Given that this was a work trip, we started the day out properly – we went to a church service so I could do a bit of ethnographic field work. I had big plans for visiting a variety of different churches to get a sense of the variety within the Church of England. But what I realized I really wanted to see was an average Church of England congregation. So we found the closest one to our hotel – St. Simons – and I considered it a “randomly chosen” congregation. I normally would stay through the service, but Steve could’t stomach it. So, we stayed for just a few minutes. But the few minutes told me most of what I needed to know. Everything I’ve read about religion in the UK basically says it is dying. Based on St. Simon’s, that’s a pretty accurate description. There were a total of 20 people in attendance in a church that could easily seat 300 or more people. The main sanctuary had been reworked to make it more cozy and less imposing for the dwindling congregation. Intriguingly, only 11 of the people were female, which means 9 were male (intriguing because women usually far outnumber men). There was one young family there with a toddler. They created a play area for the toddler on one side of the sanctuary that was enormous. When Steve and I walked in, the usher rushed to us, handed us a program, and urged us to sit down up front. I really didn’t want to disappoint him, but we stayed in the back and left shortly afterward. There were two large flat screen TVs that had been mounted on some of the old pillars that displayed scriptures and words to the hymns. The average age was probably around 50, but there were some people in their 20s and 30s. There were also 3 black people. I also noticed a sign on the door advertising for the Alpha Course, which suggests it is more of an evangelical leaning congregation (which may explain the younger age). In sum, my short visit to a Church of England service in the UK supports the work of David Voas and Steve Bruce who argue that religion is dying in the UK.
From church, we headed to Hyde Park to visit The Speaker’s Corner. One of my colleagues at UT mentioned that there is a corner in Hyde Park where anyone can get up and say pretty much whatever they want. Well, that sounded like it was visit worthy to me. So, we stopped by. There was a Muslim male from the U.S. speaking:
Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I couldn’t help but lay into him. Steve was kind enough to let me harangue this guy for almost an hour. He made some decent points about corporate America, but he also said that America’s greed justified the 9/11 attacks, which is pretty tough to swallow. At one point I had a little following of people urging me on as I wrangled with the guy. It was fun. At the end we had stuff to see, so I said goodbye and thanked him for the entertainment.
From Hyde Park we headed to The Tower of London, technically called “Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress.” I knew this was a prison, as I had seen A Man for All Seasons, a film about Sir Thomas More, who was imprisoned in the tower and eventually put to death because he didn’t support Henry VIII in his separation from Roman Catholicism. But what I didn’t realize is that the prisons were just part of one of the walls of the complex. At the center of this massive complex is the White Tower, which was the first Royal Palace of unified England, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror (who is an ancestor of Debi’s family; something else I didn’t know – he was French). I was expecting to just see some nifty old tower with a prison at it’s base. Um, yeah, not so much.
The above aerial shot shows the two rings of walls around the main palace (The White Tower), which is the white roofed building in the center. To the upper left, the smaller white roofed building is the chapel (St. John in Chains). And the long building right next to the chapel is the royal armory, but also the location of the crown jewels. I was thinking we’d spend an hour or two here at the most. We probably arrived around 10:30 and stayed until almost 4:00. It’s fascinating. I’ve always wanted to visit a castle and, well, now I have.
Unfortunately, this does cost money to get into it – around $20.00 per person. But it seemed worth it once we could see how large it is:
Having visited, it was definitely worth it. There is a 1 hour tour to begin the visit, which was led by one of the Yeoman Warders. They noted that the complex included a prison, though the prison here was generally just accommodations, not minuscule jail cells like our typical today. He also explained that most of the executions here actually took place outside the walls, with the exception of a few, most notably Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, which took place right outside the chapel on the green (they are now buried in the chapel floor). Here’s a shot of the green:
After the tour, you are free to roam. We visited the crown jewels in the armory:
From the Armory we went inside The White Tower, which has a King Henry VIII exhibit right now. We learned a lot about him and saw most of his suits of armor (he started out svelte and got pretty fat over the years).
You’re not supposed to take photos inside the White Tower, but I snuck a couple:
From there we kind of wandered around, walking along the walls, visiting the Bloody Tower (lots of people imprisoned here), and the lodgings of one of the later kings, Henry VI, who stayed in one of the outer walls rather than in the White Tower.
My childhood medieval fantasies of defending a castle played out as I walked around the walls:
And here’s my favorite picture from when I took out one of the Yeoman Warders, grabbed his pike, and took his spot in one of the guard boxes:
The complex was built in the corner of the original walled complex built by the Romans in the first part of the millennium and some of the original wall built by the Romans was incorporated into the buildings. It was pretty cool to see 2,000 year old walls around the fortress.
After several hours living out my childhood fantasies, we exited the fortress by the River Thames and walked toward The Tower Bridge:
It’s a very cool bridge. However, to go up to the top now costs money. And since this was London on the cheap, we opted against it and instead walked along the bottom.
From here we headed to the London Museum, which is in a weird business district and can only be accessed by raised walkways (as far as I could tell). We got there kind of late, around 4:30, and it is only open until 6:00 pm. Normally that would probably make it impossible to see everything, but they were re-arranging the Museum and everything after 1600 CE was unavailable for viewing, including the Fire of London exhibit. So, instead, we learned about pre-historic London, Londinium – or Roman London – and then medieval London up until about the time of the great fire 1666. It was actually pretty fascinating. I didn’t know that London was originally called Londinium and was basically founded by the Romans. It was pretty much a Roman run city for 3 or 4 centuries until the Romans were weakened to the point that they abandoned it. It remained important from then on.
We stayed at the museum until it was about to close then headed to a pub near our hotel for dinner and called it a day.