In my last post, I explained some of the history behind the Tower of London. Obviously, many things look a lot different than they did during the palace and prison and torture days, but there are some things that haven’t changed much.
Certain parts of the Tower have been tourist attractions since the 17th century. One of these is the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept! I made a beeline for the jewels when I got inside because everyone says that the line gets very long later in the day. I don’t know much about precious gemstones and jewelry, but even I could tell that the stuff they have in the Jewel House is ridiculous. They have the coronation crown which weighs 7 pounds. Imagine having to wear that on your head! There’s also the world’s largest clear-cut diamond. It’s 530 carats which means nothing to me but apparently the average size for an engagement ring diamond is around 1 carat, soooo… it’s 530 times that. The oldest object, the anointing spoon used in coronations, is from the 1300s. Most of the other objects are much newer because the originals were melted down when the monarchy was abolished in the English Civil War (1649).
My personal favorite object in the Jewel House was a “punch bowl” that was made of solid gold and, according to the sign, could hold 144 bottles of wine. 144 BOTTLES. Now, I know I’m just a commoner who doesn’t know how anything works, but could someone PLEASE explain to me why that’s necessary?? I couldn’t wrap my head around most of the things in the room, to be honest. The gemstones weren’t that impressive because my brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t rhinestones, they were real. I thought about how people save up to buy gold jewelry… how many rings and necklaces do you think you could make with a 144-bottles-of-wine-sized punch bowl? Insanity.
When I was finished gaping at the jewels, I went on a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders, popularly called Beefeaters (though the origin of that name is unknown), are the keepers of the Tower, responsible for guarding any prisoners (historically) and watching over the crown jewels. There are 37 of them who live within the Tower walls with their families. To qualify, they must have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years and been awarded a good conduct medal. They give free tours throughout the day, explaining the history of and telling stories about the Tower. The whole thing is a kind of theatrical experience and is very well done.
The Tower complex is HUGE. After the Beefeater tour, I checked out the torture devices, walked along the walls, and explored a bunch of different towers before going into the White Tower. Today, it’s filled with exhibitions of armor and weaponry. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in either, but the collection was still impressive which is pretty much the point. Originally, its purpose was to show the monarch’s right to rule and awe visitors.
One of the unsolved mysteries of the Tower of London took place in the White Tower. In 1483, King Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was next in line for the throne, but he was only 12 years old. Edward V’s uncle was put in charge until he was old enough to rule, and he brought Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, to the Tower of London. After their uncle was crowned king, the boys disappeared and were thought to have been murdered, though their bodies were nowhere to be found. In 1674, during some construction work, the bones of two children were found underneath a staircase in the White Tower. They were assumed to be the bones Edward and Richard and were reburied in Westminster Abbey; however, they haven’t been tested to confirm that assumption. And so, the mystery continues.
Another former attraction at the Tower was the “Menagerie”, basically a predecessor of modern-day zoos but way less functional. The royalty used to receive exotic animals as gifts from leaders of other nations (actually, fun fact: the Queen STILL receives animals as gifts – what?!?! – but now they’re sent to the London Zoo). The Tower housed this collection starting the early 13th century, including now-extinct Barbary lions, leopards, a polar bear that used to fish for food in the Thames River, monkeys, bears, an African elephant that was fed wine every day in an attempt to keep it warm (!?!? And then it died after four years because obviously that didn’t work), a hyena, wolves, an ostrich that died from eating too many nails thanks to ignorant visitors who thought ostriches ate iron, birds, snakes that were wrapped in blankets and put on a stove to keep them warm, and more. They weren’t terribly well-kept, partly because the people in charge didn’t know much about how to take care of some of them, and would attack each other and sometimes visitors. The Menagerie was opened to the public in the 18th century, and admission was either 3 half-pence (cents) or a dog or cat to feed to the lions. I promise I didn’t make that up. In the 19th century, the animals were moved to Regent’s Park, now the site of the London Zoo where they are properly cared for.
There are still some animals on the Tower grounds… ravens. Six ravens are kept due to the superstition that if the ravens depart, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will follow. No one is completely sure how or why the superstition and tradition came to be, but there’s no turning back now! The Tower ravens are cared for by one of the Beefeaters, the Ravenmaster. One of the signs said that they each eat 170g of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood each day. So that’s gross. And sometimes, for a special treat, they get a sheep’s heart. Double ew.
