Now that my sleeping patterns are somewhat back to normal, I have to really sit down and reflect on what London was like.
London has had a very odd sort of place in my imagination. I grew up reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and pictured the Victorian London with hansom cabs and gentlemen in top hats. Hey – I was six. Shut up. :) But long and short of it, I knew, in reality, that London had a lot more to it than just the stories of the greatest detective.
As I studied history, I grew fascinated with the medieval era and Renaissance art. I dug deep into the history of the British monarchy, from the Wars of the Roses forward, and you may well remember, if you stuck around on this blog long enough, that I nearly did cartwheels at work when they announced from Leicestershire that the skeleton found in the parking lot was, in fact, that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England, who actually laid down the foundation of the modern bail system that is still used today.
History has been my favorite fascination, just as jazz has been my only enduring love affair, and such were the circumstances that, at last, brought me to the United Kingdom two weeks after my thirtieth birthday.
This was the trip I selected to mark the occasion. You guys know I travel. You know I travel a lot. But there is something to be said for marking a special occasion with a trip, and I could think of very few destinations that could mark the occasion quite like London.
Mind you, it took me forever to find the right flights. It helped that two of my favorite music people had a show in Pizza Express, and definitely helped that the timing just worked. But I didn’t manage to get a solid flight until around March, by means of Aer Lingus – my first time flying with them, and the trip had a short layover in Dublin, Ireland.
A layover that did not last long enough in the least, I think.
My friend Brendan, an Irish native, refers to it simply as Home. Until I flew over Ireland, I didn’t understand why. Something about seeing the neat fields, something about the way that the Irish Sea sparkled in the morning sunshine, and the simple, straightforward manner of the people all call to the spirit in a way. Someone like myself, a wanderer and adventurer by nature, can look at this land and want to settle on a piece of it, and grow on it. It’s Home indeed, to those who hail from it, because if even someone like myself, a wanderer born into the people who have, historically, had no home, an adventurer who thrives and lives on the chase of the next beautiful places and people to see and photograph, can look at the fields of Ireland and feel a connection to the land, then what else can I call it but Home? Or at least, a place with potential for it to become home, in some decades down the line.
London itself has turned out to be interesting in many ways. I stayed only a short walk from Shaftesbury Avenue, but felt no draw to the theater. It was too reminiscent of Broadway for me to feel any draw to it; but the blend of modern technology – RFID-oriented public transit? Yes, please take a page out of this, NY – and classic architecture was a fascination. I could walk past a building and see a plaque commemorating the person who stayed there and when, and there would be twenty of those in as many blocks. Twists, turns, down this alley, past that storefront, and you find yourself in a tiny little coffee shop that is everything you can want: great food, quiet music, people who don’t disturb you. Take a trip down to the Tower, and the first thing you will see when you come out of the pedestrian underpass is a thousand-year-old castle with the Shard jutting out into the gray sky right behind it. An odd juxtaposition of everything that London was, and everything that it has become.
And yes, my trip started by journeying into the Tower.
The fact that I came out alive is something that I might joke about, but in all seriousness, I have done meticulous research on everything that has taken place in that castle. All the legends, the ghosts, the mysteries, the infamous prisoners… I have researched and committed all of it to memory.
However… have you ever walked into a place and felt the earth shift beneath your feet when the realization hits you, at last, that you are in the right place at the precise right time? Have you ever experienced something that convinces you that yes, anything in the world is possible, just because it has brought you to this exact place and time?
I have felt that all of three times in my life. The first time was aboard the Celebrity Century cruise ship in 2009, my very first music charter cruise that has transformed my life. The second time was at a particular point last year, at a summer festival where I was shooting as media, when I knew that I was on the right path for myself.
The third…was when I came out of the pedestrian underpass and surfaced right in front of the Tower.
Seeing that castle for the first time made everything tilt. There was nothing for me, or my eyes, but the turrets and the structure of that castle, nothing but the thousand years of its history reciting itself rapid-fire in my ears. Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, did they know where each other was held at the time Mary I imprisoned them? Did they meet, dine, walk the grounds in secret, aided and abetted by a sympathetic jailer? Did Anne Boleyn know at the time of her coronation that the same rooms she was in would be the same rooms where she would later await her execution, or where her own daughter would later end up before she became queen? Did the Princes in the Tower, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, walk these rooms, these courtyards? Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of those princes, popularized as the White Queen, shut herself up in the Tower when her husband, Edward IV, was captured by Warwick the Kingmaker; where was she? In the Beauchamp wing? The White Tower?
