By the time we awoke for our final day in London, we realized just how many things we still hadn't done yet. A sign of how much there is to do in London, perhaps (or how early we had to call it a day to make the last commuter train of the evening), or just how short our trip was relative to the available choices, but we were determined to make our last day count. So, starting early, we hoofed it down to the Parliament/
area of Whitehall so we could finally get inside the abbey, having been
thwarted by some local group function the other day.
While Elizabeth saw to the tickets, I circled Parliament next door, trying my best to get some decent photos despite the bizarrely angled early-morning light.
Built around 1100, Westminster Palace was converted into chambers for Parliament in 1512 after a fire cleared out the royals.
A later fire in 1834 gutted most of the building, forcing a massive rebuilding project that was completed in 1870.
The two main rooms in the 1,000-room Parliament building are the House of Lords (or Peers) and the House of Commons.
The latter is much more crowded, with the parties sitting on opposite sides of the green-upholstered room (the party in power on the speaker's left, the loyal opposition on the right).
Much rowdier, too, in that uniquely British way, with speakers constantly shouted down by howls of disbelief at their statements. Like Congress, visitors can wait in line for a chance to observe the crazy proceedings from the "Strangers' Gallery."
Nearby are statues of famed statesmen Henry Havelock and Winston Churchill.
Traditionally, the monarch inaugurates each year's session of Parliament with a speech in the House of Lords in which she (or he) lays out the goals for "her (or his) government," which today is largely coordinated with the popularly elected prime minister's office.
To commemorate the historic tension between the upper-crust Peers and the working-class House of Commons, the latter symbolically "bar the door" for a moment when the Queen's representative approaches to invite them into the upper house for the speech. The scene, which blends the State of the Union with all the pageantry and heavy costumes that the monarchy can muster, is a popular program on C-SPAN each November.
A confederacy led by Guy Fawkes famously tried to sneak in and blow up the place on the morning of November 5, 1605 (or, at least, "famously" because of the success of the graphic novel and film V For Vendetta), an act that has been commemorated Halloween-style ever since.
Victoria Tower, on the south end, contains the archives for the million and a half acts of Parliament passed over the past five centuries. A flag flies from its peak whenever Parliament is in session.
The much more famous and popular tower, however, is at the north end.
Big Ben is not actually the name of the 320-foot-tall clock tower itself, but rather the massive 14-ton bell that rings the hour inside it.
The two have become largely synonymous, though, and the clock—the largest in Britain, at 23 feet in diameter—is one of the enduring symbols of the United Kingdom.
The 14-foot-long minute hand is so big that sharp-eyed observers may notice it moving; with a circumference of 75 feet, it creeps along at a rate of about an inch every four seconds (a second hand would be bookin' it at five feet ever four seconds, which may explain why they're unlikely to build one). It's made of hollow copper to reduce weight and improve performance. It must work, because the clock has essentially maintained the correct time since its inauguration in 1859.
The final resting place of Britain's most renowned monarchs, politicians, scientists, and poets, Westminster Abbey is the "crown jewel" of the kingdom's churches, the traditional site of coronations since the days of William the Conqueror in 1066. (Only this proud English tradition likely saved it from Henry VIII's campaign against Church-owned buildings.) The Coronation Chair alone dates back to the dawn of the 14th century.
The current abbey was begun in 1245, and like many medieval churches (such as Notre-Dame), its design reflects the changing styles over the centuries.
The narrow nave towers 102 feet above its 35-foot-wide floor; one of the first stages of the cathedral, it took a century and a half to build and is still the highest in all of England. The towers at the west end were a much later addition, completed in 1745.
The many Gothic flying buttresses along the length of the nave support the massive weight of the cathedral.
Much of the crypt beneath the church is dotted with famous tombs, as the cathedral became England's version of the Cimetière de Père-Lachaise, the place where anyone who's anyone is buried. Many of the small chambers off the main room house the tombs of nearly thirty members of the ancient royal family, while the famous "commoners" are buried in the nearly three thousand other tombs scattered throughout the main hall or in small chambers near the entrance. After a lifetime of bitter rivalry, Elizabeth I and half-sister "Bloody" Mary are buried together in the chapel at the rear of the church, as are many of their ancestors and descendants. Among the other Britons either entombed here or honored with memorials are Newton, Darwin, Michael Faraday (sorry...scientist bias!), and a host of writers including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Byron, Tennyson, Dickens, Browning, Dylan Thomas, the Brontës, Lewis Carroll, and T.S. Eliot.
After the abbey, we journeyed over to Buckingham Palace to watch the Changing of the Guard.
The home/office of the royal family, Buckingham was expanded to its modern magnificent state in the early 19th century. Victoria was the first monarch to live here.
Today, the royals are served by a staff of three hundred, fifty of whom live in the palace.
The royal standard flying above the palace is the official symbol that the queen is in residence. Da Queen in da house, y'all!
Film 07-08-04 (crowd waiting in front of BP)
The 11:30 changing of the guard is one of the most popular ceremonies in London, and a sea of tourists turn out to watch the flashy show.
While we were waiting for the show to start, I became convinced that this kid would be a natural for the guards. He wouldn't even need a hat!