By the time I left the Tower, it was about to close, along with everything else I was considering seeing. So much for my ambitious plans for the day! I should have known, though, because never in my life have I gone through a museum quickly.
I made one last stop at Tower Bridge, the famous bridge next to the Tower. Even though the two look similar, the bridge was built during Victorian times (late 1800s). It was required to “blend in” with its surroundings and be built in the Gothic style, hence why it stylistically looks much older than it is. Even though it’s not THAT old comparatively, it’s still pretty impressive that they made an operable bridge 120 years ago that worked for 70 years (the hydraulic system was replaced in the 1970s).
After that, I went snack shopping (my favorite part of travel days!) and headed back to my hostel to get ready to go to the airport. Next stop: Iceland!
I had ambitious plans for my last day in London, and of course, they were way too ambitious. I thought I’d spend maybe four hours at the Tower of London and then I could go to either the National Gallery (one of my favorite London museums) or the Tate Britain (Maddy’s favorite museum which I haven’t been to).
From the very beginning, I failed to follow the plan. I wanted to get there at 9:30 because it opens at 10, but I read that they usually let people in a bit early. I had to pack my stuff up before heading out for the day because I was headed to the airport that night, so I didn’t leave even close to on time. I made it to the Tower around 11:30 and surprisingly still managed to beat the crowds. Maybe people were slowed down because of the dreary weather.
I didn’t know much about the Tower before I went, but now my brain is full. My gosh there’s a lot of history in that place. Here’s where I attempt to summarize masses of information and not bore you to tears…
The White Tower, the central structure in the Tower of London complex, was the first structure built in the mid-11th century by William the Conqueror. He believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne of England, and when it was given to another, he and his army successfully invaded from Normandy. He was declared king in 1066. As a show of his power and in an attempt to intimidate the Londoners, he ordered the construction of the 90-foot-tall tower (with 15’ wide walls!!) which would have been, by far, the tallest building they’d ever seen.
During its early years, the Tower was used as a royal residence and prison for wealthy and high-profile people. Many of the kings were afraid of the people, making the idea of living in an easily-defensible castle very appealing. It did a decent job of keeping people out and a much worse job of keeping people in. In fact, the very first prisoner, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, escaped! As the legend goes, he organized a bit of a party for his guards, got them drunk on wine, and snuck out using a rope that was smuggled in at the bottom of the wine container. He wasn’t the last person to escape either… others successfully bribed the guards to help them out!
The Tower was expanded a few times. An inner ring of walls was constructed and was soon followed up by a second layer of walls, giving it 21 more towers and a moat. Generally, the monarchs who were most concerned with the upkeep of the Tower were the ones who were most disconnected from and fearful of their subjects.
Starting in the 16th century, the Tower was less popular as a residence among the royals, and it transitioned into other roles. Mostly, it became known as a terrifying prison with horrible conditions and widespread torture. In reality, prisoners were still generally of high-status, were imprisoned for only short time periods, and with enough money, could live in comfort. Torture, while rare, did happen. There were less than 50 recorded incidents of torture at the Tower, but the methods were rather brutal. The most well-known method (though not often used) is probably the rack, where a person’s wrists and ankles are fastened and pulled in opposite directions, stretching the body and dislocating the joints. Another less-used contraption compresses the body by pushing down on the back of someone curled up with their shins on the ground. Others were put in shackles, sometimes hanging from the ceiling. One of the most famous people tortured at the Tower was Guy Fawkes who was part of a plot to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605 (if you’ve seen the movie V for Vendetta, you’re probably familiar with his name).
Many of the prisoners held in the Tower were eventually executed, either by hanging or beheading. The majority were taken to a nearby hill (Tower Hill) where their deaths were public spectacles. A select few were given the honor of being killed inside the Tower walls on Tower Green, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Apparently, out of “kindness”, he hired an expert swordsman for her execution (to me, “kindness” is a strong word in this situation because he still had her killed…), ensuring that she would be successfully beheaded on the first strike. In other cases, it wasn’t uncommon for the executioner to have to take a few swings before hitting accurately enough to kill the person. That. Sounds. HORRIBLE. I read somewhere that executioners didn’t perform enough executions to become truly skilled (I guess that’s a good thing) and were probably a little drunk because how else could you do that job?
