Sunday, January 04, 2015

London Day 5

Our fifth day in London was an unintentionally busy one. When we left the hotel that morning we only had three things on our agenda: visit The Tower of London, get lunch at Borough Market, and eat dinner at St. John Restaurant. We managed to fit so much else in, including a visit to and tour of The Globe Theater, which had been on my list of sights to see but I hadn’t been sure that we’d be able to fit it in during this trip due to everything else that was on our schedule. Needless to say, it was a great day!

The Tower of London
The Tower of London – aka Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress – was founded in 1066 as part of the Norman conquest of England. The White Tower, from which the castle derives its name, was built in 1078. While The Tower was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952, that was not its primary purpose. During the 12th and 13th centuries, it served as a royal residence for Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry III, and Edward I.


The Tower was besieged several times and it is said that whoever controlled the tower, controlled the country. Throughout its existence it has served variously as an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels. From the early 14th century until the reign of Charles II, a procession was led from the Tower to Westminster Abbey on the coronation of a monarch. Under the Tudors, the Tower was used less as a royal residence, and over time its defenses couldn’t keep up in advancements in artillery.


Throughout the ages, many notable figures were held prisoner in the Tower. This included the two Princes Edward and Richard, who were murdered by their Uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester – later Richard II – while under his safekeeping; Guy Fawkes; noted writer, poet, courtesan, explorer and spy, Sir Walter Raleigh; Lady Jane Grey, and de facto monarch of England from July 10-19, 1553 (yes, only nine days); and the second wife of King Henry VIII, the (in)famous Anne Boleyn.


During the second half of the 19the century, the Royal Mint moved out of the castle, leaving many of its buildings empty. The Tower was then restored to its medieval appearance. During First and Second World Wars, the Tower was again used as a prison, and witnessed the executions of 12 men for espionage. After WWII, damage caused during the Blitz was repaired and the castle reopened to the public. Today the Tower of London is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions, and is protected as a World Heritage Site.

We had such a great time exploring Edinburgh Castle last year that I was sure Alan would enjoy himself at the Tower. We started our morning off with a tour from one of the Yeoman Warders – more popularly known as The Beefeaters. It turned out that the Warder leading our tour, Chris Skaife, is also the Ravenmaster for the Tower. Now, I don’t know if you’ve picked up on this throughout my years of posting, but we kind of love crows and ravens here at casacaudill. This was especially exciting news for us, and so when our tour was done we spent some time talking with Chris about how he trains the ravens and what it is like to work with them (the linked article says that the ravens cannot fly away, but Chris reported that he’s had to go pick them up from around the city).

It is believed ravens have been living in the Tower of London since at least the time of King Charles II and legend maintains that should the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the monarchy will crumble. When he received complaints that the ravens interfered with observatory work, Charles ordered the re-siting of the Royal Observatory to Greenwich rather than remove the ravens. In order to prevent the ravens from flying away, their flight feathers are trimmed, so that they cannot fly in a straight line for any appreciable distance. The ravens are free, however, to roam the tower grounds.

Our tour ended at the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula. It was sobering to know that beneath our feet three Queens of England – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey – as well as two saints of the Roman Catholic Church – Sir Thomas More and John Fisher – were buried within. I’m not a religious person and therefore I tend not to experience any sense of the divine when visiting houses of worship, but the place had a special air about it. The amount of history to be found in the bones below was simply staggering.

Our next stop at The Tower was the Crown Jewels. Having seen the Scottish Regalia, aka the Scottish Crown Jewels – while in Edinburgh, I had an idea of the magnificence that we would encounter, but I don’t think that visit prepared me for the sheer amount of jewels on display. The exhibition itself is done extremely well. After an introductory overview about the creation of the jewels through their history to today, guests are moved through the exhibition room on a conveyor belt. There is no lingering, and no one can cut in front of you. Everyone gets the same view, and spends the same amount of time viewing the spectacle in front of them.

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We spent about another hour or so touring the Tower before making our way via tube to Borough Market. Unfortunately, the stop/line we needed was the most subterranean of the group and the escalator was out so we had to walk down what seemed like 1000 slippery escalator stairs. If you’ve seen the pitch of the incline of some of these tube stations, you’ll understand what a harrowing feat this was.


