Abbey, the Painters and Where's the Temple? On Our Own Around London!
21.06.2004 - 21.06.2004 -28 °F
HEY KIDS LOOK, AGAIN! THERE’S BIG BEN! THERE’S PARLIAMENT!
June 21, 2004. It was beautiful and sunny but still a bit on the cool side. Naomi and Mike were slaving away at work; Vidal and I took the train back to London to have another look. We hitched a ride from Mike to a bus stop closer to Guildford, where we would take the train to London. We arrived at the Guildford station at 8:30am; found the London Rail Pass, which included train to and from London as well as bus and Tube all day, would cost £12 if purchased after 9:30am, but £24 each if purchased before! We were not in a rush, so we bought sandwiches, sat at a bench and waited… We arrived in London, map in hand; we had a plan. First, to get a closer look at Big Ben, get a few shots with a somewhat sunny sky; wander past Parliament to see what they had to say, and go directly to Westminster Abbey.
HEY, ABBOT! WESTMINSTER ABBEY
There were only scattered clouds above us by the time we arrived at the Abbey. We welcomed the sun with open arms as it shined upon our faces and the Abbey, highlighting the elaborate details on the façade of the great church, making the 20 minute wait in line seem like only five. At that time, back in Mexico, I had been a teacher and Vidal had been taking French classes (not from me, as my repertoire of French consisted at that time solely of 5 words; the class would have been quite boring); due to that, we were able to get student IDs for travel discounts in Europe. Although I had applied only for a teacher ID, they had given me a student ID by mistake… but which entitled me to better discounts. We did get funny looks from the people at the admission booths (What? Are you really 40 year old students? Yes, we’re slow learners), but as they were official ISTC cards, they could not deny us. As we made Mexican salaries, any discount was welcome; in this case, discounts of £5 each equaled a total of about $20 in USD for us.
As no photographs were allowed inside, all indoor photos I have are photos of postcards. Pity, as every corner was a feast for my eyes from the high gothic arches, the beautiful stained glass windows, the monuments and tombs of the dearly departed to the paintings and frescoes that adorned the walls.
ISN’T THAT PECULIAR?
The great gothic 13th century Westminster Abbey, its oldest parts dating to the 11th century, has been the site of Benedictine monks since the middle of the tenth century, establishing a tradition of daily worship which continues to this day. It briefly held the status of a cathedral in the 16th century, and is currently a Royal Peculiar (as opposed to royally peculiar) - being owned directly by the Royal Family. The Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066; its first crowning being that of William the Bastard, whose first order of business after being crowned was to change his name to William the Conqueror. Legend has it his ceremony was quite the dramatic one; when shouts of acclamation rang out from within the walls of the Abbey, the guards on the outside thought William to be in danger, so they set fires to nearby buildings, resulting in chaos within (gee, ya think?!) and the guests fleeing for their lives. They thought someone was trying to shoot the Bastard, apparently.
THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR
There are over 3,000 people buried within the Abbey, some with grand monuments, others with simple markers. The tomb of the Unknown Warrior was near the entrance, so we visited it first. Made of black marble and surrounded by flowers, it is the only tombstone in the Abbey that cannot be walked on. While not being a superstitious person nor believing that a person’s soul remains on this earth once they die- let alone remain in their place of burial, it has always seemed intrusive to me to walk upon a grave, as if each step taken screams that the body buried below your feet belonged to someone not worth remembering, whether you knew them or not. While there were areas in this and other churches where it was virtually impossible not to walk upon tomb markers, it seemed to me that even if this one had not been surrounded by flowers, that walking upon the tomb of the Unknown Soldier would be unpatriotic, whether one be English or not; akin to spitting on its grave and to soldiers everywhere, dead or alive. Reading the inscription was a very sobering experience; it left me with chills, part of which was this:
The lord knoweth them that are his unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live greater love hath no man than this in Christ shall all be made alive.
