Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Londonton Abbey - Day 4

In case you missed it:
Londonton Abbey - Days 1 and 2 (flying and Hever Castle)
Londonton Abbey - Day 3 (Hampton Court Palace)

Wednesday, May 9th we started with The Tower of London (which was included in the the Historic Royal Palaces Membership that we bought at Hampton Court Palace).  This was our second favorite sight of our trip.  It looks so... fortress-y.  It also looks like T is wearing a tiny pointy hat.  Haha.

Another blurry photo taken by someone else.  These are the yeoman warders (aka beefeaters) who guard the Tower of London and give tours.  Interesting combo, no?  (We asked why they are called beefeaters and really no knows how or why it started, but it stuck).

The first thing we did was go check out the crown jewels.  Unfortunately, no photos are allowed, but let me tell you:  Those things sparkle like nobody's business.  They make the Hope Diamond look like a child's dress-up jewelry.  Seriously.  No photo even comes close to capturing the shine of these because they were truly blinding.  This one is the Imperial State Crown (photo from hrp.org).  It just has over 3,000 precious stones, no biggie.  (This is nothing compared to the Imperial Crown of India which has over 6,000 precious stones!  It weighs over 5 pounds!)

Actually, this crown wasn't there - the case was empty.  We asked why, and it was because the Queen was wearing it that day to open Parliament!  I can't believe that we didn't know about it and missed our chance to see the Queen in her natural habitat (aka a crown and a carriage)!  Since we had the membership we decided to come back later in the week to see the crown.

The sovereign's scepter was also really cool.  This is just the top portion, but it is blinged out all the way down.  You have to see this in person to believe it.  That huge center diamond is the largest perfect cut diamond in the world.  I'm not even kidding when I say it is the size of a large lemon.    It was mind blowing.  (photo from here)

The main room in the Crown Jewels exhibit has two moving sidewalks on either side of the jewels.  This is actually a really smart by the museum to keep the crowds moving.  There is also a viewing platform you can stand on behind the moving sidewalk.  I can't believe how many people just let the moving sidewalk take them along then just passed into the next room.  We seriously went down the moving sidewalk six times and spent about 15 minutes on the platform just admiring everything.  I really recommend going up onto the platform.  There are some signs with interesting facts about each piece, PLUS the yeoman warders are super nice and knowledgeable about every single thing you could think to ask about the crown jewels.  We learned A LOT.

It's incredible to think that the coronation regalia (the coronation crown, the scepter, and the orb) have been used by the monarchy since at least the 1600's and the anointing spoon is from the 12th century! Talk about feeling the weight of your ancestors on you when you are coronated as monarch!

This is the Queen's Jubilee Crystal Diamond (it's the thing encircled by the crown), which apparently will be used to light the national beacon during her Diamond Jubilee.  The Brits (or at least those in the Greater London area) are REALLY into the Diamond Jubilee.  About half of the souvenirs we saw in any given shop had to do with the Jubilee.

The White Tower
Inside the White Tower of the Tower of London was the Royal Armoury / weapons exhibit.  The White Tower is pretty impressive just by itself - it was built in 1078 (yes! 700 years before the American Revolution!) and is the central and largest tower in the Tower of London.

These are the largest (for a 6'7" man) and smallest (for a three year old boy) suits of armor in the world.  They are also really old. You know – like most of the stuff in London.

This Native American head dress was a gift from the Queen of America.  No, not really.  That is a variation on a quote by Porthos from the 1993 "Three Musketeers" movie.  It just made me really happy to see something from America.  USA!  USA!  USA!

It's hard to tell, but this is a completely blinged out handgun.  It's like someone let an 8 year old girl just go crazy on it with her bedazzler.

These are the apartments on the Tower of London premises where the yeoman warders live.  Also, note the smoke.  That was from cannons / guns for the 41 gun salute for the Queen opening Parliament.  I'm not really sure of the significance of 41 here.

Ummm... there was this cool dragon thing made of weapons and shields and stuff... so we took a picture.  That is all.

One of many spiral staircases throughout the Tower of London palace.

The old armory in the Tower of London

So this guy is stationed out front of the Crown Jewels exhibit.  When we went in I really thought he was a mannequin because he was so pasty and still so I was rather surprised when we passed by again and he was marching in front of his little hut!

