London, Day 7

Occasionally, in the course of activities, it becomes a necessity to cave to one’s sense of decorum and propriety and do that which must be done, that which is expected of one. Today I followed that dictum, and took the Circle line (packed like a sardine), with only my pointy Addi bamboo circular needles to protect me, all the way to the Tower Hill stop.

The Tower of London.

I’ve been to London before, but always the Tower was too busy, too packed, too expensive, too touristy to make a point of visiting. Today it was all of those things as well. But, well, I felt it was time. Also, the Boy and I have read about English history a lot over the last few years and I felt I owed it to him to bring him home photos of the White Tower at least.

The sun was shining, it was cool and bright outside as I emerged from the Tube and the underground tunnel that leads up to the Tower. I experienced a little thrill each time I saw pieces of Roman wall, fenced off and sitting there like it wasn’t, you know, history. I mean, gum wrappers could get blown in there! Rain! People might cough on them. Pigeons?

The area around the Tower was crawling with tourists. I know they were tourists because a good deal of them were speaking French or Japanese or German and waving brochures around. Since I wasn’t doing any of those things, I must not be a tourist? No, I am. And funny enough, I feel safer taking pictures of things in a crowd of tourists than I do just wandering along the street. I don’t know what it is, but this trip I feel more fearful wandering around by myself than I ever have before. It’s an attitude I’ve picked up from some travel book or resource somewhere and I don’t like it. I remember traveling by myself and stopping to take odd photos that I love looking at even now. But now? I’m fearful, lest I be targeted as a tourist and attacked and stripped of all my worldly goods. Imagine a cloud of buzzards and a tasty bit of roadkill. It’s a frustrating attitude, and one I’d like to shake.

In any case, when you are in a crowd of tourists you are just one more camera, but! But! You are taking photos of the exact same things.

Ah, well. The Tower itself is an amazing place, a community with its own live-in population whose purpose, it seems, is to protect the past and mediate the experiences of thousands of people per day (I asked). There are actually 20 towers that together make up the Tower, and many of them have very interesting stories of blood and murder, treason and terror, and the fear of those involved that at any point you will be attacked and stripped of all your worldly goods (that would be either the prisoners or the ruling monarch of the day).

While the masses milled (and I know that I milled right along with them, no pride, me), I was able to find the occasional bit of wonderful that made me skip a bit. Again there were fragments of Roman walls inside. Just sitting there. Hello? Did anyone hear me say pigeons? And then there was the Crown Jewels display. Now, the jewels themselves were pretty fabulous, especially the sapphire on the back of the Imperial State crown that is about the size of my eyeglass lens and cloudy, like a chunk of sea. This I could imagine being mined, being held up to the light and admired by a crowd of dusty, muddy miners. Washed, gently, and cut to the minimum of necessity. Presented to the queen’s court, or perhaps acquired by the queen’s jeweler. It felt like a jewel that was held in someone’s hand before being set.

I was set a-shiver, however, by the coronation stole. I’ve been reading a lot about Wales lately, in preparation for the trip, and while I’m not at all as well versed in its history and culture as I’d like, it is my understanding that the Welsh people are very independent in spirit, especially when it comes to the English and to being part of Britain. I came up to the case that holds the enormous coronation robe and next to it, the coronation stole, and as such things are, they were covered in symbols. The robe had things that were obvious: lions, roses (for England), thistles (for Scotland), and an odd ribbonlike shape that could be thought to look like a shamrock. I turned and asked the docent/guard about it, and she was quite voluble. Not only did she laugh and tell me that it was a shamrock, but she brought me up close to the stole and told me about all the symbols on it. It seems that running up and down the length of the stole are floral symbols for Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Ceylon, as well as the flags of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick (which laid upon one another and futzed a bit make the Union Jack). Running along on both sides are red embroidered buttons symbolizing St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. At the bottom are, again, the thistle, the rose, the shamrock… and the leek.

Ah, I thought. The leek is for Wales. At the same time I thought, why hasn’t Wales been mentioned until now? As if reading my thoughts, the guide said, “Wales was going to be represented with its national flower as well, the daffodil, but they thought the yellow would blend too much with the gold embroidery, so they put the leek. They don’t usually put Wales on these kinds of things, you know, because we have Princes of Wales. Wales is thought of as more like a principality of England, than its own country.” She was quite unconsciously dismissive, and I thought of my conversations over the weekend, about the independent spirit of the Welsh, and could just hear the mutterings of dissent that might have begun after that comment…

Well, after that I did tour the White Tower and see its armaments and hear its history and it is a monument worth seeing. There were garderobes and oddly shaped fireplaces and stone cut and set in William I’s day. The chapel. The room where 47 soldiers would bathe, watched by their regent, until he made the sign of the cross on their wet backs and they were allowed to dry and dress for battle. I wanted to sit down and take it all in, but the flow of humanity around me kept me moving until, almost without my own volition, I found myself out on the plaza that surrounds the tower, surrounded myself by the gift shops and memorabilia emporia that make up such places. And I wanted money (I’d spent all mine on yarn) and food.

After using the ATM while surrounded by disaffected smoking German youth, I took the Tube back to the hotel to a lovely surprise: Not 1/8 mile from my hotel is a little bakery cafe called Le Pain Quotidien. They seem to be a chain, but the kind of chain that has one shop here, one in Belgium, one in New York… I don’t care. They had organic dishes, fresh vegetable soup, fresh bread and hot tea and were so kind. My legs were shaking, shaking! I ate, and read a magazine, and didn’t really want to get up after eating my quiche and olive tapenade and salad and tea. I purchased a cup of tea to take away and made my way back to my room, where I promptly collapsed. It was 5:30pm, and I was not going anywhere. And now, as I sit in my pajamas at not 8pm, tissues covering the coverlet and toes frozen, I can admit that the sniffing isn’t city air and the sore throat isn’t damp: I have a cold, and it’s time for an early evening in.

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One thought on “London, Day 7

  1. We ate at Le Pain Quotidien in NYC–I think there are a couple there–and really enjoyed it too.

    Most of what I know about Welsh culture I’ve recently gotten from volume 1 of Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants and the TV show Gavin & Stacy. There are a few historical gaps there. 😉 But I do recommend both for some more glimpses into Welsh identity.

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