Dec 182012

On our morning at the Tower of London, I was fascinated by many aspects of the history of the buildings, the royals, and how they both changed over time.  Among the most interesting (and disturbing) stories were those involving all the animals that lived at the Tower.  Of course the most famous and enduring are the Ravens. ravens.jpg 

According to legend, if the six ravens ever leave the tower, the kingdom will fail.  Charles II was the first to insist that the ravens be protected and maintained in the fortress and there is still a Raven Master in the Yeoman Warders today caring for the SEVEN resident ravens (six and a spare). Even though they have one wing trimmed, they have been know to ‘fly the coop’ – one was recently spotted outside a pub on the East End.  Another, Raven George, was sacked for eating tv antennas.


All sorts of different animals were given to the ruling monarchs over the years.  The first record of animals at the Tower were lions in the early 1200’s.  By the 1600’s, the lions were made to fight other animals for the enjoyment of the visitors.  The first grizzly bear ever seen in England was a gift from the Hudson Bay Company to George III in 1816.  Among my favorites were the ‘white’ bear which was a gift of the King of Norway to Henry III in the 1250’s and was kept chained to the tower wall, but allowed to swim in the Thames to catch fish to eat.  2polar-bear.jpg


Henry III must have been an animal lover because just a few years later, the King of France sent a male African Elephant.  They really didn’t know how much room an elephant required so they built a 20 by 40 ft room.  Fail.

Other animals were fed unusual diets, either because no one knew any better or the animals seemed to enjoy it: Ostriches ate nails and Zebras drank ale. Various visitors were mauled and even killed by these animals because they were treated as ‘pets’ rather than as the wild animals that they were. In the 1830’s, all the remaining animals were sent to the nearby London Zoo in Regent’s Park, putting an end to the Royal Menagerie.

 Posted by at 20:49
Dec 172012


*In my journal, this day starts with the words “Happy Birthday E!”  My middle child turned 15 while we were in London and I was feeling a slight twinge of guilt, but trusted that his sibling, grandparents and cousins would take care of him.

Through our travel agent, we were able to get some London Passes at a reduced rate.  The London Pass allows you free access into as many of the attractions on their list as you can in 24 hours.  In order to make the most of the passes, we started early on that Friday after Thanksgiving.  The top of our list was the Tower of London.  The Tower is still a functioning royal palace as well as an amazing historic castle.  It turned out to be one of the major highlights of our trip.


The original stone tower (The White Tower) was started on the banks of the Thames River in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror to be used as a fortress-stronghold.  The Tower was protected by two existing Roman walls, the Thames and some strategically dug ditches.  Beginning with Richard the Lionheart around 1189, work was begun on the other structures that still exist today.



A recent addition to the Tower is the ice skating rink that was built in the area that was once the moat.  They filled the moat with earth in 1855 because it was causing illness and the stench of stagnant water was making it a very unpleasant, although historically accurate, experience.


Early birds that we are, we arrived in time to see the royal guard accompanied by a Yeoman Warder march out and unlock the main gate to the Tower.   The Yeoman Warder are the ceremonial guards who are chosen by the Queen based on their outstanding military service to live and work at the Tower, leading tours, passing on the history, caring for the Ravens, and protecting the Crown Jewels.yeomans-houses.jpg

The Yeoman Warders’ Houses in the walls surrounding the Tower of London.


After exploring the various buildings and areas of the Tower on our own for a bit, we joined one of the Yeoman Warder tours lead by a Beefeater named Andy.  (No one knows exactly why they’re called Beefeaters, but it may be because they were allowed as much meat as they wanted from the royal table so they had strength to defend the Tower.)






Andy led us through the grounds of the Tower telling the brief history of each building and explaining how it functions today. The tour itself ended inside the Tower of London Chapel, St. Peter ad Vincula (“Peter in chains”) where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey are buried.  They were all prisoners in the Tower and each executed on Tower Green just outside the Chapel windows.  While we sat in that Chapel, I was again struck by where I was – the actual location of so many famous happenings that shaped England and the world.


jubilee-diamond.jpg After the tour, we made our way through the Waterloo Barracks where the Crown Jewels are currently housed.  As with every other museum, gallery, and historical landmark we visited, the security seemed light.   Hubby took a picture of the 35 carat Queen’s Jubilee Diamond before being warned by the ONE security guard that photos weren’t allowed.

