Tag Archives: London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

I’d only ever read about the Tower of London in books until we happened to walk past it a few weeks ago, changing from the DLR at Tower Gateway to the Tube at Tower Hill. I pictured it being a typical keep, like the one at York or Conisbrough, a single round or square tower, probably on a hill, perhaps a few ruined outbuildings.

Instead, it turns out that it’s massive.

One side of the outer wall of the Tower of London. A massive old stone wall stretches into the distance, encircling a motley collection of old buildingsIt’s not surprising that something which has been used by royalty and rulers of Britain for almost a thousand years has, well, grown a bit in that time. But I was surprised by how much Victorian brick there seems to be within the walls.

The Tower of London, as you can visit it today, is a large clump of government and former government buildings, some of which are still offices or storehouses – you can visit the Crown Jewels in the one shown below – and others have been turned into museums.

We didn’t see everything the Tower has to offer – there is a lot – but we did have a good visit, and definitely got our money’s worth.

A white stone building with two turrets flanking the door, which houses the Crown JewelsThe Crown Jewels
Probably the most famous exhibition at the Tower of London is the Crown Jewels. They are quite impressive – and also, somehow, not. I enjoyed the visit, and am glad we went but honestly, you’ll see just as sparkly (albeit paste) jewellery in films – and you’ll probably get a closer, longer look when the camera zooms in.

The exhibit is permanently popular, so even on a rainy day in April there was a queue to get into the building. Once inside, you queue past various displays describing the history of the jewels and then past various parts of the collection of artefacts which make up the Crown Jewels. The crown Queen Elizabeth II was crowned with at Westminster Abbey almost sixty years ago was the highlight for me, but it turns out that it’s only one of a couple hundred pieces, including gold platters, chalices and spoons, which were used in the ceremony.

The Jewels are guarded by seriously thick metal doors and Beefeaters in their bearskin hats. The doors are a bit creepy – they’re so thick that there’s no way you could get out if you got locked inside in some blockbuster action thriller plot – but the guards aren’t. A soldier in a traditional red uniform jacket and tall, black bearskin hat stands in a guardbox

They look just like in the pictures illustrating a thousand children’s stories, except that they’re real, live soldiers with real, live, incongruously modern guns.

Changing of the guard at the Tower of London. Five soldiers in traditional red uniform jackets and tall, black bearskin hats stand still while tourists look onAnd real, dead, somewhat mishapen hats.

The White Tower
The main museum part of the Tower of London, the White Tower is the old keep and contains exhibits of armour through the ages as well as information about the history of the Tower itself.

It’s an interesting mishmash of a place, and one to take at your own pace. I found the halls of armour a bit repetitive – although I was curious to see Henry VIII’s armour, and the ‘giant and the dwarf set’, a pair of suits of plate armour, one made for a small child, the other for an adult well over six foot tall but then got bored and moved on to look at the block which Lord Simon Lovat was allegedly beheaded on (he’s mentioned in the Outlander books – I hadn’t realised he was real, so it gave me a bit of a shock) and read about the history of the Tower.

A long history of tourism
It turns out that tourists have been coming to the Tower of London for centuries, which I find fascinating. It’s obviously so much easier and cheaper to travel and see things nowadays that it’s hard to imagine what sort of people would have visited the Tower even a hundred years ago, and what they would have seen when they got there.

One of the early exhibitions was, apparently, the kings of England on their horses. Wooden models were made by sculptors and dressed in more or less (sometimes decidedly less) appropriate clothes and armour. These are still on display in the White Tower and seem to be in the process of being restored.

There are also scattered signs of the menagerie which used to be a popular attraction, before London Zoo opened up, and you can still see the famous ravens which visitors have been feeding for centuries.

Tips for visitors
There’s a lot to see, and it’s a good day out but it is rather expensive. When we went, it was about £20 per adult. Luckily, if you’re coming in by train you can get 2-for-1 tickets to the Tower of London (the site also lists other similar offers around the UK) which makes it rather more affordable.

If you go, I do recommend making a day of it and packing a lunch. The queue for the Crown Jewels is quite long, and continues inside the exhibit – you queue around it, it’s so busy – so that can take an hour or two, depending on crowds. If you want to add in the White Tower, visit the ravens, buy an ice cream, walk the walls, visit the Prisoner’s exhibition, you’ll probably find – as we did – that it’s too much to rush round in an afternoon. All we managed on quite a quiet, wet afternoon was to queue for the Crown Jewels and visit the White Tower. That said, that was enough history for us for one visit.

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith

Another vintage novel, #186 The Diary of a Nobody is available for free through Project Gutenberg. First published in 1888, the book follows the exploits of the diarist, a middle-aged, lower-middle-class clerk called Charles Pooter.

