By the Way…

… the plan for today is to see Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale performed here:

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We’ll then spend a relatively reclined afternoon in the park. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Saturday 6/29: Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, & Criterion Theatre

(Sorry about the wait on this one, guys. Luckily, we returned to the dorm fairly early today, so I have a little extra time to write.)

Yesterday, I woke up at 6:30 and ran 2 miles. Breakfast included chocolate-filled croissants, which was, of course, very exciting. I showered and pulled on a new shirt (yay!) and we boarded the bus.

The ride was the usual hour, give or take thirty minutes. We arrived just down the street from the Houses of Parliament, and with time to spare. This warranted a stroll through the Victoria Tower Gardens, the sunshine streaming down on us through the cool air. People cycled past. A man played fetch with his dog. It was so peaceful, I could have stayed there for hours.

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In addition to picture-taking, we made sure to pay our respects at the Buxton Memorial, a stone erection that bears resemblance to a gazebo, commemorating the emancipation of slaves following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Originally located in Parliament Square, the Memorial was moved in 1957 to mark the 150th anniversary of the 1807 Act abolishing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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There was a lovely view of the London Eye from the edge of the River Thames! (We’ll be riding it on July 4th! This constitutes an Independence Day celebration, right?)

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Parliament peeks through the trees as we approach, its high-seated flag fluttering in the breeze…

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Such an incredible building.

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Richard I greeted us in front of the House of Lords, where he has been perched on his whinnying horse for over 150 years. Major conservation work was just completed on his likeness four years ago.

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We all managed some great shots as we filed in through a thorough security check.

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Just beyond the small, tree-lined courtyard outside of the entrance to Westminster Hall, Elizabeth Tower dwarfed us, an enormous glistening beacon.

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And then, finally, we entered the Hall–the oldest surviving portion of the Palace, as most of the others burned to the ground in October of 1834. (An echo of this disaster was hearkened when the Common Chambers were, again, reduced to little more than molten ash during a 1941 air raid, when their conservation was deemed less vital than that of the Hall. Our tour guide would later relay to us with a smirk that “the stories of great buildings are often the stories of great fires.” Indeed, London’s track record is certainly a testament to this quip.) Over a thousand years of history loomed before me, stretching into the rafters and filling the cracks in the stone, pressing against the glass panels in the lofty windows. Suddenly, I felt so tiny and unimportant. This was where London was truly born.

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We had a tour scheduled for around 10:45, and the guide led us through, and familiarized us with the building: the Robing Room, where the Queen dresses in her Imperial State Crown and ceremonial robes before gliding into the House of Lords, the Royal Gallery, used for state receptions, dinners, and ceremonies, decorated on either wall by a Daniel Maclise mural illustrating a pivotal moment of the Napoleonic Wars, the Lords’ Chamber, lavishly garnished in red and gold, woolsacks arranged in tiers and tasseled with gilded fringe, the Central Lobby, where the four corners of the UK touch, the Members’ Lobby, where Winston Churchill’s dangerous scowl and hip-bracketing fists are immortalized in stone, and the Commons Chamber, which can accommodate only 427 of the 650 Members of Parliament at a time. Personally, I felt myself drawn to the art–for instance, the chivalric value-personifying vignette pieces in the Robing Room, demarcated by runes reading “hospitality,” “generosity,” “mercy,” “religion,” “courtesy.” I was also fascinated to hear about the State Opening ritual dating back to the Civil War wherein the official of the House of Lords called “Black Rod” is sent to summon the Commons, and has the doors to the Chamber shut in his face. He then knocks again, three times (there is visible wear in the woodwork by cause of this), at which time the members of this house acquiesce and file into the Lords’ Chamber. The ritual is symbolic of the Commons’ independence from the corruption of the monarchy.

Lamentably, photography was not permitted in the Palace, so I have only words to hand on, but if you ever have the chance, I recommend paying it a visit. I definitely feel that you get the bang for your buck.

Shortly after the dismissal of our tour group, we clipped along through Parliament Square (the traffic was absolutely terrifying–too many electric bikes!) and wound our way around to St. James’s Park, passing, on the way, Abraham Lincoln’s effigy, carved out of bronze. This is a replica of the somewhat controversial original in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, created by artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

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Anyway, St. James’s turned out to be a wonderful place–for us as we nibbled at our sandwiches and, I’m sure, the hundred billion other park transients, as girls attempted wobbly handstands and young couples nuzzled one another in the grass. (“Londoners don’t understand Frisbee,” Ms. Nichols chuckled at one point, eyeing a band of teenaged boys repeatedly tossing a yellow disc slantwise and yelling in thick French accents when it inevitably plummeted into the ground and rolled, in lazy circles, to a halt.) We even saw some baby swans, while the estate is home to 29 other species of waterfowl, including mallard, golden eye, tufted duck, shelduck, and wigeon. (Not to be confused with pigeon… although there are plenty of those too.)

