Queen Elizabeth Tower – London’s Leaning Tower

The Queen Elizabeth Tower is more widely known as Big Ben, although this was originally the nick name given to the massive bell of the clock in the tower.  Finished in 1853, the Clock Tower, as it was originally known, is one of London’s most iconic images and actually leans slightly to the north-west (about 23cm).

Big Ben behind the railings of the Palace of Westminster

Big Ben behind the railings of the Palace of Westminster.

The clock (which is the world’s second largest four faced chiming clock after the one on the Minneapolis City Hall), is famed for its precision and accuracy but it hasn’t always looked as it does today.  For two years during the First and then again in the Second World War, its face was darkened (and the bell silenced) to prevent attack by Germany, and during the Blitz part of the roof and two of the faces were damaged. When these were repaired, an additional five floor block was added.

The chimes of the clock are as famous to those in the UK as the clock tower itself, with television stations around the country sounding in midnight on New Year’s eve – but don’t get it wrong the first chime signals the hour, not the last.  Times Square has its ball and London its Bell.

London_20140912_262 Big Ben

Although it’s not possible for most people to access the tower, UK residents can arrange to join a tour of the inside.  This is done by contacting your local MP or Peer of the Realm if you happen to have one on speed dial.  If you are lucky enough to fit the bill, then plan ahead and get fit, as the tours tend to fill up 6 months in advance and includes climbing all 334 spiraling stone steps to the top.

Changing the Guard – But with horses

A much less well known spectacle that shows the pomp and ceremony of Royal London than the Changing of the Guard that occurs at Buckingham Palace is the Changing of the Queen’s Life Guard which takes place at Horse Guards at 11am each summer’s day (except Sundays when it occurs at 10am – please check on the day you plan to visit though as State ceremonies and duties will change this time table from time to time).

Horse Guardsmen lined up and ready

The “New Guard” are ready to take command.

The ceremony, as best I can understand it, really starts approximately 30 minutes before the actual changing ceremony when the relief leaves Hyde Park Barracks, heads along Constitutional Hill in Green Park, down The Mall and into the parade ground on the northern side of the buildings of Horse Guards, and lines up opposite the “old guard” that has already congregated there.

Changing of the Horse Guards

The first relief of the “new guard” takes over.

The guard has two groups within it and the first relief (those who will be on duty for the first 90 minutes) move into the central yard at the Whitehall side of the buildings and is joined from inside the Guard Room by those who were still “on guard” at the start of the ceremony.  The now relieved group from the “old guard” join their colleagues on the parade ground and the “old guard” return to the barracks while the second relief of the “new guard” head to the Guard Room.

Guards on horse back head to the Parade Ground

The current “relief” of the “old guard” head through the archway to join their colleagues on the parade ground.

Anyway, suffice to say that this is a beautiful spectacle that has been performed on this spot since the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.  As it is less well known than the ceremony at the Palace, the crowds are significantly smaller and there are also no fences between the public and the action.

Mounted guardsmen watches the gate to Horse Guards

Mounted guardsman of the “new guard” takes his position on duty at the gates.

This is a definite highlight on my free to visit list for this incredible city. To get there, either walk up from Green Park with the horses (get to Green Park by 10:15 if this is your plan) or get the tube to Charing Cross or Embankment stations, walking from these should take no more than 10 minutes.

St James’s Park – The oldest of London’s Royal Parks

The original landscape in this area was a large marshy water meadow on the edge of Westminster and in Medieval times a leper colony (called St James’s) was built in the area and this is the source of the park’s name.  In 1532, just 2 years after he “acquired” neighbouring York Place from Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII bought the land.

Henry quickly turned the meadow land into a deer park, building what is now the Palace of St James on the park’s north western edge as a hunting lodge – makes you wonder why when he already had a home on the other side of the park, but what a king wants….

