“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beefeaters, Harry Potter and Prince William: A Weekend in London

Tower Bridge spanning the Thames
This past weekend, I hopped a plane to London to spend some time in a primarily English-speaking country, which I haven't done since August! Even though I love speaking French, it was a breath of fresh air to have every sign, pamphlet, museum exhibit and tour in English and made for a relaxing trip - although some might argue that British English and American English are two completely different beasts, and I'd have to agree. 

After having a bit of a snafu upon arrival - we missed our bus from Luton airport to downtown London due to a couple miscommunications, subsequently missed the last train on the Tube (since it closes at midnight - so early!), wandered aimlessly in the wrong direction and finally caved in and payed for a cab - we finally got to our hostel, Astor Quest. By this point, it was pushing 2am, and Eric and I were completely exhausted. I almost had a melt down when the receptionist told me they were out of towels for the weekend, which I had banked on renting, so I resigned myself to having to use my t-shirt as a towel and went to bed.

The entrance to the Tower of London complex
Thankfully, the next morning we were all in a better mood, able to laugh at having to use a t-shirt as a towel, and headed off to tour the Tower of London. I really had no idea what to expect, as I had envisioned this place as being a tower like Big Ben inside of which the Crown Jewels are stored - wrong! It was actually a really big complex made up of a bunch of different buildings which look nothing like what I had expected, and had more of a castle-like feel about it.

Model of the complex, with the Thames River to one side of the fort, and a 50 foot deep moat surrounding the other sides
We happened to arrive just as a guided tour was about to start, so we decided to start off our visit listening to Jimmy the Beefeater (a yeoman in the Royal Guard) give us a bit of a history refresher on England and this complex in particular.
Jimmy, our Beefeater Tour Guide
Why are they called Beefeaters, you ask? The real answer: no one knows! But we learned that there is a bit of a legend which may have some validity to it. The Royal Guards that we call Beefeaters were stereotypically quite rotund during the Middle Ages, whereas many of the royal subjects were thin and starving. When the yeomen (Beefeaters) would appear in public, they would be ridiculed by the peasants for being fat. People perceived them as being the King's favorites, whom he would feed fatty cuts of beef, as it was a pricey meat and seen as a privilege as only the rich could afford it. Peasants would supposedly taunt the yeomen by calling them "beef-eaters," and thus the modern-day term was born....maybe!

In front of William the Conqueror's White Tower, the complex's central building
Built by William the Conqueror from 1066-1067, the Norman king who had invaded and succeeded in conquering England during the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Tower of London is the most-visited historical monument in all of Great Britain. It has a bad reputation for being the place where royal prisoners were locked up, tortured, and then dragged by their hair to nearby Tower Hill to be executed, it was a really neat place to wander around with a lot to see.  

Suits of Armor from the Wardrobe Room
The complex is home to many buildings, among which are the White Tower, the armory, the Jewel Tower, and the menagerie. 8 ravens live at the Tower - 6 are free to roam around, and 2 live in cages (they alternate daily), and are kept there at the expense of the Monarchy due to another legend; it is said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower will fall and a great disaster will befall England. The birds are actually so well-kept that one has even lived to be 44 years old!

The Tower's ravens - caw!!
Besides being superstitious, the Brits are often said to have horribly bland food (especially in comparison with the delicious French cuisine I've become so accustomed to!) but I quickly put that stereotype to rest when I had one of my favorite meals - fish & chips!! Anyone who has ever been to the beach with me knows that I will eat fish & chips for every available meal if given the option, and so I continued the tradition and had it twice over the weekend. Paired with mushy peas (chickpeas in a sort of pea soup - actually really tasty!) and a half-liter of blackberry cider, I thoroughly enjoyed my delicious meal! 

We wanted to check out St. Paul's Cathedral, as it is supposed to be just as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, but much to our dismay it cost 15.50 pounds to go inside! Since 1 pound = $1.67, that was way more than we were willing to pay to walk around a church, so we settled for admiring it from the street instead. That's one big problem I had with London, everything's SO expensive!

St. Paul's Cathedral
Fleet Street happened to be right around the corner, so we went to take a peek. I was hoping to see Johnny Depp roaming around the neighborhood where the movie Sweeney Todd took place, as he played the infamous "Demon Barber of Fleet Street," but much to my dismay he was nowhere to be found...

