This might prove useful over the next several entries:
The Holy Bee’s Handy Guide to Historical Eras/Dynasties in England:
Prehistoric/ancient — dawn of time to the Romans. The earliest occupants of Britain were a mysterious bunch, with a muddled and puzzling genetic past. But they could build a hell of a ring of stones.
Roman — the time of occupation by the Roman Empire, 43 – c.410
Middle Ages/medieval — from the exit of Romans to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, c.410 – 1485. The Angles and Saxons (tribal groups from Germany) held sway over England (which comes from “Angle Land”) in the first half of this era, and the Normans of France took over after 1066. A Norman offshoot, the Plantagenets, ruled from 1154 to 1485.
Tudor — from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII (1485) to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1603). Basically, the 1500s. A very busy period for England. Shakespeare time. Big ruffled collars. Your “Bloody Mary” and your husband of the year Henry VIII would go here. The setting for lots of historically-inaccurate movies and mini-series.
Stuart — the Scottish royal house that, due to overlapping family trees, was England’s ruling family from James I (1603) to Anne (1714). (Their reign was interrupted for about a decade by the Parliamentary “commonwealth” of Oliver Cromwell.) Throw in two Charleses and another James, and the first official joint rulers, William III and Mary II. And a lot of hilarious long curly wigs and stacked heels. Basically, the 1600s.
Georgian — I don’t use this one too often. George I through IV, and let’s toss William IV in for good measure. Basically, the 1700s – early 1800s.
Victorian — the reign of Queen Victoria. 1837 to 1901.
Anything after Victoria, I just call “modern.”
“Great Britain” is the large, main island of the British Isles. “England” is its politically-dominant southern part, “Scotland” is its northern part, “Wales” is its far western part. England has more or less controlled Wales since 1282. Scotland was for many centuries an independent kingdom, a great rival to England and frequent collaborator with England’s old enemy, France. During the latter days of the Stuart dynasty (1707, to be exact), England and Scotland became a unified political entity — “The United Kingdom of Great Britain, etc.” (The whole Ireland thing is too complicated to get into in this Handy Guide.) For the monarchy, before 1707, I’ll say “English” king or queen, after 1707, I’ll use the term “British” king or queen.
Following Saturday’s travel via tube and black cab, we nailed the London transportation trifecta on Sunday morning by hopping a red double-decker bus. It was dubbed by three-year-old Maya as a “decker-decker” bus, and that’s how it was known to us forever after. The bus took us as far as the east side of Westminster Bridge, which we crossed on foot. (In a larger sense, the Thames divides London into north/south, but Westminster is on a pretty extreme bend.)
Much of the central part of Greater London, and most of the West End, is actually the “City of Westminster,” an entirely separate administrative district. The “City of London” is much, much smaller, and roughly corresponds with the square mile once enclosed by the old Roman walls.
Westminster Bridge, under the shadow of Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament), is the tourism center of London. A huge crush of people, and so many different languages and accents mingled together, it was like an international bazaar. Police cars and ambulances dashed around unnervingly. I was let down to note that the traditional British rising-and-falling, two-note emergency vehicle siren has been replaced by the more familiar “whoop-whoop” American siren.
This was my first good look at the clock tower that houses Big Ben, which is the name of the huge bell inside, not the tower or even the clock. The tower was officially called “Clock Tower” (clever, no?) until 2012, when it was renamed “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of the current monarch. No matter the name, it was now completely clad in scaffolding due to a massive, multi-year renovation project. It was distinctly un-photogenic, indeed almost unrecogizeable, and a mite disappointing for tourists. “Even Space Mountain breaks down occasionally,” Cam pointed out.
At Westminster Pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper river ferry (Oyster cards gladly accepted) and headed downriver towards Greenwich, passing under London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. (Don’t confuse them. One of my Anglophilic pet peeves is someone referring to the Gothic-spired Tower Bridge as “London Bridge.”)
London Bridge is pretty nondescript, and it is the third bridge by that name to have occupied that space.
Where London Bridge is currently located is also roughly the same place that the Romans built a bridge when they established the settlement of Londinium in the 1st century A.D. Wooden bridges came and went in that location well into the Middle Ages. The first stone bridge across the Thames connecting London and Southwark was completed in 1209, and remained in place for over six centuries.
“Old London Bridge” was treated like any other street, and had homes and businesses lining either side. A chapel (St. Thomas’s) was next to a small drawbridge in the center which allowed for the passage of some tall ships, but most bigger vessels docked downstream from the bridge. Ferries rowed passengers and cargo through one of nineteen stone arches under the roadway. The heads of traitors could usually be observed impaled on spikes on the bridge’s Southwark entrance.
