Back to Britain, Part 4
Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tower of London
June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 3, 2003)
By Lewis Nolan
June 13, 2003, Friday – In London
The weather pointed to another great day in London. We are very much aware of just how lucky we are. We had a rainless week here 17 years ago, a happy contrast to the experience of friends who had nary a rainless day during their stays in the city noted for its drizzle, cloud cover and wet pavement. The skies are clear and the forecast calls for a high in the low 70s.
A leisurely read of The Times - accompanied by a ham sandwich and Diet Coke for me and English biscuits and coffee for Betty - is a wonderful way to start the day. More great weather was on tap later in the week, with mostly sunny skies and predicted high in the low 70s. Just two months later, visitors and residents alike had a very tough time as record high temps over 100 degrees were set in London and elsewhere. With little air conditioning, much of Western Europe was turned into a Turkish steam bath.
We had wanted to try one of the Original London Walks, a series of several dozen guided tours on foot. The walks take in many of the city’s favorite sights and attractions plus encompass a few that are downright bizarre. Most take about two hours and cost £5 (about $8), with a discount for seniors and students. One of the most popular tours is Jack The Ripper’s London, which sometimes draws over 100 walkers. Other well-attended walks include several dealing with Beatlemania and ghosts of centuries past.
We opted for the more sedate walking tour of Victoria & Albert Museum. Like most walks, this one started at a designated time at a designated tube stop. Just before the appointed time of 10:45 a.m., our guide appeared at South Kensington Underground Station. She introduced herself by waving an Original London Walks brochure. Helene Jones gave us a brief description of her credentials (educated at Oxford), the itinerary of the walk and collected the fees. We found her to be quite knowledgeable and generally entertaining. She demonstrated a finely tuned ability to politely shoo-off non-payers who tried to eavesdrop on her commentaries.
|Lewis by V&A Museum sculptures|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
However, Helene obviously knew a great deal more than what interested us about the surprisingly few objects in the V&A that she chose to illuminate. While the walking tour did have a highpoint or two – and certainly expanded our understanding of a few exhibits not mentioned in the tour books – we were disappointed in the walk’s limited breadth. So we crossed several other walks that sounded interesting off our list of “possible” things to do.
We learned that the V&A opened in 1857 under the name South Kensington Museum. The museum was the result of Prince Albert’s vision and was named in honor of him and his wife, Queen Victoria. Its original purpose was to make arts and science objects available to all people, with the idea of promoting British commercial design, manufacturing and craftsmanship. Fodor’s Guidebook to London calls the V&A “the world’s largest decorative arts museum.” Others call it the world’s largest attic.
Adjacent to the V&A are the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science. The collection housed at the gargantuan Museum of Natural History was once part of the British Museum. But many years ago, the decision was made to focus the British Museum’s attention on the works of man. The works of Nature went to the Museum of Natural History. The Museum of Science is, naturally, devoted to its title.
I’m sure I could happily devote hours and hours and days and days to sampling the collections of these great museums of the world. That is what we did for recreation 35 years ago when Betty and I were penny-pinching newlyweds living just outside Washington DC. We spent many Saturdays visiting the Smithsonian complex and the art museums on the Mall. Admission then and now was free. Likewise now in England, where the government has temporarily waived entry fees at the national houses of historic treasures.
The V&A’s size and collection are beyond comprehension. It has 145 galleries that cover 7 miles of space on 6 floors. Only 5 percent of the 44,000 items in the Indian department alone can be displayed. While the collection includes a great many priceless objects - notably the wall-sized Raphael Tapestry Cartoons - the Museum gives much display to everyday objects and odd pieces of historic significance.
The highly selective but miniscule number of objects presented by our guide included:
* The wedding suit worn by the future James II, which supposedly led to what became two-piece suits worn by gentlemen today.
* The largest hand woven, wool carpet in the world. It is perhaps 30 feet wide and 50 feet long and looks like a giant Oriental rug.
* The celebrated working drawings of Raphael, which were pieced together to give shape to huge tapestries that once hung in Rome’s Sistine Chapel at St. Peters. The tapestries are now stored by the Vatican and rarely shown.