Where's Sweeney Todd??
 We did manage to find some of London's famous telephone booths, however...

Typical Tourist
And we managed to see a beautiful sunset over the Thames on our way to see Big Ben & Parliament.


Another thing that looked like it would be cool to do was the London Eye. It's a giant Ferris wheel that affords visitors amazing views of the city as it takes a half-hour to make one revolution, but for 20 pounds (over $31!!) we decided to take a walk for free to see some of the sights from the ground instead.

The London Eye
And our walk was just as satisfying! We got to see a bunch of cool places by night (and by night, I mean 4pm...the sun goes down so early here!), such as:

Big Ben
Westminster Abbey
Buckingham Palace - the flag was up = the Queen was home!
Piccadilly Circus
A few words about Piccadilly Circus: it's a complete zoo! Known as the Times Square of London, minus the sky-scrapers, we found ourselves elbow-to-elbow being shoved through the crowd while trying to find a place to eat dinner. Although there was a lot of cool stuff to see, it was a rather hostile, unfriendly atmosphere as many Brits were drunk, cursing and bumbling about the square starting at around 5pm!

All complaints aside, there were some pretty Christmas decorations all around this neighborhood!
After enjoying a hearty dinner of spicy Indian food - London's known for having amazing Indian food, as India was once a British colony - we headed off to a cafe for a rather low-key evening, in order to avoid the craziness going on in the streets and every single pub in the area. There, a slightly-tipsy British university student named James sat down next to us and we spent the next hour or so chatting with him. It was interesting to learn a bit about the British perception of American & Americans, and we had a good time discovering new British English phrases like "bang-tidy" (apparently meaning 'awesome').

James, Nicole and I
Some of our other friends from our program in Paris happened to be in London the same weekend, so we met up with them at the cafe. We even managed to walk into another girl from Sweet Briar on the street - what a small world!
Katie, Eric & Maddy
The next day, we headed off to the British Museum. It's basically like the Louvre without all the paintings, and has vast collections of artifacts from around the world, as the British had colonies on nearly every corner of the globe and thus lots of access to other cultures.

Inside the museum, very cool mix of old & new architectural elements
Cleopatra's mummy
The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta stone is a tablet on which the same text, an Egyptian decree from 197 BC, is carved in 3 different languages: Greek, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, and Demotic Egyptian. Discovered by Napoleon's troop in 1799 near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, and is the key to understanding and decoding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece (2007)
I would have to say that the collections of artifacts and paintings that I saw in various museums in London constituted a big highlight of my trip. Take, for example, the room full of marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens. As the Parthenon was built around 500 BC, certain finely-carved, decorative elements of its exterior understandably began to fall into disrepair. Thankfully, in 1811, English Lord Elgin removed these marble elements (today referred to as the Elgin Marbles) and put them on display in the British Museum to preserve them and show them off to the world. 

Room of the Elgin Marbles
Walking into the room housing the Elgin Marbles, my jaw dropped. I couldn't believe how many had actually survived all these years, and that they were still in pretty decent condition. When you stand before the Parthenon, yes, it is absolutely amazing, but I can only imagine how it must have looked with all its decorative elements still attached.
Sculptures from the Pediment of the Parthenon in Athens
I was particularly drawn to the pedimental sculptures displayed at the far end of the exhibit. The pediment is the triangular part that sits above the columns of a building and helps to support the roof. Nearly all of the sculptures from one of the pediments survive, and they are arranged in the form they were meant to be seen in, and a dramatic, sweeping flourish of billowing fabrics drape the figures. I had studied these sculptures in one of my art history classes, and it was incredible to see them in person - amazing how all of my experiences come full circle. It's times like this that I feel 1.) how lucky I am to have had all the opportunities to travel and see the world that I have had thus far, and 2.) like all of my hard work at school really pays off, because I have to say I got goosebumps just walking into this room. Very, very impressive.

Close-up of a fighting centaur, from the Elgin Marbles
And now, on an equally serious literary note, let's talk about Harry Potter. 

Millennium Bridge
Harry Potter fans might recognize the above bridge from the "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" movie as the place where Voldemort's Death Eaters swarmed down into London and scared all the Muggles during their attack. Check out this video clip for a refresher.... 

Seeing this bridge from the movie prompted Eric & I to begin our quest to seek out Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, the place where Hogwarts students disappear through a magic wall in order to board the Hogwarts Express.

