Thursday, May 23, 2013

London Days 4 and 5

Saturday was mainly spent at Hampton Court Palace, a quick 30 minutes from London and well worth the visit. It was originally built by Archbishop Wolsey who invited King Henry VIII to come visit almost as soon as it was finished. Henry apparently liked it a great deal, because a few years later, Wolsey, uh, gave the palace to the king (in order to avoid being killed). Henry had to expand it a bit though, in order to hold the court. With over a thousand people in the court, any royal residence had to be huge, and even still the court would only stay in one place for a short time before moving to a different local. They consumed so much food and wine that they would completely deplete the local resources. All the same, this was a favorite palace and Henry VIII's court and later the courts of his children were often at Hampton.

The great hall is exactly what you expect; gothic wood ceiling, lots of tapestries, and even more hunting trophies. The fun part of this section of the building is being toured around by a Tudor courtier via the audio guide as though you've gone back in time.

The Great Hall

Hunting trophies and tapestries abound

The clock was added during Anne Boleyn's reign

One of the unusual things is that different portions of the castle were added during each of Henry's marriages. So you'll see different insignia tucked away in different corners or different places will be named after different people. The astrological clock (so you could always know when the best time to have a son would be) is above Anne Boleyn's gate, so named because it was built while she was queen at the time. Other spots are less happy. The Haunted Gallery for example, where Catherine Howard supposedly ran screaming to Henry in an attempt to plead for her life. The guards caught her and took her away, but her ghost is supposed to occasionally  return in an attempt to make it to the door.

Base court

The palace was always meant to be a 'party palace'. Henry was very fond of having a lot of friends over for a good time, and Base Court has 44 private apartments for guests. Each one has a sitting room, a bedchamber, and your very own private privy, a great luxury for the day. Talk about 5 star accommodations. The fountain by the way can run not just with water, but on special occasions, the fountain will run with wine.

The main gate

After the Tudor line ended, James I (of the Stuart line) lived here occasionally, but his son Charles I ended up being imprisoned here before his execution. After the monarchy was restored, for obvious reasons, the kings felt no great need to spend much time at Hampton and the castle was not well maintained. William and Mary II felt that the castle was incredibly old-fashioned in comparison to Versailles, and decided to re-do it.
They got about half way through building a new Baroque castle in place of the old one before they ran out of money, and after Mary's death, William grew increasingly reticent and stopped the renovation work. George II was the last king to ever live in the palace, and the palace was renovated and opened to the public under the reign of Queen Victoria.

The second courtyard

The back facade

The back facade is very different from the front one. The gardens in the back are as they were under the Stuarts, hence the heavy French influence.

The gardens

Pretty colors

French style garden in full bloom

The world's largest vine

Hampton Court is also home to the world's largest grape vine, as confirmed by the Guinness World Records. It was planted in 1769, is 12 feet at the base, and yields an average crop of 600 lbs of grapes. 

Hampton Court was a lot of fun, and had the weather been nicer, I could easily see spending the entire day there. I nearly did even despite not walking the grounds extensively. They have costumed actors who wander in and out during the day playing out different parts of history. I met Catherine Howard for example, just before she got engaged to the king. I also saw Thomas Culpeper, George II and his wife Caroline, and a Tudor lady-in-waiting.

Back in London the end of Saturday and Sunday morning were mostly spent in walking around.

I'm not really sure

George V(?) 

The Globe Theater
And after that I returned to France, with two more stamps in my passport and a purse full of maps and brochures. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

London Part 3


Today was spent in London again, starting with St. Paul's cathedral. There's been a church on this spot since the early 600s, but the current baroque style cathedral has been here since the 1600s, built after the Great Fire of London. This spot by the way is the highest point in the City of London. 

