Tuesday, 23-06-2015. Day 307.
Royalty, Red Roads, Rebels.
After we spent a few days knocking around London on our own, we decided it was time to do what we really like to do—take the Sandeman's Free London Walking Tour. Our guide, a Scottish gent by the name of Billy, pointed out that London is one of the world's great sprawling megalopolises, and it's really hard to see everything the city has to offer on one free walking tour. So this particular walking tour, which mostly takes place around the Palace of Westminster and deals primarily with events surrounding the royal family, is more of a Walking Tour of Westminster or a Royal London Walking Tour.
Our group was a fairly large one, and we started off in Covent Garden, right in front of the Apple Store. The thing about London is that it's been around for quite awhile, so many of the places you can visit today served quite different functions over the years. For instance, Covent Gardens, which was the first real square of the city, has served as farmland, a market, an orchard, a seedy neighborhood, a red-light district, and—its role today—an upscale shopping area. Its name comes from the days back when it served as the vegetable garden for the monks of nearby Westminster Abbey.
Nelson Column/Trafalgar Square
We left Covent Garden and walked down to Trafalgar Square, which is dominated by the 170-foot tall Nelson Column, first erected in 1840 to honor Horatio Nelson. A statue of Nelson, positioned so he forever gazes out to sea, stands atop the column. We'd been in the square a few days earlier, but during this visit Billy gave us the full story behind the Lord Nelson, the Hero of Tralfagar.
Trafalgar, specifically Cape Trafalgar, is a good distance away from London—way down near Cádiz, Spain. It was here that the Battle of Trafalgar was fought in 1805, a battle in which the British Navy, under command of Lord Nelson, proved their superiority on the seas by defeating a superior force of combined French and Spanish warships. When the battle was over the Franco-Spanish fleet had lost 22 ships (2/3 of the its forces), while not a single British ship was lost, a feat that almost immediately elevated Nelson to that status of military legend.
But the British didn't emerge completely unscathed. Lord Nelson, being a proud fellow, wouldn't take off his officer's hat during the battle—and this made him a great and easy target for a certain French sniper who shot him right through his spine. Nelson's body was sealed in a brandy cask and brought back to London, where Nelson's body was treated to an impressive funeral procession before a final ceremony in St. Paul's Cathedral.
From Trafalgar Square, we stopped briefly at the Charles I statue at Charing Cross (the official centrepoint of the city, which we also visited a few days prior) before moving on to Admiralty Arch, the monumental gateway to Buckingham Palace.
The Arch was built in 1912 to honor the memory of Queen Victoria and since its completion has housed various government offices, but it was recently leased out to become a five-star luxury hotel.
Billy asked us if any of us could see an unusual adornment that was attached to the Arch. None of us could (at least not from where we were standing, so after we all conceded defeat, he jogged over to the Arch, dodging cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians, and jumped up to point out ... a nose.
Noses of London
In 1997 artist Rick Buckley made 35 plaster of Paris reproductions of his own nose and installed them on famous buildings throughout London.
We're told only about 10 of these installations remain. We kept a close eye out for them during our time in London, but the only one we saw was the one on Admiralty Arch.
The noses are a bit of social commentary, decrying the prevalence of CCTV cameras throughout London (and they are pretty much everywhere). Buckley installed all of the noses right under the nose of the London's watchful CCTV cameras.
And then we passed through the arch and took a stroll down the red road of the mall, which runs for one mile from the Arch to Buckingham Palace. Along the way we passed a few statues (there are a lot of statues in London), but the most striking was probably the memorial to George VI and Queen Elizabeth, located about half way along the length of the Mall.
The statue of George VI was unveiled in 1955, three years after his death, while Elizabeth, who lived for 50 years after being widowed, was cast in bronze in 2009. After learning that when the Queen Mother died at age 101, she left behind debts of £7 million, which Queen Elizabeth II (the current sovereign) wrote off, we continued on down the mall for a stop at St. James's Palace.
St. James's Palace
St. James's Palace, which was built by Henry VIII in 1536, was the official residence of the sovereign of Great Britain until George III purchased what would become Buckingham Palace (just down the Mall) in 1762.
We spent a little time here watching the guards on patrol as Billy regaled us with the marital misadventures of Henry VIII and his battle with the Roman Catholic church over divorce in his search for a bride who would give him a male heir.
I was hoping we'd go down the street a short distance to see the former site of the Legation for the short-lived Republic of Texas, but we didn't (although I did go back a few days later to see it for myself). Instead, we went back to the Mall and walked down to Buckingham Palace.
As we approached Buckingham Palace, we stopped at the road to Clarence House (the residence of the Prince of Wales) where Billy explained that tourists can no longer stand in front of the guards—that privilege was destroyed by the advent of selfies and the selfie stick (a similar story to what we'd heard when we visited the Presidential Guard in Athens, Greece).