THERE ONCE WAS A POET, DID HE KNOW IT?
One of the frequented corners of the Abbey is Poet’s Corner, a spot we did not want to miss. Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) was the first to be buried there around 1400 AD; Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene) was later buried nearby, and so began the tradition of burying or erecting monuments to famous poets, novelists and composers which continues to this day. Although floor space is now covered with grave markers, making it impossible to not walk on top of them, I did not for once feel intrusive while stepping upon the names of these great artists, but comforted; an unexpected thrill. Their memorials and tomb markers on the ground below my feet were testaments to their works, so many of which I had devoured growing up, always hungry for a good read and wanting to be a writer myself; it was an honor to walk amongst the great writers which also included Shakespeare, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, George Handel, Alfred Tennyson, and Lewis Carroll.
I SEE DEAD PEOPLE
There were countless monuments- some very elaborate, others simple yet eloquent- commemorating the lives of many famous sons and daughters of England, including Lady Elizabeth Nightingale, Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin (rumor has it that his body reverted to that of a fish upon decomposing), Sir Issac Newton (buried with his apple), David Livingstone (I presume) and Harry Purcell.
I’M HENERY THE SEVENTH, I AM; HENERY THE SEVENTH I AM, I AM
Amongst the 3,000 people buried there were 17 monarchs; probably the most unusual being the tomb of the Protestant Elizabeth I and Roman Catholic ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor. Both queens of turbulent times were half sisters who may have been at slight odds during their lives, but in death they share a tomb which bears the inscription ‘Sisters in the hope of resurrection’.
Found also is King Edward the Confessor (later made a saint), who confessed he was son of Ethelred the Unready and brother of Harold the Harefoot; Mary I, Queen of Scots (in her manly kilt, no doubt) and Henry VII (poor guy must have led a boring life, as he has no fun nickname- Henry the 8th, he was not, he was not).
THE ROYALTY SWINGING ROYALLY FROM CHANDELIERS
As we took our time to admire our surroundings, putting to use our trusty floor plan and reading descriptions on plaques of who or what we were looking at, while staring at the Coronation Chair (which to me seemed surprisingly plain; I had expected something much more ornate) I overheard a priest leading a tour underneath it. We hustled ourselves closer to hear to find the priest to be full of insight as well as humor. While describing the 700 yr. old chair and its state of disrepair, he spoke of how it had been forsaken many years and that people had defaced it with graffiti; now it was way up high up on a pedestal, out of reach. He said it had been used for 29 coronations, it was tradition to use it; “…but we really don’t expect the next king or queen to swing from a chandelier to get up there, we will actually move it!”
THOSE WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES IN HIS NAME SHALL BE REMEMBERED
In 1998, ten 20th century Christian martyrs, including Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero, were immortalized in stone statues over the Abbey’s west door. Very touching…
ALWAYS TAKE TIME TO PRAY…
From the moment we entered the Abbey, I felt warm; I felt welcome. The kindness, cheerfulness of the priests and volunteers within was a great part of an unforgettable experience and what would later in my reflections be an integral part of the Church of England. Each hour, an announcement is made for 1 minute of prayer of which all are invited to share in their own language, as expressed in this outtake of their brochure:
‘At Westminster Abbey we put prayer at the centre of everything we do. It is just one reason why tourists are so welcome here and why they value the calm and space the Abbey now provides for reflection and prayer. Every hour we ask all our visitors to keep silence for a brief act of prayer for the world and its needs and we invite you to share in this.’
Amen. As we were there for over an hour, we gladly joined in twice.
BE ON YOUR GUARD; NO HORSING AROUND (OR IS IT, BE ON YOUR HORSE, NO GUARDING AROUND?)
