Betrayal, Beheadings, £2 Shots and Ice Skating 11/02/2010Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
Tags: england, history, london, tower of london, travel, wandering
Through the force of sheer ignorance I had always imagined it to be a single structure, soaring towards the clouds like Big Ben. The Tower of London is actually a proper castle, seated among London’s skyscrapers. Despite numerous glass and steel edifices, your eye can’t help but be drawn to stone walls, parapets and centuries of history.
The neighborhood was crawling with tourists, stumbling blindly through traffic like possessed wildebeests. Following in their wake, trying like hell to exude the confidence and disdain which scream local, I shuffled along the northern wall. A couple asked me to take pictures of them. Here you are in front of the castle, well done. During my time spent in London the only people who asked this favor of me were men from South Asia, and they outnumbered the Italians and Germans and Americans and Chinese ten to one. A nice change of pace from the people whose pictures I take back in Paris.
At its best the Tower is labeled and summarized by placards lining the periphery, and at worst it panders. There was overpriced coffee every hundred yards, some fake armaments including a plastic looking catapult, and the combined ticket office and gift shop alongside the Thames.
People were streaming through the gates, and I had an urge to join them but found the entry a little excessive for my budget. Wandered around the crowded plaza and watched people ice-skating in what was once a moat. Bought an over-priced shot of espresso which grew cold before I could finish it. Because it was frightfully cold.
Brief aside. I bought a lot of espresso throughout the city, usually several a day. Extravagant, I know, but if you’re carrying peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat sparingly it’s a cost effective way to keep trudging along for six to eight hours at a stretch, often in freezing temperatures. At Caffé Nero in Putney, the rip-off stand in St. James Park, the plaza behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, the rip-off stand next to the Tower, every employee was an immigrant. Heavy on eastern europe. They spoke in their second or third language, I spoke in my unique language, they were unerringly nice and tried their best to comprehend my accent. It made me think about fast food in San Francisco, how you’ll never find highschool students working McDonald’s. It’s all matronly Latinas, busting their asses for your little bit of grease. In London you can be young and work in some shit coffee shack for no money, certainly no tips, but you can’t be English.
Continued along the walls, envy sharing scorn as I eyed the happy clusters of paid entrants. The informational placards will have to be enough, but how can you keep any of this straight? The Tower was constructed towards the end of William the Conqueror’s reign at the losing end of the eleventh century. This was the central keep, what they call the White Tower after some descendent decided to have plebes whitewash the stone. Now the people of London could feel protected from Vikings and Celts, and the royals could feel protected from the people of London.
Just before the 1200’s kicked off Richard the Lionheart commissioned more fortifications before leaving to kill for Christ. His brother overthrew the throne and then turned it back over to Richard, and somehow was still allowed to be the next king. Ever the hero this new king made all sorts of enemies and the French were called in to overthrow the monarchy. People died and a little boy was stuck on the throne. More towers and walls were constructed, bringing the edge of the fortress to the Thames itself. Enter the moat.
An unhappy populace rejoiced when portions of the new construction collapsed. Another king filled in the moat, built more walls, and turned portions of the castle into a prison. Enter a second moat. Some defeated kings paid a visit, probably some political prisoners and unwanted wives as well. Eventually the Tower began to host executions of its own kings. When Catholicism fell out of vogue various Bishops and whatnots were beheaded here, and then a lot of Protestants when the Catholics took over again for a brief spell. During the English Civil War the royals were ousted from power and Oliver Cromwell humiliated their memory by melting down the crown jewels. Then history flipped back over, the monarchy returned, and the Tower caters to tourists.
They probably have awesome wax figures on the rack inside, but I was cursing my luck and crossing the London Bridge for Southwark. The side facing the Tower was closed for repairs so there would be no brilliant photographic moments. Instead I dodged the thick foot traffic and hoped the sun would hold out for the rest of the afternoon.