One of the most iconic images of London, besides double decker buses and Big Ben has to be the Tower Bridge. A lot of people think this is London Bridge. Not so. London Bridge as they might imagine it to be, which is a big gothic looking stone bridge sits in Lake Havisu, in the US, where it was moved brick by brick because the polluted Thames River was chewing it apart, brick by brick. The Thames is still muddy and choppy and probably very polluted, but the new London Bridge looks like any bridge you would find in any other city. The Tower Bridge, however is iconic.
I took the underground, my new favorite thing to do, and got in close to the Tower of London, a castle built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. A blocky, Romanesque castle, it sports four towers on its superstructure, and if you were of British nobility for several hundred years and that became your new home–it meant your ass.
Today, the Tower draws tourists visiting the city in droves. At £24 for a tour, I decided to skip the tour and just walk past it and take pictures. I have heard good things though, mostly about the armor, the ravens (two of which had just hatched when I was in town), and the Beefeaters. For $40, I could buy a lot of beefeater, but taking pictures is still free. In London, along with some of the finest museums in the world, it’s one of the few things that still is.
As a reminder, toilets cost around 30p to use in coach stations, the Underground, and anywhere else you haven’t paid for a meal or are staring at statues that are thousands of years old.
Not far from the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge, which still lifts a few times a day to allow taller vessels to navigate the Thames. It has been the secret lair of many villain and superhero throughout popular culture. It really is an impressive landmark, with its architecture reflecting the 1000 year old castle next door, as well as architecture for a world power which at the time said, “You got a problem with colonialism? Suck it!”
With the new map I bought at Waterstones, I crossed the Thames and followed its banks, taking in the futuristic skyline featuring the Shard, Ye Big Olde Cucumber, and such a mish-mash of old buildings and new that it is just, really cool, for lack of a better word. In London, there are building cranes everywhere. For such an old city, it never stops growing.
I took pictures of the Tower and the waterfront from Potter’s Field, which used to be a cemetary, but was now home to an errant rooster and the site of probably the most epic picnic I have ever seen. I continued on the Hays Market, which was surrounded with an outdoor market featuring food from all over the world. Paella, creole, noodles–the scents were incredible, as were the lines. It was still early yet, and as much as I wanted a bowl of street paella, I had yet to build up an appetite after my coffee and croissant at a nice cafe an hour before. Side note: in London, just because a place has cloth napkins and nice settings, doesn’t mean it is out of your range. The cafe where I ate was cheaper than getting the same thing at Eat. and it tasted better. I think Americans are familiar with Grab and Go places to eat, and Londoners are getting the same way. The idea of drinking from a ceramic cup and sitting down is tragically going away.
At Hays Market, I bought a hat. I love my new hat, even if it makes me look about 80 years out of place. I read in several places that the British hate the American baseball caps and warn against wearing them. I hardly saw anyone wearing hats except tourists. I guess I was a tourist, so what the hell! Hays Market featured a modern art sculpture that was just impressive, called the Navigators. It was very steampunk meets Terry Gilliam.
I worked my way towards the Globe Theatre, the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatre, built in approximately the same spot. As bad luck would have it, there were no matinee showings that day, but groundling tickets were £5 if you wanted to stand and watch a show at 8pm. With my feet already hurting, I bid farewell to the Globe. I also saw the Swan theatre, which was just down the road in a warren of alleyways and commercial district buildings. It was Shakespeare’s original theatre until it burned down and was reclaimed by the Thames. Not much of it remains, just some wooden foundation posts which have been covered in concrete to preserve them from the damp until methods of restoration can be figured out.
The Tate Modern. They have a decent WiFi signal. If you need to sit down and check your directions and Facebook on your phone, it is highly recommended. Otherwise, there are much better museums just about anywhere. Including your grandma’s fridge door, which is still covered with crayon drawings of kitty-cats from when your youngest cousin was still in the 2nd grade.
I crossed the Millenium Bridge over to St. Paul’s, which was just massive. Yes, feet hurting, I hobbled to the Underground station nearest me and worked my way back up to the British Museum, because I had missed out on seeing the Elgin Marbles the first time around. There were also marbles from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient world, until an earthquake destroyed it and centuries later it was turned into a crusader fortress. Reconstructed facades of ancient Greek temples, and Assyrian sphynxes, Summerian friezes, statues, marbles, all of it…I couldn’t imagine how I missed all of it!
The majority of the marbles from the Parthenon depict a frat party in which a bunch of centaurs got ripped on jungle juice and started killing the human partygoers. A gigantic battle ensued and these marble panels record the carnage. The detail on these panels is exquisite, even after 2,500 years. The musculature of the horses, the people, all of it. In juxtaposition with the Tate Modern, I decided that yes, art creates an emotional response, but a masterpiece does that across many centuries. I may have felt the same as how someone walking into the Parthenon felt thousands of years ago, just by looking at these works of art.
The end of my afternoon was marked by eating a Steak and Ale pie while watching the Man City football club game. Prince William shook the hands of the footballers. They sang the national anthem. But London isn’t the same as how we envision. During the song, everyone chatted and ordered pints. Nobody even really took pause or looked up at the screen. On this trip, I had seen so many layers of history, from the ancient Greeks and the Romans to the buildings of the future. The commonality has just been people. No one walks around saying “Look at this civilization we are living it! People will be recreating this shit thousands of years from now!”
I headed back to my room, letting it all marinate. Time from the tube to my front door: 3 minutes. I took a bath, thinking about the things I had seen. Before bed, I confirmed my train tickets to Oxford the next morning.