London, Part I: Bridges across the Thames.

The last few days of our world trip were a whirlwind in London, the capital of the United Kingdom. On second thought, there’s a good chance it was always going to be a combination of desperate last-minute sightseeing and window-shopping while wondering if we could fit more presents into our luggage for family and friends. But London, like Paris, has no end of historical jewels (figurative and literal) to dazzle the common visitor, and I had never been there before! The only saving grace is that there were no must-try restaurants, because no one is going to pretend English cuisine is the height of gastronomy.

We took the National Express bus down from Cambridge, and as soon as we got into Greater London, it became obvious that the last 1/4th of the trip would take as much time as the first 3/4ths did. We managed to badger the driver into dropping us off at an earlier stop than Victoria Coach Station, and took the Tube up to Camden Town, where we were staying. After a nap and shower, we took ourselves out to visit Hyde Park and the Serpentine (a long pond). It was green and pleasant, with rowboats and some stately looking swans. And giant too — it easily took a good 45 minutes to walk diagonally from one corner to another. At one corner, opposite Royal Albert Hall, we found a monument also dedicated to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, which looked like the British take on a Thai Buddhist temple. In other words, gold, baroque, and unappealing. After some quick dinner, we called it an early night, in preparation for two mad days of sight-seeing in London.

Of course, the next day, we got started horribly late. On one hand, we were very touched by our Airbnb host, who ran a café downstairs from his house and insisted we take advantage of breakfast. On the other hand, by the time we took a double-decker bus and the Underground to the Tower of London, it was nearly 11 am. We only had two hours before we had to meet someone, so we decided to switch around our pursuits, and instead walked west along the river Thames. It’s an old, working river, which really shows its age: muddy and industrial, and not at all the kind of thing that invites people to picnic and linger by the banks. I started thinking longingly about the Seine as we traced a footpath frequented by joggers and bicyclists. We crossed the Thames at the Millennium Bridge, a slim silver footbridge which is suspended above the river. On the northern bank is St. Paul’s Cathedral, and on the other our destination of the Tate Modern Museum.

Here’s something funny about London and Paris: in London, the museums are all free, and the churches all cost money; on the other hand, in Paris, 99% of all the churches are free, but all the museums cost money. St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey both stated quite clearly that they receive next to nothing from the Anglican Church and the UK government, so that’s why it costs 20 pound sterling (almost 40 USD) per person to visit these historic structures. Sad, but understandable. Anyhow, it did mean the Tate was free, and we gladly spent an hour walking around its top floor, which featured three Picasso paintings of very striking fame.

When it was nearly 1 pm, we took ourselves back across the bridge, and met my friend Olivia at the St. Paul’s Tube stop. Olivia, whom we hung out with in Paris, was spending a few days in London with her sister and two close friends, so we claimed her for a short afternoon and ate lunch in the shadows of the cathedral (St. Paul was closed for services on that Sunday), and then headed back across the Millennium Bridge. We took a brief look at the Globe Theatre, which is a 1990’s reconstruction built on the site of what used to be Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and then walked west. To our right was the Shard, a new building in London that looks like a very large and thin glass splinter, broken off at the very top. To our left across the river were old stone buildings, juxtaposed with some green copper steeples, next to solid red bricks, and most incongruously, the Gherkin (a building that should really be called the Egg). London is very much a city of the 21st century, where the historic rubs up against the modern and the slightly out-of-date. Paris chose to banish all skyscrapers to one portion of the city, leaving its historical center very intact and harmonious, but London buildings are all jumbled up with each other, irrespective of era, architectural style, and fashion. I think it’s more realistic, but kind of bewildering to see.

At Tower Bridge, that famous drawbridge with its two broad towers, we crossed the Thames once more. It is a gorgeous bridge, with cables of light blue, and white and pink elements to it, that combine to make it look like some sort of confectionary creation. I could easily believe from a distance away that it was the creation of an enterprising chef. Up close, it is imposing and stately, and we made our way across to the Tower of London. There, we said goodbye to Olivia, and presented our tickets (a cool 19 pound each!).

What people colloquially call the Tower of London is really a castle. It is perched on the banks of the Thames, with castle walls and gates that go right up to the water. Famed prisoners of the Tower of London in fact lodged all in different small towers along the walls with names like the Bloody Tower (yeah, fun). We started by joining a yeoman warder’s tour, and listened to some very gory stories about the first people who were condemned to die, and lost their heads at the scaffold inside the tower. We visited Saint Paul Ad Vincula (means Saint Paul in chains), the small chapel inside the Tower, where many many remains of those executed had been found under the floorboards, most missing their heads.

We also took ourselves to a winding, 20 minute long line to see the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. The actual building concealed the fact that there was still a long line inside, winding through many rooms, and featuring some history and other royal items of show. One particular item was a punch bowl commissioned for a coronation that could contain 143 bottles of wine. The crown jewels that we were seeing were only a few hundred years old; in the 1600s, the revolution that uprooted  Charles I and saw Cromwell come into power also saw the Crown Jewels dismantled and sold. During the Restoration, when Charles II was crowned, they made new crown jewels that mimicked the old as best as they could. When we finally got to the room where they were displayed, they were arranged in a row of display cases, with little flat walkways going down the side that slowly scrolled the tourists past the jewels. There was also a little space to one side so you could walk back and go for another pass. There was also a video of Elizabeth II being crowned with those jewels, and it was really neat to see these. I think they’re beautiful to see and carry a lot of meaningful history, but just as important and integral to royal authority is the trust and deference that the British people have to the monarchs. Especially when we hung out with Jean and Peter, we got a sense that the approval of the monarchy is rather high, and that they were basically do-gooders who were also celebrities. When we got out, we walked around the city walls some more, but overall were being herded out by the kind yeoman warders. I took a picture when we left of the elaborate patterns above the gates, which interwove the letters E and R (for Elizabeth Regina) and II.

It had been a pretty long day, but it wasn’t over yet. We took the Tube to Camden Town, just one stop down from where we were staying, and walked toward our apartment. We were distracted by all the food stalls in the Stables of Camden Town, which really seemed like a neat food court slash English night market. There were many stalls of Indian, Chinese, Thai, and pub food, and plenty of neon signs that proclaimed you could get a box of whatever you wanted for 3 or 4 pounds. That’s how Steve and I did dinner, sitting by the side of the road on a bench. Rather stuffed, we took ourselves home and tried to prepare for our last day of sightseeing.

Tomorrow, I’ll recap everything else in London, and maybe take a stab at our travels since we got back to the US. The adventures keep continuing…


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