So, guess who wrote a bunch of blog posts months ago and then forgot to post them? This girl. I’m sure you were all waiting on pins and needles for part III of my London adventures, so, here it is, at long last. If you need to refresh your memory, here are the links to In London Town (Part I) and (Part II).
The day after my visit to Westminster Abbey was my 21st birthday. As a history buff and nerd extraordinaire, I had decided to treat myself to a tour of the Inns of Court that afternoon, but I had some time to kill first.
I was too lacking in time to do the full tour of the Tower of London, but I figured I’d better at least see it from the outside, so the first activity of my morning was a walk towards the Tower Bridge. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself each time I looked down at an intersection and saw the painted arrows on the pavement with their accompanying captions, “Look left” or “Look right.” After realizing how long I had to think about which way to check for traffic each time I crossed a street, I stopped laughing and started reading. And, thanks to the painted arrows, I eventually arrived safely at the 900-year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn’t know much about the Tower, other than that it was founded by William the Conqueror in the time of the Norman Conquest, that Elizabeth I was imprisoned there for a time, and that it is the current home of the Crown Jewels. Since I didn’t have time for the full day affair that constitutes visiting the site, that’s still all I know. So, we’ll move on.
After my stop at the infamous prison, I began the trek to Buckingham Palace. Without a functioning wi-fi connectable gadget, I didn’t know exactly when the Changing of the Guard occurred, but I knew it was 11-ish. Close enough. Running low on time, I took the underground in an incredibly inefficient manner to Green Park. From here I walked and walked some more, past sunbathers laying out on lawn chairs and families playing football, until I hit the wall of people. I’d arrived before the ceremony started, but I had also underestimated public interest in it (and perhaps underestimated the number of tourists in London).
I managed to cross the street and worm my way through the crowd, slowly making for the gates surrounding the 300-year old palace. Several minutes were spent listening to the band play and seeing only through the lens of someone else’s camera, but I eventually managed to work my way close enough to the iron bars to peer through and see a sliver of what was going on. The marching and playing continued for far longer than I was expecting, and after awhile, I escaped the crush of people pushing against the bars and moved towards the outer rope, where, according to a mounted policeman, the guards would pass on their march back to St. James’s Palace.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the blue-coated Royal Marines filed out through the gate, band still playing full blast, followed by the more famous red-coated, bearskin-hat wearing foot guards.
The marines exited to the right, but as I was standing on the left-hand corner, I could merely hear their departure. Not too long after though, I got to see the foot guards marching out. The crowds were all roped in, surrounded by mounted policemen, one of whom had spent the morning yelling at people to stop crossing the street, while another told everybody that passed to beware of pickpockets. I mean every. single. person. Standing right next to her horse, I got to hear the warning a solid 200 times, at least. On the upside, I wasn’t pickpocketed. Is that a word, pickpocketed? I thought it was, but my word processor says no.
Anyways, after the guards had all passed and we were allowed to move around freely once more, I followed the Mall back towards St. James’s Palace, in an attempt to catch up with the column of soldiers. Thanks to the crowd, I failed to view the full ranks again, but I did get to see two similarly attired guards doing their thing in front of the gates of Clarence House. Personally, I think they’re mostly impressive for their level of concentration. The guards pace up to the barricade, turn on their heels to walk back to the gate, and then repeat. Over, and over, and over. When a man pushed himself as close to the barricade as he could possibly be, the guard marched up till their noses were within about two inches of each other, then turned around and kept going, without even batting an eyelash. Maybe the only thing that’s more impressive is the fact that they manage to be out in those long-sleeved uniforms and fur hats without passing out from the heat. I wouldn’t make it very long, myself.
Once I had finished up in the area, which included walking all the way around Buckingham Palace’s walls (hint: there’s nothing to see but barbed wire), I caught the the tube to Holborn, where my afternoon tour was meeting up. The official title was The Inns of Court: Legal and Illegal London, and it was very informative. I learned all kinds of cool things, such as the process for becoming a barrister, the difference between solicitors and solicitor advocates, and that the British pronounce the word “clerk” like “clark.” Who knew?
For those who aren’t familiar, the Inns of Court were historically places where barristers both lived and trained, with each containing useful amenities such as dining halls, chapels, and libraries. Today, only four remain, serving as professional associations to which all barristers must belong, and I got the opportunity to walk through the neatly tended courtyards and ivy-covered passageways of each one: Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Inner Temple, and the Middle Temple. It’s unclear which of the remaining inns is the oldest, but the earliest records date back as far as the 14th century.
Within the inns, there are three levels: students, barristers, and benchers (Masters of the Bench). The benchers govern each inn, and you may be familiar with the words of one, John Donne, without even realizing it. Master of the Bench is a lifetime position, and when someone holding this position dies, the bell of that inn’s chapel is rung. Tired of people rushing excitedly to see what position had come open, Donne, who was also a poet, penned these words:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were:
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
It wasn’t Hemingway, people.
