangla. Most of its inhabitants were Bangladeshis, imported (if I remember this right) to rebuild bits of London after WWII.
Dinner was at Chutney’s, which just reinforced the bromide that the UK’s national food is Indian. Little buffet style place with really nice palak paneer and an assortment of things, including my favorite gulab jamun.
London, May 11
The Full English
There are few things that will kill you faster, consumed on a regular basis, than the full English breakfast. When we saw it advertised, it often consisted of a couple of eggs, beans (baked beans, that is; a mush of broad beans and imitation tomato sauce), a sausage, mushrooms, a wilted tomato, bacon, and — just to round things off in the carbohydrate department — a rack of toast. One that was consumed among us was also adorned with a blood pudding, which we rapidly decided was out of the scope of our experience. Any experience, in fact, not just the breakfast one.
The Tower of London
Fortified thus, we took ourselves to the Tower of London. As if in punishment for all that gluttony, we spent the next hour learning all about the bloody history of the place, especially its renown as a prison complex.
Apparently when William the Conqueror decided he needed his own humble abode, he settled on a fortress. Built in 1066, the Tower is just as impressive today as it must have been then, which is rather a difficult feat. Original stones for the tower were imported from Normandy, and some were used for the dungeons, which had walls that were a convenient 15 feet thick. No screams from the imprisoned and tortured would’ve reached the royal family billeted there.
And what families they were. I’m not exactly well up on my history of English queens and kings, besides knowing that Henry the VIII a bit of a bastard, but interim rulers weren’t really kind either. People of noble birth who’d offended the powers that be had the great honor of getting their heads chopped off with an ax. The proletariat, having nothing better to do in their free time, turned this into a veritable sport; the head would be lifted to great cheering, and whoever was presiding would say “Behold the head of the traitor!”,and then eventually ram the head onto a spike, to be displayed at the gates of London town.
The headless corpse would be dumped into a cart and taken round the long way, between the thronging crowds, to be buried dishonorably in an unmarked grave. If you had a particularly good seat for this show, you might bring along a handy kerchief to dip in the blood of the traitor so you could brag about how great your seats were that day.
Inside the tower, things could be worse. Political prisoners were cooped up inside tiny rooms, and were occasionally taken out to be threatened (as far as I could tell). Four different queens were taken, according to our guide, trembling in fear, and shown the Traitors’ Gate. Right opposite the Traitor’s Gate is the Bloody Tower entrance, guarded by a 700 year old, 2.5 ton portcullis that needed a dozen men or something to shift.
All in all, not the place you wanted to end up in.
Interesting fact — one of the people lined up for execution inside the Tower grounds was William Penn. Penn had the temerity to write — publicly! — that the King did not, in fact, rule with the mandate of God. His father, a close friend of the King’s, pled for his son’s life. The king happened to be in a good mood and decided to exile the man instead. Penn the younger thus fled the country and eventually fetched up in the New World… where he founded the little state known as Pennsylvania.
One thing I didn’t realize, by the way, is that a small matter of a civil war had temporarily ended the monarchy in England before it started up again in 1660-ish. Here’s one thing they must have missed in the interim: all that bling. The Crown Jewels and accompanying paraphernalia are really something to see. Every kind of precious stone in existence seems to have been employed in the making of crowns and scepters and orbs and whatnots. The funny thing is, the ceremonial maces (which are giant and shiny gold) are still used — required, in fact — for Parliament to be in session.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Here we split ways: my friends to see the Tate Modern, and me to walk over to St Paul’s. In retrospect I’ve seen a good number of cathedrals and churches this trip, but St Paul’s is special because it was the first to really impress upon me the majesty of a religious ideal. I’ll have to look up the structure of the church later, but since I was running out of time, I decided to visit the upper galleries first.
If you really want a hell of a climb of more than 500 steps, you’ll ascend to the very peak of St. Paul’s, where both the city and the rest of the cathedral lie below you. I went only to the Whispering gallery, which was a reasonable distance, 257 steps up. It’s called the Whispering gallery because you can, apparently, stand at one side of it and be able to hear something whispered on the other end. I couldn’t test the acoustics, but I could admire the vantage point. Here you can see the huge figures of various saints adorning the sides of the Dome, a magnificent feat as well as being a work of art.
I went down to the Crypts next, which had a nice timeline of events defining the Cathedral, all the way from its formation in 600 or so AD, to the current times. In the interim, St. Paul’s has survived several destructions, both by fire and religious persecution, as well as the London Blitz. The audio guide includes a great interview from an elderly member of the St. Paul’s protection brigade of sorts, established during the Blitz. Britain was well aware that St. Paul’s was a beacon of hope in London and that its destruction would wreck morale. The protection brigade, therefore, patrolled the Cathedral and ensured that any incendiary bombs, which could explode after landing, were destroyed. “I hadn’t stopped to count at that time,” said this interviewee, “but I think I should’ve gotten the record for most incendiaries caught. More than 200 fell in a single night!”
St Paul’s has also been the targeted by suffragettes who unsuccessfully tried to blow it up; a focal point for people to gather after 9/11; and host to Martin Luther King, en route to collect his Nobel.
I didn’t get a chance to actually tour the Globe, which is certainly something I’ll try to do the next time I’m in London. But just sitting outside it was a little bit of a thrill. The place is still done up in the wood and thatch feel of the Shakespearean age, but is enclosed in a far more modern glass structure. One of the things I appreciated most in this trip was the dichotomy between very old, venerable buildings and the modern ones, sitting serenely (I hope) side by side.