The dome

Queen Anne
Queen Anne was the reigning monarch when the cathedral was built, thus her statue stands before the building. You're not allowed to take pictures inside, which is fine, as there's plenty to take in. After you've wandered around the main floor though, you just have to climb the stairs to the Whispering Gallery, a walkway around the inside of the dome. Spectacular views from there, but you can go still higher. You can climb another set of stairs and end up on the upper deck on the outside of the dome, the 'Stone Gallery'. But wait, it gets better. You can climb another flight of stairs and go up to the "Golden Gallery", a small area around the base of the big spire atop the dome. At that point, you are a full 85 meters from the cathedral floor and have climbed 528 steps. Please note there is no elevator; none of the upper galleries are wheel chair accessible. And all I could think was my mom would hate this. It was a great view though.

An unusual building

St Pancras train station

The British Library
So my next stop was The British Library. I highly encourage you to go. It's free, and it doesn't take a lot of time. {Side note: the weird thing with London is that all the cathedrals have entrance fees but none of the museums do. In Paris it's pretty much the opposite.}They have a really amazing exhibit of ancient manuscripts. I mean, it's just mind boggling how old these documents and books are. They even have Jane Austen's writing desk. They had one of her journals or an early draft of one of her books too, but I couldn't read her handwriting. That was the only hard part. You read a label saying that this book is some famous person's journal, and you stare at the page only to realize you can't read their scrawlings. I mean, come on, I learned cursive; I should be able to read this right? Nope. They have two copies of the Magna Carta there too which is really impressive, but I couldn't read their writing either.

From one free British exhibit to another: the British Museum. It's no charge and it's enormous. And it's filled to the brim with things that the British, uh, acquired over the years. *wink wink*. Their egyptian collection is quite impressive though some of my favorite exhibits were those that were a little more off the beaten path.

The British Museum


A small golden toy
Ok, I have to stop and comment about this little golden chariot. I think a lot of the time history or at least pop culture tends to represent early societies outside of Rome or Greece as these barbarians with no arts or culture. This little chariot is made entirely of gold and the wheels would have really moved. Look at the detail on that thing; it's incredible (although my photo is not, sorry). Archaeologists think it was probably a toy made for young prince, as the god riding in the chariot was believed to be a protector of young boys. This was made in the 4th or 5th century BC, in modern day Tajikistan. Let that sink in a bit.

Iron Age jewelry
They also had this really incredible collection of Iron Age jewelry from Britain and Europe. It's really amazing the intricate work they were able to pull off with such relatively rudimentary tools. Who knew that kind of craftsmanship was around at that time? No wonder the Vikings invaded.

Another neat exhibit was the clock rooms. I just really like grandfather clocks and shiny things.

Beautiful inlay work on a grandfather clock

I walked around Hyde Park for a bit, saw the Royal Albert Hall. Fun facts: it has been in continuous use since it was built in 1871. Also, it is technically a charity held by the government, but it is completely self sufficient and receives no government funding.

Royal Albert Hall

Monday, May 20, 2013

Castle Day

Day 2 of my London adventures. I spent the morning at Windsor castle. It's about a half hour from London, and there are frequent trains. The weather was a little spotty, but it was a cool castle.

It's the castle I've ever visited that is still in use. This one was also built by William the Conqueror after he invaded. I'm quickly becoming a big fan of his. The only downside is that since it is a working castle, you can't take pictures inside of anything. So you'll have to take my word for it that the chapel and state rooms are gorgeous.

 Over the years, parts of the castle were actually made to look more fortress-like, to fit the personal preferences of the royals. Notably the central tower had a good 6 feet added to its height to make it look more medieval.
Pretty gardens

Changing of the guard
 The changing of the guard is supposed to be even more decorative here than at Buckingham palace, but honestly, I think this is something you can pass on. It's just not that exciting.

St. George's Chapel
 Besides being an example of beautiful architecture, the chapel is also the burial place of many royals, including Henry VIII, George VI (king during WWII) and the Queen Mother.