At the appointed time, the outgoing guards form up in the palace courtyard and are officially relieved by the new guards.
At this point they begin their long procession off the palace grounds and into their barracks next door.
They get pretty close to the crowd, which is handy since their function these days is about half protection detail and half Vegas-style show.
Along with the guards come the requisite marching band to help them keep time.
I dunno...I think that guy on the left is smiling. So much for the emotionless façade of the famous Buckingham guards.
For our final sightseeing adventure, we journeyed into the ancient grounds of the Tower of London. Dating back to the days of William the Conqueror, who first built a temporary keep here, the modern structure began with the building of the White Tower at the complex’s center in the late 11th century.
Later monarchs, including Henry III and his son Edward I, added to the construction, eventually expanding the complex to a genuine fortress surrounding the original White Tower.
The Tower was the dreaded prison where those who had offended the king were kept while awaiting execution, from Thomas More to the briefly-reigning Lady Jane Grey. Most of the aristocrats were held in the adjacent Beauchamp Tower. Many victims were tormented for a time before meeting their end on the chopping block on nearby Tower Hill.
Most entered the prison by the river entrance, dubbed "Traitors' Gate."
Back then, it didn't have a Honda Accord nearby for easy escapes.
Only seven people were officially executed within the Tower's walls, most of them members of the royal family who were...uh, no longer on the royal Christmas list, including Henry VIII's wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
Two princely rivals to Richard III also disappeared from what is today called "Bloody Tower."
Lest anyone forget its dread importance, the 90-foot-tall White Tower was the tallest building in London for quite a while. These days, it serves as a royal armory.
The staff of 37 "Beefeaters" (formally, the "Yeoman Warders") are the royal guards posted to the Tower. Their barracks are the only building in the complex that isn't depressing by design. Unlike the guards at Buckingham Palace (who, it should be noted, are in the middle of guarding the queen, after all...., the Beefeaters are much more welcoming, and are happy to pose for candid photos with tourists.
An evocative colony of seven ravens live on the grounds, cared for by a "Ravenmaster" from the Beefeater staff.
After the Restoration, Charles II opened the Tower gates to the public (hey, they beheaded his dad...I'd be looking for ways to pacify the public too), who quickly made it one of the premier tourist sites in the city.
Visitors to the White Tower today can visit the (relatively) spartan living quarters where prisoners might spend days or years at a time awaiting the king's fateful decision...
...as well as the chapel where the oft-ignored bishops of England urged them to focus their thoughts on spiritual matters.
In addition to walking its bloody halls, visitors could see the most fabulous private jewelry collection in the world, held there in safekeeping since 1330, when they had been stolen from Westminster Abbey. The new Crown Jewels, made from scratch after Parliament had ordered Charles I's collection destroyed during the Interregnum, are a priceless collection of mind-boggling gems and hardware. Most were designed for their role in coronation ceremonies, from the State Sword and The Orb (signifying the globe that both Christ and the British crown ruled over) to a host of fur robes and very hefty crowns. Dominating them all is the Imperial State Crown, made for Elizabeth's father George VI; it contains nearly 3,000 diamonds and hundreds of other gems, including the massive 317-carat Lesser Star of Africa. The Sceptre With the Cross, bearing the colossal 530-carat Great Star of Africa, completes the set; both "Stars of Africa" are from the same huge South African diamond that held the world record throughout the 20th century.
Of course, none of these things are visible here, for the simple fact that once again, photography is prohibited. I suppose I see their point, but still....
The iconic Tower Bridge, visible from the riverbank that the Tower of London faces, was one more site that we couldn't quite get to.
The elaborate 1894 bridge can be raised or lowered to accommodate both river and street traffic; until a recent electrification project, it was still steam-powered. (How cool is that, Sherlock Holmes?) Visitors luckier than us can climb the three hundred stairs to the top for a grand view overlooking The City.
Those of you wondering where the photos of London Bridge are in all this frenzied London activity must now face the great secret of the modern age: London Bridge isn't in London anymore. It's at Lake Havasu, Arizona. In 1962, the founder of Lake Havasu City, looking for a way to boost tourism in the dark days before Jet-Skis, seized upon London's offer to sell off the aging bridge as part of a replacement project, and had it shipped stone by stone across the Atlantic for the bargain-basement price of one million pounds. (It probably weighed about that much, too.) It was then reassembled around a sturdier internal framework at a cost of about $7 million more, and today is Arizona's second-most-visited tourist site behind only the Grand Canyon. Strange but true.
By this point, we had to (seriously) hoof it back over to the hotel, grab our stuff, and then come all way back to Waterloo Station over behind the London Eye in order to catch the high-speed train back to Paris. Our time in jolly old England had ended.
(There's something seriously in-your-face about England naming the station that leads back to France for England's greatest victory over France.)
While waiting to leave, we learned that our fave band Pink Martini (whose ultimate French song "Sympathique" serves as the title music for the home page of The Other Paris) was playing in London that very night. Impossible, but true. Elizabeth said not to fret about it, but I say, "Nuts to me!" The sight of rail workers dealing with this disturbing-looking problem as we departed couldn't have served as a more perfect metaphor for getting our signals crossed. Oh, well...there's always next time.
The Other Paris