London Bridge was also the site of one of the most epic forgotten battles in history. A huge popular revolt led by Jack Cade rose up against the increasingly disastrous rule of the possibly mentally-challenged Henry VI. Cade’s rebels succceeded in taking over London for a day or two, but were forced out by the Tower of London’s garrison. A huge battle raged on London Bridge all through the night of July 8, 1450. Men fought hand-to-hand by the light of torches and the burning drawbridge until well after sunrise. Several inhabitants of the bridge’s homes were swept up in the fighting, and civilians and combatants alike were sometimes plunged howling into the Thames. When the gates to London were finally heaved closed in the morning light against the pile of charred and bloodied bodies, the revolt collapsed. Jack Cade’s head appeared in the expected spot above the Southwark entrance to the bridge within a few weeks. Political instability continued, ultimately leading to the Wars of the Roses a few years down the road. (I wish I could say I was cool enough to have named my son Cade after this guy, but he was in fact named after now-forgotten UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.)
Over time, the arches grew increasingly narrow due to silt build-up, the river level on either side could vary as much as six feet, and the water gushed through them at low tide like whitewater rapids. “Shooting the bridge” became a test of a boatman’s skill. By the 1500s, the bridge had more than 200 structures on it, some seven stories high. The center road was a mere twelve feet wide, and the top stories of the buildings were extended so far over the road, they almost touched in the middle, creating a tunnel effect.
The bridge’s growing disrepair probably led to the well-known nursery rhyme song. It became so structurally unsound that all of its buildings were torn down in the 1700s, and the bridge itself was finally demolished in 1831.
That same year, “New London Bridge” opened, a granite structure with five much-wider arches (and no buildings cluttering it.) By 1896, it was London’s busiest thoroughfare, with 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossing every hour. But it was gradually sinking into the riverbanks on either side.
In 1967, it was dismantled…and reassembled in, of all places, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it can stare impassively down at thousands of tanned, oblivious spring breakers preening, pissing, screwing, and puking each April.
The better-engineered modern London Bridge is a perfectly serviceable concrete box-girder bridge, but it has no whiff of romanticism about it and does not draw the eye the way the more impressive Tower Bridge (completed in 1896 and named for the nearby Tower of London) does. It was long rumored that the billionaire entrepreneur Robert McCulloch, who was responsible for buying London Bridge and moving it to Arizona, thought he was getting the Tower Bridge. He always denied this. I think it may be true. (He was from Missouri.)
We got off the ferry at Greenwich, 5½ miles downriver from Charing Cross, and home to the Royal Observatory. This is where time begins, at least as far as we know “time.”
Before we got there, though, there was the matter of an early lunch. Shannon, Cam, and myself were over our jet lag, but our newly-arrived nieces and nephew were in the worst throes of it. They had popped awake and had breakfast around 5:00 that morning, and were now famished. I had partaken in my usual light traveling breakfast (two large cups of strong black coffee), so I could do with a bite myself. We settled in along long wooden benches on the second floor of Goddards at Greenwich (“Traditional Pie and Mash since 1890”).
I had the minced beef pie and mash because it seemed to be the specialty of the house, and was a little disappointed. Not the dish’s fault at all, but Shannon’s heartier steak-and-ale pie just looked so much better.
Goddards also seemed very proud of their jellied eels, but all of us skipped those. (Yes, they’re exactly what they sound like. Yes, the bones are still in there.)
In the 1670s, when England was on the rise as a maritime nation, there was a growing need for accurate timekeeping, since accurate timekeeping was vital to determining a ship’s longitude, or position east or west. Latitude (position north or south) had been easy enough to pinpoint for centuries (just measure the angle of the sun or North Star relative to the horizon), but longitude required a way to keep precise time while on board a ship. The rolling of a ship on waves plays havoc with a typical clock’s pendulum, and smaller watches had to be constantly wound and measured against a pendulum clock.
Longitude was a very tricky issue, and many ships and their crews were lost because they weren’t sure of their location. Charles II founded a Royal Observatory, administered by an “Astronomer Royal,” to make sure England’s sailors could safely determine their location based on the Observatory’s detailed star charts, created with the aid of increasingly sophisticated telescopes.
A clockmaker named John Harrison spent thirty years of his life developing a timepiece that could keep time at sea. He finally succeeded with his H4 “sea watch” in the 1760s, and in conjunction with the data generated by the Royal Observatory, the longitude crisis was solved. This bit of history is considered so important, a lavish four-part TV miniseries was made about it in 2000, starring Michael “Professor Dumbledore” Gambon as Harrison. It was called — wait for it — Longitude.
