Date Archives January 2018

The Tower of London

 From the Borough Market, we set off across the London Bridge, and I’m happy to report that all those gleeful singsong rumors about the structure’s unsturdiness are utterly unfounded. Other rumors about the bridge include the requirement of a human sacrifice in order for it to remain standing, which excavations have proved false. To see a place with a true bloody history, one need only look across the bridge toward the Tower of London.

Constructed in the 1070s by William the Conqueror, the white tower was intended to loom over the city and its denizens. Now the only way it imposes itself on Londoners is when every out of town visitor drags them to go see it, as it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, if not the country. In the intervening millennium, the Tower has been used variously as a stronghold, a menagerie, a prison, the royal mint, home for the crown jewels, and a retirement center for the old James Bonds and Sherlock Holmeses.

Metaphorically look across the bridge, that is, I don’t think you can see the Tower of London from here unless you have x-ray specs. But  it’s there. Behind some stuff.

After purchasing our tickets, we milled about the entrance near a free tour sign, waiting for the next one to begin. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long: a cluster formed about a man who began to tell us about the history of the Tower, making meaningful eye contact with me specifically when he said “Excuse me, this is a private tour” and as I shuffled away in embarrassment, he also made a show of apologizing to everyone else in the circle about the “hangers-on”. Sir, I didn’t mean to absorb any knowledge for free, but perhaps if you didn’t organize your paid tour group immediately adjacent to a free tour sign, you might need never refer to a person as though they were an undesirable piece of fecal matter clinging to your proud buttocks. Just a suggestion.

I was so embarrassed that I didn’t want to continue to wait for the real tour near the sign, lest the roving eye of the paid tour guide land on me and he assumes I’m still trying to listen, but from ten feet away and thus receive the tutting of a lifetime. I have a delicate constitution; I can’t take that kind of criticism.

Upon entering, I was excited to almost immediately spot one of the ravens of the Tower. Superstition holds that the ravens are the guardians of the Tower and if they should ever be lost, the country will fall. It is my professional opinion that these ravens are so pampered, fat, and happy, that they’re not going anywhere. That doesn’t mean they’re completely tame, however–a little girl was encouraged to pose next to this raven and got a bite on the arm for her trouble.

We were both interested in seeing the crown jewels, because if someone is going to put all the symbols of their wealth and power up for close inspection, I’ll take a look. It’s the same force that drives some people to garage sales and open houses, to get a peek at how someone else lives their lives. Specifically, I learned that royal authority involves a mountain of jewelry. If a king or queen has an appendage, there’s a golden something to adorn it that is symbolic beyond merely being a status symbol: spurs of chivalry, bracelets of wisdom, orbs of divine right, rings of commitment, scepters of authority…combine them all and you have Captain Planet a monarch. 

The bulk of the jewels on exhibit are viewed as one is shuttled past on a moving walkway–it’s an effective way of moving people past and out of the exhibit, which means never having to deal with someone blocking a view, but at the same time, there’s no opportunity to really get in close and appreciate the craftsmanship. The quality of cubic zirconia is so good these days that I probably would not know the difference between the real thing and well-made replicas, especially at the speed at which the walkways move.

The wire mesh animal sculptures throughout the Tower are placed there as a reminder to the public about the structure’s history as a royal menagerie. That the polar bear is chained is significant: the live polar bear, a gift from Norway in 1252, was similarly chained so that it might swim and hunt in the Thames river.

The White Tower is the central keep. The overall grounds are collectively referred to as the Tower of London, but the White Tower is specifically the Tower of London. It’s like how Destiny’s Child encompassed more people than Beyoncé, but Beyoncé is Destiny’s Child. This keep now houses displays of armor, weaponry, and their brother in arms, a chapel. And the items they have on display are impressive: large armor, tiny armor, gilded armor, horse armor, axe pistols, cannons that resemble a lion fellating a pipe. That last must be especially intimidating on the battlefield, if they’re such fierce warriors that they can make lions do…that.

This is two posts within a month of one another that reference horse bosoms. So my blog is on the fast track to be recognized as an authority on that particular topic, which should bring me tens of disappointed readers a year. Tens!

I feel like, and I have no factual basis on which to make this assessment, this is just going with the old gut feeling here, there had to be a vast ideological difference between the king comfortable enough in his masculinity to have a suit of armor fashioned with a frilly skirt and the one who insisted he have a steel plated dong shield.

Early Tower guidebooks suggested this neck collar be used on the necks of scolding or wayward wives. Any man who comes at me with one of those had better make sure to get it on the first time because there will be no round two.

So many important events in English history happened at the Tower: sieges, coronations, imprisonments, executions, murders…a visit can only scratch the surface. Tomes (and a play y’all may have heard of) have been written about this place and its significance in history, but hopefully I’ve added at least two dirty jokes into that vast lexicon. Horse bosoms.

London’s Borough Market

 

We ended up going to the Borough Market twice during our trip. The first time was our first morning in the country, and I wasn’t ready. Jetlag had a grip on me, yet, and I felt nauseated and entirely unready to eat until I died or even appreciate the smell of food. Which is why I had to go back a second time, because the Borough Market is glorious. 

The Borough Market has been around in some form or another for nigh a thousand years, though if you want to get nitpicky about it, it’s only existed in this exact location with this exact name since 1756. In the ensuing time, it’s perfected itself. It’s everything I want Pike Place Market to be–full of delicious food, with no huge wafts of urine or dead fish to sully the experience. Every kind of wonderful food to stock one’s home is here: charcuterie, stacked wheels of cheese, loaves of bread and pastries and homemade conserves and pickles and cookies and imported delicacies and fresh squeezed juice and foraged mushrooms…the list goes on. They also have stalls of made to order foods: I bought a sandwich from Roast Hog that ranks among the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. Chewy ciabatta smeared with applesauce, loaded with rosemary and fennel spiced roast pork chunks, bright greens, and topped with a healthy sprinkle of crispy skin, it was rich and savory and greasy and wonderful, and I almost weep to see that they do catering but probably not as far as the States. It was that good. 