We wandered quickly through the Bloody Tower where the bodies of 12 year old Prince Edward V and his younger brother Richard were found after their murder in 1483.


One room in the Bloody Tower housed Sir Walter Raleigh on and off for a total of 13 years. They have recreated his study so you can see where he spent his days – pretty posh for a prisoner accused of plotting again James I and failing to find the city of El

henry-viii-armor.jpgThe White Tower (the oldest structure) is now home to military themed displays: horses, weapons, and armor. The picture is of King Henry VIII’s armor. Either he was well endowed or paranoid. Although I suppose he could have just been a braggart.


The Beauchamp Tower was used to house many of the most important religious and political prisoners including some amazing graffiti artists.  The walls of some rooms are filled with carvings from prisoners both known and unknown.beauchamp-tower.jpgup-the-staircase.jpgthomas-abell.jpg


Can tell what this guy’s name was? (right)





We did finally reluctantly tear ourselves away from the Tower, mostly because we were starving.  We ate some passable take-away fish and chips and headed for our next destination.  Before we left, Hubby took a picture of the Tower Bridge (built in the late 1800’s).



 Posted by at 21:15
Dec 132012

Once the service at St. Paul’s was over and we had Skyped with our kids to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, we were a bit at loose ends.  Of course I had a list of things that I wanted to do while we were in London but, honestly, we were totally mentally exhausted.  Since we were also on a pretty tight budget, we were looking for something free or cheap to occupy our Thanksgiving night.


Opting for “Free”, we headed up Oxford Street to The Photographer’s Gallery to browse their free exhibit featuring the portrait photography of an Irish photographer named Tom Wood.  The exhibit was called “Men & Women” and was a simple room divided in half.  The photos featuring men ran along two walls in an ‘L’ shape while the ones featuring women ran along the two opposite walls.   We savored the photos and chose our personal favorites, 3 from the men and 3 from the women.  I had to expand the rules to allow 3 black and white and 3 color from each category since I couldn’t narrow it down.  One of my overall favs is called  “Three Wise Women” and features three elderly ladies shuffling through the dirt lot of a ‘car boot sale’ in Liverpool.  They each carry an item as they navigate the ruts and trash.  My other favorites are not as popular: Rag & Bone Owner” (image #6) featuring a middle-aged blond bombshell driving a forklift full of trash around her warehouse and  “Charlie and Alan” (image #1) another black and white of an old man and a young boy.

The gift shop of The Photographer’s Gallery was full of art and photography books, any of which could have occupied me for hours, but instead we bought a postcard featuring a black and white photo of the Sex Pistols messing around at a diner in Luxemborg in 1977.  (Postcards are a great way to collect your favorite art and photos for cheap!)

Since we weren’t hungry yet, we decided to do a little wandering and explore Soho.  

down-carnaby.jpgWe stumbled onto Carnaby Street which had been the center of Mod fashion in the 60’s as well as the stomping grounds for bands such as Small Faces, The Who, and The Rolling Stones.

They were holding a 20% sale at every store in the lane and various stores had brought in live bands to entertain the crowds.

inside-doc-martens-bw.jpg shakespeares-head.jpg
Since we had no desire to shop for clothes and no room in our suitcases anyway, we stuck to soaking up the atmosphere. We strolled past the Shakespeare’s Head Pub and underneath giant record displays celebrating The Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary and advertising their 2012 compilation album “GRRR!”rolling-stones-records.jpg










Just off of Carnaby Street, there is a giant mural celebrating local artists called “The Spirit of Soho.”  It’s quite amazing to see what a rich history the area has: Handel, Mozart, Casanova, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dylan Thomas, and Karl Marx are each featured along with 49 other local luminaries.spirit-of-soho-mural.jpg

After walking for a few hours, we were ready for dinner so we scooted off to Oodle Noodle (before they closed this time).  Hubby ordered duck in the spirit of adventure and we warmed ourselves with Green Tea before we called it a night.

