With the Con basically behind us, we were all set on Monday to start really exploring London and making full use of our CityPass. Of course, in order to do this, we figured we needed an early start so we were up, had breakfast and were on the train by 9:15, heading out to the Tower of London. This seemed the best place to start, to reverse our trip of Thursday. Do the Tower, then the Bridge, then The Globe. Made perfect sense.
We got to the Tower and saw huge queues at the ticket office. We flashed our CityPass cards and were told to just go straight to the entrance, which we did. They scanned our cards and the clock was running – we had two days to get in as much touristing as possible to make sure we got the most value for these things. One of the tricks these types of things pull is they list all sorts of places as “get in free with us” when the place in question is free anyway. Sometimes there’s a bonus (at the maritime museum, you get a guide book which is worth £4) but sometimes not. So we had actually checked to make sure there would be an advantage and as far as we could tell, there would be. At the Tower, the advantage started by not having to wait in line to get in.
The first thing we decided to do was take the free guided tour, given by one of the Yeoman Warders (the Beefeaters). It seemed like this would be the best way to see the most things and get the most information right off. Problem was we were too early! The tour didn’t start until 10am so we waited. We took pictures of the poppies. We chatted with the elderly ladies on vacation from the US. And we huddled in nice and tight when the Warder called us over to start the tour. Then the Warder explained that currently, there were no lines for the Crown Jewels and it might be beneficial to check them out now. Rasa and I looked at each other, had a momentary debate, then headed out, figuring we’d catch a later guided tour.
Boy, did we make the right choice! We walked quickly to where the Jewels are kept and went through with nary a stop in our stride. We were able to see everything, read all the signage, go past the actual crowns twice (there’s a moving walkway on both sides as well as a viewing platform). To say these were some impressive pieces of jewelry (including the Koh-i-noor diamond) is a massive understatement! Of course, since we had just finished watching the whole series of Leverage, we kept making jokes about what Parker would like to steal (not loudly, naturally, that would have been silly). Queen Victoria’s tiny crown, the one she wore with her mourning veil, was there as were the actual head pieces worn during the coronation and various other official functions. Then there were the assorted swords and scepters of office and the accoutrement of the formal meals and you had a nice exhibit, worthy of a queen.
Upon exiting, we did go back for the tour and enjoyed it very much. We got the overview of the Tower, the history, the important sights (like Traitor’s Gate and The Queen’s House) and heard the story of the last death to take place in the Tower Green (it was a pigeon, during the Blitz). We also heard about the Ravens (one of my favorite stories, right up there with the Barbary Macaques on Gibraltar) and were advised to check out the Royal Armouries in the White Tower sooner rather than later. Taking the advice, we walked around to enter the Armouries and passed the line for the Crown Jewels, which by now was an hour or so wait.
Inside the White Tower (which was was the original fortress built and housed the members of the Royal families for some 5oo years) were all sorts of exhibits on armor, horses, and the various other activities of government which took place within the walls. The most impressive piece on display, though, was Henry the VIII’s armor, which, unlike any of his kin, took the precaution to protect the family jewels as well as the ones in the crown. And Henry was not ashamed to let the world know what he was packing.
We then wandered the grounds and the battlements, seeing exhibits on the menagerie which used to be housed there before there was a London Zoo. We walked through The Bloody Tower, where the remains of the two princes were found. We also saw, while looking over the edge, the homes of the Warders and the various other people who actually reside at the Tower of London. It looked just like a normal street, with laundry out drying and cars in the drive… it just happened to be within the walls of an historic fortress.
Leaving the Tower of London, we made our way to Tower Bridge, the one the guy in Arizona thought he was buying when he bought London Bridge in 1973. This is the drawbridge with the two huge towers on it… hence the name. Our CityPasses got us in for free and there wasn’t much of a queue so within no time, we were on the lift and heading to the top of the bridge. There are two walkways connecting the two towers which serve no purpose structurally except to house exhibitions and events (yes, you can rent it out). Currently, in addition to the semi-permanent exhibit on bridges of the world, there was also a photo exhibit of the 60s. The only downside (for Rasa) was the height. at 42 meters above the water, it’s not just a slight rise in elevation. She was fine looking out on the city, as long as we didn’t look down. Once you exit the tower proper, there’s also a tour of the engine room showing off the mechanism used to raise and lower the middle section (which still happens three times a day).