A horribly ill fitting bearskin hat at the Tower of London gift shop.  The ones we saw later at Buckingham Palace were much nicer, but it was also a much classier joint and I didn't dare try one on there.

NOT the London Bridge.  This is actually Tower Bridge right outside of the Tower of London.  The London Bridge is actually the next bridge west, and it is a smaller, very normal looking thing.

This is Steve, the yeoman warder who gave our tour.  He was wonderful.  If you go to the Tower of London, take a tour.  They are wonderful!

You might notice that his outfit is different from the yeoman warders photo at the beginning of this post.  The red uniforms are the dress uniforms that they wear for formal occasions (like the Queen opening Parliament!) and after they change back into their regular uniforms, like the one Steve is wearing.

You might also notice the E II R on his belly.  We saw this E II R thing a lot of different places throughout London - post office drop boxes, buildings, uniforms, buttons on uniforms, souvenirs - and couldn't figure out what it meant.  Eventually we discovered that it stands for Elizabeth the Second Regina (regina is Latin for queen) and that when she dies EVERYTHING that has E II R on it will be replaced with the new monarch's initials ASAP.  If Prince Charles doesn't change his name, his initials will be C III R (Charles the Third Rex (Latin for king)).  I'm just saying that's gotta cost a lot of money to replace everything that's gone up in the last 60 years with E II R on it, not to mention changing the money to have Charles' face on in instead of Elizabeth's.

Since we were already planning to come back later in the week to see the Crown Jewels again, we didn't see everything at The Tower of London before we left.  We had lunch at Subway across the street then headed to St. Paul's Cathedral.  You know, the same St. Paul's Cathedral from the Mary Poppins song "Feed the Birds."  Also, the same St. Paul's Cathedral in which Princess Diana married Prince Charles.  Photos were not allowed at all inside.

We got there a bit late and were concerned that we wouldn't be able to see everything, so we started by climbing the steps of St. Paul's Dome.  The audio tour was pretty interesting and to save time we listened to a few selections while we climbed.

I went all the way up to the Golden Gallery and T stopped at the Stone Gallery.  Even though T doesn't really do heights, the climb was just like a regular staircase (narrower, though) and the fence around the outside is very tall and has lots of bars so he felt fine.   Look how safe it was.  Pay no attention to the fact that we forgot to take off our audio guides.

A lot of the climb between the Stone and Golden Galleries is a wrought iron spiral staircase (aka you can see all the way down beneath it and to either side) so it's probably good that T didn't come all the way to the top with me.  The view from the outside of the Golden Gallery is pretty much the same as the view from the Stone Gallery, so if you're feeling tired or are scared of heights you don't miss too much by skipping the Golden Gallery.  Though, at the top of the Golden Gallery is a one foot glass covered hole in the floor and you can see all the way to the cathedral floor and that was pretty cool.

T took these photos from the Stone Gallery.

I was sore the next day from all the steps.  But we just didn't do steps in St. Paul's - there are SO many steps in all of the tube stations.  They are so much further underground than the NYC subway stations!  We did so many stairs in tube stations and museums that by the end of the trip every time we saw a set of stairs I was thinking, "Stairs!  My old nemesis!"

The virtual tour from the official St. Paul's Cathedral website is really cool and pretty much shows everything we saw.  I would recommend checking out the main page it starts you on, the whispering gallery, and the view from the top if you are interested in seeing what we saw.

I think the Cathedral is quite beautiful.  It's all just so... white and light colored and sparkly.  It really is gorgeous.  Westminster Abby's interior (which we saw on day 5) is much darker by comparison.  T and I didn't really care at all for the crypt.  It's like an indoor graveyard, which is of course what it is, but it didn't feel special or look special or anything like that.

We decided to stay for Evensong after the Cathedral closed to tourists and that was a huge mistake.  Neither of us had been to an Evensong before so we didn't really know what to expect.  We sort of thought it would be organ and choir music.  And it sort of was, but mostly it was some prayers and a short sermon and a bit of the boy's choir singing and a lot of boring.  The songs weren't that pretty - the acoustics were such that it was impossible to tell what the lyrics were even though we had a printed copy right in front of us!  Really the best part was the organ music as we were leaving.