 Posted by at 17:57
Dec 132012

With my feet throbbing in protest, I followed the group past the courtyard of St. Paul’s which used to be used as a marketplace for booksellers and publishers including John Newbery (considered the Father of Children’s Literature and namesake of the Newbery Medal). We walked over a few blocks, past Milk Street and Bread Street (those clever Brits), to St. Mary-Le-Bow Church to have Thanksgiving lunch in the cafe now housed in the crypt. le-bow-steps.jpg

It may sound like an odd choice for Thanksgiving – no turkey, no stuffing, no pumpkin pie, no football – but it was outstanding on many levels.  in-the-crypt-line-small.jpg


The twelve bells of St. Mary-Le-Bow are called Bow’s Bells and it is said that to be born within the sound of Bow’s Bells makes you a true Cockney. Having once played the Artful Dodger in Oliver, I felt right at home.

It was also the sound of Bow’s Bells that the BBC World Service broadcast into Occupied Europe during WWII.

The crypt itself dates back to 1090 while the current church building was designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and completed in the 1670’s.  The steeple had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by a bomb during the Blitz and it took 20 years to get the bells ringing again.  


The courtyard of St. Mary-Le-Bow contains a statue of Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown and leader of the Virginia Colony who worshipped here when he wasn’t off in the new world.

As we settled into the crypt, it was great to sit back and reflect on the morning.  Hubby had a hamburger and I had the most delicious Beef, Mushroom and Guinness Pie.  We split a Treacle Tart for dessert.  Treacle Tart is Harry Potter’s favorite dessert and is much like a pecan pie without the pecans.

Since my feet were screaming bloody murder by this point, I limped back to the Tube and headed straight for my tennies back at the hotel. We had told our children that we would Skype them that day, so we headed over to Starbucks to make use of the free WiFi (the hotel charged).  Our connection was not strong enough to support video so we stuck to audio to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving and find out what they’d been up to. They seemed to be surviving so we kept it short. Once we hung up, all our have-to’s were done for the day. Next came the want-to’s.  What to do?  What to do?

 Posted by at 08:21
Dec 122012

After the service, I expected to be hustled out of the Cathedral. It is, after all, a sacred space and a functioning tourist attraction. Instead, we had free reign to stand inside the main dome, take a few pictures, and wander around.

I took in as much as I could upstairs and then headed back to the crypt to retrieve my things and say goodbye to my guys. (Their story here.) We went out the massive front doors to assemble on the steps to film a thank you video for our financial backers.



   Except for the crazy London winds that caused us to take shelter in the corner of the front stoop in order to stand upright, it was magnificent to stand and look around at the city from that vantage point.  




I immediately wanted to start singing “Feed the Birds“.

The steps of St. Paul’s would be a great place to write if I lived nearby.  Sigh.

 Posted by at 20:04
Dec 112012

As I’m writing through the Thanksgiving Service at St. Paul’s, I realize that this is probably excruciatingly boring and you’re ready to get on with the good stuff.  I apologize and thank you for your indulgence.  I wrote for nearly two hours on Thanksgiving night because I didn’t want to forget the experience.   I did it for me.  I’m reliving it here.  You have permission to skip ahead.

The service concluded with the hymn “Now Thank We all our God” and the final blessing by the Dean.  I summarized it in my journal as: May God pour his blessing upon you that you may use his gifts to his glory and the welfare of all peoples.


And then it was over.  Done.  The event we’d been working towards for months and talking about for nearly a year was finished.

I had a few minutes to talk with a friend afterwards.  I asked her about her experience of the service.  Was she nervous?  Was it amazing? She explained that right before we sang, she had a panicky moment when she thought she might get thrown out of the cathedral.  Her thought: when they invited the choir to sing, they might not have meant her.

My feelings were similar: honored and undeserving.  It didn’t feel like I did anything special to DESERVE this opportunity.  It was a gift handed to me that I just accepted and will continue to be thankful for and make the most of. Blogging the trip is just part of that.  It’s my way of bringing you all along and sharing the honor with you.