We got to see a few neat things outside of the inns as well. On our way from Lincoln’s Inn to Gray’s Inn, for example, we stopped by a shop in which a newly appointed solicitor, barrister, or judge can buy his or her court attire. The dress code is very specific, and although all trials aren’t wigged and gowned nowadays, barristers have to be careful in those that are. Apparently, if they turn up not wearing their wig or in the wrong gown, the judge could so far as to not acknowledge their presence at all. Not a great start.
The shop, located on Chancery Lane, had two window cases full of attire straight out of the 19th century. Bar wigs and gowns and hoods, oh my! The signage above the shop named it as “Ede & Ravenscroft, Robe Makers & Tailors since 1689.” A nerd in more ways than one, my first thought was that the storefront put me in mind of “Ollivanders: Makers of fine wands since 382 B.C.” Apparently, Ede & Ravenscroft is the place to go for courtly attire, although it costs a pretty penny. Just one wig and gown for a barrister runs over £700, nearly £600 of which is for the wig. Although solicitors don’t rank quite as high in the legal hierarchy, they also aren”t allowed to wear wigs, so they come out on top in this case.
After we had seen the last of the inns, our little group walked down to Fleet Street, pausing for a quick photo op at one of the few buildings in London to have survived the Great Fire. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but it has to predate 1666, so at least the facade has made it a good long while. Unfortunately, the vodafone store that can be found in the building nowadays kind of destroys the illusion of medieval London.
Our final stop was outside of the Royal Courts of Justice, colloquially known as the Law Courts, which houses both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. It is possible for the general public to enter the building, and some of my fellow tourists did just that. As for me, well, I felt a little odd about randomly turning up in the courthouse wearing jeans and a university t-shirt, so I passed. Instead, I checked my handy dandy map and then headed down Fleet Street towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. It looked nothing like what Sweeney Todd had led me to believe. Thanks for nothing, Tim Burton.
My primary reason for the visit to the cathedral was simple: as much as I love seeing cities from above, my retail salary could in no way fund a £20 ticket for the London Eye. A little research told me that the view from St. Paul’s was just as good, and several pounds cheaper. As I arrived, though, I found the towering white building ringed by ambulances and paramedics in full dress uniform. Ropes blocked off the stairs leading to the entrance, and there was a full band playing on the steps.
A little discreet eavesdropping told me that there were all day services being held in honor of the Order of St. John, which based on the crowd in attendance, seems to have something to do with emergency medical care. My plans of visiting St. Paul’s dashed, I took a quick stroll through the park behind the church, where I became distracted by the sight of the Millennium Bridge stretching across the River Thames. For those not familiar, that would be the bridge that undulated itself to death in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince after being attacked by death eaters. With nowhere better to go, I decided to checkout whatever interesting things might lie on the southern bank of the river. As it turns out, that was a particularly good call.
In the area known as Bankside, I found a couple of cool places, first among them the rather authentic looking reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. At only £5 a ticket, I had considered going to see the previous evening’s rendition of Julius Caesar, but procrastination got the better of me and the show was sold out. Passing on, I was met by a woman in period costume handing out flyers in front of a dimly lit building. Just inside the open doors, a staircase led down into a room vaguely reminiscent of a dungeon. The sign above named it as The Clink Prison Museum.
According to the flyer, the museum is located on the site of what is thought to be England’s oldest prison, the Clink. So, that’s the origin of the slang term. I’d always wondered where that came from. (Okay, not really, but it’s still kind of interesting.) Dating back to the 1140s, the infamous prison played host to all manner of criminals for more than 600 years.
I tucked the flyer away for a potential later visit, and kept walking on. Soon enough, I found a bridge, underneath which was a food market where I scrounged up some lunch. Twisting and turning my way through the various stalls, which sold everything from fair-trade coffee to indian food, I found – miracle of all miracles – iced tea! This is one American item that I had legitimately missed during my long stay abroad, because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. Limited budget pushed to the back of my mind, I quickly handed over my pounds for my first cup of iced tea in nearly six months. It was a little too lemony and there was no sugar to be had, but still…I regret nothing.
Samosas and tea in hand, I backtracked to a brick wall overlooking the Thames, and among the hordes of people who had come up with the same idea, I found a small gap to squeeze myself into and eat my lunch. The river was particularly low, and while my view was of littered banks and dirty brownish water, there was something about knowing the history that is steeped in those waters which made it one of the most beautiful sites in the world. The pale silhouette of St. Paul’s on the far bank didn’t hurt either.
That evening was not only my final night in London, but my final night overseas. For the first time in six months, America was within reach. As exhausted as I was from weeks of carrying all of my possessions on my back, slogging through train stations and onto crowded buses, guarding my purse from wandering hands, and sleeping in beds that weren’t my own, I found myself quite sad to leave London. It was a place that was distant enough to be an adventure, but still close enough to home to be comfortable, and easy.
I pondered over this as I sat on a bench, watching the sun set over Westminster. The silhouette of Big Ben against the darkening sky, the glowing blue lights of the Eye beside me, street musicians performing all around…it was a fitting end to a long journey.