We left and headed to Millennium Bridge and saw that the Thames River was dirty - shock.  (I wrote Tems the first time because that is how it is pronounced!)  I actually expected the Thames to be worse than it was because Parliament, which sits literally on the river bank, has closed before because the stench of the river was so bad.

While we were walking on the Millennium Bridge there was someone dressed in a crown and a dress and a Queen Elizabeth mask and waving.  That person came up and gave T a hug (and he hugged them back, sort of) then continued walking and waving.  Quite strange. 

Then we took the tube to Parliament and Big Ben for photos.  You can go inside Big Ben, but only if you are a UK citizen and book it way far in advance.  So obviously T and I just did photos.

See, they really do love their royalty.  They even have royal lamp posts.

Parliament is one LOOOONG building.  That is the Thames literally right up against the side of the building.

And a royal fence here!

We passed the Cenotaph on our way to dinner at McDonald's (quite a walk) then headed home.  If you recall from the most recent Royal Wedding, the Cenotaph is where William saluted and Kate bowed her head as they passed in the carriage.

The fast food menus in the UK are not the same as fast food menus in the states.  In fact, at most places you would be hard pressed to find an actual menu, they just have the newest promotions up.  Here I am enjoying a Starburst flavored milkshake and Chicago style burger (basically a burger plus bacon) at McDonald's.

Fast food places are also interesting because at many places there are no trash cans and you don't bus your own table.  You just leave everything at your table and an employee comes around to pick it all up.  I don't know if this is because they are trying to keep people from scrounging in the trash for food or what.  Actually, one of our British observations is that it is hard to find a trash can anywhere.  We had a hard time finding one in Heathrow when we arrived, there are none on the streets or tube or rail stations or in restaurants.  It's very strange.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Londonton Abbey - Day 3

In case you missed it:
Londonton Abbey - Days 1 and 2

Day 3 we visited Hampton Court Palace, which was our absolute favorite sight on our whole trip.  So there are a TON of photos.  Just get ready.

Tuesday May 8th we caught the train from Edenbridge to London Bridge then took two underground trains to our hotel.  Once again T was so good to schelp our luggage all over London.  Luckily, our hotel was less than a block from our underground stop.  That was seriously one of the best decisions we made about our trip.  Our hotel let us check in early (11:30 instead of 4:00!) so we didn't have to drop our luggage at the Waterloo train station "left luggage" because that would have been pricey.

Since we already had a one day travel pass for zones 1-6 to get from Edenbridge / Hever Castle to London (most of the touristy stuff is in the heart of London aka zones 1 and 2 which matters for what travel pass you get) we went to Hampton Court Palace which is in zone 6.  We were at our hotel for literally five minutes before we hopped back on the tube, grabbed a quick McDonald's lunch, then caught a train to get to Hampton Court Palace.

If you go to London, you MUST see Hampton Court Palace, even though it is a bit further away than everything else.  It is SO worth it!

We bought the Historic Royal Palaces joint membership which gets two people into five different palaces in the London area.  It was pricey, but actually saved us money because we were planning on going to some of the other palaces anyway (Kensington Palace and Tower of London).  Now comes the blatant barrage of photos.

The ubiquitous red pay phones.

The gates leading to Hampton Court palace.  LOVE the unicorn!  Also, usually T dominates at the self photo, but this one took five tries to fully get us and all four statues in.

The palace belonged to King Henry VIII (yes, the one with all the wives).  People, this palace was insanely huge and insanely ornate.

Later William and Mary of Orange decided to renovate the palace taking it from King Henry VIII's baroque style to the more "modern" Tudor style.  But they ran out of money half way through, so the palace is half and half.  (The baroque part is bottom left, the Tudor part is top right.)  The palace is huge!  And the gardens are even bigger!

(Interesting aside: the King James Bible was commissioned by James I after meetings held at Hampton Court in 1604.)

The main entrance.

The audio tour was free with admission.  We started with the kitchen tour, which was actually very interesting.  It takes a lot of work to feed a royal court!  The annual provision of meat for the court stood at 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar. This was all washed down with 600,000 gallons of beer (source).   Check out this huge fireplace with a tiny fire in it!  Back in the day it would be raging and there would be animals on spits on each of those racks.  This is still a functioning kitchen and the things made in it are served in the restaurant.

