The first few days in a new place are fascinating. You are enchanted by everything – a bookstore, a flower shop, a street sign, a tree, a flower – anything slightly different, and you are mesmerized. A writer’s curiosity takes over, and you want to know more. Writing helps to document all the interesting things you discover during your travels. Give it a few days, and novelty becomes the norm.
The trees lining the streets of London (the one which gives Hay Fever to the friendly taxi driver I wrote about in yesterday’s post) are called the London plane (Platanus x hispanica). It was brought here from Spain in the 17th century and was planted for its ability to thrive in urban conditions (thanks to its bark, which sheds in large flakes, preventing the tree from suffocating under sulphurous grime). It has ball-shaped male and female flowers on the same tree, which get pollinated by wind (hence the hay fever) and develop into bristly fruits.
It was a perfect sunny day today, and we decided to use the weather to see the darkest place in London – the Tower of London.
Tower of London
Its construction began in 1070 during the reign of William the Conqueror. The Tower is, in fact, a castle containing 22 towers, a palace, a mint, and living quarters which are still inhabited by the guards of the tower known as Yeoman Warders.
Constructed originally as a palace, it became a prison and execution ground for some of the most famous controversial executions in the history of the English monarchy. Some of the famous people beheaded here were – two wives of King Henry VIII (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard), sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days), and Robert Dudley (lover of Queen Elizabeth I).
The entry tickets include a free tour run by a 65-year-old Yeoman Warder, Bill Callaghan, who began the tour by introducing himself as follows, “Ladies, please take notice, I live in a castle, in central London, with free parking. And I am single.”
You can watch a glimpse of him in action in this YouTube video.
Yeoman Warder continued to crack jokes all through the tour while giving information. “You are standing near the Bloody Tower. There is nothing bloody about it. It was pure marketing,” he said.
The Tower of London also houses crown jewels including the Kohinoor and the 530 carat Star of Africa, the largest clear diamond ever found. It originally weighed 3106 carats, massive 621.2 grams. It was later cut into two large pieces, 530 carats and 317 carats, and several smaller ones.
The main building is the White Tower, a comfortable palace at one stage but later turned into prison because of its wet and dark basement. It is now England’s national museum of arms and armor since 1985.
The ruthless King William intended his mighty ‘White Tower’ to dominate the skyline of London and the minds of subjugated Londoners. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; nearly a thousand years later, the Tower holds everyone enthralled.
From the Tower, we walked on the Tower Bridge, the second most iconic landmark of London after Buckingham Palace. The bridge was constructed between 1886 and 1894. It is a combined bascule and suspension bridge with two spectacular towers that house an exhibition about the bridge. The bridge’s hydraulic system, to lift it to let a ship pass through from underneath, is still operational.
A must-see market for London’s culinary display was in the vicinity. So we went there to have lunch. There couldn’t be more choices in food and drinks. Catering for the high end of the customers, it had a great ambiance. We managed to find a table and had a mixed kabab box with salad and rice. It was utterly delicious. Topping it with a mango and orange juice, I was ready to explore Cannon Street.
We crossed the river again, this time by London Bridge, the most boring bridge of all. London bridge has quite a history. There were several preceding London bridges before the current concrete and steel structure which opened in 1973. Before it, there was a 19th-century stone-arched bridge, which superseded a 600-year-old stone-built medieval structure. Yet before those, there was a succession of timber bridges, the first of which was built by the Roman founders of London.
St Paul’s Cathedral
We started walking on Cannon street but had no idea where it would take us. Even though we had a copy of ‘London Walks’ (an excellent book to explore London on foot), we kept walking on a whim rather than by the book.
I spotted an interesting-looking building at a distance with a grey dome. At the same time, my husband spotted yet another bridge and wanted to walk across it. We agreed to check out the building first.
The building turned out to be St Paul’s Cathedral. Built on huge grounds, it was an imposing building, too big to be caught on a mobile phone camera.
Built in the 17th century, it is the seat of the Bishop of London. Tickets to go inside were too expensive (20 pounds per person), although you can go for free at the time of morning mass at 7:30 am or evening choir at 5:00 pm.
We crossed the river Thames a third time, this time through the footbridge called Millennium Bridge. The newest of the bridges, it is a suspension bridge which was given the name the “Wobbly Bridge” when it was opened in June 2000. Around 80,000 people crossed the bridge on its opening day, around 2,000 on the bridge at any one time.
It was closed after two days for almost two years while modifications were made to eliminate the motion. It reopened again in February 2002.
It is quite a unique bridge because it was the first new bridge to be built over the Thames in London for more than 100 years. Usually, all new bridges across the Thames require an Act of Parliament to be passed.
There are around 400 tiny works of art on the Millennium Bridge, including the work of street artist The Chewing Gum Man (real name, Ben Wilson). These minuscule masterpieces are painted onto a unique canvas; the chewing gum dropped by other people. Wilson paints tiny scenes, shapes, and figures on the bits of trodden-down gum, using layers of acrylic paint to build up brightly colored, jewel-like blobs on the urban landscape.
The millennium must be a time to build bridges. London’s Millennium Bridge was one of several Y2K projects. There are six other Millennium Bridges in the UK alone: Gateshead, Lancaster, Glasgow, Salford, Stockton-on-Tees, and York, and many around the world.
Fiddler on the Roof
We ended the perfect day by going to the theatre and watching Fiddler on the Roof. A haunting and resonant portrait of the Jewish diaspora from Russia at the beginning of the last century, the show had gone better with time. It had some raving reviews.
Tomorrow, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery. Stay tuned.