Since we exited the Bridge on the south side of the river, we figured now was as good a time as any to make our way down to The Globe and take the tour there. On the way, though, we ended up making an impromptu stop at the HMS Belfast, a former battleship now a permanent museum docked on the Thames. I’d never been aboard and it was part of our CityPass so over the gangway we went. The ship is well preserved and the displays are all really well done. Climbing up and down little ladders, though, proved to be a bit harder. They were steep and narrow and I couldn’t possibly guess how they were navigated when the ship was in rough seas while she was in service. The accompanying audio guide had some pretty cool stories from the actual sailors relating events and military actions they had been part of during active service.
To be honest, we walked through fairly quickly. The heights and ladders bothering Rasa and the history, while interesting, just wasn’t capturing my imagination. We did go to the highest point on board before finally making our way down to the bow, returned our audio wands and went back ashore. It was starting to drizzle a bit so we stopped in at the Belfast’s cafe for a panini and beverage and refueled before going to see the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
The Globe, which stands not far from where they think the original stood, is a perfect “best guess” recreation of a 16th century, south bank playhouse. As you are told repeatedly on the tour (and in the exhibition hall) this would not have been possible without the vision of actor/producer Sam Wanamaker. Wanamaker first had the idea to rebuild the theatre when he was visiting London in the 50s while making a movie and asked a cab driver to take him to see The Globe. All that existed at the time was a plaque on a parking garage so Wanamaker started his lifelong pursuit. Unfortunately, he died before the building was complete, but he knew it was underway. They’ve also built a second theatre, inside the Globe’s ancillary building, which is called the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to honor the man responsible.
The theatre itself is as close as they can come knowing almost nothing about what the actual place looked like. It’s based mostly on the archeological records of The Swan, which they found while raising the money for The Globe. It is also the only building in London since the great fire to be given permission to have a thatched roof!
Our guide was great. She was funny and informative, making everyone feel at ease and telling some great stories! Even when it started to really pour while we were sitting in the theatre proper, she kept up a positive attitude and really made it fun. The only downside to the event were the typos and bad grammar present in a few of the exhibits and, worst of all, a misspelling of Wanamaker’s name on a poster asking for money for his playhouse.
After spending time (and money) in the gift shop we had a bit of time to kill before our 7:30 showtime of Wicked so we decided to walk (in the rain) along the opposite side of the river we had walked on Thursday. We walked past the Tate Modern and the National theatre and a “Festival of Love” which looked like a cross between a 60s flashback and a carnival sideshow (there actually is a sideshow working there). We even got up close and personal with the London Eye. When you’re that close, you can see how it’s constantly moving, so finally Rasa believed me (she believed me before, but now she understood it) and we got some great twilight pictures of Big Ben and the houses of parliament.
We crossed the river and headed into Westminster station, not wanting to repeat the looooooong walk all the way to Victoria Station (the theatre we were headed to is the Apollo Victoria, just across from the station proper) but before we could get to our tube, we found a guy selling painted scenes of the area. They were nice, and relatively inexpensive (and small enough to fit into our luggage, so after a bit of haggling we took our painting and headed for the theatre.
The place was packed! Luckily, we already had tickets so we don’t have to wait in the long queue to pick them up them the box office. We headed straight in and up to the balcony. Our seats were in row Y, the very last row of the uppermost balcony… but so what, we were seeing a show in London and a show I’ve wanted to see for a while. Just before the show started, a family came in with three members sitting to one side of us and the two across the aisle. I volunteered to switch so they could all sit together, which was nice, but the added benefit was we were now sitting directly center (even if it was far back)
The show was amazing. There was an understudy for Elpheba but she was great so no loss there. The sets were minimal and moved on and off without assistance from visible stagehands (grooves in the floor helped guide them, I’m sure). Honestly, there’s nothing bad I can say about the production. Granted, I was predisposed to like it, but even so, it was well worth seeing. Even more fun was on the tube ride home, I noticed a young lady sitting across from us. She had the demeanor of a performer and sure enough, when I asked if she had just come down off a show, she had. And it was Wicked! So we got to spend a bit of time chatting about theatre and this particular production. A great way to end a long but fun day. And we harbored no illusions that Tuesday would be any different!