Zero degrees longitude is called the prime meridian. Every seafaring country once determined their own prime meridian, and made their own navigational charts based on it. Increasing globalization caused England’s Prime Meridian (capital P, capital M) at Greenwich to go into universal use after a vote of the International Meridian Conference in 1884 (what a crazy party that must have been). Along with that, the local time in Greenwich became the basis for the international civil time standard, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
In keeping with being the home of all standards, the first thing you see when you approach the entrance to the Observatory after a long walk uphill across the broad, green lawns of Greenwich Park is the Public Standards of Length. The yard measured between two brass posts on is the official yard, supposedly based on the distance between Henry I’s (1068-1135) nose and outstretched thumb. The foot is the official foot (supposedly based on — you guessed it — the length of Henry I’s foot.) 19th-century scientists would travel here to make sure their measuring equipment was accurate.
The strip of brass marking the Prime Meridian was close by (on the other side of the gate — pay your admission first, please), and was constantly crowded with people experiencing the novelty of having one foot in the western hemisphere and one foot in the eastern hemisphere.
The Observatory building itself was designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren (St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, tons of other stuff) and referred to as the Flamsteed House (after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed.) It is the first purposely-built scientific research facility in Britain. Most of the actual astronomical observing was farmed out in the mid-20th century (due mainly to light pollution from ever-growing London), leaving the Flamsteed House and its surroundings as museum space.
The centerpiece of the Flamsteed House is the Octagon Room (one of the few interior spaces the hotshot Wren deigned to design), which once housed several telescopes and some very accurate clocks (with 13-foot pendulums hidden behind the wall panels). With its sparse furnishings and bare floors, the Octagon Room may look all business, but most of the real work was done in the outbuildings. The Octagon Room was a showplace for honored guests to dabble in astronomy.
Much of the Flamsteed House was taken up by a museum dedicated to the lengthy history of keeping accurate time and fixing an accurate location at sea. I would never expect a few roomfuls of what are essentially old clocks to be riveting, but it was. Seeing the concept of “time” grow from an amorphous, approximate, very localized concept (every town and village once kept its own time) to a rigidly measured, global application was an interesting journey.
The courtyard of the Observatory offered expansive views of the Thames, the Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and the Queen’s House. The Queen’s House was built as a summer retreat in the early 1600s for King James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark. Both James and Anne died before its completion. (If you start a building project in the 1600s, it’s a crapshoot if you live to see it finished, even if you’re a king.) It is notable for being the first building in England to utilize classical architecture (columns, pediments, etc.) Finished right before the outbreak of the English Civil War, it retained its official royal status, but was little used. It was incorporated into the campus of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, designed by our old friend Sir Christopher Wren, which later became the Old Royal Naval College. The college remained in operation until 1998. It is now open to the public. The Queen’s House is now a naval-themed art gallery.
A few yards west of the Queen’s House is the Royal Hospital School building, now home to the National Maritime Museum. It is built on the location once occupied by Greenwich Palace. This was a secondary “country” royal residence through most of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were all born there. It fell into disuse after the death of the heirless Elizabeth and was eventually pulled down when construction of the Royal Hospital began in 1694.
I had no idea the museum building was actually historic. We entered and exited through the sleek, modern Sammy Ofer Wing entrance, and I never knew until after the fact that most of the galleries I strolled through were actually housed in the old Royal Hospital School building, as the interior has been entirely made over and is very state-of-the-art.
The National Maritime Museum exhibits were spread over three spacious floors. What was once the old building’s exterior courtyard was now topped by a glass roof, and had a massive map of the world covering the floor space. Each gallery had a theme — “The East India Company and Asia,” “The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire” — hundreds of well-curated artifacts, and many detailed ship models.
The gallery where I lingered longest was the newest one: “Nelson, Navy, Nation,” which opened in 2013. A huge room dedicated to one person: Admiral Horatio Nelson, perhaps the greatest naval commander of all time. I knew the broad strokes of his life: implacable foe of the dictator Napoleon, architect of the audacious British victory on the Nile, making the ultimate sacrifice at the Battle of Trafalgar. But by the time I’d finished nosing around in his dedicated gallery, I had already downloaded a Nelson biography to my Kindle. I was absolutely gripped by the details of his life and command, and the nature of his personality. I had to tear myself away from staring, completely absorbed, at the coat he was wearing at Trafalgar, with the fatal bullet hole clearly visible. That’s what a good museum can do.
We had to make the 4:30 river ferry, so unfortunately, there was no time to stop and go aboard the Cutty Sark, one of the last of the great “clipper” (high-speed) sailing ships to be built before the advent of the steamship. The Cutty Sark, built in 1869, once held several speed records transporting tea from India and wool from Australia, and remained in use as a training ship as late as 1953 for those who wanted to master the art of sailing. In 1954, it went into permanent drydock in Greenwich, and has been a museum ship ever since. It has also lent its unusual name to a pretty decent blended Scotch whisky (although I’ve always been a J&B man.) The ship’s odd moniker came from the nickname of the witch in Robert Burns’ 1791 narrative poem Tam O’Shanter. The witch is represented as the ship’s figurehead.
