The Jewel In My Crown
[London, United Kingdom]
I woke up on Sunday fully expecting the cooler, cloudy, misty weather that had been forecast for that day. Instead, I saw rays of sunshine peeking through the blinds. I was very excited – that meant warmer temps, and awesome photos of London from the London Eye, which I planned on riding that day. Before that though, I had a few other London must-sees on my list.
I started the day off with the Tower of London. This building, almost a 1000 years old, sits on the North bank of the Thames in central London. It had been serving mainly as a prison but it had also been also a royal residence, an armory and a treasury. The sea of red you see around the Tower of London is comprised of ceramic poppies that have been progressively installed here since July. This major art installation, called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, marked one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. Created by artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, the installation will end up installing 888,246 ceramic poppies in the Tower’s famous moat by November 11, 2014. Each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war.
For the past 500 years, the Tower of London has been the home of the crown jewels. The term refers the regalia, crowns, scepters, orbs, rings and other vestments used during the coronation ceremony. The use of the crown jewels during the coronation ceremony symbolizes the passing of authority from one king or queen to the next. The collection of crowns at the tower contains some that have been used by all royals, while others have been created for specific queen or kings. The most impressive display included crowns, orbs and specters organized in glass cases, with two moving walkways on each side to ensure that people don’t cluster around the cases and everyone gets a chance to see the jewels. All the objects in the exhibit were adorned with diamond and other precious stones, so much so that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I went back to beginning of the moving walkway five or six times to see the exhibit again.
The object that impressed me the most was the Sovereign Scepter. This is the scepter that is given to the king or queen during the coronation ceremony, and it contains the biggest polished diamond in the world – the Cullinan I.
Named after the chairman of the mine where it was discovered, the Cullinan I weighs a whopping 530 carats. Shocking, right? But listen to this – the Cullinan I was cut from a much bigger diamond that weighed over 3100 carats (1.33 lbs)!!! The diamond was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and was transported to the UK by parcel post while a decoy was sent on a heavily guarded ship. Once in London, the diamond was bought by the Transavaal government and given to King Edward VII for his 66th birthday. The diamond was then taken to a jeweler in Amsterdam to be cut. The two biggest pieces of this cut are the Cullinan I and II, weighing in at 530 carats and 317 carats, respectively. Cullinan I was inserted into the Sovereign Scepter, while Cullinan II was set in the front band of the Imperial State Crown (this is the crown that is worn at the end of the coronation ceremony and at all formal occasions after).
Cullinan III and IV, the next two diamonds cut, were used by Queen Mary in her coronation in 1911, and now they form a magnificent brooch that Queen Elizabeth II wears. Cullinan III and IV are known affectionately within the royal family as “the chips.” Those are some chips!
Many of the other crowns on display also had an unbelievable number of diamonds on them. It was just an unbelievable thing to see. I couldn’t take photos of the jewels, so the images of the scepter and the Imperial State Crown are from the interwebs. In addition to all these beauties, I also got to see the robe that Queen Elizabeth II wore during her coronation, as all as other items used in the feast after the ceremony. Overall, seeing the crown jewels was the highlight of my experience in London, and perhaps one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen in my travels, period.
By the time I was done with the tower, it was lunchtime and I had made tentative plans to go up the Gherkin building with my friend Lissa and her hubby. I know Lissa from business school at LMU, although we only had a few classes together before she left LA for Pennsylvania for work. She met her French hubby Sebastien there, and the two of them transferred their jobs to London, where they’ve for almost two years. Lissa told me that Open London was going on that weekend – buildings that are not normally open to the public become accessible for the weekend. She had said they wanted to go up the Gherkin building – a skyscraper in the financial district of London and one of the city’s most recognized examples of contemporary architecture (together with the Shard and City Hall). At 180 m (600 ft) tall, it’s the second tallest building in London and the sixth tallest in Europe. It was a very popular building indeed because when I got there, the line was extremely long and it was estimated that it would take 3 hours to get inside and go up to the top. I got in line just in case until Lissa and Sebastien got there, and when they saw the line, they were not willing to wait either! So instead, we went for lunch by the Tower Bridge in a little restaurant on the Thames, where I had my very first traditional British meal – British beef pie with mash potatoes and peas. It was wonderful catching up with Lissa and meeting up with her hubby. One of the things I love about travel is the opportunity to make new connections or rekindle old ones.