Borough Market, twice was not enough. I’ll be back. 

London Bound!

People often ask where the next big trip will be, and unless I’ve already booked something, I generally don’t have an answer–if I see a flight deal too good to pass up and the timing works out, that’s what’s next. So far, it’s proven easier than having a destination in mind and waiting for a reasonably priced airline ticket. This time happened to be a screaming deal to London with a stopover in Iceland on the way back. I’ve just recently offered myself up as a travel buddy for friends, so I’m open to whatever comes down the pike that way as well. Maybe it’ll be something I wouldn’t have ordinarily gravitated towards–maybe it’ll be awesome!

London flights booked, thus began my usual obsession with not being immediately identified as an American abroad: I had plans for dressing better, speaking more quietly, and trying to cut down on that full on beaming smile I shoot at everyone because apparently that is a Peak American thing to do. I bought a smart new coat, didn’t pack anything with an overt barbeque stain, and practiced a refined, gentle glower. Resting British Face, you might call it.

Then, I booked a tour online and had to do a follow up via phone and the second that British accent wafted out of the earpiece, I realized that I might as well speak to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy, because I wasn’t going to be fooling anyone into thinking I belonged.

Our flight into London Heathrow was delayed for several hours due to that infamous London fog, which was fine. The only downside was that those hours were spent in the plane on the tarmac, but it also meant that I wouldn’t have to wander around London for hours with my luggage before I was able to check in to the flat I’d rented. Getting through customs was easy and figuring out the tube was easy. I’ve got to say, though, as a welcome to the city, the Picadilly line train seats could stand to be a lot more appealing. I don’t know how to say this in a polite way, so here’s the impolite way: they’re gross. Gross. It feels like when you sit down, you’re squishing into every single fart that every Londoner has blasted into it. I know that not every single seat must have a mysterious stain, but when I picture the Picadilly line trains, I see saggy seats with mysterious stains as far as the eye can see. I did, however, appreciate every single time I was informed my train was bound toward Cockfosters, because I have the sense of humor of a twelve year old.

I found a reasonably priced AirBnB in Paddington, which isn’t London’s most exciting neighborhood, but it was close to three tube stations and was also available, unlike 90% of the flats that showed up when I searched with my date range. I panic booked this place, is what I’m saying, as it was one of two available properties and the one that didn’t require me to buy some sort of prepaid electric/gas card to keep the lights on, because that is the last shit on Earth I want to have to figure out when I’m exhausted from traveling. I don’t even like those room key light switches, don’t make me fumble around a strange room in the dark, don’t make me deal with bureaucracy when I know where literally nothing is or what it’s called.

There was a lot of confusion when we arrived to the address listed–the instructions said to go to an office (no address, just ‘the office’), so I popped into the nearest office to the flat and asked if they did AirBnB rentals. They did do rentals, just not our rental, but it took us several very confusing minutes to figure it out. Once we did, I had no choice but to pull out my phone and call (ugh) the renter. Their office was down half a block and across the street, so the odds were slim that I would have found it on my own. It was then that they told me the unit that I rented wasn’t available because of some toilet issues*, but they had another flat nearby to put us in. 

It was a small basement flat, cozy and entirely suitable considering how inexpensive it was and how little time I planned to spend there. The bed really sucked, though–I could feel each individual spring coiling at various places beneath my body, resentful and full of malice. The bed screamed in protest when we got in or out, demanding to either be allowed to murder our backs or be let alone. Over the course of the stay, we developed various nicknames for the bed: Beelzebed, the stab slab, the ouch couch. Even accounting for the bed, the bathroom was the worst part. The sink dripped constantly. The shower head dripped constantly and couldn’t be on the wall when the shower was running or it would twist itself round and blast the entire bathroom with water. The upper walls, ceiling, and grout were all moldy, and after using the shower, I have a good idea as to how they got that way. Still, a flat was better than no flat, and this one came with a compact washer/dryer as well so I was able to pack half the clothing I would have otherwise.

When we arrived, I was essentially dead on my feet, so we rested a bit before heading out to wander around Paddington to find food and buy toiletries to set us up for our stay. The first pub we tried was full to bursting, but luckily, all you need to do to find a pub in London is point in a general direction, take twelve steps, and you’re there. We ate and had a pint at Sawyer’s Arms–Jason opted for fish & chips, and I had a braised beef and bone marrow pie, or rather, we shared the pie, as Jason kept snaking his fork across the table for rogue pie bites. It was very good–rich pastry crust filled with steak and onions, with beef dripping gravy on the side for additional cold weather fortification. Afterward, we bought shampoo and other necessities at Boots–their automatic checkout machines end every transaction with “Thank you for shopping at Boots”, and the small space and relatively long line meant that every step, every gesture, every thought is punctuated by “Thank you for shopping at Boots. Thank you for shopping at Boots. Thank you for shopping at Boots.”

On our way back to the flat, someone stopped me and asked for directions. Bless you, lady. I have no idea where I am, I’m not from around here.

 

*I know you’re thinking “bait and switch” but the original flat was a basement flat as well so I don’t think I ended up any worse off and, frankly, I was just thankful to not have to try and figure out a new place to stay.