The Diary was intended to be funny, and I found it wryly amusing, but it’s also a fascinating glimpse into the mundane, middle-class lives which form a backdrop to novels like Great Expectations or the Sherlock Holmes books.

The joys and sorrows in Pooter’s life are small and recorded in detail. The humour is drawn from his puffed-up sense of self (which often leads him to a cropper) and his interactions with friends, servants and tradespeople.

I don’t think Pooter is supposed to be a well-loved character, and he isn’t terribly appealing. The authors set him up as a figure of fun, and it’s hard to identify with his frustrations and trials when he is clearly such a frustration and trial to those around him. He’s not a bad man, but, outside the confines of his own novel, he’d fit well into the role of club bore or penny-pinching lawyer in an Agatha Christie novel.

The book’s closest relation on the Big Read list is probably Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat.  Published about the same time, the latter is narrated by a young, lower-middle-class clerk and also covers small adventures and detailed descriptions of meals. In my opinion – at least, at this point, having not read Three Men for several years – Diary isn’t as funny or as fun. That’s partly because Pooter isn’t as sympathetic a character and partly because it’s not as witty. Three Men has more stories, quips and moments to laugh along with, while Diary is laughing at the main character and being recorded in his hand, suffers from his terrible, belaboured puns.

There’s also a downside to the Project Gutenberg edition, at least for Kindle, which is that it’s missing the illustrations. These are quite fun, and particularly handy for decoding his trials relating to clothes and furniture.

All in all, I’m not sorry I reread The Diary of a Nobody as it’s a great background for other reading I’ve been doing – the Pooters are exactly the sort of family to visit the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, for example – but I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

London skyline

London skyline

London. In the background, hazy against blue sky, the skyscrapers in the City. In the foreground, terraced houses

I took this photo from the window of the office I’ve been working in. It’s funny how much easier it is to pick out the details – the London Eye, the Shard and so on – in real life than in a photo.

Still, it’s lovely having this sweeping urban landscape to look at – and it’s interesting to watch it change with the weather.

Power of Making – one knitter’s review

Power of Making – one knitter’s review

The V&A is always amazing, and the Power of Making exhibition is no exception. It’s packed with creative and startling makes in a wide range of fields from traditional leather shoes to self-replicating 3D printers.

Of course there are textiles involved, and as a knitter I’m always drawn to handmade fabrics and garments. There were two pieces which particularly captured my attention but the V&A asked that visitors didn’t take photographs, so I’m going to have to give you a word-picture instead.

The Bear
Almost as tall as I am (which is six foot), the brown bear looks like something out of a natural history museum. Reared up on its hind legs in the classic pose, it’s incredibly detailed and real-looking – and made entirely of crochet. (See other examples of creator Shauna Richardson’s work.)

The Rug
Knit on giant needles (labelled 27, although I don’t think that meant mm) the swatch shows a traditional aran diamond pattern in giant scale. Knit in a grey wool yarn, it was displayed still on the needles.

As you might be able to guess, I was amazed by the bear. It’s not fully lifelike in a photo-realistic sense, but it is a very impressive piece nonetheless. As a knitter, I’m aware of how many hours of work must have gone into creating it. It’s stitched in quite a fine, fuzzy yarn which – trust me – can be a total pain to work with. And there are probably hundreds of thousands of stitches.

Simply creating a piece of fabric the size of a bearskin could easily have taken hundreds hours, maybe a thousand or more* so the amount of work is impressive before you consider the creativity, the careful shaping and moulding required to create the face and limbs, to give the bear that lifelike saggy belly and furry legs.

And the crochet is just the bear’s skin. It’s supported by a skeleton of some sort (I couldn’t tell you what though) bulked out by something (again, no idea what) to give the bear its form.

On the other hand, you’ve got a giant swatch.

I doubt that knitting on giant (which seems to mean 25mm plus) needles was new when I first discovered it five years ago, and it’s physically harder work but not hard, so I was surprised to see the rug displayed as an innovative make now.

I would have preferred to see the Coat for a Boat or Althea Crome’s miniature knitting as both are beautiful makes in and of themselves, as well as showing one thing knitting can do when it’s pushed to its limit.

A fascinating exhibition
Giant swatches aside, the Power of Making is well worth a visit. It runs until 2 January 2012 and is free to enter.

We visited on a Sunday afternoon, at which point the gallery was so crowded that it was difficult to visit all the exhibits and accessibility for anyone with mobility problems or other troubles with crowds would have been an issue.

The exhibition has been put together in conjunction with the Craft Council and you can find out more and view some of the exhibits online: the Power of Making at the V&A.

* I may be unusually slow, but a pair of socks takes me 16 hours so for me this sort of project would take roughly forever.