We went to King's Cross St. Pancras station, found Platform 9a & 9b, but no Platform 9 3/4....

Clearly very disappointed
We had to exit the Tube station and enter the train station to search for the platform, and after being disappointed we tried to get back out and decided we were locked in....oops. Thankfully, I explained our plight to the nice guard who was by the door (who proceeded to tell us we needed to look no further, for he was actually the Harry Potter...) and he kindly directed us outside the station to the REAL Platform 9 3/4. Stupid us for thinking it would logically be somewhere between platforms 9 and 10!

Found it!
Thankfully Eric snapped this picture of me right before my luggage cart and I disappeared through the wall, but I decided to forgo the Hogwarts Express this time in order to finish seeing all that London has to offer. At least now we know where it is for next time!

Next stop: lunch at Camden Market! Camden is a borough located north of the city and it's full of food, clothing, jewelry and all sorts of other oddities. You even get to have lunch while sitting on seats made out of old scooters! I picked up some nifty earrings and a scarf for myself, not to mention a delicious lunch of Thai food.

We got to see Camden Lock in action while we ate, as a tourist boat was passing through.

View of Camden Lock
At this point, Eric and I split up - he really likes modern art and thus headed over to check out the Tate Modern Art Museum, and as I'm a fan of more traditional works, I took the Tube over to the National Gallery. Talk about things coming full-circle again - the first room I happened to walk into contained impressionist paintings that I had literally studied only days before in my Impressionism class! Seeing paintings in person like this really helps to solidify certain aspects of them in your mind much better than when you study it projected on a screen in the classroom, and I am very fortunate to have literally stumbled across such a collection of paintings! 

Degas' "Miss La La at the Circus"
Monet's "Bathers at La Grenouillère"
An extension of my delight with the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, more of his masterpieces were hung in the post-impressionist gallery here!

Van Gogh's "Cypresses"
Van Gogh's famous "Sunflowers" 
The National Gallery and Trafalgar Square
I thoroughly enjoyed this museum, as in almost every room there were masterpieces that I had studied in at least one of my art history classes. As geeky as it sounds, I was like a kid in a candy shop! The simple things like taking an hour or two to wander through an art museum free of charge which will really leave a lasting impression on me, and which made my weekend in London that much better.

"Venus of the Rags"
Eric was still at the Tate Modern when I was done at the National Gallery, so I headed over there to check it out as well. Not a huge fan of modern art, I wanted to go anyways because the museum still contained works by artists that I had studied, and it was neat to see those as well.
Passing by Shakespeare's Globe Theater at night, on the banks of the Thames
We spent out last morning in London going on a stroll through Hyde Park, which was right next to where we stayed. We lucked out in having gorgeous, albeit windy, weather in a city known for its dark, drizzly climate.  
All sorts of birds on the park's main pond - almost like Otis?
Kensington Palace Gardens
Kensington Palace, the former home of Princess Diana and the current residence of William and Kate, as well as other members of the Royal Family. It is rather unimpressive from the outside, and most of its grounds were closed for construction.

Kensington Palace
As we were headed out of the park, we spied a helicopter flying really low and circling the Palace and jokingly remarked that it was probably somebody famous. Low and behold, it slowly descended onto the lawn just next to the palace, and upon hearing it shut off, we joined the other throngs of Brits in running over to the fence to see what was going on.
Yes, it is indeed the Royal Helicopter! 
Hmm, someone's getting out...he's tall, skinny and has horrible hair...could it possibly be Prince William??
Sure is!
We managed to watch as Prince William himself got out of the chopper (on the left in the above picture - click for a larger version) and walked around in a circle for a few minutes talking on his cell phone. A few minutes later, a fancy black car drove from the Palace to the helicopter and dropped off a bunch of men in suits. Everyone got back in the chopper and we watched as it took off once again. What a cool thing to randomly see!!
Bye Will, say hi to Kate for me!!
All in all, I had a great weekend in London. We got to see lots of historic monuments, a bunch of amazing museums, ate delicious food and had awesome weather. And boy, did I drop a lot of pounds - too bad they weren't the kind that make my waist smaller!!


  1. Sounds like you had a great time Rach! So much to see and do and it really seems like you are going to see it all before you have to head back to boring Westfield! Safe travels and keep the posts coming. Love them and you a ton :)

  2. Good to read about your experience in France, it is a very nice blog.