I think it was Tower Bridge

Tuesday September 30th, 2008 – Final Thoughts

Inevitably I will be asked, “what was your favorite thing?” about the holiday.  It seems rather absurd to try and narrow it all down to one particular landmark, event, day-trip, or even moment in time.  But they say you should always go with your first answer, so, I’d say the Tower Bridge.

Now you’re going to ask me why, and I haven’t a clue.  I really don’t.  It’s not any particular fascination with bridges, or even things mechanical, although I’m still in awe of the Panama Canal, three years after our hurricane-laced trip through the Caribbean.

In fact, we didn’t even see the Tower Bridge until we had been in London for six days.  Not even an unexpected “there it is”, in the distance.

We had purchased the 6-day version of the London Pass, the one that gave you terrific discounts and fast-track entrance to a number of museums, palaces, attractions, and events.  We planned our six days based on a mixture of geographic location, hours of operation, best value, and even went so far as to make up an A,B, and C list of things we could do with the London Pass.  Sounds like the prep for a freaking media plan.

The Tower of London (including the Crown Jewels), and the Tower Bridge had been slotted in for day four along with a lesser known historic site, the Jewel Tower, which incidentley has nothing to do with the Crown Jewels and never did.  Depending on time, we also penciled in Banqueting House as a possible 4th “freebie of the day”, (more on it later), and we felt if we got through those four things in one day we’d be doing well.

Since we are early risers, we really found it advantageous to get to things first thing in the morning.  Tourist traffic is still brisk in September, and in fact, any lessening in volume is more than off-set by school trips.  During our three week journey, we have encountered classes of all ages, sex, size and hair colour from Germany, Italy, France, of course from all over the U.K.  They are mostly loud, excited, and out of control.  The youngest ones are just loud and full of P&V, especially the boys, while the older ones (14-17), are clearly into the “notice me” stage of life.  I think there is probably an entire post’s worth of commentary relating to my social observations of teenagers in heat, but that will have to wait for another day.

As I was saying, getting to attractions early is really beneficial and on this day, we were one of the first ones into the Tower of London.  In fact, it was not very busy at all until around 11AM when the tour buses, and school trips began to arrive.

You ever have one of those let-down moments?  When the delivery fails to meet expectations!  The Tower of London fell into that category for Mary.  There is no question that it is steeped in history, and, as one of the oldest and most-recognized historic sites in the world, there is definitely a cool-factor involved with a visit.  But there was something missing.

The outer walls are still there.  All the towers and inner walkways are intact.  There are the desperate carvings of prisoners spanning 500 years still very evident.  But there was still something missing.  She hasn’t been able to put her finger on it, but there was definately a feeling of mild disappointment, a bit of “I thought I’d be more excited about this visit”.

The one redeeming aspect of the visit to the Tower of London, is the opportunity to see the Crown Jewels.  That is worth the price of admission alone.  They are spectacular in both size and sparkle.  There were precious stones the size of Sunkist oranges.  And they have them set up in six (I think there were six) glass cases, that you move by, ever so slowly, on a conveyor belt.  There was hardly anyone there, so we went twice.

People have many different reasons for wanting to see the Crown Jewels.  For those of the female persuasion, I suspect it is the wonderment of wearing even one of those spectacular pieces – even for just an evening.  There of course is the historical element to them as well.  I had my own particular reason for wanting to see them close up – beyond the genuine interest I had in just plain seeing them.

The very first stamp in the world, Britain’s famous “Penny Black” features a side-portrait of the young Queen Victoria wearing a relatively small and almost understated tiara (yes I have one in my collection).   That crown or tiara is part of the Crown Jewels, and that’s pretty cool.  What is even more interesting to me is that in 1967, Great Britain introduced a new set of definitive stamps featuring Queen Elizabeth II, at that point only 15 years into her reign.  It featured a side portrait of her based on a sculpture by a gentleman named Arnold Machin, and as part of his vision for how the stamp would look, he asked the Queen to wear the exact same tiara that Victoria had worn, 137 years earlier.  The Queen, who is the proud owner of one of the most valuable stamp collections in the world was delighted at that notion and readily agreed.  That stamp, by the way continues to be in use today with over 440 different denominations and colours having been used over the past 41 years.  It is one of the longest continuous running stamp series in philatelic history.

We did the Tower in about 2 hours and just before we left, we decided to eat something in the cafe before venturing off the grounds to our next destination.  As Julia Roberts said in Pretty Women – “big mistake”.  In general we have been really happy with all of our meals – a little pricey but good, at least by our standards.  But the Tower of London cafe was a complete rip-off.  If you ever go, do not eat there!

Having just re-read my entry to this point, I realized I have failed to mention, that the minute you emerge from the Tower Hill underground station, you see a piece of the old Roman Wall that once surrounded the City of London, immediately behind it (a few hundred yards), is one of the outer walls of the Tower of London. 

