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Published: June 18th 2021
Outside St. Pancras station on a dark November early evening, the four of us and our luggage joined the taxi rank. We had just spent the day on the train down to London from Scotland. I could tangibly feel the atmosphere change from the glorious Caledonian open air we had been enjoying to the claustrophobic miasma of the capital city. We said goodbye to Simon and then Mom, Uncle Walt and I sped off through central London in our taxi. Dinner was now way late, so after a brief stop at Walt’s flat we tiredly trudged to a café around the corner.
The dinner crowd was already seated, so we were forced to accept a table in the front entrance. A short while later an obnoxiously loud group of prospective diners piled in and a woman from an undetermined European country demanded that her group be seated right away. It was a mess. Here we were in the capital of England with an Eastern European staff arguing with an unruly group of continentals, nary an English accent to be heard. None of the English politeness and not wanting to make a fuss that I remembered from the trips of my
youth. London was changing. No, London was changed. Me? I wished to be back in Fife or Leeds.
The next morning things were looking up after a good night’s sleep. I was finally about to cross off the final and most important item on my must-see in London list: the Tower of London. How I never had been there on any my previous trips at any of my previous ages was a mystery to me. Mom was now was up for the excursion, but Uncle Walt was a definite not interested. So the two of us hopped on the tube and headed for the tower on our own.
Upon exiting the Tower Hill tube station things began to feel strangely familiar. We passed an old Roman wall and a statue of the emperor Trajan. Wait, I remember this from when I was a kid! I was baffled once more. I could not figure out why my parents had taken me this far, but not to the nearby Tower of London. I mean an epic medieval fortress and prison on the River Thames. What kid wouldn’t love that?
We had had prepared ourselves for the legendary long ticket
lines as part of the price of admission. However, probably since this was a cold grey autumn day there were no lines whatsoever and we able to purchase tickets immediately. I really do not know why anyone travels in high season, if they have the choice. Low-season travel is where it’s at. Less crowds and cheaper rates.
Entering the tower grounds was like stepping back in time. So much of consequence had occurred here. Mom was very interested in finding traitor’s gate, the entrance all the enemies of the state would pass through after sailing up the Thames on their way to their incarceration. People such as Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.
Next was the large White Tower that dominated the center of the grounds. This structure had originally been commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1066 and kings themselves would reside here in subsequent centuries before it was turned into a place of confinement. Now it was full of suits of armor and historical displays. I particularly liked the two metal suits that had been made up for opposite size extremes, one for a midget and one for
a giant. The one fit for a giant would have fit me quite nicely at 6’6. Remind me to never to travel that far back in time, if I don’t want to be gawked at even further. They might think I was some kind of supernatural titan.
There were quite a lot of floors and a lot of staircases inside. Mom would not be able to get to all the higher floors and make it back to Uncle Walt’s in one piece, so I ran up swiftly to see those on my own and came back with descriptions and pictures taken on my smartphone for her. This worked out well, as her deliberate style of examining all the exhibits was much slower than mine. On the steps down from the White Tower we could see the famous ravens hopping around the grass. Britain was safe for the moment.
I hadn’t known that the British crown jewels were also housed in the tower complex. It seemed like an odd place to keep them, but since they were there we might as well see them. I thought I could find them on my own, but Mom insisted on asking the
costumed beefeaters. She had the biggest smile on her face as she interacted with them and she even coaxed laughs and smiles from them as well. Way to go Mom! The jewels were laid out dramatically in a darkened room. All you had to simply do was step onto a conveyor belt and you were then slowly moved past them. Then you could step on a conveyor belt on the other side that was going the opposite way. It was a pretty effective way to display them.
We eventually found ourselves in the chambers where the prisoners were held, including two young princes. It was eerie thinking about all the people who had been couped up there, staring at the cold stone walls, not knowing if they ever would be free again or even how many days longer they would be allowed to live. Now here it was centuries later and I was just poking around the same rooms as a curious tourist.
I left Mom behind once more, this time in the warm gift shop, as I explored the outer ramparts of the fortress. It was refreshing as the winds swirled around. There were magnificent views out
over the Thames and if you turned the other way, a birdseye view of the inner grounds and the happy visitors wandering around. Along the way, I particularly enjoyed the modern wire statues representing the exotic beasts that also used to be housed at the Tower.
By this time we were basically all sight-seed out, but I still had one more trick up my sleeve. I had read that you could catch a commuter boat from the docks below the tower that would take you back into the city center. This sounded like too good an opportunity to pass up. Mom, ever the trooper, followed along even though she was not exactly sure what the plan was. We managed to purchase tickets from a bored man who did not seem that interested in selling them to us, but we preserved. Once on the boat we sat right by the window. Bouncing along the water, we got a new perspective on the historic city. Mom was especially excited that our journey took us along the Embankment, a riverside path that she walked many times when she was working in London. She was not in the physical condition to walk the
whole thing anymore, but this mode of travel was even better!
After reaching our final stop on the boat, we walked up the steps from the river only to be taken up by a swirl of people and humanity milling about in the twilight. I could hear the lyrics of an old song by the Kinks playing in my head. Dirty old river Must you keep rolling Flowing into the night? People so busy Make me feel dizzy Taxi light shines so bright Millions of people Swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
It was a powerful iconic London moment and the perfect way to bring the day to a close.
* * *
The next couple of days were more restful. Uncle Walt joined us once again as we strolled around neighborhood streets to haunts of old. The most important of old haunts being Mom’s flat, still decades later the only one on the row with a bright red door. Mom marveled how she had gotten so fortunate to land such a great place in such a desirable part of the city. Afterwards, it was
cappuccinos and pastries under blankets and heat lamps at a sidewalk café. It felt positively continental. I did not mind at all.
We bought extra cappuccinos and pastries and drove over to Clapham to have a visit with Simon. He seemed happier than usual to see us. Perhaps, he had gotten used to our friendly presence up in Scotland. Maybe, he even missed us. When the visit was over Simon walked us out to our car, something he never usually does and heartedly waved goodbye as we drove away.
The next day was our final day in London and we had no energy and motivation to do much at all. Walt decided to take us for lunch at his club in Hurlingham. It was a very aristocratic crowd. Everyone in their weekend cardigans. We sat off to the side on plush couches. It was enjoyable to sit back and munch on toasted sandwiches and get a chance to observe an entirely different set of people go about their leisure hours.
After we had eaten we went for a walk around the club grounds. The air was cool and there was a delightful feeling of autumnal mellowness. Over
the hedges we could see people rowing on the river. We had been through a lot this year, but things seemed to finally be falling into place. Uncle Walt was discussing trips to visit us in the summer, and maybe a family get together in the Thousand Islands. We all agreed that our trips to Britain had to become more frequent, maybe even yearly.
A lasting memory I have is of Uncle Walt and Mom standing together having a chat on a footbridge which spanned a large duckpond. Siblings and conspirators for almost eight decades. I remained back on the edge of the pond in an effort to take pictures of a remarkable sight. Not one, but two black swans gliding along the current. They seemed to point towards momentous events yet to occur. The next day we flew home. This trip had reached its conclusion, but the travel bug had been rekindled once more.
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