While J was in town last week, we set out to experience some local sights, royally themed.
The weather was miraculously sunny as we toured the Tower of London, where we admired the crown jewels and learned of the many execution sentences meted out on Tower Hill. The following day, we basked in T-shirt weather as we stood outside the palace gates to see the changing of the guard. Spring is here, and with it, allergies! Ah-choo!
Tower of London
The Tower of London is a surprisingly peaceful enclave overlooking the Thames and the Tower Bridge. Once a fortress, castle and temporary residence of many famous prisoners, the Tower is now home to seven ravens who rule the roost, the Yeoman Warders who are its official guards, and the must-see crown jewels.
At the Treasury where the crown jewels are kept, there are two slow-moving walkways on either side of the display cases housing the royal sceptres, orbs and crowns used in ceremonial rites. That way, people can stand and gape at the diamond- and gem-studded collection from one direction, then go back in the other direction for a view from the opposite side, and again and again in a loop. J and I did this loop three times, getting one more view and then another of the largest diamonds we have ever seen.
The Cullinan I diamond, mounted in a royal sceptre, is 530 carats. The Koh-I-Noor diamond, by contrast, is a mere 105 carats. We’re not allowed to take photos inside, so I don’t have any to post, and photos wouldn’t do them justice besides. You can see smallish photos of the collection here, but it really is remarkable and has to be seen in person. Even if it doesn’t sound like it’ll completely wow you because you’re above that materialistic stuff…. Believe me, it has wow factor in spades.
I read an interesting anecdote about the delivery of Cullinan I, then the largest (and now the second-largest) diamond in the world, from South Africa to Britain. A decoy travelled by steamboat for any potential thieves to target, but the real one was sent by post in an unmarked package. They sure put a lot of faith in the post back then! Luckily, that faith turned out to have been warranted. It’s also somewhat surprising that there has only been one attempt to steal the crown jewels—a hilarious failure involving an orb stuck down the thief’s pants. The jewels are guarded by the Beefeaters (officially, Yeoman Warders), who in addition their ceremonial duties give great tours of the Tower.
A separate display elsewhere in the Tower has a smaller collection of crowns, from most of which the diamonds and semi-precious stones have been removed. One display, though, held a crown alongside a pile of the 12,431 small diamonds that would usually be mounted in it. That’s right. Twelve thousand, four hundred and thirty one diamonds.
That thud is the sound of my jaw dropping to the floor. A 530 carat diamond. A pile of 12,431 wee diamonds. Cannot. handle. the bling.
We theorized that the pretty blue trimming the bridge and the door (bottom left) must be some kind of royal color. And we saw that festive blue again the following day, when we went to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
Changing of the Guard
You can barely see it, but the guards in the background are wearing bright blue plumes in their large bearskin caps. In the foreground, the marching band (I’m sure they have some fancier official name, but that’s essentially what they are) is coming in. We went on a day that felt like the first day of spring—sixties and sunny! Total T-shirt weather, and these poor guys were still decked out in their winter coats and bearskins. I have a feeling the locker room afterward smelled something awful.
The ceremony actually lasts quite a while, about forty-five minutes I think, with a lot of silent pacing, followed by completely indiscernible yelling, and interspersed with the Horse Guard and other guards passing by at seemingly random intervals. At some point, a royal band also sets up in a circle in front of the palace and plays a few pieces, some classical marches, some pop music (the Queen’s favorites, I’m sure).
The advantage of sightseeing on my home turf is that I have a data plan here, so I was reading along about what the ceremonies included, but I didn’t see anything about the carriages passing by. It seems like they’re a part of the ceremony, since they rode out and back in within the forty-five minutes of the guard mounting, but I’m not sure what it means. In fact, everything that happens probably has an appointed time and place and historic ceremonial meaning, but it all feels rather random when it happens. But the carriage ride seems like a fun opportunity; there were a few girls wearing fascinators, looking more eager than regal, perhaps some distant cousins out for a joy ride.
By the way, while the royal guard are known for their imperturbable composure, the band seems to be judged by a different set of criteria. The guy closest to the foreground in the above-left photo was doing a great job of sleeping while standing throughout the ceremonies.
Mostly I’d say, it’s equally as entertaining to watch the guards as it is to watch the people watching the guards. By the time we got there at 11 (half an hour before the guard mounting starts), the crowds were already enormous. And this happens every other day! Still, I kept asking myself, am I missing something? What’s the draw—why are there so many people here? Heck, why am I here? I suppose it’s a must-see/do while in London, and it was great to be out enjoying the spring-preview weather. The intrigue of it beats me, but I also get really annoyed when I see people messing with the guards for a reaction. I know; they’re the ones who should be annoyed, not me. But since they have no recourse, I feel annoyed for their sake. I wonder what they say when they’re off duty. If there were an equivalent to spitting in your food, I bet they’d do it. Haha.
All told: Tower of London, a must. Changing of the guard: worth doing once, wouldn’t do it twice.