Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Her lips were still moving. The Tower of London

We completely lucked out when it came to our day at the Tower of London. Kirsten and I will never win awards for being the fastest moving travellers, so we thought we'd miss the walking tour of the Tower. Run by London Walks, these tours were rumoured to be fantastic so we didn't want to miss out. Despite the fact that it took much longer on the tube then we calculated (turns out twice as many stops does not mean twice as long to get somewhere. Add another 10 minutes for good measure), luck was on our side.

Our guide, Tom, was a retired barrister. Don't ask me the difference between a barrister and a solicitor and a lawyer. That's not what this blog is about. Anyway, he was incredibly entertaining and told us so much more than if we ventured on our own.

Our tour started across from the Tower - on Tower Hill, the site of an obscene number of executions done at the top of the hill to make sure the excited masses were entertained by watching the slow death of the latest schmuck who angered the king. This was the site of beheadings - hangings were performed up the road. How entertaining was it for the crowds? Well, how gruesome shall I get here? The axes weren't always very sharp and the executioners weren't always that sober, so naturally, the aim of the ax wasn't always that accurate. Some notable people to die here, include Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and George Boleyn. Good times.

A simple memorial where so much carnage took place.
Our guide showed us where the damned would make there way into the tower by boat - through Traitors Gate. One of the first things Anne Boleyn would have seen was the addition built to celebrate her marriage to Henry. A few years later, she was imprisoned awaiting trial - and ultimately her death. Her great crime was to not produce a male heir (yes, that was Henry's fault, but they didn't know that back then and isn't it always easier to blame the woman?). She was accused of adultery (with her brother - hence his execution) and witchcraft, but really, her sin was to have a daughter. Who, by the way, became one of England's greatest rulers.

It was a time when gossip was truth. As we often see even today, you repeat something enough times, it becomes believed as the truth. Why? Because humans are stupid. And the whispers of the court were all about gaining favour and ruining not just the reputation, but the lives of others in order to get ahead.

The iconic Tower Bridge. Maybe our guide was full of the macabre because even this beautiful bridge has been the site of many very sad stories.
Only a few people died within the grounds of the Tower. It was a private affair when held behind those walls - only a few hundred, versus the tens of thousands on Tower Hill. The most famous was Anne Boleyn,who was not given a Christian burial and instead was buried in an arrow box. She was, however, allowed to hire a French swordsman to make sure her death was quick. It was said that her lips were still moving in prayer when her head was lifted to the excited crowd. Henry's other wife Catherine Howard also lost her life here. She was a foolish girl who thought that it was OK to have a lover just because her ass of a husband did.

Yes, the Tower is full of cheerful memories. Some of the other famous prisoners include Sir Walter Raleigh (he was eventually hung), Guy Fawkes and Rudolf Hess. It has always been a place of imprisonment and violence. There are 3 torture devices on display - likely the most popular of the day - the rack, the manacles where people were hung from their arms and a device that was used to basically compress someone. They were very effective at getting confessions. Who wouldn't confess to any crime when they were literally being ripped apart limb by limb? Of course George Boleyn said he slept with his sister. Confessing meant signing your own death warrant, but it was the better option.

The Tower also has an impressive display of the suits of armour, swords and military paraphernalia of the British royal houses. Not usually my cup of tea, but I'm glad I took our guide's advice to check out Henry VIII final suit of armour with its enormous backside. The cod piece displays Henry's delusion.

It's kind of fitting that the permanent residents of the Tower, aside from the ghosts, include ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall. So they have a permanent home and clipped wings to make sure that does not happen.

And in the midst of this macabre and violent history is the home of the most beautiful gems of the Crown Jewels. Stunning does not begin to describe these pieces. My favourites were the Imperial Crown of India, which was created for George V to wear on his trip to India in 1911, the Saint Edwards Crown, used for Coronations and the Imperial Crown, which is worn every year for the opening of parliament. A girl could spend some happy time in amongst these jewels.