 Posted by at 22:35
Dec 102012

As they collected the offering for the local Homeless Cold Weather Shelter, we sang a song that finally made sense to me: “Sure on This Shining Night”, words by James Agee.  For months we’d been talking about the poem and what it meant and I’d never been satisfied that I understood it. 

Sure on this shining night 

Of star-made shadows round

Kindness must watch for me

This side the ground

The late year lies down the north,

All is healed, all is health

High summer holds the earth,

Hearts all whole

Sure on this shining night

I weep for wonder

Wandr’ing far alone

Of shadows on the stars. 


There in St. Paul’s in that moment, I got it.  For me, it tells the tale of someone journeying through a cold, dark patch of life that is so black that only the stars give enough light to make shadows.  Then a stranger, a caring messenger, provides some comfort that keeps him from death and despair and causes restoration and healing.  The journeying one is deeply touched at the gift because he thought he was all alone.

 Posted by at 20:22
Dec 102012

The service itself began after we sang three spirituals.  The U.S. Amabassador, Louis Susman, and his wife were escorted in while we sang “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”.  The hymn ends with the words “Come, ten thousand angels, come” and I felt like they were there in that lofty dome of St. Paul’s – as if they were built into the architecture itself.

We were then officially welcomed by the Dean of the Cathedral (who is also the ex officio Dean of the Order of the British Empire).  The text of his welcome was printed in the order of service, but he added the phrase “Welcome to those…….from Glendale church.”  That stunned me.  I’m not one who exalts celebrity or values someone because of their status, but being welcomed by ‘name’ by the Dean of one of the most famous churches in the world was quite a thrill.  It gave me a sense of what it might feel like to hear God say my name.  Okay, that might be going a bit far, but I was giddy.

And then we sang a piece written by Scott Stroman, our director – in 7/8 and 7/4 – in Latin.  Not an easy piece!  “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.  Laudamus te.” which means “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all.  We praise you.”

The “Canon in Residence” who is in charge of the music in the cathedral read Deuteronomy 6:1-9.  The part that I heard deep in my soul was: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” This one of the reasons I started this blog.

Our next hymn was “For the Beauty of the Earth”  which made me cry.  This was not what I expected.  I knew I’d cry during the service, I even dreamt about it the night before, but this is not what I thought would trigger the tears.  It happened during the fourth verse: “For the joy of human love, Brother, Sister, Parent, Child.  Friends on earth and friends above”  I was suddenly filled with the awareness of my family and friends in the states and those that have passed away and felt their love and support.  For that I am truly, deeply, profoundly thankful.

Please know that right then and there in that place filled with such a rich history of faith, in the presence of God and 2,000 people, with tears streaming down my face, I thanked God for you all.

After I pulled myself together, the next scripture reading was by the Area Director of Young Life (Yes, they have Young Life in England). She read Philippians 4:4-9 and when she said “The Lord is near,” I believed her. In the majesty of St. Paul’s, I felt the God of the universe draw near.


What happened next?  Read about it here.

 Posted by at 07:56
Dec 092012

In between rehearsal and the service on Thanksgiving Day, we were allowed to wander St. Paul’s Cathedral at our leisure. I chose to explore the crypt. I poked my head around every corner I could while no one was looking. Even if I was allowed to take pictures, Hubby was upstairs with the camera, so I have nothing to show except pictures that are posted around the internet.  

The walls and floor of the crypt were filled with 200 memorials.  There were statesmen and war heroes, old and new, alongside ‘ordinary’ people like the woman who worked to make sure the boys of St. Paul’s choir were educated and well taken care of. Some people might have been thrilled at the famous sights of Lord Nelson’s or the Duke of Wellington’s tombs, but not me. The ones I found most interesting were dark figures laying on marble tables engraved with names and dates. There were just a handful, but they all were missing their arms, legs and noses.  I wondered if they were depicted this way because they died together in battle or a horrible accident.  


I asked the security officer and she explained that these memorials had stood in the Old St. Paul’s, built in the 14th century, and had ‘survived’ the Great Fire of London in 1666. Their missing limbs and noses were a result of being burned.  I immediately returned to look at them again.  Since they were not guarded or alarmed in any way, I ran my hand over one of them.  I got a crazy thrill touching something that was nearly 400 years old.  

