This Sceptred Isle and all that Jazz

Two thousand years and more of extremely eventful history is nothing to be sneezed at- and Britain’s so chockfull of castles, cathedrals and palaces that it’s virtually a bonanza for any lover of history.

This Sceptred Isle and all that Jazz

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 13, 2002

London’s crowded with history, and it extends to way beyond the many statues of generals, poets, kings, and queens you’ll see looking down on you from pedestals across the city. If history interests you, whether political or otherwise, this is a great city to go sightseeing - and among the sights to put on your itinerary are Westminster Abbey, St Margaret’s, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London .

Watch the changing of the guard (if you can bear the crowds of tourists who throng the area!) at Buckingham Palace ; spend a while amidst the gardens and halls of Kensington Palace; and go strolling along the Thames to Cleopatra’s Needle.

Among the other activities we enjoyed: walking past the Houses of Parliament and across Tower Bridge; catching a glimpse of 10 Downing Street from the end of the lane (riff-raff like us aren’t allowed down the street!); and having a look- again from the road outside - at the Cabinet War Rooms (the underground rooms where Allied meetings were held during World War II). ${QuickSuggestions} Get yourself a BTA tourist pamphlet for London - they’re easily available at tourist information offices and are very useful, especially in regards to information on opening and closing times. This is very important, as many of the sights close inordinately early - for instance, if you’re going sightseeing at St Paul’s, you won’t be allowed in after 4 pm, and at the Tower of London, to be able to go on one of the beefeater-led tours, you’ll need to get there latest by 3:15 pm. ${BestWay} By far the best way to get around London is by the Tube - the underground’s fast and convenient and the network’s vast, so getting to any part of town is fairly simple. Buy yourself a day pass (or a week pass if you’re going to be in London for a while), and it works out pretty economical. Both BTA tourist guides and London Underground maps show the location - with reference to Tube stations- of all the top sights, so finding your way around is never a problem.

Fortunately enough, a number of London’s top historical sights - at least some of the ones I’ve mentioned in this journal - are within easy walking distance of each other, and you can combine two or more in a day on foot.

Westminster Abbey

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 13, 2002

Originally a Benedictine abbey, Westminster Abbey’s the church where all the monarchs of England- since William the Conqueror (in 1066)- have been crowned. It’s nearly a thousand years old, and heavily decorated with carved stone, marble, wood, stained glass, and paintings. It’s really huge- so much so that we got pretty nearly lost in it.

Besides being the place where coronations have been held for the past millennium, Westminster’s also the place where most of England’s kings and queens of England are buried- in heavy, ornate tombs with carved stone statues (usually likenesses of the monarch) lying supine on top. Our tour through the church took us past the tombs of a number of monarchs and their consorts- Anne of Cleves, Elizabeth I, Richard II and Mary Queen of Scots among them. There are lots of other well known personalities, if not monarchs, here too: Lord Milton, David Livingstone, Margaret Beaufort (grandmother of Henry VIII and founder of two Cambridge colleges), Lord Canning, Darwin, James Watt and Robert Browning included. And there are memorials to countless others: Captain Cook, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Clement Attlee and Benjamin Disraeli. Interestingly enough, Oliver Cromwell is also buried in Westminster Abbey, although his head is buried in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge- a rather gruesome burial!

Westminster Abbey also has a memorial to Walter Raleigh (buried beneath the altar of St Margaret’s, next door), who, among his other achievements, introduced tobacco and potatoes to England. Within the Abbey too is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier , a memorial to the hundreds who died during World War I.

If you’re visiting Westminster, do walk on next door to the church of St Margaret’s , the church attended by the Members of Parliament. It’s a fairly small church, but pretty (it’s undergone massive renovation, having suffered severe damage during World War II). Lord Mountbatten and Sir Winston Churchill had both been married in this church, and their wedding photographs and marriage certificates are on display.

Westminster Abbey
20 Dean's Yard
London, England, SW1P 3PA
+44 (20) 7222 5152

St Paul’s Cathedral

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 13, 2002

Situated amidst appropriately ecclesiastical environs (Ave Maria Lane and Paternoster Row are right next door), the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral definitely merits a visit. There’s been a church at this site ever since 604 AD, although the present building dates back to the 17th century- it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666, and took all of 35 years to build. The high, ornate white dome of the cathedral is the second largest in the world and looms up above the surrounding streets- all of them crowded with modern office buildings. It’s so imposing and large, you can see it even when you’re too far away to see the rest of the church.

St Paul’s is spectacular- twin-towered, huge, heavily ornamented, carved and gilded, and with the tombs of much of Britain’s glitterati within the church. We visited the church just after lunch (a mistake, as we later discovered, as we weren’t allowed to see most of the tombs, including the crypt, because part of the church was being cordoned off for evensong at 3.15. The crypt’s main occupant is Lord Nelson , whose tomb lies in the centre of the crypt, directly beneath the Dome.

Within the church, the most awesome feature is the high altar- it’s huge, and truly impressive: all of four tons of Italian marble, topped with a cross which towers three metres high. Spend at least 10-15 minutes wandering around the church, looking in on the beautiful chapels. After seeing the church, take some time off in the churchyard- it’s a deliciously quiet, serene and lovely place, great for a breather from the crowded cathedral itself.