In the 1800s, the moat was filled in with dirt because the water was gross, and people were getting sick from it. The Tower was used to hold prisoners for the last time during WWI and WWII, and some were executed by firing squad within the Tower walls. The final execution was of a German spy in 1941.
Now, the Tower is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and is a huge tourist attraction. I’ll tell you about my visit in my next post…
Here we go, back at it! To reorient you, we’re in England. I spent a few nights in Bristol on the suggestion of a random couple I met in Georgia, and while I was there, I did a couple of day trips: one to Bath and one to my final random-stranger-selected destination of the UK, Cardiff. Here’s where I once again embarrass myself by admitting that the only thing I knew about Cardiff was that it’s in Wales, and I only knew THAT because the previously-mentioned random strangers told me as much. It took me more than half the day to realize that Cardiff isn’t just some city in Wales, it’s the capital. Only slightly more embarrassing is the fact that I learned this from the city buses, branded as, “capital transport for our capital city”. Oops. On the bright side, travelling alone means less talking which means less opportunity for me to accidentally say something stupid before I figure things out.
For anyone confused by the whole UK/Great Britain/England thing, here’s a five-second explanation. England is a country. Great Britain is the name of the island that contains the primary land area of England, Wales, and Scotland. The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a collection of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. London is the capital city of both England and the UK as a whole. The UK countries have the same currency, military, and overall government (the Queen, Prime Minister, and the two Parliamentary houses), but they are four distinct countries with their own smaller executive governments, education systems, cultures, flags, and even languages. There are four Celtic languages spoken in various parts of the UK. In Wales, about 20% of the population can speak Welsh. Fun side fact: the blue, white, and red UK flag is the one you’re probably most familiar with. It’s a combination of the flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
That was more than five seconds, I know, but even that is a SUPER simplified explanation. The full details are enough to make your brain explode. Now that we have the essentials covered, here we go. Once again, I was advised that the best way to get to my destination from Bristol was the train. I still don’t understand how the train can possibly be the cheapest option, but I’m not going to question it!
When I walked out of the station in Cardiff, I had this feeling that I couldn’t completely understand… I felt like I had been there before. Things seemed familiar. Since I had definitely never been to Wales, I disregarded my feeling and kept moving. But still, it was disconcerting.
My initial thoughts:
Wow it really does look different than England! (*facepalm* at my ignorant past self)
There are so many flags here! Guess they don’t want you to forget that you’re in Wales! (Yeah, plus it’s the capital… silly Lara.)
Is that Welsh on those signs? Whatttttt? HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT?
Hm… sooo where should I go?
I guess maybe I should’ve done some planning beyond flagging things on Google maps on the train ride from Bristol. It’s hard to plan when you’re going somewhere new every day! So maybe it wasn’t my best-planned day, but I knew I at least had to go to Cardiff Castle and decided that the rest would work itself out.
I have a never-fail strategy for times when I don’t know where to go: Look at the people around you, and walk like you have a clue. I followed the crowd, impulsively turned into a cool-looking building, and found myself in the central market! Okay, so I didn’t actually realize that’s where I was until after I walked out… Whoops! Thank you, GPS and Google maps. But it was on my list of things to see, so be impressed with my intuition and natural directional abilities. The market has two levels – the ground floor and a balcony that wraps around the perimeter. It’s been around since 1891, and the stalls sell a WIDE range of things, from produce and prepared food to souvenirs and vintage vinyl (side note: in case you were wondering, there is such a thing as NON-vintage vinyl. Apparently, vinyl is making a comeback and you can actually get records for new music). I had fun just walking around and checking out the offerings.
From there, I made my way to Cardiff Castle, popping into St. John the Baptist City Parish Church along the way (I think they need a few more words in that name. Way too short).
The first known fortification at the site of the castle was a 3rd-century Roman fortress, but there were probably smaller Roman defenses there starting in the 1st century. It still blows my mind that the Roman Empire stretched all the way to Wales. I know it was huge, but like… whoa. After that, a castle was built on the site in the 11th century. Throughout the years, it was held by various forces and owners who all made their own additions and modifications. It didn’t become the property of the city of Cardiff until almost 1950!