Waiting in line at the Gherkin and also at the Tower of London for tickets reminded me that the London Eye can be booked in advance, and that tickets are by time slot so it can happen that the next available time slot is not until a few hours from when you book. So, while I was waiting for Lissa and Sebastien to get to the Gherkin, I got on my phone to check availability. Sure enough, at 12:30 pm, the first available slot was 2:30 pm. Just as I finished lunch with Lissa and Sebastien, it was time to head to the London Eye. I was excited to go on it because the Eye is an observation wheel very similar to the Singapore Flyer, which I rode on 2011. At 135m (443 ft) tall, the London Eye was the tallest observation wheel in the world when it was built in 1999, but it was later surpassed by the Star of Nanchang in 2006, the Singapore Flyer in 2008, and most recently, the Las Vegas High Roller in 2014. Clouds and sun had been fighting for domination in the skies all day, and I kept hoping that the sun would win out for the duration of my ride. And what do you know, it certainly did! The view towards the top was pretty amazing. Big Ben and Westminster Abbey were to my left on the other bank of the Thames, and the bridge after bridge were lined up on the other side, with some of the modern buildings in the financial district anchoring the view on my right.
I wrapped up my Sunday by going back to Tower Bridge for some photos, then a stop by St. Paul’s cathedral.
In the evening, I met up Kremena and Will again. We hung out in their neighborhood in Islington near the Regents canals. They had just moved into their new place there – in fact, I was originally supposed to stay with them but their move-in date got pushed back so many times that they weren’t even sure the place would be ready by the time by arrived. I ended up booking a room on AirBnB in their neighborhood, so at least we could be close and make the most of each other’s free time. The walk from my place to theirs was barely 10 minutes, and on the way I got to walk along one of the canals. It was a very pretty area, an oasis of calm in a neighborhood that’s pretty lively otherwise. We sat for dinner at a pub by their place, and I had my second traditional British dish on this trip – a chicken roast. It was delicious – I am not sure where Britain’s reputation for bland food comes from, because so far that day I’d had two pretty good meals! I even had a traditional full English breakfast at the airport the next day, and even though it was meat-heavy, that was pretty tasty too!
Overall, my impression of London was more than positive. I fell in love with the public transport system. We always whine in LA how the city is too big for an effective public transit system, and London blew that argument right out of the water. London is not as large as LA but is not small by any stretch of the imagination – London’s metro area is about 75% of LA’s. The tube takes you out to the outskirts in all directions, including Heathrow airport, and an extremely efficient bus system takes care of the shorter distances. In fact, to my own surprise, I ended up using the buses a lot more than the tube. At just about any bus stop I used, I could take one of at least 6 buses. The route for each one was clearly mapped on an info board at the stop – something that saved me at St. Paul’s cathedral, as I almost got on the bus going the wrong direction (as a side note, since traffic goes the opposite way in the UK, figuring out which side of the street you need to be on to go in the direction you want is completely counter-intuitive, and I constantly had to consciously resist the urge to follow my instincts about that). Large portions of central London are very walkable too – many of the attractions I saw were within a 15-minute walk of each other. The food scene is pretty hopping, and the economy is doing well – being a member of the EU but having retained its currency, the UK takes advantage of all EU trading benefits without being affected by the ailments of the common European currency.
The imperial past and the modern present have a great marriage in London, and I think this city will stay towards the top of my list of favorites long after I’ve visited other major cities in Europe.