The flowers and topiary in St James Park

The flowers and topiary in St James’s Park

His daughter, Elizabeth I, used the park to indulge her love of pomp and ceremony, holding fete’s in the park. Under her successor James I, the meadowland was ordered drained and became home to a collection of wild animals including an elephant and crocodiles as well as exotic birds kept in aviaries along the southern edge of the park – now known as Birdcage Walk.

Squirrel being hand fed by an old man in St James Park

A squirrel being hand fed by an old man in St James’s Park

Under Charles II a level of formality was imposed on the park with a French inspired garden that used a straight canal to contain the Tyburn River that runs through the park.  This layout remained largely intact until the 1820’s when the Prince Regent (later George IV) commissioned John Nash to remake the park.  Nash, working in the more natural style of the day, removed the canal and replaced it with the flowing lake shape we still see today.

Deck Chairs in St James Park

Deck chairs in St James’s Park

The modern Park makes an ideal location for a picnic (just bear in mind that the Royal Parks limit the size of a picnic group and – as at 1 July 2015 – for St James’s Park this limit is 20 people and cooking/barbecuing is prohibited).  If taking a picnic is “not your thing” then there are a number of kiosks offering snacks and drinks and a licensed restaurant offering simple food and drinks available within the grounds of the park.

Horse Guards shows behind the edge of John Nash's lake at the Eastern end of the St James's Park.

Horse Guards shows behind the edge of John Nash’s lake at the eastern end of St James’s Park.

For me, the key reason to visit, are the views it offers of London.  These are not the iconic views we are all used to but include beautiful and unexpected perspectives of some of London’s most famous landmarks.

Historic Palaces – Great Value Multiple Ticket

The Historic Royal Palaces is the organisation responsible for managing 5 of London’s best Royal Palaces.  Three of these are in central London:

Tower of London from outside the western walls

Tower of London from outside the western walls

The others are a little bit further afield:

  • Hampton Court; and
  • Kew Palace.

If you are a regular visitor to London – or stay-cation there – or are a first time visitor looking to make the most of your trip by visiting 3 or more of these sites, then make sure you plan ahead and get yourself an Annual Membership.

Membership costs £47 for an Adult or £90 for a family with 2 Adults and up to 6 children (to understand the value that this represents you need to bear in mind that for a single visit by a family with 2 adults and 2 children to the Tower of London it will cost you £67.20, even if you book at discounted online prices – prices validated 11 Jul 2015).

In addition to your entry fees being covered there are extra exhibitions and tours available to members that are not open to the public so make sure to check on the Historic Royal Palaces’ website (click here),  to see what special events are on when you are expecting to visit.

One of the Chandeliers at the Whitehall Palaces Banqueting Hall

One of the chandeliers at the Banqueting Hall

Although most of these events are planned for specific days over the summer, some are available regularly.  For instance, the Tower has New Members tours – taken by one of the Yeoman Guards (a “Beefeater”) – and although similar tours are available to the public, the members tours are smaller and more intimate. The other is a rooftop tour of Hampton Court that runs on alternate Saturday and Sundays through the summer.

In addition to the member events and unlimited entry to all 5 sites, you will also get some other events that include:

  • The ability to skip the queue at entry;
  • A great souvenir book;
  • Money off at some of the food outlets (trust me when I say that the cost of a bottle of water means you will appreciate every discount you can get hold of!); and
  • Discounts on some of the items in the Palaces’ shops.

So if you plan to visit only one of these spots then pay on arrival but otherwise I recommend a little forward planning.

The Palace of Whitehall’s Banqueting Hall

The finest of all of the royal palaces in London at the time of Henry VIII and the envy of Europe, the Palace of Whitehall started life not as the palace of kings, but as the home of Archbishops and Cardinals.  Initially called York Place, it was the home of the Archbishops of York from the 1400’s, and in 1514 one of the great house’s most famous residents, Thomas Wolsey, was made Archbishop and took up residence.