St Paul's Cathedral
The Chapter House
London, England, EC4M 8AD
+44 (20 7) 236 4128

The Tower of London

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 13, 2002

Back in 1078, the White Tower - the earliest building in what is today the Tower of London - was built. In the centuries since (and tumultuous years they’ve been), many buildings have been added, many sieges broken, and many histories written. This is the ultimate in historical castles, and it’s worth a visit.

A moated fortress with 3 lines of defense, the Tower’s best seen on a guided tour led by a `beefeater’ (strictly speaking, a `yeoman warder’). We took the last tour of the day - at 3:15 pm - and found our guide immensely entertaining and informative.

The Tower of London’s been, at various times, a castle, an arsenal, a storeroom for records, and a prison. Beginning at the gate, the tour goes through much of the castle - past Traitor’s Gate, St Thomas’ Tower, Bloody Tower , and the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (`St Peter in Chains’), where the headless bodies of 1,500 traitors (proven or otherwise) had once been interred under the flagstones to be later exhumed and given a Christian burial; at the altar, the bodies of three of Henry VIII’s wives still lie.

While at the chapel, take a look at the beautifully carved wood under the organ: it was worked by the master carver Grinling Gibbons, who always incorporated peapods in whatever he carved. He carved the pods open (if he’d been paid for the job) or closed (if he hadn’t). The ones at St Peter ad Vincula are open.

The tour proceeds to the Jewel House, which houses the Crown jewels - solid gold, heavily jeweled sceptres, crowns, diadems, swords, flagons, chalices, altar plates, and more. The most stupendous is a punch bowl the size of a small bathtub, all gold and very ornate.

Beyond the Jewel House is the White Tower (outside which is part of the Roman wall from the first fortress on the site). The White Tower has original garderobes (medieval toilets basically with a chute leading straight down into the moat), fireplaces, staircases, prisons, armouries, and guardrooms dating back through the ages. The Tower’s many prisoners left rather a lot of graffiti behind - you can actually see an inscription scratched by Thomas Culpeper onto a wall: "Be faithful unto death, etc, etc.", and signed with his name. Somewhat creepy.

Within the White Tower’s a huge collection of medieval weaponry - shields, armour (for both man and horse; the display includes Henry VIII's armour), pikes, halberds, lances, swords, helmets and what not. Also on display are an executioner’s block and the axe used to chop off Anne Boleyn’s head.

Incidentally, they say that while ravens live at the Tower, it will stand - the day they leave, the Tower will fall, and so will England. Logically (if you go by that illogical reasoning), the ravens are a pampered lot - they’re fed special rations of blood-soaked biscuit and raw meat, their wings are clipped, and so on. Idiotic but quaint.

Tower of London
Tower Hill
London, England, EC3N 4AB
+44 (207) 709 0765

Windsor Castle

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 13, 2002

Just 22 miles from London, Windsor’s a lovely little town - and home to not just one of England’s first-rate schools ( Eton ), but also one of the world’s most high-profile and historic castles.

The Royal Station at Windsor is almost right next to the castle, a huge stone fortress which stands on a hill and towers over the entire area. We arrived at Windsor from London on a clear spring day, and walked uphill to the castle (the Queen was in residence that day - the Union Jack was flying above the castle). Within the solid stone walls of Windsor, we first visited the absolutely adorable Queen Mary’s Doll’s House . Six feet high, and a faultless replica of an actual house, the Doll’s House was so exquisitely perfect it made me wish I were a little girl again! Everything, down to the minutest detail, was there: handpainted china, glassware, delicately embroidered linen, tooled leather books, furniture - all miniature, and all perfect.

After ogling at the Doll’s House, we went on a long, slow stroll through the rest of the Castle, through the stunning English Gothic St George’s Chapel and the State Apartments - the bedrooms, the dining rooms, audience rooms, closets, dressing rooms and reception rooms. The treasures in the State Apartments are unbelievable - china (including Ming vases and Sèvres china), solid gold utensils, loads and loads of weapons (there are swords and guns filling more than two rooms, including the bullet which killed Lord Nelson at Trafalgar), armour, coats of arms (again, one complete room), tributes, prizes from various parts of the British Empire, crowns, an ivory throne, paintings galore, (there are originals here by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, etc) and much, much more.

And the rooms, of course, are themselves quite spectacularly decorated - they’re sumptuously gilded, painted, carved, and tapestry-draped. Quite opulent - the Reception Room , for instance, though a rich cream in color, is so heavily gilded that it seems almost totally gold; and the walls and ceiling of the dining room are, every inch of them, painted with mythological figures in all the colors of the rainbow. All this richness is really rather overwhelming, and after a brief interlude at the guard-post outside where we (like all self-respecting tourists) got ourselves photographed with a poker-faced guard, we came out of the castle and strolled down to the Thames to feed bread to the swans.

Windsor Castle
Berkshire, England, SR4 1NJ
+44 1753 869 898

© LP 2000-2009