Just to the right and looming in the background of the Tower is the Tower Bridge.  Throughout the visit to the Tower of London, I kept looking at the Bridge.  We had some great vantage points from within the Tower, and my shutter-finger got a workout throughout the morning.

From the Tower of London, we walked out on to the Thames embankment and covered the few yards to the Tower Bridge in just a few minutes.  I swear I stopped every 50 feet to take a “better” photo of the bridge.

You access the Tower Bridge via a gloomy staircase adorned with a sign that says “Tower Bridge Exhibition, via Dead Man’s Hole”.  Apparently, it is at this site, where the “many corpses that were thrown into the river from the Tower and surrounding districts were retrieved”.  The bodies were stored in a temporary mortuary below the staircase until they were removed for burial.

I guess I was really looking forward to going to the Tower Bridge as it has only been open for tours since the early 1980’s which meant that in all my earlier visits to London (between 1967 and 1973), I had not been able to go inside for a poke-around.

You take an elevator up to a walkway which spans the two tall towers of the bridge (136 feet above the Thames), and as you walk out, you are afforded the most spectacular views of East and West London.  You can also look down through the grates and see the traffic (both pedestrian and vehicular) crossing beneath you.  We walked back down the 200+ steps to the bridge level, and as we left, we met a door attendant who asked us if we were interested in knowing when the bridge was going to be lifted for tall ships that day.  We enthusiastically said yes and he told us to try and be back in the area at 5 PM.  He went on to point out that it is considered good luck if you happen to see the Tower Bridge open.

Checking our watches, we reasoned that we had enough time to hop on the tube and whip over to Westminster Station where we could tour the Jewel Tower (45 minutes of interesting history to us history buffs), then stroll up Whitehall to the Banqueting House.  Once part of the Whitehall Palace, it is all that remains of the building that was destroyed by fire in 1698.  It is most famous as being the site of the beheading of Charles I, a plan that was executed by Oliver Cromwell and led to five year period in the mid-1600’s when there was no ruling monarch in England.

Banqueting Hall is still used today for various functions, and the ceiling is covered with some absolutely wonderful paintings by Rubens.  The building was also used as a substitute for Buckingham Palace in the most recent National Treasure movie – “Book of Secrets”.

With two more items of interest crossed off our list, we headed back to the Tower Bridge.  Sitting on the tube, Mary had the idea that if we went for a tour of the HMS Belfast, a WWII cruiser, permanently moored just metres from the bridge, it would give us a unique view of the Bridge as it opened.  Since the tour was covered by our London Pass, we headed straight there.

We love ship tours.  We have toured the HMCS Haida in Hamilton Ontario, the USS Intrepid in New York Harbour (used in the first National Treasure movie), the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbour, and the RMS Queen Mary, now in it’s permanent home in Long Beach, California.  Of course, we had also toured the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh earlier on this trip, so it was a natural to add the HMS Belfast to our “been there, done that” list.

One funny note about the tour of the HMS Belfast.  Somehow Mary and I became separated during the self-guided tour, and when I looked at my watch and noticed it was 10 to 5, I was torn between continuing to look for her, or heading to the stern of the ship to see the Tower Bridge open.  Knowing that it was good luck to see the bridge open, I set out to claim my vantage point.  There were several ship’s crewmen around, and they noticed that I kept glancing over my shoulder.  Two of them asked if they could help.  I explained that I had somehow “misplaced” my wife and was worried that she was going to miss the bridge opening.

“No worries sir.  We’ll put out a call for her on the ship’s PA system”

“Would passenger Mary Stanger, please report to the stern of the ship where her husband is waiting for her, camera in hand”.

No sign of her.  They then asked me for a description of her, and two young midshipmen set out in search of her.  It turns out that she was 2 levels below the main deck, in the boiler room checking out the inner workings of the ship’s engines, (her dad would be proud of her), and she had not heard the page.

One of the midshipmen explained to Mary that “your husband is anxiously awaiting your arrival for the bridge opening that takes place in about 90 seconds”.  He began to guide Mary up the staircases and through the maze of hallways.  Fearing they wouldn’t make it in time, he asked Mary if she was up to “quick-stepping” so as to make it in a timely fashion.  With a big grin, she said, “I’ll give it my best”.

Mary arrived with seconds to spare, and after we laughingly compared notes for a few moments we turned and watched the Tower Bridge open.  It is really quite something to see, and we were surprised how quickly it opened – less than 60 seconds.  I took a number of pictures of the bridge open at various different angles, but mostly I just stood there and marveled at this engineering feat that is now well in excess of 100 years old. 

On a separate note, on our last full day in London this past Saturday, we set out to see a few more things on our list, and to also do the rounds, one last time – St. Paul’s, Big Ben, Tower of London, just to say our own private “see you laters”, and to capture some final mental snapshots.  Wouldn’t you know, just as we walked out onto the Thames embankment, there in the early morning fog, was the Tower Bridge, wide open.

We knew in that moment, how lucky we were to have seen and done everything that we had packed into our 23-day holiday.

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