This is King Henry's Great Hall.  The audio tour of the King Henry portion was a bit yak-y but still had some interesting information.  While we were observing the general splendor two period actors dressed as King Henry and a servant stormed through.  The photo we snapped was blurry though.

Sitting at the king and queen's places at the head table in the Great Hall.  It's always risky asking someone else to take your photo because it might end up blurry.  Like this one.

So we asked someone else to take another photo.  This one is a bit better, but the angle is off.  However you can see the stained glass windows in the King's waiting room.

Have you ever seen this commercial?  Well, the theme at Hampton Court Palace is: "Opulence:  King Henry has it."

We caught a photo with King Henry VIII in the courtyard.  The actors were extremely good and totally stayed in character.  The advisor man (?) in the back wouldn't stand next to me because he "could not be at the same level as the king."  Also King Henry insisted that a lady should stand on his left (I started on the right).

The clock tower on the Tudor side.

The wall art in this tudor room is completely made of weapons – guns, spears, knives.  On all four walls.  Cray-cray.

Like I said:  Opulence.

We did rush through the William and Mary / Tudor portion of the palace because it had turned into an incredibly beautiful day (the most gorgeous day of our whole trip!) and we wanted to get out into the amazing gardens.

The gardens were literally breath taking.  Everything looked so impossibly gorgeous.

Gah!  All the colors!  I die!

We seriously could not stop saying things like "I can't believe this is real!" and "This is crazy!" and "I'll take a dozen!"

And this was the smallest garden of the whole palace!

The whole time I just wanted to hug the grounds and gardens and take them home with me.  The palace was incredible, but the gardens... THAT'S what I want to have.

We were messing with the camera and the white balance got off.  Anyway, another lovely garden.

I heart flowers.

Apparently Hampton Court Palace has the largest grape vine in the world according to Guinness World Records.  We didn't care too much about that, but this wisteria looked and smelled beautiful.

These flowers look like sea anemones.

You can see where the baroque and Tudor styles meet behind this garden.

Gilded gates

A most impressive driveway up to the Tudor side.

The backside of the Tudor portion.  Still, not too shabby.

Seriously could not get enough of all the gorgeous flower beds.

Or the lake.

Doesn't this look entirely fake - Like T is standing in front of a painting or green screen?!

It blew my mind that there were palm trees in London.  I have no idea how they are still alive because other than this specific day, it was COLD.

Black tulips.

This shrub / tree looks like a giant Hersey's Kiss.  Also, as membership holders T and I could play tennis here if we wanted to (we saw others playing).

Another hedge maze.  This one was larger than the one at Hever Castle, but we did it in less time (about 7 minutes).  The sign says "The Heart of the Maze" but that maze looking thing is definitely not even close to an accurate representation of the maze.

More tulips!  If you can't tell, they are my favorite flower.  They look (and do) so much better in the ground than in an arrangement.

The rose garden was huge and unfortunately not in bloom at all.  But I imagine it must be ridiculously beautiful when everything is blooming.

A few more with the baroque side as we get ready to leave.

The restrooms here (and some other places) were a bit strange.  Instead of having a flush handle, some stalls have a pull cord.  Instead of the toilet paper being on a roll, it would come out in little sheets, sort of like kleenex.  Also, the sinks had two faucets: one hot and one cold.  The idea is that you put the stopper in the basin then fill up the basin to wash your hands.  This sounds gross to me so I would just soap up then quickly run my hands under the cold faucet then hot faucet and hope to balance it out.  Something that is AWESOME about UK public restrooms is that the stall doors completely close with no gap on either side.  At all.  I feel like in the states the crack between the wall and the door on both sides is so large that you can easily identify people through the gap without even trying!  Nicely done UK.

T in the empty baroque courtyard.

We really wished we had more time there.  If you go, plan on spending a whole day, not just part of a day!  Also, the last hour we pretty much had the entire palace and grounds to ourselves!

We took the train and the subway back to our hotel.  Well, when I say subway I mean tube / underground train but in the UK a subway is a walkway under a busy street.

We had dinner at Burger King at the train station.  The ice cream machine was broken.  Every time I wanted ice cream in London it seemed like the machine was broken.  There must have been some kind of ice cream machine epidemic because it happened two more times at different places.  

Of course, more to come of our Londonton Abbey trip!