The atmospheric undercroft of the Banqueting Hall

The atmospheric undercroft of the Banqueting Hall

In the 1520’s Wolsey and Henry “fell out” and the King stripped him of all his assets, including York Place.  This gave Henry a royal foothold back in Westminster – at this time he and his court were based in Lambeth after the original Westminster Palace was destroyed by fire in 1512.

As was Henry’s way he quickly renamed it Whitehall and set about creating a home fit for one of the most powerful men on earth and much of this revolved around his entertainment.  He added tilt yards for jousting, a cockpit for cock fights and a great hall and by his death the Palace occupied 23 acres of London’s prime real estate.

In 1581 the first of a series of banqueting halls was built in the Palace by Elizabeth I, finally ending with the building we see today. James I engaged Inigo Jones to build the current hall as a home to the court masques – extravagant theatrical entertainments that were a favourite of all the Stuart Kings.

One of the Chandeliers at the Whitehall Palaces Banqueting Hall

One of the chandeliers in the Whitehall Palace’s Banqueting Hall

In 1636 the hall received the fantastic ceiling paintings that we can still see in situ today.  Commissioned by Charles I, the 58 sq meters of paintings from the Flemish master Rubens cost a hefty £3,000 (that would be equivalent to many hundreds of thousands of pounds in today’s money).

In 1649 the Banqueting hall had its most infamous moment when on a bitterly cold January day, Charles I wearing two shirts so he did not shiver and appear afraid, stepped out of one of the Hall’s windows and onto the gallows that had been erected for his execution.

In 1691 a fire destroyed a number of the Palace’s original structures, then a second fire in 1698 destroyed all remaining buildings except the Hall.  It is thanks to this one survivor that we are able to make sense of the remaining images of the Palace and get a true understanding of just how grand this residence, once described by a visiting Venetian diplomat as Europe’s finest, actually was.

To visit the Banqueting Hall take the tube to Westminster and walk up Whitehall for about 200m.

Tower of London – Royal Zoo

Kendra Haste Baboon sitting on Wall at Tower of London

This Baboon is one of the Kendra Haste animals on exhibition at the Tower of London to remind us of the beasts that once lived in the tower.

One of the lesser known roles that the Tower of London has played in its 1,000 year history is the 600 years it spent as home to the Royal Menagerie.  From the reign of Henry III in the 1200’s, who received a “white bear” from the King of Norway, until 1835 when it was decided to move the animals from the Tower to the new Zoological Gardens at Regents Park (London Zoo), there were large numbers of animals in the cages of the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London.

Kendra Haste's depiction of Henry III's polar bear at the Tower of London

The Kendra Haste depiction of Henry III’s “white bear”

As seems to have been the usual ,the Sheriffs of the City of London were tasked with paying to look after the  Henry’s polar bear.  About a year after its arrival it appears that one of them decided the costs were unnecessary and the bear was chained on a long chain that gave it sufficient room to enter the Thames and fish for his own supper – at this time the water of the Thames was clean and full of salmon.

Kendra Haste Elephant peers through an opening in the walls at the Tower of London

This Kendra Haste Elephant peaks through an opening in the curtain wall of the Tower of London.

The largest of the animals that was housed in the Tower was an African elephant received in 1255 from the French King and was the cause of much excitement with the public coming to the Tower in droves to see the elephant.

Unfortunately, as the centuries passed, the lives of the animals in the Tower were not always happy.  In the reign of James I, the animals were ordered to be pitted against each other for his own entertainment.  He built a platform in the grounds from which he could watch the Royal Games and see these animals tear each other apart.

Kendra Haste's fighting Baboons

Kendra Haste injects life into the animals of the Tower of London with this fighting troop of baboons.

The Tower was of course also home to various species of monkeys and in the 1780’s they were kept in a furnished room for the amusement of the public who were amazed by the human like qualities of the animals.  It appears from reports at the time that this was rethought after one monkey injured a child (having his leg ripped open).