Such a beautiful place - with such a brutal history.
Despite the fact that the history of the Tower of London made me cringe and, a couple of times, the stories brought me to the verge of tears, it is one of the most fascinating spots in London and totally worth the five hours of exploring. I am thankful that the evil and darkness of the Tower's history is firmly in the past.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bitches Be Wearing Wigs - Hampton Court

So I'm sure you're all very curious about why Kirsten and I decided to visit London. Someone was demonstrating a strong obsession love for the show the Tudors so I suggested a pilgrimage. No Tudor pilgrimage would be complete without a trip to Hampton Court where the crazy courtier life of HVIII took place.

Of course you don't show up for Henry's court looking like a shlub. That wouldn't get you through the gates. Kirsten insisted that only the straightest loveliest hair would do for Henry. I figured Henry, being dead and all, would just appreciate a woman who has, you know, skin. At first we were sure that the fact that they didn't bathe much in the 16th century would give us an edge. But then Kirsten quickly pointed out that our hair may not gain us favour with the king because the women of the those days covered their greasy hair with wigs and everyone smelled, so really, what's the difference? We soldiered on.

A view of the outside of the royal apartments
Hampton Court is gorgeous. We considered taking the boat in from London and arriving as they would have nearly 500 years ago but between the 3 hours it took (we are not early morning risers) and the damp chilly weather, it wasn't to be. It's about 30 minutes away and was a favourite of Hank because it was far enough from the various diseases raging through London.

This is another castle where the exhibits are beautifully and brilliantly set up to give you a slice of life - rather than to overwhelm you with detail.

Hampton Court was originally built by Cardinal Wolsey as a place to host the obviously pious European leaders. I think the wine fountain in the front court must have had deep religious experience. Anyway, Henry wasn't about to let this twit have a better house - so he took it. I will let you wonder what became of Wolsey's head a few years later when he failed to help Henry get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

We couldn't resist starting with Henry's apartments, which were set up for his wedding to his final wife Katherine Parr. She was the luckiest of them all because he died before she could displease him. Henry did walk by us and even spoke to us. But no proposal. You know it was his wedding day. Would have been a bit rude.

A few enjoyed the wet weather. The gardens were lovely but a little damp for exploration.
From Henry's apartment we toured the apartments of Mary II. Instead of setting up these rooms with traditional furniture of the time, there was a gorgeous art exhibit called The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned, which traced the debaucheries of Charles II court through paintings featuring his mistresses. Naughty bunch and I quite approve. I'd rather a King who slept around than one that murdered tens of thousands for their religious views.

All in all, Charles had 14 children with his various mistresses. None with his wife. So the crown goes to... James II, his brother, who brought Catholicism back and the threat of a male Catholic heir. And so then the glorious revolution thanks to his scheming Protestant children. All this being said... let's hear it for the separation of church and state. 

The costumed characters in this area included the artist Peter Lely and Charles' mistress Barbara Villiers. Next thing you know, Kirsten and I are helping Barbara undress and redress for the sitting of a portrait and I'm sitting on the floor at Barbara's feet as Peter prepares to paint her as the Roman god, Diana the huntress... and I am to be part of the portrait as Minerva and was instructed to "look up at her in hopeful admiration". Sadly, I don't have a picture to share.

I won't take you through all the apartments, but they taught so much about the history of the monarchy and the misery of court life for everyone. Behind the merriment was a hint of indentured servitude, the threat of losing your life over gossip and accusation. If you think about it, the most honoured position was to be the dude in charge of the privy chamber. "May I wipe your behind sir?" For the royals, there was less privacy than now and greater chance of death.

This place is probably crawling with ghosts at night.
One effectively creepy moment involved walking down an empty staircase, no one else is around us, we could hear the voice of young child whispering the fate of each of Henry's wives: "Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived." Ok, well that's ingrained in the memory. And all memorialized on Kirsten's new mug "The Vanishing Heads of  the wives of Henry VIII".

Our next stop... The Tower of London... and the murder continues.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

London Calling... In hindsight

I had every intention of posting while I travelled with my friend Kirsten in London last week. Well the wifi gods were against me, so instead I'm doing post trip postings. If that annoys your sense of authenticity, tough. :) Enjoy!

Watch where you're going, you foolish tourist!