* The massive Great Bed of Ware, a 12-foot square bed where aristocrats engaged in group sex during Shakespearean times. The bard mentioned the infamous bed in “Twelfth Night.”
* An exquisitely paneled and decorated room that was disassembled from a London town home and reassembled within the Museum. It showcases the aristocracy’s opulent lifestyle of its day.
* What is believed to be the only surviving, complete wine service once owned by a Duke. It consists of a highly decorated, silver cooling tub the size of a cattle watering trough. The piece weighs 2,000 ounces. The service also includes two smaller tubs, likewise made of solid silver. The etiquette of the day had nobility and wealthy commoners showing off their wealth and status with elaborate, silver and gold serving pieces and equipment. Indeed, the Jewel House at the Tower of London has the Royal Family’s gold-plated, silver wine tub on display. When the etiquette changed and a brace of servants with elaborate ritual and equipment was no longer required for the proper enjoyment of wine, almost all the decorative, silver tubs were melted down and used for other purposes.
After our tour ended, Betty and I backtracked to visit the Silver Galleries. We found them to be worth a visit to the V&A all by themselves. Hundreds of silver serving items displayed, including arcane utensils and implements used for every imaginable food.
Harrods, the famous department store now owned by the Arab father of the late boyfriend of Diana, Princess of Wales, is a pleasant walk of perhaps a mile from the V&A. Predictably, security in the store is tight. Metal detectors are at the doors and there are lots of uniformed security personnel (and probably lots of plainclothes security and hidden cameras as well). Photo taking is not allowed in the picturesque Food Halls, unlike during our visit 17 years ago.
The merchandising at Harrods – which draws much of its clientele from outside London and England – is far more like that of major department stores in the U.S. than it was when we were here last. The range of common foods and exotic delicacies boggle the mind. There are plenty of eat-in places, including a sushi bar staffed by kimono-clad Japanese women. I purchased some Irish brown bread and a sandwich for later consumption. Betty bought several pastries.
Tired from the walk and trek to and around Harrods, we caught the tube at an underground station just outside the store and repaired back to our hotel for lunch and a rest.
With the day still young, we later rode the tube to the Tower of London. I struck up a conversation there with a familiar looking Beefeater. It turned out he was the same retired NCO that I talked to 17 years ago. All Yeoman Wardens are bedecked in Tudor-style costumes; they are called
|Betty with Tower Beefeater|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
I asked one of the male Beefeaters about a nearby office skyscraper under construction with a rounded top that makes it resemble a gigantic Apollo rocket. He cracked, “that’s our new ICBM to launch at France.” His quip was a timely reference to the age-old enmity between England and France, recently aggravated because of France’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces.
I remembered talking to the same Beefeater in 1986 and have an old photo to prove it. At the time he was chastising one of the Tower’s mischievous ravens, a bird named George. It seemed that George had a peculiar fondness for fingernail paint. Women wearing sandals soon learned of George’s “pecking order” unless a Beefeater intervened. We were told that George had died several years ago after a long life of 20-to-25 years. The Tower maintains a complement of seven ravens. Six are required by law and tradition. A spare bird is kept on duty to cover the occasional passing of another bird. Legend has it that if the ravens were to desert the premises, the kingdom would fall.
The meat-eating ravens keep the pigeon population under control. Their quickness, strength and intelligence combine to make the birds a formidable predator for careless pigeons. The dwindling number of pigeons around the Tower’s immaculate grounds have learned to be wary of the sharp-eyed ravens. The pigeons that aren’t fast enough are occasionally attacked and eaten - to the horror of Tower visitors. The Yeoman Ravenmaster clips the ravens’ wings to ensure they don’t fly the coop. A side benefit to the clipping is that it gives pigeons a flying chance to escape being eaten.
The Tower of London is Britain’s most visited and best preserved medieval fortress. It supposedly is the largest of its kind in Europe. Twenty towers are spread over 18 acres on the banks of the Thames. William the Conqueror of France, who defeated the native Saxons in 1066, started building the Tower as a show of force. Edward I (1272-1307) completed it. The White Tower portion of the complex was built within ancient Roman walls and served as a strong defense point, with walls 15 feet thick.