We left the Abbey, first walked around the Westminster Palace, AKA Parliament, stopping to admire the architecture and statues. We then found ourselves across from the famous Horse Guards building, home of -you guessed it-the British Horse Guards, AKA Household Calvary, who were founded by Cromwell in 1650 (after he losted them). I snapped a quick photo of the Horse Guard on duty; the horse smiled, the guard seemed a bit bored.
LOOK’S LIKE THER PERFECT PLACE FOR A BATTLE: TRAFALGAR SQUARE
It was a good day for walking, something I adore. Our next target was about 6 city blocks away- Trafalgar Square, home to the National Gallery. Trafalgar Square, with its impressive Nelson's Column and the lions who guard it (stone, not real), commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (over which Admiral Nelson presided before he was put up on the pedestal-column), a historic battle at sea won by the British Royal Navy against the combined French and Spanish fleets. All I can say is that the Spanish should have known better, really. The last time they had sent their impressive armada to conquer England it was a disaster. They had sent their beautiful ships, designed to impress (but obviously not to fight, let alone win) grossly outnumbering the English, who sent them crying back to their mommies after whipping their Spanish butts in English waters. History repeated itself and England has a beautiful square to commemorate it. The fact that they also beat the pants off the French seemed to have been reason enough to make the square REALLY grand, but that’s my opinion.
ART HISTORY 101: THE NATIONAL GALLERY
The sky was blue with a hint of clouds while we were at the Abbey; that much has been declared; by the time we got to Trafalgar Square, rain clouds were hanging over us. It poured for 2 hours, the length of time we roamed the Gallery’s halls. The National Gallery opened its doors in 1824; it now houses over 2,300 paintings from the 13th to the 20th century. It is owned by the British public and entry to its main collection is free. I have fond memories of my Yorkfield grade school years and the Picture Lady who visited us regularly (monthly, if memory serves me correctly), bringing famous works of art to life for us with prints for us to study, with brief descriptions of each painting and the artist who had given birth to it. While I am sure I had also studied at some point art in high school as well (although those years I remember mostly friends and fun and little of the learning), it will always be the Picture Lady who I remember as introducing me to the World of Art, and it was she who I thought of as I silently thanked her as I saw in person for the first time (outside of Chicago, that is) the works of some of the greatest artists who’ve ever lived. Again, no photos allowed. Some highlights included: Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, life-size at 8 x 10 ft, which struck me as so brilliant with the blindfolded 9 day queen in white that looked so real- as if we were right there about to see her meet her demise;
Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, with his usual style of using mythical gods- in this case Venus the goddess of love and Mars the god of war- symbolizing love conquering war, with a few almost devilish looking children looking on; Degas’ Ballet Dancers, soft shoes with an elegant soft touch; Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, in typical Da Vinci style with the baby Jesus pointing at John the Baptist; Michelangelo’s unfinished The Entombment, - or at least it is attributed to him; Raphael’s The Madonna of the Pinks, a very touching portrait of Mary as a mother, vs. as the traditional religious figure, caring for her baby;
Picasso’s ode to a good Cubist dinner with his Fruit Dish, Bottle and a Violin; Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, showing a round faced beardless Jesus with three of his various aged disciples, looking very much like a good Jewish argument as they are about to break chicken (the poultry being a bit more dominant on the table than the bread); a few of Rembrandt’s self portraits as well as his Belshazzar's Feast, with his trademark use of shadow and light;
Renoir’s The Skiff- AKA Boating on the Seine, Monet’s very impressionable La Pointe de la Hève, Water-Lilies in the Setting Sun and The Water-Lily Pond, Vincent van Gogh’s drooping still life work in Sunflowers and his equally still Van Gogh’s Chair, and last but not least - Sandra Thompson’s Stick Figures in the Sunset.
NO LOVE; THEY SELL NO PICADILLY; THIS AIN’T NO CIRCUS!