So then we were at Buckingham Palace. As mentioned above, it was purchased by the royal family in 1762 and was known as The Queen's House (because Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III lived there). Beginning in 1837, under the rule of Queen Victoria, it finally became the official residence of the Monarchy and remains so today. In fact, a large gold-topped monument to Queen Victoria, named the Victoria Memorial sits directly in front of the Palace.
The palace boasts 775 rooms and a staff of more than 800 people. There's even an oft-rumored secret tube station under the Palace (well, maybe not "secret" but certainly exclusive) that may or may not exist, depending on who you ask.
Billy told us about that time in 1982 that a gent named Michael Fagan broke into the Palace and wandered around. Despite alarms going off, Fagan managed to make it to the Queen's bedroom and even talked with her before the palace police tracked him down. He was charged with theft—for the bottle of wine he opened and drank.
From there, we crossed the street and ambled thorough the winding paths of the nearby St. James's Park.
St. James's Park
Another product of the era of Henry VIII, St. James's Park is a 57-acre park in the heart of London. It was initially marshland, but King James I expanded it, draining the marsh and turning it into a holding pen for his vast collection of exotic animals. It was remodeled again under King Charles II, and was opened to the public, where it became known as a place for romantic trysts—even for the king himself.
We walked through the park until we came to Horse Guards Rd, the park's eastern border, which is named for the Horse Guards Parade, an open parade ground where jousting tournaments were held during the time of (again) Henry VIII and was once where the Duke of Wellington (you know, the guy who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo) lived and work when he commanded the British Army.
Over the years, the Horse Guards Parade has been a popular place for ceremonies, celebrations, and concerts, but it was never quite as popular as it was during the 2012 Olympics, when it was home to the women's beach volleyball courts.
From our vantage point here, we could also see 10 Downing Street, the headquarters of the British Prime minister, and the top of the London Eye. Billy told us that if we wanted a good view of London, the Eye can certainly give you that—but for a slightly lesser view and a lot less money, he recommended a climb up The Monument (as its called), a tribute to the Great London Fire of 1666.
After leaving the park and continuing down Horse Guards Road, we stopped at the statue to Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India, the man who is credited for almost single-handedly subjugating the Indian sub-continent for Britain, but Billy didn't talk about him.
Instead he talked about the nearby Churchill War Rooms, a museum that used to be the Cabinet War Rooms—underground bunkers where the commanders of the British armed forces operated from during World War II.
The Clock Tower
Of course we talked about the famous neo-classic Gothic revival monument that looms large in London—especially in Westminster. Most people refer to this tall four-faced clock tower as Big Ben, but these days it's officially known as the Clock Tower or the Elizabeth Tower.
Lion & Unicorn
But we didn't know very much about the history of the Lion & Unicorn, the heraldic symbols on the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom until Billy told us that the Lion represented England and the Unicorn represented Scotland. When James I of England ascended to the throne in 1603, he was already James VI of Scotland, and henceforth the two countries were united.
You can probably see the chain attached to the Unicorn—Billy told us that represents Scotland being chained to England. And maybe that's the case, but I can't overlook the fact that the Unicorn (unless tamed by a virgin) is the most ferocious creature in the forest and should always be chained.
As we made our way over to Westminster Abbey, we walked through Parliament Square right past a statue of ... Abraham Lincoln?
This bronze statue, a copy of the original in Chicago's Lincoln Park, was gifted to the people of Britain in 1920.
Westminster Abbey & Palace
And then we were at our final destination of the tour, Westminster Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage site with the really lengthy title of Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret’s Church.
Westminster Abbey is traditionally where the coronations ceremonies for the English and British monarchs have been held—in addition to more than a few weddings and funerals. But the funny thing is that Westminster Abbey is not really an abbey. Nor is it a cathedral. Instead it falls under the classification of something called a "royal peculiar," which, in addition to being a really fantastic name, is a church that directly serves the ruling monarch.
Palace of Westminster
Standing nextto Westmisnter Abbey, we looked across the Old Palace Yard to take in the Palace of Westminster (there sure do seem to be a lot of palaces in London), situated on the bank of the River Thames. This is where where Parliament (comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords) and where one of the most complicated royal assassination attempts almost happened.
Billy likes to end his tours with a bang, so this is where he told us about the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plan, put into motion by a group of wealthy Catholics, was to assassinate the Protestant King James I (and a whole lot of other people) and replace him with a Catholic monarch. This was to be accomplished by filling the labyrinthine tunnels beneath the Westminster Palance with barrels of gunpowder and blowing the place up during the State Opening of Parliament (the only time the monarch is allowed in Parliament) on November 5. This would have not only killed King James and the royal family, but a good many members of the aristocracy.
But the plot was discovered and explosives expert Guy Fawkes was caught literally with his hand on the fuse. He was arrested, of course, and he and his co-conspirators were tortured at the Tower of London (details on that soon), tried for treason, and drawn and quartered. Now before every State Opening, the
And that was that. Like a few of our other Sandeman's tours, this one had no break in the middle, so we were a little hungry. So we took a little walk with Billy and few of our other tour attendees to the Slug and Lettuce for a small snack before we headed off to enjoy further adventures in the city of London.