 Posted by at 20:56
Dec 092012

*In the interest of clarity and not boring you out of your gourds, I have broken this day into multiple entries.  This is the pre-service part.

22-11-12.  That’s the way I wrote the date in my journal.  It was Thanksgiving Day and I was in London.  I was so amped up that despite the late night, I woke before my alarm.  In order to give ourselves plenty of time to catch the tube at rush hour and pass through the heightened security at St. Paul’s Cathedral with Hubby’s suspicion-arousing camera gear, we headed down to breakfast early.  Hubby decided to give the Bangers a try and immediately regretted it.  They were flavorless and mealy – let’s hope that’s not typical or I’ll start to believe what they say about English cuisine.  I decided to stick with what I (thought I) knew and had Special K.  Except Special K in the UK is whole grain wheat not corn – Yum!

We ran up to the room so I could change into my fancy shoes and then met up with a majority of the group in the lobby.  The tube station was packed as expected.  We compressed about 90% of us onto the first train requiring the last one on to duck her head so the doors would close.  She spent the short ride with Hubby’s tripod pressed squarely into her side.  We’ve nominated her for a citation for valor.

stpaulsmonumentafarsmall.jpgAs we walked the short distance from the tube station to St. Paul’s, I was impressed by the size of the building itself.  It stands on the top of Ludgate Hill and can be seen for miles, but I had no idea how massive it was.  

They had set up K-rails and barriers all around the structure due to an increase in international tensions and we were subject to bag searches as we passed through security.  The guards ‘ticked’ our names off the master list and directed us to the side door into the crypt.  At the crypt door, everyone was given a badge that said ‘Choir’ to wear regardless of whether they were actually singing. Apparently being part of the Choir gave you the highest level of access possible that day.

We gathered upstairs for rehearsal, passing by 100’s of people buried in the walls and floor.  As we entered the cathedral, I was gobsmacked by the magnificence.



I stood in awe a few moments trying to take it all in until I realized that I wasn’t capable – it was just too much. We were allowed to take just a few pictures inside the Cathedral – a rare privilege. When the youngest member of our group made her way up the stairs and arrived in the main Cathedral, I swear her jaw hit the floor.  She plopped down next to me in the choir stall and after a few moments of stunned silence said, “Is anyone else having trouble concentrating?  I can’t stop looking at everything.”  I assured her that we were and passed her a copy of the order of service.

As the pre-service rehearsal began, we soon realized that Scott was justified when he insisted we listen to him with our eyes.


The sound in the cathedral seemed to rise straight up, bounce off the dome, echo around and come back as mush – beautiful, delicious, harmonic mush.  As we practiced, we heard our voices, not as we normally do surrounding us and our neighbors, but calling  back to us from distance lands in a less recognizable form.  We lengthened our rests to make the most of the acoustics, crisped up our ending consonants, and practiced staying together by watching rather than listening.

Our practice ended nearly a half hour before we needed to be in our places for the service, so I got a change to wander the crypt while Hubby found a seat in the congregation.   You can read more about the crypt here.

When it came time to ascend into the cathedral once again, I realized that I wasn’t nervous and hadn’t been all day – zero, nada, nil, nothing, no nerves.  I spent a minute trying to savor the experience, but it just didn’t seem real.  It certainly didn’t seem real to look out and see Hubby in the front row VIP seats with the American Ambassador!  It turns out that the Pastor of the American Church in London, who was delivering the sermon, had offered him his extra seat.


Before the formal service began, we sang three spirituals arranged for us by Scott Stroman: “Jesus is a Rock,” a swing version of “In the Garden” (or, as we called it, ‘the Hoo-Hoo song’) and “The Storm is Passing Over”.  We sang all three of these songs from memory and it feels like they’ll be with me forever.  As we sang, the thousands of people were still coming in, talking and greeting each other.  As we closed the last song, we began to clap along which startled quite a few people and caused a few of St. Paul’s wandsmen to smile and smirk.

For more on the St. Paul’s Thanksgiving service, you can keep reading here.


 Posted by at 20:56