It wasn’t quite as good as a glass of Cutty Sark, but on the way back up the river, I had a canned Jack Daniel’s-and-cola from the Thames Clipper’s snack bar.
When we got back to the Airbnb in Battersea, we found that Shannon’s parents, Weez and Sheila, had arrived. Dinner was to be at a nearby pub, the Draft House. The Draft House did not feel very pub-like. In fact, it seemed to emulate American sports bars. The beer was very cold, the chips were called “fries” on the menu, and I had a big plate of spicy buffalo wings. The big-screen TVs were showing the Brazil-Switzerland game in the opening rounds of the 2018 World Cup. The World Cup would be constantly in the background for the rest of the trip. Cam and the kids’ nanny, Gema, immediately bonded over their mutual enjoyment of soccer and chatted constantly about it from that dinner on.
The next morning, we climbed aboard a handy “decker decker” bus and headed back to Westminster to see the Changing of the Guards.
The Queen’s Guard, in charge of protecting the royal residences, is usually made up of various battalions of Foot Guards (as in they’re guards on foot, not horseback). One battalion is stationed at Wellington Barracks across the street from Buckingham Palace. The Guards stand out due to their scarlet tunics and trademark “bearskins” — eighteen-inch high, 1.5 pound hats made from black bear fur. Although the hats are ceremonial and may look a trifle silly, the SA80 assault rifles they all carry are neither. And it used to be that the sentry posts for many of the Guards’ positions were out among the public, but constant harassment from idiot tourists and, of course, the threat of terrorist attacks means that the sentry posts have moved behind ropes and fences these days.
At 11:00 every summer morning, the “New Guard” forms up in front of Wellington Barracks, marches solemnly across the street to Buckingham Palace accompanied by patriotic tunes played by thirty-five Guards musicians, and presents arms to the “Old Guard” who have been on duty since 11:00 the previous day. (In colder months, the Changing of the Guards happens four times a week.) The Captain of the Old Guard ceremonially hands over the keys to the palace to the Captain of the New Guard, and the Old Guard marches back to the barracks, to become the New Guard again in a couple of days.
Buckingham Palace, where all of this plays out, has been the primary royal residence since the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. The core of “Buckingham House,” as it was originally called, was built in 1703 as a townhouse for the Duke of Buckingham.
Fifty years later, it was up for sale. The British Museum found it was out of their price range (see Part 2). King George II snapped it up as a gift for his wife, Queen Charlotte. Fourteen of their fifteen children were born there.
The house was already pretty damn big, but King George IV decided to splurge and expand it into a full-blown palace in 1826. Nearby Westminster Palace burned down in 1834, and Parliament needed a new home. Buckingham Palace came within a whisker of being claimed for that role. Before that could happen, the new queen, Victoria, chose it as her official residence. Parliament had to use temporary meeting spaces until a new Westminster Palace was built.
In 1847, the fourth wing was constructed, creating a quadrangle. Its soft Caen stones soon grew black from the heavy pollution and soot of London air. It got a facelift — hardier stone and a new classical Greek style — in 1913. This new East Wing is now the “face” of Buckingham Palace, with its frontage on the public Mall, and featuring the well-known balcony from which the royals wave to their subjects, a tradition begun by Queen Victoria in 1851.
Since Victoria’s time, most of the royal family have been pretty open about their dislike of Buckingham Palace. Barn-like and charmless, the dwelling is cold, prone to dirt and dust, too close to the noisy city center, and generally a far less pleasant place to be than, say, Windsor Castle (more on which later.)
We were now officially a party of eleven, with three small children, and many pub employees could not hide their dismay when we entered (we were actually turned away at at least one place). The barman at the White Horse & Bower, a rail-thin Irishman with a toothbrush moustache, fluttered nervously, but did his best.
Cam and I were on an unofficial mission to find a really good cheeseburger in Britain, and this place came pretty close. (I forgot who said it, but there was some comedian or humorist from years past who remarked, “Brits think Americans are stupid for their culinary tastes, such as hamburgers, but that’s because all they’ve ever had are British hamburgers.”)
We decided the perfect formula for creating pub names was to combine a small mammal with a yard tool. “The Weasel & Rake.” “The Badger & Hoe.” Try it yourself.
After lunch, Cam and I split off from the main group. They were all going to ride the massive Ferris wheel that has dominated the London skyline since 2000, the London Eye.
Cam and I decided to check out Westminster Abbey…