Beautiful setting
 Windsor is set on a slight hill, and the views are really lovely. William picked a good spot.

the Upper Ward
 In the Upper Ward, you can see the state apartments, which are gorgeous and, well, stately. It also houses Queen Mary's Doll's House. Queen Mary was the wife of King George V (king during WWI). Her cousin Princess Mary Louise came up with the idea as a present to her, knowing how much she loved doll houses. It is a perfect 1/12 model of a fashionable home with all the latest and greatest innovations (like a miniature vacuum cleaner). The plumbing and lighting all work, and the furnishings were often provided by real companies. The best craftsmen of Europe each contributed to the doll house, whether it be tiny furniture, china dinnerware, or bed linens. There's a library filled with tiny books, many copies provided by the authors themselves of their best work, some are original works created especially for the doll house, like The Haunted Doll House by M. R. James, a famed ghost story writer. There's model cars made by the actual manufacturers, the wine cellar is complete with miniature bottles (with real wine) from the best vineyards, and many of the paintings and sculptures were provided by well-known artists. On top of it all, there's a tiny set of crown jewels, provided by a London jeweler. Just incredible.

After Windsor, I took a train to Oxford and from there a bus to Blenheim. I ended up arriving there a bit later in the day than I had intended, so I did not have as much time as I might have preferred. It worked out though; I had plenty of time to see the rooms, and since it was raining, I didn't care so much about not walking the grounds. An unexpected bonus to arriving a bit later was that I practically had the place to myself. What a privilege to be able to walk the rooms uncrowded! To be able to stop and look at whatever you liked, unfettered by the masses! Almost like being a guest. Blenheim is also a working residence, though it is not a royal one. Blenheim Palace is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Constructed from 1705 to 1724, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site besides being the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.

It has literally always been a money pit. The first duke's designs were lavish and ridiculously expensive, and he died before it was completed. His widow carried on with the work, despite hating the gargantuan house, because she loved him and wanted to see his dream fulfilled. She did manage it, though work stopped at various points when money ran out. The first couple of dukes managed to keep things going, through good management, but the 5th and 6th dukes went through money like fish through water. The 7th duke sold everything he could to keep out of bankruptcy. This tided the family over for a bit, but the house was in terrible disrepair. Later in life the 8th Duke married a wealthy American widow, and the general consensus was that Mrs. Price bought herself a title. Her wealth wasn't really enough though, so the 9th Duke followed his father's example and crossed the pond in search of a wealthy bride. Lucky for him Consuelo Vanderbilt's mother Alva had high expectations for her, and nothing short of a Duke would have satisfied her. It may not have been a happy marriage, but the house got fixed up, and I like imagining the looks on the British Baronesses' faces as they were forced to make way for a young American Duchess.

The current Duke and Duchess still spend part of the year there (the family doesn't seem to have any more money problems), so you can't see the whole house, but the state rooms are really impressive.

Blenheim Palace

Following my visit to Blenheim, I returned to Oxford to have dinner with my friend Jim, who now studies physics there. We had spanish tapas, and then we went over to a traditional British pub, the Eagle and Child. This is the pub where the Oxford Inklings met up, including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Charles Williams (among others). As a major Inklings fan, it was happy nerd moment for me. Although I have to say, I'm not much of a fan of British beer.

5 day vacation, Part 1

So it's been like a month since I last updated the ol' blog...oops. But really, I haven't done anything exciting. Except week before last I had a vacation. Last week I was busy catching up on sleep in my spare time, so I didn't even get around to going through my pictures. Ready? I went to LONDON. It was awesome. Here's how that went.