I think I may have learned to play poker at Kensington Palace! But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

London is even more beautiful than I remember it. And the weather even less cooperative, but it is London so suck it up and get on with it, which, I believe is what they really mean with "Keep calm and carry on."

The flight over was relatively uneventful, as is normal when spending 6 and a half hours crammed in a shoe box 30,000 feet in the air. One note to fellow overnight travellers: if the sign says fasten your seat belts, stay in your damned seat. The rest of us really resent you having to be told to sit down over the PA in two official languages PLUS Hindi for good measure. 

The first couple of days were dedicated to getting oriented. We're staying in Kensington right near the High Street and the palace. Thank the sweet Lord, we are right next to a Boots. Every hotel on earth should be required to have a large drug store next door. It's more important than a coffee shop, I swear. 
I don't think I did a very good job of warning Kirsten that in the night, I may turn into a moaning ghost. Not sure if I can spell this out well, but it's best described as a cross between Jacob Marley from "A Christmas Carol" and any number of the ghosts from "Scooby Doo."  Thankfully she hasn't smothered me with a pillow. Not yet anyway. 

But on to the sites! The first day was really sunny and lovely. We did the hop on and hop off tour to get oriented to the city. The tour gave us a fantastic view of every angle of Big Ben. I have pictures of Ben coming and going, underneath him and from a distance. Ben and I are tight. 
One of the many views of my friend Ben (plus some dude's balding head)

We ended day one with a ghost walk where we learned snippets of history, saw the Savoy up close (Bev Oda does have good taste) and spent some quality time in a pub. Hard cider tastes even better here. 

I was assured that I was less disruptive in my second night of sleep. However, a familiar obnoxious feeling crept into my throat. By 1 pm the next day there was no denying it. I have my traditional travel cold. In the last 3 years I have not been able to travel without getting sick either during or immediately after a trip. Thank you forties. 

But before full blown congestion, we did see some sights. The highlight was definitely Kensington Palace.  We bought a joint membership, which not only gets us into 5 key palaces, it also legally weds me and Kirsten in a few countries. 

I'm glad we started with the Diana exhibit, because it was the most disappointing. It was billed as a glimpse of the princess. Well that's accurate. 5 of her dresses crammed into one small room. I was really hoping her wedding gown would be there, but the gown that 10 years later influenced the puffiness of my own wedding gown's sleeves was nowhere to be seen. 

The rest of the experience was outstanding. The king's apartment gave us a good understanding of George I, who was plucked from Germany to be king of England to keep those pesky Catholics off the throne. He couldn't speak English and was coached by his advisors to say "I'm here for the good of you all!" But instead he said "I'm here for all your goods." I believe I've witness this type of PR situation in my career as a communicator. That's what you call the "jumping for the microphone" moment. 

This is where I learned to play poker! Ok it's called Commerce, but whatever. A young courtier taught us how it worked to live in court and earn favour. Playing cards was extremely important and helped you to move up the ranks. He taught us the popular game at time, which, with its 3 of a kind, straights and flushes, must be a precursor to poker. Anyway, I won. I can't tell you what I won because I don't think Kirsten has broken it to her husband that she put him up for collateral. She claims he was offered because she didn't have any land to wager.   

In the Queen's apartment, the most helpful man on earth cleared up about 300 years of confusing history by explaining what happened in the time between Elizabeth I and Victoria. Don't get him started on how they teach about the glorious revolution in school. 

The Victoria exhibit shed light on this fascinating woman. Most of us think of her as a dour widow but she was young and lively and beautiful during her years with Albert. She had 9 children with him. And she was devastated and heartbroken when he died of typhoid fever at 41. Oh yeah, he was her first cousin. 

Interesting tidbit, the 2 most remarkable love matches in royal history - Victoria and Albert, and William of Orange and Mary II - were between first cousins. Go figure. 

A feeble attempt to hold Ben
We ended our rainy day tour with a trip on the London Eye. Not really sure it was worth the nearly 20 quid. We did get to see more angles of Big Ben and there was a woman on board who appeared just this side of crazy. Oh, and we conquered the tube.

Today we're off to Hampton Court. Kirsten is hoping to find a "Henry's 7th wife" shirt. I'll be looking for nasal spray and perhaps clotted cream.