The rain had ceased by the time we left the Gallery and the clouds were beginning to disperse. Ready to see another London Landmark, we headed a few blocks away to Picadilly Circus and the Shaftesbury memorial fountain, topped with the famous statue of Anteros. Picadilly Circus is just a big road junction where five streets meet in an entertainment district which includes the London Pavilion and the Criteria Theatre, but it is most famous for its neon signage. The Shaftesbury memorial, across the Circus from the neon signs, is dedicated to the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury, a famous Victorian philanthropist. Although it is known as the statue of ‘Eros’, the Greek god of love and erotic desire, it is actually Anteros, the Greek god of requited love, selfless love and the avenger of unrequited love, which adorns the top.
GREAT SCOT! THAT’S ELEMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON!
Our feet and stomachs started to scream at us at that point, so I whipped out my Fodor’s London from its hiding place and looked to see what was nearby. The Sherlock Holmes Pub sounded perfect, it came highly recommended, wasn’t far and situated right by the Old Scotland Yard. I grew up fascinated by Sherlock Holmes stories, so it sounded good to me. Our trusty map turned out not to be so trusty and we ended up taking the long way to the pub, but we found it, even spotted a sign commemorating the spot of Old Scotland Yard where I snapped Vidal’s photo, and before he snapped my head off for forcing him to pose for one more silly photo, grabbed an outdoor table in front of the pub. It looked very Victorian, served fish and chips as their specialty; the service was a bit… nonexistent. I went in to wash my hands, ask for service and check out the interior, which was adorned with all things Sherlock, except for the food warmer full of fish and chips… That should have been my 2nd clue (the service being the 1st) that things were not going to be quite as good as we had thought. We ended up having the worst meal of our trip, the food was cold and tasteless, which says a lot, considering the fact we were starving and anything should have tasted divine to us at that point. Oh, well. Having lived in a tourist destination in Mexico for 15 years, I should know better than to believe the food critics of a tour book; bottom line is never trust the word of someone whose personal tastes you do not know. But back to the Sherlock Holmes Pub: We choked down our lousy meal and headed off to the Tube to our next destination: The Temple Church.
THE MYSTERY OF THE TEMPLAR KNIGHTS AND THE TEMPLE CHURCH
The Temple Church in London, built by the Knights Templar in 1160, was famous for its rare circular nave, ‘the Round.’ The church was originally part of a huge monastic complex that incorporated housing, military training facilities, and leisure area for those who were not permitted to leave the grounds without the consent of the Temple Master. The Knights Templar held worship services as well as their secret initiation rites in the Round. Sounds just like the kind of church you want to send your kids to. I had read The DaVinci Code prior to our trip- no it did not shake my faith, I’m fully aware it is nothing more than fiction; but I enjoyed a good suspense novel and found it to be very entertaining for that. Part of it took place in the Temple Church, the description fascinated me and I had to see it. I found it on our London map and we were off.
MONTY AND MEL JOIN THE HUNT
It was right there on the map…Easier than it looked; impossible to find. We began our mad search by map, ended up asking anyone we could find. That in itself sounded like the easy thing to do, but in fact, added to the chaos: Where’s the Temple? You’re in the Temple. Where’s the Temple? It’s in the Temple, by the inner temple and down a small road. Huh? I guess some things just don't translate from English to... English? A few dozen more people we asked, finally a nice policeman pointed down the road towards a huge complex, The Temple.
