Monday, February 20, 2012

Sent to the Tower!

A few weekends ago we had a glorious sunny day - so many days here are sunny but with patches of mist and clouds, meaning it's not ideal to take scenic photographs.

On those weekend days, we tend to think that we'll save our money and visit London's attractions another time when we can take some better photographs.

This day, however, remained sunny and mostly blue-skied, so we set out for a good old English relic - the Tower of London.

We took our favourite above-ground train to the station at London Bridge and then walked along the river from there to Tower Bridge.

Along the way, we saw some of new-London's creations.  The egg-shaped glass building is known as the Gherkin.

I've heard some people complain about how London is such a mish-mash of architecture, and certainly the new developments can dwarf the historical sites.

(That's the Tower of London on the right of the picture by the trees).

I, Michelle, think this is a shame, but I'm not sure that keeping the heart of London historic and only building new structures outside of a certain radius would have been a better idea. I just wish sometimes that the new buildings didn't detract from the grandeur of the old.

This leaning beehive building is London's City Hall.  

Next to the London Bridge station is the Shard. The website is worth a look at, even if just to get a scale of the grandeur of this monolith.

When complete, the building will house offices, restaurants and even apartments, and will be the tallest building in the EU.

It is funded by Quatari investors and is Sharia (Islamic law) compatible. The Financial Times says that this means that potential tenants will be restricted and the suggestion is that this means no gambling, alcohol-related businesses or even banks. (Article by Ed Hammond, May 11)

After feasting our eyes on these great glass concoctions, we came to a familiar part of Olde England: Tower Bridge.

One sunny, clear day we intend to go up the Bridge, as there is an exhibition at the top and you can walk between the two towers. I'm sure the view will be splendid - if only we can find a mist and cloud-free day...

At the far side of the bridge, we passed by Dead Man's Hole. This was a place where bodies used to be pulled from the Thames.

Murders, suicides, or plague victims thrown into the river could be retrieved at this spot, where a set of steps descends into the murky waters of the Thames.

Photo from this article

After passing this grisly spot, we walked through a cobblestoned alleyway and came out on the walkway that surrounds the walls of the Tower of London.

We signed up for a yearly membership to the Historic Palaces Trust, a wise move seeing as the place was teeming with visitors and we couldn't get a good look around.

The membership means that we can go back as many times as we want over the next year, and also enables us to visit Kensington Palace (Diana's home) and three other spots.

The Tower of London was erected as a castle in 1066 after the Norman Conquest. It has a moat and two rings of defensive walls that surround a series of inner buildings.

The main part of the Castle, the White Tower is a 'keep' (or 'donjon') - you may remember these from Dover and the ruins of Flint Castle in Wales that we visited.

In this picture, the large, square building is the White Tower. (The little arch at the bottom of the front section is Traitor's Gate)
(Picture from Wikipedia)

The Tower has played a role as an armoury, a treasury, and a menagerie over the years.

In the 1200s, references were made to a polar bear living at the Castle, there were also lions and leopards, and animals such as ostriches, monkeys, elephants, and even llamas. In the reign of James 1, animals such as bears and lions were used for fighting, and apparently at one stage there was a monkey who could smoke cigars.

Now the only animals that remain (officially) are ravens, as legend says that the Kingdom will fall if they are removed from the Tower.

The birds eat 170g of raw meat per day and they are tended by a 'Ravenmaster' (now that is a job title...) who spends years with the birds and is supposedly considered by the ravens to be another raven.

(Nice outfit, Ravenmaster!)

For over 500 years, the Royal Mint operated from the Castle, and the Crown Jewels are still kept there. It was also used as a Royal Ordnance, storing munitions and military equipment. In the 1800s, the Waterloo Barracks were constructed, by order of the Duke of Wellington.

The Castle was always used as a prison, though this reached epic proportions in the 16th and 17th centuries. During that time, many religious and political prisoners were held, such as Elizabeth Tudor (later Elizabeth 1) who spent time there in 1554, and the young princes Edward and Richard.

The Tower is famous for its executions, but while over 100 people were executed over the years, most of these did not take place in the Tower itself.

In the 1200s, the watergate known as 'Traitors' Gate' was constructed, and this became the entry for many prisoners.

Many of the walls inside the areas formerly used as prisons are covered in graffiti, including that dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. We found most of it a bit illegible, as it is in the olde English of the time (which closely resembles Latin).

Some of the most famous graffiti can be viewed here.

We fully intend to return to the tower and take a tour with a Yeoman (commonly known as 'Beefeater', as they were historically allowed to eat much beef from the Palace leftovers), see the Crown Jewels and the Medieval Castle, and generally range about the site.

I adored these wee cottages and would love a tour inside.... My friend, Lord Shakadamus, suggested that they were historically used for staff at the Castle. Perhaps this is still the case, as I didn't see any 'To Let' signs blowing in the stiff breeze.

We didn't stay for long, as the place was truly overcrowded, and noisy children and shoving tourists (I'm looking at you, Italians) made the experience less than ideal. We'll try to go back early one day before the crowds get there.

Fingers crossed for another beautiful sunny like this so we can go up Tower Bridge too.

(Sorry if the formatting is a bit skew-whiff in this one - I had trouble fitting all the pictures around the text.)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Waitangi Day

Pining for a bit of New Zealand nostalgia, we decided to get our kiwi on and celebrate Waitangi Day. Just like back home in the good old days.... Oh wait - nope, we've never celebrated Waitangi Day in New Zealand.

Oh well! Nothing like a good excuse to celebrate being a Kiwi when you're away from home and missing all those 'fush and chups' accents and things like chocolate fish and Griffins' gingernuts.

So I decided to cook a roast lamb dinner - Kiwi stylez. Well actually British stylez as there was a sad lack of yams in this roast dinner.* And I forgot the peas. Oops! Anyhoo I did manage to find a shoulder of New Zealand lamb, sun drop apricots from NZ, some Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, and some kumara, pumpkin and parsnip - though they were reared in Britain. Oh and I made some mint sauce using a peppermint teabag and some secret herbs and spices. Not bad eh?

So we had our delish roast meal and an apricot crumble for dessert.

(* Yams. You cannot buy them here for love nor money. The New Zealand yam, or Oxalis Tuberosa, is not something that has ever taken off in Britain and so we have searched in vain but not been able to discover any yams. (They're not actually a yam, which can get very confusing). We even have our local greengrocer on to it, but he has found nothing either. A sad state of affairs really.
Britain, you have a lot to answer for.)

Despite the ongoing saga that shall be known as yamgate, this was the most delicious Waitangi Day we have ever celebrated (if the only)....