Borough Market

Visiting city markets is one of my favorite activities while on vacation, and we’ve managed to fit in a number of really great ones. Of course everyone knows about Seattle’s Pike Place Market, but we also really love Cleveland’s West Side Market, and we’ve had great meals at Chelsea Market in New York City, and Vancouver’s Granville Island Market. While most of those markets are laid out in a recognizable order, with a clear path to follow, Borough Market was a bit haphazard in its layout, which made wandering all the more enjoyable I think. You weren’t sure what you were going to stumble upon, or where. Because we were anticipating a large dinner later that night, we limited ourselves to the most wonderful apple/elderflower juice, a small baguette, a tiny boar sausage, and a hunk of sheep’s cheese, which we ate while strolling around the market, and then down to the water’s edge.
Borough Market is a wholesale and retail food market in Southwark, Central London. It is one of the largest and oldest food markets in London, selling a large variety of foods from all over the world. The market's key offering is fruit and vegetables, but has in recent years added unique British and international stalls including some of the market's most famous traders. The present market is a successor to one that originally adjoined the end of London Bridge. It was first mentioned in 1276, although the market itself claims to have existed since 1014. The City of London received a royal charter from Edward VI in 1550 to control all markets in Southwark, which was confirmed by Charles II in 1671. However, the market caused so much traffic congestion that in 1754 it was abolished by an Act of Parliament, which allowed local parishioners to set up another market on a new site. This new market was erected in 1756 on a 4.5 acre site in Rochester Yard. During the 19th century it became one of London's most important food markets due to its strategic position near the riverside wharves of the Pool of London. The present buildings were designed in 1851, with additions in the 1860s and an entrance designed in the Art Deco style added on Southwark Street in 1932. A refurbishment began in 2001. Work to date includes the re-erection in 2004 of the South Portico from the Floral Hall, previously at Covent Garden, which was dismantled when the Royal Opera House was reconstructed in the 1990s.

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Shakespeare's Globe

We had several hours to kill before dinner, so leaving the market we kept wandering around the area along the Thames, which eventually – and much to my delight – led us to The Globe Theater. Luck was with us as they were getting ready to start another tour less than 30 minutes after we arrived. We wandered around the self-guided exposition for awhile, before we met our tour guide and learned about the history of area and how theater was viewed during Shakespeare’s time, before being led into the theater itself, where we learned even more about the inner workings of both the present day theater and those that would have stood during Shakespeare’s era.
The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, on land owned by Thomas Brend. It was destroyed by fire on June 29, 1613. A second Globe Theatre was built on the same site in June 1614 but it closed in 1642. A modern reconstruction of the Globe, named "Shakespeare's Globe," opened in 1997 approximately 750 feet from the site of the original theatre. This modern reconstruction is an academic approximation based on available evidence of the 1599 and 1614 buildings. It was founded by the actor and director Sam Wanamaker and opened to the public in 1997 with a production of Henry V. The site also includes the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an indoor theatre that opened in January 2014. This is a smaller, candle-lit space based on the indoor playhouses of Jacobean London.


Like the original Globe, the modern theatre has a thrust stage that projects into a large circular yard surrounded by three tiers of raked seating. The only covered parts of the amphitheater are the stage and the seating areas. Plays are staged during the summer, usually between May and the first week of October; in the winter, the theatre is used for educational purposes.


The building itself is constructed entirely of English oak, with mortise and tenon joints and is, in this sense, an "authentic" 16th century timber-framed building, as no structural steel was used. The seats are simple benches (though cushions can be hired for performances) and the Globe has the first and only thatched roof permitted in London since the Great Fire of 1666. The modern thatch is well protected by fire retardants, and sprinklers on the roof ensure further protection against fire. The pit has a concrete surface as opposed to earthen-ground covered with strewn rush from the original theatre. Seating capacity is 857 with an additional 700 "groundlings" standing in the pit, making up an audience about half the size of a typical audience in Shakespeare's time.

Now, I know this wasn’t Shakespeare’s actual theater, but I have to say that I felt much closer to the world of Shakespeare there than I did at his birthplace in Stratford. Standing in the pit, it was easy to envision what it must have been like for people to visit and see a show. I have to admit though that I would not have liked to be a groundling, or a penny stinker, as they were also known. The majority of those in that area would have been dirty, vermin-infested, disgustingly smelling individuals. No, I think my spot was definitely in the seats. I don’t do so well around bad smells.

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Making our way along the Southbank, we stumbled on the Christmas Market at the Tate Modern (a dud), and grabbed some gluwhein for our walk across the Millennium Bridge. We skipped going in to St. Paul’s Cathedral because I was mostly interested in its exterior, and you have a magnificent view of as you walk across the bridge. I especially liked that our walk seemed to fall perfectly in line with dusk when everything around us was lit up on the cold, wet winter’s night.


Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Still with more time to kill before dinner, we decided to use the opportunity to our advantage by visiting Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, on Fleet Street, one of a number of pubs in London that was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. Besides the fact that a pub has existed at this location since 1538, one of the other great things about Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is the list of its former patrons – Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are all said to have been regulars. In fact, the pub appears in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

I find myself saying this a lot, but I didn’t know what to expect. I’d read about the pub, sure, and I had an idea in my mind of what it would look like based on the other pubs we had visited, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. First, there is no natural light in the pub to speak of, and rather than being a large, open room it is broken out into several different rooms over many different floors. When we first entered and saw the initial small space otherwise occupied, we explored a bit more. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay, mostly because it was so different from what I had pictured that I was kind of let down. We actually left, but Alan made us go back and I’m so glad he did because we had a great evening in one of the lower rooms drinking some excellent beers from Samuel Smith Brewery, which is now the owner of the pub. We had a beer called Dark Mild that was So. Damn. Good. Alas, it is not available in the U.S. so we’ll just have to dream about it.

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St. John Restaurant

Finally, after a very long day of walking around a wet and foggy London it was time for us to head to dinner at St. John Restaurant. Some of you may recognize the name from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Layover shows – St. John is his favorite restaurant in the world. Others may know it simply as one of the original nose-to-tail restaurants, and its focus on the use of offal and other less desirous cuts of meat.

While I was incredibly excited to eat here – having lamely missed out on Incanto from renowned San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino – I was also very nervous. Thanks in part to Alan’s first boss’s his annual Bizarrebeque, I’ve eaten a few wild meats in my time, but with the exception of liver, kidneys, and gizzards, I’ve avoided most offal. And, I absolutely avoid any animal’s brain, eyes, or heart. (Note: I’ve eaten chicken hearts once and I hated the experience – not so much because of the flavor, but because of my personal philosophies on the matter.) I had looked at the menu online before we went and saw many dishes that I was only too happy to eat.

We arrived early and the restaurant was mostly empty, with the exception of a few other diners (the downstairs café area was much more lively). Despite our early arrival, we were greeted warmly and seated immediately. There was a tiny lag in service throughout our meal, but I attribute that to our arrival time and the kitchen not being fully prepared for the early meals, paired with them then getting slammed with two large holiday parties about thirty minutes after we sat down. Our waiter was otherwise very good, taking the time to describe the menu to us and answering any questions we had about some of the preparations we were unfamiliar with.

We decided to start with the bone marrow and parsley salad, which was very good. I’m not a huge fan of bone marrow – I find the reward to effort ratio generally lacking – but the flavor was superb. Also, that salad? Perfection (especially after not eating many greens during our stay.) For dinner I ordered the grouse, and Alan had a pork dish that had a lovely sauce with some stewed dates or prunes. We can’t remember which, and unfortunately the menu is not online to reference.

(Speaking of the menu, it indicated that there was no photography allowed, which we respected. Alas, it seems other diners have chosen to forego the courtesy and if you’re interested, you can find pictures of the food on Yelp.)

Now, a word about our dinners. Alan’s was perfectly lovely. It would have been a good meal anywhere, and I enjoyed it greatly, but what really stands out to me was the grouse. I had never had grouse before, and my only knowledge about the bird stems from its appearance on the label of a bottle of whisky. Our waiter described it to us as an extremely gamey bird, and wasn’t to everyone’s taste. In looking at the menu again, I felt like several of the items could be had at one of a handful of Bay Area restaurants, but I’d never seen grouse anywhere before, and I seriously doubted I would see it again. So, I ordered it. And I’m so glad I did. My philosophy is that you go to a restaurant like St. John to taste something you haven't had before. The grouse WAS gamey, but it was also so very interesting with so many different flavors in each and every bite. You could taste the animal, for sure, but there was also a spice that infused each bite. I want to say clove or Chinese five spice, but I don’t know that I’m correct. Whatever it was, the mixture produced a quite intense flavor and we both enjoyed the experience. For dessert we had some sort of ginger cake or some holiday-inspired dessert, but after the grouse that was really all I could think about so I don’t remember specifically what it was. It was good, that’s all I can say.

All told, I really enjoyed our experience at St. John and I’d be hard pressed not to go back when next visiting London. It’s obviously not for everyone – vegans and vegetarians beware! – but it was a special dining experience, to be sure.

Rather than going out to another pub, we went back to our room to sleep as the next day was going to be another long one.

And that, my friends, is basically how we ended our – long – fifth day in London.