The Tower of London

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Today is the  484th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne Boleyn, the ill- fated second wife of  King Henry VIII.   I don’t think either needs any further introduction. I should point out that this is not a date which I usually mark, or would even have been aware of had it not been for my current reading material. I have finally reached the end of The Mirror & The Light, the third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s retelling of the story of the fall from grace and eventual execution for treason of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Lord Privy Seal and Henry Tudor’s general right-hand-man until he fell out of favour. Cromwell was the common man, a blacksmith’s son, who had risen, under Henry’s patronage, to become the most powerful man in the kingdom bar the king himself. Indeed, that was the problem. The most popular reason proffered for Cromwell’s grisly demise was his role in forging Henry’s disastrous union with Anne of Cleves that ended in annulment after 6 months. Whilst that was undoubtedly an important factor, whispering in the King’s ear were those English nobles of ancient lineage, consumed by envy and contempt towards the lowly nobody who had risen to greatness and who they wanted out of the way.

This isn’t a history blog, nor do I do book reviews, but reaching the final (875th) page on the date of Anne Boleyn’s beheading felt quite poignant and inspired me to have a look at my photos of the single occasion on which I visited the Tower of London, on another sunny day about six years ago.

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Tower Bridge beyond the keep.

In 1070, William the Conquerer decided to show the recently vanquished Londoners a symbol of his power by erecting a fortress on a hill above the city, complete with a tower that would loom menacingly, casting a shadow of fear. Just in case anybody got any ideas. Over the next few centuries, the Tower was expanded and fortified through a concentric design of defensive wall within defensive wall. Within, medieval kings built their regal abodes and locked away their riches and armoury. The Crown Jewels of Queen Elizabeth II are stored there and can be viewed, though not photographed, by visitors.I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing them but decided that since I was there I would take a look. I was struck by how blingy these national treasures appeared, almost too shiny and glittery to be real, as if they had come out of a dressing-up box.

On the day of my visit, troupes of colourful Morris dancers jingled and jangled their bells for the audience. Mock medieval tents stood on the lawn where soldiers appeared to be going through some kind of training activity.

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In medieval times, prisoners accused of treason would usually be brought into the Tower by boat, sailing along the Thames and  through the notorious Traitors’ Gate. It must have been terrifying, knowing that almost certainly they would not leave again and that all manner of horrors might await within. It felt quite disturbing to me to look beyond the grille and imagine passing through.

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Although a prison for over 500 years, not all of those incarcerated were kept in dingy dungeon cells. Lavish apartments were comfortable abodes for the weeks, months or years that some English nobles awaited the monarch’s decision as to their fate. Some did get out alive. The ones we know most about are those that didn’t.

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On Tower Green stands a glass memorial which marks the site of the execution block where so many heads rolled. On it is inscribed:

‘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.’

The memorial is dedicated to all who were sent to their deaths by order of the state, though some names are better known.

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Queen Anne Boleyn; Margaret Pole
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Queen Catherine Howard; Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days

The light and clarity of the glass and the gentle touch of a cushion in place of the block seemed quite fitting in such a sad and gruesome spot where the blood of many was shed, sometimes for reasons of political expediency.

Queues were very long on that hot day, so I decided to avoid entering the more crowded exhibitions which included a display of royal armour from across the centuries. Instead, I joined a guided tour of the Royal Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, the final resting place of those executed for treason including, amongst many, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and the two beheaded queens. Our guide was one of the beefeaters or Yeoman Warders. Again, photography was prohibited.

Until the 19th century, the Tower had its own zoo; a royal menagerie of exotic creatures; novelty gifts from courtiers or ambassadors, or procured at the Regent’s request. Happily, the real animals are long gone and are replaced by some impressive metal sculptures.

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Get your fake bling here!

There are still some famous animal residents at the Tower of London; creatures of legend, the ravens. There are seven in total, all looked after by the yeoman raven master; pampered, in fact. The legend goes that the ravens protect the Tower, and if they ever leave the Tower and the kingdom will fall.

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I watched a programme about the ravens a couple of years ago and found it intriguing. They really are very spoilt. As they are, like so many before them, prevented from leaving (in this case through the clipping of a wing feather), it seems only right that there is a pay off. I wonder if they would leave if they could. Perhaps we should be hoping not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

West Kirby, still hoping

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The early May Bank Holiday weekend is upon us, usually a time for weekends away, day trips into the countryside, or at the very least visits to garden centres followed by afternoons of planting shrubs and flowers or painting fences. That was before. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air above England that Sunday may bring an announcement that restrictions may be eased and a gradual and tentative return to the old ways begin. But for now, it’s still staying in, the new usual for most of us.

Yesterday, whilst waiting for somebody to reply to a message on Microsoft Teams where I mainly work now, I found myself browsing a list I had typed some time last year entitled Places to go in 2020. I had to laugh at myself: the wettest February on record followed by a deadly virus that’s kept us inside throughout the driest, warmest April and will likely curtail recreational freedom for some months to come. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that when it comes down to it, our human planning and organising and solid certainty is actually very fragile and no match at all for the forces of nature. Anyway, back to the joy of life and sunshine and celebrating that I am alive, well, employed and have everything I need except my hairdresser.

On this extensive list of possible places to go this year is West Kirby, a small town at the tip of the Wirral Peninsula and just eight miles from Liverpool. I have been a couple of times previously but have particular reasons wanting to go again, and the time would have to be right.

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The north Wirral peninsula has some quite lovely coastal towns and villages which look out to open sea or over the river Dee towards north Wales. Kirby as a place name is, not surprisingly, of Viking origin and means the village with a church. The Vikings arrived in AD902 having been driven out of Ireland. There isn’t much in the way of archaeology, though a hogback stone is preserved in the parish church and other examples of Viking artefacts have been discovered elsewhere on the peninsula. The history surrounding the Wirral Vikings is something I hope to explore further.  Modern day residents include Conservative MP and one-time-would-be party leader Esther McVey, who I’m not interested in .

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The green hills of Wales across the estuary

The original West Kirby Marine Lake was built in 1899 but the current lake, larger and deeper then the old, dates back to 1985 and is very popular with all sorts of water sports enthusiasts. It’s a very short walk from the train station to the lake and from there to the Victorian promenade and beach.

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About two miles off shore is Hilbre Island, uninhabited except by wildlife. An observatory offers opportunities to see some rare and endangered birds as the island (actually a very small archipelago) is a stop-off point for some species which migrate twice-yearly along the west coast of Britain. Grey seals also live on the island but tend to stay in the water when people are around. The island can be reached on foot at low tide, hence the timing of the visit having to be carefully planned.

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Zooming in on Hilbre

I haven’t been to the island but that was one of my hopes for 2020. Reading through my wish list prompted me to look through these and other photos from a previous visit, partly to enjoy the only beach scenes I might get to see for quite a while, but also as a reminder that in the natural world the cycles of life carry on, unaffected by Corona; flourishing and renewing through less human contact. Birds still fly; seals still swim.Tides still come and go at their appointed times and following their courses, pulled by the moon, as they have since forever. How humbling and reassuring it is that they too are beyond our planning and organising and will still be rushing in, and out again, waiting for no man, once we are free to get out there again.

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