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (just kidding… I’m sure I’ve mentioned this at least 100 times), but I LOVE CASTLES. Sometimes when I say that, especially in front of jaded backpackers who have been wandering around Europe for far too long, the response is an eye roll, a knowing smile, and the question, “How long have you been in Europe?” Their assumption is that I haven’t spent much time in Europe because if I HAD, I would be bored with castles like they are because EVERY town has a castle and they think they’re all the same and oh how cute that this little amateur traveler still finds castles exciting. You know what I have to say to those people? I have been to A LOT of castles, and guess what? I still think they’re all exciting. And a lot of churches. And I’ve walked a lot of bridges and visited a lot of cities and seen a lot of amazing views… but I’m not sick of any of those either. I think that if you’re sick of those things, you need to go back to wherever you lost your “awe” glasses and put them back on because the fact that other amazing places exist doesn’t make the one you’re at any LESS amazing. End rant. Sorry. I had to get that out. But seriously. If you’re travelling and you’re not surprised or amazed by anything, take a pause and check yourself because the world is freaking incredible. Okay, NOW I’m finished.
Like I was saying, I LOVE CASTLES. Even better if you can walk along the walls because my favorite thing to do (feel free to judge me for this) is walk along the walls and pretend I’m a princess. Or better yet, a queen. (As I get older, I more often go in the queen direction.)
I had no idea how many parts there were to the castle complex. After my regal wall-stroll, I went INSIDE the walls. During World War II, the walls were used as air-raid shelters and could hold almost 2,000 people! As an important port city, Cardiff was heavily bombed during WWII, killing hundreds of civilians. In case you had trouble imagining that terrifying experience, there was a soundtrack that included air-raid sirens and planes flying overhead. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it felt. Total darkness. Stale air heavy with fear. Silence except for the sound of breathing and the occasional cry of a child. Feeling completely powerless. I started feeling claustrophobic and had to go outside.
After leaving the walls, I climbed up to the keep. The current structure was built in the 12th century, and for those of you unfamiliar with castle terminology, was the main stronghold of the castle. This one is basically just a very tall stone cylinder on top of a very natural-looking hill (or motte), and from the top, there’s a nice view of the city.
The last building inside the castle walls is the “House” (their words), or more accurately, the mansion. The first structure was built in the early 1400s, but practically every subsequent owner made modifications, giving it a strong architectural-collage vibe.
The inside of the mansion was predictably lavish, but the décor was surprisingly varied. There was one room called the “Arab Room” that was definitely not what I was expecting to find in Wales. Then, the next second, I was in the banqueting hall that looks like the set of a movie in the Middle Ages where people are meant to be swigging beers and slamming their glasses down on the table. There’s also an absolutely amaaaaazinggg library where I wanted to touch everything and, of course, was allowed to touch nothing.
I was all castled-out after I finished walking through the “House”, so I started the long walk to my next destination, Llandaff Cathedral. To be honest, I have no idea why I decided to go there. I saw it on the map, decided it might be nice to walk around a bit, and apparently wasn’t deterred by the fact that it was three miles away… ha. I tried to at least pick a scenic route through some parks, and I saw lots of normal people doing normal things. That’s another one of my favorite things to do when I’m travelling: wander into the parts of the city where regular people live life.
The cathedral was massive and beautiful, as expected. The current building isn’t actually that old because it was built after WWII when the previous building was severely damaged. I wandered through the church and around the nearby neighborhood before heading back into town.
I still had a few things that I wanted to see down on the waterfront, but when it started drizzling and I was near the train station anyway, I decided to call it a day. Plus, my feet were hurting. A couple minutes later, I patted myself on the back for a well-made decision because it started POURING rain. No, thank you!
At the end of the day, after all of my wandering across the universe, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been to Wales before. The houses, the terrain, the names of places… everything seemed too familiar. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized the reason why. Many of the early settlers of the area where I grew up in Pennsylvania were from Wales. In fact, the Welsh Quakers were granted a large tract of land west of Philadelphia and even attempted to make it a separate county with a local government that operated in Welsh. They established settlements with Welsh names, some of which have carried on until today, such as Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Berwyn, etc. If you’re looking at those words and wondering how the heck you pronounce them, exactly.
So, there you have it. The very long story of how I went all the way to Wales just to realize that I could have walked around at home and gotten the same effect.