But not The Temple, just The Temple. What? Exactly. Whatever, I thought. By that time it was pouring rain, but I was determined to find the Temple, although I was no longer sure what exactly that meant. I felt like we were living inside a Monty Python or Mel Brooks parody of the Da Vinci Code! We followed the policeman’s directions - down the street, up the path to a massive complex, entered through a gate, wandered down the winding lane, past old buildings… We finally found it by accident, down a dark alley then through a hedge labyrinth and then behind the third bush on the right. I would love to go on here about how mysterious the inside of this round church was and about how we were looking over our shoulders the whole time we tip-toed around the ancient marble effigies on the tombs of the templar knights, how I went hysterical upon seeing the grotesque heads carved in marble above the door and ran off screaming, but that would be a story out of my imagination, as the church was closed for renovations…
We stood at the ancient doors, I searched frantically for some ancient carving that would be worth our while, but alas, there was not…I thought Vidal was going to chop me into little pieces to at least have some suspense story ending for the long mad hunt for a closed down temple… We stood there like drowned rats; I snapped a photo of the outside of the temple with the 2 knights on one horse on top of a pillar, before Vidal dragged me kicking and screaming back to the Tube… ***If I knew then what I know now, the following information would have been a great help… The Temple is also a nickname for the Inns of Court, which consist of 4 inns: Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple; in between the latter two is the Temple Church. This information, however, would not come to light until my return to Mexico, when I figured out DaVinci's missing clue (which I will keep to myself!).
THE LONDON BRIDGE IS IN ARIZONA, YOU FOOLS! LOCK’ EM UP IN THE TOWER WITH THE JEWELS!
Back at the Tube station, I resisted looking directly at Vidal as I told him our next stop was the Tower of London and the nearby Tower Bridge. As worn out as he was, I knew he would thank me later (50 years later, when he finally would forgive me I was sure, but nonetheless, he would thank me!). Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, AKA the Tower of London or just plain ‘The Tower’, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078, moat and all. It has been a fortress, a royal palace, a prison, a place of execution and torture, an armory, zoo, treasury, the Royal Mint, and since 1303- the home of the Royal Jewels. Let's not forget the famous Beefeaters who guard the tower in their slightly outdated yet very royally identifiable uniforms, who, unlike the Royal Guards of Buckingham, have been known to crack the occasional smile- or at least, one did for my sweet grandmother back in 1970.
Their official title is the Yeoman Warders; they’ve been guarding the Tower and it’s secrets since 1485. Like any Royal Guard department, they have their own ceremony each night- the Ceremony of the Keys- after which they undoubtedly are given their meal of… beef. There is a joke that the real Beefeaters are the Royal Ravens… Man, these Royal Brits are a bit loco for their birds, let me tell you. I learned in Salisbury that one could lose their head for harming a royal swan, and there is even a royal position for a Royal Swan looker-after guard guy (the official name, I do believe, though I am not sure if his funky hat is made entirely of white feathers or not). At The Tower, there have been since the 17th century ravens, whose wings have been clipped, and who are fed a great deal of Grade A beef daily; the Ravenmaster, one of the Beefeaters, is in charge of their welfare. Legend has is that if the ravens leave the Tower, London will fall faster than its bridge.
A few blocks past the Tower, the mighty Tower Bridge spanned the River Thames. Rumor has it that the man who bought the old London Bridge in 1968 (and had it shipped and rebuilt in Arizona), thought he was buying the Tower Bridge. He should have had a clue when his bridge fell down. By the time we arrived at The Tower, it was 4:30pm. We dragged our feet a few blocks to the entrance, stood in line, and a very nice kid at the ticket booth, probably all of 18, asked me if this was our first time to the Tower. I smiled and said yes it was. He said it was 4:30pm and the Tower closed at 5pm, that if we really wanted to, he would sell me the tickets, but to really see it, we would need at least an hour; if we had more time it would be better to come back another day. I felt more than saw Vidal sigh deeply, thanked the guy for his good advice and said we would return. We unfortunately never did return (next trip to England!), but we did take time out to photograph the Tower Bridge from there.
I gave in to Vidal and we headed out of London on the 5:20pm train to Guildford…
For more information:
The National Gallery: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/
Westminster Abbey: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/
The Temple Church: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/england/london-temple-church.htm
The Inns of Court: http://www.kellscraft.com/NooksAndCornersofOldEngland/NooksandCornersCh05.html
The Tower of London: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/stories.aspx
The Tower Bridge: http://www.towerbridge.org.uk/TowerBridge/English