The enormity of it all just hit me like a ton of bricks when I set eyes onto that castle. Like the buzz of modern London, the traffic and the electronics, all ceased to exist. Like for the briefest of seconds, it was the medieval era, with all the fear that this castle struck into the people’s souls.
The last thing I should have done was go into the Bloody Tower by myself, and definitely not as the first stop. If there is ever any place in the world that will forever convince you that ghosts are real, then I can think of nothing better than the Tower of London as that place, and the Bloody Tower as the wing in which you will find said proof.
One of the rooms in that castle has been set up as an exhibit dedicated to the Princes int he Tower, and ties it to Richard III as the culprit behind their disappearance. Frankly, this is something I disagree upon very firmly, for the simple reason that Richard III hero-worshipped his brother Edward IV, and out of loyalty alone, I truly doubt that he would’ve harmed a hair on the boys’ heads. If he is responsible for their disappearance, I would think it would be only in getting them silently out of the Tower and somewhere safe. After all, Richard himself was sent away to Flanders for safekeeping during the Wars of the Roses as well. There’s also the part where it’s rumored that Edward IV was a bastard, fathered by an archer, and this is corroborated by the contemporary descriptions of the Plantagenet men: the Duke of York, their father, was a man of a small, slender build, dark-haired. Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence, were both built very similarly. Edward IV was huge: over 6ft tall, built broad, and blond. The Lady Cecily Neville, their mother, was also of a slighter stature. So whose genes showed up in Edward IV? If you want further proof, look at the skeletal analysis of Richard III, conducted recently, and compare that with the grandson of Edward IV…whom you know as Henry VIII.
Genetics are funny like that, they expose certain things. But this would mean that the Princes in the Tower were, in fact, legally barred from the throne, because their father, Edward IV, was never the legitimate king in the first place…which would mean that Richard III was, indeed, legitimately able to claim the throne.
Nonetheless, those two boys did vanish somewhere in the Bloody Tower, and when you take the tiny, steep, twisty spiral staircase up to the Room of the Princes, you start to feel the enormity of that history weighing on you. The cold stone wall under your hand seems to vibrate. Your breathing quickens. Maybe it’s just the knowledge of the history, or maybe it’s the feeling like you really, really shouldn’t be there alone. But I will tell you, even though I was alone on that staircase, I could not breathe for anything. And I sure as hell didn’t feel alone.
You walk through everything that the Tower offers, and despite the solemn splendor of the Crown Jewels, despite seeing the Armory exhibit with King Henry VIII’s suits of armor, you can’t help but remember all the bloody incidents of history that have haunted this place from its inception. This is not the place that has a benevolent mark in English history, nor that of the world, and being inside it, even knowing that you can now walk out of it alive, makes you remember all the multitudes who were denied such a privilege.
I didn’t go to St. Peter ad Vincula, which is the final resting place of many of Henry VIII’s victims, including Queen Anne Boleyn. That’s something for the next visit. But after being in the Bloody Tower, to go there just was a little Too Much.
I’m always one to believe in reason first, and I would love to chalk this experience up to just my encyclopedic knowledge of history being recited rapid-fire with every step I took in the Tower. But really, it was more than that. The window that whipped open when I walked in the Beauchamp Tower, that vibrating feeling under my hand whenever I touched a wall on my way into another room… When the evidence adds up to a picture that doesn’t quite fit into the laws of reason, you have to take the improbable solution as the answer.
Really, though, that alone was what made London memorable for me. The fact that, though the London Eye does give you the best view in the house, apart from the quiet, majestic stillness of Westminster Abbey and the tombs and chapels of everyone who has graced the pages of legends and history books alike, that there is such an immersing experience as the Tower. Where you walk into the walls of the castle and, immediately, travel back five hundred years into the history and the unexplained.
For that reason alone, and for the reason of needing to visit St. Peter ad Vincula, Hampton Court, Windsor Palace, and all the locations of medieval England that I couldn’t squeeze into just one week, I absolutely know that I shall be going back. I don’t know when, but go back I shall.