The Tower has been the site of many historic events. It has served as palace, fortress, prison and execution site. Dissident, feudal Barons seized it in 1215 and forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Two princes were murdered within its walls. Their uncle, Richard III, was crowned here. Two of Henry VIII’s wives lost their heads on the chopping block. A grisly re-creation of the block is favorite photography prop for tourists.
The Tower offers gripping displays of weaponry from medieval and later times. I particularly enjoyed looking at a pot-bellied suit of armor worn by Henry VIII and a powerful mortar that threw 18-inch shells over fortress walls. We passed on viewing the Tower’s instruments of torture and also the spacious cells once occupied by famous prisoners. For us and many other visitors, the favorite spot within the complex is the Jewel House, where the Crown Jewels are stored and displayed.
Among the breathtaking pieces behind vault quality, thick glass are the Sovereign Scepter and its 530-carat diamond, the largest cut diamond in the world; the Imperial State Crown with its 3,000 precious stones including the second largest diamond in the world; and the golden threads of the coronation robe worn by Queen Elizabeth in 1951.
The display of the Crown Jewels has been much improved in the intervening years from our last visit. Before, visitors were rapidly herded past a large, glass case by Beefeaters chanting “keep moving please.” Now, there are a series of cases strategically located around the Jewel House, each holding objects more opulent than the one before. The cases are spaced far enough apart so that the curious have sufficient time and room to linger. One case holds a jewel-studded sword. It is used by the incoming monarch to swear to protect the Church. No separation of church and state here. The royal coronation ceremony is conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury – head of the worldwide Anglican Church.
The finest pieces in the collection – containing the massive diamonds and coronation crown that was last worn a half-century ago – are in a glass case perhaps 20 feet long. Moving sidewalks are on either side. Especially beautiful are the State Crown worn by Queen Elizabeth during her annual address to Parliament and the small crown favored by Queen Victoria because of its light weight. The layout makes it okay for visitors to view the crowns and other bejeweled symbols of royal office by traversing the moving sidewalk on one side of the case then circling back to see the opposite sides of the jewels.
Our visit was late in the day and the usual, summertime crowd had thinned considerably. We relished the breathing space and spent a lot of time examining the exquisite treasures of the Kings and Queens of England.
Across the Thames and just upstream from The Tower is the HMS Belfast, a British cruiser that helped sink the Nazi pocket battleship Scharnhurst during World War II. It is open to tour. As much as I’d like to see it, our time was just too limited. Besides, we’ve already climbed around the American battleships USS Alabama in Mobile and the USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor.
We learned that the landmark Tower Bridge has an ingenious mechanism that allows its shop-lined, main span to open up like scissors for passing ships. However, ships taller than 50 meters - namely the large cruise liners - cannot pass beneath because of an immovable, decorative walkway at the top of the bridge. There is discussion underway about a redesign of Tower Bridge to open up Central London as a destination for large ships and their thousands of passengers. Already, some of the smaller cruise ships operated by the Seaborn Lines and others are docking alongside the HMS Belfast.
Directly across the river from the Tower of London is Tower City, a sprawling megacomplex of glass buildings. The development is owned by the royal family of Kuwait. The buildings offer retail, commercial and residential space to the very well heeled.
That evening, we followed the advice of our well-informed concierge at the Dolphin Square, Raymond, and had an excellent meal at Grumbles. The small restaurant was established in 1964 and is about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. I had salmon and Betty went for the duck. We visited with a young couple from Ireland at the next table. She was working in London and he was on break from Yale University in Connecticut, where he is working on an MBA. They gave us some additional dining possibilities.
Their recommendations (separately endorsed by concierge Raymond) were:
- Chimes, opposite Grumbles on Churton Street in Pimlico.
- The Pomograntes, traditional food on Grosvenor Road across the street from the Thames Embankment not far from Pimlico Gardens Park.
- Seafresh, voted one of the top fish and chips restaurants in London, on Wilton Road not far from Victoria Station.