This was certainly not the only incident with the animals in the Tower.  In 1686, Mary Jenkinson learnt that stroking a lion was not a good idea when it mauled her arm and tore the flesh open all the way to the bone.

The wonderful, fun sculptures made of wire add a great deal to the story of the animals in the Tower and are certainly worth keeping an eye out for when you visit the Tower of London (see more of her amazing work at http://www.kendrahaste.co.uk ).  The installation in the Tower is expected to run until 2021.

Get Acquainted with London

The river Thames runs through the heart of London, it was after all the main transportation route into and out of the city until recent times.  As a result much of what makes London, London is ideal placed to be viewed from the river, making it an ideal way – particularly for the first time visitor – to get a an overview of the place.

Rather than a hop on hop off bus it can, especially in the warm summer months when the city is at its busiest, make more sense to make the River your friend and buy an all-day River Roamer (buy online from www.thamesclippers.com for GBP14.70 per adult, GBP 7.35 for a child or GBP32.50 for up to 2 adults and 3 children under 16 – prices as at 1 Jul 2015)  This ticket will give you unlimited access for a day to visit anywhere from Vauxhall to Woolwich (they are not valid on RB6 to/from Putney).

Houses of Parliament from River

Houses of Parliament from River

My recommendation for the day would be to have breakfast and head out to your start point at the London eye (closest tube is either Westminster and walk across the bridge or Waterloo).  Although tickets are only valid for travel from 9 am I would aim to get there a bit early to avoid the crowds and to get your day started as there’s a lot to see.  Before heading to the river visit the area around the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey on the northern bank of the river then cross and perhaps look in on the Aquarium and the London Eye on the south bank.

The Globe Theater from the River Bus

The Globe Theater from the River Bus

Once you’ve satisfied yourself here, head to the wharf and hop on the RB1 service to Bankside Pier.  There are three main areas to visit here.  My suggestion would be to start at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before walking across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral, and then on the way back to the Bankside Pier pop in to the Tate Modern Gallery.  Now rejoin the ferry at Bankside and sail down past the battle ship HMS Belfast to Tower Millennium Pier.  This port is right beside the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and if I were you then don’t miss the opportunity for a coffee/drink in the wonderful St Katherine’s Dock before heading down to Greenwich.

Tower Bridge from River June  2015

Tower Bridge from the river with HMS Belfast on the right hand side of the image.

In Greenwich those looking for a bit of history and culture can opt to visit the Cutty Sark, Old Royal Naval College, Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum or the Old Royal Observatory (Greenwich Mean Time – GMT – anyone!) .  Those looking for a more modern London experience can walk through the park to Blackheath and/or visit the markets in Greenwich.

In reality, if one tried to visit all of these locations it would take considerably longer than one day (even a summers one with long evenings) to “do them justice”. Use it as an opportunity to get a taste of each area in order to decide which ones to return to and spend more time exploring.

I recommend three key areas to revisit for a whole day each from this journey:

  • The area around Westminster,
  • The area around the tower of London and
  • Greenwich

Look out for additional blogs on each of these areas and why not plan to put this trip together with these three day trips to make a great 4 day London short break.

Why take a stroll in the city when the countryside is closer

EU-GB-London_20150627_257 lachie checking out the view from Dunstable DownsWhen you travel to London it can be easy to feel that you have to spend your time within the city, however if the weather is great then why not venture out a bit further.

The Dunstable Downs can be reached from the centre of London in about an hour (lets face it that’s less than it can take to get to some of the Parks within the city).  Take a train to Luton from St Pancreas Station and then its an easy bus or taxi ride to the end of the downs.  Alternatively make a day of it and add the 7km walk from Luton to the trip and then get a cab back to the station at the end of the day.

When you get there these chalk downs are perfect for a summers day walk.  Watch the para-gliders soar, visit the Medieval Rabbit Warren, stroll through the Saxon burial area of Five Knolls but above all watch for the wildlife.