When we finished lunch, it was time to see Buckingham Palace!!! This was really exciting for me so I took a few pictures, to say the least.

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The group then continued toward Piccadilly Circus, crossing through what Mr. Worthington dubbed the “Ritz” area. Here, Ms. Nichols and the students trailing furthest behind erupted into animated shouts as we turned a corner–apparently, Russel Crowe had walked past them.

Here are a few shots from that part of our walk:

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(Right around here, we discovered an excellent photo opportunity. Below, the letters crowning the box stand for “Elizabeth II, Ruler/Royalty.”)

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Lots of these little blue plaques around London, as constituents of its blue plaque scheme started in 1866. This is believed the be the oldest of its kind in the world. Each plaque serves as a link between influential persons of the past and the places where they lived and worked.

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Long live the Queen! As we entered Piccadilly Circus, these banners flew high, recognizing the reign of Elizabeth II’s 60th anniversary this year.

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Upon our entry to the district, we were tossed into an enormous, sweaty, throbbing mass of people, absolutely crammed together for the LGBT Pride March, an event that the majority of us, myself included, weren’t expecting. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am an immensely ardent advocate of all things gay rights-related, but the lack of elbow room was deeply unsettling. Especially as a tourist.

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Thankfully, our clan managed to find its way through the Underground to the other side of the road, at which point we split into coteries of two and three and did some of what we like best–shopping. (Even still, I didn’t buy anything.) Many students ducked into Lillywhites for sportswear, while Brandy and I tag-teamed Cool Brittania, after escaping from the commotion into a health chain I’m becoming increasingly familiar with called, quite simply, “Eat.” We even got a few photos of the parade from the shop’s upper level seating space.

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Everyone met back again in front of Criterion Theatre, where we received our tickets for The 39 Steps from Mr. Worthington. The theatre was petite and cozy, and our seats were great.

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To be “ruthlessly honest,” (as Mr. Worthington says) I was skeptical about the show at first, but it ended up being fantastic, and very, very funny… despite the clear overtones of undeniably British humor, to which I don’t typically respond. I loved it. Arguably most impressive was that a cast of only four managed to effectively take on dozens of roles throughout the hour-and-a-half-long performance. Time and again, these talented players pulled off ingenious stunts, through comedic timing, the employment of “human props,” and breaking the fourth wall. The show conveyed all the cinematic wonder of a film, complete, even, with angle shifts through clever use of visual illusion and a willingness to play with the audience’s perspective. When wind needed to blow, the actors fluttered their coats; when a train needed to move, they rocked rhythmically back and forth. And sure, these tricks sound old hat, but what really lit up this staging was that everything was done in a very humorously self-aware manner that seemed to forge a bond between the actors and viewers. There was no “I’m playing a role,” but rather, “I know you know I’m playing a role.” If that makes any sense at all. Anyhow, I’m very interested in picking up a copy of the book by John Buchan, which the play is based on, if I can hunt it down.

After the show, we had about an hour of free time for dinner and what have you, so Brandy and I settled on Chipotle (a conservative choice, I know, but I needed a burrito like air). For the next half hour, we discussed the possibilities and mechanics of time travel while dipping into pinto beans and guacamole, before scoping out a gelato joint a few blocks down and ordering rosemary orange and salted caramel, and vanilla biscuit, respectively. Perfect accompaniment to our mutual quiet observation of the whirlwind of activities outside the shop, lit by the last flushed light of the sun as it fell across the cobblestone below.

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Before the group left London for the night, we watched a street performer juggling knives and unicycling across a quivering tightrope. As I tugged anxiously at my hair and ground my teeth, Brandy whispered breathily beside me. “I hope he knows what he’s doing.” But I guess that’s what London is all about–the magic of not knowing. This city is wrapped in mystery, dark figures in alleyways and unusual smells, profiles in windows and graffitied witticism sprayed against stones of Roman origin, street musicians with no names, crumbling towers with far too many. You could live here for a lifetime and not know the half of it. Two lifetimes. Ten. Exploring a town that built the world as we know it is a joy in and of itself, even if the fact of the matter is that I’ll hardly make a dent in the history books.

