2.5 million people take a peek at the crown jewels every year. The line leading into the Tower of London’s Waterloo Block for viewing them wrapped around the east side of the White Tower, but the wait wasn’t over when we finally entered the building. Disneyland-like, the line continued to wind back and forth once we entered the building, with large video screens showing scenes from various coronations in an attempt to help the time pass as the queue shuffled along. Fairly quickly, it must be said.
The reason the line moved quickly was revealed when we finally entered the crown jewels display area — visitors hopped on an airport-style moving sidewalk and were moved past the collection at a pretty speedy clip. No lingering was possible, and no photos allowed.
The collection known as the “crown jewels” is made up of 140 individual pieces — crowns, scepters, orbs, swords, robes, maces, trumpets, plates, and other items, most of them symbolically representative of some element of the British monarch’s reign. Several of them are used in the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Some of them are worn by the newly-crowned monarch in the ceremony, some are handed to him/her, some are simply shown to him/her, who then kind of solemnly nods at them in an approving manner and they’re placed somewhere nearby.
The original crown jewels, from the time of Edward the Confessor, were mostly lost when King John’s caravan attempted to cross the tidal estuary known as the Wash in 1216. They mistimed their crossing, and high tide rolled in and claimed several wagons, including the treasure wagon. The next set of crown jewels was physically destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, who had toppled the monarchy and installed himself as “Lord Protector” in 1653. The crown jewels, he said, were symbols of the “detestable rule of kings.” Cromwell’s rule as essentially a military dictator was pretty detestable itself, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660, the new king, Charles II, ordered a replacement set of crown jewels to be crafted. The collection has been growing ever since, with the latest addition being a set of bracelets made for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
The centerpiece of the collection is the St. Edward’s Crown, made of 22-carat gold and encrusted with over 400 jewels. This is the crown placed on the head of the monarch at the moment of coronation, but it isn’t worn for very long — weighing in at five pounds, it is said to be incredibly uncomfortable. For most of the coronation ceremony, and for all other state occasions, the monarch wears the similar, but lighter, Imperial State Crown.
After being whisked by the crown jewels so fast we could feel the breeze in our hair, we were deposited outside the Waterloo Block, and concluded our visit to the Tower of London. Our little family trio broke off from the main group again, leaving them to do something more kid-friendly. We headed up toward the Tower Hill tube station to see the oldest thing in London.
The Romans founded London in the first century A.D., and inhabited the city for almost 400 years. By the second century, it was enclosed by a protective wall. London had all the features of a major Roman settlement — a forum, an amphitheater, public baths, a large fort for its garrison of soldiers. All now long gone, or deep under the modern city. But a few fragments remain, mostly uncovered by Nazi bombs in World War II, or by digging foundations for new construction. The most noticeable of these fragments are some sections of the old wall, which once ran for 2.5 miles and defined the original shape of the city.
The section near the Tower is one of the largest. Buildings used to back up against both sides, but they were torn down in the early 1900s, revealing this portion for the first time in centuries. The first nine feet or so (up to the top row of red tiling) is Roman, everything above that was added during the Middle Ages.
We continued eastward from Tower Hill in search of a suitable place for lunch. We soon found ourselves at St. Katharine Docks, named after the medieval hospital that once occupied the site.
The docks were used for commercial shipping purposes from 1828 to 1968, then sold to developers. Today it is an upscale shopping and dining area, surrounding a small yachting marina.
We chose Bravas Tapas, which specialized in the Spanish Basque style of dining indicated by its name — multiple small dishes of finger food shared around the table. We sat outdoors on the water, and picked two dishes each, including brava potatoes, piquillo-wrapped prawns, bacon-wrapped quail, and roasted Iberian pork belly. Even including some of the fancier places we found ourselves in, it was some of the best food I had on the whole trip.
We hopped a bus to St. Paul’s cathedral.
St. Paul’s, along with the Palace of Westminster and the Tower Bridge, is one of the three iconic sights of London. It occupies Ludgate Hill, the highest point within the old city walls (a dizzying 58 feet above sea level). It is possible that the Romans built a temple to the goddess Diana on this spot, but it was long gone by the time Christianity permanently came to England in the early Middle Ages. Various cathedrals occupied the hilltop since the 600s. The Normans constructed the edifice known as “Old St. Paul’s” beginning in 1087. Like its successor, Old St. Paul’s dominated the skyline, with a spire reaching almost 500 feet above the ground. After Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, St. Paul’s became the “mother church” of the new religion.
The old cathedral was decaying by 1666, and there was already hesitant talk of pulling it down and starting fresh. The Great Fire made the decision easy for them. Good old Sir Christopher Wren designed the New St. Paul’s, replacing its spire with a dome, which was completed in 1708.