Day 1. Technically, day 2. Tuesday (the real day 1) I did a half day of work, and then split for the train station. Train to Paris, RER train to different station, train to London. Yes, I took the Chunnel. It's not as cool as you'd think. It's very fast, so even when you are above ground, the view out the window is just a blur. But then when you're in the tunnel, you can't see anything at all. I mean, it's a marvel of modern engineering, but it's not a fascinating ride. I arrived at my hotel, which I snagged at a super great deal. London prices are not what I would call 'affordable', but I managed to land a 5 star hotel at a 3 star price (well, for London). I'm a firm believer that being frugal has its benefits. Save now, have fun later. This is my later:

yay! comfort!
So Day 1 of my London trip was Wednesday, and in my usual fashion, I walked until my feet hurt just standing still. FYI: the London underground is very easy to use, possibly easier than Paris' metro, but it's hard to judge. The only thing I don't like about it is its cost. Far too expensive for public transit. 

Anyway, my number one must-see was the London Eye. I have a thing for ferris wheels. Standing 135 m tall, opened in 2000, it was the world's tallest ferris wheel for 6 years. It is now the third tallest in the world, and it remains the tallest in Europe. Not only did it make me incredibly happy just to be on it (because inside I'm really just a small child), it's also a fantastic view. 

The London Eye

Big Ben and Parliament, as seen from above

London eye views

The Shard
See that weird pointy building in that picture? That's The Shard, the tallest building in the EU, which just opened to the public a couple months ago. 

After that I headed over to Big Ben, only to find the streets were blocked off, and the sidewalks were more than usually crowded. As it happens, I had arrived very serendipitously: the Queen was about to travel from Buckingham Palace to Parliament to give her annual speech. Being rather short, I didn't get any good pictures, but for about 3 seconds, I did in fact see the Queen of England in her royal carriage, wearing her diamond crown (not the coronation one). 

Big Ben

The royal guard

The royal carriage (Queen not pictured)

The poor members of the royal band in their big fuzzy hats 

And with their real swords and knives
Also, besides having about a hundred guys on horses (and most of the city police lining her route), she had the royal band. They were really good and I ended up near them at one point. They were at ease waiting to be allowed to leave, so I took the opportunity of mentioning to them that I played in marching band for eight years, and I completely sympathize with their big fuzzy hats. The guy kind of smiled. We band kids have to stick together; once you've worn an all wool and polyester outfit, you belong. 

Once I managed to get through the crowd, I made my way to Westminster Abbey. It's beautiful, but I have to tell you, it's a very frustrating experience. There are far far far too many people who go in there and act like they've got the place to themselves. Really unfortunate. In one chapel, despite numerous signs asking that you keep moving because it's a very narrow space, these people would stop and just chat about the tombs they were looking at. They were speaking English, so they don't get the excuse of not understanding the signs, and there's no way they couldn't see the huge line of people waiting behind them. At one point I actually asked them aloud if they wouldn't mind moving forward. They chose not to hear me, though I'm sure I spoke quite distinctly. This is why I don't like the general public. Otherwise though, it's very interesting. There's so many famous people buried there; kings and queens and lords that have all been scattered through your history books are all right there. 

Westminster Abbey
 Then I walked through St. James park (grabbing a nondescript lunch on the way) to Buckingham Palace. I missed the changing of the guard because I was too busy seeing the Queen. I think it was worth it. You can't go in this time of year, since the royal family is actually in residence at the moment.

Buckingham Palace
 Now, a lot of people confuse Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral. Both are worth seeing, but they're very different. Westminster Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066 (when William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings and became king of England), and the current church has been there since Henry III in 1245. Westminster Abbey is of the Church of England (or at least it has been as long as the Church of England has been a thing). Westminster Cathedral was built by the Catholic Church in the late 1800s when it re-entered England (having been on the outs for the last 300 years or so). I have visited a lot of medieval churches, cathedrals, and basilicas over the past 8 months, so this is a completely new style.

They built the whole thing out of brick, even the domes, to show that a good builder doesn't need concrete or steel. The style is Neo-Byzantine, a big change from the gothic cathedrals I'm used to frequenting. The stand out feature with this building (besides the stripes on the outside) are the beautiful mosaics that cover the floor, the walls, and some of the ceilings. However, it's far from finished. In order to stay out of debt, much the building was originally left undecorated and mosaics were added at different times. It's still unfinished, notably the ceilings, with the idea that each generation will add to the cathedral's glory.

