Westminster and the Ministry of Sound

Mike and I are SO glad the weekend has come!  We’ve been feeling a little jetlagged all week and are ready for some good uninterrupted sleep!  Piper has been sticking incredibly close to us.  We took out the garbage last night and when we came back she was basically glued to the front door waiting for us to come back.  It’s good to be missed.  🙂

But anyway, on to more trip details!  🙂

We woke up Saturday morning bright and early.  Since we’d gone to bed pretty early the night before, we actually felt refreshed.  Our plan was to hit up some of the historic areas around our house like Westminster Abbey, head back to the hotel around 2pm, take a nap, and then get up at night to go to one of London’s crazy electronic music clubs (which typically open around 10pm and stay open, playing electronic music, all night and then close around 7am!).  We had a full day ahead of us, so we started with breakfast at the hotel.

The hotel advertised offering a “full English breakfast”, and they weren’t kidding!  There was everything there!  Scrambled eggs, hardboiled eggs, roasted tomatoes, deli cuts of meat and cheese, toast, breads, and crossiants, fruit, sausages and bacon, baked beans, and white pudding.  Everything was very good!  I discovered that the English hard-boiled eggs are “6 minute eggs”, though, meaning they’ve been cooked for 6 minutes.  Given that I cook mine at home for 10, it was pretty obvious that the yolk of a 6-minute egg must be runny.  I didn’t mind that, but it was a little difficult to eat them since the yolk ran all over.  I think you’re supposed to eat the egg on toast to avoid the messiness, but being gluten-free didn’t allow for that.  Regardless, there was lots of great food for both of us, and it definitely helped to fuel our day!

Once we’d eaten Mike wanted a little time to let his food digest, so he took a long shower and I went out for a run.  The weather was gorgeous!  Very sunny and getting warm as the sun rose.  I ran along the River Thames to the south, since I knew that I’d be walking north to Westminster with Mike very shortly.  There was a path right along the Thames and lots of other people were out running on it as well… it was clearly a favorite running spot!

A view from my run

A view from my run

The sun rising over the Thames

The sun rising over the Thames

Even though you (I?) would expect London to have a lot of pollution since it’s such a big city, the air actually felt very clear and fresh.  It was very windy there, just as it is in Seattle, and that must bring a constant supply of fresh air.

After the run, Mike and I headed towards Westminster.  At least I was pretty sure we were.  My sense of direction is pretty atrocious so I rely heavily on maps, and unfortunately I hadn’t picked up a London map yet on the trip.  I made a mental note that I would have to remedy that ASAP!  Before we actually hit Westminster, though, we detoured towards a sign labeled “Buckingham Palace”.

Our walk was beautiful!

Very narrow streets and lots of brick buildings!

Very narrow streets and lots of brick buildings!

Some handsome guy straightening his camera strap.  ;)

Some handsome guy straightening his camera strap. 😉

After about ten minutes we saw something that looked very out-of-the-ordinary… it was Buckingham Palace!

The gates of Buckingham Palace

The gates of Buckingham Palace

It was literally packed with people!

The Victoria Memorial outside of Buckingham Palace

The Victoria Memorial outside of Buckingham Palace

The Victoria Memorial was huge… and very beautiful!  We asked some of the people what was going on, and apparently the changing of the guard was happening in 45 minutes.  45 minutes?!  And the area was already completely packed?

Outside the gates... we didn't get to go in.  :)

Outside the gates… we didn’t get to go in. 🙂

Lots of Union Jacks!

Lots of Union Jacks!

We weren’t overly excited for the changing of the guards, particularly since there were so many people it would have been difficult to get a good view, so we moved on to the Queens Royal Gallery, a gallery that showcases some of the art pieces from the royal art collection.  The history behind it is interesting.  It was constructed 40 years ago out of the damaged remains of the private Royal chapel.

Even the building itself was beautiful!

The entrance to the Queen's Gallery

The entrance to the Queen’s Gallery

All of the art was gorgeous!

Looking at art

Looking at art

In addition to art, there were lots of other historical treasures, including things like an entire gilt tea set, early books on botany and biology that included hand drawings, and old jewelry.

After the Queen’s Gallery, we went to the Royal Mews next door because the ticket we had bought was good for both the Queen’s Gallery and the Royal Mews.  In all honesty, we blew through the Royal Mews and I would recommend just buying the ticket for the Queen’s Gallery rather than the combo ticket.  In case you don’t know what mews are (Mike and I had absolutely no idea), they’re stables.  The most interesting things in the mews were one cute brown horse and the golden royal carriage (which looked similar to the golden papal carriage at the Vatican actually, now that I think about).

