London 2014: London Tower and Stonehenge

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Second Week in London:

 

On our second Sunday in London, we assemble downstairs outside the flats on Great Russell Street to head for church at the Great Tower of London. It’s a couple of changes on the tube, and we do not get off to a good start. Once we’re at the Tottenham Court station, one student has left her Tube pass, called an Oyster card, behind, so I wait while Lisa takes the rest of the group ahead. Once the student and her friends arrives we follow. The tubes are fairly easy to figure out with a couple of weeks practice and some fore-planning, but being in a hurry adds some level of stress. We ended up at the line change at Liverpool only to find the rest of the group waiting on the platform for the second tube line. One student had somehow lost a shoe while getting on the train, and Lisa and she had gone to look for assistance in retrieving it. They didn’t get much help, so the girl ended up walking in sock foot and shoe the rest of the day. But our group reunited at Liverpool and headed on to the Tower Gate stop together. We met Lauren and Viola outside the gate, then headed into the London Tower grounds to attend church services in the chapel.

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The London Tower was built by William the Conqueror after his conquest in 1066, and it has served as the center of English government and even an official palace ever since. The tower once rose above the city, where it would have been prominent as a symbol of power and ruler-ship in the old city, though it looks out of place surrounded by a modern city rising above it. Over the centuries outer walls were added, as well as a moat, which was refreshed by the Thames River. It also flushed the refuse of the Tower of London. We went to the Anglican service at the chapel inside the Tower of London grounds. The church has served the kings over the centuries. Under the floor are buried the headless remains of Anne Boleyne and Lady Anne Grey, former wives of Henry the VIII, who he beheaded for various reasons. There were other people buried under the floor, which is odd to think about from a United States perspective. The service was beautiful. We were given song books and allowed to sing, but most of the music came from a beautiful old pipe organ, played by a guy who had his hair pinned back in a very short pony tail, along with a choir led into the church by a deacon holding a holy cross staff. The singing and organ music were beautiful, and the service very prescribed, with a lot of standing and sitting, along with reading from the Book of Common Prayer. Eventually the Priest gave a fairly traditional sermon, filled with dry humor, which began with an anecdote about fielding an odd question from one of his neighbors. After the service was over the organ player closed with psychedelic rock opera number that reminded me of Rick Wakefield’s synthesized organ and piano rock opera “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth,” which came out in the 1970s. Rick Wakefield played with the band Yes. We went to take a look at the sea of artificial poppies, planted in the former moat of the Tower of London, which commemorates the lives sacrificed by English (and Commonwealth, and I assume other countries’) soldiers in World War I, which is commemorating its 100th anniversary this year, then took a tour from one of the Beefeaters, the traditional guards of the tower. Now, the Beefeaters are more an honorary society, but they are members of the British military who have achieved the highest rank possible to a non-commissioned officer in the army (sergeant major, perhaps). Our tour guide was either the first, or one of the first, women to fill the post. The Beefeaters live on the site with their families, and apparently we worshipped with the Beefeaters at church that morning.  We toured the grounds, the tower, and got to see the Crown Jewels of the various kings and queens.

 

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On Wednesday, we took a group tour to visit Stonehenge and the little town of Salisbury. The morning was cool and rainy, and the chartered bus was full-sized, so that the whole group got to spread out over the length of the bus and most of them slept on the way to the site. Our bus driver was a middle aged guy named Tony with a dry sense of humor and a slight touch of road rage whenever someone on the roads did something to irritate him. He looked exactly like what you’d expect a career tour bus driver in England to look like, but he was nice and he tried hard to engage a busload of passengers who weren’t very interested. At one point he turned off his microphone and said he’d shut up so we could sleep.

 

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Stonehenge was very cool, seeing it in person, but at the same time it was a completely mediated event, meaning, hundreds of people were there at the same time to see it, but we were roped off from actually going inside it or touching it. I understand this completely, and my experience wouldn’t have been enhanced by sharing a hands-on experience with hundreds of other people. Later in the week I Discussed with my nonfiction class the concept of X, voiced by Southern writer Walker Percy, who said no one ever really sees anything for the first time. Instead we see things through the lens of how we’ve been prepared to view them, through the lens of our expectations based on previous sightings. His example was that no Western person since Hernando De Soto has actually seen the Grand Canyon for the first time. We’ve all heard of it since he first discovered and wrote about it, so we have preconceptions and expectations that we’ve built up toward it. IT’s almost impossible to overcome these expectations. Having understood this, and knowing what to expect from Stonehenge, I was not disappointed.

 

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