Uppity poeticism aside, Saturday was amazing. Now to begin crafting today’s chapter…

Slackin’

Good morning everyone! I want to apologize for the lack of posting yesterday. We were literally out all day, and got in late. I will be sure to fill you in on everything later today: the Houses of Parliament, Piccadilly Circus, Criterion Theatre and The 39 Steps, and all the hustle and bustle of Saturday night in London. It was definitely one of the best days yet.

I’m going to be honest with you here, I don’t know what we’re doing today.* Brandy doesn’t either. (We’re running on about five hours of sleep a night and limited water provisions, cut us some slack.) Hope you/I/we like surprises!

Bonus:

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Should be back around 5:45 (12:45 NC time)!

*7/3 edit: It just occurred to me that I could just have checked the itinerary that I posted here. Huh. This constant sleep deprivation-induced debility is really smothering my common sense.

Friday 6/28: Westminster Abbey

After our trip to Westminster Cathedral, the group convened briefly outside for a quick photo shoot with American Community School at Cobham’s photographer, who conducted some very artsy umbrella shots as we stood lined up in the rain. (At this point, I felt pretty dumb for dressing up.) Stay tuned, I’ll let you know where you can find those glamour shots posted.

Then we meandered along the alleys and walks, snapping pictures. I felt a bit like a lost puppy, no doubt looking wet, out of place, confused, and endlessly scruffy (special thanks to my fresh newsboy haircut for that one).

But it was a good time. We took the “long way” (also known, when it rains, as the very long way) to the Abbey, which revealed some exciting finds as far as sightseeing, including the MI5 building, the claim to fame of which is its detonation in Skyfall. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I can assure you that the blown-upness of the actual institution is remarkably nonexistent.)

So, how about some photos of our walk?

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Below, you can see the banner for the Royal Horticultural Society’s 100th Chelsea Flower Show, which took place from May 21st through 25th. (Fun fact: this year, the Geranium was awarded the distinction of “Plant of the Centenary”.)
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Below, schoolboys practice cricket in the park.

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I fell in love with pastel-washed flats today.

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Especially this pink and blue one.

(P.S: Getting fancy with the photo editing!)

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These climbing roses are my favorite addition to any home.

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So many plants outside these flats! It’s awesome!

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…And then back to London!

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At long last, we reached Westminster! The photographer shot a few more pictures of us, with Big Ben (sorry! Elizabeth Tower) as his backdrop. With a little time to kill before lunch, we all seized the moment and snagged a few pictures ourselves.

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Then we made our way inside the Abbey…

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…And we had lunch. Today, my sandwich combo was seasoned chicken, cream cheese, and cucumber slices. Deeelicious. (By the way, I believe we will receive £5 tomorrow and have the chance to seek out our own lunch in the city!)

As we corralled the group back together, I examined a stone engraving in the Abbey.

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Before long, we embarked in two separate coalitions, on a self-guided tour of the Abbey. I’m sorry to say that photography was not allowed, but notwithstanding, it wouldn’t do the experience justice. The tombs were incredible, and despite the aching in my feet and the impermeable crowds, I feel that I left with some quintessential understanding of humankind. Or maybe that’s just the slight dehydration talking.

For my fellow writers, the Poets’ Corner may be of interest to you. Although Geoffrey Chaucer, the first literary figure laid to rest in the area, merely earned the fate by serving as Clerk of Works to the Palace of Westminster, today there are nods to Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, and many similarly influential others.

There was also a small exhibit all about Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, which of course I loved. More on this later.

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There was just a smidgen of free time left after the tour, so Brandy and I set off to take a look around Victoria Street, and a few small stores nearby, including a cafe, where Brandy bought a croissant, and I took pictures. Yum.

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We also stepped into a book shop, where I purchased a book detailing the origins of modern-day household items and one about the art community in London as it relates to young adults.

Also, you knew it was coming… the obligatory telephone booth photo. This one’s for you, dad.

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Tomorrow, we will be visiting the Houses of Parliament and seeing a show: 39 Steps. Can’t wait!

Friday 6/28: Westminster Cathedral

So this morning I woke up, ran 2 miles, and had a variation on my tons-of-protein-plus-a-little-grain breakfast which involved bacon, scrambled eggs, milk, and an English muffin. When I finished, I hurried back to the dorm to shower and get dressed–I decided to actually try looking nice today.