Next up was a walk east towards Westminster Abbey.  On the way we stopped for a few pictures at St. James’s Park which was right outside of Buckingham Palace.  It was absolutely beautiful!  We loved all of the gorgeous gardens there!  It definitely felt like spring!  🙂

St James Park

St James Park

By the time we reached Westminster Abbey we were getting hungry but still stopped for a couple of pictures.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

We ate lunch at St. George’s Tavern.  It was busy!  We got drinks at the bar while we waited for a table, and then were escorted up to the second floor to a table.  The waiters were all really friendly.  The tavern itself was an old building paneled in dark wood.  Definitely everything you would expect of a British pub!

Mike with a guinness!

Mike with a guinness!

We left the tavern refreshed and ready to go.  We walked across the street to Westminster Abbey… and found that they were closed for the day.  Apparently Saturday hours were abbreviated compared to weekdays!

Undeterred, we bought a London map from a street seller and saw that the Tower of London was only a few miles away.  Perfect!  We had been planning on seeing that anyway!  We hopped on the District subway line at Westminster Station and got off a few stops later at the Tower station (I’m sure it was so named because it was right across the street from the Tower of London.)

Both Mike and I looked around as we walked up the steps from the subway station.  There were so many old-looking buildings that we were a little confused as to which was the “Tower of London”.  (I guess this is one problem with not preplanning all of your vacation stops; you may be making stops where you’re not sure what you’re looking for!  This happened to us with the Roman Forum near the Colosseum as well!)

Anyway, we discovered that the Tower of London is the blanket name for an entire castled city which contains many individual towers.

The Tower of London from the outside

The Tower of London from the outside

We paid our admission price (which seemed really steep at 18 Euros per person!).  We thought about doing a free guided tour, but it was 2:45pm, and the guided tour didn’t start until 3pm, so we would have had to wait around for fifteen minutes at the gate doing nothing.  Also, the guided tour said that it was an hour, and we both thought that sounded really long.  So we just headed in on our own armed only with a map of the city within the wall.

We were completely wrong about how much there was to see in the Tower of London!  As it turned out, we didn’t leave until shortly after 6pm and the experience was worth every penny of the admission price!

There was so much to see!  The Tower of London was everything you would imagine in a medieval castle!  It has a moat around the entire city, and big walls inside of that.  The walls have the traditional square-wave looking top and long narrow windows to make it easy for archers to shoot arrows out, should the city be besieged.  Historically the Tower is almost unrivaled in its importance for the British monarchy.  It was built in 1066 (!!!) by William the Conqueror.  It has been used for so many things I can hardly remember them all.  A royal residence, a place of royal refuge, a prison, a menagerie for exotic animals, an armory, and a treasury.  Many famous people were imprisoned and/or beheaded there including Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Lady Jane Grey, and many more.  We walked on Tower Green and saw the spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.  We walked in the Bloody Tower where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned.  We walked through the Martin Tower which has an exhibit with many old crowns and scepters of past British monarchs (most of them with fake jewels inserted in place of the original real ones though).  One of the common things about all of the many towers in the Tower of London were their very narrow very curvy staircases.  It was dizzying walking either up or down them for any length of time because of their tight radius.  Tourists are not allowed to go anywhere near the tops of the towers, so I can only imagine how disorienting it is to climb up to the tops of the towers!

Stairs in one of the towers

Stairs in one of the towers

The hallways were so almost claustrophobically narrow!

Mike exiting one of the hallways onto a battlement

Mike exiting one of the hallways onto a battlement

 

It is so hard to fully convey how large the city inside of the Tower was!

All of this is within the city walls

All of this is within the city walls

 

The various towers had a lot of old carved graffiti on them, much of it done by prisoners in the tower.  Some of the prisoners only carved their names while others carved religious symbols of comfort or phrases or mottos that they lived (and expected they may) die by.

Words carved on the walls by prisoners

Words carved on the walls by prisoners

As I traced my fingers over some of the centuries old marks, it was hard not to think of the tears, fear, heartache, and overwhelming despair that must have faced prisoners there.  Men and women who waited, some not knowing what their fate would eventually be as they chipped away at the old stone of the tower walls.  Others knowing that charges of treason and a fate of death awaited them.  Very sobering.  Queen Victoria was so moved by Anne Boleyn’s story that she erected a glass monument on Tower Green where Anne Boleyn was beheaded.  The memorial is circular, and if you walk around it you can read these words:

Gentle visitor pause awhile : where you stand death cut away the light of many days : here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life : may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage : under there restless skies.

Tower Green with the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the background

Tower Green with the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the background

As sobering as all of that was, there was actually a wedding of some military official taking place at one of the chapels within the walls while we were there.  Seeing the happy bride in a flowing white dress and the groom in his impressively decorated military uniform along with all their wedding party and guests took the edge off of the darker pall of the mood created by the tower.  Mike and I also saw a huge, fat raven hanging around tower green.  An old superstition says that if the Tower ravens are lost, the Crown and Britain will fall.  So much history!!

We toured the White Tower, which was the primary royal residence (when the tower was used as a royal residence) and thus was big and well-fortified.