The front facade of Westminster Cathedral

The high altar

Some of the gorgeous mosaics

You can seen the difference between
the lower tiled sections and
the unfinished upper sections
Next I hit up another of my big must-sees: The Tower of London. We've all heard the stories: royal prisoners, torture machines, disappearing princes. The Tower was built by William the Conqueror to impress (and scare into submission) the populace of London. It worked. The stone keep is the oldest in England, and  the impressive fortifications and royal lodgings would have awed the Londoners. William and his lords built more than 35 castles when they first arrived, both as military posts and as residences. 

Since then, the stories and legends have piled up. Eleanor of Aquitaine once tried to escape the Tower of London by boat during a revolt, but was stopped by the townspeople. A couple generations later it became less of a residence and more of a prison for high ranking traitors. A Baroness for example was held there because she refused to let Queen Isabella into her castle and actually told her archers to fire upon her. When Richard II was crowned, a peasant revolt actually made it into the castle and ransacked the crown jewels. The famous princes in the tower were (probably) killed by their uncle Duke of Gloucester who declared himself king. No one can prove it, but I'm betting the kids didn't die of natural causes. Very few people were actually killed at the Tower though. Most executions would have taken place outside on Tower Hill, but the rare and privileged few were granted a private execution, such as Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and Mary, Queen of Scots. It would have been at about this time that the prison would have reached its peak in 'grimness'. Although greatly exaggerated in frequency, torture instruments did not go unused. The rack of course, and the manacle, but also the Scavenger's Daughter, a machine that squeezed people into a tiny painful little ball, the rack's cruel opposite. 
The Tower of London

Edward I's bedroom

The White Tower

The Crown Jewels
During the English Civil War the crown jewels were completely destroyed. When the monarchy was restored they had to make all new ones (darn). These are on display for the public, though you can't take pictures. The best part, and I think this should be implemented in every castle and museum, is the moving walkway that slowly carries you past the jewels. Not only do you get to just look without worrying about walking into anybody, nobody can decide to just stand directly in front of something for 15 minutes. Wonderful.

Traitor's Gate:
 if you come in through here, you leave in a box

Yeoman Warder with a Raven
 So they have all these ravens at the Tower. Legend has it that once upon a time the giant Bran (which means  raven) was mortally wounded in a terrible battle against the Irish king over the British princess. He ordered his followers to cut off his head and bury it on White Hill (where the Tower now is) facing toward France to protect Britain from foreign invasion. Centuries later, the royal astronomer complained to King Charles II that the ravens were interfering with his observations. The king however was told the old legend, which finishes with the idea that if the ravens should ever leave, the Tower and the kingdom will fall. Unwilling to lose his kingdom, Charles moved the observatory to Greenwich, and kept the birds. Believe what you will, today a set of 7 ravens are kept at the Tower at all times, wings clipped, just to be safe. A Yeoman Warder is in charge of caring for them. He happened to be feeding one while I was there. It is in fact true that ravens can learn to talk, though usually only a few one or two syllable words. None of the current birds talks though, and he admitted that he doesn't encourage them to do so, for fear that they'll just learn swear words.

Tower Bridge
Right next door is the iconic Tower Bridge. There is a London Bridge, but it's just boring looking. I had fish and chips for dinner before setting out for one last stop (before my feet cried uncle). 

The M&M Store!
 The M&M Store! After a day of history, this was a sweet, fun ending. It's like a college bookstore: you name it, they sell it with their logo on it. Each of the characters has a British themed statue and a space where they sell related merchandise. But the best feature, by far, is the M&Ms bar.

Every color of the rainbow, in regular and peanut

Bag of happiness

So I made my own bag of just my favorite colors, plus a sprinkling of crunchy M&Ms on top. Yummy!