The ride to London took about an hour and a half, and the rain was just kicking in as we pulled up to Westminster Cathedral. (The weather had been unusually pleasant up until today.) I was sort of taken aback as we entered, both by the massive size of the chamber and the haunting choral melodies flowing, presumably, from speakers hidden in the rafters.

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Our group was permitted to explore at whim, each of us assuming our own pace. (Which of course landed me at the end.) I settled on striding along each side of the Cathedral from entrance to rear, first right, then left.

The first thing I noticed, on my right within an iron-barred cell, was a baptistry “font” (used during the days of completely immersive baptisms; the word “font” originates in the Latin word fontis meaning “spring of water”). Its octagonal shape represents the day of resurrection, often thought of as the “eighth day” of creation, a day beyond time.

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Beside the font stands a statue of St. John the Baptist, whose presence serves as a reminder to Christians that baptism is a sign of a life lived in reflection of Jesus, who was baptized by John in the river Jordan.

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Outside of the cell stood something resembling a wooden cabinet.

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One look at the sign hanging above it offered clarity.

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As a huge Supernatural zealot, I’d heard plenty about this stuff, mainly in the context of human-on-demon combat, so this was an exciting find for me. Sadly, there did not appear to be any demons prowling the premises at the time, so I decided I’d just have to save it for later battles.

Next up was the Chapel of Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine. A mosaic lit up the threshold, the phrase, in Latin, translating to “Not Angles, but angels, if they were but Christians.” Apparently, this is what St Gregory is reputed to have said upon witnessing a collection of children–Anglo-Saxons–being sold as slaves. Sounds like the guy to call to pull you out of the fire.

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Speaking of mosaics, Westminster Cathedral, the planning of which was underway as early as 1884, when the site was acquired by the Catholic Church, is absolutely filled with them. I loved being able to search them out as I probed around. I mean, they were everywhere. And they were gorgeous.

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(Above: Chapel of Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine.)

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(Above: Chapel of Saint Andrew and the Saints of Scotland… my favorite mosaic.)

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(Both above: Saint David of Wales.)

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(Saint Anne.)

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Even for those who aren’t particularly religious, the architecture alone warrants a visit. Over 100 different marbles adorn the Cathedral (at last count, there were 126 types), which is more than can be said of any other building in England. The marble can be sourced to 24 different countries on five continents. Hues of blue, green, red, and white fall in intricate designs, carved piece by piece in ripples and waves, cubes, knobs. Faces. (And take it from a fourth-year art student: faces are hard enough to depict in sketch pads, let alone in stone.)

(Fittingly, beneath the statue of St. Peter, pictured below, a plaque reads: “Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram edificabo ecclisiam meam,” which translates to “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”)

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Seriously, though, the photos don’t hold a candle to the real thing.

Speaking of candles…

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Candles were available to light as “prayers” (for a very small fee). They certainly created a nice ambience in some of the otherwise dimly-lit spaces.

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It’s easy to forget that this space is sacred for many people, so for those who visit, I recommend disabling sound on your camera. Also, as you can tell, photography is permitted, but flash is not. There are prayers going on in basically all 14 Stations of the Cross at any given time, so it’s best to fall back and stay quiet out of respect. Services are held at least six times a day, so you can never expect to be the only one inside.

And, if you’re feeling introspective enough by the time you make your way around to the far left corner of the seminary, you can feel free to pop a squat in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament–possibly the finest space the Cathedral offers.

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Just before we left, I came across a spiral staircase and climbed it to find the “Treasures of Westminster Cathedral” exhibit, which is open from 9:30 to 5 on weekdays and through 6 on weekends, and is included in the price of your admission ticket.

The exhibition is interesting, and helpful for those like me who are fuzzy on the history of Catholicism. At the very least, it’s cool to see all the shiny gold stuff that the clergy has acquired over time.

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Below are Cardinal Wiseman’s mitre, maniple (a band which hangs over the left arm), burse (used to carry the folded cloth on which the Sacred Host and chalice are placed on the altar), and gloves.

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The record of the music sung at the consecration in 1910 was also on display. This record is still used today for many of the Cathedral’s activities.

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A+ for the vintage ephemera and newspaper clippings surrounding the consecration. I learned that the Cathedral was actually completed in 1903, but per Catholic custom, was not permitted to be unveiled for use until all debts were cleared–a process which took Westminster 7 years. The celebration lasted three days.

