The Tower Of London

It’s a new year, and I haven’t written a single post yet!  Time to change that.

So remember that time last fall when I went to London?  Remember how I was going to tell you about my favorite castle, the Tower of London?  And then I told you about board game cupcakes and biscotti with booze in them instead? (P.S. As a side note, I also made some pound cake with Amaretto in it this past weekend which was also pretty fantastic)

Well it’s time to revisit the iconic Tower of London.

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As a stroke of luck, Michael and I thought the Tower opened earlier than it did, so we had some time to kill, and ended up on the banks of the Thames just as the Tower Bridge was opening to allow a ship through.  This used to happen like 400 times a day, but now only happens about 400 times a year. Couldn’t have timed it better if we’d tried.

William the Conqueror built the original building of the Tower complex, the White Tower, back in the 1070s.  The grounds and buildings were expanded and added to by future monarchs.  Over the years the Tower has been used as a prison, a royal residence, scaffold site, and home of the Crown Jewels.

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A word to the wise, and a helpful tip from Rick Steves, beeline it to the crown jewels as soon as you make it in.  Michael and I lucked out.  The day we were there, we got right in, but apparently some days you have to wait in line two hours for a chance to see them.  Once you’re in, there’s a “conveyor belt” moving sidewalk thing that takes you past the jewels.  It’s good that it moves because it keeps the crowd moving, so you don’t have to wait forever for people to get out of the way.  There’s one that goes by both the front and back of the jewels.  Michael and I rode them both multiple times.  One viewing just isn’t enough to take in all that sparklyness!  The crowns are the real deal.  They reminded me of the crowns I’ve seen monarchs wear in cartoons.  All purple velvet, trimmed in fur with huge diamonds and precious stones all over them.  Very impressive.  My favourites were the Imperial State Crown and the Imperial Crown of India.  Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures of them, but pictures wouldn’t do them justice anyway.  You can see what the crowns look like here.

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Other highlights of the Tower include the Beefeater Tours.  These tours are given by the Yeoman Warders, retired officers from the army who live inside the Tower and have been given the nickname Beefeaters.  Very entertaining, and a great way to learn about the history of the Tower.

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I was especially interested to see the scaffold memorial.  Only the most prestigious criminals lost their head at this site, and only six executions actually took place here.  Two of King Henry VIII’s wives, Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and seventeen year old Lady Jane Grey, the nine days Queen, being three of them.  These women’s tragic stories have always fascinated me.  I remember reading a book in middle school about Lady Jane.  At the time, I never thought that someday I would actually go to the site where she was beheaded.

My other favorite display was in the Bloody Tower.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love Philippa Gregory books, and my favorite ones tell the stories of the women involved in the War of the Roses, also known as the Cousin’s War.  My favorite King and Queen, Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville, had two sons.  After Edward IV past away due to illness, his thirteen year old son Edward V was to become King.  His uncle Richard III locked him and his younger brother in the Tower, where the boys went missing and were never seen again, and Richard became King himself.  It’s not known exactly what happened to the boys, but some believe that Richard murdered them to strengthen his claim to the throne.

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I loved my visit to the Tower, and I’m so glad we were there one of the few days it was actually sunny when we were in London.  It’s a place so full of history.  There’s nothing like actually visiting a place you’ve read about in books.  Make sure you include it in your London itinerary.

Castles and Palaces

Best thing about England?  The Royals!

While Will and Kate and baby Georgie are pretty cool and Kate has wicked style (I wish I had her poise and grace and wardrobe), it’s the Kings and Queens from back in the day that really interest me.  The scheming!  The romance!  The scandals!  Maybe we can blame my romanticized impression of the medieval monarchs on all the Philippa Gregory books I’ve read?  It’s horrendous, I know, but most of my knowledge about England’s royal past is based on historical fiction.  At least these works are based on facts.  The author just takes creative liberties when filling in the holes that historians left out.

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

And royals live in castles!  And castles are pretty!  And every time I was reading a historical fiction book this summer and it mentioned being at one of the castles I was planning on visiting in September, I got really excited!

There are so many castles in England!  I didn’t possibly have enough time to see them all during my nine day vacation.  It was really hard narrowing it down.

Michael and I decided to visit Windsor Castle, Leeds Castle, the Tower of London, and Hampton Court Palace.  We did at least get a view of Dover Castle from the shore.  And while in London we also saw Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace.  I loved the Tower so much, I’m saving it for a future post.

View of Dover Castle

View of Dover Castle

View of Buckingham Palace

View of Buckingham Palace

Gate at Buckingham Palace

Gate at Buckingham Palace

View of Kensington Palace

View of Kensington Palace

Windsor Castle is the longest occupied palace in Europe.  It’s the current weekend home of the Queen.  When she’s there, they fly her Royal Standard.  We visited on a Sunday, but she wasn’t home.  Apparently she was in Scotland at Balmoral Castle on vacation.

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The State Apartments are very grand.  I think it was the first time I’ve ever seen a real suit of armour.  Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside so I have none to show you.

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St. George’s Chapel is within the Windsor Castle complex.  It is the final resting place for Henry VIII and Edward IV, my favorite king.  More about him when we discuss the Tower.  As the Chapel is a place of worship, it is only open to worshippers on Sunday, so that meant I didn’t get to go inside.

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Leeds made the castle must-see list because it’s known as one of the loveliest castles in England.  The castle is pretty much surrounded by a lake.  Very picturesque.

