Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Historical Sites in England (Part 3)

I know it sounds like we spent all of our vacation in England and only stopped by Sweden for a cup of tea and some Finncrisp crackers, but I assure you this is not the case.  It is simply a matter of focus.  We spent much of our time in England doing historical things, which we loved.  In Sweden we did a few historical things, but we spent most of our time doing other things, which we also loved.  We were, in point of fact, treated wonderfully well by our friends in both places.  So fear not, Sweden-o-philes!  We will return to Scandinavia soon enough, as I work through the historical things.

And if you’re tired of reading about this trip, my advice is to go away and come back in a week or two.  By then I should have moved on to my usual scintillating coverage of my cats, American history and politics, the achievements of my children, general observations on the state of the universe and why it is unacceptable today (as opposed to yesterday), and the occasional post consisting of nothing but inside jokes that nobody will understand except myself and one other person who may or may not even read this blog but that’s okay because I also read it and I think it’s funny.

Blogging: not really a sociable activity after all.

So: historical sites.  We visited a lot of them.  They were all, uniformly, cool.

We spent most of our time in England in the western part of the country, since that is where Julie and Richard live, but we did take one day to go to London.  And there we went to the Tower, because you need to go to the Tower if you are in London.

And because we could meet up with Paul. 

I met Paul in college, way back when.  He has spent all of his life being called by his middle name, but for two brief years – coinciding with the first two years I knew him – he tried going by his first name, and I have known him as Paul ever since.  I’ve tried calling him by his preferred name, and frankly it just doesn’t work.  I think he just chalks it up to experience and lets me slide, and I’m good with that. 

He’s now in London on assignment with his company, and since the Tower was on the short list of things the girls wanted to see in England, we figured we’d meet up.  Eventually it became Julie’s task to organize that, since I was in Sweden for much of the actual detail work and even at my best I’m not that good of a social planner, and in the end it worked, and I was grateful that she did that for us.  One more happy debt!


The Tower is in a scenic neighborhood, right next to the London Bridge – which was suitably decorated for the upcoming Olympics.  We managed to time our trip quite precisely between the end of the Diamond Jubilee and the beginning of the Olympics, in the hopes of avoiding most of the rush.  I think we succeeded, but it’s hard to say.  At any rate, there were Olympic rings on the London Bridge, and they were picturesque.


[UPDATE:  I have been told that this is actually the Tower Bridge, and what is properly called the London Bridge is actually the next one down the river.  I suppose in one sense they're all London bridges, but it is nice to have the right name for this one here.  So, thanks!]

The Tower is rather like an old tree, with growth rings that show you how it changed over time – the oldest stuff, such as the White Tower, is in the middle:


The newer stuff is in the next ring out:


And the newest stuff, such as, well, everything else, is on the outside.



I actually had visited the Tower in 1990, the first time I went over to see Julie, which is an entire blog post in itself.  We’d gone through and seen most of it before embarking on a five-minute scan of the Crown Jewels (“Closing time, loves, but you can take a quick peek.”  “Nice rocks!  Nice rocks!  Nice rocks!  Let’s go!”).  They’ve done a really nice job of making the place much more visitor friendly since then.

For instance, the Crown Jewels are now quite attractively displayed, even if you can’t take pictures of them.  Tabitha was just amazed by them.  “This is the most expensive display of sparkly I will ever see,” she said, and she is probably right about that.

They’ve also set up exhibits to wander through, rather than just old rooms.  Some of them are really cool, such as the one showing the Tower’s history as the home of the Royal Mint, and some are rather eccentric, such as this horse, who is clearly amused by something:


And this suit of armor, which demonstrates that medieval knights went into battle somewhat excited and very well protected.


You have to appreciate a man who loves his job, though perhaps it would be better if he didn’t love it quite that much.  Maybe that’s what the horse was laughing at.

The Tower folks also put on this wonderful little play dramatizing the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and the Bloody Assizes that followed it.  The guy with the big hair in the middle of the top photo is the Duke of Monmouth, and the fellow with the hat is the loyal follower of James II.  



The Duke came out and made his speech against the new king, and then the other guy came out and accused him of treason.  They then split up into two camps (we ended up with the guy with the hat, despite feeling a certain kinship with the Duke from having been at two of the main sites of his rebellion just a couple of days before – Lyme Regis, where we spent a day, and Sedgmoor, site of the last pitched battle fought on English soil, which we drove by) and each group formed armies.  Mostly our combat consisted of us yelling 17th-century obscenities at the Duke and his army (who lost this rebellion, though James’ reign would be cut short three years later by the Glorious Rebellion, so maybe the Duke was onto something).  “Fartleberries!” we screamed.  And the rebellion was crushed.

Just like that.

There followed some speeches by the Duke and his wife, meant to be serious and reflective in the wake of his sentence of death at the Bloody Assizes from Judge Jeffries (an archetype of judicial extremism to the American colonists as late as the 1790s, to judge from my dissertation research), but the simple fact was that there was a girl in the crowd who was a few years younger than Lauren and who found the whole thing so exciting that she spent the entire play – the ENTIRE play – bouncing up and down, and she very nearly cracked the Duke up.  “Who owns this rabbit?” the guy with the hat finally had to ask.

The other notable thing about our Tower experience is that Lauren displayed a deep and rather unsettling interest in the Torture Chamber, going through it twice and reading the exhibit displays thoroughly each time.  I may have to keep an eye on this.  Of course, the displays themselves were not all that graphic, and mostly they focused on how little torture actually happened in the Tower, really very seldom actually, all things considered, not like some other countries we could mention, no not at all, nothing to see here, nothing at all, SQUIRREL!

Our final medieval-era historical site was Goodrich Castle, “a very castley castle,” according to Richard, who knows whereof he speaks.  It was indeed such.




Goodrich Castle is just up the Wye River Valley from Tintern Abbey, but on the English side of the border.  It was built in the 1100s, rebuilt in the 1200s, and largely destroyed in a siege during the English Civil War of the 1640s, so it has seen a whole lot of action in a way matched by the castles on our trip only by Bohus Fastning.

It also makes a wonderful stage.  Over the course of our trip Ginny and Lauren worked up an entire routine that basically involved sassy ways to say words that ended in “-ation,” and they put on a show for us at the top of that wall.


In keeping with British safety regulations, there was no safety rail and the other side was a sheer drop of about forty feet or so.  Fortunately, we didn’t know that until after they were done.

You can wander all over Goodrich, and it is sufficiently intact that it makes it very interesting to do so – you can go up levels, down levels, and – if you follow one particular path to a small doorway – out to the moat area so you can go completely around the castle from the outside.  You can also sit pretty much wherever you want.


The highlight of Goodrich Castle for me was when we climbed up the central tower, the oldest part of the castle.


One of the things I noticed about signs in England is that they were, in general, quite accurate.  So when the sign at the bottom of the staircase warned that the stairs were both steep and narrow, I knew they weren’t kidding.  And indeed, those were among the steepest and narrowest stairs I have ever climbed, turning round and round clockwise (in proper defensive architectural style) as we ascended.  The wide part of each stair was maybe five inches across, and the angle was more ladder than stairway, but when you got to the top it was worth it.




And then we had to get back down.

1 comment:

beatrice in Paris said...

Excited medieval knights. Gotta love it!