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Oh, I made sure to capture the view from upstairs! I felt very big taking this. Which means a lot coming from a girl who’s 5’3.

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There’s the ACS clan down there!

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Next stop: Westminster Abbey!

Friday 6/28: What’s the Plan, Stan?

Good morning! Woke up half an hour ago and am about to go running. Today, we’ll be visiting Westminster Abbey. Maybe I’ll actually try to dress nice, apparently we’re getting our photos taken.

Good news is that I bought some batteries at the Tower yesterday, so I can use my digital camera again!

Anyway, thanks for reading. I’ll be back later!

Thursday 6/27: Monument & Tower

After visiting the museum, we had lunch on the lawn outside, during which time we were watched from the window by some weird museum-goers as we munched our sandwiches (I went with ham and cream cheese today, one of the more normal available options by my standards).

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It was cool to eat practically against the remains of the original London wall, which I read a bit about in Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. The wall appears and vanishes at random throughout the city, some slices in stone, some in refurbished brick; the whole thing seems pretty odd to me, but the citizens move by these crumbled ruins without so much as a passing glance.

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At the risk of sounding like a Big Amurican Turist, I submit that Wall Street does, also, pay homage to its U.S equivalent: Wall Street. Just look at these dapper folks.

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Lots of photogenic buildings as well.

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Even the Starbucks here are amazing.

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We have yet to ride one of these double-deckers, but I love looking at ’em.

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Sir Christopher Wren’s gold flame-topped Monument to the Great Fire of 1666! At 202 feet high, it’s the tallest isolated stone column in the world. Here it is, all 311 steps of it!

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We climbed every one of them.

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For our efforts, we were rewarded with this unbelievable view.

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For the record: if you go up, don’t look down. I probably spent 600 years retaking this photo because my hands were shaking and making it blurry.

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Then, back to Earth! Lots easier, but it’ll make you dizzy.

P.S. Don’t forget to check out the engravings at the base!

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After the Monument, we hit the road (sidewalk, rather) and moseyed on over to the Tower. Lots of sights here. And LOTS of tourists.

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Have I mentioned how much I love Brandy?
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Followed by… the Tower Bridge!!! (Fun fact: this is the bridge that the kiddy song “London Bridge” actually refers to.)

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Storming the tower!

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I get really excited about lighting.
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DRAMATIC LIGHTING.

The Tower of London: What ominous secrets lie herein…? LENS FLARE. DUN DUN DUNNN.

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And then we wait in line to see the Crown Jewels.

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There is a guard outside. I briefly contemplate how terrible a guard I would make, being incapable of suppressing laughter at anything. I even laughed thinking about it. I’m laughing now.

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Sadly, photography is not permitted inside this exhibit. But I suggest visiting it. My favorite pieces were probably King Henry VIII and Queen Victoria’s crowns. I also liked the gold platters. One piece that’s no longer in use but was once enjoyed at post-coronation feasts was a huge gold punchbowl. It was insane. I could bathe in that thing.

So then we were free to split off and explore. Which I gladly did.

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These dudes were just all over the place.

“Please move to the side, lady!” they told Ivy, a girl from Houston, as they approached her from behind.

“Lady?” she hissed to us. “Not even ma’am?” Personally, I was hoping for something along the lines of “duckie” or “love.”

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After a visit to Bloody Tower and a look at the various torture methods employed there throughout history (nothing to photograph, really), Brandy, Ivy, and I decided to check out the Fusiliers’ Museum.

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Thought this was pretty. A silver wine cooler presented by King Henry VI to Colonel Lord Frederick Fitzclarence for his Regiment’s exceptional service.

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A British Army winter uniform!

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King George V, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Fusiliers, in uniform. Looks like a pretty fun guy.

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Here’s Brandy trying on the Fusiliers’ pack, used for operations. The one on display was on a quarter of the real thing’s weight, and it was still nearly impossible to lift for everyone who we saw tried.

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There was an entire room dedicated to medals.

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Major John Andre’s last words really struck a chord with me. (Also, the blurb about him involved a recalling of his service during the American War of Independence. This was interesting–the British take on the war sounded just a smudge different than the American version I’ve grown up with. Y’know, I’ll just include that for you too.)

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Here’s the hall. Reverent pictures of war heroes, one and all.

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And, of course, a snapshot of the costumed staff! They were very distraught by the drizzle; I think they were off to hairspray their wigs in this photo.

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All around, a great day!