Touring Before the
Our second day in London dawned grey and threatening, but it didn't actually rain. We did some quick shuffling of the itinerary to make up for time lost in Victoria Station (lesson three: always have a Plan B), and headed off on the DLR to the Tower of London and a long day of walking through London.
The Tower of London is, of course, not one tower but many - a fortress, prison, place of execution, and home of royalty over the nearly 1,000 years since it was built. The Tower is manned by the Yeoman Warders (often called "Beefeaters"), all retired British Army soldiers and accomplished storytellers. In my four visits to the Tower I've had four different Yeoman Warder guides, and every one was outstanding. Our guide this time was as good as usual, and, as he kept reminding us, everything he told us was Absolutely True (say it in unison, everyone). At left, our Yeoman Warder and Matt, at the Traitor's Gate or Watergate ("we had it first - and that's Absolutely True").
It began to rain as we ate lunch at the Tower, so we ducked into the Underground for a ride to Embankment station, where we re-emerged to walk along the Thames Embankment. The Embankment was built during Victorian times along the River Thames to cover the new sewers carrying raw sewage downstream of the City. It has become a beautiful riverside walk, and a good way to stroll upstream to Westminster. Along the way we stopped at Cleopatra's Needle, an obelisk sent to London in the late 19th century, set on a terrace and flanked by Sphinxes. Strangely, the Cleopatra after which the Needle is named is not the queen, but the boat which towed the stone tower from Egypt to England. The base of the Needle is pock-marked with pits made by bombs dropped by Zeppelins in WWI. At right: Matt and the Sphinx.
The skies began to clear as we crossed into Westminster, and the sun came out as we stopped to look at the Houses of Parliament, then looped through the back streets of Westminster where many of the Members of Parliament live, past Queen Victoria's Footstool (a church so named because, it is said, the Queen kicked her footstool onto its back and told her architect - "make it look like that") and Lawrence of Arabia's house, through an archway to Westminster School, and back past Westminster Abbey.
The Cabinet War Rooms tour was next. It was from the War Rooms that Winston Churchill ran the British forces during the Second World War. Buried beneath a 3-foot thick concrete layer in the basement of an office building, the War Rooms were home to hundreds of planners and staff, and Churchill himself when No. 10 Downing Street was damaged by a bomb. At the end of the war, the doors were locked and the War Rooms remained exactly as they had been on the last day of WWII, ready for the next conflict, until they were discovered and opened as a museum in 1984.
Buckingham Palace is a short walk from the War Rooms along Birdcage Walk (actually, nearly everything is a short walk in London), so we strolled by there, and went around the back to visit the world's first Scout Shop across the street. One of the Scouts found a mess kit (he'd forgotten his), and was delighted to discover it included a minature tea pot in place of the useless small pot found in BSA mess kits. I bought a few more books for the collection and some patches and whatnot, and we were off again, through Green Park and up Picadilly, toward Picadilly Circus. Never being able to resist a book store, and needing road atlases for the next few day's touring, we stopped off at a huge multi-story Waterstons' at the Circus. Everyone scattered to their favorite department (I bought the fourth Harry Potter book), and Ed sat outside on the pavement ("sidewalk", in American) writing a postcard. As he sat writing, someone came by, looked at him, and dropped a 50p coin in his lap.
The Scouts decided they wanted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, which turned out to be back down Picadilly across from Green Park, so we went back Underground, to find it was rush hour. (Lesson five: avoid public transit at rush hour) We squished into one Underground car, and rode back down to Green Park, and got on line at Hard Rock Cafe. It took a while to get in, but the food wasn't bad, and we ran into the Santa Clara County Council Blair Atholl contingent while we were eating - Pete Cowan, my assistant leader for the last two Blairs was one of the assistants, so we visited for a while while we waited for food. Then, with a brief break to buy t-shirts, we dashed off across London to make our appointment at the London Eye observation wheel, on the South Bank of the Thames across the Westminster Bridge from Parliament.
The London Eye, at 135 meters (440 feet) tall, is the tallest observation wheel in the world. It's not a Ferris wheel - they have cars suspended on pivots, so that for much of the time you're inside the framework of the wheel. The cars on the London Eye are cigar shaped, are mounted on the outside of the wheel, and rotate in powered rings to remain upright as the wheel revolves, taking about half an hour to make one revolution. The Eye is supported on legs on only one side, like a bicycle wheel held in one hand by the hub, so that there is no structure obstructing the view of London across the river. We got to the Eye just in time for our appointment, and hopped on board after only a short wait. As we ascended on the first half of the rotation, a formation of helicopters flew by and dropped parachutists for the Military Tattoo in St. James Park. We were treated to several other fly-bys as we rose, including a WWII Lancaster bomber and a number of fighter formations, and the Red Arrow formation flying team (the British equivalent of the US Blue Angels or Canadian Snowbirds) passed overhead just as we hit the top of the wheel. Descending, the Houses of Parliament came into view, and we got off the wheel as darkness was descending.
Then a quick walk to Waterloo station on the new Jubilee Line Extension, and a ride back to Dockland.
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- Last update January 7, 2001