One of the first places I wanted to see when we landed here in London was the dreaded Tower. This city has so many surprises to me like the original Roman wall near St. Paul’s Cathedral and the very modern financial district, or Westminster Abbey adjacent to the London Eye, and the Tower of London juxtaposed to Tower Bridge in all its blue fluorescent light glory.
This structure was a place where prisoners through history were brought via boat along the Thames through Traitor’s Gate to stay and wait their punishment out, or meet the business end of an ax. The Tower was founded in 1066, and as I’m waiting in line in 2014 (or the queue) I’m staring at this building that has stood the test of time with London life growing around it instead of over it.
We walked in and took in the sheer size of the place. It was huge and encompassing with almost a threatening air to it. I was thrilled to be there. There were a few signs that pointed us in various directions to see the armory, the jewels, and the zoo?
Apparently King John founded a Royal Menagerie that over time housed elephants, polar bears (who would swim in the Thames), and lions. The real animals are now replaced by metal mesh statues depicting monkeys, panthers, and an enormous elephant head throughout the maze.
They had several side rooms that had plastic words mounted on the walls with kitschy phrases and statements to give an almost theme park feel to the complex. I was a little disappointed, but it still was rather beautiful. We went through the armory to see the dozens of bodies of armor including Henry VIII’s large 54 inch circumference shell. We followed the roped off trail that led us through chapels, videos presentations, and posters of the past monarchs and were taken to a room where you could play with toys that were for the families.
I thought, personally, all of the glitz and moving images took away from the history. I couldn’t take myself out of the cartoon feel to really understand and fully comprehend the things that happened around me 500+ years ago.
When we walked into Westminster Abbey, I was immediately thrown into the historical realm and could imagine the coronations and take in every tomb encased in the glorious space.
I will give the Tower this: they had on display the royal crown jewels. It was spectacular to see crown after crown, specter after specter, and the gold plates used for the grand ceremonies. I asked a gentleman working there if the last crown we saw was the one used for the current queen for her coronation. Yes, it was. Then I asked when a new one would be commissioned. Thankfully, the crown that was used will be the last one commissioned because they are extraordinarily expensive, and the cost would fall on the taxpayers. A bill passed saying no further crowns would be made in the 1930s. How nice. It was also rather clear from this citizen he was not thrilled at the prospect of having Prince Charles ascend to king. He said he would prefer Prince William to go directly to kinghood.
We left the Tower a little wiser but also disenchanted. A couple of weekends ago, we decided on a regular Sunday, that we would just stop by Kensington Palace, since it was close to where we were having brunch with some friends from America. Quite a strange thought, actually–oh, it’s Sunday. Let’s just go see a palace!
We walked in, and it was terrible. It was full of displays and roped off areas where we couldn’t go. Murals were painted replacing the original woodwork which was a shame. One room even had speakers of “gossip from the time.” You could sit on a bench and “listen to the walls speak” as random voice actors talked with each other about Queen Victoria since it was she who lived at Kensington as a child.
They had cardboard set ups and dancing figurines that really took you out of the experience. Costumes were on a rack allowing you to put on a jacket of the time. Jeff and I were both disappointed in how they chose to display life at the palace, but he did look awfully cute in the regal jacket.
This leads up to yesterday when we made the trek to Hampton Court Palace where Henry VIII made his primary home. I was now anticipating a Disney-fied version of the palace and tried desperately to look past the stickers on the wall and the sound effects flooding the alcoves.
The palace was stunning. There is no other word for it. We were taken into rooms that consisted of Henry VIII’s kitchens (with plastic foods placed carefully around), his apartments with words etched into the carpets and videos projected against the white walls, and then William III’s apartments and life.
No offence to Billy III, but his life didn’t seem nearly as action-packed as the Tudor dynasty, so we didn’t feel the need to study every artifact from that area.
What we found more astounding on the grounds were the palatial gardens. We spent most of our time walking around the greens which were manicured and the blue skies made the colors of the flowers pop. Hampton Court Palace also boasts the largest grape vine in the world. I haven’t heard much about English wine, but the massive vine still earns a place in history.
All in all, we have hit three out of the five historical palaces and we are not impressed by the presentation. I wish we could have disappeared into history and been able to imagine life at court, but instead, we were given stickers and cloth hangings that “resembled” the past.
It was still pretty incredible to walk where Henry walked and see the gardens that may or may not have been a part of his palace. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from going to see these sights, but I wish I had been warned that Walt Disney had been by to make these destinations more than family friendly.