The other reason, besides the Fire, that the face of the City of London is so new is that central London was a primary target of German bombs in the Blitz of 1940-41, which wiped out much of the city that had been re-built after the Fire. St. Paul’s took a couple of direct hits, but its thanks to its immense bulk, it survived, and it became a symbol of English fortitude in the face of Nazi aggression.
We approached the steps of the great cathedral, and I suddenly remembered that the steps of St. Paul’s were the site of the “Feed the Birds” song from Mary Poppins, featuring Jane Darwell’s silent performance as the Bird Lady, selling bread crumbs for “tuppence [two pennies] a bag” to people who wanted to feed the pigeons that swarmed the area. Darwell was an Oscar-winner (for her performance as Ma Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) brought out of retirement at age 84 by her admirer Walt Disney for this tiny part. It was only on a recent re-watch of the film that it dawned on me that the song was actually a metaphor for giving to charity. I always thought it was about feeding a bunch of filthy pigeons. I looked around and saw only a handful of pigeons. I checked the St. Paul’s website later, and there’s a notice at the bottom warning people against feeding the pigeons. I guess that could be a metaphor, too.
My own charitable spirit was stretched to the breaking point when I saw it would cost us ￡18 each to enter the cathedral. Instead, I took a couple of pictures (we were too close to capture the massive dome properly), and headed up Little Britain Street, through Postman’s Park, to arrive at the Museum of London.
The Museum of London, appropriately located at the address of 150 London Wall, is dedicated to examining the history of the city, from the Stone Age to present day. It is the largest urban history collection in the world. Its modern-looking (for 1976 — it looks a little funky today) building was constructed in the 1970s on the gutted bombsite that was notable for having received the heaviest concentration of falling ordinance during World War II. The museum was great in a different way from the glorious jumble of the British Museum — it was streamlined and logically ordered in a chronological fashion. The British Museum demands the visitor dig deep, the Museum of London is set up in a way that the casual I’ve-just-got-an-hour visitor can have an enriching experience, as well as those who like to linger longer.
Although I had only briefly glimpsed the Monument to the Great Fire that morning, it had stayed in the back of my mind, and I lingered longest in the War, Plague, and Fire gallery. As mentioned in the previous entry, most Londoners believed the fire to have been deliberately set in the bakery by Catholics as an act of religious terrorism. This belief was further fueled by the confession of a man named Robert Hubert, a Frenchman who claimed to be Catholic and working with a gang of Catholic insurrectionists. Despite changing his rambling, disjointed story several times, and despite testimony from everyone who knew him that he was a lifelong Protestant, well…a confession was a confession, and he was hung before the year was out. Not long after the Monument went up, a smaller plaque, now on display at the museum, was placed on the exact spot where the bakery once stood:
“Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”
The plaque was finally removed in the 1700s, not due to a change of heart or because the truth was established, but because the crowds stopping to read it were blocking traffic.
The Museum of London is also the temporary home of the London Stone. The London Stone is a chunk of limestone that is famous for reasons no one can remember. The first mention of it standing on the south side of Cannon Street in the heart of the City of London comes from around 1100. It had probably been there much longer. It is not a type of limestone normally found in the London area, but had clearly been imported from much further north at some point in the Roman or early medieval era, probably for construction purposes. How it ended up stuck alongside Cannon Street, or why it ended up being noteworthy, is something no one can answer. Some say it marks the geographic center of the City of London, but it seems a little too close to the river for that. Anyway, it became one of London’s many “sights,” marked on maps and shown to visitors. All kinds of fanciful stories grew up around this chunk of stone that probably just fell out of the back of a wagon, or was part of a non-descript Roman administration building. People and the elements chipped away at it over the centuries. It was housed near, then in, St. Swithin’s Church from 1742 until the church was bombed in 1940. When the rubble of the church was finally replaced by an office block in 1962, the tiny remaining fragment of the London Stone was tucked in an alcove, protected by on the street side by a grate. (On the inside, a WHSmith booksellers, the stone’s alcove was blocked by a magazine rack.) When the 1962 building was slated for demolition, the London Stone was moved to the Museum of London until construction of a new building is completed, which will once again respectfully accomodate a random bit of rock.
The Museum of London itself will be re-located by 2024, to more up-to-date digs near the Smithfield Market shopping complex.
I thought the lunch experience at Bravas Tapas couldn’t be improved upon. It was at least tied later that night back in Battersea by dinner at Macellaio, an Italian wine bar and steakhouse that dry-ages its Fassona beef in the front window for five to seven weeks. When you order, a likely slab is plucked from its hook and cleavered right in front of you before being whisked off for grilling. I played it conservative with the hangar steak, but a few other members of our party ordered the massive fiorentina (t-bone) and fillet steak, both of which were shared around the table.
