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. Continue reading