Sunday, March 16, 2014

Strolling Through London


"London is made for walking. It is a city of small streets and sudden vistas, of unexpected alleys and hidden courtyards. It cannot be seen from a bus or car..." -Peter Ackroyd-

Prior to visiting London, we discovered London Walks, an exceptional tour company that has been perfecting its craft since the 1960's. Smothered with awards, they offer an array of routes and tours designed to illustrate the highlights of a city meant to be seen on foot. Local guides lead the way through some of London's picturesque, hidden, tumultuous, and sometimes spooky history.


What puts this company over the top is how they cater to their customer. All day everyday they offer a variety of tours, easily accessible outside a tube stop. There is no need to book in advance and if you want to go on a tour, you just show up and pay on the spot. Oh, and at 9 pounds, it was a bargain for at least two hours of expert guidance. We created an itinerary in advance and could play things by ear, just the way we like it. Overwhelmed with options to explore the city for a reasonable cost and with no need to commit, it was perfect! We ultimately took three guided walks featuring The Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Jack the Ripper.

Millenium Bridge
A city made for walking
Tower of London - This was our first walk and possibly my favorite. The tour started on the hill outside the tower where public executions took place. Only the most special individuals were executed inside the Tower walls. I guess that is one way to know how famous you were!

Moat
The moat outside defending the palace
London has been a vital element in world history for so long, and the Tower of London was at its center. A royal residence for some who lived there, it was also a living nightmare for others who were imprisoned, tortured, or even beheaded. Some pretty famous headless ghosts are likely haunting these grounds, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of notorious King Henry VIII.

Traitor's Gate
Traitor's Gate - You did not want to be hauled in through here!
Beefeater
Active Beefeater guarding the Queen's residence
Current times there are still Beefeaters stationed on sight to protect the Queen's house (though she now lives in much more upscale palaces) and the crown jewels, a lavish assortment of jewels locked up in a massive vault and vigilantly protected. I can't even fathom the value of the collection.

White Tower
White Tower - The great stone keep within the fortification
Tower Bridge
View of Tower Bridge from Bloody Tower
Westminster Abbey - A church almost 1,000 years old, Westminster Abbey contains a massive amount of history. Coronations and royal weddings are the norm, and the tombs and burials represent a who's who of English and world history. The centerpiece attraction is Edward the Confessor. Once he was deemed a Saint, real estate near his tomb became highly prized. I was in a bit of awe of the power and prestige whose remains we discussed while dodging thousands of people shuffling for a peek.

Main entrance to the church - Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside
There was so much to see that without a guided tour we would have missed out on all kinds of fun details, including how the Tudor sisters Elizabeth and Mary are buried together or how we could see how the architectural styles shifted and were rebuilt over time. We learned about the idiosyncrasies of Gothic, Tudor, and Romanesque designs. London Walks describes it eloquently: "the Abbey is England in microcosm. It's also a building of splendour, intricacy, and consummate virtuosity." I don't have anything that poetic, other than this is a must see! 

From inside the Abbey across the courtyard - The detail in every inch is phenomenal
Another cool story was about the Stone of Destiny, a stone originating in Scotland on which kings sat for their coronation. Edward I pillaged the stone after fighting with Scotland in the 13th century. It was fitted into the bottom of a wooden throne and is the seat in which all English sovereigns have been crowned. It was symbolic to represent England's rule over Scotland. The stone wasn't returned to Scotland until 1996 in a transaction at the border, but will still be returned to England for future coronation ceremonies. I love learning about these historic customs that really put into perspective how young the US is in its current state.

Picturesque from all sides
Jack the Ripper - I don't really have any pictures from this, as the walk took us through the once seedy, less glamorous parts of London after dark, recalling the foggy, menacing nights of Jack the Ripper. The fixation on this case is fascinating, with the last murder taking place in the 1888. Maybe it is the pure mystery behind brutal murders never solved, maybe it was the fact that the murders exposed poor living conditions that lead to massive public reform, or maybe it is because that if you talk to ten people you might hear ten different theories of who was behind the rampage through Eastern London. Either way, it has taken on a life of its own and we passed at least three other tours discussing the same topic and visiting the locations of the crimes and terror one man (or woman?) imposed on a city.

Eerily standing near a murder site - Notice the narrow alleyways that are prevalent throughout London
London has so much to see that 365 days per year London Walks offers ten plus tours a day, rain or shine! Think: Harry Potter, kings & queens, World War I & II, The Beatles, Shakespeare, Dickens, castles, modern theater, royal palaces, and pubs! Our travels have barely scratched the surface, but I am not sure if any place yet has as much to offer as London.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great review! We'll be following your trips carefully from now on to get tips for our own travels :)

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    1. I only spend the time to write about the best! Cheers for making our trip so memorable. Thank you for the kind comments!

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