Our walking shoes were trotted out again the next morning. Shannon, being a science teacher, wanted to do or see something science-related during our time in London. After an excursion to the countryside in Kent to see Charles Darwin’s house proved logistically infeasible, she booked us a private walking tour dedicated to the personalities and achievements of the Royal Society.
The Royal Society — or, to give it its full name, “The President, Council and Fellows of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge” — is an organization founded in 1660 dedicated to “promoting science and its benefits, recognising excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, providing scientific advice for policy, [and] fostering international and global cooperation, education and public engagement.” It is the oldest continuously operating scientific society in the world. Members through history have included Isaac Newton (and his irascible rival Robert Hooke), Christopher Wren (him again), Robert Boyle (father of modern chemistry), Hans Sloane (British Museum founder, remember?), Benjamin Franklin (still a British subject at the time of his membership), Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (discoverer of microorganisms), and Charles Darwin, whose Kentish garden we weren’t to see.
It was a small party of five this morning, just me, Shan, Cam, and her parents. Shannon and her dad both sported their science t-shirts, one commemorating the “March For Science” we attended in San Francisco in April 2017, and the other reading “Science Is Not A Liberal Conspiracy.” We met our tour guide, Mr. Scales, in the Holborn section of London near the Chancery Lane tube station. Mr. Scales, purveyor of “unusual stories of invention, science, medicine, engineering & intelligence,” was easily spotted. He looked every inch the academian — slightly rumpled, with cowlicked graying hair, glasses sliding down the end of his nose, and a folder of notes under his arm. We set off, crossed a street and went through a “close” (British term for narrow alleyway), and were soon standing at our first destination — the courtyard of Gray’s Inn, and the stature of Sir Francis Bacon that looks across it.
Before the Royal Society, science was not really an applied discipline. Those who took an interest in the natural world, and spent time observing it and testing it, were few in number and called “natural philosophers.” “Scientist” as a term didn’t really take off until the 20th century. Being a natural philosopher was not anything close to a career, it was more like an absorbing hobby. It was believed most of the heavy lifting of scientific thought had been already been done by the ancient Greeks, and western society coasted on that received knowledge for centuries without bringing much new to the table. The Royal Society set out to change all that.
Sir Francis Bacon was never a member of the Royal Society as he had died almost four decades before its founding. But he was their inspiration. Bacon, who was once England’s Attorney General and Lord Chancellor, is today considered to be the father of empiricism — determining facts based on direct observation, repeated tests, and skeptical inductive reasoning. Ideas like Bacon’s fed into the scientific revolution, which gave rise to institutions like the Royal Society and became a large part of the era known as the Age of Enlightenment. The Society took one of Bacon’s favorite sayings — “Nullius in verba” (“Take nobody’s word for it”) — as their official motto.
Back across the street to Staple Inn. It was one of the tiny handful of wooden Tudor buildings to survive the Great Fire. There has been a “wool staple” at this location as early as 1378. A wool staple was where wool was weighed and taxed. The wool merchants who came from far and wide to have their wares assessed were given accomodation for a night or two, so it became known as an inn. The building we see today dates from 1585, and has received heavy restoration and remodeling in the centuries since. It may now be almost impossible to tell what is original and what was added by later hands. The Staple Inn was in some way associated with the bitter rivalry between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. I confess that, as personable and knowledgeable as Mr. Scales was, I didn’t always retain the full measure of details in the anecdotes he was relating. I was too busy staring at the buildings.
We next moved a block to the east to check out Barnard’s Inn, now the home of Gresham College, organized in 1645. The college’s original home was in founder Sir Thomas Gresham’s mansion in north London. The Royal Society in its early years used it as its official meeting place. Gresham College offers no degrees, but was then and is still today dedicated to offering lectures on a variety of topics, free of charge, to anyone who wants to come listen. The lecturers are leaders in their field, and work for the college on a voluntary basis. Originally, there were seven lecturers covering seven fields — Astronomy, Divinity, Geometry (Mathematics), Law, Music, Physic (Medicine), and Rhetoric. It was a kind of TED Talks for the 1600s. Many members of the Royal Society have offered their services to Gresham College over the years. After bouncing around London for decades if not centuries, the college finally settled at Barnard’s Inn in 1991.
The inn’s street frontage dates from the 1700s, but portions of the building go all the way back to the 1400s. The courtyard of Barnard’s Inn is like a crazy patchwork quilt of different buildings from different eras, modern, Victorian, and medieval all within touching distance.