There is also a veritable museum’s worth of armor there, presumably because the Tower was previously used as an armory… we saw literally hundreds and hundreds of pieces of armor and about fifty cannons!

Horses got armor too

Horses got armor too!

So interesting!  So much history!

We were about ready to call it a day when we saw a giant line outside of a big castle-looking building along one side of the city.

Waterloo Block, home of the Crown Jewels

Waterloo Block, home of the Crown Jewels

Curious, we headed over and realized what the line was for.  The Crown Jewels!  We weren’t ready to leave without seeing those!  So, despite the long line, we waited and were happy to see that the line moved fairly quickly.  We read all the placards about the Crown Jewels while we were waiting for entrance.  They have actually been kept in the Tower of London since 1303 when they were stolen from Westminster Abbey.  Such a long time ago!  No photography was allowed of the Crown Jewels themselves, but you can view the website on them here.  Queen Elizabeth II’s crown is set with 2,800 diamonds including the Koh-i-Nur (Mountain of Light), a 105.6 metric carats diamond.  It was SO big!

We left the Tower of London having seen SO much and experienced so much history.  During our time there the sky had become cloudy, which almost seemed symbolic given the sobering feel of the Tower.  As we left through the main gate, we were pretty quiet.  We rode the Underground back to Westminster and realized only then that it was 6:30pm and we’d been hoping to get back to our hotel room by early afternoon so we could get a good nap in before heading out to a London electronic music club.  We decided to give the club a try anyway.  Since it was Saturday, it was really our only chance for good nightlife in London since Friday and Saturday are the big live music nights.  We ate a quick dinner at the hotel and went to bed around 8pm with alarms set for 12:30am.

At 12:30am our alarm went off, and we woke feeling surprisingly refreshed.  (It helped a lot that 12:30am London time was only 4:30pm Seattle time, and our bodies hadn’t fully made the switch yet.)

We got ready to go and headed downstairs.  The man at the hotel front desk called us a cab, and we told him we wanted to go to the Ministry of Sound.  The taxi driver talked to us a little about the club as he whizzed through the less crowded streets of London.  (Apparently London traffic finally does let up, but you have to wait until the middle of the night!)

The Ministry of Sound was located in the Elephant and Castle district, and we could hear the Ministry of Sound before we could see it.  Music was spilling out of it.  We knew that it had five rooms in which live DJs were mixing live music.  There was a crowd of people waiting to get in, but the line moved quickly.

The Ministry of Sound

The Ministry of Sound

Once inside, we were in a different world, one full of dark dance floors, flashing neon lights, and pounding trance music.  It was an amazing experience!  The Ministry of Sound is epic in the electronic music world, and we loved hanging out there.  Mike got a rum and coke, and I just focused on dancing.

Dancing!

Dancing!

We visited all of the dance rooms, getting a feel for the vibe of each one.  One was a purely trance mix, another was a 90’s remixed electronic mix, another was a more relaxed mix, and another was a more solidly electronic techno mix.  It was amazing!  We danced there for several hours and didn’t leave until 3:30am or so, and we left knowing that the music would continue for another 3+ hours!

Trance and lights!

Trance and lights!

We got a cab in the cool darkness and left the pulsating music sounds behind.  It turned out that our cabbie was new to the job, however, and he didn’t know exactly where our hotel was.  We ended up telling him to just take us to the Westminster Underground station and we could find our way back to the hotel from there.  The weather was only slightly chilly despite the lateness of the hour, and there was something magical about walking in downtown London at 4am (especially when we passed Big Ben!).

Big Ben... at 4am!

Big Ben… at 4am!

We were walking back to our hotel pretty leisurely, not at all tired, when I spotted a group of runners stretching near Westminster Abbey.  Realization dawned on me as I clutched Mike’s arm.  Mike, oblivious, glanced at the runners and said, “What are they doing up so early?”

“It’s the marathon!” I said excitedly.  “The London Marathon!  People are starting to arrive for the London Marathon that’s starting in several hours!”

I was almost too excited to talk coherently.  The London Marathon is pretty historic and has about 40,000 participants.  Even though I couldn’t be an actual runner, it was crazy that we were able to see some of the first people arriving for it.  The were up very early, and we were up very late!  🙂

Finally around 5am we wandered into our hotel.  There was a 24 hour convenience store open in the hotel, and we went there to get some fruit and bottled water.  When we went to pay for it, Mike said, “Can I buy some of those warm chocolate chip cookies we got when we came here too?”

The friendly front desk man smiled.  “You want cookies?  I can just give you cookies.”  He opened a little oven-looking thing beneath the front desk and pulled out three warm chocolate chip cookies wrapped in paper and handed them to us.

By the time we finally got into our room we were exhausted, and a bunch of fruit and water, and a chocolate chip cookie later, we fell into a very deep sleep.

More next time… I didn’t realize how long this post already was!  🙂

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