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The original stone castle was built by a Norman baron during the reign of Henry I.  In 1278, Queen Eleanor of Castille, the first wife of Edward I, took possession of it, and it remained a royal residence for the next 300 years.  It then became a private home again.  Can you imagine living in a castle?

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Now, not only is the castle open to the public, but they have wedding packages available so you could get married at the castle.  Your wedding pictures would be amazing!

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We visited Windsor as part of a day trip that also went to Stonehenge and Bath, and Leeds was part of a tour that also went to Dover, Canterbury, and Greenwich and included a river cruise along the Thames.  We chose to do these tours because they took us to places outside of London and allowed us to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.  The downfall was I felt rushed pretty much everywhere.  I definitely didn’t feel like there was enough time at the castles.  The tours probably only spent about an hour and a half to two hours at each place.  I could have wandered around the grounds at Leeds for a lot longer.  Keep this in mind if your traveling.  It’s a trade off between convenience and the freedom to choose how you spend your time.

Hampton Court Palace is about a thirty minute train ride from London.  We spent the better part of a day here.  I’m glad we had the freedom to explore it on our own.  The gardens were beautiful!  My favorite gardens we saw while in England.

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Tudor in the front

It is also interesting to see how the architecture style is so different in the front of the palace compared to the back.  The front was built for Henry VIII in the Tudor style, and the back is Baroque, expanded by King William III in the 1600’s in an attempt to create a palace that rivalled Versailles.  I’ve been to Versailles, and in my opinion, I would say he didn’t succeed.  Versailles felt more luxurious to me.  But I still loved Hampton Court Palace!

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Baroque in the back

There was an interesting temporary exhibit on the Royal Bed Chamber while we were there.  Another permanent feature are the Tudor kitchens.  They’re set up as if preparing for a feast.  Besides the gardens, that was my favorite part.

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No trip to England is complete without seeing a few castles and palaces.  I hope this post gives you a little taste of some of the possibilities.

Let’s Catch Up… Across the Pond and Back

Welcome to October folks!  I’m hoping that you’re enjoying weather as lovely as I am, wherever you are.  I’ve enjoyed a few sunny and 21ºC days in the last two weeks.  I’ll take it!  Now, if it only stayed like this until Christmas, I’d be one happy camper.

What have I been up to since I last blogged?  Well, I made it to the Matchbox 20/Goo Goo Doll concert and fulfilled a 90’s music dream of mine.  Hearing Push, 3AM, and Long Day (which has long been my I-had-a-crappy-day-at-work song) was amazing!  And Slide… oh my heart sang!  Although I was a little disappointed the Goos didn’t do Name.  My friend went to their concert in a different city the night before and she said they performed it there.  Ah well, what can you do?

I’ve also been to supper with an old roommate from University who I haven’t seen in years, a wedding, a bachelorette party for my sister’s friend (who coincidentally happens to be the sister of my friend), a birthday party, a wedding reception, and an Oktoberfest potluck.  That’s like more social outings than I did in all of last year combined in just a little over a month.

And most importantly, I’ve been to LONDON!

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For the last three years, Michael and I have been fortunate enough to jet off to Europe for a week or two in September (you may remember last year when I went on and on about France).  Our birthdays are both in September (a day apart actually), and this year Michael was turning the big 3-0 so he got the final say in this year’s trip destination.  We had less vacation time to work with… or so we thought until this summer when an extra week of vacation magically showed up on our pay stubs.  Hooray for being a responsible employed adult for five years!  You get more vacation time!  It was too late to change the fall’s travel plans, but don’t you worry.  We’ll put those precious days to good use in the spring.  I hear Maui calling…

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Back to the relevant.  So London it was.  One of the great European cities, easily explored in ten days, and there was a direct flight.  Plus, they speak English, so we’d be able to communicate with the locals.  An excellent destination for our first European vacation without Trafalgar… the tour company… not the battle or the square.  The square we saw, and the battle I learned about in Portsmouth.

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

We decided on staying in London and doing a couple of day trips from there.  It was really nice not having to pack up and change hotels every couple of days like you do on a bus tour.  We did two full day bus tours with a tour company, one to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath, and the other to Leeds Castle, Dover, Canterbury, and Greenwich, and used England’s excellent train system to get us to Portsmouth and Hampton Court Palace.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

It’s so easy to get around in London!  Their subway system is amazing!  We took the tube everywhere.  Michael was really on the ball and ordered us pre-loaded Oyster cards for the tube before we left.  You preload your card with money and just swipe it on your way in and way out of the tube station and it automatically charges you the lowest fare.  If you need to, you can add more money to it.  The cards were delivered to us at home in Canada before we left, so when we got off the plane at Heathrow we simply swiped our cards to get into the tube station, and off we were to Central London without waiting in any lines.  Very convenient.  Smartest travel move ever.

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Buckingham Palace

We stayed in Leicester Square.  This is a great location!  Very close to the Piccadilly Line of the tube, which takes you almost everywhere.  There are also lots of restaurants, pubs, and shopping nearby, as well as being located close to Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery.  It’s also in the theatre district, so many of the musicals are close by.  The only downfall is that with all those pubs comes noisy drunks, and some nights we did get woken up by noisy partiers outside.  It didn’t really bother me too much.  Not a deal breaker for me.

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Stay tuned to hear more about what I saw and my favourite places!