What’s with all the inns? As noted, being a “natural philosopher” did not pay the bills. Unless they were born into fabulous wealth, most of these guys had day jobs. And that day job was occasionally one you would expect — university professor, engineer, architect. But the vast majority of them were lawyers. Even Sir Francis Bacon, beyond the immense influence he had on generations of scientific thought, when he put his boots on to face the day each morning, was doing so as an attorney. Lawyers in the medieval and early modern era often took lodgings and office space at inns. Some of these inns became so specialized and associated with the legal world that they became official organizations. If you want to practice law as a barrister in England or Wales today, you must have a membership at one of four “Inns of Court” — Inner Temple, Lincoln Inn, Gray’s Inn (where we started our tour), and our next stop — Middle Temple. Both Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn were once “Inns of Chancery” (essentially law schools) attached to Gray’s Inn.
The Middle and Inner Temple were built on the riverside site of an old church established by the medieval Catholic military society known as the Knights Templar. When the Knights were disbanded in 1312, the site became home to another set of lodgings, halls, and workspaces for London lawyers. The collection of buildings that make up the Middle Temple were another hodgepodge, mostly of 18th and 19th century origin. One of the last remaining actual gas streetlights in London is in the courtyard, and still lit at dusk.
We exited the Middle Temple and crossed Fleet Street to see the first permanent home (1710-80) of the Royal Society in Crane Court. Every building surrounding Crane Court has been replaced by modern structures, so only the open space of the court itself remains.
We headed west on Fleet Street, and soon it turned into the boulevard known as the Strand. In the era before the City of London and Westminster fused together, the Strand was the road that connected them. It was once lined with the palatial estates of the London nobility, with gardens featuring gates that opened onto private docks on the Thames. The Strand might have been a nice enough road, but the preferred upper-class transport between Westminster and London until the end of the 1600s was still the river. The mansions were all gone by the end of the 1700s, and the area that was once their river gardens was replaced by the levee known as the Victoria Embankment by 1870.
We passed by the hideously ugly Strand frontage of King’s College, London, known as the Macadam Building, built in 1975 and firmly in the school of 1960s/70s architecture where everything looks like a parking garage or giant concrete shoebox. The Macadam Building hides the much nicer 1831 King’s Building behind its back.
Although she was not a member of the Royal Society, Mr. Scales was prompted by Shannon to favor us with some remarks about Rosalind Franklin, who made significant contributions to the understanding of the molecular structure of DNA while working at King’s College, but was not really lauded for her work until after her premature death in 1958 (and James Watson and Francis Crick had won the Nobel Prize for DNA breakthroughs based in part on Franklin’s work.)
Next door to King’s College was Somerset House, a small section of which was home to the Royal Society from 1780 to 1857. Somerset House was originally was part of that long row of mansions belonging to bishops and aristocrats that once lined the Strand, and ended to the west with the royal palace of Whitehall. The original Somerset House was torn down in 1775, and replaced by a huge, neoclassical building designed as a home for government offices.
As Britain gradually became more and more of a constitutional democratic government, more people complained that all the really impressive buildings belonged to the monarchy, and there were no grand structures for offices of the civil government. The “new” Somerset House, completed by 1801, was designed to answer that complaint. It became home to the offices of the Inland Revenue, Registrar’s Office, several academic societies, and various city departments that were established and abolished through the 1800s (the Hawkers and Peddlers Office, the Stamp Office, Hackney Coach Office, etc.) Nowadays, Somerset House is a “centre for the arts,” and a popular movie-filming location. (Trust me, you’ve seen it.)
From Somerset House, we skulked through the alleyways behind the swanky Savoy Hotel to arrive at the headquarters of Royal Society’s friendly rival, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, or the RSA. If the Royal Society represented science in its purest form, dreamily wondering “I wonder why…” or “I wonder what would happen if…,” the RSA was practical, hard-nosed science. Science designed to solve specific problems and maybe turn someone a profit.
While Royal Society members thought, debated, and experimented, RSA members tried to boost the economy, increase resource sustainability, and fix poverty. Many noted thinkers have belonged to both organizations simultaneously.
We ended our tour on Craven Street in front of Benjamin Franklin’s house. Before his involvement with the American independence movement and contributions to the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution in the 1770s and 80s, Franklin lived for many years in London as an agent representing the interests of the colony of Pennsylvania (and ultimately, all the colonies.) During that time, he continued his scientific work, built up his reputation as the most well-known American in Europe, happily joined a variety of societies (including the RS and the RSA), and gradually came to realize the gulf between the American colonies and the mother country was too wide to overcome.
We bid a fond farewell to Mr. Scales, and started looking for a place to have lunch…